October 29, 2012
Stationed in: Afghanistan
The day started out with me watching baseball, which I suppose isn’t terribly odd except that I did it while eating breakfast. Afghanistan is nine and a half hours ahead of the US and that put the end of the Cardinals and Giants game on right as I sat down to scarf some eggs and hash browns. I chased it with a steaming cup of coffee and set out to get my day started. My bags were already packed. It was moving day. Again.
We had our final briefings, did a short AAR and reviewed the events of the previous weeks in an effort to make things better for the next group that came behind us. Then we were done and my cohort of 20 peers dispersed like the seeds blown off a dandelion. Trucks swooped in and the people we were replacing greeted us with large smiles, hearty handshakes and that look that people have when they know the hard part is almost over. We headed off one by one to our new assignments. Some of us would travel 20 minutes, others would start the cycle of dragging bags, riding in trucks and flying on helicopters that we have all grown familiar with.
I had a short drive across Kabul.
We pulled into traffic and waited with everyone else. Where there is room, Afghans will put as many cars across the road as possible. One lane quickly becomes two, then three, then four cars abreast. A decade ago Kabul had somewhere around 1 million people. Today, without its physically expanding much, there are some 5 million Afghans living here.
Every car is chock full of people and things; women clad in burqas, men smoking, rugs piled in a back seat, boxes strapped to roofs. Kids run in and out of traffic selling cheap trinkets and tapping on windows. Men wander between cars selling slices of coconut or other refreshments. A blind man begs at the merger of a narrow intersection, one hand steady on his cane, the other outstretched, palm towards heaven with cloudy eyes staring into the distance. A woman in a burqa the color of the pale blue sky sits on the side of the road with two small children in her lap — she doesn’t even move to beg. Herds of sheep painted bright colors for Eid move along the side of the road. Everything and everyone is covered in dust.
As we near the city the construction becomes more evident. Half-built apartments and office buildings lurch skyward. Giant, glitzy wedding halls with flashing lights and slick windows look very out of place when viewed next to the hardscrabble life of many Afghans. We round Massoud Circle in slow traffic and then come to a full stop. I look out my window at a kid sitting in the driver’s seat of an anonymous white Toyota Corolla; he’s got a smart phone in his hand and is very clearly on Facebook. I think out loud: “Wonder what he’s updating his status to.” Another man walks through the static cars, head down, texting as he weaves his way across the circle.
As we exit the circle and head towards the Green Zone there are fruit vendors with their carts on the side of the road selling bananas, oranges and the giant pomegranates that Afghanistan was famous for before war devastated this country. We pass grocery stores and pharmacies, shops full of western style wedding dresses, one full of guitars and drums and yet another packed full of nuts and dried fruit. Traffic comes to a jerking halt and we’re passed by a man on a horse-drawn cart stacked high with bags. His transportation consists of a horse, a truck axle with mismatched tires and a wooden cart that has obviously been cobbled together.
As a city, Kabul is not well. It also isn’t as depressed as I thought it might be. It looks, smells and feels like many other places in Central Asia that I have visited. It’s a dust-covered mix of old buildings, jumbled streets and modernity. There is a constant whiff of wood smoke and diesel in the air and some days it just smells like burning trash. It is a bit sad, but at the same time there is an energy in this town and its people that radiates hope and possibility. There are the downtrodden, but there are also people going to work, kids playing cricket in the alleys and men drinking tea in roadside cafes. People in Kabul appear to be getting on with their lives as best as they can.