Sorry for not posting much recently, I was travelling. My boss thought I had been in Kabul for too long (I concurred) and she sent me to Heart for a days. There were two purposes to the trip. The first was to visit the city, but equally important for me was to be able to go to the field. I joined DACAAR to be part of the organization and sitting in front of my computer, it is easy to loose track of what it does. I think every expat, perhaps even every employee should go on field trips.
Compared to Kabul, Herat comes across as a smaller, less chaotic, cleaner city with large avenues and many trees. Kabul has a few parks, but otherwise, you'd be hard pressed to find a green area. It is dirt everywhere. There are many flocks of sheep and goats within the city and the poor animals have nothing to graze on but piles of garbage (need I specify that there are no garbage collection in Kabul?). Heart has the reputation to be a prosperous city, due part to the collection of custom taxes (the border with Turkmenistan and Iran is close). A local character of importance is Ismael Khan, a local warlord turned local politicien, then minister. He is quite popular and has the reputation of being an effective (if despotic) administrator.
Dress is Herat is pretty conservative. Many burkas but also many long black hidjabs tied under the chin and ending mid-waist. Some of men's clothes were interesting also. For instance, I saw several men, in white turban, with a long white beard without moustache, wearing khol around their eyes. I am not used to see men wearing such obvious make up and the effect was a little theatrical.
I stayed at DACAAR's guesthouse. I was going to write that it was very comfortable, but on closer examination, that statement reflects more on me getting used to Afghan standards than anything else (uncut floor carpet, unpainted doors, dirty fan, stained wall, etc.) Folks at the office did everything they could to be useful to me. DACAAR's Herat crew has shrunk considerably since the recent layoffs. I think it must be quite depressing to be there at the moment.
There are few internationals in Herat. In fact, I only met some in the plane. The security atmosphere seem less tense than Kabul, although ANSO discourage travelling in the area after 4pm. In addition, there has been serious anti Western riots in the lat twelve months, and a bomb was placed on DACAAR's office five months ago. I was discouraged to go out at night, which is a pity (though it’s not like I would have gone clubbing...).
My first visit in the field was to the Robat-e-Sangee field office. I was shown an irrigation project and another project consisting in growing pistachio. Pistachio sells for a hefty price, but it takes several years for the tree before it produces a sufficient number of nuts. What was specific about that project is the fact that the communal lands were collectively cultivated. The pistachio are planted on a downhill slope and some hole is dug so that water is collected. There were actually not many pistachio trees, far fewer than I imagined, in fact the field had a variety of crops: almonds, watermelon, melon, and some plant used for animal feed that also can be used as a fence (pesants find it difficult to gather construction material for a barbwire fence). I don't know much about agriculture (although I have worked in the fields once upon a time!), but it strikes me as a labor intensive way to cultivate, limiting the use of tractor (which can be found in the area), etc. Perhaps it is so because of the land ownership patterns.
People working in the field office are very dedicated. The folks stay usually away from their families during the week (in some cases their beds are meters away from their desks) and frequently putting twelve hours days (meetings with villagers take places at night).
When I was a student, the emphasis in our courses was on understanding local culture. The project of changing it was looked at with suspicion and easily casted aside as cultural imperialism. This approach strikes me today as quite naïve. Actual development projects aim to bring about some social change such as greater participation of women, collabaratve farming, etc. As long as local culture is taken into account, I don't see this as a problem necessarily. Otherwise you only let ruthless people imposing change (think forced collectivisation of the late 70s, Taliban, etc.)
I did of course all the "touristly" things in Heart (the blue mosk, the citadel, the bazaar, etc.)
Babak arrived yesterday. That was a great news. Almost as good a news, was that I received all the toys I asked him to bring for me: a high tech GPS and car kit, various map software, a pocket PC with miscellaneous accessories and a gps bluetooth adaptor to connect the gps to the Pocket PC. While I was in Herat writing down some travel notes in a notebook, it occurred to me that travelling would never be the same again. From now, on I will travel with a gps, preventing me to get lost and I will write notes and preview photographs with my Pocket PC. Both the GPS unit and the Pocket PC are very nice, I am happy with mty choices. chose a powerful pocket pc with a high resolution (640x480) screen (it is sooo niiice!), which will come handy when designing my navigation system.
On Thursday, there was a rumor of a suicide bomb attack near the Intercontinental Hotel. Yesterday, we also heard a blast in the afternoon. I haven't been able to listen to the news to verify. More than sixty people died in the South of the country in the past week.
On Saturday we went on a little trip. First we stopped at the reservoir. The water level was extremely high, which was funny for us, since we walked on the ice when the level was very low last winter. Later we went to Paghman and hiked in the area (I think the area is pretty mine-free). We saw a few baby cannabis plants. They were pointed out to me of course, I wouldn’t know ;) It appear as if they rotate culture in these field and that cannabis is certainly one of the cultivated crops. Paghman has been a place where Kabulis go in the summer for a long time. They are currently building a lot of holidays houses. Some croatian military police were hanging out there. They did not speek a word of Dari, which is a little disturbing for mps.
Some advances on the geek front. I have managed to obtain two arcview shapefiles. One contains all major roads of Afghanistan (and lakes, rivers, etc) The other has all the streets of Kabul. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I uploaded the first to my gps. It is pretty cool, I now have a good background map (in color no less!) of the city. Getting lost is defintely getting harder, although it is not beyond my capabilities. I am having some trouble with the second shapefile that has a different coordinate system (I am still hopeful that this can be solved with the help of an actual GIS expert). I did find a Pocket PC software that reads the file (I have a bluetooth adaptor for my gps that I use to connect the gps to the Pocket PC) but when I tried to buy it it said it couldn't due to a technology embargo on Afghanistan (it detected my location automatically). I am pretty sure the embargo is over. In terms of programming, I know how to interpret the gps data, but not how to retrieve it. I looked in the books I have but I couldn’t find info on how to programmatically use a bluetooth connection. Will do a search tomorrow.