Sunday, September 21, 2008

Kabul Driving Part 2: Public Trasportation

Kabul's estimated population is 4 million and growing.  As fighting and famine continue throughout the country, the capital is a semi-stable alternative to find food, work and some semblance of normalcy (although often without power and running water).  With 4 million people to clog up the roads, how does anyone get around?

There may be some rhyme or reason to the transportation system here, but I don't get it.  I've seen bus stops with people waiting at them.  That's a good indicator that there is some system in place.  But none of the buses are numbered or have routes posted on them.  In fact, the buses in Afghanistan have little uniformity when it comes to condition, size, make, model, and painting.  Most of the buses were imported from Germany years ago and are painted with words like "Super Delux Bus" or "Germany Buses" or "Cool Ride" or our favorite "Love No War."  Each buses decor seems to be unique and it's almost like we collect the different buses saying things like, "Oh, I saw the 'Sultan' bus today.  Have you?"  Maybe we should take pictures of the buses and make trading cards out of them.  Added to my to do list.

But despite the lack of direction or route indication, one thing is certain, these buses are always crowded.  It's a sign of changing times that when we pass a bus we'll see a mixture of turbans and burqas occupying the seats.  Until recently, women had to ride in the back of the bus or get off the bus to give their seat to the men.

If a bus doesn't suit the commuter, there are several other options.  There are the smaller buses, actually Toyota Minivans, that also take you from point A to point B.  These minivans are unmarked and often don't have a door on them to make jumping in and out easier.  And people definitely just jump in and out without any sense of fear of the oncoming traffic racing toward them.  Again, I don't know if they have set routes or not.  And since they are unmarked, it's hard to know if they are open for business or private vehicles.  Our friends have a Toyota Minivan and have people trying to flag them down or run up and open the sliding door.  That's one of the many reasons why we always lock our doors while driving in Kabul.

And then there are little yellow Toyota Corolla taxis.  These come in the wagon and sedan models.  The streets are completely crowded with these cars and these cars are completely crowded with people.  Although taxis are extremely cheap here, most people seem to share the ride with others to make the price even cheaper.  Taxi rides can be a bit of the taking your life into your own hands situation again as often taxis are unregistered and unsafe.  We use a private company whenever we need a taxi.  It's more expensive, but well worth it.  And honestly, compared to US taxi prices, or even Mexico taxi prices, it's very reasonable.

Getting places in Kabul, whether privately or by taxi, is an adventure and can be haphazard.  It's a  very new thing for us to have to think about the to and from of going where we want to be.  Since I can't ride the bus alone as a Western lady or hire a taxi, I find that I am often at the mercy of other drivers to get places further than walking distance or at night.  So far this hasn't been a problem and is just another one of the fun adjustments that come with kicking it in Kabul.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kabul Driving

Driving in a new country is always a little daunting.  When I was 18 and in Scotland, my host family thought it would be a good idea to let me drive their little Renault after visiting the Electric Brae.  So, here I am, on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, trying to maneuver the manual with my left hand instead of right, staring at the upcoming roundabout with much fear and trepidation.  Poor Erin M sitting in the back seat.  What must have been going through her head when our host mother, Christine, leaned over to me and said "Dear, you're driving on the wrong side of the road."  To which I responded, "I know!"  To which she responded, "No, you're driving on the wrong side of the road. . . the American side," as I looked up to see a car heading towards me in my American side of the road lane.  Needless to say, I didn't ever make it to the roundabout.  My driving privileges were quickly revoked.  Like I said, driving in a new country can be a little scary.

Driving in Kabul isn't just scary, it's like taking your life into your own hands.

Disclaimer for all the worriers that read my blog: I have never driven in Kabul.  I have only ridden.  There may be a time that I feel confident enough to drive in our neighborhood, but I will not leave its boundaries.  The reasoning for this will be touched on later.
Let's take a little look at some driving conditions in Afghanistan.

Exhibit A.  The Roads.  Paved roads are a luxury.  Gravel roads, also a luxury.  Dirty and dusty roads, that's the norm.  We have one paved road in our neighborhood.  We have a few semi paved roads.  A few roads have recently been re-graveled.  Our street is dirt.  And then there is the condition of these roads.  Just because a road is paved doesn't mean its drivable.  Potholes, bomb strike holes, giant speed bumps (that only cover half the street), piles of rocks; these are all things that are exceedingly common on our roads.  Drivers have to be very alert and ready to speed up or slow down.  Some roads also have a two ft across, two ft deep drainage ditch that can be dangerous.  These ditches have lots of muck in them and smell awful, but the smells of Afghanistan is a whole other topic.  

Exhibit B.  The Cars.  The three families in our home share a Toyota Surf.  It's like a 4-Runner, but diesel.  Our Surf, like many cars in Afghanistan, used to have the steering wheel on the right side of the car.  At some point, it was moved to the left side.  Therefore, the child window lock and automatic door lock are on the left side of the car.  There is no law about which side of the car the steering should be on.  Both are common.  Due to the conditions of the roads, the conditions of Afghan cars are dismal.  The lifespan of tires, shocks, engines, etc. is brief.  I've seen cars held together with rope driving along main roads at break neck speeds.  Oh, and most cars don't have brake lights or indicators either.  

Which brings me to Exhibit C.  Traffic Laws.  Or should I say, lack thereof.  There is no speed limit.  The limit is as fast as road conditions allow.  There are few rules governing who's turn it is to stop or go.  I have seen one stop light in Kabul that was being largely ignored by drivers racing under its blaring red "STOP!"  We have some traffic cops that direct traffic at roundabouts.  But really, it's survival of the fittest when it comes to traffic regulations.  Have I mentioned there are no lanes?  Well, that's not quite true.  A few roads have a white line down the middle, but that doesn't seem to indicate a lane and is often completely ignored.  The general traffic law seems to be, get where you are going as fast as you can without hitting other drivers, bikers, or pedestrians.  The car horn becomes a drivers closest ally as they dodge and weave through traffic.

Exhibit D.  Traffic.  At certain hours Kabul has awful, awful traffic.  Today it took us an hour to get someplace 20 minutes away.  I'm still a little dizzy from sitting behind an truck spewing exhaust (no emissions testing or laws).  And we're not just competing with cars.  There are cars, bikes, pedestrians, fruit carts, phone card carts, more pedestrians, maybe a herd of goats, maybe a horse and cart, maybe a man on a bike pulling a horse behind him. . . there's a lot of competition for road space.

And finally Exhibit E.  Passenger safety laws.  You'll never hear someone question if there is enough room in a car for all passengers in Afghanistan.  There's always room.  And if you can't squeeze every passenger into the cab of the car, some can ride in the trunk, or the truck bed.  If it's a mixed gender crowd, the women usually end up in the trunk.  On that note, women rarely ride in the front seat, and only if their husband, brother, or father is driving.  Women also do not drive.  Western women will drive in their neighborhood but not on the main roads.  In fact, the police will often pull women drivers over for no reason and hassle them.  I have yet to find out if it's actually against the law for women to drive (as it is in Saudi Arabia), but better safe than sorry, I'll stay in the back seat.  It doesn't matter if not everyone is belted in because, to be honest, no one is ever belted in.  Seat belts = another luxury.  Most cars don't have them.  And I sometimes wonder what Afghans would think if they saw Americans strapping their kids of all ages into various sized child seats and boosters.  We don't have those either, a lap seems to do fine. . . even on a motorcycle.   

As I said before, driving in Afghanistan is like taking your life into your own hands.  What with the awful road conditions, beat up cars, lack of regulations, and reckless driving attitude, it's a wonder we make it anywhere in one piece!  

This is one of those posts that just doesn't do the experience justice.  I've thought about trying to record it, but really it wouldn't be effective either.  If you want to simulate the Afghan driving experience, load your card with 20 people, switch the steering wheel to the other side of your car, or try passing someone on the shoulder.  Basically, you can't simulate it and keep your license. 

PS.  Joey thinks driving in Afghanistan totally makes sense.  Tune tomorrow for common traffic practices and public transportation.  

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Finally, a sandwich

A few weeks ago, I posted that two things I've found myself missing were sandwiches and to go cups.  Well, I got my fix of both yesterday.  I had to fly to Kandahar to do it, but if that's what it takes. . .

I don't think I've mentioned before that Joey's dad, Victor, works for a contractor on the base in Kandahar.  I know, I know, small world.  Every few weeks Joey's gets to see him when they have a long layover down there.  Since I was free yesterday I was able to hop on the plane and fly along.

A few things about Kandahar:  The city of Kandahar is one of the more dangerous places in Afghanistan.  When the Taliban rolled into Afghanistan in 1994, it was the first city to fall and became their capital.  Since 2001 it has been an area of continual conflict and the situation there has escalated in recent months.

I hope to be able to visit Kandahar City one day.  Before the wars, it was the center of trade.  It is rumored to have the best bazaar, best handicrafts, best textiles, best fruit and best architecture in the country.  And it used to get really green because the river that flows through it actually flows.  As with the rest of the country, Kandahar City has suffered greatly for the past 30 years and many of its beauties and sites have been destroyed or lost.  Because of the security situation, I will have to wait to visit and spent my day on the ISAF base.

The base in Kandahar is outside of the city at the airport.  It is one of the largest ISAF bases in Afghanistan with detachments from several countries.  This was my first "on base" experience here.  I've been to the ISAF market that's right off a base in Kabul (the place where I got all the stares from ladies in shorts), but I haven't been on a base.

When I stepped off the airplane, I felt like I stepped into some strange, different world.  First, it's dusty, really, really dusty.  I've complained about the dust in Kabul.  Our dust is nothing compared to Kandahar dust, which is almost like chalk in consistency and is everywhere (I think the Kabuli dust is fighting back now, the wind just picked up and I can't see the house across the river).  Second, it's hot, really, really hot.  It was 101 degrees when we were there; that's a cool day during this time of the year.  Third, there were kharejis (Dari word for foreigner), lots and lots of kharejis and very few Afghans.  This base is multinational with soldiers, contractors and aid workers from around the world.  And finally, they've all got guns, lots and lots of guns.  People in camo with guns, people wearing workout clothes with a gun strapped to their leg, people carrying a gun with another gun strapped to their leg.  I've never been around guns and always feel a little nervous and queazy around them.

So, here I am, surrounded by dust, kharejis and guns.  Our first order of business (after parking the plane and getting my visitor pass) was finding Victor.  I was prepared to get a severe talking to from my father-in-law when I saw him.  People that live on base think that we're crazy for living off base (and often vice versa).  I got my fill of be careful, keep your eyes opened, and no more riding bikes, in the first five minutes.  It's good to know that people are concerned for us.  And I reassure you all that we are careful, we do keep our eyes open, and I haven't ridden a bike recently.

Another thing that makes a base feel like a different world is that it has a lot of Western places that we don't have elsewhere in Afghanistan like Tim Hortons (for the Canadians), Subway, Pizza Hut, and a coffee shop.  So, I ordered my coffee in a to go cup and got a sandwich at Subway.  I don't think I've been to a Subway in the states in years, but that sandwich yesterday totally took care of my sandwich craving.  We walked through the Dutch PX which has all kinds of fun chocolates, teas, sodas and mineral water but no PG Tips.  And we sat on the boardwalk and watched people playing beach volleyball and field hockey.

I don't think I'll make the trip to Kandahar very often, especially since I start working in October.  But it was great to see not just a familiar face but a family face.  And I'm willing to deal with my issues with the crew cuts and guns for a sandwich and a to go order every couple of months.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Lion of Panjshir

We've all had the conversation, "Where were you on September 11th?"  Throughout the Western World, people remember where they were, what they were doing, how they reacted and how, in many ways, the world changed that day.  I am fairly certain that most Afghans do not recall what they were doing on September 11th, 2001.  Little did they know that events happening a world away from them would soon have a direct effect on their daily lives.  The day that Afghanistan remembers and mourns is September 9th, 2001.  I don't remember what I was doing on 9/9/2001.

On September 9th, 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated in Northern Afghanistan.  I don't expect many of my readers to be familiar with who Massoud was.  I wasn't before I took an active interest in understanding Afghanistan and its people.  I'll assume since you are reading this, you have a similar interest.

If you ever have the time and a hankering to study an interesting and often overlooked person, start with this guy.  He spoke five languages fluently (including French) and had a working knowledge of even more.  He was devoted to the arts and stated in an interview that one of his biggest regrets was not doing more to protect the priceless treasures and artifacts that were destroyed by the war and Taliban or went missing (Side note: some of these treasures have resurfaced in the last years after being hidden away and protected by the Afghan National Museum.  A large collection is currently on display at the National Museum of Art in Washington, DC).   All of this contributes to the importance of Massoud, but for time and post length sensitivities I'll focus on his importance as a public figure.

From Mazar-a-Sharif

Ahmad Shah Massoud was a fiercely loyal Afghan.  He spent the majority of his adult life fighting the different forces that occupied his country.  He fought the Russians and was considered instrumental in the constant barrage of guerilla warfare that eventually caused the Soviets to leave.  During the civil war he acted as the Defense Minister and sought to unite the warring factions vying for power.  He is also known for his stark resistance to the Taliban invasion.  

While the Taliban controlled 70% of the country, Massoud and the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan controlled a small portion of the country in the North (hence the more Western friendly name "The Northern Alliance").  The Northern Alliance was comprised of various warlords and tribal leaders, often at odds with each other.  Massoud was able to unite them against a common enemy.   He became the rallying point of the movement  and an international spokesman for the cause of Afghanistan.  He traveled to the EU and wrote letters to the US, pleading for the world to turn their eyes to this little country in Central Asia.  He called for the international community to support the Northern Alliance, not with guns and bullets or money.  He called for increased diplomatic pressure on countries supporting the Taliban.  In an interview with Newsweek two weeks before his assassination, he stated, "We hope that the future policy of the U.S. will exert pressure on Pakistan and also help Afghanistan achieve peace.  That would be much more effective than giving [us] weapons or ammunition."

He dreamed of a free, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.  He sought peaceful coexistence between his country and the rest of the world.  In a letter to the American people he called for assistance to ". . . overcome the obstacles that exist on the path to freedom, peace, peace, stability and prosperity."  Massoud openly denounces and fought against the harboring of terrorist groups in Afghanistan.  He feared that if the world did not help him in his stand against the Taliban, the world would feel the effects.  While addressing the European Union in April 2001, Massoud was asked if he had any words for President Bush, "My message to President Bush is the following: If he isn't interested in the peace in Afghanistan, if he doesn't help the Afghan people arrive at their objective of peace, the Americans and the rest of the world will have to face the problems.  If President Bush doesn't help us, these terrorists will damage the US and Europe very soon."  

We all know exactly where we were when Massoud's prediction came to pass.  Two days before September 11th, Al Qaeda dealt a first staggering blow to the world and to Afghanistan.  Always a lover and supporter of freedom of the press, Massoud was known for granting interviews to journalists from all over the world.  On September 9th, two Belgian journalists of Moroccan origin were granted an interview.  Some reports say that Massoud knew something was wrong the second the interview began.  Others say that the interview lasted for several minutes before one of the journalist detonated the bomb in his belt.  Massoud was rushed to a military hospital in neighboring Tajikistan where he was pronounced dead.  One of the assassins was killed by the detonation of his bomb, the other killed trying to escape the compound.  It was later found that the men had stolen their equipment from a French journalist almost a year earlier and were both Al Qaeda operatives originally from Tunisia.

Some commentators have said that the assassination of Massoud was the last necessary piece for the 9/11 attacks.  In taking care of Massoud, Osama Bin Ladin removed his Taliban host's greatest enemy and helped insure his protected status.  The Northern Alliance lost its rallying point and unifier.  Whatever happened post 9/11 would be much more difficult with Massoud gone.

Ahmad Shah Massoud was known as the Lion of Panjshir (the Northern valley that he continually held and protected) during his lifetime.  After his death he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and given the title of "Our National Hero" by the new Afghan government.  He has gained almost a mythical standing in hearts of the Afghan people.  His picture hangs from buildings and decorates walls throughout the country and especially in the north.  On September 8th, Afghans mourn the loss of their Amer Sahib e Shaheed (Martyred Commander).

We cannot know what Afghanistan would look like today had Massoud not died 7 years ago.  It might not look much different than it currently does.  Perhaps the fight for Afghanistan would still be happening.  But we can know that Massoud would continue to fight for his dream of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.

"I am ready to serve the people of Afghanistan especially for [the cause of] peace.  I am ready for any mission at the service of my people."  Ahmad Shah Massoud

Friday, September 5, 2008

Is there something wrong with my outfit?

When we got to Afghanistan, I was prepared to get some stares.  I don't look like an Afghan, although there is an ethnic group here with red hair and paler skin.  But staring is acceptable and permissible in Afghan culture, and so men stare at anything of interest (i.e. women, western men, each other).  I've gotten fairly used to it and don't even mind it too much.  We just keep on walking.

Today I got more looks than I have the entire time I have lived here.  The interesting thing is where those stares came from.  We visited the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) market outside one of the military bases where soldiers, diplomats and other westerners shop for typical Afghan items like rugs, scarves, lapis lazuli, hookahs, and bootlegged DVDs.  These are the people that think we're crazy for living in the city and not driving around in armored cars.  I have to admit, I was fairly shocked to see women walking around in shorts and t-shirts.  Apparently, not as shocked as they were to see Sari, Erica and I walking through the market wearing our chadors and fully covering Afghan clothes.  And it wasn't the men either, women would turn around for a second look as they passed by us.  I felt like it was the first day of school and I wore the wrong outfit or something.

Oh well, in the end, I feel like we get the last laugh.  As we worked our way through the stales bargaining prices down to half the original asking price (or less!), one dealer commented on our skills telling us we haggled like Afghans.  He said, "Americans must be so rich, they never ask for a second price.  They just point and pay.  You ask for prices like an Afghan."  I may not fit in at the ISAF market and may get more gawks from American women than I do from Afghan men, but I can talk down a price like an Afghan.  That's an accomplishment.  

Monday, September 1, 2008


It's not a question of if you'll get sick, it's a question of when, how often and how badly.  This place seems loaded with evil bacteria just waiting to get into our intestines.  There's no avoiding it and there's no getting used to it.  In many developing countries, travelers and expats might have a few bouts of what is often called travelers diarrhea (or Moctezuma's Revenge, Delhi Belly, Thai-dal Wave, etc.) but eventually develop an immunity after repeated exposure to bacteria that their system is not used to.  There is no immunity to what's in the water here; even Afghans get afghani-sickness.

The basic symptoms of Afghani-sickness are varied because it can be caused by many different things.  Abdominal cramping, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, bloating, weight loss, infections of the eyes or ears, headaches, fever, body aches . . . any combination of the symptoms.

Some of causes.  Afghanistan is plagued with many, many parasitic diseases.  If it exists, we probably have it here.  Various worms, amoeba, and other fun things like giardia, cholera, e. coli, salmonella, hepatitis are considered "wide spread" in the country.  90% of the water is contaminated due to the non-existent sewage system.  Yep, that's right, our water has human and animal waste in it.  According to the World Health Organization, Afghanistan's water supply and sanitation are among the lowest in the world (along with several sub-saharan African countries and countries in Southeastern Asia).  About 13% of the population has easy access to water (19% in Urban areas, 11% in rural) and only 12% has access to sanitary water (25% urban, 8% rural).  The situation can be very depressing.

Now we'll look at prevention.  We only drink purified water.  We brush our teeth with purified water.  All produce we eat goes through an "iodine bath."  We soak it in an iodine/water solution for 20 minutes and then rinse it with filtered water.  This kills off nasty little things like Hepatitis A and amoebas.  All meat must be bought from a reputable source and then washed, cleaned and thoroughly cooked.  Milk and yogurt needs to be carefully bought and carefully stored.  We buy "Milk-Paks" which are boxes of milk that don't need to be refrigerated until opening.  I never open my mouth in the shower and wash my hands religiously throughout the day.

But even with these methods of prevention, sickness will still happen.  Our housemate was sick for a month after eating rice from a plate with contaminated meat (she's a vegetarian).  Other forms of contracting Afghani-sickness include breathing in contaminated dust, eating after washing your hands and not completely drying them, eating nan (bread) that was sprayed with water to maintain freshness, or  sharing a plate of food with someone who hasn't washed their hands with no cutlery (have we mentioned Afghans don't use silverware?).

There are little sicknesses here and there.  Unfortunately these days happen often enough that most people continue life as usual within proximity to a bathroom.  I've been lucky to have only one seriously sick day (24 hour death virus, I was sure I was on the next med-evac to Dubai but woke up the next day alive, exhausted, but better).  I know I will have more and dread their arrival.

Some final words.  As I mentioned above, Afghans never get used to all the bacteria and parasites in their country.  How awful to think that it could even be possible to get used to drinking fecal matter.  The life expectancy for Afghans is around 42 years old.  1 in 4 children die under the age of 5.  Although issues like continual war, drought, famine, disease, etc. can all be pointed to for these dismal statistics, the fact is that a lot of Afghanistan's problems have to do with the lack of sanitary water and education on hygiene and contamination prevention.  A lot of NGO's focus primarily on water supply, purification and retainment.  In many ways they are fighting a losing battle against time and lack of funding.  A lot of promises that were made to Afghanistan concerning reconstruction have been forgotten or diverted to other locations.