Turquoise Mountain Foundation Compound
Kabul Afghanistan 6:30 a.m.
OK, a few too many thoughts rollicking around my noggin as I awaken here on my first morning in Afghanistan. In no particular order:
First, the obvious: we arrived safely on the Afghan national airline, Ariana (a/k/a “Scariana”), no worries. All is well.
The TMF compound here is pretty darn nice. Gardens in full spring awakening, old architecture still surviving in a few places, comfy kitchen access and food galore, slow but occasionally functional wi-fi internet, totally normal and safe feeling. Safe. And yet, as we felt out the parameters—“so, what can we do on our own? How far can we wander outside the compound?”—the cold splash came. “Outside the compound? Oh, no. Don’t do that. That wouldn’t be good.” Of course, there will be leaving with drivers and guards and translators, and that’s another story. But Jenny’s friend Conrad, who came to scoop us up at the airport with an (apparently) unarmed driver, speaks quite a bit of Dari, the dominant local language, so going outside with just him might be an occasional option. But overall, this is not a town where we will be wandering about by ourselves, at least not now.
Staying in my friend Jenny’s room, while she bunks with her friend across the hall. Somehow, her bed here appears to be, in fact, the most uncomfortable mattress in Asia—and that’s saying something! There is a massive metal frame around the edge, bumps and divots and various metal feeling protrusions scattered throughout the sleeping surface—just dandy. I’ll dig into it later, but one corner on the foot end literally sinks into the corner of the room, lower than the head side, and the other foot corner, by probably 15 inches. ?? Guess I’ve gotten used to flat-ish bedding, softie that I am.
Conrad and Jenny told us some stories last night, illustrating the “careful how and where you step” lesson. Lesson One was: cops here suck. Not like “cops suck” in America. No, cops here really suck. Like, ‘hey this guy doesn’t speak Dari and I speak no English and who really knows so, just to err on the safe side, I’d better arrest him’ kind of suck. One can only imagine how much fun that is, and what kind of involved and expensive affair it might be to extricate oneself from such a little adventure with the local constabulary. Think I’ll try to avoid that one myself.
The smell of burning diesel (mostly from generators) leaves a burn in the back of my throat I’d just as soon forget, but with which it appears I must make my peace during my time here. As much as I am sensitive to pollution and various forms of environmental degradation in America, the US feels like prehistoric Eden when it comes to the obvious, visible, smellable trash and toxicity one absorbs across the ponds. Trash here wasn’t obviously as overwhelming along the drive from airport to compound as it is across India, but the fumes and petrol discharges here are nasty and apparently ever-present.
Conrad is the assistant to Rory Stewart, the head and founder of TMF—lots of stories there I’m sure. Conrad’s a very bright and nice young American, Princeton-trained (he and Jenny were in the same college eating club, years apart!) and on his toes. I hope he and I can do some unsupervised roaming through town, I already am impressed by his language skill and capacity to negotiate random situations. Good guy. He thinks my stab at growing out a “Taliban-friendly” (or at least, Afghanistan-friendly) beard is impressive and well done, but also offered to bring me to a salon he knows where I could get my beard trimmed “in the local style” as he put it, complete with haircut/trim and head massage. The whole thing sets him back $4, which he explained as being high, but guaranteeing him a fresh clean blade and good service with a smile.
OK, the guns. The departure from the airport en route across town and back to the compound demanded running the gauntlet of road security. We passed dozens of vehicles and many armed men in two or three different areas—the largest and most uncomfortable of which had essentially blockaded the main highway near the airport and were waving some cars down and allowing others to pass unmolested. The thing is, it wasn’t at all clear who the armed forces were—they were not US Army nor NATO troops, not “coalition” troops of any kind. They were however, sitting menacingly on trucks loaded with RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and mounted machine guns and appeared ready to write their own rules. (Seeing the guy in the photo, well armed but masking his face, wasn’t exactly a confidence builder.) Conrad said, more nonchalantly that I might have expected, “the thing is, I’m not really sure who these guys are, or who commands them. Or why they are here exactly.” Maybe they were looking for someone in particular. But there sure wasn’t anyone else making them leave. Who runs this place?
Reassuring as that no doubt was to someone, it sure seemed unusual, and a bit unnerving, to me. Still unclear why the truck with three white folks was waived through while some others were being stopped and questioned, but I wasn’t asking too many questions as we drove on through. I snuck a photo or two in, and Sara got a moment or three of drive-by video in—but we both caught a moment where a fighter sitting on the back of a truck cradling a large loaded ordnance distribution device of some sort saw her filming and firmly held her eye in a most un-smiling manner as we drove by. She quickly ducked her camcorder down out of sight and we hoped that was just a moment, not to be followed up by being stopped and grilled all about it. Still, it was a bit chilling. We drove on through, unmolested.
Life is stirring now, the families just on the other side of our window, outside the compound, are doing their morning thing and the birds are chirping. Can I mention how nice it is to be back in mountain springtime, and out of the steaming swelter of Delhi’s version of “spring” weather? Today we will go with Jenny to check out one of her main projects: Murad Khane, the old market district that TMF is working to restore and revive. Today, we begin to see Kabul, and meet Kabulis.