Afghanistan Diary
Friday, January 28, 2005
  D Day + 2 To Kabul once again
Woke up after 14 hours of sleep. I had breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, next to a man who looked exactly (especially his size and voice) to Marlon Brando in the Godfather (part III).

My Turkish is slowly coming back to me. Amazing what a good night of sleep can accomplish.

In most places, I don’t find that Istanbul has changed that much. Sure, there are ATM and cell phones everywhere now and rather less beggars (though there is certainly no shortage of them). One neighbourhood that did change on the other hand was Cihangir (or at least the part of Cihangir where I used to leave). I went to see the street where I used to live. It has change so much that I am not sure I even recognized the street. It used to be made out of dilapidated houses, inhabited by peasants new to the city. In the winter, there was a permanent fog caused by people heating with low quality coal. The air is clean now and nearby there are western looking stores.

I went to do all the tourist things for the rest of the day. Taksim, Eminonu, the Egyptian Bazaar, the grand Bazaar, Istanbul University, Sulthan Ahmet most, Aya Sophia, etc.

My travelling skills are rusty. When visiting Sulthan Ahmet mosk, I coudn’t get rid of a guide. When I did, he tried to extort $35 out of me. I gave him five liras ($2.5) and told him to bugger off.

Upset stomach caused me to rush to the nearby public toilets (not for the faint of heart) where customers mistook me for the cleaner (proof that in the right context, I can pass as a Turk).

On the way to the airport I met Larry, a friendly guy who trains police officers in Afghanistan. From him and others people I have talked to while waiting for the plane in Kabul, I get the picture of the typical (non-NGO) expat: works for a company that contracts with the military, does it for the money, bored out of his skull in Kabul, capable to tell you about a murder that happened in the same tone of voice as if he announced the weather.

Many organizations used to refuse dealing with Ariana Afghan Airlines, due to their poor maintenance records. I am starting to understand why. Once at the airport, I learnt that the flight will only depart at 1:30am (two hours later than schedule). The plane itself is the shabbiest I have ever seen. Stewards wear worn-out uniforms. There are only two women in the plane. I feel that I am the only person in the plane who is actually excited about going to Kabul. The plane is also held in Baku for several hours.

Eventually I arrive. I am introduced to some of my colleagues by Lynn, one of the women I will be living with. Lynn striked me as a good-natured person with a generous heart and also somewhat of a party girl. Lynn and I will share a car. Driving here is no small endeavour (and the fact the car is a stick shift – which I never used – is the least of it). The Roads (if you can call them that) are full of enormous potholes, and covered with snow, ice and slush. As if this wasn’t enough, you also have to try to avoid cyclists and forthcoming traffic (even on a one way street).

The house where we live is fine, it is protected day and night by one or two guards (a standard measure for all expats here). The main challenge is the bitter cold of the afghan winter. It is quite cold outside and the house has no central heating. It is heated by bakharis, a furnace that uses either wood or sawdust as fuel. However the bakharis can only do so much. I am sitting next to one now and despite being warmly dressed I am cold. There is sometimes city electricity at night, however we also have a small generator that we can use (but the generator is not powerful enough to use an electric heater for instance).

The streets are full of carts from vendors of anything. Some collective taxis pass as well as big ass white UN vehicle with a large antenna. Oddly, there isn’t really any music played in the street (legacy of the Taliban?). The roads are so icy that women wearing burkas have to lift them over their head to look at the road.

We went to a French restaurant were we met others NGO workers. The place is enclosed and guarded by two men carrying an AK47, but already I am not paying attention to the weapons as they are everywhere. The restaurant is in a nice house, there is a swimming pool even for the summer. The restaurant is a place for expats obviously with the prices indicated in dollars. It is quite expensive.

The people we meet are interesting. The average expat seem to have spent 4-5 years outside his/her native country. I spent 11 but that does not really count because most of it was in cushy places (UK, US). It is very easy to meet others NGO workers here but I do hope that I will also get to meet Afghans (and not just because they are waiter in the restaurant I am at). I realized that I will life like an expat here. I always tried to live like a local before. Living like an expat is much easier but I don’t think it is as satisfying.

Some people imagine that because Kabul is “dangerous”, it must be scary and exciting. In fact it is neither. It’s not like we are dodging bullets here. It merely means that we need to follow some security guidelines, which is a hassle. Many organizations are stricter around security and set curfew, no-go area, etc. DACAAR (the organization I work for) set some general guidelines and leave it up to us to implement them or not.


 
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This is my diary. My name is Lev and I work in Kabul for a non-governmental organization (dacaar.org).

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Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
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