Saturday, November 01, 2008

October 10, 2008: 5am, Dubai, U.A.E.

A thick haze of humidity shrouds the city of Dubai as the plane descends, so I can’t see a damn thing, but I don’t care, my main concern is retrieving my checked baggage quickly enough to make my connecting flight at the other terminal, which was a 15-20minute taxi ride away.

* * *
Made it, with a half hour to spare! Kabul here I come.

I was hoping to get a window seat so I could lean my head against it and perhaps get a little sleep—as the last time I engaged in this blessed activity was Tuesday evening and it was now Friday.

“Hello.” An older man with kind eyes greeted me as I sat down next to him. I didn’t particularly feel like conversing with anyone, but his warm greeting prevented me from being aloof, which is my normal M.O. on airplanes as there are few things worse than being strapped to a cramped seat with a conversation forced upon you.

I quickly learn that him and his wife have been living in California for close to 30 years, but are originally from Afghanistan and plan to be in the country for about a month. He shows me his American passport, the picture shows a man who’s wearing what looks to be a general’s uniform and identifies him as Said Opeyany.

“I live in San Francisco now,” he says.

“How long has it been since you last visited Afghanistan?” I ask.

“Oh, about four years. I expect there will be some people at the airport when I arrive,” the excitement of returning home showing on his face.

He asks me if I work for a NGO or the UN. When I tell him my plans, he nods with understanding. “I am an editor and founder of a magazine called ‘Marafat’.”

My eyebrows raise mentally, but the gears that started turning quickly stop as he mentions that it’s a religious magazine about faith and how to worship. Not a lot of room for my bomb squad in that…ah well.

We keep talking, and I learn that his wife, Fariba (sitting next to him), is a microbiologist. “You know, when we get to Kabul, there will be a celebration. I’m kind of a famous man in Afghanistan. I used to be a judge and I’m a candidate for a position here. Ah, you should join us! Come to lunch with us and have some authentic Afghani food and experience our hospitality.”

I thank him sincerely for the invitation, but how do I explain that I’ve spent the last 48+ hours in public spaces and all I want to do is retreat to a dark hole, have a shower, and sleep until tomorrow? The journalist in me was feeling guilty, but the woman in me needed some pampering.

“Well, I do have someone meeting me at the airport and I should probably have a shower before going to your party…,” I begin to explain.

“Have a shower at our house! You are welcome and bring your friend that’s coming to the airport!” he says enthusiastically steamrolling over my roadblocks.

“Oh, hmm…,” thinking it over, “well…maybe that could work,” I said, not completely ready to commit.

* * *
I had managed to fall asleep for about 20 minutes and when I woke up I saw my first glimpse of Afghanistan over the shoulders of Fariba. Even from my limited vantage point it did not disappoint. The jagged mountains reached up at the plane—barren now, but in a month or so would be covered with snow. They screamed of isolation and looked impenetrable and unforgiving despite being silhouetted against a brilliant jewel-colored blue sky.

October 9, 2008, 7:30am: London, England

I had endured the 8 hour bus ride to London in the middle of the night with the belief that when I arrived I would head to Joe’s place in King’s Cross, have a nap, then a shower, check-in for my flight online and take care of other last minute emails and logistics, meet the travel agent (who supposedly had my plane ticket to Kabul), give Joe & Gerhard (who were flying back from Seattle that same day) a welcome home hug and kiss, and then be on my merry way with enough time to pick up last minute essentials at the airport.

Robbed of all of these possibilities thanks to the late arrival of my bus, thereby missing Joe’s roommate before he headed to work, I was forced to do the last of my prep for the trip from Camino, my favorite wifi cafĂ© tucked away not too far from St. Pancras station. Fortunately, it was a good base camp as I literally found everything I needed within a 2 block radius plus several cell phone calls and texts to Andy and Jason, which carried a range of helpful antidotes to prep me for my trip:

“You’re a nightmare! You don’t even know what terminal you’re flying out of??? Just where were you expecting to go when you got there???" –Andy

“Make sure you ask for a room in the back, that way the next time the hotel gets bombed the blast won’t blind you. Although, it really doesn't matter as the whole place is glass... not that there would be anything left... um, sleep with your back to the window.” – Jason

The hours of my 10hr layover in London were quickly passing and I began to get anxious when within an hour of me catching the tube to Heathrow, I had still not heard from my travel agent. I did, however, manage to line up my fixer in Kabul, who would be like my “Alfred” if I was Batman. After a brief phone call we had worked out that he would meet me at the airport with a driver, take care of my hotel reservations, help me buy my domestic plane ticket to Mazar, change my money, get a local SIM card, credit card, and teach me some survival Dari.

Fifteen minutes before I needed to leave for the airport, my travel agent appears. We do the exchange: $700 USD for a roundtrip ticket. We talked about safety, journalists he’s worked with (I find out that he helped Seamus Murphy extensively with his book on Afghanistan), burqas and headscarves.

“So, do I need to get a burqa?” I keep asking this question to different people to see if I will ever get a different response, but each time I’ve received a definite: “No.”

“You’re fine, just the way you are, you’ve got a scarf, so no problem.” I was wearing my old AG jeans and a plaid cowgirlish-like button up shirt. I had wanted to change and have a shower at Joe’s, but…

“…and you don’t look American,” he continues. “Everyone will just assume you’re from the north. I just came back 3 weeks ago, it’s better now. Just make sure you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time.”


We come out of Camino’s courtyard and are blinded by sunlight. He looks up, “Ah, beautiful. See this sky?” he points upwards, “So different than Afghanistan. The blue of the sky in Afghanistan is unlike anywhere else.” He sighs, then asks, ““Do you know anyone in Kabul?”

“No. Well, yes, but he’s not there yet. I do have someone meeting me at the airport, though.”

“Good, good,” he says as we reach the station and say goodbye.