Today was wicked exciting for me, but I kept it together and stayed cool. We had to drive into the heart of Kabul to visit the bank that services our camp. I was being added as a signatory to the accounts we have at the bank, and there were a few other details we were determined to settle while we were visiting the office.
Kabulbank is the largest bank in Kabul and is located just northeast of the hill covered with TV antennas. There’s a picture of this hill in one of my previous entries. But if you look at this picture, you’ll see that it’s a good five or six miles of gridlock to get to the bank area.
Our complex route to get to the bank was designed to keep anyone from following us, and that made me feel better until I realized the route wasn’t designed to keep anyone from following us, but was just too complicated for me to understand and keep track of in my brain. I gave over to looking for major landmarks while trying to take in the sights of the biggest city in the country.
The devastation, terrible roads and piles of rubble in the streets were much much less as we drove deeper into the city, but the sights for a newbie like me were really fun to see. Roadside vendors with stalls full of colorful drinks and a huge selection of cigarettes were everywhere, but other vendors selling sunglasses, computer software and all manner of fake designer goods were thrown in there as well. My favorite stand I saw but wasn’t fast enough to get a picture of was a bike repair stand. It was covered with inner tubes and tires, and looked like a pile of black spaghetti.
As we got closer to downtown, the traffic got pretty bad and we spent about 20 minutes going a short distance down a two-lane road that had become four lanes as people drove up to, and on the sidewalk. We got to see the local chicken deliver guy, and the ice cream man. We went past several butcher shops that had dead animals hanging along the full front of the building in 90 degree heat. Ian’s comment was that the FDA would have a field day here. I agreed, but doubted the FDA would darken this doorstep.
One of the craziest recurring buildings was the hotel/wedding hall. With about as much neon as Winnemucca, these wedding halls would certainly look cool at night, but during the day, they look about as dusty as the rest of the city.
Unlike the edge of the city where our camp is, as you get closer to the downtown area, there are many trees lining the roads. There are several relatively nice looking parks where the trees are so thick that the sun can’t penetrate the thick cover of leaves. The largest park has some open areas, and it’s close to a famous area known as New Kabul City. The shopping areas and hotels in New Kabul City are relatively new, and the main street actually looked nice enough to be a real crappy street in Dubai.
We pulled up to the bank, which was a non-descript building with about 4 stories. I had thrown my camera in my bag, but almost lost it at the security checkpoint inside the bank. To enter Kabulbank, you go through some very thin and difficult to manage turnstiles, get frisked by a couple guys, who I think were frisking for bomb vests only, because they were not very thorough with anyone who came in around us.
The bank manager’s office was crowded, and there seemed to be a policy of people just walking in and talking to whoever was available. So it could be an ancient guy wearing his traditional pajamas, walking in and talking to a bank executive about her passbook account. I have no idea what was going on, but we did have some time to people watch.
It was more obvious than ever the huge variety of ethnicities that have been crushed together here in Afghanistan. Several of the men in the office had very Arabian features with heavy brows and that prominent nose, but then a worker from the bank would walk through and you would swear he was Korean. A woman standing in line near us could have passed as Chinese with no problem. This valley and this area of the country has been conquered so many times, and each time, the conquerors added their contribution to the gene pool.
The bank complex is interesting – there was a courtyard of sorts out the back door of the building, and after crossing the yard, we went to another building where another manager was waiting for us. The main attraction of the exit to the other building was the stairwell we used that had a strange pattern of circles on the wall.
“Bullet holes,” Ian said, and I had to stop and look. If they hadn’t been so stingy about the camera, I would have gotten a picture of the wall.
After our business was done, we actually had to cross the street to get back to our armored vehicle, and that 30 feet of weaving through traffic was probably the most dangerous part of our entire day.
In convoy, they try to make our routes so that we don’t turn around, but make big loops where the destination is at one end and camp is at the other end of the circle. The end of the loop took us through some parts of the city that had me twisting my neck around, trying to see as much as possible. We drove past embassies for Germany and Britain – compounds that made Camp Gibson’s wall look like it was made of Lincoln logs. We drove past Camp Eggers, the home of the American Embassy, and the site of a huge new hotel where internationals will stay and hopefully avoid the danger of suicide bombers.
Suddenly, we were back to a place I recognized – the traffic circle directly outside the airport entrance. I hadn’t seen that area in nearly two months, and it made excited to go back there in another month when I would be going home on leave.
A quick drive through the CIA military compound and down the well-paved road alongside the compound where the Department of State maintains its own fleet of airplanes, and we were back at Gibson.
All along the route it was really interesting to have Ghafoor there to tell us what we were seeing. I would have never identified the ice cream man, or even thought there was an ice cream man in Kabul. He showed us the chicken delivery guy and also the guys on the corner who are the local equivalent of a bank – changing money and selling phone cards.
It blew me away when I saw an ancient dude driving a Toyota corolla, reach down to the seat next to him and pull up an iPhone 4 and take a call in the middle of that traffic. There were all kinds of examples of technology crashing into what seemed to be completely rural life. Some women were walking around in conservative clothing, but with huge glam sunglasses, alongside women in the burkha, completely shrouded from head to foot.
We made it back to the base, and a look back to the south showed how far we’d gone. I feel like an idiot for thinking that a 2-hour trip into the city is a big deal compared to the work that my little brother is doing, but it was still a great experience.