Mountain to Mountain – A Memoir Launches

Holy shit I wrote a book!

That’s the phrase running through my head as I saw my book listed on Amazon, IndieBound, and Barnes and Noble websites yesterday.  Available for pre-order.  Releases September 16.

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The book hits bookstores nationwide with St. Martin’s Press in one month, but my publisher sent me the link yesterday that the pre sales had started and a sneak peek of Chapter One was available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  After two years of writing, editing, and working through the final publishing process with my editor at St. Martin’s Press, there is a book and soon it will be in hand of family and friends, colleagues and strangers.  Its a strange feeling.

Made more so by the fact that this is a deeply personal memoir.  This is not a story about my work, or Afghanistan’s history, its a story about my call to activism, my journey as a survivor of gender violence, and the other side of Afghanistan and it’s people beyond the war most Americans see on the news.   It’s road trips and prisons, motorcycles and mountain bikes, kindness and terror, adventure and activism.

Amazed to have the vocal support and blurb for the book cover by  New York Times bestselling author and perhaps the most famous Afghan in America, Khalid Hosseini, author of the Kite Runner and The Mountains Echoed.

“Shannon Galpin’s lovely cycling saga is an inspiring and illuminating window into the lives of modern day Afghan women and their continuing struggle to ride their own path to freedom, recognition, and equality.”

Washington Post Journalist, Anand Gopal who authored No Good Men Among the Living generously took time to read the book and wrote:

“Mountain to Mountain reads like one of Shannon Galpin’s bike rides, fast-paced and unpredictable. It traces her intimate journey as a survivor and her travels across a rugged terrain, in the process bringing alive a vital and poignant message: Equality for Afghan women means more than just voting rights or access to parliament—it means having the same basic freedoms as men.”

Then last night, I was sent a shot of Bicycling Magazine’s latest issue, which starts hitting mailboxes and newsstands this week , and this review is inside!  Its real.  Its out there.  Holy shit.

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Even bigger, the support from the legendary multiple world champion cyclist, Marianne Vos – who sent me her blurb for the book two days before she won La Course at Le Tour in Paris.  Making history on the final day of the Le Tour de France.

“Read this touching story from Shannon Galpin, who utilizes her unique position as a western woman to immerse herself in Afghan culture. She had the courage to leave everything behind and use the bike to as a tool to lead a physical and political movement – a way towards freedom for the women of Afghanistan.”

4 time World Ironman Champion, and one of the women behind the push to get La Course at Le Tour this year, Chrissie Wellington wrote:

Mountain to Mountain is nothing short of phenomenal. This captivating, inspiring, and heart-warming memoir shows us all that, with unbounded and unwavering passion, determination and courage, change can happen and mountains can be moved, one pedal stroke at a time. Shannon Galpin, and the women of Afghanistan, I salute you and your illimitable strength.

Holy shit indeed.  Yeah, I’m getting all the swears out now, because my editor edited most of my swears out of the memoir!   Having the support of these amazing men and women makes it a little less daunting to have my very personal life become very public.

Book tour starts in New York City on September 16th and here’s the tour list – I hope to see many familiar faces there!!

New York – TBA September 16-20

Frisco, CO – Next Page Bookstore – September 27

Portland, OR – Powell’s – October 3

Denver, CO – Tattered Cover – October 6

Boulder, CO – Boulder Bookstore – October 8

Chicago, IL – TBA – October 15

Los Angeles – TBA – October 18

Austin, TX – Austin Book Festival – October 25

Edwards, CO – Bookworm – October 29

Moab, UT – Back of Beyond – November 1

Durango, CO – Maria’s Bookstore – November 13

 

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Bikes Races on the Afghan Campaign Trail

5:30am Friday morning in Kabul.  Already a crowd of around 50 boys on bikes has gathered in the street in front of Darul Aman Palace.  Coach, along with a few of the women’s team, Mariam, Sadaf, and Massouma, are blasting the Afghan National Anthem over a loudspeaker on the roof of Coach’s car.  More boys roll up and several older men join the group with their bikes.  Many ancient Phoenix bikes decorated in full Afghan kitsch are ready to race through the now empty streets of Kabul.  Empty because of the early hour and because the route from the palace to Kabul Stadium has been blocked.

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As often happens in Afghanistan, things get strange really quick.  Presidential candidate, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, has made this a campaign stop.  The run-off elections are one week away and the two candidates are in campaign full court press.  So that means security, in the form of heavily bright green armored jeeps full of men with guns, pull to the periphery of the gathering one after another.  Until there are at least 15 jeeps full of men with guns surrounded the event.

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A tall Afghan has been handing out white tshirts to all the cyclists, and it turns out that the shirts are emblazoned with the face of Abdullah Abdullah.  Slowly the multicolored sea of nearly hundred boys and men turns white.   Another man is handing out small flags that can attach to the bikes, also with Abdullah Abdullah’s face.  This bike race just turned into a shameless campaign rally.  Now we had a large scale campaign rally for the candidate that the Taliban were vocally against, in a very public and normally busy road, now blocked by highly visible security forces.  The irony?  The candidate and his convoy was no where near here yet.  So now we get to wait.

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Bike Culture in Afghanistan – 2 Wheeled Culture Revolution

Everywhere you look you see men and boys on bikes, in the mountains, in villages, and in city centers like Kabul.  But never women. For the past four years, I’ve been riding my bike in Afghanistan every chance I get.  When a local offers up his bike, complete with pinwheel and three horns, I don’t hesitate.  Ever.

It was October 2009 when I first put two wheels to dirt in the mountains of the Panjshir Valley, no big deal if you live in Colorado, but a first for any women in Afghanistan.

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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.

The Dude

Afghanistan is full of bad ass characters.  My first visit, I dubbed many of the baddest that roamed the city streets in the back of jeeps – the black birds.  These motley lot were dressed all in black, with sunglasses, an attitude, and some serious weaponry that they weren’t afraid to flash.  They gave me the chills.  The mystery is as scary as the guns.  Who are they?  Are they the good guys or the bad guys?  Which in Afghanistan isn’t clear at the best times, especially when you get it figured out just in time for the players to switch sides.

I’ve since been on the receiving end of a few heavily armed dudes that prefer to point with their AK-47’s and rifles rather than with their hands. My first thought is always, “Dude, is your safety on?”  My second thought is from imagined perspective. “What is this silly girl speaking about?  I can’t shoot if the safety is on.” Meanwhile I”m arguing about traffic directions or access to a building, and the business end of their egomania is pointed inches from my chest or stomach.

Considering how they gaily wave their guns around in this trigger happy society, I’m surprised more ‘accidents’ don’t occur.  I’ve seen traffic cops clear traffic snarls by waving their guns and shouting, “Burro burro”  the equivalent to, “Move your ass”.  Doesn’t matter that the roundabout is a jumble of cars pointing in three or four directions, everyone ignoring the traditional right of way rules and take the shortest most direct approach.  (Even if that means cutting off five others or created a automobile jigsaw that will take hours to unjumble.)  The traffic cops are there in the midst of it, shouting, waving, and doing very little to actually clear the traffic.

I didn’t grow up around guns, but I’m not particularly upset by them.  I lived for a short stint in Beirut and while it was my first time walking down a city street with AK 47’s everywhere, gun culture is just part of the accepted deal if I’m going to work in places like these.  They are everywhere.  Police, contractors, military, security guards, and more than a few civilians I’m sure are packing some heat. When you go out to dinner at a ‘secure’ restaurant, meaning one that has enough security that USAID or UN workers are allowed to go to by the rules of their curfews and travel restrictions, you enter the first round of security at the outside door and then check your weapons inside with the secondary guard.  Only then are you allowed to go through magical door number two.

Its the bad ass dudes that put me on edge in Afghanistan.  But then there’s this guy.  Bad ass?  You bet.  Scary?  Not so much.  Instead of the usual avoidance, I find myself wanting to talk with him.  Its almost comical, like a Monty Python sketch of a terrorist.  How long does it take him to get ready?  Is it heavy wearing all those layers of ammunition?  Do you jingle when you walk?   What’s the point of THAT many layers of ammo?  What happens when someone walks by with a magnet?  Okay, okay,  totally illogical…but damn.  Its like balding, pot-bellied, fifty something, geezer buying a cherry-red convertible sportscar.  Delicate ego and small genitals compensated with layers of bad ass ammo.

Was this the guy all the other Afghan children teased and bullied at school?  If so, they’d better run for cover.   When the good guys look like this, the suicide bombers look positively cuddly.

photo credit, Travis Beard

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.

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.

Hotel Mazar

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!