Thursday, October 28, 2010

On the Road in Afghanistan

Hello from sunny Afghanistan!

We hit the ground running and have been running ever since! The days are packed and endlessly interesting. Although much time is spent being stuck in traffic which is always interesting to us -- a chance to see life as it dodges between the cars -- but pretty trying for our driver. Yes we have a driver just like those big NGOs do.

Where to begin? Things are really remarkably normal here in Kabul... that is, normal for Kabul. I have noticed lots of changes since last time: MANY more cars, fewer donkey carts in the city center, roads still not paved even in fancy neighborhoods, fewer huge piles of trash, shorter and more fitted dresses on the girls with skinny jeans underneath, fewer traffic lights and more traffic police, more checkpoints at night, fewer bikes, pretty consistent electricity, lots of new buildings and fancy houses, and remarkably few foreigners... unless they are all hiding. But life goes on here in a very daily way and people seem oblivious to any imminent dangers. I am thoroughly amazed to see how cars, donkey carts, bikes, sheep, goats, motorbikes and people cram the streets dodging every which way and somehow missing each other.

Just to fill y’all in on our immediate environment, we are staying in one of those fabulous houses that I usually make fun of – the “wedding cake” houses or “Pakistani” houses as people call them. Typical of all Afghan homes, the house is behind very tall walls to maintain privacy for the women and family. This house is very lovely inside with a spiral stairway and a foyer and 4 rooms, a kitchen, and two bathrooms on each floor. The first floor is for general cooking and dining, and the next two floors are offices or bedrooms. We have the entire third floor to ourselves, and Zahir, our host, has the second floor for his business as a contractor for supplies for the US military (yep – but no guns, other stuff from paper clips to furniture). The house has a nice roof patio and balconies on each floor done in the most lavish mosaic with mirrors and tile.
It would be quite grand except Kabul is immensely, amazingly dusty… and this is an understatement. The combination of unpaved streets, plethora of cars, arid climate and windy evenings makes for a layer of dust on everything and everyone. In this environment, a burqa isn’t a bad idea. Many men wear scarves over their heads and around their faces. Women cover their faces with their headscarves to keep out the dust more than modesty here. After a day out and about, my hair feels like straw and cannot possibly be combed.
Our hosts are the best! Zahir and his company are lovely and generous beyond belief. They take care for our every step and will not allow us to travel unattended despite our years of taxi-taking and casual walks around town. I appreciate their concern and, although this level of luxury is quite new for us after years of trudging the dusty streets on foot and taxi, it’s pretty great having a driver. We are staying in this fabulous house for free and their cook makes everyone lunch daily and makes us three meals a day! His vegetable curry is to die for and his spinach rocks (if spinach can rock). I have no idea of the spices he uses but it’s not like Indian curry, it’s very flavorful but not hot at all. Our escort/driver/translator, Sharif, takes us around to meetings in his big white Toyota SUV with some extra gears for those crazy hills (Kabul is mountainous too) and winding streets that are beyond bumpy into axle-breaking perilousness. This is terrain that actually needs an SUV…. and he in fact broke an axle going up one particularly windy route. Fortunately we have this particular journey on video!
Sharif is a bit macho and has no interest in the arts whatsoever (again, having no experience of WTF it is, how could he care), but translates to the best of his knowledge and asks for explanations as needed for words like “collaboration” or “improvisation,” and he understands the idea of what I am now calling “information theatre” or “informational theatre.” "Social theatre" or "Applied theatre" just doesn't make sense to anyone here where words are translated literally, directly from the dictionary.

I have many other stories to relay, and will have more to follow!

from Joanna in Kabul