The Making of Alchemy Bike #001

#GIVEASHIT

Emblazoned on my bike as a surprise when I picked it up – the day before I flew to Afghanistan.  Bike #001 was not just a thing of beauty, it had soul.

The incredible team at Alchemy Bicycles blew me away from the moment I met them.  Thanks to a surprise meeting arranged by Skratch Labs founder, Dr. Allen Lim, I found myself at a warehouse in south Denver.  Alchemy’s new Colorado headquarters.  They told me that they believed in the work that I was doing in Afghanistan and wanted to support me with a new bike and be part of the new program I was launching in the US – Strength in Numbers.   It was immediately aware that this was a company with soul.  A company that ‘gives a shit’.

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Afghan National Army Ride Alchemy Bike #001

Where was the first ride for Alchemy Bicycle Company’s hand built bicycle #001?

Afghanistan, of course!

Bikes make the best conversation starters…even members of the Afghan National Army can’t resist a spin.

One Awesome Day in Afghanistan

How much awesomeness can you cram into one day in a country known worldwide as a war zone?  A lot.

Its starts with a 6am bike ride through Kabul with photographer and fellow biker, Mikhail Galustov.

We spin our wheels through quiet Kabul streets towards the historic Darulamon Palace.  Tony, Anna, and Warren joining us with the mini bus for a little early morning Kabul adventure.  Warren snapping Tony snapping us.

Riding past Kabul’s Inside Out project that was put up the day before by a group of Afghan artists in three different locations around the city as part of a worldwide street art project created by JR.

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The Hamburgler

Springtime at 10,000 feet.  Snow snow and more snow.  Its May, and I want to ride my bike!! The itch getting too intense to scratch without hitting bone, I took off to Fruita, for some sweet singletrack and even sweeter springtime weather!

My Niner was ashamedly still coated in Afghan dust from last fall – my tried and true belief of ‘less maintenance = less issues’ holding fast.  Case in point.  Last summer I was taking a trip out to ride in Crested Butte with some friends.  My brakes had been squeaking for close to year.  I liked it as it let those in front know I’m still rubber side down.  Not everyone else agreed so I took it in to get the brake pads replaced as I had no idea how that was done and didn’t want to screw it up.   Halfway into the second ride of the weekend, my brakes were squealing worse than before at a pitch that seemed to be disturbing the local fauna.  Turns out, one of the pads had literally fallen out.  Now, if I had just left the pads as they were, nearly bald and definitely noisy, I would have at least still had two working brakes.  Now I was in Crested Butte with only one brake and stupid Hope brake pads that no one in town sold my version of.

Let’s face it, I ride a singlespeed because its SIMPLE.  Oil the chain, carry a spare tube, and you should be good to go.  As a converted trail runner, I only made the switch because a friend got me on a singlespeed.  If it had had gears, I am sure I’d still be spending the majority of my time on the trails on my feet, not 29’er knobblies.

So – back to Fruita.  I unloaded my bike, adding another layer of oil to my chain – whose lovely, dusty orange color matches what’s left of my tangerine paint job.  I was riding Mary’s Loop/Horsethief, and is its my favorite, it was the second time in 3 days.  I had convinced  boyfriend to join me for a repeat loop (which he amazingly acquiesced to despite having just raced 18 Hours of Fruita, perhaps his sleep deprived delirium made him unable to really consider what I was asking him).

We took it at an easy pace, for my untrained legs, and his empty ones.  The sun was shining, the trail was fast, and I was thinking about all the ‘shop talk’ during the 18 hours of race banter between our two teams of racers.  I’m about as skilled in technical riding as I am keen to do bike maintenance.  I have a 29’er so I can bash up most things, and my strength as a hill climber makes up for riding the brakes on the descents.  But talk turned to a recent skills clinic that one our friends had done.  We shared some hints on descending better and cornering and as I was determined to make this a break through year, I listened intently.

That’s the great thing about solo or tandem rides, without the banter of the group you can get into your own head and your own body and try to find a rhythm, try more than once on certain sections requiring technical skill, or simply focus on that wonderful feeling of sun on your face and dirt under your wheels.  I emerged from the trail unscathed, and feeling like I was ‘strong like horse’.   The jeep road climb out was fine and at the top I was feeling cocky as I picked off riders, many of them in flat pedals, many walking their bikes up, another a pregnant woman with flip flops on.  Still.

As it always is with such things, its the ego that gets you.  Glad to be topped out and almost to the car, so we could pack up the bikes and make the long drive to lunch at our refueling place, Larkburger, I ripped down the jeep road – thinking of burgers and sunshine and the silly woman in flat pedals going about 2 miles an hour down the road.  Watching her basically come to a stop before taking the corner into the parking lot, I thought of the skills lessons on cornering and decide to rip on by.

NOTE TO SELF:  Do not practice downhill cornering on a gravel road with a 90 degree turn and your mind on hamburgers and flat pedals.

Long story short.  I crashed.  Hard.  Ripped off half my forearm after coming to skidding halt in the gravel.   Flat pedal girl, asks, “are you okay?” scared that I may have put her off moving beyond her 2 mph speed limit, I gingerly got up and said, “yup, I’m good, thanks.”  I looked down and saw what looked like hamburger where my forearm had just been and sat back down.  Boyfriend turned around, taint swollen from racing through the night and deliriously tired, and sighed.  “I’ll get the Shannon first aid kit.”

Cleaning up – it was hard to tell what was me, what was gravel, and was simply not to be messed with using supplies stashed in the back of the truck.  After boyfriend sat down to control the waves of nausea the raw meat had generated, I gave it one more inspection and agreed that perhaps a hospital visit was in order.  But it was Sunday and I’m too cheap to fork out for an ER visit when a clinic visit in the morning will do – so I wrapped it up, the irony of the cause and effect of the crash not lost on me, and declared, “whose ready for a juicy hamburger?”  Larkburger here we come!

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.

Kandahari Dreaming

Here’s the situation report in Kandahar today….not quite the same as the surf report I wish I was hearing while the Mama and Papa’s seminal tune runs through my head as I drive into Kandahar City.  While the dusty, desert landscape in no way inspires thoughts of beach vacations, the sunshine and warmer temperatures make Kandahar feel positively tropical after the freezing rains that have dominated the last two weeks in Kabul.

I am sitting in the back of a, you guessed it, Toyota Corolla, digesting the news that was just shared, that my Kabul guesthouse is again on the latest hit list for the suicide bombers.  Not great news following the newest rumor that NDIS had reported ten Kandahari suicide bombers have entered Kabul in the past couple of days.

Glad I’m not there right now and am figuring out where to spend my last few days in Kabul.  I could move to another guesthouse – but its kind of a crap shoot – I move, and it could very well be into the next target.  They are all targets right now.

Kandahar is a difficult province to work in, the security risk is off the charts compared to the north where I spend most of my time, and that in itself makes it difficult for any NGO to get work done in the village to village approach that I favor.  There is also the knowledge that as the Helmand offensive transfers control of the province to the Afghan government, the focus turns to Kandahar province. But there is a women’s prison here that I have wanted to visit, and things fell into place to make it possible for the first look.

The warmer temperatures that I welcomed when I got off the airplane, are quickly banished once we’re on the road.  Wearing a burqa in a car doesn’t allow for a lot of oxygen to circulate.  I keep lifting the front of my bluebird straightjacket and wave it back and forth a few times to circulate some air underneath.  Focusing through the net also takes some getting used to.  Causes quite the headache.   Its one thing doing it for a short period of time at nothing in particular, its quite another altogether when trying to really focus or watch the scene unfolding outside my window.

Men in earth colored shalwar kameez, large shawls, and turbans whizz by on their motorcycles – looking like something out of a Mad Max movie with the wind billowing their shawls dramatically against a desert landscape.   Very few women are seen until we get closer to the outskirts of the city.  Once we get closer, the women are wearing burqas of all different colors.  Sage green, pale green, and a light brown outnumber  the traditional bluebird.   Even their blue is a slightly darker, less vibrant hue.  The muted tones are gorgeous but certainly add to the heavy feel of the active city.

Its 25KM to the city and it’s the most dangerous road in the province.  It connects not just the airport but the military airfield to the city.   Lots of attacks, IED and car bombs aimed at hitting foreignors and convoys.  Last week the bridge was attacked with a car bomb when a military convoy went past.  As we drive past, Mohammad points it out – not like he has to, one whole lane is missing.

As we drive, Mohammad quickly moves past the formal niceties of, “How is Kandahar?” “Kandahar is very good, thank you”  to the realities. “The burqa is a necessity not just for culture, but for kidnapping.  The Taliban is not the biggest danger for you, kidnapping is.”    Hence the burqa anywhere outside the airport or hotel.  The hotel I’m staying at is the only one for foreignors in Kandahar – and as such, remains a target.  It was attacked only a month ago by a horse drawn carriage loaded with explosives.  The road that leads to the girls school behind the hotel had three mines discovered in one day a couple weeks ago.  Several government officials were assassinated recently.  The list continues…. I still feel quite calm, but my radar is definitely buzzing.

The surf report its not.

This is the province where in November 2008, several schoolgirls were attacked with acid as they walked to school.  Where the the Afghan’s believe, “he who controls Kandahar, controls Afghanistan”.  It is the key to the country, and a fierce battle is brewing.  The desire to educate anyone, boy or girl, is met with resistance in most of the province.  It is only the key cities like Kandahar City that have schools, healthcare, and internet.  Outside of the city centers, there is literally a wasteland.  Women have little or no rights, girls cannot attend school, and the little schooling boys have is typically in a madrassa.  The blue burqa I brought with from Kabul is deemed a little ‘risque’ for Kandahar, as its only a half burqa in the front.  Its pretty telling of a communities view on women’s rights, when you can feel whoreish in a burqa.

Its amazing to me that the Taliban can retain power and control when it puts the lives of its own people in the crossfires of their supposed ideology.    Mohammad talks about the irony of the terrorists calling themselves Taliban.  The Taliban were originally religious scholars.  Yet the majority of the Taliban community today are ‘common people’, illiterate, unable to even read the holy book they are so vested in.  Instead leaders with their own aims can interpret the original teachings however they like and instill that interpretation, however mutated, into the heads of young boys.  Forever polluting the already muddy waters, and stunting any room for the future growth of Afghanistan.   Further ensuring that those we wish to empower, will remain helpless victims of their own countrymen.

It may be a pipe dream that I can affect any change for the good within the women’s prison in Kandahar without the security or access we’ve experienced in other areas of the country.  But dream or not, it is one worth chasing.

Reckless Behavior?

A couple months ago, I posted a blog about my mountain biking in Afghanistan.  There was an article written in our local mountain paper about the ride and my work in the country as the founder of Mountain 2 Mountain.  The article spawned a couple of comments that lambasted me and my role as a mother and called me both reckless and selfish.

“Another selfish American putting themselves at risk and who ever is going to have to save them. She has a daughter…..lol. Smart lady go to Afganistan leave daughter at home.”

“When is this woman going to realize what a fool she is making out of herself?   She is just another narcissistic do-gooder from Breckenridge trying to prove her self worth by thinking she knows what is best for poor people.  She is abandoning her daughter who deserves her mother home safely raising her instead of gallavanting around in a Muslim scarf trying to avoid landmines.  For goodness sake….she is going to organize a series of rides in Afghanistan, so that she can ride bikes while our American soldiers are risking their lives!”

Ouch.

I mulled those comments over for weeks, a hollow pit in my stomach every time I re-read them.  Even now I read those and feel the barbs.  Yet I realized it hurt, not because someone didn’t like what I was doing, but because they didn’t KNOW what I was doing. The spouted off ignorantly, narrow minded and judgemental, they missed the point entirely.

On the other side of the coin, the same subject led to these comments.

“Brilliant article,and a side of afghanistan we don’t hear enough about. Dervla Murphy wrote engagingly about travelling through Afganistan during the Russian occupation,it would be good if more people could get out there just to visit.”

“I wish more of us (humans) would get our of our little safe boxes and learn to know each other as humans and share the good parts of our cultures.  I am convinced that if we would do this more the world would be a better and more peaceful place.  I find it is the fear of the unknown and mistrust that leads to so many problems.  Those of us that are willing to get out of our self imposed boxes can do much good in the world simply by being friends.”

Kudos to you for such a great effort in what sounds like a beautiful place overshadowed by fear and stereotypes!

Are they more correct because they agree with me and supported my efforts?  Nope.  They are more right because they realize that when we allow our stereotypes and narrowminded opinions to dictate how we perceive a region like Afghanistan, no real changes can ever occur.  This is country that used to have tourists and travelers explore its remote corners in the sixties.  The Hippie Trail went right through it.  This is a country that is even today, full of Westerners working outside of the military and larger NGO’s, working, exploring, and having adventures.

This is a country where Skateistan launched a skateboarding initiative to introduce the sport to the youth.  Where two hundred girls now play soccer, in public, at the Kabul Stadium where just a decade ago they would have been stoned to death in the same location for daring to play.  Where a French aid worker, is trying to launch a yak train adventure business to take travelers into the remotest of remoteness, the Wakkan.  Where an Aussie and his two friends starting the first motorcycle club.  Where the most popular television show is Afghan Star, an Afghan “American Idol” style reality show.

This is a real country, with real people, with a real youth movement.  Just because there is daily violence and a ongoing war doesn’t mean that real life doesn’t continue, that normalcy should be encouraged, and that we can’t interact with Afghans in ways that don’t involve guns.   That doesn’t make me reckless.

My newest inspiration comes from writer and explorer, Dervla Murphy, a woman I wrote about recently that bicycled throughout Central Asia in the sixties, solo and unsupported.  She wrote an article on travel recently that discussed the idea of reckless travel.

The assumption that only brave or reckless people undertake solo journeys off the beaten track is without foundation. In fact, escapists are ultra cautious: that’s one of their hallmarks, and an essential component of their survival mechanisms. Before departure, they suss out likely dangers and either change their route – should these seem excessive – or prepare to deal with any reasonable hazards.

Granted, there’s a temperamental issue here: is a bottle half-empty or half-full? Why should your bones break abroad rather than at home? Optimists don’t believe in disasters until they happen and therefore are not fearful – which is the opposite of being brave.

I completely relate to this, I don’t consider myself brave, any more than I consider myself reckless.  I’m simply not scared.  I’m cautious and mindful of my surroundings.  I talk to a lot of Westerners that live in Kabul (whose opinion frankly I value much more than an armchair opinionator) and Afghans alike – continuing inquiring, learning, and evolving my risk acceptance levels.  Some will feel its selfish and reckless simply to choose to work in this country and that by doing so I’m a bad mother, regardless of the side story of the biking.   So while what I may do, or where I do it, or how I choose to do it maybe appear reckless to some, it is my choice and my life, and I intend to live it to its fullest.  Opinions be damned.

Inspiration on Two Wheels

Thanks to the connectivity that blogging, social networking, and all our modern conveniences that we have around us to share information and stories, I discovered Dervla Murphy late last night.  A comment was made on my ‘Breaking Barriers in Afghanistan, Singlespeed Style’ on my Team M2M blog, that reccommended checking into her travels in Afghanistan.  Much to my joy and surprise, it is a woman who didn’t just travel there in the 1960’s, but did it alone, and on a bicycle.  A woman after my own heart.  How had I not heard of such a ballsy woman before?

An Irish woman, trained as a nurse, Dervla fell in love with bicycles from an early age and in 1963, she took on an arduous adventure on two wheels, solo, and unsupported.

According to an article written by Clifford L Graves, “Her bicycle was an Armstrong with quarter-inch tires and a nearly flat handlebar. Without her baggage,it weighed thirty-six pounds, with it, sixty four. To prevent trouble with the derailleur, she took it off. As an additional precaution, she sent spare tires to the various cities along her route. She bought a gun and learned how to shoot it. She studied her atlas and decided to go through Paris, Milan, Venice, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul, Tehran, Meshed, Kabul, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Delhi. With several arduous side trips, this 4,500-mile trek took 175 days and cost $175.

She removed her derailleur – I take it to mean she rode with only one gear?  Sweet – not just a biker but an single speeder.  As the owner of two bikes, one road and one mountain, neither graced with gears and derailleurs, I feel as though I’m reading about a living legend.

Murphy is best known for her 1965 book Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, about an overland cycling trip through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.   Currently out of stock, I’m anxious to read it cover to cover on my next visit to Afghanistan.  Her experiences in the sixties are prior to the thirty plus years of conflict that have dominated the headlines and changed the landscape and culture of the region since her travels.  My own experience on a bike in Afghanistan differ, but not the joy and belief that travel is best done by getting a little dirty.

I have a few friends, mostly in the Peace Corps that experience Afghanistan in the sixties. All have fond memories of the country and reminisce about the Hippie Trail and influx of adventures, travelers, and perhaps stoners, looking to explore the far flung regions of the world, enjoy the mystery  and splendor of the Hindu Kush, and perhaps partake in some hashish.   Even those that were there during the Russians remember a country devoid of the mistrust, random violence, and extreme poverty that faces Afghans today.  The landmines (several generations from Russians, Taliban, and US) are still there, the Taliban and many Afghans don’t look kindly on women doing much of anything, much less something as liberating as riding a bike.   Then you’ve got the roadside bombs and random kidnappings/violence that still plague  many areas of the country.

I have always believed that seeing the world is the way to connect us all, and that can’t be done by car, plane, or train in the same way the bicycle allows.  You need to taste the air, and dust, and mud in your mouth.  You need to take away the barriers often present in modern day travel.  Never have I connected to Afghan men more spontaneously than on my bike.   While it is no longer possible to travel the country by bike as  Murphy did, by man or woman in the current climate, my hope is that in years to come that changes.  It is also my hope that Afghan women will eventually be able to ride within their own country, experiencing the freedom, joy, and convenience two wheels allows.  In the meantime, I fully intend to continue to ride each visit that I’m there.

To read more check out the Perils of Dervla Murphy.

Motorbikes by the Light of the Moon

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The Afghan boys took me out tonight, the dark night lit up by the full moon that hit the night before.  I borrowed a baggy hoodie and wore loose pants to look a bit more ‘manly’.  Parweez and I drove out ot the airport road in his car and Hamid and Shams rode their bikes.  The three vehicles played cat and mouse all the way there at speed a bit too fast considering no one was wearing helmets or seat belts.   Hamid and his friend goofed off on the bikes– having a blast in the quiet night.  We are riding at night for three reasons; to allow me to practice without drawing too much attention, to keep the fact I’m a woman on the down low, and to avoid the worst of Kabul traffic.  Keep in mind, this is a country where most Afghans have illegal licenses.  Very few actually LEARN to drive.  Fifty US dollars and you got yourself a license.  Couple that with the lack of any street signs, lanes, or rules, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a demolition derby.

We go out to the long stretch of empty road near the airport with a pedestrian land, and switched up the riders.   The lights were turned off on the bikes to keep our profile as low as possible.  Hamid took my scarf and wrapped it like a men’s turban, leaving one tail loose to draped across the lower part of my face, leaving just my eyes and nose exposed.  He smiles and says, “that’ll work.”

We took out the Super Kabul instead of my bike (the Desert Eagle) as my clutch is very tight and the bike itself is bigger.  The Super Kabul is perfect to learn on (and its got a cool name), except for the loose chain that makes every shift sound as thought I’m leaving part of the bike behind me on the road. But its easy to handle.

Hamid jumps on the bike with Shams and they pace beside me, shouting instructions periodically.  After a few runs, back and forth, with the other bike pacing beside me and the car riding behind us lighting the way, Hamid took over the second bike and Shams jumps into the car. I  follow him and mimic his swerving, downshifting, and practice taking on the numerous speed bumps, and potholed roads.   I started to relax, its hard to do something brand new in front of audience.  Harder still when you are woman doing something no other women do in front a group of men.  There’s a lot to prove!

Twenty minutes later, it was unfortuantely, out of gas.  With no gas meters, its a crap shoot as to how much petrol is in the tank.  Typically you gently rock the bike back and forth and listen for the slosh.  Needless to say, this happens more often than not.  Yet you can find a shopkeeper, stall, or tent, with at least one can of petrol and a funnel, with minimal effort.  In this case, it took less than two minutes.

Refueled, Hamid decides we’d do a few more runs and then head home.  Eventually we stop and he says, “follow me, we’re going home” and I tuck in behind him to follow.  I ride home, with no problems, even over the 4×4 demolition road by their house – a dusty dirt ‘road’ strewn with rocks, deep holes and ruts made by the tracks created in the mud every winter, and potholes from rockets and explosions.   I can see an upgrade to a dirtbike in my future.

Each night we go out to ride, but leave the car and the Super Kabul at home and upgrade to my Desert Eagle.  It shifts much smoother, and thus is actually much easier to drive.   Each night I get more confident negotiating the streets and traffic.  I try riding with a passenger, Parweez jumping on behind me.  I ride with the boys to dinner.  I met the crew at the local petrol station, who are all smiles when I pull down my face scarf.   They’ve seen me on the back of the bikes before, but a woman driving one is a novelty.

The point of all this being, that the bike provides some freedom and transportation.  Both sorely needed here.

Birthday Wishes in Afghanistan

 

Saturday.  My birthday.  Kabul.

Slept through the 5am call to prayer, woke up at 6 and enjoyed lazy dozing until 7.   Since its my birthday and we are headed to the Panjshir, we decide to go via motorbike rather than drive. Yippee! Only problem is Hamid doesn’t have a bike and we need him with to translate in Dashty Rewat. His is broken, ironically it happened when I was here in the spring on a group ride to Panjshir, and its yet to be fixed.  I call up my previous fixer to see if he can find us a driver.  He calls back to say that a driver who had driven me around in Kabul last year is available.

Shah Mohammed is thrilled to to see me…big smile. Unfortuantely, its soon very apparently that he should not be driving outside the city, in fact, probably shouldn’t be driving as a profession AT ALL. Hamid sits next to him in the front and it was soon apparent that he couldn’t see the numerous speed bumps. The ancient Toyota Corolla is not meant to take on these things at high speed, yet Shah Mohommad couldn’t see them till it was too late. It came to a head, so to speak, just around the corner from Massoud’s Tomb in the Panjshir – rounded a bend, the car was suddenly careening towards the cliff and the cement/rock barriers that border the road. Luckily these barriers are solid, we broke a huge chunk away and thus slowed the car down enough to stop before following the rocks tumbling down the cliff side. In typical Afghan style, Shah Mohommad quickly reverses to drive off. We shout for him to stop and check the car, the barrier, and collect ourselves. It was truly inches from death and it was interesting to have that near death experience and realize that your life doesn’t flash before your eyes…you just internally think, “fuck”.

The ironic part is that Toyota Corollas are resilient as hell. Proof in point, take out a concrete barrier, get a crowbar out to pull the fender and the wheel panel back into place and we’re off. No harm no foul. Other than the kid that came running down the street to tell us we needed to pay for the barrier.

Just an hour or so before that fateful accident, was the highlight of my birthday. I became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan. We saw some goat trails and a truck path across the river, we kept our eyes out for a bridge (few and far between) and directed our near sighted driver through the village to cross the river and give it a go. We pulled the car over and unloaded. Travis went up the road and perched himself up on a small hill. I assembled the bike and gave Hamid my camera so we could get some decent stills. Now the question – bike helmet over headscarf? No headscarf? How to do this with the least amount of offensiveness. It fit over the headscarf, which I pulls down and wrapped around my neck and tied behind my neck – checking the length of drape behind me so it didn’t kill me Isadora Duncan style by getting caught in the wheel behind me. All good. Glasses on. Bike gloves on. A healthy crowd of men that stopped work so they could better watch the proceedings with curiosity.

The light was perfect, a stormy gray sky rolling in, but with the sun staying clear. I got the signal from Travis to give it a go and off I went.   And, viola.  I’m riding my bike.  In Afghanistan. On my birthday. HUGE grin!  Even though we started out on a relatively easy double track path that trucks can take, it was rocky as hell – it was essentially a river bed… rolling path that crossed the river run-offs a few times. We played around while the light was still good, just playing and seeing what the terrain was like, how it felt to ride it, and what sort of reaction were we getting. We were pretty remote, but there were men working throughout the area, some shouted, “Salaam” but mostly watched with curiosity. We did a couple shots back and forth along one section and I noticed a mother and young girl sitting under a tree watching us. As I rode back I waved and they both smiled and waved back…I couldn’t help but think of me and Devon.

I arrived back at the car, muddy, wet feet from the river crossings, and hot under the layers of clothing but pretty damn pleased with life.  We packed up the bike and talked to a few of the locals that had gathered around.

Clouds were rolling in hard and we headed to our village destination.  We drive unknowing that we’d be colliding with a concrete cliff barrier in less than an hour, and then continue a couple more hours down a pretty dodgy dirt road.  It was around this time that Mohammad starts bitching. He wasn’t happy he had to drive so far, on such bad roads, etc. etc. Hamid took the brunt of it. About 15 minutes from the village, Mohammad actually tells Hamid he wouldn’t go any further. It turned into a bit of kerfuffle and I said I wasn’t paying if he turned around. We said we had hired him for the day to go to Panjshir, if he had a problem with how far, or the roads, etc. he should have said and we would have hired another driver.  He continues to complain but keeps driving.

Travis and Hamid found this village on their two attempts of the Anjuman Pass by motorbike with their mate Jeremy.  They had randomly stopped to ask if they knew of somewhere they could stay and Idi Mohammad immediately offered his home.  Turns out he is the principal of the village school and Travis told him about me and the work I was looking to do with Mountain to Mountain.  They returned a second time a few weeks later to complete the ride and again stayed with Idi Mohammad’s family.

As we pull up, the village looks the same as any of the other villages we’ve driven through. The only distinguishing feature is its remoteness and the new building of mud being built on the left side of the road. A two story building with two men on the roof. One is Idi Mohammad, in a Panshiri hat (the type favored by Massoud). Turns out that this is to be a guesthouse, and his family’s home is directly behind. He was all smiles when he saw Travis and Hamid.  He comes down from the roof while we walk around back, gathering a crowd of children and men behind us.  I am introduced and find myself, once again, mesmerized by the handsome features of Panjshiri men. Idi Mohammad is genuinely happy to see the guys and asks how their motorbike trip went, he was worried about them.

Hamid explains that we wanted to stop by so that they could introduce me, but that we have to go back tonight, especially as our driver is being such a pain in the ass.  Idi Mohammad looks concerned and unhappy that we cannot stay the night. He offers a second time, and we explain that our driver is the main issue, but that we will be back next week and will stay longer.   We take a seat on a stone wall overlooking the road and the valley.  It turns out that he was a teacher, and spent many years as a Pakastani refugee. When he returned to his village he started up a school with a couple other teachers to teach the children. It expanded and they now have a school that services all the way through high school. He is the principal and while they have a school, and teachers, they are lacking in supplies. This is something I can help with this trip. We discussed the need for stationary (paper and pens) is the biggest need. Ironically it’s the reason many children do not attend school. Their families are simply too poor to afford the 20 cents for a notebook. The school houses 600 students on average. Amazingly, the other need is computers. I was surprised, and asked why they felt computers would be a necessary component of their school.  Idi Mohammad explained that it connects them to the rest of the world and allows their remote village to provide better education for their children. They already have a teacher qualified in computer sciences so its simply a matter of machines.

I also ask Idi Mohammad about neighboring villages that don’t have schools. Would he be able to direct me to others that are lacking schools entirely. He agrees to come up with a list before my next visit.  He also mentions that up on the mountain behind the village is a small community of fifty families. Their children make the long walk to attend the school at the village, but that the young ones (grade 1-5) are unable to attend school during the winter due to the snow. They are simply too young to make that walk. We discussed building a primary school there so that they can attend their classes year round and stay with the same coursework as the larger school and when they are old enough they will graduate into the village school to finish through high school. It would be a simple project , a few classrooms only. We talk briefly about construction and logistics and Idi Mohammad looks at me with all seriousness and says that if necessary he will oversee the construction himself. We have ourselves a school, a computer lab, and a project manager. As well as a solid contact for reaching out and making first steps in other villages.

During the last few minutes of the talk, a loud repetitive banging is heard, I look behind us to the street to see Shah Mohammed banging away at the front fender with a crowbar. Passive aggressive behavior or does he really think it will fix the wheel?

Back in the car I’m positively giddy. This has been the best birthday ever, bar none, even better as no one here knows. This wouldn’t have been possible without the previous visits and cups of tea drank by Travis and Hamid – opening the door for me to step in with solid connections already in place. I thank them both and sigh with contentment as we begin the long drive home, dusk already settling in and Shah Mohammad bitching to an uninterested Hamid, who continues to play his role as seeing eye dog, and pointed out the speedbumps, upcoming curves in the road, and reminds SM to slow down. Strangely enough, Shah Mohammed is now wearing a pair of glasses….perhaps they could have been of use a few hours ago when we nearly died? Just a thought.