I broke the rules. I upset my fixer and my photographer. But as Katherine Hepbun once put it, “if you obey all the rules, you’ll miss all the fun”….and seeing Kabul from the back of a motorbike is a rule meant to be broken.
Travis, an Aussie photojournalist living in Kabul, asked if I was ‘allowed’ to go for a ride. ‘Allowed’ is such an inflammatory word. It puts the challenge up. In Kabul, its a fair question, as many aid workers and NGO employees must abide by certain security rules of curfews and drivers. I am under no such restrictions other than obvious security concerns expressed my fixer/translator extraordinaire, Najibullah.
Unfortunately for Najibullah, seeing Kabul on the back of a bike is EXACTLY what the doctor ordered after two weeks of headscarves, locked car doors, and home by 6pm. Not that its not been an adventure thus far, or that Najibullah hasn’t been an amazing guide through this country, but I need a bit more freedom. A bit more wind in my face.
The obvious challenge is riding the motorbike with a headscarf. A challenge to stay put when walking down the street, a near impossibility on the back of a motorbike. I attract second looks in the car, so I’d definitely stand out on the back of a motorbike. Then Travis tells me that women in Afghanistan ride sidesaddle, if at all. So I’m already tagged as a foreigner regardless of blond hair blowing out of a billowing headscarf. I tuck the ends into my coat and hope the Taliban aren’t watching.
This is an OLD bike. More glorified dirt bike than motorcycle. It has serious shocks and a cigarette lighter duct taped to windshield following a ride when the front light went out. Not sure how that is going to provide much light, but necessity was the mother of invention, so I’m sure its served its purpose. Travis revs the engine as I climb on, and I feel the wave of calmness I always get when I am happy to be exactly where I am. A small burst of adrenaline replaces the calm as the freedom from cars and locked doors and security hits with the first gust of wind.
Realizing headscarf will in fact be an issue as I can’t hold onto the bike with just one hand on these streets. Gutted out and worthy of a 4×4 or a full suspension mountain bike, there are serious obstacles to be had and that’s not counting the traffic. In a car you see the chaos. On a motorbike you feel it. So I pull the side of my headscarf towards my face and hold a bit of the fabric between my teeth to keep it in place. As I do, Travis mentions that the rumor is that the roads are purposely not fixed to keep traffic slow, therefore suicide bombers will have a tougher time. A comforting thought.
There are very few, if any, actual traffic rules in this country. There are two streetlights in the entire city. The rest are roundabouts and intersections that have a general sense of rules, but if you need to go left and the roundabout traffic flows to the right, you just weave between oncoming traffic to make the shortcut. One way streets? No such thing – often we’ve been the only vehicle going against 3 lanes of car traffic plus a biker or two. Lanes are non-existent, the road’s width has a varying number of lanes at a given time, from two lanes to four or five on the same stretch depending on the time of day. Bikers and pedestrians cross at will, and at their own risk. On a motorbike you abide by all the non-rules of the road, times ten, plus you have access to the sidewalks.
We head up. Climbing a steep, dirt road up the hillside, I watch the city of Kabul spread out as we go higher. The road is deeply rutted out and requires adept steering. A brief stop to take in the view allows a few of the small children chasing us to catch up. The little boy doesn’t respond when offer up my few words in Dari, but his dirty face lights up into a big, shy, smile. He hangs around like a little sparrow, watching while Travis points out the landmarks, and I finally get my head wrapped around the lay of the land. He points directly across from us to a large hill in the middle of the view and says that’s stop number two.
Stop number two is the infamous site of the Olympic diving pool, built during the Soviet era and never used for its actual purpose. In the 90’s it was a popular place for executions by the Taliban. This time of year is used for the popular sport of dog fighting and impromptu football games. We stand underneath the high dives watching a group playing football with a full moon rising behind them. I inwardly curse my luck as I’m used to having my photographer-at-large with me at all times to document these classic moments. I know Tony would kill to see this as well and I vow to ask Najibullah to drive us up there Friday morning before we leave.
As we chat about Afghanistan, Travis learns that I race mountain bikes. As we start back down, he promptly tells me that he had been driving cautiously so as not to scare me, but that now, all bets were off. We tore down the hill, with my headscarf gripped tightly between my teeth and the exhiliration of this temporary freedom pulsating in my bones.
photo by Di Zinno