Q: Why ever did you chose to vacation in Afghanistan?
A: My life needed a real change so when my sister encouraged me to join her for a few weeks and perhaps do some volunteer work I decided to go for it.
Q: What were the highlights of your trip?
A: The streets of Kabul were fascinating—the women in burkas sifting through clothes in the market, the crazy-looking vehicles, and signs that said “Please unload weapons before entering.”
I loved spending time along Chicken Street, which has long been known as ‘the’ shopping place for Westerners. There are many little shops filled with carpets, jewellery and antiques and I would have tea and chat with the merchants before the serious shopping began. Everyone was very friendly and there was no pressure to buy anything but I certainly did because the selection was just spectacular.
I visited three schools for girls with a woman from the Laura Bush Foundation. The country has a high illiteracy rate and I was struck by how much these girls wanted education. The schools had no electricity, no roof, no desks or chairs, and few books. Children attended school in shifts. UNICEF had given each student a bag with three notepads and two pens that were to last the year. So the Foundation’s support was certainly needed.
A teacher asked me to take pictures to let the people in Canada know the girls wanted to learn, that they didn’t want to be seen as ‘stupid people’. A principal asked if there was a way we could get some plastic chairs so the girls wouldn’t have to sit in the mud when it rained, and I later met some Canadian soldiers in the market buying chairs for them along with tarps to cover the classroom before the spring rains.
Q: Did you go outside Kabul?
A: I accompanied my sister (who was the international commissioner responsible for civic education programs for voter registrations and elections) on outings to see how the training sessions were going. We visited the Panjshir Valley which is 100 km north of Kabul. It is considered to be the spiritual home of the Northern Alliance for it is where the military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud fought back repeated Soviet offensives in the 1980s, earning him the name Lion of Panjshir. So historically it is an important place as well as being lush and green with stunning views. The Northern Alliance still controls access to the Valley.
A trip to Sarowbi, which is on the way to Jalalabad, was particularly memorable. The road there is treacherous—steep with no guard rails. The land on both sides of the road is heavily mined. As we drove along, we could see fields of opium poppies. Before we could go to the villages we had to check in with the police and have tea with the local officials. The teachers were pleased that we had ventured out all the way from Kabul and greeted us warmly. Quite surprisingly, the head of the district invited us for lunch—more of an order than an invitation, I understand, and we were the only two women present. Two vans of Afghan police escorted us out of the area.
Q: Where did you stay in Kabul?
A: When I arrived in Kabul, I was taken down a dirty, narrow street with people getting their passport photos taken on the side of the road. The car stopped in front of a blue door where a guard greeted us holding an AK-47. We pounded on the door (there is no doorknob) and the guard inside opened a small window and checked us out.
This was Gandamack Lodge located at #5 Passport Street and it is said that Osama Bin Laden’s fourth wife had lived there. Peter Jouvenal, who had been in the British army and later worked as a photojournalist with the BBC, transformed this beautiful old house into a British bed and breakfast hotel of sorts. The dining room had mustard coloured walls, flowered sofas and chairs, cork placemats with British scenes, fine dishes and cutlery, and a European menu that included alcohol. Rather surreal.
Q: Was security a concern?
A: There was a warning when I was there that terrorists were in the final stages of planning an attack and to avoid public places frequented by foreigners. However, there was more freedom to move about at that time than there is now.
Q: Are you glad you went?
A: It was a rare opportunity and I was very fortunate to be able to go there.
Photo credits Nancy Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2011