Friday, July 15, 2011

Wheels Down (arrival in Kabul)

Turns out Afghanistan is really far away.

The trip began with a thirteen hour flight from Washington to Dubai, where the hordes of transiting USG personnel pause long enough for a short night’s sleep beforetaking a short (2 and ½ hour) hop to Kabul.  I will spare you, dear reader, the details of leaving my friends and family whose reactions to my assignment range from pride to fear to befuddlement, (typically all of these), and my own well-stirrred emotional cauldron in parting from my sons and wife, and just say that it’s a good thing I’m not doing this for the money or I wouldn’t have gotten on that flight. But I digress

Flying to Dubai was uneventful, minus a minor freakout I had when I couldn’t slide my shoes back on because they had swollen up after I sat/slept for 10 hours.  Luckily, Dubai airport is not so much huge, as long, so after walking a half-marathon my feet felt normal again and promised myself on the next flight to follow my seatmate when he/she does their in-flight yoga routine.  Of course I then stood around at the immigration/customs area for a long while, but I’m atypically patient when it comes to that.  As a consular officer I have subjected countless applicants to my own failings as a bureaucrat, to say nothing of the times when somebody waits and waits while I have to attend to personal/professional emergencies, like sick children, ambassadorial requests, bathroom breaks, coffee/pastry breaks, office parties etc. (or they just plain get forgotten).  Anyhow, it helps me from getting annoyed to know that karma owes me some unpleasant trips through the passport control process, so if they take a few ounces rather than the full pound of flesh that is due, I’m a happy man.  My only disappointment was that my inspector took a LONG time with me, called his colleague over to review whatever record they have on me, but asked me no questions, and gave me no basis to speculate on what raised their suspicions.  At first I thought it was because I was wearing an African shirt, while my dozens of USG colleagues were more easily identifiable by their t-shirts (and corresponding biceps), izods (civilians), and cargo pants (our shared uniform).  However, while my instinct would be to chat up a shady applicant to see what kind of details I could flush out of them and take an inventory of their shoes, fingernails, watch, dress, and demeanor this inspector asked no questions, and did not appear to look at me at all (so I don’t think it was the shirt).

That said, my colleagues had no problem in identifying me as part of the herd, and on several occasions I was assisted by those who had been down the well-worn trail to Kabul (thanks folks), and helped me find the right bus/gate/check-in counter.  It felt a bit like a fraternity, in the positive sense of looking out for one another and being friendly, without being intrusive (or hazing each other).  Of course they may just be acting like Americans, and I’m still habituated to the less gregarious French culture and find myself smiling inside whenever a conversation with a stranger doesn’t involve them making one or more comments about my shortcomings as a parent, pet owner, or French speaker.

Anyhow, it turns out that Dubai is both far away and quite hot.  It had been built up so much that I was actually a bit disappointed when my clothes didn’t get singed as I walked out the door, but it was 10 pm, and I didn’t stay dry for long.  To be honest, I think that the air conditioning bill for the Dubai airport must exceed the annual budget of most African countries, because I was so chilled by the time I got out that I was glad for the heat.  Ditto the hotel, though a few minutes in the weak morning sun was enough to go from ice cube to crispy critter and send me on my way looking for the full length white suit (with turban) to beat the heat.  I didn’t find one, but had my choice of any luxury item known to man at the shopping mall/airport.  The whole departures lounge looked and smelled like the most chic sections of the Champs Elysees.  Accordingly, I left as quickly as possible having seen many tourists and colleagues in these situations whose money caves to the overwhelming peer pressure created by the volume of spending around them and leaps without warning out of their wallet.  I knew my father (aka the New Englander) will be proud of me for surviving this encounter unscathed.

The flight to Kabul was entirely more normal than I had anticipated, which is true of the whole experience so far.  I’m not sure if somewhere in my unconscious I had expected a firefight at the gate, or at least a takedown of a suicide bomber, but about the closest we got were some choice words exchanged between a first class passenger and one of us economy class cattle who was blocking the ramp.  Otherwise, it was the same drill, flying on an industry standard Airbus 320, with the same goofy presentation on how to fasten your seatbelt. I did pay closer attention than usual, particularly when it was repeated in Dari to see if I could understand more than the “please” and “thank you for your attention”.  I didn’t, but consoled myself with the knowledge that if I’m looking for the words for oxygen mask, language limitations are the least of my worries. There was the same silly map which you stare at until your eyes water as you try to disprove the fact that a watched pot doesn’t boil and its lesser known corollary, that a plane watched doesn’t move forward.  The biggest difference was the in-flight magazine which I found quite charming.  It highlighted the praiseworthy evolution and expansion of Safi airlines as it races to integrate into a global market and overcome unique challenges. The magazine is well-done, and had some interesting and helpful articles on Afghanistan, but retained a local charm (partly due to minor translation errors) that was quite endearing.  I resisted the temptation to pinch a copy to illustrate my point, but do recall my personal highlight from the magazine which was a very slick looking add with a gray Suburban that sprouted the back legs and tail of an alligator.  The company offered armored car services for tourist or NGOS/Government/Other internationals, complete with airport pickup.

It also turns out Afghanistan is hot and dusty.  On our approach I was appropriately impressed by the mountains, but took more note of the plains to the north (where I’ll be going) which were a light tan and looked desolate and DRY, particularly for growing season in one of the more heavily populated and arable areas of the country.  Kabul itself was unremarkable, other than sharing the general brown color with a few swaths of green.  Our landing was heavy but OK, greeted only by a tiny smattering of applause that came from the tiny smattering of locals.  I rather like the idea of cheering on the pilot and celebrating the fact that you survived a flight which I’ve seen in all the “third world” countries I’ve been to. Still, I’m part of the outlander herd, so I just smiled at the applause and held to my stereotype.

The airport held to its stereotype as warm and a bit chaotic with baggage handlers eager to help you the 50 feet from the two baggage carrousels to the entrance, and a bag check officer being far more vigilant about your checking ticket stubs than passport control or customs officials.  It felt like homes I’ve had before, a bit ragged and somewhat in your face, but very manageable with a far shorter wait and MUCH shorter walk to the exit than Dubai/Dulles etc. 

Soon enough me and a dozen or so of my colleagues had been collected by the Embassy expeditor and were herded out the door, and down the street into a waiting fleet of armored vehicles.  The trip to the Embassy went quickly enough through what to my eye was pretty light and orderly traffic, down wide boulevards lined with mostly small stores and sidewalk vendors, with occasional glitzy metal and glass structures, including a two story dress shop with wares that were definitely not targeting the Taliban consumer.  While there were donkeys and other animals on the side of the road, I was surprised that the cars were, generally both in their lane and more modern than in many countries with higher per capita income (which is to say the vast majority of countries).

Less surprising was the heavy, but non-intrusive presence of well-armed police at regular intervals. This was capped off with a lengthy security gauntlet at the Embassy, including an explosives check of our bags. I was grateful for their thoroughness as I patiently awaited karmic vengeance for the consular clients who have been subjected to exhaustive searches, sat in heat, cold, rain and snow for the privilege of paying a lot of money for a short interview in which ends quickly with a verdict of guilty on charges of being an intending immigrant.

After retrieving our explosive-free bags we settled into the familiar routine of in-processing at our new post.

But that is a story for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to reading this, Bill. I'm doing an unaccompanied tour next year, so I'll be really interested in hearing all about your experiences. Stay safe and best wishes!