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.)

1 comment:

Sarah said...

That's even more ridiculous than the french lady at CDG stealing my chevre because she wanted it. (or because it might have been plastic explosive)