Hello from Afghanistan

Hey y’all. So I made it and have safely arrived in Kabul. I am settling into the staff house and have navigated my first day back in the office without succumbing to narcolepsy (yeah…8.5 hour time difference). But before we get to the delights of Afghanistan, let me tell you a little about the journey ‘cross the pond, as we say.

Bags are packed, I'm ready to go...
Bags are packed, I’m ready to go…

Given the length of time for this particular trip, I was excited to try out my Christmas-gift-money-purchase of a new handy, wheeled bag that also could easily be carried on my back (the better to navigate the chaos of airports like Kabul…and who knows where else, eh?). But fitting everything into that bag meant imposing a bit more self-discipline this time around, especially knowing that the seasons are changing in Afghanistan. So I’m proud to show that I fit EVERYTHING for the trip in just those two bags. Woot! Of course, I’m sure I’ll be figuring out what vital thing I left out in the next couple of days. Here’s hoping I can find whatever it is in local stores…! Those two bags include a variety of mix-and-match outfits, all of which provide the right amount of coverage for the Afghan context (that means shirts go down to mid-thigh, sleeves go down to the wrist, necklines are up to the collarbone, and there’s at least one scarf for covering the hair when making an appearance in public). I may also have thrown in a few gifts (alcohol for the ex-pats, Girl Scout cookies as a treat for the gender team because they are yummy and super American) as well as a few comforts from home (oatmeal and raisins as well as dark chocolate peanut M&Ms…don’t judge).

The flight from DC to Dubai was pretty full, per usual, but this time around I was seated next to an Afghan man who was flying home to be with his family for the Afghan New Year. Nauruz (also known as as Nowroz and Nowruz), the Afghan New Year, is the first day of spring, and usually falls on March 21 (it is also the Persian New Year). This year will be the year 1392. This holiday is a huge deal in Afghanistan, and it’s particularly celebrated in Mazar-e-Sharif  in the district of Herat because the Blue Mosque in Mazar is thought to be the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph of Islam. It is an important day for families to be together, and there will be lots of parties and picnics. Many people were traveling home to be with their families for this holiday.

I arrived in Dubai late in the afternoon, and after clearing customs, I headed to my hotel. I was tired after the long flight and decided to get a good meal and head to bed early. I had hoped to get up early the next morning and visit one of the famed sights in Dubai — the Palm Island, which is artificially constructed and turned into a resort. Unfortunately, though, after speaking with the hotel concierge, I learned that the Palm Island was too far away from my hotel to visit in the few hours I had available in the morning before my flight (it was a 40-minute taxi ride away, one way). Plus, it isn’t very easy to walk around and explore the Island; there is a resort, an aquarium, and a water park on it. While you can take a monorail over Palm Island, if you want to walk around in it, it is necessary to have a ticket to enter one of its amusements or a reservation to dine in one of the restaurants there. So…for a budget and time conscious traveler, it didn’t seem the right choice for this trip.

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View from the water taxi.

Instead, I got up early in the morning and took a long walk along the harbor. It felt GREAT to stretch my legs and get out in the warm sun, especially knowing that I won’t be able to do that for a while. It was about a 30 minute walk from my hotel to the old Spice Souk market, where I caught a water taxi across the Dubai “creek” to old town Dubai.

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Dubai Museum

After disembarking, I walked a bit further and found the Dubai Museum, which is located in the Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787 and is the oldest existing building in Dubai. After paying my 3 Dirham (approximately 82 cents), I was left free to wander about the museum. The ground level is an open air courtyard, with displays of fishing boats and a typical coastal dwelling made of seagrass. The wings of the fortress contain displays of nomadic weaponry and musical instruments. Underground, beneath the fortress, is a much more modern display of emirate history, culture, and life. There are decade-by-decade descriptions of how Dubai grew into the bustling business district it is today. But perhaps the most odd part of it was the maze of display after display, full of mannequin representations of people in traditional Dubai markets, in study, on the docks, in school, desert animals, and other scenes of past emirate life. It was like the Epcot Center version of Dubai, with no singing.

My flight to Kabul departed mid-afternoon, so I didn’t have time for any additional sight-seeing. I’ll have to explore other aspects of Dubai on another trip. The flight to Kabul was quite full, and there were a number of families traveling together, including elder family members who didn’t quite understand how the seating system worked. I was politely asked by a young Afghan man if I wouldn’t mind switching seats so an elderly woman could sit with a man and woman who appeared to be her relatives. I agreed, but in the mass of people trying to board, it was difficult to move to the now-vacant seat. In all of the chaos, I heard a woman’s voice calling out, “Miss, there is a seat here if you’d like to take it,” and a kind Afghan woman gestured to the seat next to her. I sat down, and found myself next to a very kind woman (and surrounded by several traditional Afghan families who didn’t seem to know what to make of us…or me…). Najiba, it turns out, emigrated to California when she was fourteen at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Now, approximately thirty years later, is the first time she was returning home. She was traveling with her mother and two sisters, planning to visit family for Nauruz and spend a month traveling between Kabul, Herat, and Kunduz before heading back to California to be with her husband and children. She was very excited to be going home, very excited to be seeing her family, and only regretted that her three children weren’t able to join her. Najiba was very happy to tell me all about her children, especially her oldest daughter who is in college and will be a doctor some day. Najiba had such a lovely spirit, and I was so pleased to meet her on my journey.

After landing in Kabul, I was brought to our Staff House to have dinner and catch up with some of my co-workers as well as meet new staff who are now members of the IPACS team. It was great to see everyone, and we had a good time chatting. You can imagine that I slept pretty well that night, but it was up and at ’em the next morning for a full day of work! But that story will have to wait. It’s getting late, and I need to head to bed.

If you’d like to peek at a few more photos from Dubai, you can find them here.