A Short But Surreal ‘Journey’ to Afghanistan.

Preface to the post:

  1. I am not a travel blogger, so this is not meant to be a “travel blog” at all. It’s meant to be a mental health “story”, but I need to provide some details of this trip to tell the overall story. So, if someone reads this and has questions about the ‘finer’ details of the travels, feel free to message me (about the means of travel, guesthouses, sites, history, where we ate, some of which can be Googled too, etc), and I would be more than happy to help introduce and connect you to the amazing people who made this happen. But, once again – this is meant to be a story of something else.
  2. I am also not going to split this into multiple stories, so if you get tired of reading, then really, just stop reading. It’s long, and it will feel like completely unedited verbal diarrhea — a mind crap – but I wanted to get this onto paper as organically and quickly as possible, so it would retain its detail and truth as I remember it most clearly.
  3. There isn’t much of a conclusion to this ‘story’, but in its absolute importance, I just want to highlight that Afghanistan is a pretty special place, and completely misunderstood. Yes, some crazy shit happened, but I honestly hope that nothing I write deters anyone from going, because at the end of the day, the country deserves its right to show the world that it is something far more than what media sources portray, and their people deserve to be heard. 
  4. I tried hard to listen and learn as much as possible, but if I got facts wrong, I am very sorry to those who tried to teach me in the first place. I am somewhat still very unfocused, but I am trying my best. 
  5. Finally, pictures are on Instagram and Facebook – this is just the written word. 

So, that all being said, I just returned from travelling around what parts of Afghanistan I could.

The Mental Health Part

In ways to ‘some’ with their ‘opinions’, the whole trip may have been considered ‘crazy’, and a bit of a ridiculous mid-life crisis. One of my psychiatrists went as far as to say that it sounded like a “suicide mission” in my last appointment before I left, because to most of the world, Afghanistan is only portrayed one way. But, the country is so, so much more than the negative headlines and conflict (more to come). Also, people do travel to Afghanistan, but perhaps not when they are coming off a suicidal bender (still, more to come).

Anyways, as most of you are all well aware, for the past few years, I went on a continuous downward spiral with my mental health issues. It was a spiral that led me to look at death square in the face, and really just let go and give upI wanted to die. A few months back, in December, I was drowning. It was bleak, and 98 percent of the people in my life didn’t even know remotely how bad it was, and how much of a plan was in place every single day. It was at some points even worse than those moments leading up to my suicide attempts in 2016, 2018 – i.e. the day when I overdosed into what Jon remembers as the worst day of his life (and refused for some time to tell me, his family, my family about the trauma he experienced), or even the day I slit my wrist. I expressed to my one psychiatrist that a few years had passed, and I felt actually substantially worse than when I was first diagnosed. I was completely deteriorating – in mind, body, and spirit. Medicine, various mind therapies, everyone’s fucking ‘opinion’, and the occasional self-help book ‘stabilized me’, but for only short spurts at a time. I do not want to say, at this point, that I am treatment resistant, but nothing has been enough to “wake me up”, and give me the complete will to start over and survive (I guess, more needs to be said below before the story becomes done).

Pain and sadness became habitual, and in many ways, I felt for a period that I had already died, and my body was operating on some sort of robotic “auto-mode”, separate and apart from any real feelings and emotions. I completely believed that I had no place on this earth, and that I could never actually contribute to the well being of anything or anyone going forward. I felt completely detached from nearly all my relationships and anything that used to comprise my social well-being (unfortunately – still do). I didn’t want to talk to any of my friends and family at all (unfortunately – still don’t). I completely lost my lust for life, for the things I love –reading a good book, experiencing new types of food, learning a new skill that I could actually be good at, meaningful volunteer work, being motivated and ambitious, and worst of all, being outdoors and travelling. I became less and less afraid of dying. I just did not want to live anymore, and I could actually say those words out loud – like a mantra – as if they were the only motivating words I had left to do something.

Anyways, trying to cut to the chase, I had my usual “entering-into-a-new-year” hypomania / mania, and amidst 500 other ideas (getting the fuck out of Toronto first and foremost, leaving the Corporate job; laughably at one point, thinking about going back to school again, or volunteering somewhere away for an extended period of time), I decided I wanted to get the hell out of Toronto on my own just for a much shorter period, and go somewhere I had eyed and read about for a considerable time – that being Afghanistan.  And,I didn’t just pull the idea of Afghanistan out of nowhere, out of my ass. I truthfully wanted to make it a mental health journey, to discover what motivated the Afghans’ resilience, strength and desire for survival, amidst all that pain and suffering. It was not a trip to fuck around (I took unpaid time off); I needed to build perspective. Home was (and still is) not going to give me perspective. I don’t actually ever think it will. And, that is something I need to think about again, with a lot of difficulty.

Call it fucked up – whatever you want, like all the judging expressions I received from my two psychiatrists (if you remember, I have one for pills, one for therapy) – but for me, the only way I thought I could attempt to one day learn mental strength is through trying to understand people who have experienced real horrific trauma and suffering, and see for myself how they have learned to apply and move on from those situations – to make life better for themselves no matter what happens to them. I needed to talk to people who went through so much, and came out stronger. I needed spiritual guidance that nobody at home could give me – literally, talking to most people at home made me feel worse, especially as every time I saw a friend, it was usually for him/her to tell me that they were having a kid (literally, that’s all people message me in regards to these days). I would want to leave the situation head-spinning every time because I could not handle being hundred steps behind everyone in my life. They are thinking about diapers and names -> I am thinking about drowning myself in our tub.

Jon was supportive, but I think he has been so skittish about me overdosing again, and talking about death so freely and so often, that I could understand why he would be. The doctors questioned it like a parent of course, with all the “you are not thinking right” facial expressions and lecturing statements. They really thought I wanted to go and put myself in danger for all the wrong reasons – one particularly thought I was being manic, and actually wanted to up my prescription (as if I were not on enough already). I guess the way I thought about it was that I had an equal chance of running into a risky situation anywhere else. I mean, last year, some tourists in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, a pretty well-travelled “and considerably safe” destination, were found murdered. I know it is not the same, but in some ways, I really do actually believe that the right or wrong things happen because you just happen to be in the right or wrong place, and you have not taken the right precautions. It is not like I was casually walking into an actual live war combat zone at the battle lines to take a selfie. I was not going to Syria. I was not going to Venezuela (though in reading about both too, they CAN be done with the same safety and precaution with people who know the country, but those are long arguments I will have to have with Jon on another day, at another time). Yes, Afghanistan had its risks (Taliban occupation at 55 percent still;  but reduced some), but it was also a place where risks could be mitigated with safety precautions. So, the point of this all to say, I decided upon Afghanistan, and that was that. I was also motivated by the fact that the trip was going to take place during Nowruz – Persian New Year, and I knew I was going to experience something so culturally immersive and special, above and beyond going to Afghanistan itself.

A few weeks in a place is never really a long time. Every single day, I felt like punching myself in the face because it was actually that surreal – I was in Afghanistan, and at the risk of coming off sounding fourteen (I am going to say it anyways), “it was just fucking amazing”. But in many ways, I think that I experienced enough of the country to really fall in love with it, its people, and its core, to really, really want to go back one day. I mean, the country has 34 provinces, and really only 6 are accessible to tourists, so I have to go back, as the country hopefully continues to progress and open up even more. Also, I’m going to tell a story about these lakes that I did not quite see (in a bout of insanity), so I need to go back at least for those damn lakes (more on that later).

Afghanistan is villainized and portrayed in the media and headlines in such a harsh way, because of a history and a still very current reality that the country cannot run away from.  I mean, its people cannot run away from their own safety and socio-political issues. But, at the core of it, and what I took away from the albeit short period there, is that the people I met have the same underlying motivations as I used to have, and maybe I can immerse myself into again (you know, me and my privilege; yes, I feel guilty about being so privileged, and yet wanting to die at the same time) – the need to survive, the need to find purpose, the need to love and be loved, and the hardest one for me yet – the need to find happiness no matter what. These people went through hell and back, but they did everything they could to survive, and feel happiness again. And hell, that’s resilience 101.

I wrote this little bit on the longer-haul plane ride heading home (for an IG post), and I have to re-iterate it again before I can even begin to describe the places I saw, and more importantly, the people I met because it describes every rush, feeling and warmth I felt from this experience….an experience that (at the very least) woke me up after I felt so completely dead for the last few years.

I cannot even begin to process this incredibly surreal bit in my life – being in Afghanistan. I went in so curious though a bit nervous and scared, but I left today completely in love with a country and culture that’s so misunderstood and fraught with misconceptions. However above it all, through all the conflict, history, harsh and uncertain political realities, the people are just trying to live and be happy, learn, progress, fall in love and survive like the rest of the world. Afghanistan is stunning – with its various colourful ethnicities; kind, friendly and open people; beautiful historical architecture; nuanced spiritual culture; delicious food; and bountiful geo-landscapes that would make your jaw drop twice over. I saw little kite runners on roofs that made my heart leap in the same way when I read Khaled Hosseini’s book for the first time.

Admittedly, I went on a mental health journey to understand the Afghans’ absolute resilience and strength through their unbelievable struggles. Some of the stories I heard made me sob when I had time alone to myself to try and process them. But some of the stories gave me hope – especially those of young girls being educated, having the chance to have a ‘voice’ and bring change to a country that is still in many ways, many steps backwards (a position I resonate with so badly). For the first time in a few years now, I felt life in myself again. I felt like it didn’t matter what was going on at home – everything that made me suicidal and depressed on and off for years now – it didn’t matter. Ironic that I’d have to go to Afghanistan to open my eyes. Am I healed – no, but I got so much perspective through being here and just talking to people other than doctors at home. I did not want to leave today. I did not want to go home but hope so very much that I will be back soon.

So, now that all my mental verbal diarrhea is out the window, let’s tell the –>

Actual Story

Okay, now getting to the actual travels. I booked the trip pretty last-minute in January (I was the last to sign-up) through a Canadian community grassroots initiative – Inertia Network, who in turn coordinated with the local operator on ground – Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan (Google, Facebook, Instagram them, etc, etc – cannot recommend them enough). I was at a little bit of a crossroads deciding whether I wanted an immersive ‘community-building’ experience (i.e. jump into a volunteer project – but this kind of needed more time), and to simply just travel through a country, and Inertia really provided a cross of both in terms of off-the-beaten-track real human and cultural interaction.

It’s funny because when I was getting my Afghan visa, the officer at the Canadian consulate who looked through my application did not have much to say to me except that “it’s cold in the country at this time of year”, AND –> “would I not rather go to the Bahamas”? My eyes kind of shot up really wide awkwardly, because I think the promotion of tourism into a country should really be advocated by their own people (no matter where they are otherwise in the world), but maybe he wanted to test out if I really wanted to goMaybe he thought I was a mole. 

The whole trip – all in all, despite some crazy circumstances because, well, it is Afghanistan, a developing country, etc. etc – ran pretty smoothly, especially from a safety and security standpoint. There were five of us, plus two expedition leaders (Matt from Inertia, Nicole – an independent who works with Inertia), and local guys on ground (our Afghan temp fathers / brothers) who kept us going, in the know about everything Afghanistan, and made us feel really safe everyday – Noor and Sakhi. I don’t know what happened, but the time just disappeared. I became so consumed with seeing as much as possible, and the group really helped me come out of my shell and just learn. I laughed every day harder than I had in years. I literally laughed until I was choking sometimes, and I feel at points that I forgot how to cry. I feel a sense of fondness just writing about how great it was (this feeling of community and family depth), and I feel a slight emptiness sitting here thinking about how I am not sitting around a table with all these people laughing over our everyday stories anymore. We were a community and family, and in many ways, this is how I feel all travelling should be like. I was always afraid and apprehensive of group travel because of my social anxieties and fear of people in general, but this was a really, really great experience for me to come out of my shell and just try to open up as a vulnerable human being.

Kabul

Right before I left, I got pretty antibiotic worthy sick, and I think that kind of eased what would have been really bad anxiety, or even worse, a panic attack. So, arriving into Kabul was a bit of a blur for me as all I could do was try to shake off cold sweat from my armpits, try to adjust to wearing a headscarf without it falling off, and focus on getting out of the airport to the friends and family area to find Noor, or someone holding a board with some semblance of my name on it (i.e. I think fondly back to I believe Tajikistan where “Mr. Robyn” was my greeting). I whipped through passport control – it took all of five minutes, and my luggage was waiting for me already. The friends and family area was about 300 to 400 metres to the left of the international terminal exit through a gated fence. It was not intimidating. All I saw were families, and a bunch of taxi drivers and luggage guys, similar to any other airport really. I found Noor within a minute, and he whisked me into a taxi that drove us to our actual car that would take us to the guesthouse.

Kabul is a city set amongst these really dramatic, misty mountains. From certain view points, you can see stacks and stacks of colourful houses piled up the hills. I felt differently about the city at different points in time. At the beginning of the trip, there was a subtle quietness to the city, but behind that quietness, there was this apprehensive tension and intensity, and perhaps a bit of underlying sadness due to, of course, the circumstances to which this city has gone through. Everywhere you look, there is barbed wire, armed guards and police. Everywhere you look, there are a lot of men – some look Asian, and others look Middle-Eastern, while others look kind of like a mish-mash of Soviet-European-Central Asian (my actual description to Jon at home was “white”). There were a few pockets of women here and there scurrying about, but it’s definitely a man’s world here. And this is where I was introduced (at least to the term because I knew the culture existed) to the “purda” system – the idea of keeping women in seclusion (“with a wall around them”), with clothing that conceals them completely when they go out. Throughout the trip, I would see women quite frequently in chadris (the term used in Afghanistan) / burqas (term used elsewhere) – these cloaks which completely shielded their faces, and bodies for the most part. But, I’ll get to this more later when I actually decided to try wearing one for myself.

Anyways, by the end of the trip, the tension began to ease away, and it just felt like another bustling and very dusty developing city with horrendous traffic (and lack of traffic rules) really. We discussed it as a group, and decided it was one of those things where if you are in a place long enough “you just get used to it”. I would later hear stories of people feeling like they are “used to explosions and seeing dead bodies”. It’s just a really sad reality – but as I alluded to in the beginning, I guess I needed to hear these stories and how people came to adapt with this reality. With every new ‘dead body’ that they saw and ‘got used to’, they became stronger, more resilient, and able to move on. But, this was not to say that there was no respect or mourning for the dead and for their own suffering. They suffered, but they used that suffering to motivate themselves to build a better life for themselves and for their generations to come.

We stayed at a compound guesthouse in what felt like a quieter part of the city (note: we stayed for the most part in compound guesthouses the whole trip). It was completely fenced in with barbed wire, and located behind a non-descript grey gate with armed guards. It was a pretty big property, and so at first (and because I was still feverish), it felt like a huge maze. The guys who ran the guesthouse were all really nice though – attentive and friendly. Because we stayed there at the beginning and end of the trip – full circle – it felt like Afghan home. I’ll always remember it as the place that introduced me to chillis in omelettes, carrot jam (which I am now in love with), and what I felt was the best bread throughout the trip (and we had a lot of non bread).

After getting acquainted with my new travelling partners, and sorting out the admin – exchanging money, getting SIM cards, getting into “local” clothing (i.e. for me, this really conservative gypsy-looking dress I ended up wearing for a good portion of the trip), Noor took us out to the city. Kabul was technically the most dangerous place we would be for the duration of the trip. The rule of thumb was never to stay in one place for more than 20 minutes, and never go to the same place often. Matt also warned us to stagger our social media posting. I ended up not posting on social media until I left the country completely, and it actually felt a bit liberating. I go on and off with social media anyhow back at home – Facebook of which irritates me the most at times. Ironically enough, Facebook was the most popular social media platform in Afghanistan, so after my 6-month hiatus, I re-activated it, so I could connect with some new friends I made along the travels.

The first place we visited was a hilltop with a panoramic view of Kabul. The hilltop had some pretty park landscapes, and a tall, looming Afghanistan flag. From one area of the viewpoint, you could see more gorgeous mountain views. On the other side, you could see more clearly, rooftops. And this is where I saw, for the first time, kite runners. I loved all of Khaled Hosseini’s books – The Kite Runner of course being the highlight (A Thousand Splendid Suns being my favourite), so I was mesmerized. I was so mesmerized that I forgot to take photos. And maybe that’s all it should be, a floating memory in my mind. But, if I could describe it, it was just magical to watch the kites floating around really lightly and colorfully across rooftops. Later on in the trip, Noor would tell us that for little Afghani kids, a paper kite means everything. It’s like a part of their soul, especially where they may not have much otherwise. We did end up going to a kite shop in Kabul on the last day, and I did buy one. But, the paper material was so incredibly fragile that I knew I was going to screw it up some how on the way home. So, in spirit of the kite “meaning everything” to a child, I gifted it to Noor for his son.

As we did throughout the trip, we started to attract the attention of locals wanting to take photos with us (there were lots of children actually with SLRs) and just talk. This would always worry Noor because he was of the view that for every 100 good people, there might be one bad person (who might say something about us to the ‘wrong people’), so in these situations, we would be hushed and scurried back to the car. Throughout the trip, we would always keep in mind that we should not necessarily trust who we chat with, especially in Kabul.

Before heading back to the hotel, we went to Chicken Street – the handicraft street. There was something definitely creepy about walking along this street, and the way eyes seemed to focus and hone into us. There were a lot of beggar children as well, who spoke in silent whispers, and for me, were a little haunting. Beggar children were nothing new to me as they are, in yes, a very sad way, a normal course of what you will encounter when you travel in developing countries. However, the silent whispers here gave me goosebumps. I don’t know if it was our newness to this city in general (the likely answer), the culmination of the stares, the cloudy day, or something about the quietness of the street (even though it probably wasn’t all that quiet), but the intensity I described kept on amplifying. None of us ended up buying anything because I think we were all overwhelmed. When asking one beggar child to kindly move aside, Noor accidentally tripped over her, and she started screaming. The stares intensified, so we shuffled back to the car as quickly as possible. That being said, I emphasize and hope this does not put anyone off from visiting Kabul; it was an isolated incident. I wonder if the mentality or feeling might have changed if we had visited here at the end of the trip versus at the beginning. By the end of the trip, Kabul just felt like any big city and I actually wish that I had a chance to walk around it more freely.

At the end of the day, I do really want to emphasize that I never once felt truly “unsafe” throughout the entire trip. Noor, Sakhi and Noor’s other guys (including his little brother Madhi) always made us feel truly protected (like we were their own family – wives, kids, mothers), and whenever a “situation” came up, it felt like a whole bunch of things may have happened in the background that may have been a “situation”, but for all I know, it was just commotion and hearsay. I truthfully felt as safe in Afghanistan as I have felt safe in any other developing country that I have been to in the past (hell, even moreso than walking through Regent Park sometimes in Toronto), and I would not stop anyone from going if they so had the desire to visit. But, once again, I caveat that you should travel with someone like Noor (contact Noor if you must go) who knows the country well, listen to what you are told, and be cautious of your surroundings.

Panjshir Valley and Bamyan

Google was always wrong in quoting drive times, so for the next little while, we sat through some long, but beautiful overland drives (some part of the plan, some because Plan B / C had to be put into effect). I do not actually mind overland drives, because it is the best way to see a country, and all its little intricate holes and spots. The drive to Panjshir Valley (where we visited the Mausoleum of Massoud –a key figure in the resistance against the Taliban) was absolutely stunning. Anyone who knows me knows I love mountains, I wish I had mountains in my backyard, and I really do not know why I would live somewhere like Toronto which has remotely no access to anything beyond a man-made ski hill which I can literally tumble down. Anyways, the drive to Panjshir valley (and many drives to come) consisted of the most gorgeous mountain ranges (some red and dusty, while other snow-capped), small hill-top villages, wheat crop paddy fields, turquoise streams, and every so often, a scattering of children innocently playing in some open field. Noor told us that in spring and summer, there would be an abundance of fruit trees in bloom, and in some places, flower valleys, and I can only imagine how beautiful that would be.

As-is, the imagery was just fairy-tale like already, and it’s one of those things where you have to see it for yourself to believe it. I can try to describe it, or try to show you a picture, but you will never it experience it in the same way until you go there for yourself (so….go). And so, because of what I saw along these drives, I could never imagine Afghanistan in complete war-torn rubble. All I saw was ethereal beauty, and I got lost in what I saw. All I could feel was the wind moving in and around me, and for a lot of the trip, time just stopped for me…and I just stopped thinking. And for me, that’s really hard to do, because all I do is over-analyze everything. My mind never stops thinking, and ruminating about negative things mostly. But, put me in front of what I just described, and my mind just stops. And this, among other things, was really indeed, far more powerful than any therapy or support group session that I have been through in the past few years, or the fabricated effects of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. Travel changes you. It really does.

We were originally supposed to fly to Bamyan province, but our flight got cancelled. So, Plan B was kicked into effect and we headed on a long overland drive north-west. Sakhi went ahead first to advise on the safety of the route, and we followed soon after. Similar to our drive through Panjshir Valley, the drive up to Bamyan was equally as beautiful. The province is nestled in the beauty of majestic mountains. I am not sure how much the atmosphere changes with the shift of seasons, but the winter season actually intensified the beauty of this area for me. I am not sure actually if I would have loved it as much without the snow, or the lack of leaves on trees. Everywhere I looked, I saw wispy, haunting-looking forests rife with willowy white trees; this, set against the inter-mix again of reddish or snow-capped mountains. Once again, I never felt unsafe, but there was certain messaging that made you feel cautious slightly inside – i.e. it was not always safe to stop for washroom or picture breaks. So, I took as many photos as I could possible within the confines of the vehicle, and others did the same. We held our pee, and we did okay.

Bamyan city gave off a completely different vibe from Kabul. The people appeared less cautious to start conversations if they knew English, they smiled at you, and the tension that we felt in Kabul was almost non-existent. I also felt like I saw more women on the streets even. The predominant ethnic group within this area are the Hazara (to note: Noor and Sakhi are both of Hazara ethnicity).  The Hazara look a bit more Asian (and so I almost subsequently blended in, though the girls have these really hypnotic looking almond-shaped eyes, some green and blue even), and as I learned throughout the rest of the trip, they were predominantly and tragically the ones persecuted the most during the war. I remember one mind-numbing story of how one warlord governor announced on the radio that “if you kill a Hazara, you will go to heaven”. And honestly, to hear this as a child or parent (or really anyone of that ethnicity), I cannot even imagine the overwhelming shock to the psyche, and what your “fight or flight” mentality becomes. “Fight or flight” appears to be a common buzz phrase in the psychiatrist’s office,  and well, this is  “fight or flight” at its extreme.

Going into the trip, I was of the mentality that I “wanted to learn what I didn’t know”, and I didn’t know much about the different ethnicities of Afghanistan and the various motivations and players behind the civil war. I am by no means an expert now (and I apologize to my newfound Afghan friends if I remember some of the details wrong still), but I was so happy to learn and intake as much information as I possibly could to understand more than what I have read on headlines and stories primarily from North American news sources in the past few decades. There are so many complicated nuances to the Afghan history and political strife, and it goes so much more beyond than just the Taliban, religious ideals, suicide bombings, 9/11, and the American occupation. I could have sat there for weeks or months just listening to stories that give you the actual picture of what happened and why, and you can only get that through the people who have actually experienced it and their mental and physical hardships.  Noor and Sakhi both have these complicated, tragic stories that literally eviscerate you inside when you hear them. Their stories are not my stories to tell, and I will not tell them, but at a high-level, they essentially fought for their lives to survive, and have done nothing since the war started to keep on surviving and making better lives for themselves and for their families. They are the definition of strength and resilience, and hearing those types of stories of ‘mental resilience’ were what I needed for perspective. I hope I never have to go through what they have gone through, but I can only hope that I can adopt their mental resilience one day.  They are literally the two kindest and patient men you could meet. But, more on this later.

Anyways, back to Bamyan and the Hazara. Hazara people are the most statistically educated group within Afghanistan, and from what I understand, are the most likely to encourage females and children in general to pursue education. I think this is so important for progress, and in a country that is still so many steps backwards because of such a long war –> education and progress is key. Throughout the trip, we very much got the sense that children who grew up during the war adopted an almost “I-need-to-fight” defense mechanism. People my age still were skeptical and mistrusting because everything had been taken away from them. They had to fight for their lives every day. Truthfully, I think that I would very much be the same if I grew up in that type of environment. And so, even though there’s very much a feeling of sadness and tragedy lingering in the country still (and well of course, the Taliban is still in occupation in many parts), I sensed small pockets of hope, especially for young females, determined to learn, make a life for themselves, and maybe one day leave [complete side note – if you have not read the story of the Afghani girls robotics team who were almost denied visas into the US to compete in a robotics competition, go find it immediately; truly awe-inspiring story]. That being said, generational change still has some way to go. I mean, it was really hard not to watch all these little boys do nothing but fight, and literally kick each other in the balls and throw rocks at each other. Everywhere we went, little boys fought and beat each other up.

But, I detract again – back to Bamyan. Bamyan itself was an extraordinary place to visit, and given there are so few places for tourists to access easily, I am so glad that Bamyan was one of those places I could see (at least in this trip – not an idle promise, but I fully intend to go back, and drag Jon with me this next time). We went to a few places, all of which were incomprehensible in their own way.

  • Buddhas of Bamyan– the area reminded me a bit of places I saw in Jordan, India and Myanmar (the world is really very connected). The statues themselves were tragically bombed in 2001 by the Taliban, but we got to see the remnants of the statues, and where they used to be. More fascinating (and less tragic) was the idea of people living historically in and amongst cave-like structures amidst the mountains – in cave communities and cities. Later onwards, we would drive by smaller villages that built their houses in amongst the mountains, and looked like smaller versions of Bamiyan Valley; while Noor explained that these villages still lived in an “olden way” and were resistant to change, they still evoked a certain sense of magic to me. To me, these were just countryside people who didn’t want to conform to city ideals and standards.
    • We climbed different areas of the mountains, and saw remainders of wall paintings, which I believe are undergoing restoration through efforts organized by UNESCO. We were the only tourists around, so it was like the whole area was ours. For many of the sites we visited, this was happily (for us) and sadly (for the country and tourist infrastructure) at the same time, very much the same situation.
    • We also hiked to see a smaller Buddha cave structure, which was also destroyed.
  • Shar-E Ghogola– City of Screams – these were ruins of a 13th century city conquered by Genghis Khan. These ruins are basically a photographers’ dream. There were all these little peepholes and crevices that you could crawl in and out of, remains of towers to dangle out of, and viewpoints of the valley, and caves from afar that took your breath away. This was one of my favourite places that we visited. Once again, the entire ruins were all ours to explore.
  • Viewpoint overlooking Bamyan City– We were supposed to visit Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s first national park our second day in Bamyan. However, it snowed quite a bit, and park security turned us back. We did end up going (the story continues below), but in the morning, Noor took us to this mind-blowing viewpoint overlooking Bamyan City. The viewpoint provided a 360 degree view of the Hindu Kush mountains, and for a split second, it was one of those hikes, where you felt like you had trekked for seven days to reach the most amazing summit (I think we only hiked for about an hour round-trip). I love hiking, so this was a nice addition to the trip, though I fully did not expect to wear a skirt to hike up snowy paths. But, it was just so nice to enjoy the quiet stillness at the very top for a little while, and just appreciate the surreal idea of being in Afghanistan’s natural beauty….the surreal idea of just being in Afghanistan. I cannot repeat this point enough.

Band-E Amir

So, admittedly, my eye first drew to the idea of visiting Afghanistan because of 1) seeing Afghanistan for the first time (via the Wakhan corridor) from across the border in Tajikistan, but not actually crossing the border (a conversation I never had the courage to raise with Jon at that time)  2) pictures I saw of six turquoise lakes belonging to Band-e Amir, and 3) the need for the mental health journey for all the reasons I already mentioned. Honing in on 2), anyone who knows me knows I love mountains, but anyone who really knows me knows I am drop-dead in love with lakes, particularly turquoise, high-altitude glacier lakes (not Lake Ontario). Lakes are literally my travel crack. I cannot get enough of sitting in front of a glacier lake for a really long time, and just losing focus, losing myself, and letting go completely. Literally, my ideal day would be to sit in front of a glacial lake for 8 hours, and do nothing but stare at it as light reflects across it in different ways as the day progresses (like a real-life time lapse). I am serious.

I have to say that when we were told to turn back from Band-e Amir I was really disappointed. And, for some reason, I could not put two-and-two together in my mind at the time that in the winter, turquoise lakes freeze over like all lakes, and are not quite turquoise anymore. But, excitement filled me completely when Noor and Sakhi pulled all stops to get us back into that park after we went on the hikes in the morning. The roads were still pretty snowy despite being plowed, but park guards let us through this time. The car got us there part-way, but at one point, because the roads were so hilly, Sakhi decided that he needed to reverse and turn back because he did not have the right vehicle to ensure that we would not be stuck part way. So, we got out and decided to walk ‘the rest of the way’. We determined through Google Maps that the lakes could be reached after 5 km (not quite true, as the rest of the story will determine that it was probably 10 km+). It was a long walk with spectacular views. Nicole described the park as canyon-like with pink/red, dusty tinges in the summer; and of course with the turquoise lakes. In the winter, all you could see was miles and miles of snow, expansive canyons covered in snow, and snow-capped mountains. And I mean, I just came from a stupid winter in Toronto, and was a bit tired of snow, but this was something else. I wanted to see this snowy scenery. It was out of this world.

Part-way through the walk, I was walking somewhat near Matt, and he stopped to take pictures. I continued walking. I continued walking for a while. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I kind of parallel the situation to someone walking in a desert for a while, and experiencing a mirage of an oasis. I kept on hearing shuffling behind me (it was my coat in the wind), so I kept on assuming that everyone was still behind me. I looked back once in a while, and I could see still the group from a distance. They had all stopped with Matt at a viewpoint. After a while, I don’t know why, but I stopped looking back, and reassured myself with the shuffling that they were still somewhat behind. I don’t want to say that I was stupid (and I had taken my pills every day before), but something inside me lost it, and I just really wanted to get to the lakes. In my head, I was envisioning the lakes I saw in pictures, and I just really wanted to get there quickly. So, I kept on walking, without remembering really that I was in Afghanistan, with nothing but snow around me, and only maybe about 1.5 hour of sunlight left to go. I completely lost focus, and I think after a while, I want to say that maybe I was a bit delusional because I don’t even remember spots of this afternoon all that clearly.

All I could think about were the lakes, and I started to feel anxiety, and at one point I was sprinting….in a dress, in snow, in a lot of uphill. I probably at one point felt like blacking out, but I felt all these feelings of uncontrollable sensations. I have to say it – but I think I was actually a bit delusional. So, I had been sprinting for a while like I am doing the marathon again, and then all of a sudden I see buildings, and a horseman comes towards me. He, of course does not speak English. I try to make motions of a lake and swimming, and he points me in the direction of continuing along the same path. So, I continue running. It’s so funny, because at one point, I reach the top of this hill, and I finally see those lakes. And from a distance, I can see that they are frozen over, and shimmering kind of black under the last bit of sunlight in the day. Anyways, I feel a sinking feeling at this point, and perhaps my mind kind of kicks back into reality. Ironically enough, the horseman catches back up to me at this point, and calls for me. He screams “no”, pointing to the lakes. He motions me onto the horse. I feel all these feelings of guilt, stupidity, craziness, and fear for what I have done for myself, to Noor and to the group. I don’t want to be “that person”, but I have become “that person” that caused risk and fear for the group in Afghanistan.

At some point, we connect back with Noor, who catches up. He’s visibly frustrated with me, which I can fully understand. I fucked up. I can do nothing but apologize at this point, and walk as fast as I can in the direction we came from. At some point, we are walking in the dark, and I cannot stop apologizing. I don’t know how to explain to Noor my “rush of crazy”, and so all I know how to say repeatedly is “sorry”, and to hide my tears, as I am trying my best not to blubber in front of a man whose tragic story of suffering I respect so damn much. We eventually connect with an all-terrain vehicle that Noor has arranged to bring us out of the park, and we finally reach Sakhi and the others. I think we have been walking for two hours in the dark at this point in time. I am nothing but grateful, but everyone was truly concerned about me, and forgiving about my stupidity and craziness (Noor included). I didn’t deserve it, but I am so grateful for the kindness of this group, and the luck of the situation (i.e. anything could have happened, like blacking out in the snow, the horseman being evil, etc. etc). I obviously will need to work through this one with my doctors back at home.

Mazar-E-Sharif

Luckily enough (and it was the point of the whole plan anyhow), the trip was scheduled during Nowruz – Persian New Year, and we were privileged enough to spend New Years in Mazar-E-Sharif at the immaculate Blue Mosque. The day before New Years, we left Bamyan to catch our flight in Kabul for Mazar. Noor separated us into two local-looking cars just to avoid trouble. However, at one of the police check-points, my car was pulled aside. I am not 100 percent sure what exactly happened, but we spent some time in a police stronghold compound waiting for Noor to negotiate letting us proceed, with the police chief. After some long discussion (with tea and snacks), the police took our passports and names (there apparently was a lot of focus on and arguing around my passport – guess I do look like a mole), and finally agreed to let us go…with a condition that armed guards had to escort us back to Kabul. Noor briefed us that the police chief felt the route was unsafe; we discussed amongst ourselves and thought maybe they were bored and needed something to do.

So, at this point, we booked it for the airport, but getting through Kabul mid-day to the airport was a beast of a challenge. The police truck tried to clear the way by driving on sidewalks and steering the hell out of traffic, but our unluckiness continued, and our driver ended up hitting the side of an aggressive car who tried to cut in front of us (even though he clearly saw the police try to clear the way for us). So, Noor probably spent another 30 minutes dissuading this guy from creating issues, and subsequently talking through the situation with the police. Noor could not pay the guy off as he said this would create suspicions that we were trying to hide something.

Finally, we made it to the airport, with 15 minutes to take-off. Security in Afghanistan is insane. I do not know how many times I had to be patted down, or to have my bags / cameras deconstructed, but it was on average – a lot mostly every day during the trip – so trying to get through security knowing there was no time left was like attempting some impossible obstacle course – Tough Mudder next-level. We were basically whipping our bags into the screeners, and trying to get through the pat-downs as fast as possible. Long story short, we missed the flight, and the next available flight to Mazar was the next afternoon meaning we would miss Nowruz. So, once again, Plan B kicked into effect. Noor coordinated drivers on literally 5-seconds notice, and what was meant to be an hour flight, turned into a ten-hour crazy overland drive through the Salang Pass.

Driving through the Salang Pass was an experience – consisting of hair pins, rough and icy roads, long tunnels, and in fact one of the world’s highest and longest road tunnels built by Russians. Noor had to coordinate the contingency plan literally out of thin air, so our car was not as equipped to handle Salang Pass as the other car, containing the other half of our group. We had a more clunky van, whereas the other car was a mousey Corolla that could weave and swerve much faster (Corollas seemed to be the power car in Afghanistan). Also, both our drivers had been driving since early dawn, so they were literally both driving halfway across the country on pure adrenaline. So, Noor kept on trying to coordinate us into a smaller car, but we did not get a driver switch into much later into the night and closer to Mazar, because it was New Years, and most of his contacts wanted to stay home with their families.

Noor wanted us to get into Mazar by 10:30 because it was New Years, and he was very worried that security would be tight. I was asleep pulling up into one of the checkpoints, and my headscarf had fallen off. Janet, in my car, quickly tried to get me pulled together, but the woman officer who came to pat me down was not pleased. She pulled the scarf very roughly over my forehead, dragging my hair back, and it was probably the roughest pat-down I received the entire trip. I am pretty sure something was said about how inappropriate I was. I tried going forward in the trip to tie my headscarf as tight as possible every time I knew I was about to nod off. I think we entered Mazar and reached our guest house sometime after 11. It was an incredibly long journey, but in discussions the next day, we all decided that we wanted to experience the Salang Pass. So, all in all, the change of plans kind of worked out.

The next day, we were all well-rested and excited to experience Nowruz. Noor gave us the tagline for the day – Nowruz Mubarak– “Happy New Year’s!” – and we all walked together to the Blue Mosque in the early morning. Some parts of the city became pedestrian-only, so it was neat to experience the city without the hustle and bustle of cars. For me, I just love roaming cities, so it was nice to take a walk through Mazar and ‘experience’ it outside of the confines of a car. Our group separated into the male and female lines at the entrance. Once again, we went through a pretty extensive security pat-down. SLRs were checked for explosives – i.e. we had to hook/unhook our lenses, and take pictures to demonstrate there were no bombs hidden inside. At some point, the line become a little aggressive and women started pushing. We would later learn that a lot of people travelled far and wide from across the country to attend these ceremonies, and if they could not get in, it would be devastating. Female security officers tried to control the lines, but at some point the crowds started pushing, some girls even started fighting, and our group of four girls had to hold hands tightly to move through the next series of entrances. Earlier, I mentioned that my generation demonstrated or responded to a “fight” mentality based off of such long effects of the war. I could definitely see that today with some of the mob mentality.

Anyways, all little negative tinges aside, we got in, and the Blue Mosque was just absolutely stunning. It was ornate, spiritual, and breathtaking – with all these detailed, colourful tiles. Too bad for us, it was a cloudy day, as I have seen some photographs where the mosque is set against blue skies, and it is just indescribable. Once again, the women and men were separated into different sections. Noor worried about us girls slightly as he had to stay with the guys, but he would check in on us every so often when he could. He wanted to try to get us up on stage to watch the dignitaries speak, and see some performances up close. However, we could not get into the area for whatever reason or another, so we ended up watching the ceremony from a bit further away with all the locals. This was a great alternative. The locals of course were fascinated with most of our group (me not so much because I blended in with the Asian look; also, for the first little while, I had some social anxieties with striking up conversations). We ended up talking with the locals who could speak English, and taking a lot of selfies with them (and taking their photos (and vice versa actually), with permission). It was a nice, immersive experience. I was asked a lot:

  • Whether I was married
  • Whether I liked Afghanistan, and what I liked about it
  • What I liked to do in general
  • What I did for work
  • Where I was from, and
  • Whether we could be Facebook friends.

I kind of at that moment regretted deactivating Facebook, as it might have been nice to be pen pals with some of these girls, especially as they appeared to desire wanting to practice their English quite a bit. Generally, the girls and women were very kind, friendly and curious, and later onwards as I was thinking about it, it was hard for me to process really that any of them could be oppressed, maybe abused, or not have access to education or have some sort of voice. There was one little girl who followed me around for quite a bit. She had these piercing eyes, and I just felt like hugging her (but I didn’t want to creep her out since I was a stranger). From what we gathered from the guys afterwards, they also had a similar, positive experience interacting and socializing with locals.

The ceremony ended beautifully with a bang – literally, as guns and cannons were shot around 10 am, and helicopters circled and flew above releasing what looked like confetti. It was a marvelous spectacle to watch crowds of people cheering, smiling widely, and waving Afghani flags with patriotic pride. There were even people piled high in tree branches watching the ceremonies. From what I gathered in speaking with the local girls, the President spoke about forthcoming peace and hope for the country, and that provided momentum for those who attended the ceremony (and perhaps those who watched and heard from home). Crowds of people swarmed the flag afterwards to watch it rise, as to my understanding, an ‘easier rise’ of the flag symbolizes a good year ahead.

At this point, we noticed that the men were starting to swarm in excitement into the women’s area, literally jumping over gated fences. So, a couple of the older women took charge of us, and started to push us closer back to the entrance, nearer to where the female security guards were located. At one point, male officers started to push back the male crowds with batons, but we still felt them advancing closer. We had one blonde-haired girl in our group, and it was a bit intimidating to watch what felt like 20 or so males, in this row, taking photos of her, with maybe less than appropriate looks on their faces. We talked with our Afghani brothers later onwards, and discussed broadly that it’s hard for both men and women in such a conservative culture. There are a lot of pent-up hormones. People cannot date, and you are either single or married, and at times, arranged into a marriage where you might not necessarily love the person you are with. People ‘date’, but secretly –> one way, through messaging on Facebook, and sometimes without the knowledge of your family, until maybe it’s too late. So, getting back to the point of the story, foreigners have their allure; we kind of experienced some distastefulness because of testosterone (not so different than a meat market bar back at home), we got out of the mosque and everyone was okay.  We experienced Nowruz in Afghanistan, and for me that is truly an once-in-a-lifetime experience in a person’s life.  I would not trade it for anything, and even now, I still feel like I can hear the buzz of the ceremony, the sounds of the cannons, and remember the exhilaration of all the excited people around me.

Later that day, Noor and Sakhi took us to the bazaar, which was pretty large and expansive. It was actually a lot more organized than a lot of bazaars I have been to in other places. Big on the agenda was for us girls to get chadris, mainly for the experience. And, the chadri store was definitely an experience. There were rows and rows of shimmery dark blue material – almost indistinguishable, until you notice that each chadri has its own intricate design. You would almost think that it’s like playing Marco Polo, trying to find your wife in a crowded bazaar, but you look for the details – this is “Where’s Waldo” on crack. Noor commented that we would never technically pass off “as a local” in the chadris because of the way we walk (especially me and my awkwardness, and inability to wear it correctly despite Madhi and Sakhi fixing my head piece / eye cage repeatedly), but I wanted so very badly to know what it felt like to be cloaked. To describe it simply, it was warm, but there was a suffocating feeling about it. I felt like it would be a lot more comfortable if the headpiece was more elastic-like, allowing for more room to the head area. But, you know, I am not really a purveyor / designer of burqas. Nicole mentioned to me that she had once spoken to different women about their experience wearing chadris, and they have different views – some love it, some hate it, some just are indifferent. [Additional note: We saw some stores that had tight-fitting and kind of sexy clothing (really kind out of scope for the conservative culture), and we asked Noor where a woman would wear this. He explained that a girl would generally buy this to wear at home, for her husband’s eyes only.]

I kind of mentioned above that I had mixed feelings about chadris in general. I would never personally want to hide my face, or be somewhat indistinguishable in any place (even despite all my social anxieties, and somewhat general fear of people), but I understand that in a predominantly male culture, hiding your face lends you some sort of protection. Chadris, to my understanding, always existed, but were more so effected by the Taliban, and tend to be worn by the less educated female. I am not really ‘feminist’  but something like a chadri of course, to me, sets a women back. And so, if women back home here are fighting about “breaking the glass ceiling”, and getting paid less than a man, and raising a stink about anything and everything (because that’s what the millennial generation does, and sometimes rightly so), well –> Afghani women are honestly breaking down border walls if they are attending university, and getting into prominent positions, and making contributions to any semblance of progress. I met one girl on our flight from Herat to Kabul, and she was finishing up a dual degree in Political Science and English literature. She was incredibly well spoken and put together, and looking into her eyes and speaking to her gave me the utmost hope for Afghanistan. I know they are still coming out of a war-torn era and women / certain ethnicities are still oppressed, but so long as people are encouraged to learn and develop, I see hope. I see hope for young girls, I see hope for young children, I see hope for the next generation.

I forgot to put Buzkashi in my journal, but I think somewhere after Nowruz and the bazaar, we went to watch a Buzkashi match (i.e. Afghanistan’s national sport). I had heard about Buzkashi from our driver in Tajikistan, and so I was pretty curious to see it live. It’s really intense (horsemen try to gain possession of a sheep’s head, and bring it to this scoring area), and I kind of wish I went with Matt and the other girls to watch the horsemen more up close. However, I decided to stay back. Gael however shot a pretty epic drone video, which looks like a million dollar production, so technically, that was good enough for me to get a sense of what was happening up-close.

Once again, not a woman in sight, and because we drew crowds (I started trying to communicate with this cute little boy; not really a good idea), we were shuffled out as soon as the game was coming to a close.

Herat

Herat was the last place we flew to before returning to Kabul, and then for me, subsequently returning to Toronto (and processing everything that happened over the past few weeks). Herat is right near the border to Iran, and it excited me a lot because I am going to Iran somewhat shortly (though not shortly enough) at the end of May.

I liked Herat a lot because of the historical architecture:

  • The expansive Citadel, which I felt we went to too late, and did not have enough time to explore.
  • The interaction with tile makers (I wish in hindsight that I did buy a tile), and watching specifically their chipping and dyeing processes.
  • Towering Minarets – Gael on our trip took this incomprehensible drone video of the entire area.
  • The Friday Mosque, which I felt was even more breathtaking than the Blue Mosque, because of its expansiveness, and long hallways and lobbies.

The people here felt more conservative. The women dressed predominantly in black (in chadors), and we received a lot more intense stares again versus in Bamyan and Mazar. But once again, I never felt unsafe, and I just wish we had endless time to explore everywhere we went. I feel like our travel group was getting closer and closer now because we had spent so much time bonding together, and we were just having so much fun. For the first time in a long time, and something I had feared before leaving was how I was going to adjust to strangers with my complex social anxieties. I don’t know that I completely let my guard down (i.e. the mental health motivations never came out), but I don’t think my walls were up completely either. I laughed and I learned, and I appreciated being with people who collectively wanted to learn, appreciate the culture, and just be human and laugh about stupid things. I loved being with people who were creatives, and could spend a few hours in a mosque, photographing the smallest little, intricate details, and not ever want to leave. I loved being with people who were so in-tune with the world, and not afraid of going anywhere or trying anything (pretty much everyone there felt like they were 100+ countries well-travelled).

There are a lot of little details to this trip that I am not going to write about (like the food, though it was delicious (and I am always about the food), or even other cultural aspects, like interactions we had with these musicians – though beautiful, because I am trying not to make this entirely a brain-dump. I wanted to try and tie my perspectives of Afghanistan before and after to my own mental health journey, and the effects. I tried to make note of everything I experienced and heard, and reflect on those details alone each evening, so I would never forget any important aspect of this trip. But, for me personally, the most meaningful part of the trip was at the very tail-end when Matt conducted a Q&A interview with Noor (for this project he is doing) for his childhood story, his take on the war, the effects, and his perspective on progress in Afghanistan going forward.

Once again, it’s not my story to share. But, a few things I heard were truly impactful to me, and so I want to share two partial thoughts at least on what I heard.

  1. Do whatever you can to move on, despite how hard it is – Of course there were struggles and intense periods of hopelessness. There were years he described where the war prevented any capability of starting over, but when he could, he did what he could (i.e. start grade school over as an almost grown-up). He juggled multiple jobs to survive until he could move into something more prominent (i.e. an NGO position). People defected to other countries, learned other languages, and found ways to survive until they could go home.
  2. Mind strength and resilience exists, and at the outset of it all, you control it – When you suffer enough, you become immune to the things you see and experience (i.e. you walk over the dead bodies of people you know every day and become almost accustomed to it). What can you do? You respect what’s gone, you endure the suffering, and you go back to 1 -Move on and survive, because you are still alive. You want to be alive. You want to survive.

And I guess that’s where the difference lies. I am not sure some days that I want to live or survive, but that’s something I need to work on, and 1 and 2 are a big part of that.

Okay….I feel like I have been writing for days, but it’s literally just been two really amped-up evenings. 

In truth, I do feel like I could talk about Afghanistan for…awhile because of its impact on my current psyche, and my newfound adoration for this country on so many levels.

I want to get to 1 and 2 above because the minute I got home, I felt weak again and deflated because I knew I was coming back to my own realities of unhappiness…realities I did not want to face.  But, my realities are not war, they are my own internal battles. And, while its not apples to apples, I have to eventually figure out how I will get to a place to overcome my own realities, just like anyone else who is trying to ‘survive’. There isn’t a conclusion right now to my mental health journey; I maybe wanted to find one so badly, but I knew realistically that I could not be healed from just a few short weeks away. But, being in Afghanistan has certainly been a new eye-opening experience to different ideas of developing mental strength, courage and resilience, and overcoming suffering. I am nothing but grateful for just the ability to talk to welcoming, opening Afghanis about their stories, and listen…just listen to their brave voices because they have so much to say to the world about who they really are, and what their country really is,  and that has been meaningful in a way I cannot even describe.

If I could see the world in a different way, I would want all people suffering from mental health issues to be able to see and interact with the rest of the world (a world they don’t know), and hear stories from people and communities that provide them with different ways of internalizing and coming to terms with their own struggles and journeys. It’s perhaps an approach that’s really quite a bit (okay, not a bit, a fair amount) more powerful than seeing a psychiatrist who keeps on reassuring you that ‘your mind and thought process will change’, or numbing the pain through medicine (methods that clearly have made me deteriorate in progress). I am trying to map that one out in my head, but that’s probably me just having another manic jumble. I have these ideas all the time, but I can never get focused enough to put them into play.

Anyways, I am not really great at ending my own stories, so I feel like the only thing left I want to say is that I went in not knowing that much, but I came out with such a different perspective (something that I think only interacting with the world, and not staying in a privileged bubble of a place like Toronto, can allow you to do), and I hope with all of me, that the country will continue to open up, and one day, in the near future, I will be back. And maybe, by then, a different, more progressive and open generation will be on their way to ruling that piece of world.

Thank you Afghanistan (and Noor / Sakhi / Matt / Nicole and the group), with all of me for helping a girl on her lifelong journey. You never will actually realize how much it means.

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