“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]