|The nature Never is Partial. It gives its beauty to everyone equally.|
This time the visit was postponed due to certain reasons, gave me a feeling that this visit will be cancelled once again. I felt like a software engineer who waits for his onsite posting but the organization is often able to fool him and keep the hope alive. Last year also, the visit was cancelled because of security reasons (Not our security, the security of “Experts” was more important). And this year too, the Visa would have remained without an immigration stamp and two more passport pages would have gone wasted.
But the program was made suddenly and was supposed to last momentarily too. The five day journey included only few hours on site. No one knew that it wouldn’t be even that long. The Visas, tickets, advance dollars, insurance, preparations, packing, good byes, and shopping wish lists were all done in a single day. Everyone was running here and there to do their bit. Packages were handed over to be delivered and we were thinking how this much luggage will be handled.
All the warm clothes packed, we (We: Myself, my friend Taj, Three Consultants) were all ready to go. Blame it to my addiction to FB and twitter; I updated my location to Kabul, Afghanistan even before leaving Delhi. And if I go by the likes and comments, people loved that I left India.
And now we were at Indira Gandhi International Airport, Terminal 3. And a question popped into our mind. We used T1 and now we use T3, what about T2? For cargo? Military purpose? Hajj purpose? No one knew; we were just guessing. Such a huge and marvelous terminal; with all facilities one can think of. From the security outside to the beauty inside, everything is very gripping. The advertisements seen earlier about T3 were not exaggerating at all. Wanted to tweet everything live from there but my discomfort level with mobile tweeting did not allow me to. After all the checking and other formalities and eating at the food court (Still not clear why the prices were almost double there; quality or just airport taxes) we were ready to board.
Whether it is a bus, train or a plane, everyone fights, argues or secretly wishes for a window seat. No one amongst us argued but the ones who got the window seat were very happy. The TV screens on the seats, the warm atmosphere inside the plane, the kids crying in the plane; everything is an excitement in itself. The only thing you miss while going to a country like Afghanistan is the lovely faces. And of course no one would like to know about the air hostesses in great Air India.
The journey gets exciting as you imagine flying over different cities in India and then Pakistan. A saying is “Jinne Lahore ni dekhya, ohne kuch ni dekhya” which means one who has not seen Lahore has not seen anything. At least we saw it from the top. The Indus River amongst the clouds; the Kabul River; the natural border between Pakistan and Afghanistan demarked by start of hilly area; the snow covered Hind Kush ranges; the matchbox like structures of Afghanistan villages; so much to see in just a couple of hours.
Kabul: The cool breeze welcomes you.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have landed at Kabul International airport. The temperature outside is 7 degree Celsius and wind is blowing at 50 km/hr.”
As soon as we landed out of the plane, the cool breeze welcomed us. What a feeling it is to breathe in such a clean and pure air, no pollution, no dust; the air enters and every inch of the wind pipe feels the chill. Nothing like the Delhi airport, but still the Kabul airport has improved a lot since I landed here three years ago. “Tashakkur, (thank you), Khuda Hafiz”, the flight attendants said to every passenger. The immigration counters, the checking staff all have improved a lot. A person was already waiting for us to welcome us quite inside the airport (Not too difficult to enter prohibited areas if you can show your importance by your hold on the local language). In the taxi stand, Kambez, our interpreter, was waiting for us. Kambez is 21 year old boy whose brother works with Ismail Khan, the minister for irrigation and water supplies. He is studying civil engineering in Kardan University in Kabul. He told that the professors are from Pakistan, Iran and India and few are from Afghanistan too. He showed the university to us on our way back to the guest house at Akbar Khan road, Kabul. The guest house is adjacent to UK and German embassies, and is considered a very posh and safe area. But nowhere is safe here. The minor explosions having 1-2 causalities are treated with total indifference. The guards are with AK47 in a ready to shoot mode. In our prior visit, we were handed the guns and instructions were given about how to shoot. We were told that in case of attack, it is very much possible that the police or security force which will always accompany us will run away and these guns for your security might be used against you. So it is better that you learn to operate these so that at least you can scare off minor attackers.
|Fencing in Houses|
|Our Security Guard|
Indians have been favorites for attack lately. The locals are of no use; US are too difficult to kidnap; Pakistanis are considered enemies but they are not expected to be ransom generating people. Indians are heavily insured; both the governments are very much conscious about the mutual relations; the media is very active which makes the ransom business very fruitful and of course killing anyone is no big deal here.
The best thing which one can get abroad is someone who can converse in your language, Bollywood music and the Indian food. The first two things are no problem here. Hindi is understood by surprisingly a good percentage of people we meet in Kabul. The FM channels broadcast Hindi songs, Indian channels are broadcasted on TV; old Bollywood movies are aired in the theaters; the Indian currency or the dollars can be exchanged into Afghani notes and vice versa at almost every shop. Dollars are accepted everywhere along with the Afghanis. Just for sake of information One dollar = 49 Afghanis (Yes, it is stronger than `, I don’t know how). The cars are left hand driven here, so for Indians like me, traffic appears bonkers here.
We reached the guest house at around 3 and were welcomed by pakodas and tea cooked by an Indian cook, Surajpal from our office only. Our stay in the guest house was going to be very delicious for sure. The snacks, the most delicious dinner, the breakfast next day gave a home away from home experience.
The airport rough handling caused my suitcase to give up its handle giving me an excuse to take our interpreter to market and show us Kabul. “Boro (lets go)”, I said to Kambez. (Yes, I remembered a few words from my earlier visit). From the small shops and hawkers to the big general stores and Malls with all international brands, Kabul has everything. “But no photography please. It is not safe, they will break your camera” Kambez requested when I took out my camera. I humbly agreed. I took it out as soon as we were out from high security area. With help of Kambez and his translations and his recommendations about the quality, we bought some dry fruits, for which Afghanistan is famous. (PS: Nothing is produced here apart from dry fruits and saffron. Everything else is either imported from Pakistan or Iran. Medicines from India and Pakistan. Not to mention China and all the Chinese products available cheaply here. China looks the entire world as a local market really). There is an Indira Gandhi multi-specialty hospital in Kabul and people are really thankful for that. On our way back we witnessed the traffic jam, American tanks and convoys violating traffic lanes showing that no one can stop them, listened to Hindi songs on radio, big imported cars, mainly Toyota. Greedy and corrupt policemen. I could not help myself and just sighed on the condition I was witnessing.
They say, when there is no natural calamity there is a war in Afghanistan. And then people are left to themselves to fight the aftermaths and try to stand up again.
The night in Kabul was very cold. A heater running on low voltage, multiple blankets, thermal wears, two pair of socks, woolen caps were not helping at all to fight the cold. But we slept anyhow to get physically ready for the journey to Herat. Mentally we were not only ready, we were thrilled.
(Whenever I type Herat in MS word, it autocorrects it to heart). This is really annoying. The block of airport for domestic use is just like an ISBT of a medium sized city in India. Our flight was delayed. There were no announcements, no display boards, no one to ask who knew Hindi or was comfortable in English as such, but we knew it because there was no plane. We were not left with any options but to wait. The flight was late by couple of hours and the waiting hall was full of people who were waiting. With no rail network and very poor and unsafe road network, air network is the only way to transit between the capital and a very important city near Iran border. The good thing was they were showing a Hindi movie in the hall, Rocky- the Himesh Reshammiya music flick.
The flight was like a bus transit. A Three by two seat arrangement like a roadways bus; People having their luggage in form of hand bags, kids crying due to suffocation; oversized passengers or probably undersized seats; everything had a charm of its own for rare flyers like us and a headache for frequent flyers. In between those, I found a kid smiling for me to take his pictures (with his father’s permission).
|Snow Covered peaks|
If Kabul Domestic airport is like Delhi ISBT, Herat airport is nothing more than a local bus stand of a small town in Punjab. You land at the airport and have to go out of the airport boundary which is nothing but a metal fencing. Small kids with single tire trolleys are ready to surround you to hire them. “Karachi, Karachi…” they shout running in circles around you. The luggage handing over to passengers is most funny in Herat. A trolley van is put under the cargo gate of the plane and luggage is dropped in it, whether it is bag having clothes or boxes with laptops. Everything is given a similar treatment. In my last visit, we re-entered from the same metal fencing to “recognize and collect” our luggage from the trolley van. This time we had to go to an open ground at some distance.
|The Local Tea|
The hotels everywhere in Afghanistan are like mini forts. The security checks, concrete blocks at parking areas, guards with AK47s and bullet belts, the gates so huge and strong as if we are going to enter a jail. The hotel (Hotel Nazary) in Herat gave us a relaxed feeling. However cold it might be outside (-10 during night to be precise) it was quite warm inside. A four star hotel with all the facilities, unlimited snacks and tea/coffee on demand, a small library in just 70 dollars per day was really surprising. We tasted the local tea here and it was really yuck as per Indian standard. Then we were told about the procedure to drink tea. You have to put a toffee in your mouth and then drink that tea, and it really worked. Not bad at all.
The first thing which a Punjabi bothers is the food. And being a vegetarian, one cannot expect a spectacular treat anywhere outside India. So was here. The dinner had a lot of variety but all cooked in local style. A lot of vinegar and tomato is used in cooking vegetables and are over boiled. And the non-veg dishes whether its chicken or mutton is a lot drier than people are used to eat in India. The fruits, salads are imported from Iran or Pakistan and are very expensive. One banana is worth one dollar; one and a half for an orange. The scarcity of food increases with snowfall. The dependency on imports increases as only root crops like potato can survive in this weather.
We had a longer stay in Herat, thus we had a lot of time to explore the area. On day one, we went to Jehadi Museum, which was built to commemorate the deaths of local soldiers who died while fighting with Soviets to free their province in the era 1989-92. On the way we saw the Herat University, spread over a very large space. The university offers all courses from English honors to honors in Farsi/Arabic, from medicine to engineering, from commerce to business management in various fields. Engineering is considered favorite amongst locals as it accounts for major development and construction business. The professors here, like Kabul, come from Iran or Pakistan and locals. The Education amongst girls is still a taboo but the situation is getting better day by day.
A very positive thing which I saw there was a banner which showed in one frame a mine being dug out of the land and a plant being sown in another frame. That gave a message that the country is fed up and wants to come out of the war era. Infrastructure development in every area is increasing but is still insufficient. The role of UNICEF was very much visible in health care by the banners showing the importance of mother’s health and importance of doctors in delivery of a child. On the way we also saw the American Consulate, formed in a luxurious hotel.
Before the museum we went to see a tube-well which was constructed by our company and was funded by Indian government. Seeing the board which reads “A gift to people of Afghanistan by the people of India” gives a different type of a feeling. I don’t know it’s a good one or not to have that feeling.
The museum, from outside to inside, is full of weapons and memorials of the war. A statue of an Afghan soldier welcomes us. The weapons, tanks and guns which were seized from soviets and then used against them are displayed outside the museum. Names of the soldiers who died or got “Shaheed” in the war are imprinted on the exterior walls in local language. The inside of the museum is divided in three sections.
The first one stores the weapons and artillery used in the war. The second section, a gallery, shows the portraits of the leaders who sacrificed their lives in the war. There were people like father of the President Hamid Karzai, son of the Minister of water resources Ismail Khan. There are statues of a group of people gathered with their guns discussing the strategy to protect their families from the Soviets. The third section is a 3D model consisting of mannequins and paintings showing the story of the proceedings of the war in circular form showing various stages. The story is written on the pillars near every section in both English and the local Dari language.
The story goes like this, “The soviets, when came to Herat, they came as businessmen. But they wanted to capture the area. For that they needed to get rid of important and influential people of the province which could be a danger to their motive.
They started mass killing them by first bringing them to a park and then killing them and burying them there. When the news spread, people got angry and demanded an explanation from the government/ rulers. But they were already sold out on the hands of the Soviets.
People in Herat decided to protect their families by themselves. Soviets realized this and they started mobilizing their tanks around the boundaries of the cities. The Herat city was surrounded completely and all the necessary item supplies were blocked for more than 80 days.
The small wars started in various areas of the province. The soldiers who came from ordinary citizens started the gorilla fights with soviets, seized their weapons and used those against them only. They travelled to Herat city and attacked the soviets from back.
The soviets also started bombarding the city and killing the innocent people. The fight which lasted many days caused killing of many innocent citizens of the city.
The people fighting from the roof tops withanything they could gather, guns, stones or cling shots. The battle finally ended with Soviets finally departing the province and the country and the incoming of Taliban.” The list of fighters who survived the war includes few prominent ministers in the current government.
Our day two after returning from the dam site was dedicated to shopping in the local market. Afghanistan has been famous for two things – opium and dry fruits. Opium cultivation was stopped for good reasons by Taliban. Earlier dry fruits were earlier available only in local market because of lack of export business. But now with increase of foreign involvement and growth here, the good quality dry fruits are exported and slightly lower quality products are sold in the local markets. But these lower quality dry fruits are still better than those available in Delhi. The prices are almost similar. We got almonds, walnuts, pistachios and raisins for 350 Afghanis per kg. But another thing to mention here is the variety and types of dry fruits. There were around 25 types of dry fruits most of which I have never seen or heard in India. But before going to local market for shopping, make sure you have a trustable local person with you or else be prepared to get charged double price. As compared to Kabul, fewer people understand English here.
Dam site visit
On my previous visit, the remaining distance between Herat and Chisht-e-Sharif of about 170 km was covered by road travel. But due to security reasons and very bad condition of the road made it impossible later on. Now the distance is covered by helicopter which is provided by afghan government to facilitate the work of the dam construction. The helicopter visits site twice a month. We were supposed to go to dam site on Monday, 19th December.
|Routine Decreases the Thrill|
But on Sunday night we were informed that there has been a blast nearby and there have been few causalities and all the helicopters have been diverted there. Thus we were told to wait for one day. The next day we were supposed to travel early morning. But again we were informed that there has been a technical fault in one of the helicopter and the visit might be postponed by another day. But by eleven we were told that two helicopters have been called from Iran and we will be going today itself. After staying in the warm hotel, we were going to the chilly open air field. On the way Khalil, our Liaison officer, told us that if the wind is blowing the average temperature during night is about -10, but in between when the wind stops, the temperature suddenly drops down to -20. On spotting the dead grass and bare trees all around, we asked him the reason. He told us that the wind dries up and sucks out all the water in the tree.
He mentioned, that a tree which normally takes around an year for drying after being cut, can be dried in one night if we keep it in such weather.
As expected, the high wind speed and the cold temperature shivered us when we got out of the car at airport. All the woolens, inners suddenly failed; the jackets got frozen, the feet got numb even wearing double layer of woolen socks. After waiting for a couple of hours in the car, we were told to progress towards the helipads. It was an open field with multiple layers of concrete bags and a couple of check-posts which were protecting the open helipads. We were accompanied by consulate general of India and the Director of Irrigation, Afghanistan and their allied. After few minutes two helicopters approached. I used to see this thing in movies, but for the first time I experienced the air blown by the wings of the machine. The pressure of the air pressure was so high that the caps, jackets were being blown away by it. We boarded and the helicopter started flying; not like we see in movies, rising in the air without travelling horizontally, but like a normal airplane, running on the run way and taking off eventually.
On our way, we saw the mountains closely. They are rich in marble and iron ore. Now the contracts are being given for mining of the various minerals here. The journey lasts around forty minutes, but is very difficult to bear because of the noise. We landed in Chisht-e-Sharif (Did I tell you that Chisht-e-Sharif, Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan and Ajmer Sharif in India are brothers?)
We were rushed in the cars and a convoy of twelve SUV cars progressed towards the dam site. It was a show for the locals who were witnessing something very important happening. The convoy was split in two parts, one team went towards the dam site and one part of which I was a part of went towards the power house. The visit lasted only twenty minutes. Believe me, seeing the components being constructed which you designed and drew on paper is a thrilling experience. The reinforcement bars which are just lines in a drawing or a number in design are standing in front of you showing their strength; the double lines of pipes are lying of ground like speed breakers, the simple tunnel section on the drawing appears too big in real; a small dimension written in a small font is a wide passage in real; small leakage causes a pool formation in real. And when someone asks you a doubt, you realize that answering in drawing is much easier than to explain in real. Such feelings were just flowing in my mind and suddenly someone shouted that the helicopter is about to leave. “So Soon? We have not seen anything yet.” But it was overheard and the convoy of cars started moving back. I tried to ignore them but the people around me suggested me to leave. Everyone on site was requesting us to stay and come here on posting for few months. I expressed my inability to be posted there but promised them that I will come for a longer period after the weather improves a bit.
And like this, our visit to dam was over and we bid good bye to all. Few people joined us back who were going home for holidays and there was one Mr. Kuldeep Singh, who was relieved from his duties at site after staying there for more than five years. He had received a warm farewell a couple of days ago and I could clearly see the emotional condition in his eyes. Amongst the excitement and emotions, welcomes and good byes, shaking hands and hugging each other, wishing each other the best, our helicopters left the ground and were back on its tour.
After some time we were back to the hotel. Everyone was slightly disappointed with the short duration of visit and a wish to see more, spend more time there. But everyone was too tired to stay up for long. Next day was spent in writing the report about the visit and going for some shopping later on. I bought a jacket, a woolen suit for my mother and some Ittr (perfume) from the mall near to our hotel.
The next day was the travelling day. Early morning we were at the airport for our flight to Kabul. The flight was two hours late and for those two hours we were standing outside in open field. Feeling the chilly weather for one last time; breathing the fresh and clean air for last time; complaining about the airport for one last time. We reached Kabul at one in afternoon and rushed towards the international wing of the airport. There was no time to meet the cook, interpreter and thank them for the wonderful treatment they gave us. Fortunately Air India flight was also late by two hours and we were checked in in time.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to land in Delhi very shortly. Please make sure, your seat belts are tighten properly, seats are straight. The temperature outside is 17 degrees” And thus we were back in our country. Phones were switched on; calls were made of our safe arrival. Coming out of airport, once again I realized the importance of someone receiving you and thinking how good it feels to see someone waiting for you.