Biking In Afghanistan: The Power Of Two Wheels To Change Perspective

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” John F. Kennedy

Bikes have long been a simple mode of transportation, getting us from point A to point B. But riding a bike doesn’t just get you somewhere; the process is fun. There is joy in riding a bicycle.

When I travel I am always on the lookout for bikes and what the local bike culture is. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, bikes are everywhere. It’s a city filled with commuters, cross racers and road riders. It’s a city with a strong bike culture and thanks to the work of bike advocates and groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance there are plenty of incentives to ride.

Coming from a place like Portland, it’s easy to take my easy bike commute for granted. Other cities are not always graced with the same ease of life on two wheels; but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

My first day in Kabul, we were in the midst of afternoon traffic hour. Cars, minivans and motorcycles were everywhere. There was even the occasional goat on the side of the street. In the midst of this chaotic hustle and bustle, men on bicycles wove in and out of traffic, dodging cars and doing the kind of cycling maneuvers that are normally equated with bike messengers.I was stressed, and it had nothing to do with being in a conflict zone. The thought of bikes in this mess of traffic was too much.

I thought back to my own close calls with cars – the near misses that keep you aware every time you get on your bike. I shuddered and wondered if I would have the mental capacity to deal with cycling in the midst of Kabul traffic on a daily basis. The phrase “this isn’t Portland …” kept popping into my head.

Making a U-turn in the middle of a busy road to avoid a traffic jam, we nearly hit a man with a kid sitting on his handlebars. Both the driver and cyclist insisted on their right of way, resulting in the bicycle tapping the front of our minivan and both our driver and the cyclist shouting at each other. I looked at my friend Shannon who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and knows the ins and outs of daily life. She just looked at me and shrugged. This was normal apparently.

What is not normal, however, is seeing a woman on a bicycle. As Shannon said in a recent interview about her own experience with biking in Afghanistan, “I had one man say to me, with this very shocked look on his face, how impressed he was, that it takes a lot of intelligence to ride a bike, alluding that that’s why women don’t ride bikes,” she said. “It became an interesting conversation starter.”

But that perspective is changing. There’s an Afghan women’s cycling team that competes internationally. One day we happened upon a girl riding to school just south of Kabul. In a country where conflict is a constant and women’s rights have a long way to go, it’s things like this that keep you inspired. Small change leads to big change.

In the rural village of Istalif, Shannon and I were even invited to take a cruise down the main street on a well-outfitted old bicycle, complete with a siren-sounding bell and streamers on the handlebars. The men laughed as we pedaled back and forth. A woman on a bicycle? How amusing!

It’s interesting to think about how much a simple thing like a bicycle can do to change perspective. As Susan B. Anthony once said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The simple joys that come from riding a bicycle are undeniable; the smiles from a group of young Afghan kids on their way to school stopping to ride with Shannon when she was out on her mountain bike are a vivid memory. If there is a cultural bridge to cross, a bike may very well be the way to do it.

At the end of October 2012, 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.

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Faces Of Afghanistan: Why A Personal Connection Is The Most Important Part Of Travel

“The people are sweet, the country’s a mess.”

I had asked an NGO worker with a teaching and military background about his perspective of Afghanistan.

It’s always hard to sum up a place in a sentence, be it Australia or Afghanistan, but this one kind of said it all, in a particularly heartbreaking way.

Read a newspaper article and you get to know a place. Have an exchange with an individual in that place and you get to know a person. It is a lot easier to make assumptions about a place when we don’t have that personal connection. I am reminded of the Dagobert D. Runes quote, “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

Ignoring is the easy route, facilitated by our illusion of being informed. In the day and age of the Internet and television we can know a lot about the rest of world, without ever leaving our homes, but how many of us stop to question how much we really know about the places that we read or hear about? If we do in fact “know” a place, do we take the time to do anything about it?

We travel because it’s the alternative to taking the easy route. It forces us to be compassionate. To make the kind of connections that are about more than what we have read about or heard on the news.

Numbers and statistics turn to an individual interaction. A person. A brother. A sister. A mother. A husband. A personal connection puts a face to a place, and in the process changes our perspective and attachment to that place.

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In Afghanistan, as I was offered cups of tea from strangers, taught words in Dari and asked about my own perspectives of the country, it was clear that for me this place of conflict was shifting from a far off war zone to a collection of faces and personalities. Before, when someone said the word “Afghanistan” my mind immediately went to suicide bombers and AK 47s. Now it goes to a handshake, a necklace given as a parting present, brunch in someone’s home overlooking a garden, an email asking if I am keeping up on my Dari.

We need policy and diplomats and humanitarian organizations to build a platform for positive change in this world. But we also need personal interactions – the kind that shape how we look at and understand a place.

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]

What Does Kabul Really Look Like? Exploring The Streets Of Afghanistan’s Capital

The first time I sat in a car in Kabul I was tense. This was the place of car bombs and terrorists after all, wasn’t it? My eyes darted back and forth between the driver, the road and all that was taking place around me. It was sensory overload.

The security situation is ever present in Kabul, there’s no denying that something could happen at any point in time. Then again, the same thing could be said for any city. Yes, Kabul is the capital of a conflict zone, and bombings do happen. But that doesn’t stop life from happening. People walk, vendors sell street food and there’s a general hustle and bustle to the city that feels like many other big cities in the developing world that I have traveled to.

In “The Kite Runner” Khalid Hosseini wrote, “I looked westward and marveled that, somewhere over those mountains, Kabul still existed. It really existed, not just as an old memory, or as the heading of an AP story on page 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle.”

Kabul does exist. It’s just different than many of us have envisioned it.

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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]

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]