Khost for Tea?

Trying to work in certain areas of Afghanistan are more challenging than others.  In the southern provinces its simply not safe to travel the roads by car.  Commercial airlines only travel to the bigger cities.  And I’ve yet to find a jet pack.

Luckily the Afghan National Army, the ANA, fly their nationals back to their home provinces on routine helicopter flights.  This is especially important as the roads to the southern provinces are a few steps past unsecure, and businessmen, government officials, and foreigners are high kidnapping targets.    I have wanted to visit some projects with a female member of Parliament from Khost province for a long time, but traveling there has been a deterrent.  When offered the chance to go by helicopter I lept right in.  Literally.

A friend, the MP from Khost has made this trip often and made the arrangements with the flight commander to catch a ride. Plans are made to confirm the flight one hour before the next morning, if confirmed, we were to meet at Massoud’s square to ride into the ANA flight area together with security. We would spend the day in Khost City, meeting with a girls’ high school, a women’s group, and another clinic project that MP (as we’ll call her) was working on.  Flight home before dark.

All was not as smooth as one would hope.  Yet again, Afghan scheduling wreaks havoc on a seemingly flawless plan.  We are all meeting from different areas of Kabul at a traffic circle near the airport.  Massoud’s Square.  Several lanes of traffic converge here and no stopping is allowed due to security.  Not the simplest of meeting points.   Yet I pull up and sure enough, MP is waiting there with her driver.  I get out of the taxi and jump in her car.  A friend that had asked to join us if there was an extra space, Wakil, hadn’t arrived yet, so they decide to drive to the airfield and wait for him there.  Its apparent they aren’t sure exactly which entrance to use.  And some back and forth driving, U turns, and stopping in the middle of the to discuss ensues.  Strange as she does this trip back to her home province twice a month.

There are two keys that are inherent in most areas of Afghan society.  Time keeping and sharing information.  Afghans will wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait, when a simple question could solve the situation.   Example?  We waited outside the security gates of the ANA airfield for nearly half an hour, making us exactly half an hour late for our flight.  Neither the driver nor MP asked the guards for more information or explained who they were.  We just waited.

Which was good because it gave Wakil time to join us.  He was exactly half an hour late to join us.  So in Afghan terms – everything was actually moving swimmingly – everything was on schedule, exactly 30 minutes off.

All assembled, I finally stepped out of the car to get some air, let’s just say we were all a few showers overdue.  Some of us more than others.  The guard sees me and comes over to inquire why we are there.  Nevermind that we have been parked a few feet in front of him the entire time.  Nonetheless, we introduce MP and explain we are going on a flight to Khost.  “Come in come in..I didn’t realize who you were.” Of course you didn’t.  You didn’t ask and we didn’t offer.  An Afghan standstill.

We get there, the flight hasn’t left.  More than that.  Its now not flying directly to Khost.  Its flying to Bagram. Ghazni.  THEN Khost.  The Afghan flight command has done some changes and than means that not only did we not miss our flight, we didn’t take off for another 45 minutes.  Not much we can say, its not our flight to control.

The beast is a MI8, a solid Russian bird, that rattles a bit, but the crew seems confident she is air-worthy.   We are joined by a large, serious man, in white shalwar kameez and a large black turban.  He came with a bodyguard and both check their guns with the flight crew.  Our crew assembled, earplugs passed around, we’re ready take off.  My first flight in a helicopter and I am thrilled to get such a close up view from overhead of the country.

We stop in Bagram and I can see MP looking nervous.  She didn’t hear the announcement that we were stopping in Bagram and Ghazni first while she was on her phone.  I can’t explain until the machine shuts down and we can hear each other.  When I do, she starts worrying that we won’t get there before the girls are out of school.  We have to wait to pick something up in Bagram.  Then its another 40 minute flight to Ghazni.  Interestingly, the guy sitting by the open door in the gunner position, gets a gun mounted for the leg to Ghazni.  I watch closely as he mounts the gun and loads up ammunition for the flight.   Another reminder its not a pleasure ride, I feel my radar edge up.  Fifteen minutes into the flight he is dozing, resting his forehead on his arm supported on the rifle.  I relax, if the gunner is sleeping, an attack is probably unlikely.  As one friend put it, “He’d probably wake up when the first bullet hit.”

Bullet free in Ghazni, we refuel, and another 30 minute flight to Khost.  The American military are at this base and are mentoring the Afghan flight crews with new technology like GPS.  They kindly point out a port a potty and bring some food from the mess hall for an impromptu picnic on the airstrip.  The shura elder pulls out a small rug to pray by the side of the plane.  I hope he’s praying that this Russian bird doesn’t rattle apart in the air.  Stressing about the time, MP makes some furious calls, I’m inwarding rolling my eyes.  There is no point is getting worked up, if there is one thing I’ve learned in this country.  Patience and an acceptance that things will be frustrating, slow, and inefficient.  But things will work out however they’re supposed to in the end.

Wakil is also missing his meetings, the sole reason for the trip.  He smiles and shrugs, we don’t have control of the flight command, so may as well enjoy the ride.  Ironically, by the end of the trip, he has made friends with our stern shura leader and is ensured all the support he needs for his own projects in the province.  Mission accomplished without even leaving the helicopter.

MP right, the 40 minute ride from Kabul to Khost ends up taking 3 hours all in.  Giving us just two and half hours on the ground if we want to catch a ride back that day, which I do.

Upon arrival in Khost, several hours later than planned, we pile into a car and drive to the girls school.  The province is lush green and warm, spring has arrived here.  We drive past the recent Taliban attack and MP points it out.  We pull up to the girls school, after three missed turns and two stops for directions.  Being Khost, and her hometown, she points out her brother’s house on the impromptu sightseeing tour, it makes me wonder if MP needs a guide herself.  Or perhaps better drivers.

We arrive at the girls school, everyone has gone home, but the women’s group has gathered in the back courtyard.  Fifty women, many in burqas swarm around MP and myself, introductions, hugging, and general outpouring of enthusiasm commences.  Its touching and they are obviously thrilled of their homegrown female MP.   As she holds court in Pashto, I sit back with several young children, trading names in Dari which amuses them greatly.  I take some photos and show them, wishing Polaroids still existed as it is still the one true barrier breaker the world over.  We then pass the time learning how to play Afghan marbles.  One of the boys has four marbles.  3 green and silver shooter.  In the rocks we huddle together and he shows me how to shoot.  I’m all thumbs, having not played since I was a little girl, and he laughs appreciatively and says, “Good!  Again!” until I start to improve.

A tap on the shoulder and I turn to see the men have arrived.  The head of schools, the director of teachers, and a general gathering of all men interested in the goings on introduce themselves.   We talk about the school, the province, and the state of education while MP continues to talk to the assembled women.  Tea arrives exactly at the time we need to head back to the helicopter.   MP joins us now and rapid fire Pashto ensues, time ticking, and its obvious that MP is in no hurry.  Not wanting to fill the role of the rude American rushing things, I finally interject, that I’m incredibly sorry but we really HAVE TO GO.  The helicopter won’t fly after dark and we will be left here.

MP nods distractedly as if to say, “yes yes, but first another cup of tea” and I stand up to gather my things, protocol be damned.  I nod to Wakil who agrees, he wants to get home tonight as well.  MP is still sitting and now someone has brought her a plate of white bread.  I start shaking hands of the men that have gathered and express my sincere apology that we have to go, the helicopter is waiting and I would love to stay longer.  I assure them I would like to return and see the school with the girls and discuss things further, but for now, we have to go.  I walk out to the car, Wakil follows, and I give MP 5 minutes.  The chopper is leaving at 4:30 – its 4:25 now and we’ve still got to drive through town.  She saunters out with her entourage, as she gets in the car, the Afghan police turn up to provide escort so at least we have a clear path to the airfield.  She gets in and still women are saying goodbye and holding her hand as we start to drive off.

We arrive 10 minutes late, but the chopper is still there much to my relief.  “We weren’t going to leave with out you”  the pilot laughs, “you had 5 more minutes at least.”  We quickly pile in the machine already grinding to life.   40 minutes straight back to Kabul should get us there just as night is falling.

A long day spent just to have tea in Khost.

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