The Places in Between Jaipur & Kabul

Jaipur Rajasthan 5p.m.

I have just today finished reading Rory Stewart’s fascinating book The Places in Between, about his highly dubious undertaking of following the Emperor Babur’s epic trek from Herat near the border of Iran across central Afghanistan’s high mountains into Kabul, alone and in mid-winter, just a few months after the USA’s invasion of that country in the fall of 2001.

One could be forgiven for thinking such a solo winter journey suicidal under the best of times, even if one does speak Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, well enough to get by. Doing it as a solo white man, right after 9/11? Dicey at best, I’d think.

Some of my friends—including serious world travelers like my buddy Chris Kilham, the Medicine Hunter—have expressed their own reservations about my upcoming jaunt into Kabul. Chris was in the Peruvian highlands recently working with an intrepid group of international travelers who themselves had spent time in Afghanistan some years back. He spoke with them of my coming exploits and returned to report that these guys—clearly no strangers to the perils of the road—had raised their eyebrows and basically said: ‘Afghanistan? Not these days, man—too dangerous!’

How then to explain why I still plan to go? I hope I’m not kidding myself when I say I am not doing it out of some misplaced desire to demonstrate the stature of my cojones—though I certainly wouldn’t be the first to kid myself in this fashion. Sure, I love a good adventure as much as the next guy. And I have to say, I’ve never had quite so good an invitation to a war zone as this—which makes me feel I should accept simply on principle. But that’s the key, I guess: the invitation. Invited to visit and perhaps make a small but meaningful contribution to some decent work being done there on behalf of the local people, I’m inclined to accept.

(Stewart’s website describes TMF’s work as ‘investing in the regeneration of the historic commercial centre of Kabul, providing basic services, saving historic buildings and constructing a new bazaar and galleries for traditional craft businesses.’)

Besides, if my friend Jenny, the extender of the invitation, can survive the better part of a year there, isn’t it fairly likely I can survive a week or two? (Although, she is from Maine, and therefore built of stronger stuff than I, I’m not afraid to admit.)

True, the re-grouping Taliban are claiming they will retake Kabul by summer, but shit, that’s months away! Seriously though, my understanding (fractional at best, it must be said) is that there is a serious distinction to be made between going to ‘Afghanistan’ and going to ‘Kabul.’ Road trips down to Kandahar, the former Taliban capital? Mm, don’t think so, thanks. But a little time staying in one of Kabul’s 14th century forts and contributing a little time and energy to Rory Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation, where Jenny is working? The invitation seems difficult to turn down. After all, from here I’m only a few hours away by plane.

I asked Jenny, again, about the dangers and the overall security situation. She just replied thus:

Re. security — I would still say come — The chances of anything happening to you during a week in Kabul are very slim. Sure, you COULD be unlucky and get blown up, but is it likely? No. Particularly since you’ll be staying here and have general supervision while you’re here — you’re not just going to be wandering around.

Besides, I’m on a mission to see the world, meet the locals, and find amazing treasures. And I’m a growing believer that fair, respectful and sustainable trade—even more than ‘charity,’ as critical as that can be—is one of the best ways to build and grow a better world for everyone. If my time in Kabul can yield a chance to help the people there, and at the same time educate people back in the West, by engaging in a little fair trade of traditional Afghan crafts and textiles, that seems too good to pass up. Especially if this trip can turn into an ongoing opportunity to trade and engage with the local artists and craftsfolk.

Well, we’ll see: one way or another, the time draws nigh. Looks like we’ll likely fly April 2, and to do that I need to buy plane tickets at least a week ahead. Meanwhile, my flu is slowly clearing, and I’ve got a mountain of work ahead of here in Rajasthan before I can even think of going anywhere…


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