Monday, November 5, 2007

Kabul RSVP - Log:Day 1

New York – Dubai – Kabul

Ordinarily I wouldn’t get into personal experience in this blog as the format until this point has been largely academic but given the nature of my trip and the experience in Kabul I think that I’ll share with you my accounts in the hopes that it might shed some light on the actual situation or at least my perception of it.

The trip begins in New York. My first flight from JFK left at the cheerful hour of 8:30am so the shuttle came to pick me up at 6 am and of course they were early. I must admit given the concern from family and friends before my trip I wasn’t really worried about it. Up until the morning of I was anxious mostly as the result of some frantic last minute planning and some complications with my flight booking from Dubai to Kabul. Now that the day had arrived I suddenly had a sinking feeling in my stomach. What have I gotten myself into? I’m going to Afghanistan.

The flight from JFK to Dubai (all 14 hrs of it) was one of the most pleasant of my life. The plane was relatively new, I could catch up on dozens of movies I’ve missed on my own personal TV screen (although the touch screen probably works best for people with toothpicks for fingers) and most importantly and luckily the flight was only half full. There’s nothing better than actually being able to spread out and sleep on a long intercontinental flight. I must admit, much of my anxiety at this point went away.

I arrived in Dubai around 7:40am local time. My flight to Kabul left at 12:00pm at terminal 2 where as my flight from New York arrived at terminal 1. Terminal 1 is as one might expect for a new international terminal, big, bright, and uses ample brushed aluminum throughout. The one thing that makes it distinctly Dubai is the unending billboards and ads for development and real estate corporations, a not so subtle hint at the building frenzy going on outside. A friend jokingly told me once that the official bird of Dubai was the crane because of the endless construction cranes ceaselessly working away in the city.

Terminal 2 was nothing like terminal 1. Pulling up to the departures entry the scene was crowded by taxis and cars trying to both get in and out at the same time and resulted in neither. The entire façade was covered in hoarding and the only indication was a small sign saying “entrance” pointing to a narrow painted plywood corridor where people were doing their best impression of the traffic out front. Upon entering the hall there is a large open space and qeue for a metal detector and x-ray machine before even approaching the check-in counter which was more like a check-in stand. During this process my passport is checked and I’m asked for my ticket which worries me since all I have is a print out of an email confirmation from and agency in Toronto. This seems to be sufficient and I’m now in another hall looking for the KamAir counter (one of two Afghani airlines, the other being Ariana Air or Scariana as I hear it referred as). Also represented in the hall are the Iranian Airline, Paksitan Airline (PIA), Pamir which also flies to Kabul, Gulf Air and UN chartered flights to Kabul. Its obvious that this hall serves mostly destinations that might be considered a little more obscure or secondary. Along with my flight to Kabul there were flights to Char Bakar, Lar, Bandar Lengeh, Erbil, Chelybinsk and Kish. I have to be honest, I have no idea where any of these places are. The departures lounge was another interesting place. Cleaner and newer than the rest of the terminal it was a holding area for some interesting characters and made for some unique people watching. I felt a little like I was in a James Bond movie, checking out an assortment of potential villains on their way to meet at some illicit arms bazaar. First of all there were the military contractor or security consultant types on their way to Kabul. They were easily given away by what I assume is their unofficial uniform of cargo pants and sunglasses with the strap to hold them around their necks as if they were about to go water skiing. Next were the NGO workers who looked like a bad example out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue, complete with button up shirt, jeans and hiking boots of some kind. To spice up the mix there were also some serious looking Russians (what Bond movie is complete without Russians?) ethnic Afghan’s, Pakistani’s, Indians, Iranians, Saudis and for good measure a few Korean tourists which where primarily preoccupied with the un-proportionately large and bright duty free shop.

We boarded our flight from the tarmac. The plane was not exactly new but not as old as I imagined. It was obvious now that I was spoiled on my flight in from New York. With the ball of anxiety beginning to creep back I fairly unsuccessfully slept through the two and half hour flight. Looking out my window occasionally between naps the landscape below looked forbidding. Not a speck of color other than the harsh color of lifeless dirt. Not a road or a town could be seen. This eventually gave way to equally forbidding looking mountains. To say the Afghan landscape is rugged is an understatement. I should say that after conversations with many people who have traveled outside Kabul, the landscape is actually very beautiful from the ground.

The plane landed making a series of abrupt corkscrew turns. I imagine this is because the airport, situated in the city, is protected by a ring of mountains which make a long straight approach unpractical. I had also heard of this technique being used for flights into Baghdad to avoid anti aircraft fire. Looking out the window as we taxied to the main building you could see both construction of new hangers and the remains of bunkers and gun placements, symbols of Kabul’s conflicted past and optimistic future. Also visible were a few Soviet looking helicopters and fighter jets belonging to presumably the ISAF.

Holy shit I’m in Afghanistan. The thought hit me as I was walking from the plane on the tarmac to the terminal with a big “Kabul International Airport” sign on the roof. I had been hoping and planning for this day for months and my feet were finally on the ground. Through passport control to the one baggage carousel, I eventually find my driver sent to pick me up. He puts my luggage in a well worn Toyota van and we are on our way to the guesthouse.

Traffic in Kabul is chaotic to say the least. There are no more than 2 or 3 working stop lights in the city which has a population between 2-3 million people, its pretty much anything goes. God help you if you are one of the poor traffic police who wave at the cars in a futile effort to direct traffic through the roundabouts. Our driver almost ran one over and the whole thing seemed pretty funny to him. I’m not sure why in most developing countries the cars are almost always Toyotas. Even the big new SUVs driven by the UN, embassies and NGOs with their bulletproof windows, radio antennae and snorkels were Toyotas…well except for the Americans who also found some way to bring their own Chevy’s with them. Every now and then you would also see a military convoy of 2 or 3 armored trucks with troops at the top, machine guns at the ready to shoot anyone that drove too close. These instances were probably the only times I actually felt threatened by a gun during the trip. I attribute this to the fact that only on these convoys did I notice the gunners with their fingers on the actual triggers of their guns. The Afghan locals knew this as there was usually a gap of about 50 yards between the next closest vehicle and behind that a huge backlog of traffic slowly but respectfully following along cursing them for the regular inconvenience.

The drive to the guesthouse could be described as dusty. The buzz and movement of the city also created this constant cloud. Along the main road to the airport which is the symbolic main drag of Kabul, you could see single story sheds being used as shops selling everything from pomegranates and spices to car and appliance parts. This became one of the things that impressed me about Kabul, that anything can be reused and most importantly in some cases resold.

Further along the drive you get the sense of what a large part of Kabul is like. Either side of the streets are flanked by unremarkable yet solid looking walls, often adorned with razor wire crowns and matching armed guards and gates. The city is host to an amazing number of international governments, NGOs and a huge UN presence. Each one of these groups has at least one if not several compounds in the city. Even most homes are within the confines of a solid 12 foot high wall protected 24hrs by guards and their Kalishnakov machine guns, a site so common I took it for granted by the end. Each gate had these guards who not only worked there but lived, often 2 or 3 in a small make shift hut by the gates where they slept. This kind of situation in the security industry I was told is known as “static security”. As far as I could tell, these guards were always Afghan, either police, or private security forces. Later on the trip we would meet people with their own “dynamic security”, their own armed bodyguards following them 24hrs a day.

We arrived at the Naween Guesthouse, a UN certified guesthouse which meant that it met certain requirements set out by the UN such as the aforementioned armed guards, walled compound, and a set distance of the building from the road or walls. The contrast between the walled canyons outside and the inside was dramatic. After entering our secure home away from home, the main building opened to a green courtyard where the traffic could barely be heard ( a nice side effect of being far enough away from potential suicide attacks). Guest rooms lined the courtyard and over the walls you could sometimes see kites being flown by the local kids. The situation reminded me of all the fancy villas I’d walked past in Italy, only to catch a glimpse of the private courtyard inside through the gates. Not quite Italy but close enough.

Just after settling into my room (which surprisingly had 60 channels of TV and internet connection) I met my dutch colleagues Niloufar Tajeri, Lilet Breddels and Joost Janmaat. An hour later we were back in the van, this time joined by our trusty guide Tehir. Tehir has lived his entire life in Kabul and no doubt seen it all, an older gentleman with a warm smile that never left his face (not even when we insisted as a group to explore through an old ruin currently housing squatters and random drug dealers). He quietly and confidently led us through everything in Kabul.

The business of meeting our Kabul contacts began with Dutch architect Anne Feenstra. We arrived at his office and home, the first of several experiences behind the walls of the rest of Kabul. Anne is a Dutch architect who opened an office (AFIR) in Kabul a few years ago, an excellent observationist and expert on the urban fabric of Kabul. He led us through the spacious building now converted into an architects office with all the amenities you would expect to find, CADroom, conference room, office model room etc… Anne, a former architect at Wil Alsop’s in London, proudly showed us a project he completed in an outlying province so remote that it required staying there for several weeks during construction. An experience he would share with us over dinner, the project demonstrated sensitivity by using local materials and building methods. Another project of his which we would see repeatedly displayed throughout town was one of the few mapping surveys of the city. It demonstrated Anne’s interest in the city fabric and his frustration with the choking security, something we would explore further with him in the coming days.

From his office it was off to dinner. While there are hundreds of places to grab a kebab on the street, sit down establishments are a little harder to come by. We made our way to a place nearby called “Rumi”. Like most restaurants catering to western visitors, it was sheltered in a walled compound. Once inside, a tranquil garden and a low rise windowed building created a serene contrast again to the street. Sitting down to candle lights and the flickering of the lights above reminding us of the instability and rarity of having electricity in the city 24 hours a day, we were joined by Sayed Maqbool, the head of the Department of Architecture are Kabul University and Pietro Calogero, an urban planning professor at the Kabul Polytechnic University and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. As the food arrived we discussed our list of contacts in the city and our trip to visit the architecture and fine arts departments at Kabul University the following day. When we returned to our guesthouse I was barely able to keep my eyes open and gladly passed out, happy to finally be in Kabul and looking forward to uncovering more to this chaotic city.


Kira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kira said...

Your writing was so descriptive, I could picture everything you were experiencing in your travels clearly. Sounds like it was most likely a life-forming event for you.. How incredible! Thanks for putting this out there, and for daring to travel there and gain a new perspective. We need more people like you who are concerned with global affairs. Take care,

g+a said...

Thanks Kira. You're definitely right, it was an incredible experience and one that definitely has altered my perspective. I'm glad to have gone and think that it will hopefully inform my decisions and perceptions in the future as an architect and as a human being.

MICHAEL said...

I stumbled across your blog and have really enjoyed reading this entry, having traveled to Kabul and Dubai myself in the Spring of 2005 with Fred Levrat's studio at the GSAP. Your descriptions brought back many memories. I look forward to reading more !

g+a said...

Thanks Michael. Stay tuned for accounts of the rest of the week as I slowly get them into words.

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anto said...

George, see also I'm just came from Afghanistan, and I want to start with this research project . there is any possibility to stay in touch with you? i'll be back afghanistan in march