Part 1 of 3

Afghanistan is probably what you’d call a niche travel destination so I was surprised to find a Lonely Planet guidebook for the country, sitting beside those for other Central and South Asian locales.

Along with a fairly good history of the country detailing the many emperors Afghanistan has hosted in the last half-millennium, the book included, in its typical format, hotel and restaurant pics, categorized by quality and price, as well as recommendations for sight-seeing. It made for surreal reading given the pictures of war and strife most of us have witnessed via satellite TV in the last decade.

But, of course, these businesses exist. Afghans have gone out to eat, visited parks and mosques, and have made a life even in all the chaos. I had no sense of what to expect when I traveled there last week on a reporting trip to write about a U.S. program to support economic development in the country. As soon as I landed at the Kabul airport, I settled into a routine typical of an American visitor to Afghanistan, traveling in an armored SUV and accompanied by former British and American special forces officers who now work for private security contractors there.

Each car trip began with a security briefing, detailing what, if anything, happened overnight or during the day. (There were no incidents during my stay, thankfully, though the threat level was raised the Friday after the video emerged of the Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. There were concerns about retribution.) I stayed in a villa inside the Green Zone, near ISAF headquarters, Camp Eggers and the U.S. embassy — and the presidential palace of Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Security is a priority, understandably. While in the car, the procedure is, if under attack, that the driver will continue to drive through the incident to a safe house. (Our vehicle had rim flats, which allow driving even if the tires are blown. And we had an armed chase vehicle behind us that would provide cover. My job would be to get down low in the vehicle.) In any case, incidents or no, getting out of the car was unadvisable even though I really wished I could have captured the street scenes of everyday life there. I particularly loved the bakeries, with their human-sized naan hanging in the windows. These photos are all taken from the backseat, through the car window, all the while trying to keep my headscarf from slipping down to my shoulders.


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