I arrive at Kabul Airport, it’s surprisingly small, and walk past the captured Soviet fighter jet at the entrance. I am picked up in Parking Lot C by my new friend Sami. Early twenties, dressed nattily in a western sport coat and slacks. Light beard, business-like can-do attitude, very good English. Handsome and fit, reminds me a little of Sasha Baron Cohen. He and his driver friend take me to my guest house in the northwest Shāre Naw neighborhood. A little too close to some embassies (I.e., targets) but nondescript. I met Sami through the couchsurfing.com traveler’s site and at at some point may move in with him and his family.
The guest house is, well, what can I say… As I told an Australian diplomat, it would make a sorry target for a suicide bomber. If I were doing this forty years ago, and I was traveling with a girlfriend wearing beads, fringes and patchouli, and we were looking for a cool place to smoke hashish, make love and wander Chicken Street, this would be the place.
Sami spends a half hour briefing the hotel staff, and negotiating my rate. He has me check out the wifi, weak but functioning, and pick my choice of rooms. Negligible difference but I chose one with no room number for style points. Clandestino!
We walk around the park and past a university. Sami suggests we bust our way and demand to see the principal for an interview. I am feeling unusually winded. Later, I realize Kabul is at 6,000 feet.
After settling back in the room, I walk my new neighborhood. It’s now dark, about 7pm, street lighting is inconsistent and the pavement is treacherous. I buy a shwarma (large, spicy) from the fellow next door, and walk a few blocks looking for a cafe. They don’t really do cafes here, and of course I cannot read most of the signage, which is usually handmade and obscure even when translated. When I find myself standing on gravel in the dark, at a dead end, I quickly backtrack.
I spot a juice store, with a short, stocky, middle-aged fellow furiously grinding carrots, apples, and various fruits so I stop in. There is one table with four guys, and a couple at the counter taking delivery of their carrot juices. I ask the counterman if he knows English–he does–and then ask him to make me something that includes carrots.
“Apples and carrots,” he decides. He instructs me to sit down and I get back to reading Dexter Filkins’ superb The Forever War on my phone.
When I started the trip in Central America, I carefully hid my digital devices. I am now traveling with an 11″ MacBook Air, an old iPad 3 (a backup, and increasingly useless as it ages) and an iPhone 6. Since everyone around me has mobile devices, and I am crippled without a device that can shoot photos and video and take notes, and provide access to reading material, I now discreetly carry one or more devices with me.
The four guys at the next table are boisterous, clearly good friends, and having a great time with their communal pizza-shaped meal. They look thirty something but I’m finding that Afghans look older than their physical age. Plenty here to age you early in the past three decades. My juice arrives and I notice one of the guys is staring at me. I have not seen many westerners around, so I’m getting a lot of that on the street.
He beckons me to join them. No, I’m fine, I reply. None of the four men speak any English. They all start waving me over, laughing, and insisting. What the hell.
They make room for me, and I watch how they eat. I’m given a big naan-type bread. The dish is pizza-shaped, eggs on top, sunny-side up (my father’s favorite) and the flavors just knock me up. Rich, spicy, unusual. The guy to my left keeps saying, more, more, as I scoop another portion into my bread. Mohammed, the juice guy, speaks some English so he translates. I try to ask political questions but it’s hopeless, so we keep to short phrases.
I walk home. People go to bed early here, call to prayer is pre-sunrise, and so the streets are emptying by now. Shopkeepers cleaning up, the ubiquitous security, police, army guards with automatic weapons. And almost no women. Nicole Maron noticed that my encounters in the Middle East are almost exclusively with men. Women here stay home, mostly. And a lot of full-cover burkas, covering the eyes.
I am not sure the guest house has a proper address, at least it didn’t when I found it on Lonely Planet. But I think I know my way home.