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]

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]

Weekending: Sarajevo


Istanbul’s unique position straddling two continents affords a lot of travel opportunities, with quick direct flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As an American living in Turkey, I try to explore as often as I can, particularly to less-traveled destinations. While my last weekend trip was to Prague, for this trip, I ventured to another Eastern European capital with far fewer tourists but an equally fascinating history.

The place: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
When I stepped off the plane in Sarajevo, the immigration officer asked me what I was doing in Bosnia. I struggled for a moment before answering “holiday” but really had no single good answer. A combination of cheap tickets, a holiday weekend, and an intriguing destination was what brought me to Bosnia. Most people associate Sarajevo with the tragic Bosnian War in the 1990s, or as part of the former communist Yugoslavia, but today the city is rebuilding and winning fans with cafe culture, Ottoman architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventure. The blend of religions and ethnicities have led the city to be called the European Jerusalem, and travelers will find the excellent exchange rate ($1 USD = 1.5 BAM, which is tied to the Euro 2:1) and widely-spoken English especially welcoming.

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  • One of the most amazing things about Bosnia is the the people. Resilient, scrappy, and friendly, Sarajevans have survived a lot and recovered remarkably well in a short time. I was particularly sobered by imagining the incredibly difficult adolescence people my age (30) must have had during the 1992-95 conflict. To get an idea of life under siege, you only have to walk around the city and take in the many bullet hole-ridden, damaged and shelled buildings, like the Moorish National Library which is undergoing reconstruction. Every visitor should go to the Historical Museum, across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn war correspondent hub, with a humble but moving exhibit on the siege. The Tunnel of Hope is another must-see museum documenting and preserving the cramped passage between the city and the free zone, where residents could connect with aid and communication with the outside world.
  • Sarajevo also offers excellent value. Decent hotels start at 40 Euros and rarely top 100 Euros. I stayed at the very comfortable and personal Hotel Michele for 85 Euros with a nice breakfast and wifi; celebrity guests have included Bono and Morgan Freeman. Tram or bus tickets are under 2 BAM, with taxi rides among the lowest in Europe (the most expensive ride is to the airport and under 25 BAM). Most attractive to expats who pay a small fortune for alcohol: beer, wine, and cocktails are 3 to 10 BAM most everywhere. While not a party town, there are a few good night spots including one of my favorite bars ever: the delightful Zlatna Ribica with the most well-stocked bar bathroom I’ve ever seen.

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  • While many of the sights are fascinating and affecting, the small museums and tourist attractions are still limited and can be seen in a day or two. The historic Bascarsija Turkish quarter is fun to stroll but crowded with more souvenir shops than craftsmiths these days. Sarajevo is better spent relaxing at a cafe on pedestrian Ferhadija Street and absorbing the history and culture than ticking sights off a list. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, there are also lots of opportunities for hikes, day trips, and skiing in winter.
  • Bosnian food is not bad, but many staple dishes are strikingly similar to Turkish food, such as stuffed burek pastries and cevapi meatballs (see: Turkish kofte). While tasty and locally-sourced, the food in Sarajevo tends to be heavy and meat-centric, without the abundance of salads and fish that balance out Turkish menus. High-end international and modern Bosnian restaurants are popping up around town, while cheap eats can be had for under 10 BAM. Reliable mid-range options include Noovi Wine Bar near the British Embassy for pizzas and a great regional wine list, and To Be or Not to Be (name reflects the plucky and determined spirit of Sarajevans during the siege) for homemade pastas and funky twists on traditional dishes. A famous local restaurant is Inat Kuca, or House of Spite, across the river from the National Library. The story behind the name dates back to the building of the library (then City Hall) when the house’s resident refused to let them build over his home, so they took the house brick-by-brick across the river to where it stands today (how’s that for thwarting eminent domain?).

Getting there

Tiny but admirably high-tech (they offer mobile and web check-in) Sarajevo International Airport doesn’t offer many flights outside of Eastern Europe, but national carrier B&H Airlines has affordable flights from major hubs including Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich. Many travelers arrive via car or bus from neighboring countries; Croatia’s popular Dubrovnik is 5-7 hours by car and there’s an overnight train to/from Zagreb.

Make it a week

Check out the other half of B&H: Mostar in Herzegovina is another beautiful river town with a famous bridge not far from the Croatian coast. Bosnia is also an emerging destination for adventure travel with a large diversity of activities and landscapes. The Balkans have a wealth of places to go, but be aware of the history and potential Serbia visa issues when traveling overland.