“Who you with?”
I looked back in the boarding line for the early morning Dubai-Kabul flight . The speaker was a man who looked to be in his 40s, short in stature, and wearing cargo pants, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap with “Retired U.S. Army” emblazoned across it.
“I’m a tourist,” I replied, stumbling over my words a bit, knowing how absurd they must sound.
“Right. I’m with Dyncorp. Who are YOU with?” he asks again.
“No really, I’m a tourist. I’m visiting a friend in Kabul. I’m not with anyone.” I realize at this moment that I’ve made a very unfortunate wardrobe decision as I enter Afghanistan for the first time. This guy is assuming that I am like him, a security contractor, or ‘mercenary’ in laymen’s terms.
Wearing cargo pants, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, I had inadvertently chosen the classic contractor outfit for my trip. ‘I need to buy some different clothes,’ I thought to myself as I got on the bus that would shuttle us to the plane itself. The contractor boarded the bus a moment later. He stunk of alcohol and paranoia, and latched onto me as the only other white person in the area.
“Where are you staying?” he asks.
“With my friend, he’s a reporter,” I reply.
“Which compound?” he asks, and then proceeds to rattle off a couple of names.
“It’s not a compound, it’s just private residence, a house. It’s in Qala Musa [a Kabuli neighborhood].”
I can see the contractor’s mind starting to explode at the thought of traipsing about Kabul without a trusty blaster in hand.
The contractor then began giving me his expert assessment of our fellow passengers on the bus.
“This guy right here, at your 3 o’clock . . . he’s scoping us out. Taliban motherfucker.”
Now, keep in mind that if you are ex-military white trash from America’s Deep South (this gentleman’s accent gave him away as a southerner), EVERY Afghan wearing traditional Afghan attire and sporting a beard no doubt looks like Taliban.
He then turns directly to the man in question and gives him a “Hey, what’s up?” (not a look, he actually says it out loud) in the most hostile, antagonistic way possible.
At that point I thought to myself, ‘I have got to get away from this guy.’ As the only two white people on the bus, it was clear that we had already been the subject of people’s curiosity. Now, thanks to Mr. Taliban Profiling next to me, we had the entire bus’s attention, and not the kind of Wedding Crashers positive attention that one would want.
A moment later, the bus finally stopped outside of the aircraft. I thanked God that I did not have a seat near the contractor, and after a short flight we touched down in Kabul.
As I took the five minute outdoor stroll to leave the Kabul International Airport, I walk by security contractors being met by their buddies in armored vehicles. You can see them throwing on their body armor and loading their weapons. To them, every inch of Afghanistan is a war zone. I keep walking, hearing the mechanical noises as rifle bolts are drawn back and bullets are snuggly deposited in the chambers of automatic weapons. I go through the final layer of security at the airport, and in a crowd of Afghans waiting eagerly for arriving friends and relatives I see Tom’s smiling face.
There’s three ways to do Afghanistan; there’s the security contractor way, where every Afghan is Taliban and you only leave your heavily-fortified compound in armored vehicles with guns locked and loaded. There’s the development worker way, where you take the dire warnings of your security team seriously and rarely, if ever, step foot outside of your compound. Finally, there’s the photographer/journalist way, where you weigh risks yourself, walk around with no security detail, and try to non-verbally communicate as much as possible (with smiles, body language, etc) that, ‘hey, I’m not a combatant and I’m not on anyone’s side!’
I’ve heard U.S. Marines say that “5.56 [the caliber of the bullets in their assault rifles] is a universal language.”So is a genuine smile, something that has served me well in my many travels.
When we arrived to Kabul, I found that Tom was snuggly set up in a little rustic urban estate house with a Chowkador, or servant, always on duty. He shared the neighborhood with several Afghan warlords, which meant that lots of armed guards were out and about on the streets and there was a general sense of peace and (relative) quiet.
As soon as I had a moment to settle in, Tom briefed me on the security situation in Kabul and the surrounding provinces. As I learned, safety was not a big issue in the capital city. Even with no ability in Dari and Pashtu, Afghanistan’s two primary languages, I would have little reason to be fearful walking around during daylight hours. That being said, Tom spent the first 24 hours with me whenever I’d go out so I could get an orientation of the city and how best to function in it as large, highly visible American man. This mainly involved being friendly and not being an asshole, which is something I strive to be at all the time when I’m in unfamiliar territory.
I’m not going to go into detail about all the things I did in Kabul; I’ve waited too long to write this post, and the details that make such travel narratives engaging are hazy at this point (besides the introduction, which I wrote before I even left the country). Thus I will simply post a couple of photos, which you can enjoy below.
There is simply not that much to do in Kabul, so after going through the tourist highlight reel I started doing research on where to do a nice 2-3 day trip. The original idea was to go to Bamiyan, the (former) home of two massive Buddha statues carved into a rock face (since destroyed by the Taliban, thanks assholes). The incredible Band-e-AmirLake is just beyond to the west. This plan was scrapped the night before, when Tom received reports that the road to Bamiyan was closed due to a military offensive along one stretch.
The next best option was Herat, a city to the far west of Afghanistan that was once a part of Iran (the country’s western neighbor). A predominantly Tajik city with a high level of security, a general distaste for the Taliban, and a number of impressive sites to see, Herat turned out to be a phenomenal choice. My first day there Tom arranged for an Afghan photojournalist to pick me up and take me around. He did not speak a word of English (at least as far as he would let on), but we had an altogether pleasant day visiting the city’s massive, re-built citadel, its trademark masjid (one of the world’s largest), and some ancient leaning towers.
My guide was able to communicate to me that he would not be available for day two (out of three) of my trip due to work commitments, which meant that I’d be on my own for the remainder of my time in Herat. I had no problem with this, and when he dropped me off at my hotel I began using the interwebs to see what other sites I could check out in the city. This is when I met a young man who I shall call “Ahmed” for the sake of his security. Ahmed was visiting his friend, the receptionist at the hotel, and when he saw me he quickly introduced himself in American-accented English and explained that he was an ex-U.S. Army interpreter. After operating in different areas in Afghanistan, he explained, he was forced to quit the job when the Taliban learned his identity and threatened reprisals against his family. Therefore he returned to his native Herat and began medical school.
Now I take risk management fairly seriously when I travel, but I also believe that if you are intensely risk averse, you miss out on a lot of the main benefits of travel, mainly meeting new people and learning about the country you are visiting on a deeper, human level. Ahmed seemed like he had approached me simply because he genuinely liked Americans, and so I asked him if I could pay him to be my tour guide the next day. He said yes, and as a result I was able to able to have an incredibly unique day, though not before I did some solo wandering that evening.
I took off for what may be considered ‘Downtown’ Herat to have dinner at a traditional Afghan restaurant. I blew people’s minds as perhaps the only white person to have ever stepped foot in the establishment, and then proceeded to take a stroll through the market area to blow minds there as well. One shopkeeper was particularly excited about having a Western visitor coming through, and his English was quite good. I started chatting with him and this soon turned into an impromptu question & answer session with a growing crowd of curious Heratis. There were obviously few American who had simply come through Herat as tourists, so people had questions about me, about America, and about my various travels (I like to think of myself as a budding Ibn Battuta of sorts).
The next day started with a special tour of Herat’s AWESOME Mujihadeen Museum (not yet open to the general public) and ending with an incredible dinner at Ahmed’s father’s house that included long discussions about the future of Afghanistan and the fate of the country after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces. As with Kabul, I will include a couple of my favorite pictures below.
Now when I returned to Kabul (boarding my airplane with a handwritten ticket, might I add), I had enough time for one more day adventure. I chose to go to Panjshir, the province of one of Afghanistan’s mightiest heroes, Ahmed Shah Massoud. What is there really to say about Panjshir, except that it is spectacularly beautiful. A winding, two-lane highway takes you into the mountains where I took a who bunch of pictures of war junk, beautiful landscapes, and finally the tomb of Ahmed Shah Massoud himself.
Was I scared at all on the trip? Can’t say I was. The scariest thing I experienced the entire time was on my last day, when I realized I barely had enough time to finish preparing my postcards and picking up three shalwar khamis suits that I had ordered, meaning that I would have to take a taxi into the heart of Kabul in rush hour traffic to pick up the items, and then turn around and head the opposite direction to the airport to catch my flight to Dubai. Miraculously, I managed this feat and did not miss my flight.
This is probably the only time I will ever go on a vacation without seeing a single other tourist the entire duration of the trip. Seriously, I saw some of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life and there was not a HINT of another tourist. When I was in Herat and Panjshir, I did not see another white person the whole time. That’s four days of no white people on and eight days without seeing a tourist.
Who can beat that?