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.


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.


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]

For The Intrepid Traveler: The Top 5 Destinations In Kabul

Kabul might not be the world’s number one tourist destination, but there’s plenty to see in and around the busy capital that boasts 5 million residents. Hire a driver and check out some of the city’s top destinations.

Babur Gardens

This historic park, locally called Bagh-e Babur, is a calm respite from the rest of busy and congested Kabul. The gardens, situated on the western slopes of Ser-e-Darwaza Mountain, just south of Kabul, were laid out by the Mughal dynasty ruler, Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur in the early 16th century. At about 27 acres, they are the largest green space in the city, and with their roses and poplar trees, arguably, the most beautiful. Ruined during the civil war, the gardens have since been restored, laid out on the classic charbagh (four garden) pattern. High walls, giving it a very protected and peaceful feel, surround the garden and it’s popular with local families who come to picnic and enjoy the natural space.

Kabul Zoo

A camel and a Ferris wheel all in one place, the Kabul Zoo is an opportunity to enjoy Kabul as locals do. The zoo and its accompanying mini-amusement park are popular with families, but this is no Western zoo. The cages are small and protection between wild animals and spectators minimal. You will, however, see a few colorful birds, lions and bears up close, so for the curious it’s worth the visit.

Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque
Located just off of the Kabul River in the city center, the Shah Shamsira Mosque is a central place of worship that’s also well known for its yellow walls and popularity with birds. It has more of a European feel than Afghan, and its two-story structure and bright color make it stand out against the other surrounding buildings.

Royal Palace of Darul Aman

Built in the 1920s, Darul Aman Palace was once a bastion of grandeur. Today all that is left is a gutted skeleton of a structure, reminiscent of the mass destruction that Kabul has seen over the past few decades. Surrounded by a border of barbed wire, it’s off limits to visitors and protected by a crew of Afghan National Army, but if you’re lucky and have a good translator, you can manage to let them give you the full tour and show you around.

Afghan National Museum

Until 1992, the National Museum of Afghanistan was home to over 100,000 arts and cultural artifacts from two millenniums of Afghan history. That all came to an end during fighting in Kabul in the following years, leaving the museum looted and destroyed. The museum staff managed to hide the best pieces, but of the ones that remained, they suffered the policies of the Taliban, which ordered all art objects depicting the human form to be destroyed. The artifacts that made it through, however, provide an intimate look into Afghan history. Thanks to contributions from other museums and archeological efforts, today the museum spans 50 millenniums of Prehistoric, Classical, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic history. The museum is open everyday of the week except for Thursday and Friday afternoons.

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]

More Cow’s Head: Eating Local In Afghanistan

“Chaay?” Tea?

“Balay lotfaan.” Yes, please.

Yet another glass of tea was being served. Tea is the social lubricant of Afghanistan, the thing that brings people together, fuels meetings and provides for an afternoon excuse for a break.

There are no pints of beer or glasses of wine or whiskey gingers, but in a dry country, there’s always tea. That’s the thing about food and drink, we can be anywhere in the world and they bring us together. Eating is one of the things that we all share, no matter who we are or where we are from.

Twenty-four hours into Afghanistan and I was quickly instructed on the several varieties of kebab, the chicken an orange color from a saffron marinade and the lamb version named “Sheppard’s Kebab.” Our fixer made sure I noted this all in my notebook. “We will do a Dari test tomorrow to see if you remember.” You don’t want to upset the fixer who is in charge of ordering your food at lunchtime, so I made sure to master the appropriate food vocabulary.

Food is not only a connector; it’s also a great lens for comparison. What people buy, how they make it, how they serve it.

At home, in my native Pacific Northwest, we’re very concerned with where our food comes from. I am reminded of the “Is it Local?” “Portlandia” episode where the couple goes out to eat and inquires about the chicken on the menu and ends up visiting the farm that it’s from. It doesn’t matter how conscious we are about the origin of our food, in the United States we live in a processed and packaged society, and even the artisan butcher has nice labels and butcher paper to wrap his cuts in. We rarely really see where our food comes from and how it got to a servable state. In Afghanistan, however, it’s hard to miss.

Walk past any butcher shop and bloody carcasses hang in the doorway, the animal heads lined up on the ground below. A cow’s head here and goat’s head there. Sometimes you’ll even see bloody skins, freshly removed from the carcass. I got some weird pleasure every time I saw the aforementioned scene, my eyes on high alert for a butcher shop during every taxi ride. There was beauty in the rawness of it all; the fact that it was impossible to not know how your grilled kebab made it from living animal to your lunch plate. No discounted containers saran wrapped Styrofoam packages in this country.

Reminders of just what you are eating are everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid. The adorable sheep being hugged by the little boy on the street is destined for sacrifice a few hours later. That chicken that walks up to you in a restaurant garden is most likely tomorrow’s lunch.

After a day spent at Afghan national hero Ahmed Shah Massod’s tomb in Panjshir Valley, we found ourselves sitting around an outdoor table at a restaurant on the banks of the Panjshir River. The standard meal of Kabuli rice, rounds of naan bread and kebabs was served; Afghan food was once described to me as “meat, oil and bread,” which is a very true statement. We ate with our hands, ripping off pieces of naan to soak up the grease leftover from the kebab on our plates, the sounds of the river our background music.

It was dusk as we left the restaurant. Upon exiting, we passed a group of men sitting on the ground by the entryway, busy prepping what appeared to be the following day’s meat platter. Slabs of raw meat were strewn about on a plastic groundsheet. My initial reaction included some eyebrow raising and the men immediately began to laugh.

“Aks mekonum?” Can I take a photo?

“Balay balay!” Yes yes.

The Meat Crew. A photo that for many may be hard to stomach, but also a reminder of the fact that in most parts of the world, knowing where your food comes from and how it’s prepared isn’t just fodder for another “Portlandia” episode.

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]

Moments Of Serendipity: Daily Life In Afghanistan

Good travel pushes you to let go of control, and Afghanistan is certainly one of those places. Here, daily life is dictated by security decisions, which roads are safe to travel on and which ones are not, and if you are trying to stick to a concrete plan, something will surely get in the way. Afghanistan is the place for serendipity, a place that when you come to understand that you have absolutely no control, you can give in to be open to the many things that can happen all around you.

There is a constant balance between fear and awareness of your surroundings and being open and receptive to the unknown. In the midst of conflict there is beauty; the call to prayer in the dark of the early morning, a stranger offering you a glass of tea, a young woman smiling because you asked her how she was doing. If there were a definition of daily life in Afghanistan for a traveler, it would go something along the lines of: constant change peppered with frequent tea breaks.

Traveling as a woman, I was at all times aware of my surroundings and my own presence in relation to the people around me. My headscarf always seemed to be falling off. Warm in the midday heat I would go to push up my sleeves, and then remember that they had to stay covered. Men were everywhere. There were stares, a lot of them, but a few moments into a personal exchange and those stares often turned to smiles.On an afternoon in Babur Gardens, an historic enclosed park that is a popular place of respite from the dust, diesel and general chaos that defines everyday Kabul life, my friend Tony and I walked down a gravel, tree-lined path. It was the second day of Eid, a Muslim holiday, and families were out in abundance, picnicking and taking a moment to enjoy the trees and flowers.

As we walked, an old man stood up, a glass of tea in his hand. He motioned to us to come towards him. Traveling in a conflict zone makes you constantly alert to your surroundings, accepting that you must respect local customs at all times and that you should never become complacent. You have to trust your gut. Had a stranger motioned to me on a street corner, I may have turned in the other direction, but here in the privacy of an enclosed garden space, filled with happy families celebrating a holiday, I felt a certain level of calmness and security.

“I think we have to go over there,” I said to Tony.

We crossed the path and joined the family. The older man invited us to sit down on a blanket and he handed us both glasses of tea. We exchanged the series of salutations and “happy Eid,” an exchange that I had gotten comfortable doing in Dari. The man and his family smiled.

Then we launched into the get-know-you-without-speaking-your-language game, and entertaining combination of hand motions, my mediocre Dari vocabulary, and the family’s limited grasp of English phrases.

In Dari, the man asks if I am Tony’s wife.

“Balay” we both nod. Yes. This “wedding of convenience” as we later called it is easier than the truth.

The man motions to the smiling baby in his lap, whose eyes are outlined in kohl (a sign of prosperity I later learn) and points to me. “Shomaa?”

Do we have a child?

Tony has a son, so he nods. I realize this has now made me not only a wife of convenience but a mother of convenience as well.

“Balay.” Yes.

The man says a long sentence, of which I recognize the words for “where” and “America.” He is asking where the child is.

“In America,” says Tony.

The family smiles. I am hoping that they assume we have left the child with the grandparents and I am not being seen as an infidel mother who leaves her child behind.

To change the subject, I turn to one of the teenage daughters.

“Maqbulas,” I say to her, pointing to her headscarf, a striking purple color with beaded tassels, indicating that it’s pretty. As it’s Eid, she’s wearing her finest.

She laughs in a shy manner, and then moves from her blanket to sit next to me. She has noticed the assortment of bracelets on my wrist. She pulls a bracelet of plastic heart beads from her purse and puts it on my wrist.

“Tashakur,” I repeat several times. “Besyaar maqbul.” It’s very beautiful. She and her sisters smiled.

We learn from the younger boys in the group that can speak a bit of English that the older woman sitting behind the girls is the girls’ mother. Her face is tan and wrinkled, framed tightly by her black headscarf. “Their father and her husband died,” he says matter of factly. My Dari and his English aren’t good enough for me to figure out how the entire family fits together, but I assume that the older man is an uncle of some sort. So much pain and love in one family history.

We amuse them; this odd American couple that leaves their baby back in their home country, with a wife that knows a few Dari words. They in turn enthrall me, taking us into their family moment. Pouring tea for strangers.

Eventually we excuse ourselves, thanking them profusely for the tea. I leave feeling honored, like I was just given the kind of moment that will forever change your perspective. A moment that can’t be replicated. A moment that will later bring tears to my eyes because it’s representative of a shared humanity we so rarely see in the mass media. A moment that only happens because you let go of control.

We return to the rest of our group. It’s time for another glass of tea.

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]