Monthly Archives: November 2008

Gut Check

murad-khane-classroomAnyone who knows me, knows that I use my heart WAY more than my head.  Perhaps to a fault?  I follow my heart and trust my gut far above logic and facts.  That’s what lead me down this path in the first place!  Yet, its never done me wrong.

I read a book, followed my heart, and created an organization to support the education of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan through Greg Mortenson’s, Central Asia Institute.  I dove into the deep end because I HAD TO.   In short seven months we had galvanized a community and exceeded our intended goal with lots of hard work, but truly little ‘effort’.

Then the success of what we had accomplished washed over us and we hurried to build on that momentum we had created with another partner in a different region, but it didn’t feel right.  Nothing clicked.  Things didn’t gel.  Was I my own version of a one-hit-wonder?  Doubts crept in and frustration created a plummeting energy drain that made keeping on task painfully difficult.  Yet the community project in Nepal we were supporting was just as important as the schools in Pakistan, why was it so different this time around?

I just accepted that perhaps the thrill of the first steps and the wild popularity that swirled around Greg Mortenson’s work and his book, “Three Cups of Tea” buoyed us up.  Perhaps this was an unrepeatable experience.

Then I went to Afghanistan.  Despite friends, family, and colleagues advising me to think twice.  Despite the general view that it was unnecessary.  Despite the money.  Despite the risk.  Internally, I never wavered.  Not from stubbornness, but because my gut said, “GO!”  Deep inside I knew I HAD to go and that I would figure it all out before, during, and after.

And that is what I realized has to happen as Mountain to Mountain becomes its own, self-sustaining non profit organization.   Moving from partnering with non profits to becoming our own.  Our evolution has become necessary.   To become sustainable, to do things ‘our way’, and to set our own course.  The gut check says, you know what you want to do, go do it.  There is enough red tape in the world without creating more.  Just go, be, do.

This means that our Board of Directors has to think outside the box and look at how we set ourselves apart, becoming a non profit that doesn’t try to fit within the old molds of operation.  Becoming a 21st century organization, that is willing to think globally AND locally.   Our tagline of connecting communities and cultures was laid out in black and white in Afghanistan.  Make a local connection so that people understand where their money is going, why they should support our projects, and how it will change lives.   Use global resources and networks to extend our reach and support system.   Use culture to educate those at home while preserving it in our project areas.

In our particular case, Mountain to Mountain’s Board needs to understand my vision and modus operandi – ie. my gut check.  I need their structure to build our organization in order to do the hundred of projects queuing up in my line of sight.  I need to be confident in my vision and know that the right people will come to the organization because of that vision.  When I stray into the realm of doing what I think others think I should be doing, I fail.  Trust your gut, it knows whats right even when your head tries to convince it otherwise!  Lesson learned….moving on.

photo by Di Zinno

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Finding Myself in Afghanistan

buzkashi-princess“I found myself in Afghanistan.”  I said these words to my soul sister, Christiane, yesterday upon returning from Kabul a few days earlier.  “Does that sound corny?”  Inwardly cringing at the Pollyanna sound to the first statement.

Christiane smiled, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “It would if I hadn’t been reading your blogs while you were over there.  It’s totally obvious you were home.”

Not that I was lost.

But for the first time I felt completely at ease in my own skin.  I am someone that is reasonably confident, independent, and basically quite happy with myself and the people around me.  I don’t pretend to be something I’m not.  I am what I am, and as my friend Tony put it – “you just do what you do.”  But there is always that feeling of holding back a part of who I really am for public consumption.  Not wanting to be the one on stage (funny for someone who studied to become a professional dancer in an earlier life) or be the center of attention, yet reluctantly finding myself in that position more and more frequently.  Feeling that I should ‘tone down’ a little my emotions, desires, goals, and expectations around others to put others at ease.

In Kabul, that all changed.  I felt at ease, despite distinctly standing out in a crowd.   I felt comfortable stepping into uncharted waters of first ever interviews taken with cabinet ministers.  Doubt didn’t enter into the decision to jump on a buzkashi horse when the challenge was thrown down, despite being the only female around.  I was just doing what I do.  Often without thinking, just the natural rhythm of being true to one’s self.

Part of that came from that fear of looking Pollyanna-like, by truly admitting that by reading “Three Cups of Tea” and founding Mountain to Mountain that I’ve discovered what I want to be when I grow up.  Afghanistan showed me that reality of possibilities being possible.

Tony saw this process in Kabul as he documented the trip through his camera and stated bluntly, “Shannon, you are the anti-Pollyanna.”

And he is right.  There are no rose colored glasses when I look at Afghanistan, and truly feel at home.  There is dirt and dust, squalor and poverty, gender inequality, corruption and crime.   Quite the polarity shift from life in my quaint mountain ski town in the Rockies.   Yet I see the magical quality in this small corner of the world.  The crossroads of the silk road where diverse cultures and races intertwined.  A land that has refused to be tamed by its multiple occupiers despite their best attempts to destroy the land and the culture.  A people that refuse to give up and continue to fight for their children’s future and their country’s true potential.

So it was here, that I stepped up the plate and accepted that I will try to find my voice through writing (something never attempted before a few months ago).  I will try to tell the stories I see in Kabul in hopes of inspiring others to see beyond the war and terrorism, and look instead to the amazing people working to change their own country’s path, the children that need schools, and the artists that thrive to keep Afghanistan’s culture alive.

It was also in Kabul that I accepted that I do, in fact, want to ‘save the world’.   I want to do my small part and make a difference.  I want to find projects, raise money, complete projects, affect lives, and then repeat.  I want others to join me and share the burden and the joy.

photo by Di Zinno

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An Afghan Education

pashto-lessonsThe visit to Kabul had many purposes. The longterm goal was to discover how to support the growth of Afghan education and school building in a region that has dealt with losing many schools to the Taliban as recently as a couple months ago. How best could we find sustainable and progressive projects that we could work to garner support for here at home. Could these be built safely and securely in outer provinces or should they remain in Kabul one of the few areas still considered relatively safe in comparison. If they needed to be focused on Kabul, is there a need, or are there already enough schools and enough support. How do we safely get them built, get the money to the project and oversee the project from afar?

Who do we trust to liaison?

I got these questions answered, and much much more during my short two weeks in Kabul thanks in part to my amazing translator, Najibullah. Naji knew that I was coming over so that I could meet with several girls schools and was open to seeing others. He took this and ran with it….tugging at my already strung out heart strings. He opened my eyes to the many opportunities we could get involved with, from deaf schools, to girls schools, to schools for streetchildren, to vocational schools preserving Afghan culture while creating work opportunities.

The first school we visited was with Aschiana, an organization focused on providing education and vocation training for streetchildren. The school is one of many that Aschiana runs. They work around the needs of these streetchildren to make money for the family by being flexible with the schooldays and working with the families to understand the value of education. The surprise of the visit was that besides basics like literacy and languages (all schoolchildren in Afghanistan learn Dari, Pashto, and English – better language skills than most educated Americans), they also learn painting, calligraphy, and music. We sat in on several classes and the hands-down highlight was music class. Two adult teachers were playing the  sitar, while two young students were playing tabla (drums) and a strange musical hybrid keyboard/accordion. The rest of the class sat around, boys on one side, girls on the other and sang traditional Afghan songs. It was enthralling, and we stayed for a long time enjoying the impromptu concert.

The second school was all Najibullah. It is Afghanistan’s only deaf school. Unplanned on the original wish list, Najibullah made it clear we needed to go here. I have never seen such unadulterated joy as I saw on these young faces when they saw us pass by. Excitement pulsated through the halls and within every classroom we visit (10 or 12 in a rapid fire visit). We learned immediately how to say “Salaam” by placing one hand at our brow, much like a military salute. Followed by a thumb’s up. We made this greeting to every classroom to huge smiles all around. We learned several other signs as we moved from classroom to classroom, so that by the time we left we had learned around a dozen signs.

The founder of this school is also deaf, and speak four languages in sign. He is a passionate advocate for building more schools and working with the families to learn sign to communicate with their children. Over 10,000 deaf live in Afghanistan, most of them growing up in complete isolation, being unable to communicate with their own family and lacking any social group or friends. Until the completion of Kabul’s deaf school, there was no opportunity anywhere for this demographic to receive an education. The goal is for more schools to be built throughout the country and to develop more regional ‘outposts’ where families can go to learn sign and better understand their own children.

A unique approach to cultural preservation was discovered at Turquoise Mountain’s headquarters and center for higher education which is focused on this preservation of culture through education. A complete compound with various buildings housing different artisan workshops and classrooms. Pottery, calligraphy, woodworking, and jewelry making were all run by masters found from across Afghanistan. The apprentices learn under their tutelage and after 2-3 years will complete their cultural education in their particular vocation. These students will ensure that the traditional Afghan arts are not lost with the eldest generation’s passing. Reinvigorating the Afghan culture and with it, the market for its artisan’s work.

The same afternoon was spent touring the Murad Khane restoration project that falls under the leadership of Turquoise Mountain. Located in the heart of old Kabul, an area with no sewage or running water, and buildings that collapse weekly. Turquoise Mountain has undertook a large restoration of the old bazaar, encompassing several buildings. Inside the beautifully restored Peacock House are a couple of classrooms for the local children that live in this squalor filled area of Kabul to attend school. We sat in on a small classroom of young boys who immediately offered to sing songs. One at a time, boys would stand up and sing us a little song, some shyly and some with great enthusiasm.

Having interrupted their English lesson we didn’t stay too long before going upstairs to another classroom focused on vocational training for embroidery. Women of all ages sat around the edges of the room working on different designs. Here was example of vocation training and preservation of culture on a very small, intimate level akin to a widow’s tailoring project we had visited earlier in the trip.

We visited girls’ schools and co-ed schools, and other small vocational projects. All with similar focuses on combining education, preserving Afghan culture, and developing useable vocational skills. Each one inspiring me further to find ways to develop multiple projects under Mountain to Mountain’s banner. There are several ways to fund our own projects there to build deaf schools, schools for streetchildren, and girls schools…all desperately needed, all sustainable, and all easily completed.

In my journey to discover how to support the education of Afghans, that my education began.

 

photo by Di Zinno

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Politics is Lying

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Dr. Roshanek Wardak is one tough cookie.  Here is a woman that stares down the Taliban daily and I got a heady dose of how intense that gaze is today.  Dr. Wardak is a female member of the Afghan Parliament, representing the tumultuous province of Wardak.  This is a province still fighting, and with a large number of Taliban living there it is not likely to quiet down anytime soon.  It neighbors Kabul and its hard to comprehend the difference in security between the two provinces.  Harder still to imagine that the Taliban willingly stay put under Dr. Wardak’s intensity.

Dr. Wardak is Pashtun, the same ethnic group as the Taliban.  She is also the province’s only female OB/GYN – and as such is quite important as the one that delivers the babies to the women of the area.   During the Taliban’s time, most women wore the burqa, but she insisted she could not do her job wearing one and instead simply wore her black headscarf so that her face was covered except for her eyes.   She worked throughout those difficult six years in Wardak and then when the Taliban were removed and elections were held, the people of Wardak encouraged, and pushed, for her to run as a candidate for Parliament. With very little effort, she ran and won.

Sitting across from her, her eyes probe mine, questioning my interest, questioning my knowledge of the situation, and questioning deep into my heart of hearts.  Her eyes search and probe as we talk, and when silences come, they are not for me to fill.  They are there for her to decide if she will continue and when she does, its with direct honesty.   This is a woman with no time for playing games.  Her mantra, “Politics is Lying”, is repeated often throughout our conversation.  She hates politics and says so openly.  She is a doctor, and loves her work, and loves her people.  “A doctor must be honest and direct at all times,” she tells me.  As a politician, she sees the falsehoods, the games, and the outright lying,  and has no stomach for it.

We discuss women in politics, gender equality, Afghanistan’s political climate, and most importantly, due to her unique insight, the Taliban’s role in the future of Afghanistan.  Unique I say because she is a woman who had no rights under Taliban rule.  A woman that was forced to cover her face.  A woman who would not have been allowed to vote, much less run as a candidate herself, were the Taliban to have held elections.  Yet, she realizes that the Taliban are Afghan, and as such, must be allowed their place in society under the Afghan constitution.  Like Hamas and Hezbollah, the Taliban are part of their own country and hold great numbers within Afghanistan.  Wardak believes that they need to be part of the process to bring peace, and others like Karzai, and our own government are coming to the same conclusion.

“Let them run candidates if they wish, the same as anyone else.  If they win seats, then we must honor that.”  But the trick is that they have to abide by the ‘rules’, women as their counterparts, perhaps even their new president.  Yet, if they are given the chance to run amok, isolated from the political system, and peace process, it will be to the destruction of the country and will put Afghanistan in the center of the war on terror.

When asked what is the most important priority for her work at Parliament her answer is immediate.  “Security.  It is the ONLY priority for progress.”  Achieving it is another story.  Yet, the Parliament, Ministers, and the people of Afghanistan need to work towards a peace process conducted with all of Afghanistan represented as a complete way to end the violent spiral.

Staring back into Wardak’s tough gaze, I realize that while she may hate being a politician, she is the politician this country needs.

photo by Di Zinno

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Buying a Hat for Obama

_mg_9107So today, I went to see a man about a burqa.

I wanted to see how they were made, how they are worn, and understand why many women choose to wear, what to us in the West, is the archetype image of women’s oppression.

I knew going in that ‘back in the day’ village women sometimes chose to wear a burqa when going into town.  It was a symbol that due to its awkwardness, they were above toiling in the field.  It also served its purpose of keeping away unwanted male attention.  During the Taliban era in the late 90’s, the burqa became the fashion de rigeour as it was forced upon all females and became a symbol of the Taliban’s desire to make women invisible and irrelevant.

I see many more burqas than I expected to today in Kabul, the majority being the painfully beautiful bluebird color, but occasionally a pure white one emerges from a crowd.  So, I asked my translator, Najibullah to take me to a burqa maker to learn more.  A task even more important due to my dear friend, Christiane’s, request of purchasing one while here for her to use as a teaching tool with her work with Pennies for Peace.

We go to a quiet market, made quieter since the suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy that it shares a street with.  Upon entering – we see a row of burqas hanging on the wall – periwinkle blues, whites, and to my surprise, a vibrant purple alongside several shades of tangerine.   I am informed that the color is often related to the region.  Mazar-i-Sharif is famous for the white, the south holds the tangerine, while Herat and Kabul typify the bluebird.  The shopkeepers are happy to see us and take several down for me to look at the elaborate embroidery across the bottom of the front panel.

I choose my purchase for Christiane and look around the rest of the shop.  There is a table full of hats, and the first I spot is a round, flat hat, that Najibullah informs me is a buzkashi hat.  Somehow this round disk stays put on the player’s head during this ‘extreme sport’ of horse polo and rugby combined with a dead sheep carcass.  Several more hats stand out as the ‘Karzai’ hat…the hat of boiled wool that President Karzai has made famous.  Often a symbol for elders and usually quite expensive.  These are a lower quality and as such are quite cheap…but apparently they can go upwards of $1,000.  Najibullah suggests we buy one for Obama.  He was the one to officially tell me the news of Obama’s win when he picked us up from the airport.  We have talked frankly of Afghanistan politics and our joint desire that a new leader could look beyond military tactics and into the heart of this region’s difficulties.

Laughing, I ask Najibullah to model one for me so that I can get the full effect.  He looks regal and my photographer-in-crime, nudges me that its not a bad idea, hell, what could it hurt.  So… I hand over some money and buy a hat for Obama.

photo Di Zinno

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Ghosts of Kabul

dayfourcolor_397Throughout the muted neutral shades of Afghanistan, bluebirds float along the streets.  They move through the crowds unnoticed despite their piercing pale blue color.  Unnoticed but impossible to miss.  They are the burqa clad ghosts of Kabul.   It seems amazing that these women wear a garment meant to make them invisible in such a vibrant shade that so obviously contrasts the bland environment.

You see them on buses and in cars.  They are dotted throughout the markets.  You see them by the side of the road often begging with their chidren, faceless with hands outstretched for food or money. Its a stereotypical view of Afghanistan, the mantel of women’s oppression during the Taliban.  Yet, despite the freedom to shed these garments now that the Taliban is not in power, some women throughout this country continue to wear them.

You are not allowed to photograph these women, or women in general, without permission.  Yet how could a photograph resist the temptation that these bluebirds create with every passing?  My photographer on this trip parallels these perriwinkle ghosts in an interesting dance I’ve witnessed throughout this trip.  Already we have a growing stockpile of these images, taken without notice, the ghost capturing the ghosts.

Tony dresses in the neutrals of the city, and with his beard starting to fill in, his new black and white checked kaffir scarf, he is blending into the city the longer we are here, despite his large stature.  He carries his camera unobtrusively behind his back, shooting those he is walking away from, or holds it at his hip while looking across the street.  “Shooting from the hip”, you might say.  In the car, its an ebb and flow of the camera coming out of his lap to shoot and returning to its resting place, unseen.   The camera may point out the front window but really he’s aiming for the rear view mirror and capturing the bluebirds beside the car.  Forbidden images captured without anyone being any the wiser.

I am taking in the city the same as him, yet not the same.  Despite my headscarf and head to toe black, I tend to draw a crowd of on-lookers wherever we go, being blond and taller than many of the men here.  I am noticed and that skews my view imperceptibly.  Meanwhile, Tony seeps into the background and is able to capture images of the women, children, even the police that roam the streets hanging out of the backs of jeeps.  He is the one carrying the massive camera and shoulder bag and no one bats an eye.  Pow wows in the back of the car while we are driving show me faces I didn’t see, scenes I missed.

As the unseen ghosts float around Kabul, this week they are joined by one more, a slightly larger, hairier version blending into their midst.

photo by Di Zinno

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The Road to Panjshir – Part Two

 

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We arrive at Faheem Dashty’s family home, by way of a narrow alleyway off the side of the road surrounded on both sides by steep rock walls. Shah Mohammad confidently steers the car through while Tony reaches out the window and touches the wall.

 

 

Faheem welcomes us and directs us to the lawn where a table and chairs is set in the garden. Surrounded on both sides by mountains, with the garden overlooking the river – it’s hard to believe this was the stronghold of Massoud’s resistance against the Taliban. Its too peaceful.

 

Soon Faheem’s father comes out to the join us. The General. A larger man, with a kind, grandfatherly face greets us and warmly shakes my hand, welcoming us to his home.

 

We all sit and a servant brings out freshly squeezed apple juice from their own trees. Thick and pulpy, the juice is the first I’ve had in days and it tastes as though I’ve just bitten into a sweet yellow apple.  A refreshing break from the constant stream of watery green tea.

 

 

Faheem and The General shared many stories of the family home, Panjshir valley, life during the Soviet occupation, and their relationship with Massoud. Massoud played a leading role in driving the Russians out of Afghanistan, but is famous for his stronghold in Panjshir keeping the Taliban from moving in from Kabul.

 

The General told stories of how Massoud asked him to blow up the road at the beginning of the valley entrance to keep out the Taliban. The road sunk to the valley floor, level with the river and Taliban where they were either captured, killed, or fled back to Kabul. The ironic thing is that the General’s job with the government was road building.

 

 

Faheem’s daughter and son played in the garden, his daughter occasionally coming over  to make Faheem give the teddy bear a hug, or flirt with the guests, especially the one with the camera!


 

After a couple of hours of chatting, sharing stories, and making pictures, The General guides to a little outbuilding on the other side of the garden for lunch. We enter a tiny foyer with a red afghan rug just large enough to slide out of our shoes and walk into a small rectangular room with cobalt blue pillows lining the four walls. We sit down, cross legged (it is considered rude to show the soles of your feet to others) and a tablecloth is spread in the middle of the empty space. Food and water is brought in from the kitchen and Faheem passes along plates, and platters of food. I sit next to the General and he gestures that I should serve myself first. Reminding myself to only eat with my right hand, I follow his directions not wishing to make a faux pas.

 

 

Let me just insert how much I adore Afghan food. Truly. It is a great joy to have been invited to a private home and have a homemade meal made in our honor, doubly so given our host’s stature. A platter heaped with rice with raisins and carrots covers tender hunks of lamb. Another platter is stacked with fresh naan bread. A bowl is filled with quorma, a slightly spicy Afghan stew of lamb chunks and potatoes. A tiny condiment bowl of spicy green peppers crushed with garlic, and another bowl of tomatoes, onions, and fresh basil. Lastly, a bowl of yogurt, freshly made that day. Everything from meat to veg to naan bread has been produced on the family land, and then cooked by Faheem’s mother, the General’s wife.

 

 

I am in heaven as the General keeps gesturing to “eat more, eat more”!  Tony jokes with Faheem that his mother’s cooking will be famous tomorrow as I will be sure to write about it.   He’s not wrong!

 

 

After a post-lunch walk around the garden, we say goodbye to the General who insists firmly but with a wide smile that I must return to see him. We walk through the inner courtyard and pile into The General’s Toyota 4×4 and Faheem drives up the valley to visit Massoud’s grave and his home. The car is fairly quiet, despite the brain jarring roads, and as we get closer we can see the construction in progress of the tomb that is to encase Massoud’s grave. Faheem stops to say hello a group of contractors working on the tomb and I press my right hand to my heart and say, “Salaam” to each of them. We follow Faheem and I hang back in respect as he bows his head, while Najibullah and Shah Mohammed pray silently on his other side. The mood is somber as we walk slowly back to the car.

 

 

On the drive back I ask Faheem if I can ask him some questions about the current situation in Afghanistan and he opens up quite readily. This is his forte and we pick up from a conversation we had the day before in Kabul. He speaks frankly of his analysis of what will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, as I sit next to him thinking, I’m hearing the thoughts of a great mind, and it makes the trip out of Kabul all the more fulfilling.

 

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The Road to Panjshir – Part One

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Today, we spent the day in Panjshir province – yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to leave Kabul, but you all know me too well to realize that that was never going to happen.

 

Security situation on the road was checked the last night and again this morning and it was determined, that yes, we could make the drive. I was keen to make the trip after our meetings yesterday at AINA Photo Agency. The reason being that we were invited by Faheem Dashty, the founder of Kabul Weekly. Faheem was with Afghanistan’s beloved resistance leader, Massoud, when he was assassinated just days before 9/11. He himself was gravely injured but he survived and resurrected the Kabul Weekly as Afghanistan’s largest independent newspaper. He has a keen political mind and is passionate about the future of Afghanistan. He and I spoke at length after the meeting at AINA, and warmly invited us to come to visit his family’s home. An offer I couldn’t refuse.

 

 

 

 

 

We set off at 8am, myself, Tony, Najibullah, Najibullah’s small son Serat, and of course, our faithful and daring driver, Shah Mohammed. One of the rules we were given for photography in Afghanistan was you are not allowed to shoot women, and try not to be seen photographing in the car.  Its okay to photograph in general, but the police will stop you if you are shooting ‘secretively’ and will take your film if they catch you.  Tony is pretty adept discreetly from the car, and has got some great shots of women.  Unfortunately, we are leaving town, and had just drove around a burqa clad women sitting in the middle of the street with her child (which Tony got a great shot of), when I mentioned that I would love a shot of the road itself (which would require serious 4×4 capabilities in any other country).  He quickly obliged and raised his camera right as we passed a policeman who immediately flagged us down.  Fearing the worst we handed over our passports and papers, which he quickly handed back and wished us safe travels.  Big oops and I vowed not to ask for split second photos again!


 

Leaving Kabul the view opens up to a wide expanse of varying shades of brown.  The landscape is devoid of green other than fields of grapes on the right, with mountains to the far left with mud huts and buildings scattered across the foreground.  Periodically, markets fill in the gaps and the hustle and bustle of the bluebird colored burqas, bejeweled trucks, and children scampering throughout the traffic add bursts of color to the scene.  Najibullah is a constant source of historical tidbits and local information and keeps up a steady stream or running commentary throughout the drive.


 

We reach a checkpoint with a large sign that arches across the road.  It is a sign from the Ministry of Health, Najibullah tells me, its refers to family planning and that space between children is good for both the mother and child.  In other words, don’t try to knock up your wife a couple days after she gave birth.


 

We see landmine clearing on the left and stop to buy some grapes from one of twenty men selling them all in a line at the side of the road on the right with more grape vines spreading out behind them…hopefully land mine free.  The mountains close in as the valley narrows to follow the river and we come to the entrance to Panjshir valley.  The road winds through and we come to a little checkpoint manned by an older fellow who waves us along as we drive by, less of a checkpoint and more of a greeter it seems.  Five minutes further along we come to a proper checkpoint and the only one of the entire valley.  Manned by many of Massoud’s men, a serious looking bunch who peer in through the driver’s window and ask a few questions.  Upon seeing me, I put my right hand on my heart, nod, and say Saleem.  He responds in kind and smiles, allowing Tony to take his photo.  He was a commander under Massoud and now works this checkpoint.  They invite us to join them for tea, but Najibullah explains that we do not have time to stop.  I’m a bit disappointed, how often is one invited for a roadside cup of tea by ex-mujahhadin fighters?


 

A little further along, munching, slightly wrinkled, anemic looking grapes out of a pink plastic bag, we come to a village that screams, “You’re not in Kansas anymore”.

The road narrows to a one dirt road.  Market stalls press in tightly.  A cow is getting butchered on the street in front of the butcher shop, can’t ask for fresher than that!  We snake our way through the crowds of animals and people and all I can think is what I would give to get out of this damn car.  I’m aching to stretch my legs and get closer to this experience.  Coca cola stands, fresh fruit, several more butcher shops, and clothing shops all have their wares simply hanging by strings and ropes off the low roofs of the shacks.

As we drive further, over a bridge, precariously perched above the river – looking as though it would hardly support a small donkey, much less a carload of five, we see several graves periodically dotting the landscape.  Many have green flags blowing in the breeze that mark them as martyrs for the resistance.

Slowly the landscape adds some color as trees with golden yellow leaves appear in great clusters along the sides of the mountain across the river.  We’ve caught the last few days of autumn in Panjshar before the winter comes in.  The colored foliage is a welcome sight and makes me realize how little color we’ve seen.  Even in the local park of Shara-nau there is no green in sight.  Only dirt and rows of barren trees.

a little over two hours later we arrive at Faheem’s family home and the story continues…..

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First Impressions in Kabul

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We arrived a couple days ago in Kabul and it hasn’t let us down.  Its a thriving, bustling, war torn city that assaults your senses every second until you crash exhausted into bed.

It has all the images you would expect, bluebird colored burqa clad women, beggars, bullet riddled buildings, and busy streets filled with cars, bicycles, people, police, and the occasional tank or two.  Our driver, Shah Mohammed, tenses and speeds up whenever we pass one – because THOSE are the targets and you don’t want to be near one if it blows up.

Its a heady lesson for tailgaters.

Our driver is an ex military commander, ironically he was in the transportation department, and I feel completely comfortable in his capable hands as he steers between buses, around donkey carts and pedestrians, in the complete and utter chaos of the Kabul streets.  Its a complete free for all in all directions with bodies crossing in between cars and buses like a speed game of chicken.   Drivers don’t yield for anyone.  Human, donkey, bicycle, tank, or bus – the littlest car will confidently pull out into oncoming traffic, the wrong way, and calmly beep his horn and somehow melt into the six lanes of miscellaneous traffic.

What I didn’t expect was the complete and total destruction of the infrastructure of a city.  One hundred times worse than what I saw in Beirut.  Buildings completely gutted out and crumbling with people and businesses still occupying them in some fashion.  Only one road we’ve been us thus far, the newly fixed one from the airport is ‘driveable’, a few main thoroughfares are rutted and bumpy, but every side street requires serious off road driving skills.

Everything is done on the streets.  Need to change money?  There’s a guy at the roundabout that we stop at to change $200 dollars into local currency.  Need to buy a phone card for the cellphone?  There’s a ‘shop’ on the side of a busy intersection with a cart full of whichever phone card needed.   The markets are streetside and carts pulling apples, bananas, construction materials, and pretty much anything else you could need, set up each morning inches from the traffic.

Our translator and driver offer great advice and direction, and err on the side of security to the point I get a little claustrophobic.  You can’t just go walk out for a cup of tea or get a bottle of water.  There are security guards and barriers at each end of our alleyway, as well as a night guard.   While the meetings we are taking and the activities we are doing far exceed my initial wish list…there are a few items that will probably get scratched off.  The bird market is out – for security reasons.  Too crowded and too visible to be safe.  Local music at a restaurant or teahouse at night is also out, we are back at the guesthouse before dark each night and have our dinner here.

Yet, unexpectedly, I feel quite comfortable here.  I wake each morning to the local Iman’s call to prayer, and find myself with a content smile on my face.  I’m not looking at buying real estate, but despite the chaos, stress, and security threats…I’m where I want to be.

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