Our first couchsurfing host was a 21 year old married man, living with his mother, wife, son, brother, 3 sisters, step-father, and some other cousins and extended family. One day we accompanied his older sister to school, where 650 of the 1000 enrolled students were female. Girls and boys only mix in the kindergarten classrooms, and the rest of the school day is split up – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon. We met with the principal and the English teacher who acted as a translator. We learned that the school had been open (for girls) for the last 20 years, which includes a time under Taliban rule when they weren’t allowed to go to school. During those times, they taught the girls within an unmarked compound, and had a back door they’d let the girls run out of if any police came.
Band-i-amir in the north of Afghanistan
The English teacher talked a lot, and told us everything. He even asked me to help him find money or a wife, because currently he’s found a wife (his cousin) but his father says he can’t afford her at the moment. This happened more than once, also in Iran, that people looked at a visiting foreigner as a way out. The major difference is that in Iran, the government imposes most of the restrictions, and in Afghanistan, family is the most important rule-enforcement.
Here, wives are often chosen by the father, or given to a man by her father, in some cases as young as 13 or 14 years old. They’re not given away for free – a hefty price, in the thousands of dollars, is paid, and in Kabul, weddings are a big big business. Weddings are attended by thousands of guests, sometimes 4,000, and cost tens of thousands of dollars. In very small, traditional villages of Afghanistan, some girls are also given to the enemy’s family as a way of resolving (often bloody) disputes. It would be tough to be wedded to your brother’s murderer and imagine ever having a happy family life of your own.
Every person we met in Afghanistan told us not to trust anyone. This was hard to do, especially since we were couchsurfing, and meeting and staying with a stranger, meeting all his strange friends, and had little options of making last-minute changes or not trusting the people around them. Our host in Kabul had his driver and cousins take us around, his butler feed us and lit our nightly shishas, and even took us to work one day (he works within a government ministry) and had one of their drivers take us home. We had recently learned that ministers are a huge target for kidnapping, and ministries for attacks, and that very morning there was a suicide bomb attack outside the Ministry of Defense, killing six and injuring dozens. On our way to the Ministry of Commerce, listening to the news of that mornings bombing, literally nothing changed, and people were only slightly inconvenienced from the increase in traffic due to a few road blocks around the explosion. I cant say people weren’t affected, but I saw this as a sign of their resilience. In your average European city, any suicide bomb would have caused a state of emergency, and no one would consider stepping outside or going to work.
street scene from Kabul
During the evenings at his home, we were surrounded by other ministers and important people in business and government, and one frozen yogurt franchiser. The first night we arrived to a yard of 14 men smoking shisha and playing badminton – at this moment I was very glad to be traveling with a fake husband. They all spoke perfect English, and had lived or studied abroad, and had many family members abroad. Still, some of them had left as refugees, and I cant believe their lives in Germany or elsewhere were any happier than in Kabul, especially since many of them had returned. Sometimes security is not as important as work and family, so they may be safer abroad but certainly not better off. They all agreed that the current safety crisis in Afghanistan is actually the reason why government officials and business men make multi-million dollar transactions; a state of peace would surely bring an economic crash. Can you imagine trading peace for money? Or job security?
Our host in Kabul explained it was dangerous to be in politics, work for (any) government, and all the international ex-pats or NGO’s or armies just make it more unstable. But without them, billions of dollars wouldn’t rush into the country every year. For him, the safest way to be was low profile. The same roads we had once driven in a bullet proof Land Cruiser with an armed guard, we would walk late at night, because of this reason. He felt safer walking in a hoodie in the dark than getting into a car where he was supposedly protected. During our night walks, it was always smoggy with a combination of fog, exhaust pollution, and the smoke of burning garbage. Seeing stars in Kabul was impossible, though the one I did see was a shooting star.
Bamyan from the top of Shahr-e Gholghola, or ‘City of Screams’
Four foreigners were kidnapped the week before we go to Afghanistan. An ex-pat friend of mine living in Kabul told us not to worry too much about that – foreigners are usually stalked and specifically targeted after weeks of planning, so we were low-risk kidnap suspects. However, some instincts are hard to suppress, and once in Herat we walked into a tour agency office to ask for an ATM, and they told us sit down, they’ll make a call. We politely said no thanks, we’ll ask someone else, and got the hell out of there.
Wedding halls, malls, hotels and hospitals are some of the biggest businesses in Afghanistan. The biggest, brightest buildings were wedding halls, the grand casinos of Kabul, so to speak. The malls and hotels were hidden behind security checkpoint containers, walls and barbed wire, since they’re suicide bomb attack hotspots, and hospitals seem to run without making any difference except for the rich few. We visited one private hospital in Herat, and the 5 storey building had more doctors, technicians and administration than patients. The first hour of our visit there wasn’t a single patient to be seen, and the surgery room looked like it had never been used since the hospital was opened two and a half years ago. We met the hospitals CEO in his office, where an unplugged, unwrapped, printer sat on his desk. He told us Afghanistan is the only country in the world where polio is still present, few people can afford private care, and just the other day a woman’s child died after being delivered from a major tumor that could have been seen only weeks into pregnancy – if she’d gotten an ultrasound.
The Big Buddha’s cave
We also traveled north to Bamiyan, a city only 2 or 3 hours away by road, but since its regularly checked by the Taliban, it was safer to fly. It costs $110 to fly 30 mins one way, but who can put a price on safety? Though we found out its probably more dangerous for the Hazare people, an indigenous group from the north of Afghanistan, to travel or be there. They’re characteristically more Asian featured, and having narrow eyes is seen as unlucky throughout Afghanistan. People believe if you paint black lines around a child’s eyes, it will make them open wider as they grow. I wonder if that’s been proven to work.
Being in Bamyan for a couple of days made the entire trip to Afghanistan worth it. We couchsurfed a construction site, with a man in his half-built home, and shared our meals with the construction workers, his son, and his daughter. We slept in a room heated by a coal stove, and there wasn’t any running water in the bathroom but we managed with our babywipes and one tap in the garden. Bamyan was a village in a valley, surrounded by caves dug out in cliffs from an ancient Buddhist civilization that once thrived there. In 2001 the Taliban tore down the 53 and 35 m budda statutes that had stood there for 1700 years, in an anti-islam purification effort, but their giant impressions still remain, hollowed out into the mountain, overlooking the peaceful village of Bamyan.