Afghan Chronicles: Day One & Two, Newark to Kabul

After an uneventful 14-hour flight, leaving Newark Thursday night around 11 p.m., I arrive at the New Delhi Airport on Friday around 8 p.m.

When I pass the throngs of people waiting for their loved ones, I am so excited to finally arrive in India, I smile at everyone and say, “Hi India!” Some laugh, probably thinking “great, another American dork.” I meet my driver Akosh, and my buzz kill is quickly extinguished. After a perfunctory welcome, he immediately tells me how his knees hurt because he has been standing for so many hours waiting for my plane. He talks about how he is supporting his entire family, parents, in-laws on a few rupees a month. We are still five minutes from the car.

From my brief time in Tanzania, Egypt, Kosovo and other places, I know can’t fix poverty. Throwing money at everyone who asks to be “sponsored” or is supporting a tribe at home, although heartbreaking, is not the solution. I have met many hard working people around the world who work a day job, go to school or work another job at night. For those people I will do anything I can to help.

I begin to push back on Akosh. I mention going back to school to get a better job. He gives excuses. I talk about how difficult it is to work a full-time job and go to school at night and manage a family, but it can be done. I do it and feel I never do anything well.

But who am I to give advice? I don’t know anything about real poverty. Middle class living in New York City can sometimes feel like living in poverty but it’s far from it.

The Delhi airport and surrounding roads are under construction. The air is thick with the smell of singed chemicals, car exhaust and sewage. The dust is so dense it’s hard to make out the decayed buildings in the distance. Because of the traffic, we slowly pass a steady stream of men, women and children, their arms outstretched, mouths open, their eyes burn with want. Cars pass within inches of our car, every second is an accident waiting to happen. Miraculously no one hits us (or vice versa) on the two-mile drive to the hotel. Akosh and his relentless begging drains me and begins to piss me off, although I don’t mention it. I need a ride back to the airport in a few hours so I need to keep peace. I thank him, and over tip him and he shakes his head in disgust.

3:30 a.m. Hotel Saptagiri, New Dehli, India

I can’t sleep. After a brief walk past the neon shops and cafes near the hotel I return, shower and channel surf through the hyper-Bollywood shows and commercials. The bright red, pink, green and yellow, animation and over-produced content is hypnotically kitschy. I sleep from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. My thinking gets distorted when I am tired so I try not to give any thought credence. I need to be up in a half hour. A knock on the door. My coffee, yogurt and greasy, over-seasoned nan is here. I welcome it, I am paranoid about missing my 7 a.m. flight to Kabul.

A few hours later on the plane to Kabul.

I give Akosh 4,000 rupees and $6 for the two mile trip to the airport, an extremely fair tip, anywhere. He rolls his eyes, lifts his head and arms and curses the sky. He yells at me to give him another $10. A crowd looks on. How can there be so many people at 4:30 a.m.? I frantically grab my bags out of the car, thank him and leave him as he curses me. I want to yell back. I keep telling myself, don’t react, I’m hopelessly sleep deprived and can’t trust my judgement. I walk away, wave goodbye, and say, “thank you.”

The Kabul flight leaves from Gate 1. It’s downstairs away from the rest of the gates and passengers. We have been searched/scanned twice, we line up and are frisked again before boarding the sputtering tin can of a bus that takes us to our plane. We open our luggage on a cheap card table that collapses under my luggage. I scramble to pick up my underwear, shirts and socks. My camera equipment is a magnet for all security officials. Everyone passes the camera, microphones, tapes around to each other. I smile and try not to show alarm. When we get off the bus and are about to board the plane, we are frisked one last time.

The daily Delhi-Kabul Indian Air flight is three quarters full. Fortunately I have a row to myself and a seat for my camera bag. I hate being apart from it. There are four other white western men and one white western woman dressed in Indian dress. She is stylish, thin, shoulder length brown hair, blue eyes, beautiful, mid-to-late 30’s and seems to know her way around. The other passengers are men. Many have dark skin with Asian features, I guess, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek. I am probably wrong, but reading is out of the question because I can’t concentrate. Instead I make up inane scenarios for each passenger: warlord, ngo worker, spy, drug mule, journalist, accountant, cook. Most of the men wear out-dated suits that look like former East-European/U.S.S.R. dignitaries, e.g., dark suits with wide white stripes. Most are ill fitting, either too big or small, and are accompanied with shiny shirts and wide ties. One guy is a dead wringer for Iranian President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad. He even sports a white windbreaker and open shirt. Maybe he is a celebrity double hired for a drug lord’s child’s birthday party.

In addition to the pot of coffee, yogurt and greasy bread at the hotel, I have had two lattes and an inedible “vanilla” muffin at the airport. On the plane I inhale the most disgusting egg and spinach omelet. In the last five hours I have had three breakfasts and it’s not even 8 a.m. I am eating out of nerves. I have a full day of shooting and have no idea what to expect.

One more hour and N’shallah, Kabul.

The brown steppes stretch forever, and in the distance, we see the snow-capped mountains of Afghanistan. It’s hard to believe this is one of the most dangerous places on the planet because from the air it’s one of the most majestic.

The mountains are just like the Alps, snow-capped and gorgeous. From the sky you’d think it was Switzerland.

But then you land.
Watch the short video of the Delhi to Kabul flight below.

When I get past “customs” I stand infront of the empty Kabul International airport. I don’t have a phone. Fortunately there were some American soldiers who could not have been more helpful. One Texan, whose arm was the size of my entire body, calls the number I have for Nazir, my translator, who is picking me up.

It turns out the locals are not allowed into the actual airport and have to wait at another terminal, which is a short bus ride from the main terminal. I know nothing about this protocol and if I did not ask, I could have waited at the airport for hours. I make my way to the terminal and recognize Nazir immediately behind the wire fence. Wavy dark hair, mid-twenties, stylish black-rimmed glasses, and jeans. He is a business school student and is interested in technology. I like him immediately.

Our driver doesn’t speak a word of english, but I give him a rap cd from my friend “T-shirt” back in New York. We pull out of the airport and the drugs kick in. For the rest of the week I felt like I am on an acid trip without the acid. I feel as if I am seeing for the first time. There is no obsessing about problems past or future, no New York, no family or friends, because the information I am taking in every second is so different, foreign, there is only now. There is no room in the brain for anything else.

There are no side walks, everyone weaves through the traffic. Most people don’t look for oncoming cars. The streets teem with soldiers in various uniforms, women hurry along in their blue burkas, barely able to see through the mesh eye slit, balance children with one hand and carry bags with the other, men walk or ride their bicycles on the side of the road.

Barbed wire ice the top of the 20-foot blast walls which line the streets, protecting businesses and homes. Tanks are parked in the middle of rotaries, people drive cars down the wrong side of the street. To cut through the dust, sewage stench, auto emissions, and generalized horrible air, many people breathe through their scarves. I think about the air in downtown Manhattan after 9/11. The constant stench of burned rubber and death grabbed the back of the throat for weeks. The smell in Kabul is not as pungent as those first weeks after 9/11 but the smell of burnt rubber and sewage slowly burns in the back of your throat. It’s familiar. The stench permeates your clothes, your skin, the car, everywhere. I become the slow burn.

War-disfigured men, many missing limbs, line the streets. Many of the older men are dressed in turbans and traditional shalwar-kamiz, pants and long shirt. Their faces are lined by the sun. The younger men, teens to late 20’s , are dressed in jeans, t-shirts and light coats. Some of the younger men color their dark hair with blonde streaks.

As far as noticing women, it is impossible. Women not covered by burkas wear dresses, pants, and shawls that cover the body and head scarves, mostly white, that cover the hair. Even the educated women at the university are covered except their face. Women don’t drive. I did see one woman, entrepreneur and educator, , drive on a Friday, (think Sunday in the US, quiet). For the most part, women are hidden. They are either walking on the sides of the street, on the bus, or if in a car, are in the backseat covered, sitting with other women, or sandwiched between two male family members.

I see a woman exiting a bus. The wind briefly lifts her burka revealing a denim jacket and pant suit with silver-colored amulets around the pockets. She wears mascara and has a fresh bruise on her right eye. This momentary exposure of her contemporary clothes and bruise offer a brief window into the complexity of the Afghan people, especially the Afghan woman. How many thousands of women are abused by their husbands, brothers, fathers, in-laws? When she reaches the street, she pulls the burka over herself and instantly disappears.

Unfortunately domestic violence has no borders. In Kabul there are about 14 women’s shelters and the services are under fire. According to the still advocate for those women in need of services.

We drive through Kabul center. Stalls and small wooden shops filled with stationary, tires, bread, sandals, shawls, plastic things you would never want in your house, line the streets and both sides of the Kabul River. If war hadn’t ravaged this country over the past 30 years, this city could be a real gem. The river divides the city center with arched stone foot bridges that take shoppers to both sides of the market. Snow-capped mountains ring the city which confuse me more, is this heaven or hell? It’s a bit of both. It’s a war-ravaged impoverished society. There are far too many men hobbling along the side of the road walking with crutches and missing limbs.

We get to the (ACKU). She and her husband, Louis, were scholars and diplomats in Kabul during the 1960’s. They began collecting documents after the fall of the Shah in 1979. They moved to Peshawar during the Russian occupation. In 1989 Louis died, but Nancy kept collecting documents from the post-Russian period, e.g., the civil war that ensured after the Russians left, Taliban, NATO/US period. With over 40,000 documents she created the first database that became the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU). Without it, the past 30 years would be erased. She has also created mobile libraries in over 20 provinces around the country and has established numerous high school libraries, and commissions numerous books on agriculture, geology, history, health, etc. for the new literate population.

Playwright Tony Kushner made her famous in the play . It was her Afghanistan travel book that the “Homebody” protagonist refers to in her opening one-hour monologue.

Nancy is reading a magazine. She stands up to shake my hand, and tells me to get settled, but our first interview is in one hour.

We visit the Center at the University. I interview Royce Wiles, the head librarian, and other members of the staff. He walks me through the challenges of cataloging thousands of documents in a war-ravaged country where there are no records for anything. The country does not have a phone book, street names, house numbers, no record of who lives where. How does a society begin to make order out of such chaos? He is training the local staff to use the Library of Congress catalog system.

Click on the segment above or to hear about the challenges Royce and his team face in building a research center. I join the staff on the floor in the crowded offices for lunch. Nancy hands me silverware with a look, “Don’t even try to act native.” I take the silverware and sit at the table.

After lunch we head to the dedication of National Geographic photographer, opening reception at an open air center in the hills above Kabul. McCurry took the iconic picture of the green-eyed Afghan girl in red. He wasn’t at the reception but a lot of U.S. Embassy, international and local dignitaries were.

As the machine gun-clad security forces combed the grounds, rooms and walls, Nazir, my translator, sheepishly apologizes and says, “You can’t trust anyone in Afghanistan.” He lifts his sleeve and shows me shrapnel in his arm. Three years ago he said he was in a Kabul market and a bomb went off. He said he has scars on his back too. He seems embarrassed by this. I told him lack of trust is not just an Afghan problem, it’s universal.

I tell him how unpopular many politicians are in the US Congress and bankers on Wall Street. The same impulse to destroy others is the same everywhere. In industrialized countries the hemorrhaging is internal, the treachery is more subtle, but it’s still lethal. He doesn’t buy it.

Nancy doesn’t know what to make of the camera. She is 84-years-old and can’t be bothered with technology. She hates computers, but realizes their importance and uses them every day. The New York office of her foundation wants me to capture the work she does. She doesn’t like being the center of attention. To her, it’s about the work. At the McCurry reception she yells at me to go away. I take a break, go back and she yells again.

When I leave, someone runs over to me and says, “Nancy is talking to so and so, you have to get this on tape.” I run over and the conversation was over. She shakes her head, “You just missed my conversation.” I think she confuses videotape with photography. If you take a few hours of pictures, you’re done. With video you need days, weeks, months of footage to get the story.

The first few days of shooting is always a bit tough. It’s a delicate dance of trust between me and the subject. It’s very intuitive, so I try to pace myself and not force things. I have done it for years and know the process well. But when you have a time limit, and navigating a war zone, process is a luxury. The first day is tough.

I have this nagging horror that I made a mistake in coming here, that this is going to be an uphill battle and I will not “get the story.” I have to remember I am exhausted. When I am truly exhausted, I just need to go to bed.

I get home to my lodge which is like a bizarre hippie house in Northern California filled with American and foreign journalists. The rooms are frayed, orange and decayed. A few small groups of people sit on picnic tables scattered around the small enclosed grass courtyard. Many smoke hookas, drink tea, tap on their laptops or talk to each other about Mumbai, Gaza, Helmond Province, and other far-flung places. I like the vibe. It’s peaceful, low-key. I want to know what everyone is doing here but I am too tired to engage.

I have only been here for 12 hours, but feel I have been here for 12 days.

Click here for Day Three: Wrong Car?