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]

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]

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]

Traveling Photo Exhibit Shows A Different Side Of Afghanistan

Beauty often isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Afghanistan. However, a new traveling photo exhibit from non-profit organization Mountain2Mountain aims to change that.

“Streets of Afghanistan” features life-size images from both Afghan and Western photographers that challenge the perceptions most people hold about this complex country. The intention is not only to showcase a side of Afghanistan not often celebrated, but also to spark conversation, engage viewers and connect communities through art. The exhibit also features video projections, live music, kites and people, resulting in an experience that is both interactive and immersive.

The exhibit was first unveiled at the Denver Art Museum in April 2011, but organizers have long yearned to bring it back to the very place that inspired it: Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. In order to make that dream a reality, Mountain2Mountain recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $20,000 that is needed for shipping, logistics and security. To learn more about the exhibit and make a contribution, visit the campaign on Kickstarter.

[Image by Wakil Kohsar, courtesy of Mountain2Mountain]