Thursday, October 1, 2009

Heading Home - part one

I am sitting in the airport in Kabul - waiting for the flight to Dubai.

We started the day walking the city wall. The city wall is a wall that was built in 460 AD. It now exists on only one of the mountains but offers a commanding view of all of Kabul.

Our hike began at 6 AM and we climbed as high as the monitoring blimp that flies over the city (yes, there is a blimp in the air over Kabul that monitors activities in the city - it can read the numbers on your watch someone said).

It was a great way to start the day and finish our trip in Kabul. From the top of the ridge you could see Murat Khane, the old palace, Babur's Garden and hear the noise and the traffic of the city bounce its way around the valley and make its way upwards.

Judy was a trooper - hiking the ridge despite her fear of heights.

We packed our bags and went to the airport. Getting in is certainly easier than getting out. I was frisked 3 times before boarding the flight (I am on the plane now) and my bags were checked 4 times.

Shoshana and Zia cleared the way for us - negotiating with customs agents (including the one who took the booze on my way in - this time he was going to take my batteries). Once again "Problem".

The rest was negotiated in Dhari - apparently he said "yes, haven't you heard - no weapons, lighters, or batteries"

After Shoshana gave him a whithering look - I left with my batteries. And at the additional check points I ran into no additional "customs fees" and a reduced rate for heavy bags.

Total VIP.

That Shoshana is a powerhouse.

Preparing for takeoff - more from Dubai.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Opening My Eyes

As a foreigner it is necessary to be escorted anywhere you go in Kabul.

Shoshana had a number of meetings with US dignitaries and as a result, Judy and I spent all day yesterday at the fort.

We used our time to pour over the donor list figuring out new connections and ways to get each donor more involved with Turquoise Mountain.

We spent the evening at a film screening at the Fort. A documentary about the nature of creativity as it relates to the Afghan crafts Turqoise Mountain is working to preserve.

A Western point of view to be sure.

Interesting to see the reaction some of the Afghans had to the film. Wondering how these arts were going to be brought to a wider Afghan community - beyond the expats.


After watching a presentation by the TM community development group this morning, where we learned about the demographics of the area, the many services of the clinic, and the school and its programs, we returned to Murat Khane today.

The area has a population that is 80 percent under 17 - most of whom are males. This combined with a large unemployment problem is a factor that is of great concern as it leads to violence and radicalism (not so different than poor teens in urban environments in the US).

Turquoise Mountain's efforts - through construction and trade work, has led to a severe decrease in unemployment. But there is a recognition that this employment is temporary.

Because it was no longer EID we got to go into the classrooms and see the students at work. The minute we walked in there was a rousing "Salame" and the second grade class was fighting to read aloud for us.

The classrooms were mixed with both boys and girls.

We left Murat Khane and grabbed a quick lunch before heading for tea.

Stocky and Judy had hosted an Afghan girl over the summer and we were going to pay a visit to her sister and husband who live in Kabul.

The two are doctors at a Kabul hospital and we sat and listened as they talked about their life here.

They both come from the countryside up North but had to come to Kabul for the training despite the fact that the pay is much less in the city than it is in the country ($150 per month! Vs. $300 in the country).

The talk soon turned to the governement and what is possible for the future of Afghanistan. The husband was disheartened with the government and seemed unsure that there was any strong future for Afghanistan.

"Security is less stable. Many want the international community out of Afganistan - but I am not sure that will be better."

We soon left and dropped Shoshana off for a meeting at the ministry of communication.

Judy, Zia, and I continued on to Baghe Babur. It is a garden that is the burial site for an emperor from the 1600's who wanted to be buried in Kabul because to him, it was the most beautiful place on earth.

A great deal of work has gone into the site in the last 2 years. It is lush and green with trees, rose bushes and a fountain that flows like a river through the middle of the park.

It is a sharp contrast to the dusty streets of Kabul and the sharp mountains that surround it.

We walked around for an hour at sunset - the color was beautiful and the dust filled air glowed golden over the city.

We left around 5:30 and Zia laughed at the thick traffic as we stepped outside.

It was at a deadstop in front of us.

In broken English he offered to take us in the opposite direction from all of the traffic - to drive us by the palace and museum.

We drove and Zia tried to teach us the names of the neighborhoods as we zipped and bumped our way through the streets.

We drove the Darulaman road and passed the former palace - a spectacular building now bombed out - with holes in the side and missing rooftops.

It is spectacular and sad all at the same time.

We asked Zia who had done this - was it the Taliban? the Americans? the Russians? There were so many choices.

It had been destroyed by the warring factions of the Mujadeen during the Afghan civil war in the early 1990's.

As I heard this and looked at the bombed out palace I could not help but think of what our host from tea had said today.
I also found myself thinking of the incredible effort and work being done by Turquoise Mountain to preserve Afghan culture and art.

No one is sure of what Afghanistan's future will be and as rebuilding efforts continue throughout the city there are constant reminders that all of this could be temporary and no one knows this better than the residents of Kabul.

It is hard to know how to nurture this progress and even more difficult to determine how to prevent it from being destroyed.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Unconditional Love

That is how Afghan hospitality was described to me today. Hospitality being their version of unconditional love.

The custom is to welcome even strangers for tea. And if their enemy happens to be that stranger - so be it.

If their enemy is threatened by an outsider while having tea. As a matter of pride they will fight to the death for that enemy.

Graciousness and beauty has always existed alongside violence here.

Like the kites that the children fly all over the city. They dance across the sky - literally dozens at a time. And while the kites soar - all of the kite strings are equipped to cut down any kite string that gets in its path.

I went with 2 of the women from Turquoise Mountain today to shop on Chicken Street (the main merchant center) and then to buy kites in another area of town.

The kite seller had a small store front on a dust covered street in downtown Kabul. Some of the tiny stand was filled with kites - but most of it was filled with different types of string. The shopkeeper showed me the strength of the string and then showed me how it could easily cut another string down. This was its most important selling feature - not how high the kite could fly.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Return to regularly scheduled programming...


Woke up early in the morning on Saturday so we could prepare for our hike in Istalif.  


Istalif is an area about an hour and a half outside of Kabul.   Istalif suffered greatly in the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.  It was occupied and then burned by the Taliban  - trees were knocked down or burned as were houses and parts of the village.  


Istalif had long been a retreat from the congestion of Kabul.  Very much like going upstate is for some of us who live in New York.  


Istalif was an early site of activity for Turquoise Mountain - partially because of the level of suffering and partially because of the history of crafts, most specifically pottery, that exists in the area.   Istalif was famous for its pottery and when they began to rebuild one of the first things they repaired was the pottery center’s wheel and the kiln that had been destroyed.


We made our way to Istalif in the car with Zia, Shoshana, Judy and Ollie - one of the folks that works on the project in Murad Khane.  


The beginning of the trip took us out of Kabul on a paved road.  


About 40 minutes in we turned onto a bumpy dirt road and passed land that was beginning to be farmed and divided into different areas with walls made of mud brick. 


The dirt road eventually thinned and we were grinding our way up the mountain on a thin path surrounded by walls of the village (or what remained of them).


We passed people along the way men, women and children walking along the road.  They backed up against the walls so we could pass.   The women were all wearing burqas and when we first approached they had them pulled back so they could play with their children or watch over them as they walked down the mountain.  When our car approached - they turned toward the wall or pulled the burqas down over their faces.


We arrived in the village and went to meet Islam Muhammed - one of the sons of the top ceramics man in the region.  He agreed to walk us along the river and up the mountain. 


We began our walk along the river on a rocky wooded path - much tree growth has taken place since the Taliban left in 2002.   


The river rushes along nicely and Islam points with pride at the rock houses being rebuilt in the mountain side. 


We wind our way up the mountain and pass children leaving school and happen upon other children shaking branches for walnuts.  Their father offers all of us walnuts and we use rocks to break them on the rock wall. 


There are many rock walls throughout the area.  They terrace the land for the planting of grapes, mulberries, and walnuts and also separate the land for ownership purposes.


The walnuts are a little under-ripe and therefore moist and chewy but still taste good. 


Some of the children follow us for a ways.  Hoping to get their picture taken or just interested in the group of strangers that are here.  


We walk for a little under two hours and take a break in a shaded area by the river.  We watch as one man carries sticks on his back up the mountain and another leads a donkey, weighed down with bags, across the river.  


Soon a large SUV pulls up out of nowhere and two men get out and begin to wash the car with buckets full of river water.  This is only the second car we have seen today (the third is one we later help to push up the mountain as the car load of 6 men stops to say hello and gets stuck).


We decide to turn back and begin our walk down the river. 


Shoshana lets us know that Islam has invited us to tea in his garden.  We soon turn and begin hiking up another part of the mountain – we jump over rock walls and duck under tree branches.  We continue to climb and eventually come to a dry riverbed and climb another wall.  We sit under a tree in “Islam’s garden” which is really much of the land we have just traversed.  In front of us is a small patch of land that is a newly growing vineyard.


Islam leaves and returns with a blanket for us to sit on.  Following close on his trail are a group of children – 4 boys all between 6 and 8.  They stand precariously on the side of the hill watching us with wide eyes.


Soon a slightly older girl comes out with a silver tray with glass mugs for tea.  She hands this up the hill to the boys and runs off again.  Before we know it we have in front of us cookies, homemade naan, and hot tea. 


We sit on the hillside and Islam’s uncle joins us.  He is much older with a weathered face, little round hat and watery blue eyes.


Islam says something to the children and the boys all remove their shoes and walk across the blanket to greet each of us and shake our hands.  “Salame Malakem.”  Peace be on you indeed.

News Break

There was the noise of gunfire and 2 loud booms we heard tonight at the fort.  

From what I understand some of this has been reported on the news.  Wanted to give everyone an update.

When the first and loudest of the explosions happened - I left my room to investigate.  I passed one of the architects and said "Did you hear that - what was it?"  "Sounds like an explosion that happened not too far from here" and he proceeded to the kitchen to get himself a bottle of water. 

Not terribly comforting. 

I soon ran into Shoshana who let me know they were investigating to see what it was. 

No clear stories have come out about this but apparently the second of the explosions was a controlled explosion (like a mine they found and detonated).  Still unclear what the first one was and if there was a relationship between the two.  

All this to say we are safe.  There were countless calls that Shoshana received from concerned people from other parts of Kabul as one of the explosions was reported as being in this area. 

As it happened there was a large group dinner planned this evening at the fort.  There were great plates of hummus and lamb and bottles of wine passed around.  

Rory had returned from a couple of weeks away.  He thanked everyone for being here and for all of their work.  He reassured them there was great support for their work in the outside world and a real appreciation for what they are doing.  He also raised a glass to welcome Judy and me.

Everyone laughed and told stories as phones continued to ring and buzz with people checking in. 

Like going out to dinner on the night that 9/11 happened or clearing the fridge of champagne during the blackout - life goes on  - and sometimes these experiences even bring us closer together. 

Thanks all for your kind thoughts and prayers.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

India House

Sorry for the delayed update.  Internet access has not been as consistent lately.

Following Friday's afternoon music event we went for more music and dinner at the India House - residence of the Indian Ambassador.  We were stopped at 3 levels of security in what is sometimes referred to as the green zone.  This exists in the center of the city and is where all of the embassies are located. 

We showed our invitations - (which they unfortunately took, I was hoping for a souvenir).  We pulled up to a large and beautiful house with a large lawn.  A number of dignitaries were on the lawn having drinks and greeting each other.  Shana and Noah were keeping me up to speed on the ambassador gossip - and we were soon greeted by the ambassador's wife and daughters.  

The 2 daughters had been to the bird market that day.  A variety of birds are sold there.  
Quail, which are used for fighting that people bet on.  Pigeons, which are very revered and are used for a game between neighbors - the lead pigeon, a female, flies with her flock guided by sticks held by the owner. The sticks guide the lead bird around and the flock tries to attract the neighbors pigeons.  

I don't get it either but apparently its big bucks.  A lead pigeon goes for $500 dollars in the bird market (about 2 months average Afghan salary).

We soon went inside India House for a night of music.  We all sat on large red cushions  that were lined up in rows on the floor.  The ambassador talked about how thankful he was that his family could be there to visit him (most ambassadors are not allowed to bring their wives or children with them - hence all the dignitary gossip).

After the classic Indian music we sat for dinner and talked to one of the Indian diplomats who spoke about the number of projects India is funding in Afghanistan (apparently 1.2 billion dollars worth - including the road on which the electricity is run from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan).  India has a heavy involvement in the rebuilding of Afghanistan - some question if this is for altruistic reasons or because of their difficult history with Pakistan - therefore hoping to utilize Afghanistan as a way to divert trade, etc from Pakistan.

The rebuilding of a nation is a difficult process - and a newly global economy that has a memory of grievances that are many year's old - the process becomes even more complex and difficult.  

I do not have any photographs of the India House as I did not bring my camera with me for fear of its being taken.  But I do have a photo of the singer from that evening from earlier in the day.

Friday, September 25, 2009


For those interested - here is an update on the beard.  Its a bit scraggly (and as it turns out not at all necessary)  But I figure if I am already 11 days in - lets see what happens.

Murad Khane

We decided to take it a little bit easy today and ease into our Friday.  Most have the day off from the building project of Murad Khane.  Early this morning there was even a bit of a chill in the air which is nice after the midday sun of yesterday's walk around the district.

I had breakfast with Noah, Shoshana, and Judy and then did some yoga in the courtyard.   It is strange to move from war zone observer to spa like vacation in the space of a day.  

I sit here now writing and looking out the window as they prepare for the music festival taking place in the courtyard later today.  It seems event preparation is the same the world over.   Rushing around, last minute changes to the set up, continued updates to the guest list.

There was an option to go and play ultimate frisbee today at a soccer field at one of the local schools.  One of the few remaining fields that exists in the country.  A number of expats who work here with USAID, various research projects, etc go every week.  It is a way to blow off steam and reduce the intensity of their day to day life.  I asked Noah when it started - he told me that when he first came in 2004 it was happening and it has continued despite the fact that no one from that original crew is left.  They have also moved locations 3 times.  It is obvious this activity is important to them and gives the group a sense of normalcy.

We decided to opt out of this.  Not just because of my obvious lack of hand-eye coordination - but also because each day here feels like three.  The days have been so full - with new experiences - eye opening, sad, inspiring, and unique that I decided it was time to take a step back before proceeding further. 

I knew that later this afternoon there would be the music festival and then a trip to the Ambassador of India's House for a night of music followed by dinner.  (I even got an invite with my name on it!)

We met the Ambassador, his wife, and two daughters when Shoshana was giving them a tour of Murad Khane - the historic part of town that Turquoise Mountain is preserving and rebuilding. It was once a thriving and wealthy trade district - that was the site of much of the civil war.  It is now in deep disrepair. 

The work being done there is unbelievable for so many reasons - for the size of the project - over 8 buildings and worksites - the amount of work that has been done - and also the amount that still needs to be accomplished.  

In this part of town - there is open sewage throughout - the smell permeates the air.  This problem has been mitigated by covering some of the sewage canals with paving stones - but this is true only on some streets where TM has made some inroads.  They have cleaned many of the streets - streets that were once piled high with trash.  Trash that would go above your waist - trash so high you would have to crawl over it on your belly to get through covered alleyways.

In this area of town they have preservation projects - they are taking what remains of existing buildings and rebuilding them with historic accuracy - incorporating the woodworking crafts and other details.  Many of these will be turned into workshops and stores for all of the Turquoise Mountain disciplines.  Others they are building from the ground up - with a respect for what has been done before.  In all cases the issue of sustainability is key.  This permeates all discussions from how the buildings will be built to what kind of maintenance is realistic for the water treatment.

We walked through the area with Shoshana early in the day.  She said hello to many shop keepers and others on the street "Asalamu alaykum!" and asked after their families and how their holiday was.
One, who Shoshana later referred to as the deputy Mayor, invited us to tea at his house.  We accepted the invitation and were led down an alleyway into his house.  We removed our shoes and climbed the stairs to the second floor.  As is traditional in Afghan houses - there were pillows all along the wall.  We each took a seat as his daughter excitedly brought in dishes of sugared nuts, almond cookies, and a crispy sweet bread made by his wife.  ("EID leftovers but still delicious" Shoshana said to us in English.)  

We talked about politics - our host preferring McCain to Obama - (his white hair shows his experience - Obama does not have enough white hair yet.  All of this communicated in a combination of Dhari and hand signals ).  

At another point he mentioned Michael Jackson.  ("Michael Jackson #1" he said - breaking his Dhari and hand signals for the first time buy it was very clear what he was talking about so I could fully understand on my own).

He then grabbed his big toe and nodded his head.  Shoshana looked confused.  I guessed that he was referring to Michael's signature stand on his toes dance move.

We left soon after and went to meet the Ambassador and his family.  

We walked with the family through the multiple sites - the women's building - new construction that would one day house a health clinic for women's services along with other facilities including a Hamam (currently they are only allowed to use the existing one on Wednesdays).

We walked through the newer buildings and met with one of the architects who is refurbishing a 144 room building (120 of these rooms have been done).  

We walked around for another 2 hours - the dust is so thick that you can practically feel it coating your lungs.   

Following our tour we all sat for lunch in the peacock house.  It was quite a spread.  Lamb kebob sandwiches with Naan.  Rice with raisins and carrots.  Fresh fruit (which I have been warned not to eat as my short stay will not give me enough time to get used to it).

We sat and I listened as Noah and the Ambassador discussed the election.  It was posited that the corruption and violence here, versus an election in India, was minimal at best.  And therefore the election would be dubbed a success - a peaceful discourse about a shift in power.

There was much discussion of where corruption truly exists in Afghanistan - in the government or in the foreign contracts.  Contractors take a large fee and then hire  subcontractor to do the work.  With all of the deals and subcontracts $150 million for a roads project quickly turns into $60 million actually being spent on roads.  

It was interesting to hear the different perspectives and to get a sense of what everyone thought of the possible success or failure of democracy in this country. 

It seems on one hand democracy has been successful with another election with minimal violence (with admittedly a still undetermined outcome.)  

On the other hand the government does not operate as a democracy in that it does not represent or support the needs of its people (trash removal, clean roads, clean water! - these are all being done by private groups - only recently have they begun to support and subsidize working electricity for the city).  

Individuals at lower levels in the government also regularly accept bribes (I am short one bottle of Makers Mark to prove it).  This behavior combined with the lack of services and support reduces people's faith in the government and makes me question if a centralized government (vs. individual community leaders and yes, warlords) can ever be successful. 

These questions continued to swirl as we went to a barbecue with a group of expat researchers and others.  I speak to one who is researching livelihood and food throughout Afghanistan.  His research (supported by research with the same families done 5 years ago) tries to assess how people  make a living and feed themselves in the face of trauma.

They have come up with some interesting findings.  

The Afghan communities support each other.  If one family is down they are often able to get food, credit, and other needs fulfilled by other members of the community.   Much of the research is re-informing how aid is being supplied to this country. 

After taking all of this in I am sure you can see why I needed a day off.  (After slogging through my rants and ramblings - you might need a day off).

After this morning at the fort Shoshana, Judy and I went to coffee and discussed different options for Turquoise Mountain for fundraising, events and development.  It was great to brainstorm ideas and bring some of my knowledge to the discussion.  We are going to meet again next week when the rest of the staff is back.

The music festival is beginning outside my window.  The courtyard is filled with rugs and cushions and now sitar music accompanying a male voice.  People have begun to file in slowly.

I am going to join them.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


We got up early this morning to leave Dubai.  The wake up call came at 3:45 and we were out the door by 10 after 4.

Our 6:30 flight took off easily.  The plane was filled with mostly male passengers.   A combination of middle easterners dressed in traditional clothing - combined with contract workers for the US government (read:  Black Rock) - with a business man or two thrown in.  Judy and I were the only tourists.

The flight over was peaceful and calm.  The sun rose as we flew over the mountains and into Afghanistan.

After landing, buses took us on the short ride from the plane to the new airport terminal. 

We filled out our foreigner's registration card application and proceeded to the carousel to get our luggage.  

All without a hitch. 

Judy and I proceeded to put our bags on the belt for scanning in order to gain final entry into the country.   Carry-ons, our checked luggage and the chocolate, other treats and booze we had bought from Duty Free, for Shoshana and Noah and the staff from Turquoise Mountain, all went on the belt.  

When I got through the to the other side of the belt the customs agent who was on the other side grabbed the Duty Free bags looked at me and said "Problem".

I knew that alcohol service and consumption was looked down upon in Afghanistan and not allowed in Islamic countries -  therefore alcohol was not readily available.   Which is of course why we were bringing this stuff in the first place - plus I thought, as long as it said Duty Free - everything was ok.  Isn't Duty Free the international get out of jail free card?

I looked at him directly, heart beating, and said "what is the problem?"

Judy said to me under her breath - "shoot, we should have put the bottles in the bags.  Let me go find Shana - she should be able to help."  She proceeded to grab her bags and walk to the other side of the wall.

I looked at the agent again and said - "I do not understand - what is problem?"

He grabbed the Makers Mark bottle out of the bag - looked back at his cronies and nodded his head.  He handed me the bag with the rest of the bottles and said "Its ok".

I thought about protesting further and then thought better of it - this was not JFK after all.  I grabbed to rest of the loot and left.

When I got to the other side of the wall I greeted Shoshana who was speaking in Dhari to another agent.  She welcomed me and apologized for the trouble.  When I told her what had happened - she laughed saying that she had brought whiskey in many times but it was never taken because her's was cheap.   The guards were obviously after "the good stuff".  

The irony is - Judy and I had initially grabbed a bottle of Jim Beam but were encouraged by a puffy whisky connoisseur at the duty free to get the Makers Mark saying "It's worth it - you won't regret it."

Shana and Zia - the driver for the foundation - walked us to the car.  

Driving through the hectic and busy streets was overwhelming.  It was the end of Ramadan so there were a number of people flying kites, many pedestrians and a glut of cars that moved quickly with no discernable lanes.  Cars drove very fast and very close to each other. 

As we drove Shana pointed out things of interest - the large wedding palaces with light up palm trees in front, the new construction of housing going up in various places along the main road, the new trees that had been planted along the road through private funding.  We zipped down the road until we turned off into the area of town where the Fort is. 

We then bumped along a pavement free, trash strewn road.   There were people all along it - women in burqas, children playing, men with wheel barrows, and the occasional car dodging as we weaved down our course.

We pulled up to the walled entrance to the fort.  An armed guard was outside of the gate.  The doors were opened by another armed guard and Shana joked how they never checked the car for bombs if she was in it - despite her encouraging them to do so.  

"They know how to use their guns now though.  We found the only 6 men between 18 and 24 in Afghanistan who did not know how to use guns and promptly hired them as guards".  I laughed at the casual nature of her statement as much as I was laughing at what she said.

We entered the fort itself and it was like being in an Italian villa.  Mountains all around, beautiful fruit trees including pomegranates and pears.  A beautiful center courtyard with a lawn that was being freshly cut. 

I was brought to my room - actually Rory's room - a beautiful space with overlapping red rugs on the floor and embroidered red curtains hanging at the windows  There was a private bath and an additional seating area.

Shana then gave us a tour of the institute which consists of 4 schools - woodworking, calligraphy, gems, and ceramics.  

Not many students were there because the holiday, Eid, was still lingering.  Officially a 3 day holiday - but people want it to be 5 days - so they take 5 days.

The students who were there showed us beautiful work.  Geometric wood carving - Jolley style - put together into large screens through a complex system of notches - no glue used at all.  Intricate carvings made into doors - screens - pillars for bed posts.

We met the master calligrapher who showed us beautiful mandalas, and detailed writing of poems by Rumi embellished with pictures and designs.  All pieces done in the 4 main styles of calligraphy.

The gem makers showed us the gem cutting they do and then the jewels that they create with them.  One of the things Afghanistan is rich in is gems - but because they no longer have facilities to refine and cut these gems - all of the stones, not to mention the profits go to neighboring countries like Pakistan.  

In the making of the jewelry - Shana explained that one of the biggest challenges was getting them to create their own new designs - now that they had the skills to copy those of the traditional jewelry makers - they needed to bring their own vision to the pieces.  Individualization of design - in all areas - is one of the hardest things to cultivate. 

At each stop - in the compound of the fort - Shoshana would speak to people, some in English some in Dhari, about the business of the day.  New supplies to be ordered, someone's travel schedule, new projects being discussed, security concerns due to a rally happening in town. 

She had it all under control.

Judy and I were a little worn out due to the early morning travel.  I laid down for a nap and when I woke up went to the main table off the courtyard.

The table seems to be the centerpiece of social interaction at Qala-e-Norborja (the fort of nine towers - although only one tower is left).  The table is an ever-changing mix of people from all over the world.  

At one point I found myself in conversation with 2 German engineers who were creating a plan to resolve the open sewage problem in Murad Khane, the part of town in the historic district that Turquoise Mountain is revitalizing.

The engineer has put in similar systems all over the world from India to his home town in Germany.

We soon left to meet Shoshana's husband Noah for dinner.  Zia drove us to an expat place called L'Internationale, a French restaurant in the western part of Kabul.

Getting into the restaurant was harder than getting into Bungalow 8 back in the day. 

There are 2 guards at the small main door that has no sign.  They speak through a small gated window and the door opens.  We are led into a room where the man pats me down and asks if we have any weapons.  "Not today" Shana jokingly responds.

The man then screams "shark" and another small gated window on the next door opens.  Another armed guard greets us and we are led through that room to another door with a small gated window.  "Shark" is screamed one more time and the door opens.

We are led to a beautiful candle lit courtyard with trees and various seating areas with couches and overstuffed chairs.

The juxtaposition of everything is far too much to take.   The armed guards leading us to a courtyard where we sit for dinner - the excess of Dubai and the mud brick buildings of Kabul.

Over our French dinner we discuss Noah's work on judicial policy in the provinces and his side project creating a report on the election, its process and results.  There is another woman there who works with Noah and talks about her husband's work creating wind turbines for renewable energy creation in Kabul.

At the end of dinner I am completely wiped out, overwhelmed and find myself in a dream-like daze.  The intensity of the day, the city, and taking everything in has been exhausting.  

We make our way back to the fort.  I head directly to my room and I fall into a deep sleep.  It is only 9:00 PM.


We spent the day touring Dubai yesterday.  
Dubai to me is like Los Angeles sprawl had a one night stand with Las Vegas glitz that resulted in a baby left to raise itself.  

OK - I may be taking the metaphor a bit too far - but really - this place is out of control.  

I will say that the over abundance of wealth and the competition for biggest, best and shiniest  - has made for some pretty interesting structures - not to mention that new metro system - which is quite fantastic.

The system opened on September 9th.  It is very clean with air-conditioned stations that are a great relief from the dead heat of the desert (and might be nice on a New York summer day too).

The most amusing part of the ride is that there is a soundtrack - a bouncing tune that plays between station stops and keeps everything lite and moving along.  I can only guess this was written specifically for the rail.  (I have a recording of it for those interested - thanks Lisa).

We saw many of the over the top sites of the city:  we rode in a taxi onto Palm Island, saw Burj Al Arab (the sail hotel - and incidentally, the tallest hotel in the world), we checked out the indoor ski slope at one of the many malls in Dubai.  

It is all quite fantastical and over the top but like Las Vegas - for me 24 hours is enough.  

Monday, September 21, 2009

You say Dubai and i say hello

We managed to get bulkhead seats on the flight over - although in a middle seat - my legs were quite happy about the extra room.

Emirates is quite an airline - I love that there is a camera at the nose of the plane that shows take off and landing on the monitors.

I also loved that when they turned down the lights for people to go to sleep - the ceiling lit up with a constellation of LED stars.

We got off in Dubai - and the massive airport is like a Blade Runner Airport as coceived by a vegas review designer. A large metallic space ship that lit up was the first thing we saw when getting off the plane. The airport is filled with huge white columns that glitter and sparkle, multi-color LED walls that light up surrounding a black marble waterfall.

Being surrounded by this crisp, clean, illiminated, over the top environment as the day's final call to prayer came over the speakers made the whole place seem otherworldly while familiar all at the same time.

It is nighttime so we made our way to the hotel - within spitting distance of the airport. Its a resort geared towards business travelers, le Meridian Dubai - with 16 restaurants and 3 pools.

It felt similar to resorts you would find elsewhere - with the requisite over-priced restaurants (French! Sushi! Italian!). I could be in Dubai or Puerto Rico and not really know - except for the number of Sheiks walking around and the arabic writing on each sign (under the writing in English, of course).

Its a good place for transition though - and that was the whole idea. Today we will tour many of the over the top sites in Dubai - indoor snow skiing, Palm Island, etc.

We are going to try to do most of this via the brand new metro which just opened last week.

More after we tour - when I have had the chance to see more than the lights on the ceiling of my Emirates flight.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Here Goes

So a few people have asked me to stay in touch while I am in Afghanistan.  Not to mention the few that have asked me not to go - or those who have asked why I am not going to Hawaii instead.  In deference to the former and with nothing against the latter - I have decided to blog about my trip.

I leave on Sunday - but knew I needed to get things going before I left.   This blog is the first step I have taken other than booking my trip, applying for a visa and oh yeah, making the commitment to go. 

Many have asked why I am going. 

The simple answer is that the opportunity presented itself and I decided to take advantage of it. 

The Clarks have always given me the opportunity to push my limits and get out of my comfort zone.  It seems, at the ripe old age of 37 - they are doing so again.

For those who don't know - the Clarks are life long friends of my family.  My parents used to stay up all night with them on Christmas Eve building toys (and an infamous Mickey Mouse House) for my brothers and I.  When we moved from Upstate New York to Nashville - we lived with them for 3 months while we were in transition.  

As a tween and teenager I would visit for weeks in the summer and regale them with tales of my teenage angst.  They were good listeners who challenged my teenage thinking while also being supportive of me as I developed ideas about the world.

Their daughter, Shoshana, is the Managing Director of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul.  Turquoise Mountain is an organization founded on the idea that Afghan culture needs to be preserved and is dying in the face of the years of wars that have torn their country apart.  

Judy, Shoshana's mother, said she was going and I jumped at the chance to join her.

I do not know a great deal about the culture - I have read Rory's book, "The Places in Between" and am partway through "Kabul Beauty School" - another book about an Afghani interloper.

I am hoping to do some work while I am there.  Not sure what that will be or what it will look like.

I am hoping to learn about a culture that - by reputation - has no use for a gay American who produces parties for an evil media empire.

I must also admit that I am hoping to to gain a bit of perspective on who that gay party planner is.

Am I scared? - a bit.  My brother David said my plan lacked common sense.  As usual - I think he is right.  

But instead I have taken the philosophy that Judy, Shoshana's mother, gave me.  When I sent an email asking about a recent bombing at the Kabul airport - she wrote one back entitled "boom boom".

"This is all happening very far away.  If there was a mugging in New Haven, does that mean that you shouldn't go to New Haven?"  And while I admit that you could drive a truck through the holes in her theory - she has a point.  

We are not at war with this country.  We are at war with a certain group that has terrorized our country as well as theirs.  A very important distinction.

My mother thinks that I have lost my mind.  I have convinced her that this is my mid life crisis and that my trip is equivalent to a cherry red convertible.  She offered to buy me the car instead of taking the trip.  (Don't tell Jim).

And while on the topic of Jim.  Thank you for all of the support on this.  

Thank you also to Lisa for cheering on this idea and encouraging me to do it.  Thank you Aliya for doing the same and for the beautiful gift.  Thank you Adam for hooking me up with your friends and also for inspiring the blog title that I have co-opted. Thanks also to everyone at work who have supported me in taking this trip and thank you Babis for including me in your prayers and to the many others who have expressed concern, support, encouragement and even doubt.  

I can think of a million reasons not to go.  But the beard is coming in nicely (if slowly) and god knows I can't get away with a beard in Chelsea.  Here's hoping it passes in Kabul.