Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bush Bazaar

Kabul is full of bazaars selling anything from car parts to fruit. Our own neighborhood bazaar sells fruit, plastic shoes, and has a store with overpriced western goods. Most bazaars are fairly similar; a little of this and a little of that. But there is one bazaar that is unique from all the others. . . Bush Bazaar.

The bazaar is located on the other side of town from Karte Seh. I've heard some people say that it is considered one of the seedier areas of the city. But to be honest, I couldn't tell. All I know is that we pass by one of the mosques considered to be more extreme, the Hotel Serena where important people stay on visits to Kabul (which was bombed in December and now resembles of military fortress, but I hear it's worth the security hassle for the pastries in their bakery), and the outdoor public toilets that empty into the river where there is a constant line of men squatting.

What makes Bush Bazaar unique is that it carries a plethora of Western goods at cheap prices. It is named for a certain prominent American figure. Supposedly in the 80's, a similar bazaar stood at the same place called the Brezhnev Bazaar. I wonder if the name will change again in November; Barack Bazaar or McCain Bazaar.

The bazaar is made up of 12 rows of stalls. 6 rows contain food, toiletries, and body building supplements (why? I'm still asking that question). The other 6 rows contain clothes (Afghan and Western), curtains and bedding. The food section is always the most interesting. It feels like a treasure hunt, walking from store to store being surprised to find items like beer or Neutrogena shampoo. Of course, there are some staples products like MRE's, giant cans of green beans , Dr. Pepper, quick grits, and fruit cups. There are also a few golden ticket items that everyone seems to be searching for, like cereal and ramen noodles. The bazaar contains everything from weird (Korean boy scout uniforms) to wonderful (Swiss dark chocolate. . .it's melted now, but in the winter it will be a treat). Usually several stores will carry the same products which allows for good bartering. By the third shop the price usually comes down. And if it doesn't, we walk away and they holler down the row, "Fine, fine, whatever you want to pay." The shopping is quick and a little frantic. Shoppers hire men with wheelbarrows to follow them through the rows and stack up their purchases.

I have been to the bazaar twice. The first time was to look for some Afghan clothes. All the clothes have been cleaned and ironed and hung from wires to the ceilings of stalls. I found three shalwar kameez and one chador and paid around 300 afs (or 6 dollars). Our shopping was cut short when we were told we had to leave for security reasons; the market gets closed often for security checks. The second time was to help some friends shop for an upcoming trip. Joey and I walked away with a flat of Gatorade and our friends had a trunk load of groceries.

Where do these products come from? Good question. The answer is a little complicated because there is no exact answer. Some of the products are left over from military units leaving the country. Some of the products are gleaned from donations to towns that have no use for fruit cups or Lays potato chips. Some fell off the back of some truck somewhere in the world. Some of the products are expired, always check the date! And some are obviously counterfeit from Pakistan, like the Dove Body Cream for "womems." Some are reclaimed from the trash and refilled with another product, only buy products that look clean and have multiples available. As you can see, the avenues to Bush Bazaar are many.

In many ways, the Bush Bazaar is more bizarre than useful. It's more of an experience than a necessity for us. But it is an interesting example of how the Western presence has influenced Kabul. . . Seeing a burqa-clad woman haggling down the price on Heinz Ketchup and chocolate snack-pack pudding is priceless.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Blue Mosque

There are not many tourists in Afghanistan.  When I emailed someone that we were going sightseeing they responded, "Can you do that in Afghanistan?"  Apparently the answer is yes because on our first full day we had a chance to fly up to Mazar-e-Sharif with the other Dynamic employees and have a look around (see map link for location).  
As with most of the country, Mazar-e-Sharif has seen it's share of battles from Ghenghis Khan to the Taliban.  It was one of the last cities to fall to the Taliban and one of the first cities freed (Nov 2001).  Being a stronghold of the Northern Alliance and having a large population of Hazara people and predominately Shia muslims, Mazar-e-Sharif was the scene of some of the most atrocious acts of the Taliban Era.  However, as the first city regained, it is now considered one of the more secure areas in the country.  

The customer being flown had arranged to have a driver waiting at the airport and at our disposal for the day.  We arrived to find an armored car waiting for us complete with security detail.  Not exactly what we had in mind.  Being followed around by a guy with an AK does not make for a day of leisurely sightseeing.  Number 1 safety point, don't look obvious.  Both the guard and driver said they spoke a little English, which usually means they know how to say the phrase "a little."  After making it clear to our guard that he would be staying with the car, we were taken to the Blue Mosque.  We've quickly realized that it is difficult to make concrete plans in Afghanistan; the situation here is fluid at best.  When we arrived at the mosque, there were hundreds and hundreds of people walking through the gates.  Safety point number 2, avoid crowds.  

We called our fixer, Rafi, and asked if he knew of any reason to avoid the mosque.  He asked if the crowd was Hazara, it was.  Then he asked if they looked angry, they didn't.   Then he asked if they were carrying banners, they were.  He said they were either protesting the killing of a group of Hazara by the Kochi tribe (the government has done little to respond. . . but yet again, that's a whole other post), or they were mourning the recent death of one of their leaders.  Since they didn't look angry and weren't protesting the war, he said it was probably safe.  But just to be on the cautious side, he recommended that we take a driving tour of Mazar-e-Sharif and then return to the mosque to see if things had settled.  He told this to our driver, who proceeded to drive around the mosque block about 15 times.  This is when we learned that there isn't much to see in Mazar-e-Sharif besides the mosque.  About lap 10, we realized that the crowd had completely dispersed.  We parked and motioned to the guard to stay and tried to motion to the driver that we would take about an hour at the mosque, and we were off.

A little bit of background, the Blue Mosque is the reason why Mazar-e-Sharif exists.  According to a little legend and a little fact, Muhammad's son-in-law/cousin Ali is buried here.  It is said that his followers placed his body on a white camel after his assassination.  Where the camel stopped would be Ali's resting place.  Most believe he is buried in Najaf Iraq.  However, in the 12th century, it was revealed to a mullah in a dream that Ali was buried near Balkh and the town of Mazar-e-Sharif (Tomb of the Exalted) was founded.  A mosque has stood on this spot ever since. 

I have to say that the Blue Mosque is one of the most impressive sites I have seen.  It is also one of the few mosques in Afghanistan that non-Muslims can visit, or at least enter the courtyard.  The mosque is known for its painted tiles and white doves.  I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Of course, being the only foreigners at the mosque, we garnered quite a bit of attention.  From the moment we entered the gates to the moment we got in the car, we were followed by a group of boys utilizing all the English they knew: Are you tourists? What is your name? What is your father's name? Where are you from? Do you work for the UN? Are you soldiers? Afghanistan, good, yes? Kalishnikov. Can I see your (point at sunglasses, point at cell phones, point at camera)? I have to say that I was impressed with their English.  

As I write this blog post, I realize that there is so much that goes into one day of living in Afghanistan.  It is such a different place than anywhere I have ever lived.  Afghanistan takes a completely new historical and cultural context than what we know. As I write this, the last call to prayer has begun (by our tone deaf mullah across the street). It is impossible to fit each experience into a post without countless explanations and background information.  And of course, I am learning as I go.  As our minds reset, our bodies struggle to adjust.  I currently have a high temperature and have spent the majority of the day in the bathroom.  But, as we are quickly learning, all this is part of life in Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Riding a bike in Kabul

Let me begin by saying that I cannot remember the last time I rode a bike.  I'm guessing that it's been at least five years, probably more.  But there is some saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike, right?  Well, with some other factors thrown in to my first Kabul bike riding experience, I had some moments where I was wishing for training wheels. 
My friend Erica asked me if I wanted to go on the walking tour of the neighborhood today. We live in a place called Karte Seh. It's right along the river and is an area that a lot of foreigners call home.  This morning when she showed up at my house she asked "Do you know how to ride a bike?" She had asked one of our doormen, Gulrahman, if I could borrow his bike for the day so we could get places quickly. 
Bikes in Kabul are all at least 10 years old, mostly manufactured in China, the same height, rarely have brakes, and are usually held together by wire and duct tape.  They, along with many other items found in the area, are left over from the Soviet period.  I must say they are sturdy.  I've seen men riding them without tires, without handle bars, with four people piled onto them...Some of them have lasted 20 years of ongoing war. And any contraption that can survive the streets of Kabul deserves some recognition. 
Which brings me to my next point, roads.  There is no such thing as a bike lane in Kabul.  In fact, there are no such things as lanes in Kabul (bike, driving, pedestrian).  But driving in Kabul deserves a post all of it's own, for now I'll stick to today's experience.  The roads are sometimes paved (and full of potholes).  Mostly they are just rocky unpaved roads.  So, if it's paved you avoid potholes, if it's not you avoid rocks.  Navigating takes all senses on high alert, dodging cars, pedestrians, goats, and gawkers.
Final point.  Being a woman and riding a bike is the icing on the cake of the Kabul bike riding adventure.  Afghan men think it is absurd to see a woman riding a bike.  In popular opinion, women are too stupid to drive a car or ride a bike.  Therefore, seeing a woman on a bike elicits two reactions.  Either the men catcall, whistle, or simply stare.  Or the more frustrating reaction; since women shouldn't know how to ride a bike, some men take it upon themselves to prove how badly women ride by causing distractions or obstacles.  They yell or honk their horns, open car doors to get in the way, swerve at the bike with their car or bike, try to hop on the back of it (every bike in Kabul has a place for a passenger to perch on the back) or force the bike off the road.  They laugh and scoff when their distractions cause the bike to tip or swerve.
All of this was compiled by the fact that my brakes barely worked, I couldn't stop to touch the ground because the bike was too high, my shalwar (long shirt) was getting caught in the wheels, I had to constantly make sure my chador (headscarf) had not flown off, I had my purse under my arm, and the chador also takes away my peripheral vision.  Needless to say, my first bike riding experience was quite an adventure.  We got from point A to point B and back without incident, but with lots of great stories.  I know that each time I go out life here will seem a little less awkward and a little more normal; that bike riding and stares will become part of my daily routine.  For now, I'm enjoying (or at least bearing with) the culture shock.  In some ways learning to live Kabul is a lot like learning how to ride a bike.  At first it's a little scary and seems like it is nearly impossible.  But with time, practice and experience (and a few bumps), it starts to feel natural.  

Friday, July 25, 2008

We're Here!

Yes, we're in Kabul, Afghanistan.  There is so much "blog worthy" material in just the first two days...but right now I'm going to step back and tell you all about the journey here.  So, let's rewind to Sunday night, 8:55 PM Seatac Airport.  After some tearful goodbyes and mad last minute packing, Joey and I found ourselves sitting on a British Airways flight bound for London.  I can't not say enough good things about British Airways; they make nine hour flights much more enjoyable.  Our layover in London was about 6 hours long.  We like adventures and time crunches, so we hopped on a train to central London and did a quick loop to see some sites.  Joey had never been there and it was fun showing him some of the typical tourist places.  With overworked feet and exhausted eyelids, we rushed back to Heathrow to board our plane for Dubai.

What can I say about Dubai?  I think someone should invent a word to describe that place, because there is nothing else like it on earth.  It's such a mixture of cultures, consumerism, and extremes. . . veiled women shopping at Gucci in a shopping mall with an indoor ski hill next to the tallest building in the world; UK tourists perusing gold jewelry designed in India at one of the oldest gold markets in the world just south of an island shaped like a palm tree; Starbucks signs in English and Arabic.  I think you get the picture.  It was a great place to get a little rest after sleeping on a plane for two nights, and we took some time to pick up some last minute things and eat some meals without having to worry about what future effects they might have. 

And finally, Wednesday morning, we boarded our plane for Kabul.  2 1/2 hours later we landed and began the passport control/immigration process.  It went surprisingly quick.  We were able to go through the family/fast track line which is a lot faster as there are not many families entering the country.  Our base manager, Mike, was waiting for us on the other side of the queue with our foreigner registration form.  The only hiccup in our arrival was that the government official refused to accept my passport amendment with my name change.  According to my visa and registration card, I am known by my maiden name.  We don't foresee this being a problem, but I did have to fill out the form several times.  

And then we were off to our new home.  We live in a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment with another couple (Steve and Sari).  It's a great place and we're all working together to make it feel more like home.  Our living arrangement was the one thing that I was nervous about, and it has turned out to be a wonderful situation. 

There is so much more to share, but I think this is enough for now.  I don't want overload everyone with too much information on my first post!  

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Final Countdown

With 3 days left until the big move I am definitely getting into the "Is this really happening?" phase. By this time next week we will be in Afghanistan in our new home, Joey will most likely have commenced work, and I will be fully outfitted in my new conservative dress. I'm not nervous. I'm pretty excited. But I still don't quite believe that it's really happening. 
Also, this will be my last "public" blog. Please email me if you would like to be invited to read the new improved hawkiani blog. 
Ok, off to tie up those last minute loose ends!