Pulling up to the Mazar Hotel seemed normal enough. Once inside, I realize I’ve entered some sort of time warp or perhaps simply an alternate reality. The hotel staff wasn’t sure what to do with me – the only foreigner in this hotel, and a female alone. They have me wait while they figure it out and eventually lead me through a maze of hallways and staircases to my room, 206. Waiting for a key to my room to be brought to me, a small group of men had gathered, under normal circumstances one might be flattered, as it was, I was simply hot, dusty, slightly annoyed, and in dire need of my Dari dictionary which I just then realized I left behind in Kabul.
I am handed off to the manager, Mohammed Karim. Uber friendly and perhaps more than a little bit lonely – Mohammed Karim spent the next 48 hours trying to be my new best friend. He came in to change the sheets on the beds (which perhaps should have been done before I checked in?) fixed my door’s lock (a bit worrying), brought me tea, and when I requested a towel so that I could shower, he found a ratty orange towel with two holes that seemed relatively clean. The bathroom was down the hall and upon entering I had the queasy sensation of entering a humid zoo. The large concrete room was larger than my hotel room and consisted of a bathtub shower, toilet, sink and a small mirror. No toilet paper or soap was available, the floor was almost entirely flooded, and the hot water tank was empty. Perhaps I could wait a bit.
I peeked into the bathroom directly next door and found a veritable paradise, the floor was only slightly damp and it was lacking the heady zoo aroma, but when I walked in I was shooed out by Mohammed and guided back to the other door. I was going to have use commando skills to sneak into the enemy bathroom!
From then on, each time I would unlock my door and peek outside to use the forbidden bathroom, Mohammed would come pitter pattering over to say hello, clasp my hand or try to rub my cheek, and tell me how happy he was to meet me. To which I would smile, say thank you, and retreat to my room. I plugged in my phone, hoping against hope that the charge was simply out, but the electricity wasn’t working. The concrete floor was covered with a ratty Afghan rug and the two twin beds were a simple wood platform with a sleeping mat thinner than most camping mats on top. The coat rack balanced at such an angle that it looked poised to attack unwary guests. Mohammed knocked on my door and delivered me a small plate of cookies to go with my tea. I usher him back to the door, where he shakes my hand longer than necessary, “you are so lovely, I love you”. Check please!
Meanwhile, I unpack my bag and realize everything smells of grapefruit and inwardly groan, knowing that my shampoo must have leaked. Everything BUT the shampoo was in a ziplock bag to prevent against such leaks – but I had tossed the shampoo in separately at the last minute. Damn damn damn!
The saving grace was balcony overlooking a small garden where I could sit on the end of the concrete ledge and be outside with my head uncovered. Here I could work on my laptop, or simply watch the swallows chase each other as dusk fell and the evening call to prayer filled the air. Content at my own Afghan styled Hotel California.
My friend Travis is staying there as well and arrives when he is done with his work and I can’t stop laughing when I hear Mohammed Karim accost him in the hallway and follow him inside of the room.
We walk into town together towards the Blue Mosque, stopping on the way for a little snack. Afghan burgers. Take a small plate and fill it with French fries cooked in none-to-fresh cooking oil, add some shredded cabbage, hot sauce and top with some thin falafel bread. Often its served rolled up in the bread like a kind of greasy French fry pita. We topped ours with a dodgy looking chicken drumstick that screamed – Salmonella on a Stick. Life is for living and we took our bounty to the gardens outside the mosque and dug in, daring each other to try the chicken. But the chicken and the fries are cooked in the same grease probably and the chicken had been sitting on the rest of the pile of food, so whatever the chicken had – so did the rest of our meal. So, down the hatch with fingers crossed that I wouldn’t be spending my evening in the toilet paperless bathroom.
The Blue Mosque is incredible and would this architectural wonder reside in any town other than an Afghan one, it would be the height of touristic activity. In this case, we are the only foreigners to stick out among the throngs of Afghans. The call to prayer empties the area of worshippers as the flock to the open prayer rooms. The bizarre part comes as the light fades and I realize that the mosque is covered with multi-colored neon lights, including a bright neon sign flashing “Allah” in Farsi – turning the entire area into a 1970’s Las Vegas act.
The walk back in the falling darkness is heaven, fewer Afghans notice me and just walking through a town is a novelty. Walking is how I usually explore a new place to get my bearings, but this country makes it difficult and that familiar feeling of a walking a new city eludes me. We stop to buy a container of fresh yogurt from a young boy for 20 Afs – about fifty cents, and two round loaves of naan, traditional Uzbek style from an old man next to the boy. A little bit further we pick a random kebab shop out of the many that line the street and order a few kebabs to go. Cooked before us and packaged up while we wait on two chairs set up outside. Unlike in Kabul, no beggars or streetchildren harass us. We take our collection of food back to the hotel to eat on the balcony. Mohammed hears us walking up the stairs and follows us back to our rooms. He brings some tea and when the hotel cat follows us out to the balcony so does Mohammad. I shoo both of them back out and lock the door behind them. He only knocks once or twice more.
The next morning I have a bit of a headache and sleep in a bit later than normal. Mohammad wakes me with a knock on my door and feigns a look of surprise when I open it – in his hand is the key for 207 (I’m room 206) and says he made a mistake. I feign a smile as fake as his excuse and close the door quickly. I dress and walk into town to buy a few supplies. Shampoo, toilet paper, and breakfast, not necessarily in that order. I’m also on the hunt for the famed Mecca compass….a compass you can buy that points towards Mecca rather than north. This I’ve got to see. Thanks to my pigeon Dari and the wonders of charades – I got my shampoo, breakfast, bottled water and biscuits for emergency snacking, but alas, no toilet paper. I was simply unwilling to play charades for that one. Things could get a little desperate.
Again I’m headed off before I get to my room by Hotel California’s lap dog – who looks hurt that he wasn’t asked to get me breakfast. I assured him I wanted to go for a walk. He tries to follow me in, but I firmly shake his hand and say bye-bye! I swear to Allah he must be waiting outside my door because when its time for to leave for my meeting at the women’s prison, he’s right there to ask me when I’m going to return. My lock is stuck again so Mohammad gets his tools back out and gets to work ‘fixing’ my lock. When he’s done I attempt a shower. Entering the still reeking bathroom, I avoid the flood plain and strip off by the edge of the tub so I can keep all my clothes of the floor. The water is hot, but no more than a trickle is willing to exit the showerhead. So I take the world’s wimpiest shower to get the worst of the dust off me shaking my head at the comedy act that is ensuing.
Travis and I meet up for a dinner of Indian cuisine at a restaurant, which means two important things: beer and the ability to remove my headscarf. What more does one need from a restaurant in Afghanistan? Afghan colleagues warned Travis that its really good food, but quite pricey. Which means pricey by Afghan standards, but the $21 for two people to eat an Indian feast with a couple of beers is more than reasonable. The driver takes us back to the hotel where we venture out in the rain in hunt of Afghan ice cream and another walk around the Blue Mosque. The sidewalks are covered in several inches of mud and picking our way through becomes a slippery affair, especially when you can’t grab onto each other for stability. I sidestep into the street where the traffic poses much less danger than the mudslicked sidewalk.
I manage to avoid Mohammad back at the hotel until morning, when again he is upset that I would choose to go out and get my own food. I grab Travis and we walk down to the first cross street and enter a kebab house for fresh yogurt, bread, and a bowl of cooked eggs. Sitting Afghan style and pulling off hunks of bread to use as scoops for both the yogurt and the eggs, we laugh at Mohammad’s admission that he was watching Travis nap yesterday. Apparently Travis left his door unlocked and when Mohammad knocked and got no answer, instead of leaving, he opened the door and peeked in to watch him sleep. It’s like an Afghan version of a Fawlty Towers episode.
Wondering how the poor man will take the news that we are leaving as we walk back from breakfast, I make Travis pose in front of the hotel where two large portraits are hanging – one of Massoud and the other of Karzai. The security guard shouts over that he wants his photo taken too, and he solemnly poses in front of the portraits, refusing to smile until I show him his photo on the camera screen.
I’d like to say I’ll miss the hotel, but chances are I’ll be here on the return journey in three days!