Thursday, December 07, 2006

Supporting Afghan Women: Amber Chand Collection

I received an email from "The New Yorker" today promoting the Amber Chand Collection. The featured item was the Jerusalem Candle of Hope but I was drawn to the Kabul Necklace of Courage, a beautiful green-blue fluorite. The stones are carved and crafted by women in Kabul shops. Women to Women International is involved, one of the organizations my group met with in Kabul last March.

The necklace is beautiful and would make a great holiday gift for that special someone.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Remembering Afghanistan

The words, "Afghanistan will haunt you," and "we don't want to be forgotten," continue to linger in mind. I'm still connected somewhat to some of the trip participants. At least one woman, Sharon, will be returning over Christmas, taking along her son who recently returned home from a tour in Afghanistan followed by Iraq. She's speaking at a conference and I'm sure she WON'T be staying in a guest house. My bet is on the Kabul Serena Hotell - the only luxury hotel in town. Anyway...

Lately, I've been dreaming about returning. It's not that I want to go back, my uncle recently returned from a 10-day visit (for work, he has some important, secret job) and he couldn't understand why anyone would want to visit there. In some way, I agree with him. But I've been waking to weird dreams, dreams compelling me to travel there again. I just need to get it out of my system.

And writing helps that. I started writing for a travel blog - for MONEY! It's not much, but every little bit helps. This is the site: www.TravGuides.com; right now my story is on the front page, but will probably be moved to the Afghanistan section.

At the same time this was posted, I received a beautiful black and white photo from Saverio, the only man (an Italian one, at that) on the trip. I opened it and cried. It was of little girls from the Afghans4Tomorrow School in Wardak. I was touched he took the effort to send the photo and it brought back memories of the experience. Be sure to visit Saverio's website to see his view of the trip.

Think This Will Be My Profile for a While...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Afghanistan: Two Steps Back?

I was sent an email stating that Barbara Walters visited Afghanistan pre-2001 and post 2001 (after the Taliban were ousted). She noticed that women continued to walk behind the men, but at a greater distance than pre-2001. She asked a woman why and the dead-pan response was, "land mines."

I haven't researched to see if this actually happened, but I thought about it when I read today that the Afghanistan government is considering bringing back the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Under the Taliban regime, this body was responsible for brutal attacks, torture and killing of women who appeared "unvirtuous" by Islamic law. This included the public killings in the Olympic stadium.

Karzai's cabinet has passed the motion and it's on its way to Parliament. Apparently, the Department is to educate people as to what is "allowable and forbidden by Islamic law."

I saw the good that our military and government have done over there, but don't think it's enough. Reading this reminds me of the ghosts I hear each day from the people I met with, "we don't want to be forgotten."

Will the Afghan people be forgotten? Have they taken a step backwards?

Lightheartedly, I'm reminded how we women felt our guest house friends and guides worked at "protecting our virtue." No T&A! (toes and ankles). I imagine they took a big risk: men taking care of a house full of women. I wonder if they suffered any repercussion?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

First Published Story About My Afghanistan Trip

Well, it's taken me about four months to actually write something cohesive about my March trip to Kabul. I'm working on other stories for other publications. This story gives a very brief story focuses primarily on two people I met. Enjoy the story here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tips for Staying Healthy While Visiting Afghanistan

I learned a few tips on staying healthy while visiting Kabul and wrote an article about them. Hope these help if you are planning a trip.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

She'll Work for Travel

Another cool woman I shared a room with during my stay in Kabul is Sharon Jumper. She's ex-Army, a military mom, attorney and professor - a true intellectual diva! Enjoy Sharon's travelblog.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Say "Hello" to Cordelia

The person for whom I probably "bonded" with the most from the journey is Cordelia. She's a really hip gal who lives in New York City. Besides being the "number one roomie," I admire her because she's fun, considerate and passionate for things she believes in. A few years ago, she took a year off from work to travel the world.

Tonight, her blog was born (although she's kept a travel site). Enjoy her blog as she continues to update it. Cordelia's Journeys.

Biking Burqa


These series of photos were taken on Friday, March 10, 2006 on our way to Istalif. When I showed my camera to them through the van window, they gave the thumbs up to take the photo. Then, the woman lifted her burqa. Maybe she only wears it to protect her from the bits flying at on while riding on the bike.

Anyway, I really like the free-spiritedness of this series. I'm disappointed my camera flash went off, which reflects the dust from the window and washes out the photo, but, I still think it's pretty cool.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How Quickly Things Have Changed

Just days upon returning home from Kabul, a few things happened over there:

Recall my post about the young girl we met in the office of the Ministry of Women's Affairs? Kevin Sites with Yahoo! published a story about her in his "Hot Zone" blog. You can read it here, however, there is one major error - she was married to a three-year-old, not a 30-year-old, big difference. Other than that, it's the same story and images we heard and saw. Extremely powerful.

Dr. Massouda Jalal, Minister of Women's Affairs is no longer in that position. President Karzai reshuffled (more like cleaned out) his cabinet.

The Minister of Mining and Industry, and husband of Fatima Sediq (our gracious hostess on two occasions and who organized the who's who of powerful women in Kabul), also lost his job.

I certainly hope it is coincidence that these generous people, who were evidently making a positive impact in the future of women, lost their jobs. I wish them well and hope they resurface stronger and more powerful than before.

Monday, March 20, 2006

And the Gnome Had a Groovy Time...


The Travelocity gnome enjoyed his visit to Kabul, too. He did not return home with me, though. I gave him to one of the group participants, Sharon, a former Army soldier and current Army Mom. I know she'll take good care of him. Enjoy images of the gnome's trip here.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Photos Available for Viewing!

Damn jet lag! Up at 3 this morning, but it's given me time to start sifting through some of the 1,000+ images I took of this incredible journey. I downloaded them during my 3.5 hour visit at the Saturn dealership yesterday. Anyway...

Click here and log in (it's free) to view them.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Journey Home

I woke up at 4 AM today, can't get back to sleep so I thought I'd blog a bit about the trip back to the States.

I hate saying goodbye, especially people who I've shared an intense experience with. The trip to Kabul was intense and the only ones who can ever understand the emotional rollercoaster that I felt are the other trip participants.

The two vans arrived at the airport security point. We women entered a curtained room to receive our thorough pat-down and hand search of our carry-ons. In all my travels, these were the friendliest security guards I have ever met. Maybe it was because they don't often get to feel-up large-chested American women. But these ladies (the security guards were women) were friendly, always smiling and bid adieu (ok, they say "khuda hafiz" there) with hugs and kisses.

Technically, all of our suitcases were to be brought into another room (where the men were searched) to be hand-searched. Our guide had made previous arrangements to by-pass this step, but it was obvious from the chatter and use of hands that not everyone got that memo.

I sat in the back seat of the van, watching taxis pull up to drop off the Western men. They were primarily American, looked like former military with their shaved heads, military-khaki issued boots and backpacks. Throughout the trip, it was rare to see another Westerner. When I spotted one, I did like did in Japan: stared at them hoping they would feel the intensity of my eyes and force them to make eye contact. To hopefully share a bit of empathy with each other to say, "yes, I understand what you're going through." The staring never forced a return glance in Japan and it didn't work here either.

A couple of security guards in their fresh looking, green uniforms paced back and forth by the vans. They casually had their machine guns slung over their shoulders. One didn't look old enough to drive, none-the-less be carrying a gun. Guess it was better to have the guns there than pointed at us.

After much scuttle, our guide returned from the screening room and was putting a roll of cash back into his pocket. A handful of luggage was pulled out of the second van for search. We were able to buy our way out of a total security check? I don't know. It was one of those questions best kept to myself because if my group could bypass security, what about other people?

The vans pulled into a parking lot - they weren't allowed to drop us off at the airport entrance. There were young men in the parking lot with luggage trolleys. I think some of the group members thought this was male chivalry assisting with the luggage. But this is Afghanistan. There is no male chivalry shown towards women. These guys wanted the American dollar for pushing a cart full of bags to the terminal.

At the perimeter of the parking lot, security checked our passports and tickets. Our guide had made prior arrangements to enter with us, but again, the memo wasn't filtered down to the guard. Across rolled, silver barbed wire, we said goodbye to our guides, drivers and houseman. It 1:30 in the afternoon, the sun was at its height. Good excuse to wear sunglasses: to shade the sun's rays and hide the tears I was crying.

Male guards welcomed us inside. There weren't any women guards so we were able to get inside without a pat-down. Inside, chaos began lingering in the air. We paid our $10 (500 Afghani) exit tax and went through another security point. Once again, no female guards so it was just our luggage that went through an x-ray.

We stood in one of two lines at the Ariana counter. The unattractive odor of male sweat surrounded me. Two male Afghans who stood next to me in the other line tried to cut in front of me when they say my line was moving ahead of theirs. I had learned better and stood my ground. I did what women there wouldn't do: held their eye contact with my devil-blue eyes. They got the message.

Upon checking in, it was off to another security checkpoint. It was my last, thorough pat-down, since they had women guards. And then, we waited for an hour to board the flight.

Unlike flying into Kabul, seating was assigned. Most of us were seated next to other group participants, except for the one man in our delegation. He was seated next to a woman dressed all in black from head to toe. All you could see were her chocolate-colored eyes and tan complexion. She even wore black gloves. I had noticed her in the airport, when she moved she practically crawled and stayed huddled in a corner. I'm sure she was very uncomfortable to have a Western man seated next to her. He eventually moved to a free seat.

The overpowering stench of male sweat and dirty feet lingered in the circulated airplane air. The only time it dissipated was when our lunch of rice and lamb was served.

As I had previously posted, the Afghan men were curious about us. Stealing glances as we stared back. There was one striking man with short, red hair, neatly trimmed beard and piercing, green eyes.

Upon landing in Dubai, we said our goodbyes to half the group. I brought five of the delegates to the Hilton with me. While they waited in the lobby for me, I had to check-in at the special Executive Lounge. What I didn't tell them is that I was "forced" to have a glass of wine while the room was ready. It's true, the room was not ready at 7 PM and I was offered a glass of wine while I waited. I debated and felt a bit guilty, but drank the sweet potion anyway.

I wasn't upgraded to a suite this time, but the Hilton Dubai Creek did not let me down. It was a spacious and a great view of the "creek" and city. A candle burned in the corner of the bathtub. A small fruit plate, bottle of water and note from the general manager greeted me, too.

Most importantly were the bath towels. Plush and soft. After a quick shower to remove the first layer of grime, I joined the rest of the group at the rooftop pool and bar. It couldn't have been a more perfect evening.

We sat on lounge chairs, sipped on Bacardi and mango, lavished in the warm, desert breeze, watched the full moon rise and relished our last moments together.

Saying goodbye to the group was a gradual process. Half of us went to the airport, which made it easier. I had a little support group with me. At the airport terminal, said goodbye to two more people. Flew to Paris and said goodbye to the last two. And then, I was alone.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kodak and Polaroid Moments

The night before my trip, I was briefed by a Kabul security contractor who provided me with invaluable advice. He had me so scared, nervous and aware that I contemplated canceling the trip. But, I decided I could do make the trip and return safely.

One of the things he told me was that any Afghani can be "bought" and that he carried $1,000 in singles with him - in case of an emergency. I quickly learned that I didn't need cash but a camera.

Practically everyone we met wanted their picture taken, from small children to police and military personnel. It didn't matter that they didn't get to keep a copy of the image. They were delighted enough to see their image in the digital camera. Perhaps they are waiting to be the next dramatic National Geographic cover (note: that 1985 image is throughout Kabul - on postcards, posters, even the 2006 calendar).

I brought a Polaroid, not realizing how expensive the film is. But, to see the expressions on people's faces when I used it then gave them the photo was priceless. Cameras seemed to soften people's attitudes and seemed to bridge some gaps.

Begging Burqas et al

Tuesday was our last full day in Kabul. We spent the last few hours of daylight on Chicken Street, the famous and popular shopping area where you can purchase a custom-made fur coat, to Afghan rugs, to jewelry galore.

It's also an area frequented by the ex-pat community where they can pick up their Western goods and food.

The downside is, that beggars make it a full time job to lurk and stalk the Westerners for money. Najib, our guide, had explained that since the country is so poor, it is acceptable (and an Islamic duty) to give money to the homeless. However, money should be given to those people in the rural areas and not the city centers.

Upon stepping out of the van and onto Chicken Street, the beggars in burquas, street children with grubby faces and dirty fingernails and mine victims missing limbs smelled our Western cash and soap. Within seconds, three begging burquas came from three different directions and began begging. Their burqas were blue, well worn and grimy. One woman carried a sleeping baby with her.

They all repeated the same line, "Thank you, Madame. You are a good woman." Then hold out a hand. The woman with the baby spoke a few more words, something about the baby needing money to go to the hospital.

I was able to shake away two of the begging burqas, but one latched onto me and followed me into various shops. She stood in the doorway while I browsed, standing with her hand extended. Somewhere along the way, my fan base grew from one to five beggars. She had recruited her four small children who knew how to beg and pout, too.

I was able to ignore it all and constantly give stern "no's" until they broke the ultimate personal space, grabbing and touching me. It was at that point when her children were jumping up to meet me at eye level and grabbing my arms that I finally hissed them. I didn't hiss words. The "no's" weren't working so I hissed like an aggravated cat. They backed up a little bit.

But then, a 30-something leg amputee showed up. In the traditional Afghan wear including white, cap, he appeared upon exiting a shop. He had a nice smile and peaceful eyes and stood with his hand extended. Saying, "thank you." (Note: I heard "thank you" constantly throughout the trip being used out of context. But hey, at least they've taken the time to learn a little English, more than I can say with my Farsi. But, I can say "thank you" in Farsi and know I used out of context. When in doubt, it was "ta-shar-kor" - thank you). I didn't realize he would follow me, too. Until I was walking down the sidewalk, replying "hello" to the Afghan "hello's" and in my duty in staying alert, he was a couple of feet behind me.

I dodged into a trinket shop, quickly browsed and when I thought it was safe to emerge, he came out of no where and was tailing me again. I thought I could certainly outrun him because I have two legs and he has one (OK, I know that's probably politically incorrect). By weaving between cars and randomly crossing the street to the sidewalks, I eventually lost him.

Upon making it back to the van, a kid had followed me and was grabbing. The driver quickly grabbed him by the shirt, yelled at him in Farsi and dragged the kid to the sidewalk. The kid then started bawling.

I felt a bit heartless and guilty - buying things like jewelry while I was surrounded by the poverty. But, I justified it by remembering that I just spent the previous week meeting with various organizations who employ amputees and women widowed by the war. There aren't a lot of employment opportunities, but there are some.

Save the Date in Sarasota: Friday, March 24, 2006

I'm home, safe. It's a strange feeling. The whole trip seems years ago. I'll still be entering experiences about the trip as well as upload photos. But, for those of you in the Sarasota area, let's plan on happy hour on Friday, March 24, 2006 at O'Leary's at 6:00 PM (located near Marina Jack's). I'll send out an Evite or drop me an email if you'll be there.

Note: for you Tallahassee folks, I'm taking that afternoon off :)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Miles Away

I'm sitting at the Dubai Creek Hilton, overlooking the night scenery. Buildings are new. Cars are new. No one is honking a horn. There is a sense of order. Hard to believe that hours ago I was in a country at the crossroads, determining what it wants to be.

The Ariana flight was 'interesting.' The Afghan men took note of the 11 Western women on the flight and really didn't know how to react to us. They stole glances and stares. Then the cameras came out and EVERYONE wanted their photo taken. Wonder if it was their first trip on a plane. The CNN terrorism expert, who interviewed Osama Bin Laden, Peter someone, was on the flight, too.

My journey west begins at 2 AM local time (don't ask what time that is in Florida). I'll be home by around 9 PM and work on Friday.

What a long trip it's been. I'm digesting everything and don't know how my Western-mentality will comprehend everything I've experienced.

Thanks for joining in the ride.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Winding Down

It's my last full day in Kabul. Hard to believe it's time to return home. Will I miss the 2.5 gallon shower? Will I miss sharing a bathroom with 10 people and bedroom with 4? Most likely not, but I will miss the people - the people on the trip and the people met during this strange journey.

I've kept alert. When we are out on the streets "waiting," it makes me nervous with the crowd it draws. I'm constantly looking around, being aware of my surroundings and what people are doing. Personal space does not exist here and I'm one who needs personal space.

Over the past few days, have met some incredible women. Last night, some of us went to the Kabul Beauty School. An American woman bright red hair, infectious laugh and heart of gold opened a salon and beauty school in August 2003. According to "Debbie," this is the only profession in Afghanistan where a woman can be in control. Each girl makes about $400 - $500 a month with tips and the husband never knows how much she makes. The woman controls how much money she gives to the husband.

I had a $20 hair wash and head massage - it made me feel human in a place where I've been taking showers with dirty water heated in a wood stove and poured over me in cupfuls. God, that shower in Dubai tomorrow night is going to feel great! Debbie has a great story and a book about the school and experience will be published next year by Random House.

Also met with the Minister of Women's Affairs. She had a 12 year old girl with her who has been in Kabul for 15 days. The Minister told us that while the US has secured the country from terrorism (for the most part), the homes have not been secured. Meaning, most men still abuse the women in the family. The young girl sat in her chair, arms crossed and shared her story. She was married at age 4 because her father was killed, mother remarried and step-father didn't want her. She was married to a 3 year old.

For the first year in her home, things were fine. Upon turning 5, her life was turned to hell. She was beaten, thrown off the roof (resulting in a broken arm), food-depraved and scalded with boiling water. She showed us her bald spot on her head and bumpy, pink scars on her back and arm. Watching her, she could have been any 12 year-old reciting a happy story, like a birthday or trip to the fair. But with the translation, we heard the reality and it brought tears to our eyes. She is now living in a NGO-run shelter in Kabul and will do so until 18.

There have been so many important women we've met. I only hope these women do not get discouraged and give up their quest for equality. By US standards, progress will be slow and we need to be patient and help when we can.

And There's More

Warden Message
March 14, 2006
Demonstrations in Kabul
The U.S. Embassy has received information about a possible demonstration today
at the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul. Further demonstrations at Pakistani
consulates throughout Afghanistan are also possible. It is currently unknown
what time the demonstration will take place or if it will be violent. Afghan
authorities are in the area preparing for any/all crowds. Americans in Kabul
are urged to avoid the area around the Pakistani Embassy, and as always, avoid
crowds.
Americans in Afghanistan are urged to monitor the local news and maintain
contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. As the Embassy continues to develop
information on any potential security threats to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan,
it will share them with the American community via the Warden System. We take
this opportunity to remind the community of the continuing threats outlined in
the current Travel Warning for Afghanistan and Worldwide Caution Public
Announcement. The full text of each can be found at <http://travel.state.gov/>.
Updated information may also be obtained by contacting the American Embassy in
Kabul at usconsulkabul@state.gov <mailto:usconsulkabul@state.gov> or by calling
the Consular Section on 070-20-1908.
The Department of State also shares information through its consular information
program documents, available on the Internet at <http://travel.state.gov>. In
addition to information on the Internet, U.S. travelers may obtain up-to-date
information on security conditions by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the
U.S. or outside the U.S. and Canada on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.
Sincerely,
Consular Section
U.S. Embassy Kabul

"Don't Be Fooled, It's Not Safe"

These are words of wisdom shared by a UN worker here in Kabul. I'm fine. We haven't had access to email for about 2 days. Yes, there was a suicide bomb attack on the former Afghan President at the place where we attended International Women's Day earlier in the itinerary. By registering my trip with the State Department, I received the following email (not that it did me much good without email access; and note the date; perhaps it's a standardized email):


Warden Message
February 5, 2006
VBIED Attack
A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) exploded this morning in an
attack against an Afghan parliamentary official. The U.S. Embassy has placed
the area of the attack--between the Intercontinental Hotel and the Loya
Jirga--off limits for official Americans. As always, the Embassy recommends
that all American citizens in Afghanistan maintain a high level of vigilance,
and avoid unnecessary travel. The Embassy particularly recommends that U.S.
citizens in all parts of Afghanistan avoid traveling alone at any time.
From time to time, the Embassy places areas frequented by foreigners off limits
to its personnel depending on current security conditions. Visits to
restaurants and hotels are restricted to official business with prior approval
from the security office. Unofficial travel is limited during daylight hours
and is forbidden after dark. The Embassy cautions against movements in other
potential target areas, such as:
* Key national or international government establishments;
* National or international military facilities, including ISAF;
* Locations popular with the international community, including
restaurants and Internet cafes; and
* Areas with high population density, i.e. bazaars.
The Embassy currently is permitting official Americans to travel on Jalalabad
Road, but only for official business and after receiving permission from Embassy
security.
Americans in Afghanistan are urged to monitor the local news and maintain
contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. As the Embassy continues to develop
information on any potential security threats to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan,
it will share them with the American community via the Warden System. We take
this opportunity to remind the community of the continuing threats outlined in
the current Travel Warning for Afghanistan and Worldwide Caution Public
Announcement. The full text of each can be found at <http://travel.state.gov/>.
Updated information may also be obtained by contacting the American Embassy in
Kabul at usconsulkabul@state.gov <mailto:usconsulkabul@state.gov> or by calling
the Consular Section on 070-20-1908.
The Department of State also shares information through its consular information
program documents, available on the Internet at <http://travel.state.gov/>. In
addition to information on the Internet, U.S. travelers may obtain up-to-date
information on security conditions by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the
U.S. or outside the U.S. and Canada on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.
Sincerely,
Consular Section
U.S. Embassy Kabul

Saturday, March 11, 2006

What Day Is It?

The days are beginning to blend together. Think it's Day 6 of my time in Kabul. Here are a few more things/observations/experiences:

Yesterday we traveled to the village of Istalif. It was an hour away from Kabul. Along the way, a motorcycle pulled alongside our van. A helmet-less male, 20-something, with dark sunglasses, moustache, leather jacket and jeans was driving with a blue burqua'd woman riding on back. They waved to us. I waved back. She gave the thumbs up. I showed her my camera and and asked if it were "ok" and she nodded with approval. Got a couple of great shots - with the burqua and she later took it off and allowed me to photograph her. Women's liberation.

Anyway, Istalif is in the mountains. We drove through the country into the foothills. Saw more greenery, streams and trees. It's early spring and most trees are not blooming, but the almond trees with their white buds are leading the way.

Istalif was heavily destroyed by the Taliban and like much of Afghanistan, is in the rebuilding process. The town is known for pottery and we met with several potters.

Had lunch at the Minister of Mining & Industry's country house afterwards. His wife is a fantastic hostess and brilliant businesswoman. She runs a company that is rebuilding roads in Afghanistan and she has been instrumental in getting at least one school built.

The plan was then to visit the place where kites are flown, but Karzi was there and we were not able to visit. We asked our guide to take us to the stadium where the Taliban killed people (stoning women) in a public setting. Olympic symbols were around, along with Mousad. Joggers were exercising. Big difference from a few years ago.

Today we visited the province of Warkdak and had some security. We met with Dr. Roshanak Wardak, a female gynecologist who is also the governor of the province. Her main agenda is education. "Education opens the mind of the people," she told us.

She explained that everything she has done has been for the benefit of the people and not herself. Her mother would not let her marry, instead, telling her to become a doctor and help the people. She fled to Pakistan during the Russian occupation and returned just prior to the Taliban reign. Wardak was not impacted negatively from the Taliban. The doctor said she covered up but did not wear a burqua.

"I told them to show me in the religious books where it says to wear a burqua and I will wear seven of them," she told the Taliban. They couldn't prove it.

It was another rain-free day which meant for loads of dust. Our ride to Wardak was 2.5 hours, 45 minutes spent on a bumpy, dirt road up into the mountains.

I understand there was (another) protest in Kabul. We knew nothing about it.

So much more to share, but the Internet connection and this keyboard sucks. So until next time, thanks for everyone's encouragement and support.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Day 4: A Political Affair

There is so much to process with this experience that it's going to take me weeks to digest and comprehend everything. Today is bright, no rain. Which also means, more dust.

I've seen evidence that there is progress in Kabul. Rebuilding. The simplest thing, such as a new window, is a big step towards progress.

Here are some of my thoughts about the experience to share today:

No shower today. My face and hands are exposed to the dust, et al and my hair is always covered with a head scarf. Only 6 days until a real shower.

The roads. While some roads are paved, they are covered in dust. Most roads are dirt and/or riddled with mud puddles. Beggars stand in the middle of the street with one hand extended for a donation and the other balancing the body on a crutch. Bicyclists carrying a minimum of 2 people weave in and out of traffic. People walk in the middle of traffic without ever looking. An underpass is available at one of the busy intersections, but not many people use it. Cars have steering wheels on the right or left. Cars, vans and buses are packed with people. Horns honk constantly. Thing is, with such a high unemployment rate, where is everyone going?

I've been getting about 5 hours of sleep a night, yet, I don't feel tired. Maybe it's the adrenaline of it all. I'm awake for the 5 AM call to prayer from the mosque around the corner. It's broadcast over a loudspeaker. I find it a bit eerie. I do feel like I'm living on the "Big Brother" set, trying to get along with everyone. It's in my personality to "lie low."

Three of our group delegates are still without luggage. They departed the US from three different airports on Northwest and Northwest took the liberty of checking their bags all the way to Kabul. Hmmm, I don't know how they thought that would work. Obviously, it hasn't. No one seems to know where their luggage. I'm glad I carried mine on.

I understand there was a protest yesterday. Maybe that explains seeing a US humvee with gunman on top and a road block. I'm fine. Today we did see about a half dozen of US troops in the camo, full body armor carrying their weapons. They were walking somewhere, maybe to grab a Coke?

Another minute of my 15 minutes has ticked away. Yesterday was International Women's Day and I was on the national news, again. Pictured as a participant in the crowd. Has my ranking increased on the security watch list?

Food: breakfast has been "naan," the country's bread with cheese and honey. Lunches and dinners are primarily rice, cooked veggies and lots of lamb. (and still not sick! Drink and brush my teeth with bottled water).

Today the wife of the Afghan Minister of Mining had us over for lunch with 15 women from Kabul. They included midwives, teachers and military personnel. It was an honor to meet and chat with General Khatool Muhammad Zai, the first female general in the Afghan military. She's been in the military for about 23 years and had to give it up during the Taliban reign. She resorted to embroidery for a living in order to support her son and her brother's family. Today, she sat across from me wearing her green uniform, highly decorated. Tall hat and black hair in a pony tail. She wore eye liner and mascara but no lipstick. I commented on the gorgeous, jeweled rings she was wearing - nothing showy, just big, chunky gems. She said that the military culture does not permit it, but her culture of a woman does. People love and respect her.



Also engaged some of the women in conversation about economics. Unemployment is a problem. The government is the primary source for jobs, other than private enterprise. There are no taxes. So where does the government receive its money to pay its employees and support programs? From governments like the US, Germany, etc.

Regarding the advancement of women's rights, yesterday during International Women's Day, the Minister of Women's Affairs announced a new government initiative to help advance women. The key being educating women so they know what their rights are and to make sure they are executing them. Two women today did not think what the government has done is effective and that many barriers exist.

Had the pleasure of the shopping experience today. It's customary to haggle on the price. In a way, I feel guilty. The initial price they quote seems extremely reasonable to me but it would be rude not to bargain. While some shopkeepers speak English, most do not. One of our guides (who is 19 and is engaged to his cousin) helped with the bargaining. The market included shops with lapis and silver jewelry, brightly colored scarves, handbags and pillow shams, fur coats and hats and antiques.

There's so much more that I'm experiencing and seeing. Goats/sheep (aka: dinner) in herds by the roadside, cows walking the streets, mules pulling carts. Many butcher markets - they hang the whole animal outside and you select the cut you want. Fish markets with fish on flat, wooden boards. Piles of potatoes, carrots, radishes, oranges and apples. Coconut carts. Dried fruit and nut carts.

I'm still keeping alert on the street, cautious of my surroundings and who's watching. One never knows.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

End of Day 3: Kabul Rocks

It's the end of day three and I have to be at one of the slowest Internet Cafes in the world (but also the cheapest). Let's back up to yesterday - I forgot to mention that the tribe people we met with, who want an apology from the US government for being detained, were (are?) members of the Taliban. Yes, somewhere out there, there is a photo of me and some Taliban members. But, people are people and they wouldn't have been at a human rights organization without good reason.

Our house shook last night and we're still in debate as to whether it was an earthquake or mortar. Nothing was on the news so we're still guessing. Speaking of the news, I promised my parents I wouldn't end up on CNN as a result of this trip. I didn't say anything about Afghan national news. At a woman's day celebration yesterday (the day is celebrated over multiple days), camera crews filmed the token Americans and we ended up on TV. Another minute ticks off my 15 minutes.

This morning was a bucket shower - water heated by the wood burning stove - almost like a hot spring with the water bubbling and boiling. Attended International Woman's Day celebration, which included having our bags searched twice by humans and once by a dog. We (American security, like TSA Airport Security) have taught them how to search bags and conduct pat-downs well - except, the Afghans add their own touch and apologize for having to put one through this. I did take the Travelocity gnome with me today and the security guard smiled when he pulled him out of the bag. But sorry Travelocity, no photos of the security.
Of course, there were more guns today - in tanks, in the back of pick-up trucks, on roof tops. We missed seeing the Afghan President by minutes. Oh, well.

Think I mentioned the crazy driving in my last post. We're transported in two vans. I initiated conversation in my van this afternoon wondering about the number of car accidents there are each day in Kabul. The van then stopped. The second van carrying our group was hit in the back side by a jeep. The police got involved and for about $100, everyone is happy.

In the bleak, brown of Kabul, the blue burquas are bright spots, along with the yellow taxis. Engaged some women today in conversation about why they wear the burqua while at the Women's Garden - several shops run by women and a garden for children to play. Behind the walls of the garden, women are comfortable and feel safe to take off their head scarves and burquas. Although we don't speak Dari or Farsi and most didn't speak English, we were able to understand that some women don't think they are pretty enough to be seen without the burqua. Another woman demonstrated, like Charlie Chaplin, how difficult it is to walk in one - she did so by stumbling onto the sidewalk then laughing.

I don't think I can express enough how enduring the people have been. The ultimate sign of acceptance is when they bring their right hand to their heart and give it.

Where ever we go, we draw a crowd, mostly children. For $100, I can hire a 7-year-old body guard. For $1 some charcoal. Tomorrow is our visit to the orphanage and street children training center. The orphanage will probably be depressing.

This trip has got me thinking about sustainable tourism. Tourism into areas that don't have the proper infrastructure to support their residents. I wondered about the trash we are producing. The excess packaging from film cartons, battery holders, plastic from shampoo bottles. When we leave, this will probably just be dumped on the street for the children to pick through and goats to eat. Does sustainable tourism into these type of areas include backpacking concept of "pack it in, pack it out?" I know one needs to be careful in preserving the culture and not creating bad habits, such as randomly handing out money or candy to kids. But what are the other responsibilities we have as visitors? I think I feel a story coming out of this...

The Polaroid has been a big hit. Just need to be careful as to who is around because EVERYONE would want a photo.

It's rained each day which certainly has to cut down on the amount of dust around. I can still feel the dust on my eyes. But, mud is everywhere. Think I'm gonna have to finally throw away my utility shoes after this trip!

I really appreciate everyone's emails and posts. Sorry I can't reply. It's nice knowing you all are interested :)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Foolish 100

It's the end of my second day in Kabul. Yes, I did arrive after a fairly uneventful flight on Ariana (except for the 2.5 hour delay), arrived at Kabul Int'l Airport. It was chaos - not like Japan's controlled chaos - utter, random chaos. People are everywhere crammed around a small luggage belt. Boys and young men approach, "lady, I find your bag." People constantly bumping into me and grabbing my bag.

Everything is different and bleak. Seems more like a society trying to survive than move forward. See bombed out buildings and poverty every where. Trash is just thrown on the sides of the streets either for the goats to eat or children to rummage through for food or resale. Good thing most items are compostable.

I met up with the group at lunch. We late met a women who has been working on women's rights since the 1960s. Her office is a house with a barricade. In the middle of her speaking, a loud boom and the window shakes. She laughs and says, "rocket missile."

Fast forward - staying at the guest house, sharing a room with 3 other women; 10 of us sharing one bathroom. Electricity - yeah, sometimes it has it, and when there is electric, there's heat. However, electric goes out at night and power is by generator - which means shower by wood stove. We have armed security protecting us at night. It's quiet at night, except for the hum of the generator. When that's off, a dog occassionally howls. Cats screech in a quarrel.

today, met with a tribe who had 23 members held captive by the US troops. 3 were present today and never received a reason why they were detained for 9 months. They want us to tell the military that in order to be friends with the Afghan people, understand the culture.

Driving to one of the meetings today, we were stopped at a checkpoint. What does one say when eye to eye with a machine-gun-toting Afghan military person? "Hello. How are you?" He seemed embarrassed while my heart stop beating. Our driver slipped him a 100 aghani (about $2 US) to let us pass. We were allegedly stopped for having tinted windows on the van.

In general, people are happy to meet Americans. Not only for the dollar, but to practice English - like Japan. However, I found myself in 2 situations today where one person approached to talk to me and soon I found myself surrounded by people, all curious as to what the conversation is about. I quickly and politely found a way out. People also like the photo taken, maybe a sign of honor.

My time is limited and I gotta run. I'm good - it's a great experience. The food is ok and I haven't gotten sick yet :)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Best Made Plans

Although my connection from Amsterdam to Dubai arrived at 5:30 this morning, the hour through passport control and 15 minute taxi ride to terminal 2 made it impossible for me to grab the Kabul flight - either on my scheduled airline or another.

And after spending 2.5 days in the same clothing, without a shower since Friday morning, my gold status is pampering me at the Dubai Creek Hilton. Having a shower, I feel like a human again.

The executive lounge overlooks the city of Dubai - and the 'creek' - which is really a massive river. There are amazing buildings every where - examples of sustainable building - lots of glass and dynamic shapes. It's about 9 AM on a Sunday and the city is alive - it's more akin to a Monday morning in the States.

In the short time I've been here, I've had two marriage proposals - ok, slight exaggeration - but proposals of "relationship." The taxi driver wants me to write a sponsor letter for him so he can live in the States. The bellman almost the same. Don't worry, I used an alias name and address.

So tomorrow, the plan is to hop on a flight to Kabul - I hope. All necessary parties have been notified of what happened. I'm nervous about flying on my own - not being with the group. I really rely heavily on "safety in numbers." It's not the flying, but arriving in Kabul. I thought I read somewhere about taking a taxi if our guide wasn't there - but I could be wrong about that.

That scenario has me freaked out - what if I'm kidnapped? OK, maybe an exaggeration - but I'll be on alert, keeping my "head on a swivel," as was advised to me.

But, if I can do this - I have no doubt I can do about anything.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Getting There is Half the Fun (or, that damn goose)

It's Saturday evening - I'm supposed to be in the air on my way to Dubai, but not the case. Thanks to a goose playing chicking (and losing) with my plane, our departure from Atlanta was delayed about 2 hours (please realize, I do feel bad about the goose). I only had a 90-minute connection in Paris to begin with - that's why I only packed carry-ons with me. Good thing.

When I went to the service desk in Paris to get "service" they were going to put me on the same flight tomorrow (Sunday). I pouted a bit, remembered some French and begged. I'm now sitting in the Amsterdam airport. I've always wanted to visit the Netherlands and Amsterdam - but always imagined I'd be seeing more than the airport.

My flight to Dubai leaves in 2 hours (if all goes to plan). I arrive at 6 AM, the time my flight to Kabul leaves. I called the travel agent and of course, he was shocked to hear from me. There's only one flight to Kabul a day (I thought tourism was growing? Lift into Kabul should be increasing).

He told me, "you'll be spending the night in Dubai." I thought this was a question and not a statement.

I'm rebooked on a flight Monday and now I get to see a bit of Dubai - more than the airport at least. Somehow, I'll have to catch up with the group on my own - by calling our guide once I get there.

As the travel agent said, "oh, you're going to have an adventure."

And isn't that what life's about?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Gnome is Packed, Ready to Travel

It's the night prior. My two bags are packed - both carry-ons. I'm traveling light. The ugliest, least form-fitting and most unattractive cloths I've ever worn are included in the luggage. The ugly clothing is not returning back to the States with me.

I'm ready for the journey to begin. I realize that most of you don't understand why I'm making the trip. I fully don't understand why other than I feel the need to go. For both personal and professional growth. Personal to help define who I am - a curious, caring citizen of the world who's still trying to find her way and professionally for my writing and story telling.

I appreciate everyone's calls and emails of support, they do mean a lot to me. And, I'm sorry for frightening some of you. I know many of you will be on edge while I'm away, but I will be OK and will be back, safely, March 16. Plus, I got some last-minute, expert advice from a security contractor who just returned from Kabul a month ago. I am taking his advice to heart.

Now, let the journey begin.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Why W's Visit to Kabul is Good for My Upcoming Visit

The Prez and Mrs. Bush made a surprise visit to Kabul yesterday, on their way to India and Pakistan. I am disappointed our delegation was not there during the ribbon cutting at the new American Embassy.

I (and most of the other participants on the journey) wondered if his visit would have any impact on the mood in Kabul. Will the visit stir hostility and did it blanket over more peace? That remains to be seen.

But, the reason his visit to Kabul was good is because the Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, made a comment which made me think. NPR broadcast a brief clip of Karzai thanking President Bush for all he's done for Afghanistan, including eradicating tourism.

Tourism? I had to pause and think about this - did I hear correctly? He then said the word again and it was distinctly, tourism.

For some reason, I thought of the time around Sept. 11 when W was everywhere, promising to defeat tourism. With that southern drawl, terrorism sounds like tourism.

Obviously, we can assume that Karzai was thanking the President for stamping out terrorism, although, tourism was diminished by the US's actions, too.

And how does this affect me? Well, when customs agents ask my profession, I reply, "tourism sales." If I enter Afghanistan and am asked my profession, what will happen if I reply, "terrorism sales?" Think I'll just say I'm a travel agent.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Tidbits I Learned Today

I can't believe that a week from tomorrow, I'll be on my way to Kabul. I've completed my shopping of finding long, shapeless shirts and jeans. I may throw in a long skirt - we'll see how the packing goes.

I've also picked up a Polaroid camera (I forgot how much fun they are) - the idea being that I can give an instant photo as a "gift." My digital and standard 35mm (for black and white) are making the trip, too. I still need to pick up some postcards - but the ones I've seen of Florida contain people in bathing suits and I don't think that would fly well over there!

My friend Rob was in Germany attending a travel trade show a few weeks back and Afghanistan had a display - to promote tourism into the country. My friend picked me up a brochure (which was in German). He described the cover of the brochure, "There's a beat up looking bus loaded with people inside and people sitting on top."

"Then there's a car with something rolled up sticking out of the trunk."

"The country is 100% Muslim."

"Following Sept. 11, 2001, the Taliban and United States entered into a conflict."

He reckoned they were reaching for anything to promote tourism into the country. Can't wait to see the brochure and the real thing!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Unmentionables and More

Two weeks from day I will be in Kabul. I can't believe it's almost here. There are so many little loose ends to tie.

The biggest stressor continues to be "what to wear." From the emails being shared with everyone, this seems to be the common concern. One participant has been sharing emails from a previous trip participant and her most important tip has been, "cover your crotch!" She also assured not to worry about what to wear, just remember that the area between the waist and knee is considered underwear and showing that in Afghanistan is not respectful.

I've found very large shirts that reach the top of my knees, I feel a little better. I'm now concerned whether I snore while I sleep...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Chew and Brush on This




As I've written before, I'm stressing out about what type of head-wear to adorn in Kabul. So, I found a website called www.IslamicLadiesWear.com and ordered a head piece. It arrived today (quickly, I may add) and included with the package was a little bonus (I LOVE bonuses) - a traditional natural toothbrush. It's basically a root of a tree known in Arabic as "Arak." To use, peel back the bark about 1/2 inch, lightly chew the end until bristle-like ends appear and brush horizontally. The website has some pretty cool stuff: www.thepeelucompany.com.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Control Freak

My anxiety is building up. In a good way. I've been researching on the Internet and communicating with people who have been to Afghanistan, or are already there. I don't know if I am going to be mentally prepared for the poverty. Seeing images on the web and speaking with a film maker who was there two years ago, most Americans would not believe nor comprehend the living conditions. Over there, people are struggling to live - wondering where their next meal will come from. In the States, we worry about which colored shirt to wear in the morning and weather it will match our slacks.

Terri, the film maker I met with, spent a month in Afghanistan shooting a documentary commissioned by the US Army. She is going to see if she can send me the DVD of the finished product.

There were four in her group and they were there for a month, about two years ago. She said things seemed safer then because it was just after the US troops went into Iraq and the focus had shifted. But, she always had security detail with her. She didn't sleep much. Although she was in the protection of the US military's walls, she wasn't at ease. She was also the only one in her group not to get sick. She attributes this to not drinking the water and doing nothing with the water - not even washing her hands, brushing her teeth, eating fruits and veggies that was washed with the water.

I asked her about dress. She suggested to blend in as much as you can so not to draw attention. However, while there, she did not wear any head covering. She also advised to wear sturdy shoes because of all the rocks and rubble around.

I told her that I was curious to see if Afghanistan is better off now. She politely reminded me that women can be seen outside and attend school. So yes, Afghanistan as a country is better off.
My major concerns with the trip are things I can control. There is no point in worrying about things I cannot control - such as being kidnapped or shot at (I'm know a whole lotta people will be praying for me) - well, I guess I can control those things by NOT going, but I'm determined to go. I am concerned about showing the proper courtesy and respect to the Afghan people and our hosts. I am concerned that my pants will not be shapeless and "flowing" enough. I am concerned I will not have the proper head scarf. I am concerned about clearing Customs in the States. I'm quite sure I must be on some watch list, especially since visiting Cuba two years ago.

I need to work on my query letters this week and catch up on some reading. But like my trip to Japan, I will learn the most when I am immersed in the culture.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

He's Arrived!



My traveling companion for my upcoming trip arrived today. I still have to work on removing the Styrofoam dots from him - it's kind of like glitter - don't think it ever goes away. Now, I'm instructed to leave him with any member of the military that I come in contact with. I didn't clarify whether that means US or other. I'm debating whether to break him in this weekend and take him on the road to Ft. Lauderdale with me

I like the gnome because he reminds me of a drawings my uncle did for me and my siblings. Sometime in the 80's when gnomes were popular, he sketched various gnomes in different positions. Wonder if my parents still want mine? (hint, hint)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Traveling Companion Needs No Visa

Watching a mostly-naked Bushman traverse across the African plains in order to return a glass Coke bottle to the gods made me laugh. It still does. I'm referring to the movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy". Xi, the main character of the film, carries the Coca-Cola bottle that fell from the skies (an airplane) throughout the movie. It's a story of Western society invading/touching/corrupting (?) a simple and different world.

While I worked in Yellowstone, my friend Jen O. and I began carrying and photographing ourselves with a box of Muselix. We took it camping and hiking with us and when we went our separate ways at the end of each summer, we our own box of Muselix to create Kodak moments.

My friends at Travelocity are providing me with a travel companion for my upcoming trip - a gnome. If you haven't seen the gnome yet, check out Travelocity's website. The gnome will join me on the journey and I will document his experiences, too. Don't think he needs a visa.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Thank God I'm Catholic

Here's a snippet of an IM with my Mom tonight. She beat me in reaching my Grandma to tell her of the trip:

CWAC2444: i am talking to grandma now. she said she would pray for you!!!!!!

(OK, so I'm picturing my 83-year-old Grandmother on her knees, praying against the bed with the rosary between her hands).

JHuber7672: Did you wake her up!?
JHuber7672: Is she upset? Should I call her?
CWAC2444: SHE WAS READING IN BED
CWAC2444: NO, PROBABLY NOT NOW. SHE IS MORE CONCERNED THAN UPSET

(And making Grandma upset isn't a good thing! She can be a bit feisty and speaks her mind - and I got a piece of it when I called her).


CWAC2444: YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY GFROM TRAVELING ALONE TO YELLOWSTONE!!

(Yeah, I have - I was petrified when I first went out to Yellowstone. Not knowing a sole. Since then, I've traveled to England, Sweden, Cuba and Japan. What will this trip have in store?)

Yup, I'm Heading to Afghanistan

Although I've been planning this trip for about a month, I can now tell the world (since I just informed my parents - I'm 35 years old and still care what they think!) that I'm heading to Afghanistan for a 10-day trip. No, I haven't lost my mind. I have a voracious curiosity for unknowns and Afghanistan is a big unknown.

I'm heading over with a small, non-profit group that works with peace-keeping organizations. The focus is to meet with various women's organizations and see the progress women are making in a post-Taliban society.

In order to fund the trip, I'm hoping to get some writing published about the trip and will begin my queries this week. If you're interested in publishing a story with photos, please contact me.

Leading up to my departure and while I prepare, I will post my thoughts and anxieties. While in Afghanistan, I should have access to Internet cafes to post accordingly. Enjoy the journey!