Mountain2Mountain: Advocating For Voice And Women’s Empowerment In Afghanistan

Three years ago I was in Telluride, Colorado attending Mountainfilm festival. I was particularly blown away by a series of huge photographs that depicted life in Afghanistan. I remember being particularly moved by one of a beggar woman in a burqa, sitting in the middle of a dusty street with a boy sitting in her lap. I had read, and even written about the Streets of Afghanistan photo exhibit, in the days leading up to the festival, but seeing it was completely different. That was the same day I went to listen to Shannon Galpin give a presentation on both the photo exhibit and her nonprofit, Mountain2Mountain.

Galpin and I had corresponded back and forth via email, but this was the first time that I had met her in person.

I sat almost shell-shocked as she told the story of her rape at the age of 19, and then the subsequent rape of her sister several years later and the impetus for deciding that she would not be a victim. Then came the birth of her daughter, a moment where Galpin realized that all women and girls around the world deserve the same rights that, being born in the United States, her own daughter would have. She launched Mountain2Mountain in late 2006 with that exact idea in mind, paving a way for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Committed to the power of voice, one of Mountain2Mountain’s first projects was collaboration between Afghan and Western photographers to document real life in Afghanistan, not through the war or conflict lens, but Afghanistan as Afghans saw it. The result was a life-size interactive exhibit that provided a different view of this corner of the world; a corner that we so often see but so rarely emotionally connect with.

“The goal with Streets of Afghanistan was to bring the images that capture the beauty and spirit of this country back to Afghanistan itself; a chance for Afghans to appreciate art and perhaps instill a sense of pride in the beauty and soul of their country. On a global level, this series of exhibits also shows the world that you can do things like this in a country like Afghanistan. Art, and street art in particular, isn’t off limits because of ongoing conflict – in fact, in situations like the one in Afghanistan, it is even more important to inspire, to ignite conversation, and to celebrate community,” says Galpin.

Three years after seeing “Streets of Afghanistan” in Telluride, I found myself in Kabul producing that exact same exhibit, seeing Afghanistan for myself, but also the reactions of the local community to a show that was all about showcasing them; sometimes things come full circle in a very serendipitous way.

As I unfolded yet another 10’x17′ photo and propped it up against a stone wall, my headscarf falling off and a group of men standing and staring at the crazy foreign woman, I was reminded that in a time of conflict and destruction, there is so much room for beauty and creativity. Empowering voice, in this case through art, means empowering grassroots activism.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

A Trip Through The Kabul Airport – With A Few Extra Security Checks

“You go to Afghanistan for holiday?”

I was trying to explain why I was spending a couple of weeks in Kabul to the Afghan man sitting next to me on the airplane, attempting to be as vague as possible so as to not give away too many personal details about what I was doing and who I was. Better to err on the side of too little information than too much. He was, on the other hand, highly confused by the fact that I wasn’t working for a company in the country, the only other logical explanation in his head was that I was traveling there on vacation. I smirked internally. My first time going to Afghanistan and sitting on a bumpy ride to Kabul I was feeling nervous. As much as I wanted to be an intrepid explorer, heading into a conflict zone was quite frankly nerve-racking. Externally, however, I made an attempt at exuding extreme confidence.

“No no, volunteering with a nonprofit project,” I said.

“Ah, ok,” he responded.

I had been alerted before boarding that if I was seated next to an Afghan man on the airplane he would most likely not talk to me. Crammed all the way in the back row, however, I found myself in between this 26-year-old Afghan man who had spent the last five years running a textile business in China and a young mother on my left who was nursing her infant underneath her abaya.

The Afghan man, fueled on Chinese modernity and busy showing me pictures on his iPhone of his recent trip to Macau, was certainly not the cultural norm. “This is my first time wearing shorts in Afghanistan, what was I thinking??” he exclaimed.Compared to the other men on the airplane, most of them in traditional Afghan wear of flowing long pants and tunics, he certainly didn’t fit the picture that graced the cover of my “Lonely Planet: Afghanistan” that had found its home on my coffee table for the last month.

But the exchange calmed my nerves, which jolted again when we hit a jet of air as we passed over the snow capped mountains and descended into Kabul. The sun was just beginning to set, and upon landing, my first view of Kabul was a hazy sunset, diffused by dust, and a row of what looked to be old Russian choppers.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, my friend Steve and I had looked up the Kabul Airport on Google Earth.

“Um … good luck?” he said, looking at the barren top down view that showed one long runway and not much else.

“Thanks Steve.” My friends are so good at instilling confidence.

But there I was, safely landed and pulling a headscarf over my head; international jet space was over and it was time to abide by local customs. As we taxied, men got out of their seats and began to take their bags down from the storage space above, much to the chagrin of the flight attendants. Like other places I have traveled, I quickly learned that Afghanistan was a country of no personal space and little respect for things like lines, traffic lanes and announcements of “please stay seated until the airplane until the captain has turned off the seatbelt sign.” If the plane had landed it was time to get off.

My seatmate was pressed for time, his next flight taking off in a matter of minutes. His friends a few rows in front of us glared at me and yelled something to him in Dari.

“They told me I need to stop talking to the foreign woman and get off the plane,” he translated. I let him pass in front of me.

We pushed down the middle aisle plane and walked out the door and down the ladder taking us to the ground. I followed the swarm of people, ending up in the small room with a low ceiling where we were to go through passport control. Four passport control windows and about eight different lines; I figured it was best to hang towards the back.

Once through passport control, there was yet another stop before baggage claim – a little desk to hand over an extra passport photo and fill out a piece of paper so I could be granted my “Forejiner,s Registration” card. It was spelled out just like that.

The crowd in the plane and passport control line may have been antsy, but they were no match for the baggage line. Once bags were claimed, you pushed into the line of people waiting to scan their baggage before being able to exit the airport.

Headed to Kabul to produce a large photo exhibition, we happened to have 35 bags checked between five people. But Shannon was ahead of the game and had already employed the help of five porters, experts at the push-the-luggage-cart-until-you-get-to-the-front game.

There was a lot of “Burro! Burro!” (Go! Go!), and plenty of laughter as the porters leapt forward every time a bag of ours threatened to fall off the cart. All bags through the x-ray machine and Shannon playing a little bit of hardball to get us out of paying a tax and we were finally walking out of the main entrance, headed down a winding road that took around the airport and out to the main lobby waiting area, a separate building about 1500 yards from the main airport.

Checkpoints are everywhere Kabul, and the airport is no different. The various stops on the way out of the airport are nothing compared to leaving the country, where you are forced to get out of the car to go through two x-ray machines and then get back in before even parking the taxi. An additional three security checks wait for you at the entrance of the airport and before the gate. But that’s nothing compared to a few years ago when Shannon once counted a total of 15 security checks before arriving at the gate. Makes you think twice about complaining about not being able to take a certain size of sunscreen bottle with you in your carryon.

As we headed towards the main waiting lobby, dust and diesel hung in the air, and pushing past carts of men shouting out prices for tea and gum, I was reminded of the addictive adrenaline rush that you get when you step out of an airport and into the streets of a new place. I pulled my slipping headscarf forward and kept chasing after the quick moving porters. I was not about to get lost in a corner of the Kabul airport compound.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user isafmedia]

To Afghanistan And Back: The Process Of Getting A Visa

“I need to include a prepaid, self-addressed Priority envelope to get my passport sent back,” I said to the young man at the mail counter.

“Oh, are you sending this to the passport processing center?” he asked looking up from his computer.

“Um, no … the Embassy of Afghanistan.”

His response to my answer was silence, but I could see the wheels turning in his head, wondering why in the world I was sending my passport off to the Embassy of Afghanistan, but professionally polite enough not to ask.

Like many countries, to get to Afghanistan as a US citizen you need a visa, and to get a visa you must fill out an in-depth application that includes a letter of introduction. Despite the handful of conflict zone tourism groups, for Americans, getting to Afghanistan as an individual requires being somehow connected to an organization, media outlet, or business operation that has an affiliation to the country that can basically “invite” you to come.

Wanting to promote the country as a destination for culture and unique experiences, the Embassy of Afghanistan offers information for travel groups that organize trips for those interested in traveling to Afghanistan. Note that the United States Department of State warns against travel to Afghanistan.

Since I was going to volunteer with a nonprofit, I had a one-page letter of invitation from Mountain2Mountain, explaining what the organization did in the country and what I would be doing while there. Then it was on to the visa application, which included providing a passport photo and a three-page document with questions ranging from the purpose of my journey (no I was not going for a convention/conference) to the number of children that would be accompanying me (zero) to whether or not I had a criminal record (no). The entire visa application is clearly laid out on the Embassy’s website; given the amount of foreign aid workers, journalists and nonprofit volunteers that head into the country, it’s no wonder that they have streamlined the process.

Visas do of course take time and money to process, and for a short-term, single-entry visa good for 30 days, there was also a $100 Money Order that had to be made out to the Embassy of Afghanistan. Fortunately I got to write that in myself and managed to avoid odd looks at the bank.

To be perfectly honest, when I put my passport, application and Money Order in an envelope and watched it get thrown into the pile of other mail, I wondered if I would ever get it back. Parting with your passport is a nerve-racking thing.

Considering where I was headed, I expected a much more complicated visa application process, but the Embassy was quick and within a week, it was back in my mailbox, in the exact envelope that I had addressed and pre-paid for Priority shipping; there’s no point in skimping when your passport is in question.I put trust in the organization I was going with and its connections on the ground; a conflict zone is not a place you want to go into blindly, knowing the right people in the right places is what keeps your security risks at a low.

Eventually I had a passport complete with a visa in my hand. That left other logistics, like a stack of crisp new hundred dollar bills to avoid unreliable Kabul ATMs and a temporary membership to Global Rescue (always good to know you can count on an evacuation in the event of serious madness, illness or otherwise).

The usual rules for extreme travel apply to Afghanistan: hit up the travel doctor to make sure you have the right immunizations (no one wants Typhoid after all), make sure you have a stash of Imodium and pack a good first-aid kit.

The travel part is easy; if you can stomach a 13-hour flight from DC to Dubai and then a 12-hour layover before getting on a three-hour flight to Kabul. United and Emirates both have partnerships with Safi, an Afghan airline, meaning that you can check bags at your departure destination in the US and they’ll make it all the way to Kabul many hours and time zones later. The hard part was the emotional side of things.

After weeks of planning and discussing with Shannon, I was still uncomfortable telling friends and family about my upcoming trip; traveling to Afghanistan initiates certain reactions, many of them unwanted. It was my first time traveling to a conflict zone; I trusted Shannon and Mountain2Mountain‘s connections, but that didn’t stop me from being nervous and even a little hesitant.

I was quick to find that many outside of my core peer group didn’t want to hear that hesitation; if I was the one choosing to go then I better keep up a united front. Choose to go to Afghanistan and you better feel good about the decision. Just imagine how stressed they were that I was choosing to go to such a dangerous place in the world. So I stopped telling people about it, internalizing my emotions and sharing them only with a close group of friends.

But the inside of your mind can be a dark place, one that can easily spin out of control, and you need a reality check once in awhile; that’s what sharing your concerns with others does for you. Of all people, I have the travel doctor to thank for putting things back into perspective.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you going to Afghanistan?”

I explained to her that I was volunteering with an organization and would be producing a series of public photo exhibits, with larger-than-life photos, many of them taken by Afghan photographers.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “good for you.”

It was a sincere response, far from the emotionally loaded ones I had been getting.

“Wow, that’s the first time I have heard that response, ” I said. “Thank you.”

A woman that deals with all kinds of travelers going to all kinds of places on a regular basis, proceeded to give me a full rundown of the calculated risks that we take every day in our lives, and that ultimately, I would probably be killed in a car crash walking down a street in my home city of Portland.

“Not that you shouldn’t weigh the risks, but just remember that we encounter risks every day and no one thinks twice about them,” she ended with.

The sentiment was duly noted, and I embarked on a series of long flights and connections fully protected against the risk of Typhoid.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo credits: Anna Brones]

Why Would Anyone Ever Go To Afghanistan?

“I got asked to go to Afghanistan.”

The parents obviously weren’t excited with that statement and what ensued was a “we support you but this is going to be difficult for us” conversation. When you pitch your parents on traveling to a conflict zone, this conversation is inevitable.

I would have that same conversation with lots of people in the weeks before taking off to a country that most of us associate with terrorism and suicide bombings. It’s not shocking that my friends were nervous; Afghanistan isn’t one of those places you just go to. Traveling to this part of the world is a calculated risk – a matter of gathering all possible information before you leave knowing fully well that you’ll never be able to be absolutely prepared for what awaits you on the other side of the world.

But I wanted to go. I had to go.

My friend Shannon Galpin, the executive director of Mountain2Mountain, had asked me to come along to help in the production of a series of public photo exhibits. Afghanistan is the kind of place that you don’t just throw a few things in a backpack, buy a Lonely Planet guide (although there is one), get a visa and get on a plane. But it’s also not North Korea either; the borders are open, passport control is just like in any country and in Kabul there are hotels, guesthouses and coffee shops with wireless.In the 1960s and 1970s Afghanistan attracted overland wanderers and climbers alike, but in the wake of several decades of foreign invasions, war and Taliban control, it has yet to return to the tourist destination of yore. Conflict zones attract a certain adventurous spirit, however, and a handful of groups like Hinterland Travel do offer tours for those in the need of a special kind of adrenaline kick. As it’s home to many a nonprofit and development project, you can also travel to Afghanistan as part of an experiential education with Global Exchange, what the organization deems a “Reality Tour.” Their most recent focused on women making change, connecting participants with women and organizations on the ground taking reconstruction into their own hands.

But let’s say you are that adventure-seeking, can’t-do-another-trip-on-a-Thai-beach kind of traveler – the question remains: should you go to Afghanistan? Ultimately, that’s a personal choice. The State Department warns against it, and after having traveled there myself, I would be hard pressed to tell someone to go if they had absolutely no contacts on the ground. A conflict zone is the kind of place that it’s essential to know the right people and to have some sort of community to fall back on when something goes wrong. But people go, and the ones that do, find a very different people and place than what we so often see in the Western media.

Knowing that I probably wasn’t going to head to Afghanistan on an individual trek anytime soon, the chance to go with Mountain2Mountain was one I couldn’t turn down, and one letter of introduction, a few extra passport photos and an Afghan visa later, I found myself on the long trip to Kabul.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

Traveler Visits Every Country In The World Without Boarding A Plane

Graham Hughes managed to visit every country in the worldA British man has accomplished what many world travelers have only dreamed of. Over the course of the past four years, he has managed to visit every country on the planet, which is a very impressive feat considering some of the places he had to go to in order to earn this unique distinction. But perhaps most impressive of all is that he traveled to all of those places without ever stepping foot on a plane, something that is increasingly difficult in this day and age.

Graham Hughes (33) set out on his journey on January 1, 2009. He began his travels in Uruguay and continued on for 203 weeks before finally reaching his 201st, and final, country earlier this week. His last stop was South Sudan, the Earth’s newest nation and one that didn’t even exist when he started his wanderings.

Hughes tells Australian newspaper The Age that he traveled with four rules as his guiding principles. First and foremost, he barred himself from ever flying. He also vowed to not drive himself anywhere either, which meant that in order to get around he had to take scheduled ground transportation. Finally, in order to say that he officially visited a country he had to step foot on dry land.In order to visit every country on Earth he of course had to find ways to get into places like Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. You would think that those places would be extremely challenging to enter, but Graham says that many of them lack the infrastructure necessary to properly patrol their borders, making it relatively easy to slip in or out. Other countries weren’t quite so easy, however, as he was arrested while trying to sneak into Russia and was detained for a week in the Congo as well.

The most difficult countries to reach, at least in terms of logistics, were island nations like those found in the South Pacific. Hughes says that supply ships visit them infrequently and he often had to time his travel just right or risk missing a ship and end up waiting for weeks for the next one to embark. Most of us would obviously just hop a flight, but when you ban yourself from using that form of travel, it can really limit your mobility.

In 2009, Graham set a world record for visiting the most countries in a single year at 133. After that, he spent the ensuing months knocking off the remaining 68 countries while also raising funds for WaterAid, an organization dedicated to promoting clean drinking water around the globe.

So, what do you think of Graham’s efforts? Is he the ultimate world traveler or the ultimate guy with a checklist? While I admire his ability to travel to so many places, particularly without flying, I can’t help but think that many of those destinations were just a blur for him. I think I’d like to replicate the same journey, but do so at a much slower pace. How about you?

[Photo Credit: AFP]