So I made it to Kabul. I was literally giggling and bouncing in my seat with excitement when we flew over the mountain ranges approaching the city.
The plane descended very suddenly, which I learned is standard – although apparently far worse is the semi-regular “corkscrew plummet” planes adopt to prevent missile lock. And I thought landing in Wellington was bad.
With this in mind, I wasn’t too concerned when the passengers around me took seeing Kabul a thousand feet below as a sign to get out their cellphones and start calling friends on the ground. And I’d thought I was being a bit daring not turning my iPod off…
A laconic looking guard at the passport control brandished an antique Kalashnikov, leaning against the wall in an old Russian-inspired, grey woolen uniform, drawing on a cigarette. Sure he was probably just relaxing after a hard day, but somehow it all looked so corrupt. Too many bad movies perhaps.
“Who is this guy?” asked the customs official with a grin, pointing at my passport photo. Okay, a few years have passed, and it did take about 200 shots to get one I liked, but was this a serious inquiry, a request for a bribe, or just a universal joke about how age wearies us all? There was nothing in Lonely Planet about this. Fortunately a forced smile seemed to do the job.
It’s hard to turn my first impressions of Kabul into adjectives. Dusty. Impoverished. Ruined. Incredible. Those will do for a start. Shacks, bombed out buildings, armed guards every 50 metres, both private and public. A swathe of cars and bicycles weaving across the road anarchically, signaling their approach and vaguist of intentions with blasts on the horn. Children everywhere but in school.
I checked in to my guest house, took a shower (I’m going to enjoy hot and cold running water before heading to the provinces in a couple of days) and bought some beer from a young boy, who obligingly interrupted his game of dusty street football to man the shack.
After a couple of hours of letting the 24 hours of airport/plane/airport/plane/airport/plane/airport fade away, I felt ready to hit the streets. But nothing is quite so simple in Kabul. UN workers, for example, aren’t allowed to walk down the road. If they want to go to the store, a car drives them to the door and waits outside. Asking around the guesthouse I found a Nepalese NGO worker, Girish, willing to take a stroll with me. He keeps getting mistaken for a local, he said. Exactly what I needed.
We set off, a simple jaunt down the road. I felt happy to be amongst it all, the dust, the fumes from the diesel generators, the horns, the smell of sheep wandering the streets.
"Don’t walk so close to the curb", Girish warned. "Dodgy drivers?" I asked. "No", he says, "it's in case a suicide bomber tries to run into you. And while we’re at it, let’s cross the road and face the oncoming traffic, so nothing can sneak up from behind."
Needless to say it wasn’t the longest walk I’ve ever taken. But good to stretch the legs.
Damian's travel is thanks to a grant from the Asia NZ Foundation. Not so much this bit, in Afghanistan, but the next bit I'm doing, in Pakistan. But I wouldn't be in Afghanistan if I wasn't going to Pakistan too, you know? So, thanks, Asia NZ.