Friday, August 27, 2010

The reign of the Corolla

Ha! As I noted in a postscripted comment on "The Kabul Commute", the Toyota Corolla is the king of the Afghan road. Clearly imported as used vehicles, they still display bumper stickers from their previous lives, ranging from Wall Drug to "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned". I've seen contributor stickers for the South Carolina Policemen's Association for 2007 and the Missouri Firefighters' Association for 2006, as well as any number of added-in-Kabul slogans in wacky English - "Don't cry Girls - Ill Be Back" being a personal favorite.

Now the Washington Post is writing about the overwhelming popularity of Toyotas, too. It must be a slow news day in Kabul?

Anyway, my personal collection of sayings and decorative car stickers as seen by my friends and roommates over the summer:

"Love is Killer" - on a public bus
"Don't Follow Me" - also, often, "Don't Fallow Me"
"Baby Don't Cry, I'll Be Back"
"Danger Doesn't Give Meaning"
"My Toyota is Awesome" - on a Toyota, naturally
"No Girl, No Tension"
"When Nothing Goes Right, Go Left"
"Son of Panjshir" - next to a lady-in-a-martini-glass decal
"Can't touch this"
"My father said no friends, only girlfriend"
"In God We Turst" - on another bus
"Land craoser" (sic)
"24: Jack Bower" (sic)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Afghan National Gallery

After the Uzbekistan trek fell through, I used my unexpected additional days in Kabul to play the tourist about town. The Lonely Planet guide recommended the Afghan National Gallery as a collection worth seeing if only to pay respect to the efforts of its administrators to protect their art from the Taliban. A display case on the first floor shows samples of less-lucky paintings:

The memorial of shredded canvass is far from the only unique feature of the museum. The building is drastically undersized, and well over half the collection sits stacked against the walls - through rooms and down the hallways. While no longer threatened with destruction, most of the art still isn't actually on display, unless you're willing to shuffle large frames about very, very carefully.

One entire room held portraits of Afghan and international leaders, though the remainder of the museum suggested no other pattern. I saw a British pheasant-hunt hanging in the stairwell, and this portrait of an Afghan patriot, but these were a few of my other favorite pieces:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Home sweet Colorado

Sure, I'm home now, and after spending the better part of the past 24 hours sleeping off a nasty head cold, I even have downtime. I really do intend to finish up Afghanistan stories soon, but in the meantime, I really don't think you can expect the blog to compete with this:

Catch you once I've gotten my fill of mountain sunrises.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Humanitarians in war

The International Assistance Mission killings in Badakhshan are rattling. The province, a high-mountain area in the far northeast, has long been moderately secured by geography alone, though this situation had been deteriorating recently. The group were far from novices - most spoke Dari, and their leaders had lived and worked in Afghanistan through the Taliban years. Michael Semple, in remembering Dan Terry, also explains why the killings are an especially-worrying sign of social breakdown.

In more recent worrisome news, a suicide attack killed two drivers for a security company located in my Kabul neighborhood. Targeting security contractors is a long-standing practice and carries less weight of surprise, but the proximity to my house (about eight blocks, possibly ten) leaves me feeling very grateful to be posting this from half a world away.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dubai Airport fun fact

Customs agents will detain you for 30 minutes and serve you coffee while inspecting your antique (and non-functional) souvenir firearms before letting you out; on the other hand, airport security will scan your bag, completely ignore the monitor, and slap an "inspected" tag on them while welcoming you in.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Goodbye, Kabul

I don't actually fly until tomorrow evening, but because I anticipate last-minute errands and goodbyes will take up most of the day, I'm signing off from Afghanistan tonight. The blog isn't finished - there are tours of the National Gallery, further political updates, a fortunate chance encounter with a student leadership program, a day in Mazar, and some final thoughts on the big picture still to write - but these will be posted from home, where I'll be spending a few days decompressing, first in Cambridge and then Colorado.

Tonight is subdued, due both to normal pre-travel reflection and the news of ten aid workers killed in Badakhshan. As security deteriorates in the provinces, those working beyond the secured city boundaries are taking ever-greater risks.

On a lighter note, a photo for the day - previewing the National Gallery collection:

There's nowhere quite like Afghanistan...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Friday in Panjshir

On an otherwise quiet Friday, Afreen, Rory, N and I hired a car and set out for the Panjshir Valley. Over the course of the day, Rory played soccer with some local boys until fascination with us girls broke up the match, the whole group toured Ahmed Shah Massoud's tomb, and Afreen and I took photos of the many rusting tanks stacked haphazardly along the river at various points. The slideshow linked below also includes a highway sign papered over with campaign posters, the wreckage of a helicopter near one bridge, and the daily catch as gathered by some local fishermen we found walking through the valley.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

24 hours in Mazar-i Sharif

Apologies for the radio silence; with the end of my time at the Commission, I've been playing the tourist a bit in Kabul, visiting the National Gallery and enjoying time with friends. Tomorrow, I'll travel to Mazar-i Sharif with two new friends, so photos of the shrine of Hazrat Ali (along with a belated slideshow from Friday's trip to the Panjshir) are coming soon.

The "safe and sound" tour is also coming soon to a time zone near you - I depart Kabul on August 8, and land in Boston the next afternoon. What comes next is still unclear, but it will involve some decompression time in either Missouri or Colorado before a long weekend at Mom's place in Montana, a jaunt to DC to meet with one of the State Department's innovation-and-tech geeks, and then finally the start of classes. I can't believe I'm out of here in only four days...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Flying Commercial

Domestic air travel in Afghanistan resembles the American practice only in the most casual comparison. Over a round trip to Herat, my flights ran a combined four hours late, I walked through four metal detectors (of which none were functional), and I received five separate pat-down searches from bored women (of whom two obviously felt zero regard for my silly sense of dignity). The planes smell deeply human on 90-degree days, and even my knees nearly brushed the seat ahead.

The trip began with a crazy man screaming and lunging after me outside the departure gate, pulled away by his guardian while a crowd gawked, then apologized to the clearly-shaken foreign girl. It ended in a quiet office with the chief of Herat airport security, drinking tea and chatting about India.

I get ahead of myself. Other than the deranged man, the departure from Kabul was mostly normal. We waited two and a half hours at the sole gate for domestic departures - I argued with a zealous steward who scolded me for putting a bag under the seat - but we arrived in Herat with no major incidents.

If the Bamiyan airport reminded me of a small-town gravel strip in the Rockies, Herat's lacks a similarly apt comparison. There's a two-room terminal serving departing travelers only. Arriving, we walked off the plane, past a waving portrait of President Karzai, and straight into a dusty parking lot where small boys ferried luggage in wheelbarrows.

Returning for the flight to Kabul, our taxi pulled onto the shoulder of a major road, depositing us seemingly several hundred yards from the main airport entrance (as marked by an old MiG mounted on a pedastal). Walking in that direction, however, we heard shouts from a small police checkpoint across the road - the real departure entrance passed instead between rows of sandbags into a dusty courtyard a quarter-mile from the terminal. Once there, we were shuffled into a shipping-container room for the first security check, then shuttled across to check in at a desk with two men and one laptop tethered to a SIM-card modem. Thus approved, we settled in to wait.

A policeman approached and asked to see our bags, accompanied by the woman who had patted us down just moments before. I handed him my backpack as Afreen explained that we had already been checked. He ignored her and then picked up my other bag, carrying two copper plates I'd bought from Sultan Hamidi, consulting all the while with the woman. He looked over them carefully, then asked me where I'd gotten them. I had a business card for the shop, and as I handed it over, I asked what the problem was. He replied "mushkil nist!" and handed me my bags. As they left, an Afghan-American sitting nearby quietly translated that the woman had suggested I might attack the pilots with the plate, hitting someone on the head.

Eventually, a gate opened at the other end of the courtyard, and we joined the line to file through and trek across the parking lot to the terminal. Once there, we went through another security checkpoint, where the woman ignored the plates entirely, and then to an x-ray machine, where the technician took them and insisted I put Sultan Hamidi on the telephone. After long haggling, an older guard stepped over and eventually returned my souvenirs.

Afreen and I had barely settled in to the women's waiting area when a man walked up and asked, "Farsi gap mezanid?" "Kam kam," I replied, pinching my fingers in the air to demonstrate just how little. Dread settled in as I sank into the office couch - these plates were obviously never going to make it home with me. Thankfully, the security chief had found a translator, who first asked where we were from, then spoke for several fond minutes about his time in Hyderabad after Afreen claimed it as her home. Finally, the issue of my apparent contraband came up, and our translator assured us that his chief was truly sorry for any inconvenience the search had caused. Would we like any tea before our flight?

(Postscript: upon returning to Kabul, we found that our traveling companions had shared a similar experience the day before - the guards had required them to check the glassware, some of which was then broken in transit, but allowed Francisco to board the plane with a switchblade.)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Herat Citadel

The final tourist stop in Herat is its fortress, built on a site originally chosen by Alexander the Great, now in the center of the city and overlooking the mosques and minarets it once protected. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is in the process of excavating and restoring the Citadel, and Afreen and I were lucky enough to encounter some of the engineering team on our visit. One pointed out fragments of old tile mixed in with the debris the construction team carted about busily, roughly dating it based on its use of multiple colors under a single glaze. Climbing the towers and peering down on life below, we caught pictures both birds-eye Herat and the fort itself - the photo below links to a brief slideshow.

Shrines of Herat

Herat is a city of shrines - over three days, I visited the mausoleums of two princes, two religious poets, and one Sufi saint known for traveling by rolling on the ground. Photos of Afreen befriending one pilgrim, Kufic script in blue tile, a pomegranate-tree fresco, and several peaceful pistachio-treed tombs tell the full story - click on the photo below to see the rest.