The chador namaz in all her glory.
“I’ve got you under my skin…” The words of Frank Sinatra have been echoing in my head the past few weeks as I’ve said goodbye after goodbye. It’s hard to believe two years have passed since we first came to Afghanistan. Like the red dust here that gets into every pore and underneath each and every fingernail, Afghanistan has gotten under my skin. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse, it’s a country that has left its mark on me. It has heightened my feminism (or maybe that’s also a factor of growing older and- hopefully- wiser as to how far the world still has to go to obtain equality?). Afghanistan has showed me a corner of the world that few outsiders ever get to see, and taught me a lot about both my boundaries of what I can live with (and without) and where those boundaries end. Every time I move countries, I’m again amazed at how much we, as human beings, flexibly adapt to the circumstances around us and learn to live both with and without everything that has most recently been familiar to us. Afghanistan is a place that has taken me (more than once) to my breaking point, but has also shown me how some of the simplest things can make me feel the happiest and most fulfilled that I’ve ever felt. So that said… to depart, I’ve prepared my top lists of things I will NOT miss, and of course – the list that far outweighs these “boundary testers” – the things I will miss dearly.
Things that tested my boundaries:
1).Wearing all of my clothes at once – like really, truly, all at once. Just picture wearing a sack-like dress or long skirt over pants (yes, over pants – not leggings – pants), with a sweater, socks, a head scarf and – if I’m in one of the more conservative parts of the country, the bedsheet-like attire otherwise known as a chador namaz that basically makes you overheat, trip, lose all peripheral vision and look like a black Halloween ghost roaming the streets without actually trick-or-treating. Yes, I will not miss that.
2). Not being able to hug males – There were times in saying goodbye over the last two weeks that I really would have liked to hug my male Afghan colleagues as I told them how awesome they are and how much I was going to miss them. I was lucky if I got handshakes, which was already pretty risqué.
3). Having questions for me directed at my husband – Yes, this was done over and over again out of respect for both myself and Rafael (it may sound strange, but it can be culturally inappropriate to talk to a man’s wife directly)… but it’s infuriating to have questions for you – when you’re standing there as part of the conversation – directed at your husband.
4). A lack of freedom – This is a multi-faceted one… In a few places we worked in Afghanistan, we were confined to the office and guesthouse compounds, with no way to see outside the mud walls for 2-3 weeks at a time. I also won’t miss having to be accompanied every time I want to go for a walk/ hike/trip to the bazaar. Oh, and I also won’t miss watching the men get to go out and do all the fun sporty stuff like play soccer, volleyball, going for outdoor runs, etc. Freedom is a precious thing and I foresee many solo runs/grocery store trips/hikes in my near future…
5). Jokes about 2nd (or 3rd) wives – Yes, yes… these were all told by male colleagues and meant in good fun because they knew the jokes would rile me up. Unfortunately… They’re still not funny to me. Guess they did manage to get a rise out of me after all. J
6). The dust… THE DUST!!! – Whether trips to the field, dust storms (yes, those are actually a thing where you can’t see more than 5 feet in front of you), Kabul soot, or dirt-road trips between sub-offices, I will not miss dust in my mouth, my hair, or my clothes which wash brown for a week after. Oh, and did I mention that Afghanistan has one of the highest percentages of airborne fecal matter in the WORLD?
7). The smell of winter – A weird one, yes, but let me explain. With bukharis (stoves) being lit all winter, you don’t realize that you smell like you’ve been on a year-long camping trip until you leave the country. Not until then do you realize that you are the outlier in sea of fresh laundry and soap-scented people. And I won’t mention that sometimes those bukharis are lit with chalma – a lovely concoction of sheep dung…
8). The Kabul guesthouse fridge – This really, truly, could have been a whole separate blog post about the joys of shared living. Let’s just summarize this to say that many international staff pass through the Kabul guesthouse in route to other offices around the country but no one really lives there. God forbid someone clean the damn fridge, or heck, think to throw their leftovers out or put a sticky note on it saying, “Please eat me by XX date!!!” I think I’ve hit my quota of moldy spaghetti, goopy spinach that leaks all over the inside of the fridge, month-old eggs, rotten potatoes (seriously, has there ever been a worse smell!?), and forgotten jars of whatever. Seriously, it sometimes feels like walking into a frat house minus the alcohol, the parties, and the people. But now, I can let it all go… **Cue the song “Let it Go” from Frozen (which ironically enough was the first song I heard as I walked into the Kabul guesthouse 2 years ago – you know who you are…). “Let it go, let it go…” **
And this leads me to the things that I will really, truly, and deeply miss about Afghanistan:
1). Mantu, kebabs, and naan – Mantu are divine-tasting homemade dumplings filled with ground meat, chickpeas, and tomato sauce, topped with a mint-yoghurt sauce. If you ever find yourself at an Afghan restaurant, please get the mantu!!! Kebabs are self-explanatory, but I’ve never had such tasty chicken/beef/goat kebobs cooked to perfection with bits of fat (sorry vegetarian friends!) skewered in between the meat. Naan are the giant flat breads, often cooked in a tandoor oven in a round shape or oblong shape the length of your arm. If you are a guest, you will also ALWAYS get your own giant naan. There is nothing better than naan fresh out of the tandoor, made with locally harvested wheat from the Afghan central highlands. Our cat agrees. He is the world’s best naan thief.
2). The humor of spewing greetings at each other at the same time – I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place where the respectful way to greet someone is to ask a string of 8 or so greetings in Dari (Hello!, how are you?, you are fine?, how is your family?, how is your health?, how is your family’s health?, may you not be tired!, may you be well!) while the person you are greeting simultaneously asks the same 8 greetings, with neither person actually waiting to hear the other’s answer to any of the questions. This form of simultaneous greeting is rendered extra humorous when done in English (repeat the above string of phrases and see who can get them out first!!).
3). No mosquitos, cockroaches, or other such creatures – Sure we had the occasional mouse (much to the delight of our cat) but it has been SO refreshing to live in a place where you don’t really need to worry about mosquitos (so long malaria/dengue/Zika/Chikungunya!) or cucarachas.
4). The stunning and stark beauty of the mountains – I’m sure my photos have spoken volumes about this point. Everyone assumes Afghanistan is a hot desert, filled only with sand and dust (ok, yes, there is a lot of dust…). I’ve loved showing the world the beautiful side of Afghanistan. For all the years of conflict and war, this country certainly makes up for things in raw beauty any time of the year. Winter snows on the mountain slopes, rain fed wheat making the slopes green and snow melt flooding the valleys in silver rivulets in spring, the tawny shade of summer that makes the rainbow bands of rock stand out on the mountains, and the brilliant shades of yellow and orange on the poplar trees in fall.
5). Being able to leave my doors unlocked at night – Sure, I didn’t tell many people about this one during our stay in the ‘Stan, but you read this one correctly. In the central highlands where we lived, Afghanistan was so safe that we never had to worry about locking our doors at night. Now that we’re gone, I can let this secret out and you’ll all still sleep peacefully at night. Yes, Afghanistan of all places, was so safe (in terms of break-ins and petty theft), that we often slept with our doors unlocked. Where else in the world can you do that – and more specifically – what other country in the world with such a “reputation,” can you do that? I love being able to break down stereotypes!
6). The stars on crystal clear night – The remote, crystal clear nights in rural Afghanistan provided stargazing like nowhere else. I suppose that’s what happens when there the concept of “city power” does not exist (although in a town of a few thousand, maybe “city” is a stretch). There were plenty of nights I’d wished I’d had a telescope to sit on the roof and watch the stars. There were also plenty of nights where the moon was so bright, we could have easily gone on a nighttime hike with our way fully lit. Don’t worry. We didn’t do that. Again, sleep peacefully my trusty reader.
7). Blindingly sunny skies during the depths of winter – As someone who hails from Wisconsin, land of dreary Midwestern winters, this really brought a newfound pleasantness to winter. While there was plenty of snow (and I mean lots! Again, breaking stereotypes of Afghanistan!), even winter days were nearly always blindingly sunny. With the reflection off the snow and sunshine at 3000 meters, it was also a good way to catch a winter sunburn. Yes, fellow Midwesterners, that’s right. A snowy winter sunburn that does not stem from your holiday trip to Cozumel.
8). Sharing iftar dinners – Seeing colleagues take on the holy month of Ramazan (Ramadan) during the long, drawn-out days of summer gives you mad respect for people who can fast for 19 hours. Getting up to eat breakfast at 2:30 in the morning is no joke either. While I can’t say that I fasted for all 19 hours, being able to share with colleagues the joy of drinking water and eating for the first time in 19 hours is pretty special, as are many of the foods that are prepared specifically for breaking the fast at iftar time. I think Ramazan and iftar also hold a special place in our hearts as we first arrived to Afghanistan just as Ramazan began in 2014.
9). Hikes in the mountains – Replete with skipping down the mountain to the tunes of Taylor Swift or singing the Sound of Music from the mountaintops while pretending to be in Austria, the hiking in Afghanistan was always beautiful and I will miss simply walking out of my house (accompanied, of course) up into the mountains.
10). My job – It’s been amazingly fulfilling to be able to support little boys and girls and young women attend school in or near to their communities. It’s also been great to see my team grow and become stronger at working with communities and the Ministry of Education to provide educational services to remote, under-served communities.
11). Our colleagues – while of course this one sounds cliché, Afghans are amazing people. They are resilient, funny, thoughtful, caring, and hardworking people. I will miss our colleagues dearly and hope to go back one day under more peaceful circumstances and visit many of their families’ villages. Our colleagues and Afghanistan have gotten under my skin in a way I suspect will always stay.