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.