Outside the window, the sound of an old-fashioned, metal sewing machine is chugging away erratically, mixing with the music of the birds, the dogs, the chickens, the donkeys, the children playing soccer across the street, the cars beeping up on the main road, the lorries laying on their horns, and the hammering of construction somewhere nearby. The breeze is cool and life-giving in the heat of this second-floor room.
Yesterday, I arrived in Faizabad via a UN flight from Kabul. Before taking off, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the UN airport wing in KBL hosts perhaps the world’s only concessions stand that is not overpriced. On top of this, I got the Cute Foreigner Discount, which is hard to deny when I don’t really feel like paying USD1 for Nescafe in a paper cup. We made stops for passengers in Maimana, Mazar e Sharif (where the necessary refueling and peeing and cigarette smoking was done), and then Kunduz, before landing on a dirt airstrip in the middle of an impressively green valley nestled in the jagged, snowy clutches of the Pamirs.
It’s calm and idyllically pastoral here at the staff house where I’m typing up some work from the morning meetings held at the office around the corner.
My internet connection here is better than the one I curse at daily in Kabul. My pistachio green room is extremely cheerful, and the pillows are actually soft. My neck has a kink in it now, because it’s not used to having a comfortable pillow.
The intersecting patches of rockscape, wild grass, forest and bald, swaths of loam on the mountain foothills containing the valley appear too cleanly cut, their colors too strange because my eyes are now accustomed to Kabul’s dust and tepid brown that they just look fake. It feels good to just stare for a while and discover that I’m smiling. The icing on the cake is the front of dark, grey clouds to the West, pregnant with rain and advancing with the smell of a storm over the prairie in North Dakota during summer.
Needless to say, when I discovered a reason to stay longer in Badakhshan this morning (more meetings to attend, more conversations to join that will ‘get me in the picture’ as so many are fond of saying here), I dove in head first. Instead of going back this Saturday, I’m sticking around until next Wednesday or so, depending on the planes.
Tonight before dinner, I lost four rounds of ping pong and burned my tongue on dupatti chai as lightning danced closer and closer to the house before passing over altogether. We didn’t mind the scattered rain drops amidst the smell of kebab searing on coals and the wild howls of Kareem Ali each time he missed a shot. While we shouted at Chelsea losing to Manchester after dinner, I introduced my house mates to the happiness that is nutella smeared on pieces of fruit.
As in Kabul, the staff house residents become pseudo families. Old and new, permanent and temporary, we swap jokes and ethnicities and mobile numbers, all of us glad to have more names to check in on when things get tense, more friends to buy drinks for when we’ll see each other weeks from now in the capitol, shaking off a long day of driving and too many months of pastoral quietude.
I just had that moment hit me, finally. It took me two weeks of being here, it wasn’t until a few minutes ago while I was standing on the roof of our new guesthouse that I felt the full force of reality: I’m living in Afghanistan.
Since I landed, these past 14 days have been spent shuttling back and forth through traffic from my room to the office, stuck indoors and on the street level for about 99% of the time. I have seen parts of Kabul, but I haven’t actually seen Kabul. I haven’t seen the hills that surround the city, and I haven’t gaped at the mountains that surround the hills. Now I have, and I’m not sure I can even call them mountains. They’re so stunningly massive and stark behind the pollution that discolors from this distance, so impressive and imposing that I find it hard to believe them real. I’m almost hesitant to believe this is Earth, for a moment.
On the hills that rise up out of the city’s boundaries are patchwork blankets of Afghan homes, some painted easter eggs colors and others still shades of mud, wrapping the rocky surface with the patterns of human life, reaching all the way up to the peak where cell and TV towers are planted like flags claiming territory.
Down below the roof of our place, I can watch people coming and going; the neighbor is hanging laundry to dry, her son is running around in the garden, and I admire their trellised arbor that will hold blooming flowers over the walkway when spring arrives. On the other side, a tree is bursting with small, white blossoms that look like dogwood, and a house is painted the hue of lichen green that reminds me of R, because it seems like we were fixated on that color this past year. Two cats scream as one chases the other up a fence. Trucks lurch through the dust and mud, small boys loiter in the road, a man pushes a cart and calls through a megaphone to hawk his goods. The vegetable seller waves away flies from his tomatoes. The scurrying neon orange ants off to my right are construction laborers, working on a tall concrete complex, maybe a new apartment building or offices. Behind me, an old fortress stands on a grass covered hill where people go to fly kites.
I’d almost forgotten to think about the fact that these simple, beautiful facets of life are going on all around me, because frankly I’ve been rather blind to them until today. I hadn’t been able to take my first good look at Afghanistan until now, and I’m going to daringly say that I just fell a bit in love, if only yet for the rooftop view I have of this city and all its goings on. In my room now, typing this, my fingers and toes have gone back to freezing, the footsteps of others in the hallway echo like ghosts, and the 4 o clock sun coming in my window is kind but somber. I can’t wait for summer, even though I know I’ll eat those words once the 100-plus temperatures hit us. This house is beautiful and our staff is caring, but I think the roof is going to be seeing a lot of me.