Burkas, Beards and Land Mines
Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
10Trip End Ongoing
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After meeting with the consul at the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe, I was able to get a rushed visa and the next day I was off. My destination was Mazar-e-Sharif, in the northwest of the country to meet up with Nicolas, the base manager for ACTED Afghanistan.
The whole trip was made by car, and it's an interesting road to the Afghan border
It is probably the most interesting border crossing I have ever made - of course it is closed when we arrive, so we enter a house next door that is serving lunch - we sit on carpets on the floor with travelers from Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan and have tea and bread. In this atmosphere, I tend to stick out just a little bit, which is to say everybody stares at me the entire time. This isn't a border crossing that many westerners choose.
The guards only let 2 people in the building at a time, so after an hour I finally am allowed in. The Tajik side goes pretty fast, I utilize the 10 or 15 Russian words that I know and they let me through. Once stepping outside, me and a group of 20 other people stand around for about 30 minutes.
I'll be honest: being in Afghanistan is pretty exciting, and it hit me right away. It's a place that I had seen so often on the TV news for the last 5 years, and here I was in the middle of it, just like I had imagined: men with long beards and head scarves, leading their camels along the road; women in long burkas that cover their entire body, with only a little mesh screen at the eyes so they can see. It is late in the afternoon and impossible to make it to Mazar before dark, so I spend the night in Kunduz - a city where the streets are full not of cars, but old horse-drawn wagons - they look like something out of the old west, and the horses are all elaborately decorated with fresh flowers
Saturday I meet up with Nicolas (Nico) in a city on the way to Mazar. Nico is the base manager at Mazar-e-Sharif who I will be working with - he is a 24 yr old from France and has been in Afghanistan since June. We make the 3 hour drive to Mazar, and the road is incredible - we start out with big snow-covered mountains to the left, with round, rolling green hills in the foreground; this changes to large rock formations, and then finally to red-rock mountains, bright yellow and red and orange; then passing through tall, narrow canyons until finally coming out into the desert and then Mazar.
The weekend in Afghanistan is Friday and Saturday, so on Sunday I went in to the office and was briefed on what needed to be done - a full evaluation of a 2-year, $700,000 project, and I needed to visit a lot of the project sites for evaluation before doing any actual writing. All this had to be done in 1 week. No problem.
I spent the first day traveling to Alburz, a district about 2 hours from Mazar
In Alburz, there are no water sources and the people have to travel 4 hours by donkey/camel to get water from a well. ACTED has installed rainfall catchment systems that I evaluate, as well as low-cost latrines that they people were taught to construct.
The next 3 days I travel around the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif to evaluate hand pumps that have been in installed in deep wells for drinking water. The pumps are well-designed but massively overused, as the population is increasing exponentially in the city as displaced refugees return to the city and put a huge demand on resources
Working in Afghanistan for an extended period of time would be extremely difficult, as security is very tight due to the violence. There are kidnappings on a daily basis, bombings, robberies, and land mines everywhere. Nico has a curfew of 11 PM, and cannot walk by himself outside at any time of day - he must always have a driver and always have someone with him. Life is basically the office and the guesthouse, and sometimes the one restaurant in town. No hiking due to the large number of land mines everywhere. Oh yeah, and no alcohol is sold. The work and the culture are very interesting, but I think it would be extremely difficult to do for an extended period of time. And let's be honest: without a stiff drink, how else would I deal with stress?
After the site visits, we hole up in the office and work crazy hours to get the reports done - at one point I stay awake for 42 consecutive hours to get everything done. But we get it done, and if I may say so myself, we do a damn fine job. We get to relax a couple of days, go to the bazaar and see the huge mosque in town.
10 days after I first arrived, I make the long trip back to Tajikistan. On the road we pull over to a man selling freshly made bread on the side of the road, and I eat the most delicious naan bread I've ever tasted. The border crossing isn't any faster this time. I come home to Tajikistan, and it is unbelievable how two neighboring countries can be so different. I hope to see Afghanistan again someday.