Afghan Journal 1

We arrived in Afghanistan yesterday after a 38 hour journey from Addis Ababa. Our travel agent received this report (in part):

Hi Allison, I’m sorry to report that we had a major problem during our travel. The suggested itinerary – which we booked – of arrival in Dubai at 3am and departure for Kabul at 4:20am was an absolute impossibility. No way that can be done, and it should never be proposed to any future travelers….

There were serious carry-on weight restrictions in Dubai, and our four personal bags (a knapsack and camera bag each) had to be cut down to two. As these bags carried our laptops/remote editing stations, camera equipment, external hard drives, still cameras and lenses, it was difficult to decide what or how to part with any of it.

Maybe we should have taken the tact of the overbearing Saudi man who when ordered to hand over his carry-on for weighing, gave a look of incredulity and uttered simply, No. When pressed, he somehow managed to say No more softly but with a more threatening tone. The young airport workers looked down at their scale, then at each other and, finally, at the man. Before they began motioning for him to go ahead, he had already walked away.

Fortunately, one of those “we-sell-everything-you-forgot” shops was just outside the check-in area, and Kevin had the smart idea to buy a new suitcase. This gave our valuables a bit more protection, and we paid the guy at the saran wrap machine 20 dirham to suffocate the bag and keep out thieves.

I packed Kabul-appropriate pants and a headscarf in my knapsack. The pants went on in Dubai before checking-in; I wrapped the scarf before deboarding in Kabul. I’m back, I felt getting off the plane. It felt good. Great, actually. I’ve been planning this return for years now, and the trepidation I was feeling just yesterday transformed into a sense of relief. Finally.

Inside the airport’s immigration room there were only a few other white bodies – and most of those resembled aging mini-pro wrestlers. The hair-stubbled skin of their bald heads formed double chins above the backs of their bulging necks, and while we were trying to blend in as much as possible, they seemed to want to shout, Look at me! I’m an American! One of these guys had even tried to joke with us in line back in Dubai when he saw an Afghan man with five small boys and three times as much luggage – Yeah, I bet he has his daughters in there, he laughed pointing to the bags. And… conversation over.

A wide-grinned friend greeted us at the airport. Fortunately, my text message telling him about our 7 bags had made the point: He brought an oversized-van for the pick-up job. When we paid the porters who helped us get from the terminal to C Parking, they both bowed their heads repeatedly and repeated, Dosvedanya (Thank you in Russian) so used had they become to the Russian presence in their country. For them the weight of the American presence hasn’t been heavy enough to squeeze out the formalities needed for the simplest of conversations with a foreigner.

Driving “home” we pass new garish wedding halls with bright colored lights and white ones falling like snowflakes. Sadly, many of the weddings that happen there are put on by people who can’t afford them, launching families into debt and creating a backlash for new brides.

We ate a wonderfully traditional meal for our first dinner. Chicken korma (chicken with spices and yogurt); rice jazzed up with cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon; chicken; cucumber, tomato, radish and mint salad; fiery mango pickle, and, of course, my favorite flatbread in the world.

There is no heat in the house where we are staying, but temperatures are mild and propane heaters in our bedrooms do a great job keeping us warm at night. A small heater in the bathroom makes it toasty enough for a spoon bucket bath.

This morning, hot water poured from the ever-present aluminum tea flask gives my instant oatmeal a cardamom flavor. It really is the taste of this home, this city, this country. And also the scent.

At least three times a day ice cream carts pushed by young boys come through the neighborhood, their bullhorn loudspeakers chiming a familiar but unexpected tune – Happy Birthday To You. Copyright issues make it so rare to hear this song in any public setting in America, and are the reason restaurants like TGIFriday’s have their own birthday songs: I don’t know what I’ve been told, someone here is getting old… Good news is we sing for free, bad news is we sing off key!

I don’t yet know all that this trip will hold. We have begun filming, and things we needed to set up here are falling into place. Local shooters and translators are lined up, and we know the stories we are planning to follow. But like the people of this country itself, we are prepared for change at any moment. And like everything in life I know it is inextricably linked to the past, and also to the future in ways I can’t now imagine.

I’m reading a fantastic book right now – “Cutting For Stone” – which is set largely in Ethiopia. In it is reference to a popular African children’s story that really touched me when I read it last night. It’s the story of Abu Kassem and his slippers. Abu Kassem is a rich but stingy Baghdad merchant who tries to get rid of his dirty, stinky slippers, but every time he does –- by throwing them out a window, tossing them into a lake — something terrible happens. Abu winds up in jail time and time again while all the people in town are furious about the trouble he and his slippers are causing.

In the book it is explained this way, The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny… In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit they are yours, and if you do, they will get rid of themselves… The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your own family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.

We’re just sitting down to morning tea – deliciously cardamom-imbued of course! More to come…

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