Sunday, October 05, 2008

Moving web journal

Please join me at PARSA's new website, home to our Living and Working in Afghanistan Blog


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Friday, April 25, 2008

Reese-my son is back....

Dear All,
An update on Reese. Reese has traveled transcontinentally and his transformation is remarkable. Gone are the red curls, baggy pants and permanently affixed Ipod. Within 24 hours of arrival he sported an Afghan haircut, complete with the requisite poof on his forehead ($2-Mom!!!). He is back into his previously established routine, speaking Dinglish-no problems with language -eating copious amounts of Kabobs and Quabali pilau and on Asef's case. Asef decided to be Reese's "roomfriend" and set up their beds within 2 feet of each other-in a cavernous room big enough to be a house. Asef is bossier than Colin-Reese's real brother-if that is possible and Reese's up against living with someone more stubborn than he is. I told Reese just to "take a message" like he does with all of us when he isn't interested in listening. He says Asef doesn't get it but he is working on a technique where he just starts talking to Asef with the biggest English words he knows which does slow Asef some.
Asef really upset Reese when he whipped into the bathroom before him early one morning and told him to go use his mom's bathroom. Reese took solid ground this weekend by rearranging the room so beds are at the far corners of the rooms and Reese's is stationed right outside the bathroom door.
Asef and Reese are apparently competing for what the early morning program is. Asef annoys Reese by telling he smokes too much and can't "sport". Cheryl, our volunteer has gone out early for a walk up the mountainside is a big attraction for an early morning "Chakar" or sightseeing. I think this morning Reese and Asef managed to agree on the program-a walk ensued as well as a good workout with the local young man who has no legs on the chin up bar at the children's play ground. Reese informed me that he is "buff" and a great guy.

Reese is working daily at the orphanages. Yasin included him in a meeting with Soraya the head of Afghan orphanages - Reese had the foresight to count toothbrushes the day before when he dropped them off to be distributed....He apparently recounted, found 175 missing and and brought it to Soraya's attention.-apparently the staff took some for personal use. She had to settle it by sending out a staff member to the bazaar to purchase more to replace them. We appreciate her partnership. I wouldn't have thought to count the toothbrushes but we are now going to include this "test" in our orphanage program. He has written up the protocol and decided that Tai Maskan staff need working with before he starts a program with the children. I pity them.

Finally, he misses his well behaved sensitive dog. He is not impressed with my heaving, panting, out-of-control "Mongrel Horde" and indicated to me that the training challenges are overwhelming. In fact, we thought he was a Dog Whisperer but he has taken over Norm's role as Dog Nazi. He is equally unimpressed with my new product line of "Koochi Dog" collars-(Mootee has one on ) complete with goat bell. I think they will be a seller and a great fundraiser.

Anyway-we are settling in and he is doing great....My mother would say I deserve him. Love to all.

Monday, March 31, 2008

A pink villa in Afghanistan? Our home and place for our volunteers

Our home in Marastoon has emerged from the winter suddenly...leaky adobe roof...young coakroaches coming up the drain in the tub but the beauty of its old Afghan architecture is warming and gracious. Uncle Nasim ignored Yasin's direction for a cream colored exterior and picked a vibrant pink for our home. Build in the 1920's this was the first Afghan Red Crescent office and a ruin when we came here last year. But we have managed to renovate it as this type of structure is inexpensive to fix and it now is our home-has dormitories for our volunteers-a community kitchen and is connected to our "Center for Creative Abilities" that we will be completed this month-as a vocational training center in Marastoon. Under the guidance of Aisha-the women in the sewing center designed floor pillows and curtains so everything possible here is a showcase for how beautiful Afghan made designs can be. These pictures are welcoming Camilla Barry, her son Nicholas and photo journalist, Ginna Fleming.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Letter to my family -Winter February 2008

Dear All,
I am sitting here after a long day and making good on my promise to write. It is snowing today and Kabul is at its most beautiful...smokey skies and gentle snow falling on the mountains. I was woken at 4 by dogs needing to get out todo their business..All four dogs have weaseled their way into the house at night now that Norm is gone home for R& is having the equivalent of a barnyard in my bedroom. "Puppy" is the size of my small donkey but very polite and communicative about his needs. He hales from the ancient line of real Afghan hounds-bred and trained to protect herds of sheep from wolves...this gives him a strong inclination to protect me...from everything but his personality is sweet and he listens carefully to all commands...except the fact that at nine months he is the size of a pony ....and if he forgets himself he pulls me off of my feet...he is a great dog. Assef checked in with me at 7:30 where I was still in bed because it was warm..and then availed himself of my bathroom because the water at PARSA where he lives is frozen and there is no water....other than the stench of all of the manly perfumes that Reese (my younger son) left him to use it did not inconvenience me much. My housekeeper arrives at 8 to light the fires in all of the rooms I use and to clean. I check my e-mail...and move into my great room that I old completely round room with views of the snowy Paghman mountains and the Hindu Kush....All the colors of the rainbow and a silky red rug Norm bought us..Fran wrote me a letter asking me to explain the security situation so that Willy (my nephew) can get permission to come this summer...I wrote the following:

Dear Dave and Fran,
I really have held off pushing to have Willy come because I wanted to see how Reese responded being here. So I want to explain to you why I am not worried about security.

1- I have an amazing staff of over 25 people who function as support and surrogate family.
2- We live in the Red Cross Compound...400 feet off the road, well guarded and frankly an unlikely target as the Taliban like to have the populace think of them as their saviors...there is the added bonus of having two insane asylums neighboring..on the 20 acre premises...which all Afghans are highly superstitious about. I know this may not sound like a great place to live but in fact we have a very friendly and benign community of misfits...some of which talk to themselves alot. Norman has medicated most of them creating alot more quiet and the potential for rehabilitation. AND only very compassionate Afghans like to hang with us on the compound...we are not an attractive target.
3-Willy will never be alone. He will always be accompanied by me, our drivers, Assef and Reese or Yasin. this is more togetherness than he will have experienced in a long time as well as all activities are discussed by the Afghan family before embarking ad nauseum.
4- We need Willy. He will step into a role of responsibility and usefulness that he never conceived of. And there is so much work that Reese had to really think hard about whether he wanted to watch movies at the end of the day. We usually fall into bed at 8:30 problem.
5- We don't go to places that other internationals go....our car is crappy looking...and we generally are hard to tell from the people on the street. We are not targets.
6- Most of Willy's time will be in Bamyan-which is designated very,very safe...He will be building a summer camp with Reese and riding horses to and fro from our guest house up there.
7-Willy will have a view of the world and what most people live like...and how amazing they can be at a young has changed Reese's life and outlook and I think it can really change how Willy sees himself and his future...

PS.... I think I have lost my perspective...I don't think you should forward my well meant e-mail to David. Doesn't sound very attractive. Very,very hard to explain why I feel so safe...and insane ayslums are an iffy prospect in all cultures. Frankly, both Mahboubha and I are probably out on the Taliban list as "Do NOT Kidnap!!! at any cost...we will have to pay to get rid of them!!! When I put the word out that my nephew is an expert at drawing people's anatomical parts...and is looking for models...preferably should insure our security...Love, Marnie

Dawn (work here with me for last year- my childhood friend from when I lived here in '60's) has taken over the operations of Parsa so that I can focus on fundraising and calls me hourly to tell me about the craziness but I am deeply grateful to be out of it for a minute...the last call was to talk about the fact that our book keeper couldn't find tape and needed her advice which indicates the level of management we are struggling through.
Other issues:

  • Habibullah thinks there are ghosts at the PT clinic so he refuses to sleep there unaccompanied to spell our night time guard.
  • The bulldozer the Afghan Red Crescent hired to level land has cut through our water main for the second time in two weeks....we have joined the long line of residents at the water spigot.
  • The women on staff hijacked the car on the way home to go to a women's party without consulting anyone-causing hours of recoordiantion and discussion of Transportation.
  • The Girls in our sewing shop are making new designs without any approval...resulting in some of the most amazingly awful clothing---Dawn is capacity building however and has challenged them to find a market and sell them...
Dawn and I have been asked to teach at the American University which is very exciting for us as it is on our old campus where we went to school as children. But I look at her...blond hair greasy from no bathing (PARSA hasn't had water for two months) and clothing dug out of the bottom of some donation box...while she waits for her other clothing to come through from the "washing auntie" ...and I say that we need a "make over"...I am wearing the same shirt I have for a couple of days and a skirt over my pants to keep me warm...with a serious static cling factoring into the whole "look". Heavy socks embroidered from Nuristan and heavy boots don't help much.

Obaid from American University writes me to confirm my first consultancy on leadership with the Roshan company.. look in my wardrobe and see alot of what my friend Jean calls "character pieces" and I move my need for a new wardrobe higher onto my "to do" list. I do have a fabulous coat being made in the sewing room out of some of the wool blankets donated to the orphanage....but looked at the prototype today and for some reason they have embroidered white candy canes along the lapels and I am not sure it is going to do for my consultancy gig. I told them "no candy canes" and they were fine and decided the coat would go to Dawn who they have decided will wear anything.

At the end of the day Asef turns up to talk to me about his girl friend problems, in "Dinglish"..I have refused to hire her at PARSA and tried to explain that she needs to find her own job...he is all I can handle right now...I excuse myself from his tearful account of problems with his love life to go to my round room and do yoga and my breathing excercises from the "Art of Living" program...I have found an Indian Guru who is arriving in a month to consult with Karzai on the needs of the Afghan people. Sri Sri Ravishankar who found the "Art of Living" and is in line for a Nobel Peace prize for his international work. I can see why too...Last week I hosted 30 Afghan school boys for our first "Art of Living Course" here at PARSA as they learned yoga and meditation with Dawn and I the only women in the course. First, there is no human being on the planet that I have more hostile feelings toward than Afghan schoolboys. I think they are nasty, hormonal and they spent a good amount of the workshop sniggering at my backside as I attempted to do yoga postures. Thankfully, the intent of the workshop prevailed and I managed to feel a modicum of compassionate, universal love for them at the end of five days of yoga and breathing in their presence. If I could change my mind about Afghan school boys, in this course it is something special.

At the end of my yoga session today, I took Puppy for a walk around the compound as he explored for dead bodies...trying to remember Reese's training rules for him...making sure he knew I was "in charge"...dragging him away from questionable mounds of snow made sure that my shoulder is out of joint as a result and I am too tired to build a fire in the bathroom to take a warm bath.

I brought the dogs in and Reeses puppy , Motee, is trying out her "fighting dog" moves on Puppy in the house so both have been banished to the yard and are outside now whining to get back in.

In the evenings, I really miss Norm although I am glad to know he is to all.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Second day in the Panjshir-Colin

Today we woke up to Mabouba shrieking “what a beautiful day, oh I love this place so much” at 5:30 in the morning. I had slept quite terribly the previous night and though tired, was looking forward to the coming day. We drank a couple of cups of coffee and set on our way. Our goal was to reach a small village a ways up-river and do a survey of their access to the radio programming on Equal Access and the affectiveness of the civil-rights programs being provided.

The wonderful blacktop road ended about a mile up-river from the community we were staying in. So much for that little bit of luck, as it turned into what we had originally predicted; terrible, narrow and rocky. As we were trying to get through a section of the road cut high above the rushing river we came upon a car coming the opposite direction. Nisar, who is not a very good driver, did not do what he should have done when the on-coming car pulled off to the side. He stopped where he was instead of trying to pass on the cliff-side, obviously not confident enough to get around. He would have been fine but I guess prudence is a virtue in most situations such as these. He also knew that if he came anywhere close to the edge Mabouba would have bitten his head off. Instead the oncoming car came right up to us, where there was no option for passing. The driver got out of his car and came up to ours. He took one look at me and passed by my door to open up my mom’s and have words with us. I just about leapt out of the car, the audacity of aggressively opening a woman’s door instead of mine to try and intimidate us. I am not at all a violent man, but in this case my blood started to get a little hot and I got ready to open my door to get in the man’s way. Luckily Mabouba started talking to him in pharsi and he was caught aback, changing his tone to a less hostile one, asking for us to back our car up a way.
This little incident aside, we continued up-river asking directions to our village. Wow, the Pansher is beautiful. Green terraced hillsides and quaint villages above a raging river with snowcapped mountains in the distance. This area was much more intact, as the last war to touch this area was that against the Russians. The Taliban had been kept out of the region by the Northern Alliance and Massoud throughout their domination of most of the rest of Afghanistan. The difference between this and other areas of Afghanistan was clear. Walls and building were in better shape, looking well formed and older. The people had a different attitude as well, not quite as humbled by their difficult experiences; I found them intelligent, strong, confident and engaging. The Pansher people are quite varied in their appearances, some with red or blond hair, blue eyes and fair features. They are an outgoing people even to the point of being obnoxiously so, which is saying a lot for someone used to the Afghan nature.
We wound our way further up river, with the road getting worse as we went higher up. At some points we were literally driving in the riverbed with a couple of water crossings necessary. One of these was with water up to the middle of the doors. I was a bit nervous, especially with someone else driving. I didn’t want to get stuck up here with no other cars to back us up. I had to teach Nasir how to use 4-wheel drive properly and how to get through these water crossings. We did not have a proper exhaust system for this kind of stuff, but we made it anyways, luckily.
At one point we picked up a young boy whose mother asked us to take him to the village that was our endpoint. He was courteous and quiet, riding in the way-back of the SUV we were driving, helping us find our way. This last part of the drive was especially slow given the condition of the road, but oh was the scenery beautiful. We finally came to the end and the village we were looking for. As we emptied the car in the middle of the small bazaar, we were immediately circled by about 40 of the villagers, primarily men and boys. I usually get a little wary in these circumstances but everyone seemed just curious about us, especially me. I always draw the most attention in these situations and am getting used to it. I just affect the attitude of being kind and generous, yet they had better not mess with me, or the women I am traveling with. Given my size and with my sunglasses, I think they usually at first take me for a bodyguard of some sorts, which is fine with me. Let them think I’m carrying a gun under my vest until I’m sure that their intentions towards us are not malicious. As in every other meeting with a new village I’ve had, things went well and we were accepted to be good people. I let my guard down and smiled a bunch, saying hello to all the little boys and shaking their hands, which they think is a hoot.
Mabouba eventually found out that the radio transmitter was located in the cultural center and controlled by a madrassa. This was located far up the hillside, necessitating a walk. As we started walking up, with a boy and a man as guides, it became apparent that it was going to be a little too difficult for Mabouba (who is 59) to make it much farther up the difficult trail. We got to a point where it was cool and shady and told the boy to bring the Malawi down to us.
While we were waiting for the interview, a woman and her daughter showed up. Mabouba called her over and began asking her about herself and her access to the radio. This woman looked to be about 35, had 16 children and was quite beautiful though a bit worn out by the difficult life she had had. She was very affectionate with Mabouba, telling her all about her life with her husband and asking if we could come up to her house for chai and food. We declined the request, but she talked with Mabouba for quite a while until the Malawi showed up. It was apparent that her access to the programming was not very good, but she would be interested in it. It would help if the programs were at 8:00 pm after the work was done and the electricity was turned on for a few hours. This was taken note of.
The Malawi showed up with a few other young men and some young boys that had been hanging around came and followed. Mabouba began interviewing the man, who was a typical religious leader with big black beard and white hat. I have yet to have any good encounters with men that have big black beards but this one went all right. He described the educational programs for the girls of the village and the access to the radio programming. They can get the program up on the hillside, but tape it for people to listen to in the bottom of the valley. At least this is what he claimed. He also claimed that around 600 girls were getting an elementary education in his and the surrounding villages, with half-day shifts of classes. This seems like a large number given how small the village is; yet I guess it is possible. Hopefully he’s telling us the truth and not just what we want to hear. They are not teaching women, just young girls up to the age of about 10 years. I guess this is a start in a country that for the past decade previous to the fall of the Taliban allowed no female education whatsoever. This meeting went okay, however I have some doubts as to the commitment this man has to equal education for both boys and girls.
The madrassas have often been the focus of aid from the West as of late. I believe this stems from a hope that if we incorporate the Islamic religious centers into our system of aid that our credibility in the Muslim world will be increased. While earning credibility with other countries in the region is important, it should not be done at the expense of the individuals we are supposedly trying to help. What can we expect from local leaders of whose interpretation of their religion and the cultural context of that interpretation is contrary to our ideals of equality and civil rights. I’m not saying that they should be left out; they should be incorporated, but monitored closely if they are the ones that are supposed to distribute our aid. Otherwise we will once again end up backing the wrong faction. At what point do we stand up and say, “these are important items that our aid should be contingent upon”? I’m not sure what the answer is. It’s a very sticky situation, as we don’t want to be seen as imposing our own views on the rest of the world. However, I am firm in the belief of individual rights for women, men, children, ethnic/religious minorities and all members of society that wish to live peaceably within such. Do we have the right to impose these very basic views? I hope so, but am not sure that everyone agrees with me. Most Americans would, however some religiously strictured societies might disagree and we have to respect this to a certain extent. We cannot force change upon people, it has to be desired from within. If the people desire it then we should do what we can to help produce change. If not, leave them to their own devices. Unfortunately those within a society that usually have the loudest voice are not typically those who need to be protected, but the ruling class that want things to stay as they are. When we do decide to interfere it needs to be thoroughly researched and thought out, for the good of all members of a society. As of late, we have too often listened to the voices we want to hear, to back the cause we want to enforce.
We finished up the interview and made our way slowly down the hillside. We left the village, picking up an old man needing a ride down-river. I was glad to not know pharsi for once as he talked Mabouba’s ear off the entire time. He was a nice old man but absolutely would not stop talking the whole way. We dropped him off in one of the villages and continued on, wanting to make our deep river crossing before the water came up in late afternoon. We made the crossing and stopped for some lunch under the shade of a large mulberry tree. We watched some men working on reinforcing a retaining wall damaged by the spring floods. They were playing as much as working, splashing each other with water and generally having a good time.
After lunch we continued on to our guesthouse, all quite hot, dusty and tired. I took quite a nap, falling into a deep sleep. We had one more piece of business; to go back to a cultural center we had been at the previous day and collect a letter from the director that would be used to fundraise for the program developed the day before. When we arrived he was not there, as he was attending to the death of four people that had driven off the road when their driver tried to pass by a goatherd. He apparently put the car in the river and everyone drowned in the rushing water. This was very sad and totally avoidable. As we were leaving to go back to the guest house the man showed up and promised to work on the letter and get it to Mabouba in Kabul.
That night we relaxed in our guesthouse and I cooked a dinner of pasta with red-sauce. It was simple but good. We went to bed early, getting ready for the 5:30 wake-up call that was bound to come the next morning from Mabouba. We were to head back to Kabul in the morning, looking forward to showers and fresh clothes.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Panjshir-Northern Alliance Colin

Mabouba her driver Nisar, mom and I traveled up to Pansher Province today. Mom and Mabouba are completing their survey work for Equal Access Radio. A program was developed a year and a half ago to provide civil rights workshops for primarily women in several provinces, both by radio and in person. The two of them would go into the communities and evaluate the effectiveness of these workshops as well as access to the radio transmissions. Their project is transitioning a bit due to their observations. Mabouba is going to be doing a weekly radio address on public access, focusing on the things that Afghans are doing right in their country as well as what is needed further. Much of their attention at this point seems to be on women, however this will likely turn into a broader focus on Afghanistan, men women and children included.
Trying to get out of Kabul was difficult as someone of importance was being transported in or around the international area in the center of the city near the UN compound. The police and soldiers block off huge sections of the city when this happens, bringing traffic flow to a halt. It may seem reasonable to those requiring the security, yet it really pisses people off. This is definitely not good for relations with the locals. Nisar took some back roads and eventually got us to the highway leading north out to the Shomali plain.
This was my second trip through the Shomali and it was interesting looking upon it with more practiced eyes. This area is the traditional battleground for wars in Afghanistan as it is the northern route into Kabul. It was continually devastated and then rebuilt. Mines, as always in this country are a problem and clearing work continues. There are many relics left over from the war depicted by rusting tanks and blown out buildings. Yet, amongst this you can witness the industriousness of the Afghan people. They are replanting their fields and rebuilding structures. Grape vines seem to be a primary crop, at least along the highway. The whole plain seems to have good access to water, it is lush and green at least this time of the year. Duchans (small stores) spring up all along the highway, yet as is typical they all hold the same stuff, usually right next to each other.
It’s interesting that not many afghans seem to collaborate their resources into larger, better operations. This seems to be part of the independent spirit of these people, no one wanting to work for another. They all want to be their own boss, which is commendable, yet I’m not sure if it is good for the development of the country. At a certain point people need to be willing to compile their resources to project themselves into a larger operation with greater gain for all in the long run. I’m not saying that the U.S is the perfect model of capitalism, yet some things have been figured out. Imagine if every person that would work in a supermarket were to instead try to own their own tiny little market, all right next to each other selling the same limited assortment of things. They would only end up competing with each other, underselling their neighbors. Instead, maintain a “monopoly” on the area and work together, keeping the prices at a level that will sell the goods for profit. Again, this is only a cursory look at the matter, yet I have repeatedly seen this phenomenon in Afghanistan. There are whole streets of small mechanic workshops, all right next to each other. Butchers right next to each other, and what I call “crap stores” all selling the same thing right next to each other. Instead they could build a single large mechanic workshop or butchery and probably be more efficient and make more money in the long run. However this would require people following someone else’s directions, “electing” a leader, which is definitely a problem for Afghans. These people don’t like to be under anyone else’s rule.
We turned off the highway and drove into the Kapisa district, stopping to have yet another lunch of kabobs. I’ve finally gotten used to the traditional version where they sandwich the meat around a piece of fat. Neither mom nor Mahbouba like it, yet I find it a little tasty, as long as I don’t think about it too much and just wrap the whole thing in naan.
From Kapisa we passed through a canyon that is the entrance to the Pansher region. We had to pass by a guard station; they took one look at me and made us stop for further questioning. They didn’t know what to think of us; I looked dubious to them with my red hair and sunglasses, camera in my lap wearing traditional dress. Mom says they thought I was some sort of bad-assed afghan. I usually take my sunglasses off when I get to these stations, yet forgot to in this case. We eventually got ushered through. As we traveled up the Pansher Valleys we followed a raging river that looked like it would be a blast to raft/kayak through. Truly, if the safety concerns weren’t there Afghanistan could one day have a booming adventure travel business. I have rarely seen such whitewater, especially with good access to roads. They all do because that’s where people live in Afghanistan, in the valley bottom, irrigating off of the main rivers that will run through the dry months.
The Pansher region is a safe area for Americans to be in and I feel very little animosity. They were the main component of the Northern Alliance under the leadership of Massoud that the U.S backed financially and militarily to overturn the Taliban. It is obvious that these people are flush with capital at the moment. Compared to the road up to Bamian this region has a perfect, new blacktop with guardrails along the river side. It’s so much easier to travel on. There are many new buildings being constructed, not cheaply either. The military presence here is excessive and well organized, much more so than even in Kabul. It sounds like though they wear the same uniforms as the other regions, they are essentially under their own direction. President Karzai seems to project that he has control of this area, but I’m not so sure. If it came down to it I’m not so sure that the soldiers in this area would not just abandon the needs of Afghanistan for those of their own region. They had a lot of money and arms given them by the U.S. and have probably retained control of most of these. Is it smart to have regional armies under the control of warlords in the guise of ministers?
We came into a small, but tidy village and met with the first person that Mabouba wanted to interview. He is the headmaster of a madrassa (religious school). Most of the discussion was in Dari, yet I could tell things weren’t going well. Mabouba was asking the man if he was using the transmitter that Equal Access had provided the school. It appears they don’t. The man was not very receptive to our presence, I could tell that much. After the interview ended and we were back in the car, Mabouba went off about the man. Apparently he was disdainful of us, even Mabouba, seeing her as a Khereji who left the country in a time of need. He was not going to help us find accommodations in the village. This was ridiculous, Mabouba was placed in prison before she was released and allowed to escape the country; he likely would have fled if he could have. He outright said we should not stay in the village because we were not welcome. He did not want us painting the picture of his people needing help from internationals. He was afraid of how he would be thought of in the village and elsewhere. Mom and Mabouba were literally stunned by the man’s attitude. They had not once been treated in this manner and it was thoroughly un-Afghan.
Mabouba said that this was a bad sign, as the headmaster was a young afghan man and that she was afraid it was going to be a prevailing attitude in the region. She said that the un-graciousness, even if he did disagree with our mission was unheard of and an indication of a lack of elders teaching their youngsters the Afghan way. She was literally afraid for Afghanistan if this was any sort of indication of the mood of other young people in her country. We left that village with a bad taste in our mouth, a little nervous about what we were going to find further up river.
We came into the next village and found the cultural center. I could tell mom and Mabouba were a little apprehensive as to what they would find. We were ushered into a room to meet a middle-aged afghan man and what seemed to be a couple of his assistants. Again not much was translated for me, but mom kept me abreast of the general happenings. I could see Mabouba relax almost immediately and we were received well. She began telling the man about her radio project and asking the man about how well the civil rights workshops had been received. Apparently they have no transmitter in this village, but Mabouba said she would be petitioning Equal Access to remove the one from the previous village and have it re-placed there. During the interview the man told Mabouba about his educational projects. There was a great dialogue where Mom gave the man some good ideas for programs to develop his children’s voice on the radio. Program development occurred right then and there with a grant proposal forthcoming in which they will try to get funding for the children of this village to make their own radio shows. It will be an offshoot of Mabouba’s weekly radio program and seems like a great addition. We had, after the encounter in the first village been considering heading back to Kabul this evening, yet the man suggested a guest house further upriver that would allow us to stay in the region and get more work done tomorrow. They will meet again on our way out and further develop their grant proposal for the children’s program. We had to go to the police station and get permission from the regional deputy to stay, but that went well.
As we traveled upriver we were wondering what the guesthouse would be like. I was prepared for anything and not really expecting a whole lot. We finally stopped outside the compound walls and it didn’t look good, but at least we would have a place to stay. As we were ushered in, entered the house and looked at our accommodations. We were stunned; it was great, clean rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen with even a comfortable living room. The nice man who was the owner said we could pay what we thought fit. We really couldn’t believe our luck as we were all prepared to stay in a mud room with dusty floors and terrible beds. Not only was it clean and comfortable, but right along the river. Apparently the man was a friend of Massoud and the home was once used as the Foreign Ministry of the Northern Alliance, go figure.
The ladies went down and sat by the river, debriefing and I wandered around taking pictures, free to do my own thing in safety. A wonderful end to what started out as a difficult day. Tomorrow, given our accommodations we will be able to travel far up the valleys to an area that mom and Mabouba want to survey. I think I will like this region; it is absolutely beautiful, clean and actually fairly well developed. It is what all of Afghanistan could look like if the aid were evenly distributed.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Dinglish-Colin's Journal

I’m sitting back in Kabul now and it’s oh so comfortable. We made the trip back down from Bamian yesterday. Everything went smoothly, except for 3 flat tires and not too much to mention about the journey. I drove for the first 5 hours, which was exhausting on such a terrible road. We all wished we could have flown. After a week together it was hard for us not to get a little annoyed with each other during the long, hard drive. But we made it, relationships in tact.
It really was a good crew to have taken up there for this trip. Everyone was easy to get along with and they all knew at least a little English (except Faisal) so I could communicate with them. The PARSA staff have perfected what we call Dinglish, a blend of Dari and English that sounds funny but gets the point across. For example; “Marniejan gap we go bazaar, get buz wa pepsi” translates to “ marnie says we should go to the market together and get goat and pepsi”. Asef is the master of this and we would have conversations for hours in this manner. I really like him, although he has earned the title of “mister problem/ problem-solve” as he seems to create as many problems as he solves. He is always happy and takes our teasing well. We’ve determined that Dinglish is a great way to learn dari, or English for that matter, as it gives you words in both contexts. Its especially good for those of us that don’t like to sit down to learn languages in a class room, though in the end real study is needed to not sound like a moron.
Before we left Bamian, at 6:00 am the ladies that were to start making rugs for us showed up for final negotiations. I was busy getting things squared away to leave, but apparently it didn’t go well, as the negotiations lasted only 5 minutes. Mom and Yasin came out of the meeting quite frustrated. Mom knew things wouldn’t go well when the entered the compound complaining. Now it was “the wool is poor quality, and we don’t have wood for the frames of the looms”, which is the sign that you’re in for some stiff negotiating. The ladies had told them that they wanted a payment of $40 per kilo of rug. This is outrageous and far far above market value, especially given we were going to provide the materials to them. She pointed to a high quality rug we had that probably weighs 5 to 7 kilos and was bought at the fair price of $40, without having to pay for the materials. They didn’t believe her, but I watched her buy the rug myself and it’s true.
When I heard this I was in disbelief. These people up here are not looking at what we’re trying to create, a market for their work. They are not understanding that they need to give fair prices for their work and in exchange will have consistent income, far exceeding what they bring in now which is next to nothing. All they see is that they have a Khereji (foreigner) with a large pocket book (false) and they want to get what they can out of it and run. This is not the first time we found this in our attempts to develop this “micro-industry” and in discussing it we really think it comes out of a couple of things.
For one, most of these people are illiterate and really have no understanding of math, especially the women. We could probably offer them a base wage of $100 a month for full time work and they would take it, yet we are not trying to set up a sweatshop. Mom and Yasin are just trying to facilitate the market to get more people access to cash, especially women. Secondly, they are trying to get as much as they can out of a single transaction; this I believe is due to the war-time mentality that has developed in this country over the past 25 years. You need to get as much as you can, when you can because the opportunity might not be there tomorrow. They can’t think in the long term, and probably don’t trust the development that my mom and Yasin are trying to construct. It’s hard not to be frustrated with both their ignorance and mentality; you have to think of what they have been through and their lack of education. Mom and Yasin realize now that it will not be quite as easy to set this system up as they had hoped. Provide people with materials and give them a fair price for their work to stimulate the local market and bring cash into the community. Simple right? Not at all; as typical of any program development in this country, or the third world in general. They will have to think out their strategy and find the right people to develop it with. I believe they have the right idea and are going in the right direction, but its an experiment and needs to be toyed with to find a working solution.
Today has been spent catching up on my journal and resting before our next trip into the provinces for my mother’s survey work. We’ll be going to Pansher, an area to the east of Kabul in the mountains, which should be beautiful. We’ll be staying only a couple of nights and then returning. Tomorrow I’ll go over to the Marastoon compound where PARSA is located to check on the progress of my soccer field for the orphans and plan out the construction of the goals. Kabul seems so easy and even a little boring after our time in Bamian, but its good to get some rest before we leave on Sunday.

A village-Colin's Journal

Today was one of the best days I’ve spent here so far certainly a highlight of the trip. It started with our visit to the giant Buddha’s that we’ve looked at from a distance the past week, but haven’t had the chance to explore. We hired a “guide” that said he was an archeological student from Kabul, however whenever I asked him about the history of the area he either knew none of the details, or couldn’t voice them in English. He mainly kept us from wandering into areas that were potentially still mined.
These Buddha statues were carved out of the face of a cliff in the 2nd and 3rd century AD, considered the most impressive depiction of the Buddha and until the Taliban destroyed them could probably be considered one of the great wonders of the world. Amongst them are literally hundreds of caves that the people who inhabited the valley of Bamian, the Kushans, lived in. This was a defense against raiders such as Ghengis Khan’s grandson who razed the valley in the 12th century AD. As Buddhism spread westward along the Silk Road, Bamian became a center for the study of Mahayana Buddhism, with hundreds of monks living in and around the statues. As we climbed the tunnels up above the Buddha’s, our guide explained the existence of slots with views of the Buddha. Apparently monks would come and pray, sleeping in these slots, allowing people to walk over the top of them, remaining undisturbed in their meditations.
When the Taliban arrived in the valley they saw the Buddha’s as false idols and sent the Hazara people up with dynamite to destroy them. There are still lots of chunks that some people want to try and use to reconstruct the Buddha’s. Though I consider the destruction of the Buddha’s a terrible tragedy for the world, it is a good example of how horrible extremism in religion can be. Why would people be so insecure in their own ideas that they have to destroy such beautiful icons of another system of beliefs? Maybe they should remain in destruction, as a reminder of what the Taliban was all about. When they destroyed the Buddha’s they got the attention of the world and it was really the start of the Taliban being viewed in a negative light. The Buddha’s have now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and have the protection of the international community, for whatever that’s worth.
After seeing the Buddha’s we went back to the compound and left Same and Asef to work on getting it ready for our departure the next day. They wouldn’t have been nearly as excited to do what we were setting about next. We took Rahim our landlord and went up into a high mountain valley above Bamian. We drove the car as far as we could on the bad dirt road and then got out and walked. We were bringing a sun oven, donated by Caroline Firestone, of the Firestone Tires fortune to a widow with four children that my mom had met on a previous visit a few months previous. She had promised she would return in the spring with a development program and aid, she was keeping her promise which is something I think these people are not used to. Too often internationals show up making big promises and then don’t follow through.
This is a very beautiful mountain village that reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of Nepal or Tibet. These people truly live the same as they have for thousands of years. We stopped at the first main dwelling and were welcomed by a man and his family. Invited to chai, we sat down and were served tea, nan and maste (a creamy yogurt-like product that I couldn’t eat for fear of dysentery). Mom saw a “nemad” (rug) that the man had made and asked if he could make more. This was another opportunity to try some “micro-industry” development in a small village that needs access to cash. As before, when negotiating the price we could buy the final item at the man came up with an astronomical amount that we could never come close to paying. We couldn’t sell it for even 1/4th of what he was wanting. As on previous days we were a bit perplexed at this, I don’t think they understand that if they develop their own village industry they will make far more money in the long run, but we can’t do this at the prices they are quoting us. We stopped the negotiations there, leaving it for another time, as the main point of our visit was to develop good relations with the village, helping this poor woman. Yasin and mom also talked with the man about the need for a small portion of land for use in building a school building and small widows garden; to teach English as well as how to grow something other than potatoes and wheat. At first he said that it wouldn’t be possible to find land unless purchased. Yasin told the man that they are an organization that is trying to help his village, not turn a profit. That the problems the village faces are theirs to solve not ours. We want to help facilitate the development of the village literacy and well-being but are not going to do it without the full support of the people there. My mom has always, even before coming to Afghanistan, tried to instill self-sufficiency in the people she works with such as the women on welfare that was her previous focus. She is not interested in just handing out aid, as it does nothing in the long run but enable a begging mentality. Her programs are about empowering people to change their own circumstances, which is much more effective to their well-being over the long-term.
This man offered to help us transport the sun-oven the rest of the way up the valley to the widow’s house. This took about half an hour and was a decent climb. The widow lives in a little mud dwelling that is pretty much a hovel with no compound walls. The inside is dark and damp with no furniture and really nothing other than a few blankets spread on the mud-made floor. As word of our arrival spread we had quite the little crowd of villagers, aside from the widow and her daughters. Yasin went to work explaining why we were there, as my mom had made a promise and was keeping her commitment to her and the village. He then went about explaining how to use the sun oven. As I ran around taking pictures of the scene it looked pretty funny. These villagers spend almost their whole life in this tiny little village. We must have seemed like aliens descending on them with two kherejis (mom and I) and this sun oven that looks like something from outer space.
After the demonstration my mom told the widow that it was her responsibility to the village, to use the oven and find how many different ways it could be used to cook. If she was successful then more ovens would be brought for more families. At this the widow looked so upset, she could feel the pressure and was nervous she would fail. It was kind of touching really. After the fact I asked my mom whether she had put too much pressure on the poor woman. She said that pressure was what she wanted the woman to feel. Otherwise the woman may not really try to learn how to use it. It will also be empowering for her to become successful and play her part in helping out her village. Mom will bring more aid regardless, but the pressure on these people is key. It’s not just a handout but a responsibility. These people must be active in the process of improving their lives.
In the middle of the demonstration a man that was the elected village headman showed up, watching everything with great interest. Though we had passed by his rich dwelling on the way up, we had purposely avoided the invitation for chai by his wives, as it would have sidetracked us for at least another hour. He’s not the one that needs any help, as he owns most of the land in the village; yet we knew we would need to deal with him at some point for the future of the development program. We left the widow and her daughters, giving them some money as well, which is probably what they were more immediately interested in, promising to return in one month. I’m sure they believe my mom this time.
The headman and a few others escorted us back down the hill. When we arrived at his compound we talked with him about the need of finding a small plot of land, which a school could be built on, as well as a bit more for a widow’s garden. The school is needed in the village because as of now only the boys are allowed to go down the mountain for class, the girls needed back home to get the household chores and farming needs taken care of. With a school in the village the girls can attend half a day and do their work the other half. The garden will be used to reintroduce a subsistence level of farming. Right now they grow only cash crops, primarily potatoes and wheat along with their fruit orchards. They don’t get the nutrients they need because the cost of them in the bazaar is prohibitive.
When we reached the headman’s compound we discussed the need for a small plot of land for a school and garden. He stated that he should receive a salary for his time in searching out this land. This was a ridiculous request as he owns most of the land and knows where he could put the school and garden. Yasin laid into the man. He told him that the man was the elected leader of his people and it was his responsibility to take care of them, not ours. Another man could replace him, especially if it was found out that he failed to help an aid program enter the village. Yasin smoothed things over a little by saying that when they returned they would bring an oven for the headman’s family as well as others in need. I think the man got the picture, yet mom says that this was just the opening volley in the negotiations, so we’ll see.
As we left the man’s house and the whole conversation was related to us, we told Yasin how proud we were of him. He said exactly what mom would have told the man and didn’t even need to consult her. He has learned my mom’s way of doing things and the two of them are an awesome team. He is so important, as it is crucial these days in Afghanistan to have a man as the lead negotiator in certain circumstances. If he is seen just as a translator for my mom, things go differently. Most of these rural people don’t really know what to do with my mother, as her strength and personality as a woman are so alien to them. At first they think they can railroad her as any other woman, or just don’t take her position seriously it’s so foreign to them. Yasin continues to be impressive and is gaining strength and confidence under my mother’s leadership.
On the walk down to the car we were all happy with how things went, discussing all that had occurred. One last little thing that made the day even more special was the arrival of a little “sag-e-chopan” (sheep herding) puppy. Yasin had been looking for one to take home they whole trip. This is a very special breed of dog that exists in the highlands of Afghanistan. These are huge dogs that traditionally are used for sheep herding, yet often these days get turned into fighting dogs for sport. They are very intelligent and have an interesting look to them, as their ears are cropped as a defensive measure in fighting with, traditionally wolves and more recently other dogs. Yasin bought the puppy off of a little boy for 500 afs ($10), making both of them extremely happy. When the transaction was finished mom told the puppy, “ You just won the lottery” which is a saying they use when they rescue street dogs and cats from abusive homes or the street. The dog will have a much easier, happier life with Yasin. He was so excited about his new puppy, though his wives probably won’t be. I came up with her name on the way home. Zorine, which means “golden” after the name of the place we got her; “village of the golden oat”. When we got back to the compound we fed her a huge meal, as she was so skinny. This cemented the relationship and she was instantly ecstatic to be with us, running circles around the compound and playing with everyone’s feet.
It was a wonderful day. I had so much fun taking pictures and it was incredibly rewarding. New ideas about what I should be doing with my life have been circling through my head, especially after this experience. But I’ll formulate them further before sharing them. Tomorrow we leave Bamian and go back to Kabul, none of us are looking forward to the drive back down the terrible road, but we’ll all be happy to take a shower an enjoy a little bit of comfort, such as electricity and soft beds after a long, yet successful week in the mountains.

Shari Zohawk-Colin's Journal

In The Heart of Afghanistan

Today we set the painters up with enough work for the day and went out to explore. We drove 45 minutes to an ancient and abandoned fortress built in the 6th century AD by the Shansabani kings. This is an abandoned refuge from invaders. It is located on an isolated outcropping of rock, maybe 800 feet above the river valley of Bamian. The people built these dwellings high above where they farmed, as a defensive measure from raiding barbarians such as the Mongol hoards of Genghis Khan’s grandson in the 12th century. There were a couple such fortresses in this high valley that was once home to hundreds of thousands of people. When the Mongols invaded in the 12th century they laid siege to Sharizahak (the red city) and also a nearby fortress aptly named the “city of screams”. The people here were decimated by the Mongols, but eventually incorporated them into their bloodlines, which can still be seen in their facial features.
When we arrived at the turn off from the main road we were stopped by a “poopy little man” as my mom called the short soldier. He said that if we wanted to see the ruins we had to purchase a ticket (45 minutes) back in Bamian. We were slightly put off to say the least at there was no sign indicating this anywhere, nor was this the case just two months earlier when my mom had been to the ruins. Yasin started to drive down the road anyways and the soldier went and grabbed his gun aggressively. We stopped and he reiterated his demand that we return to Bamian and purchase tickets. Yasin stepped out of the car to talk to the man. As it appeared he was getting nowhere, my mom got out of the car and walked stridently up to the man, whom she towered over. She expressed her anger and then called for Norm to come out and “beetle” his eyebrows at the man angrily, as he is the big Khereji (foreigner) man. Slowly our group gathered momentum with the man as all of us seven of us, Faisel included, got out of the van and surrounded the man. I couldn’t say anything but I took off my sunglasses and did my best to “beetle” my eyebrows angrily, (though I wasn’t quite sure what that was supposed to look like) and generally huff about. My mom had Yasin translate for her. She said that this was a ridiculous thing not to sell tickets at the location and if she had to go back to Bamian she was going directly to the governors office. She said she was an acquaintance of the governor and demanded to know the soldiers name and his commandant’s name. I could see the little soldier’s resistance start to crumble and he went inside a building, bringing out a quiet looking, younger soldier. It was finally agreed that we would pay the young soldier 500 afs. ($10) to be our guide up to the ruins. We had not problem with this, paid the man and he jumped in our van with us, with his machine gun.
This was a good example of a couple of things that happen constantly in Afghanistan. As I mentioned in an earlier entry there are “25 million kings” in this country. Anyone in any position of power typically tries to enforce whatever rules he sees fit to, when he wants to. It’s a fairly arbitrary decision and often has no basis in the reality of the situation. Yes, someone probably did make the poor decision to sell tickets to the ruins in Bamian. However, it was obviously not that big of a deal given the soldier relented in the end. If he truly did have orders not to allow anyone access without a ticket, then he should have stood by these orders and prevented our entry without fear of losing his job. As it was, we did what is needed so often in this country to get anything done. We made a big scene, dropped phony names, threatened the man’s job and made a general nuisance of ourselves. It was kind of fun, though I would not have been the first one to start bitching out a man with a gun. My mom has gotten used to this and is unafraid of “poopy little men” with machine guns.
So we went on our way and parked the van for the walk up the ruins, which were amazing. These dwellings are perched high on the sides of the mountain and cliffs, constructed of mud that was also molded into designs. I tried to imagine what they looked like when first built and what it would have been like to live high up above the valley with thousands of other people. The defensive nature of the choice to build up there was immediately apparent. Walking up the path was difficult enough, let alone trying to take the city while being defended by its inhabitants. We had to stay on the path and I was introduced to the white and red rocks that are found all over Afghanistan. These were painted to indicate the presence or lack of mines left over from the various wars that Afghanis have been subject to for the past 25 years. I really wanted to hop around the rocks and explore the ruins further, but the young soldier with us got very distressed whenever I crossed over a red rock, so I stopped doing this and stayed on the path. I probably would have been fine, but I guess it’s not worth the chance.
This outcropping, I don’t really call it a mountain because it is set apart all alone and less than a thousand feet above the valley floor, was used by Mujahadeen against the Russians, as well as the Taliban against the Hazara of Bamian. It is the perfect place to use as a defense against invasion from the east. There were old dug out spots that held large howitzers and anti-aircraft guns. Empty ammunition cans and caves dug into the hillside with evidence of soldiers having lived in them. At the very top we came on a large gun that was either broken, or too much hassle to try and bring back down the treacherous trail; a helicopter probably brought it up in the first place.
As we stood at the top, next to this gun I was struck by the understanding of why it has historically been so difficult for invading armies to take Afghanistan. The mountains are a great equalizer; they don’t allow large armies to utilize most of their complex machinery of war. Tanks get bogged down in valleys where they get bottlenecked in passes and can be taken out by a handful of men sitting on the hillsides above with rockets. The Russians lost so many solders in their 9-year attempt to take Afghanistan and many attribute this as one of the main reasons the Soviet Empire fell. The people of Afghanistan are historically a very warlike society of different tribes, none of which will stay subject to another’s will, especially that of imperialist non-believers. Given America now has soldiers here in Afghanistan, I worry that our government will make the mistakes that the Soviet Union made. I actually think that in some ways it’s a good thing that we moved on to Iraq so quickly. In most areas of Afghanistan there is not much of an American military presence, it’s my impression that the majority of Afghans sees us less as an occupying army and more of a stabilizing force. Afghans seem to fear other Afghans as much or more than they do us. The years between the fall of the Russian supported communist regime and the takeover by the Taliban were the worst for most Afghans, as it was a time of warlords vying for control, with at one point three separate armies fighting over Kabul. There is a reason why the Taliban were embraced by most when they first won. People wanted stability, though the form of stability that ensued was realized eventually by most to be absolutely undesirable.
We eventually finished playing tourist and descended back down to the valley floor. We gave the young soldier that was our “guide” another 250 afs., as he was actually pretty nice and didn’t rush us even though we took endless numbers of pictures. I could tell he was pretty amused by us. He made $15 more that day because we showed up and I hope this makes it a little easier for the next people who want to go see the ruins. When we got back to the “poopy little man” we gave Same some bakshish to give him, our attempt at smoothing things over with the locals. He slipped it into the soldier’s hand subtly and we could see he was a little surprised at the tip. He opened the gate and let us back towards Bamian.
We returned to our compound and our painters hard at work, though truly doing a terrible job by American standards. It’s interesting to see Afghans at work. They make great farmers but are truly unskilled at anything remotely technical like plumbing, electricity or painting. The average American knows more about these things than most people here that claim to be specialists. I was talking to mom and Norm and we decided that for one reason, most Afghans don’t even have these items in their home. Secondly, in America the cost of labor is so expensive that we learn to be independent and do things ourselves. We learn to paint our own homes, work on our own cars, and do our own basic carpentry. Here in Afghanistan you can always hire other people, a base wage is usually around four to five dollars a day, with specialists not usually earning much more than 6 dollars a day. Everyone with any money has a houseful of servants to do what is needed. On the surface this seems great, though Afghans make terrible servants. But I’m glad that I grew up learning to do household basics on my own. I can cook better than most, I’ve done roofing, painting, plumbing, electricity, drywall, and wall-to-wall carpet, have a good basic knowledge of cars and lots of landscaping. I think we often surprise the Afghans by the breadth of knowledge Americans have on these subjects. They seem to think that because we are rich Kherejis we are soft and incapable like their own elite. Its kind of fun to know how to do all these things yourself, although great when you can afford not to. In a country like this, if you want to have things done well by our own western standards, it is crucial to be able to direct your workers with efficiency. It is rare to find anyone that really knows what they are doing. People need work so desperately that they will call themselves a specialist at anything to get a job. Its important to not get too frustrated at this, we have pretty high standards for work as Americans. Find a good hard worker and teach him how you want it to be done. But be ready to repeat yourself because they so often just do what they want anyways. They are Afghans; a historically proud independent people and one must take them for what they are worth or be continuously frustrated.

Colin's Journal: BandiAmir Lakes

Today we packed up the van and headed out to Bandiamir lakes. The road out of Bamian heads generally west and is not in very good shape. It took a little over 3 hours to drive to the lakes and it was a really rough ride, on both people and car. First we passed through a system of canyons, following a small fast flowing river. There were small farms on any land that was relatively flat and could have water run to it. I’m constantly amazed at where the Afghans can get water to run.
We eventually made our way out to wide open tundra like land where men and young boys watched over herds of fat-tailed sheep and goats. We passed through a couple of small villages of Hazara people that obviously did not see many foreigners. These people seem to lead a tough life, not much different than their ancestors had thousands of years ago. The faces of some of the children were red from the sun and malnourishment. Little 11-year-old boys have the faces of 40 year olds.
At one point we stopped in a village; the name escapes me, that had recently had an international donor build a medical clinic and two long buildings that are supposed to be shops. While I’m assuming the clinic is well used, only a third of the duchans were in use, most locked up and empty. This project cost about a million dollars, is actually quite useless, and is after only three years beginning to disintegrate from the elements. It looks like crap and is thoroughly un Afghan. Why build a bunch of shops for people when they have no economy? This makes no sense and is just one example of the misuse of international donations to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
Though obviously well intentioned, this money is going to waste. It would have been more effective in helping these people if it had been put into the building of their local economy. Not many people drive up to this village because the road is so bad. These people need roads and access to cash economy. I doubt that someone that had spent any time in the community, or even in Afghanistan for that matter devised the project. The people of Afghanistan have been through so much and deserve the help of the international community. They comprise the largest refugee population the world has ever seen. They are frustrated that even 5 years after the fall of the Taliban there is little improvement in their daily lives. Yes, girls can now go to school, but if their parents can’t afford to let them away from the farm because they are too poor to give up the time away, then they won’t be allowed to go. What is the solution? I’m not sure but this is not it. This is a country that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. There is literally no infrastructure outside any of the major cities, and that which is in the cities is dubious. Kabul, until this spring was living on 3 hours of electricity a day. It took 5 years to get to this point in the city that is the heart of Afghanistan’s economy. The outlying villages have far less. Up here in Bamian there is no city electricity, nothing to do with garbage or sewage and there are probably around 100,000 people living in town and the surrounding area.
It’s not solely our job, but I believe that America has let these people down. We made promises of a better life without the Taliban and have not even come close to fulfilling this commitment. We jumped on to Iraq and are poring billions of dollars into the rebuilding of that country, while still fighting a large insurgency/ civil war there. I would hazard to guess that there is a larger percentage of the afghan population that is happy to have America here compared to the population of Iraq. We could make such a difference here, but if we don’t act quick enough there will be someone else, a local warlord that makes an offer that the afghan people will take up in a desperate bid for a better life. There are two things that would make a huge difference here; roads and electricity. If we gave them this Afghan people would truly be strong allies and would cast out those elements that fight the development of their nation and way of life. They are hard working, industrious people that given the chance will build a great country. There is immense potential to develop their natural resources in a way that would benefit the whole country.
Okay, off of my soapbox and back to the trip. We rolled on through the high plains with the sporadic herds of sheep and goats, as well as the occasional winter wheat fields being prepared (this is a horrible practice that causes huge amounts of erosion). We eventually got to the high point and started going down hill. Occasionally throughout this high grassy area we would see the red painted rocks that indicate the presence of mines. These people are pasturing their animals and herding them through these areas where the Russians placed mines, probably in this case and people are still dying from them.
We got to our first glimpse of our destination. We could see one of the upper Bandiamir lakes, which are a series of five large, emerald blue lakes of incredible, unmeasured depth. The contrast to the barren landscape makes the blue of these lakes all the more startling. The place we stopped was actually the same place that my mother had stopped as a little girl on her first visit, a picture of her taken in the same place that I had a picture taken of myself. We continued to work our way down to the lakes, the road getting even more fun and finally got to the bottom. These lakes seem to have been formed by mineral deposition damming up the exit. So the lake level is about 25 feet above the valley floor, with small waterfalls running off the edge. I’ve never seen anything like it before and would love to learn more about it’s natural history, though I have a feeling that there hasn’t been much research done given its isolation. This series of five lakes could be a wonderful place to do speciation research, especially on the fish and amphibians. The bottom of the largest has never been discovered, probably due to a lack of sophisticated equipment, but there have been attempts. It was recently declared a UNESCO natural heritage site, so development has been halted and the few local people that have been living around it are subsidized so that they don’t upset the area too much with farming. Unfortunately Afghans, like most third world people, don’t have a concept of garbage control and garbage is starting to pile up a little. Its not bad yet, but will become so if the area becomes easier to access and outdoor ethics are not instilled in the visitors. It would be a shame ruin such an amazing place with plastic bags and aluminum cans. Mom and I couldn’t help but pick up a large bag of garbage while we were there. It wasn’t much but the purpose was more to provide an example to the Afghans with us and those local people that saw us doing it. I think they are just blind to the garbage at this point, as most Americans were until about the last 50 years.
We wandered up to the edge of the lake and went to a place that had a ledge where you could get in and out. The lake literally drops off immediately, and I mean immediately, to some incredible depth. In some places you could jump in and not be able to pull yourself back out, and you’re not jumping off a cliff, but from lake level. It’s kind of intimidating even to someone that’s a decent swimmer. Everyone looked a little apprehensive, so I lead the way; changed into my swimsuit and leapt in. As I predicted my breath was immediately taken away by the cold of the water and I swam back to the ledge and got out. The water was bearable on the ledge because the sun warmed up the foot and a half of water there, but once you stepped off the ledge it was ice cold. Once they saw me do it, Norm, Asef and Same went and put their suits on. The Afghans didn’t have shorts, but used light pantaloons that they rolled up to above their knees and then blew air into from their waistline. I didn’t understand why they did this until I saw them attempt to swim. Neither of them could do much besides a doggie paddle and they used this air in their pantaloons as a flotation devise. The end result was absolutely hilarious, though I was a little scared that I was going to have to rescue one of them. Asef called this method the “paghmani system” because he saw Same do it, who is from Paghman an area outside of Kabul that has a decent sized lake called Carga, which I believe I mentioned in one of my first entries. We had quite a few laughs at this “Paghmani system” and it became a running joke for quite a while.
Faisel looked like he wanted to jump in but Yasin can’t swim at all so I told him I would take the little boy in. He had been holding Faisel’s arm tensely the whole time we were near the edge, fearing the boy would fall in. The lake drops off so immediately that there is really no wading except in a few areas where a tiny bit of a ledge exists. Yasin could see that both Norm and I were good swimmers and allowed me to take Faisel into the water. He splashed around on the ledge a little bit and then I took his arms and dipped him into the deep part so he could be completely submerged. He loved this and I wished Yasin could do this with him, though I had fun connecting with the child that I couldn’t talk with at all as I have very little Dari and he knows no English. Eventually we did get Yasin to stand on the ledge and play with Faisel and this made us all happy to see. It was quite the funny scene, four Afghans and three Americans on a jaunt to this amazing lake, Norm and I in our American swimsuits, the Afghans in their pantaloons and little naked Faisel. Mom could have gone swimming as there were no other Afghans around to glare at her, but she would have had to do it in full clothing, not that much fun.
There wasn’t a whole lot of swimming, just in and out because the water was so cold, but it was good to get a little bit of a bath as there were no bathing facilities back in our compound in Bamian and it had been a few days since my last shower. We finished up our “swim” and wandered back to the van. We tried to get to some of the upper lakes but a bridge was washed out and we couldn’t access the road. I offered to drive us back home and was glad that Yasin relinquished the steering wheel. For one its easier to be the driver on bad roads as you can anticipate whets coming up and brace for the swerves and sudden stops, secondly I have been driving a lot longer than any of the Afghans and was afraid that Asef might be the next in line to spell Yasin. Yasin is a good driver, but hauls ass on these roads and it’s quite a rough ride. I went just a touch slower, as its not my own car, and the ride was deemed by all to be much smoother and worth the extra few minutes it took us to get home. He’ll probably let me do some of the driving on the ten hour trip back to Kabul, as Norm is flying home earlier I don’t really want to be subject to Asef’s driving and I wanted to prove myself to Yasin. I’m sure he trusts my driving now, though I have no desire to drive in Kabul, as this is another matter entirely. I’ve driven in some crazy places, such as Mexico, but there is not a traffic light or dividing line n the city of about 2.5 million and I don’t want to get into an accident in a foreign country with someone else’s car.
When we got back to the compound all of us were tired from the long day. We found our “wonderful” painters finishing up for the day. I saw that an ant nest I had noticed the past few days that is on the edge of our “patio” was really active with ants spreading out everywhere. Someone had spread a white powder out from the entrance and at first I thought that someone had found an insecticide and they were trying to escape. This was not the case and one of the neighbor boys hanging out explained that Dauood the painter had put flour out to feed the ants. I looked at the boy incredulously and asked why they were feeding our ants that I didn’t want there in the first place and was planning on killing. He said that the ants were considered some sort of good luck charm and to feed them would bring luck to the person or some sort of nonsense. Now, I’m a person that loves animals, plants and all sorts of insects, but there are plenty of ants in the world, they are probably the most successful land animals in the world. The ants are not suffering. This, at the end of a long day, from painters that had been a real pain in the ass already was just too much. The whole “ straw that broke the camel’s back” analogy is perfect. I stomped over to a five-gallon jug of water and very animatedly dumped the whole thing on the ants, washing away the flour. Not only was this in front of our painters, but our landlord and several other guys that were milling around for some reason. Several saw how upset I was and decided it was time to leave the crazy Khereji as my mom called me, for the day. The whole trip I had made every attempt to ingratiate myself to the locals, but this was too much. Most of them couldn’t understand a thing I said, but I made it clear that if they wanted to have good luck, they could feed their own goddamn ants, in their own houses and deal with the mess themselves! I was wearing full Shawar camise and my scarf was wrapped around my head to protect it from the sun. My mom looked at me and asked me to remove it because I looked pretty scary with it on when I was mad. I wasn’t so much mad as flustered and incredulous, once the painters left, quite quickly after this display I just laughed with mom and Yasin who knew exactly what I was feeling at this moment. Yasin said that whenever you work with Afghans they surprise you with the things they do that make no sense at all to anyone but themselves. I don’t speak dari, but I doubt that the painters will make that mistake again; this communication needed no words to be understood.
I finished up the day by making a quick meal of spaghetti that we all inhaled and was the most satisfying meal we’d had so far. I was really tired and started to feel a bit of a chill that didn’t bode well. The night ended with a sudden windstorm that blew up with a bit of rain. I heard our garbage spreading throughout the compound and ran out to see it blowing everywhere. I had tried so hard to instill a division of garbage for the Afghans. Burnables, organic and true garbage such as plastic. My system was rolling all over the compound in disarray. Same and Asef heard me get up and came out to help get what hadn’t blown away put into one of the rooms. Asef called this the “garbage dance”. Oh Afghanistan, you really do know how to put someone on their heels.

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