The first day

The de-icing vehicles roll out of the darkness and begin spraying the plane’s frozen wings. With their ultra-bright headlights, they look like alien ships attacking in the night. It’s been two hours since the plane pulled out of the gate, and the passengers, now waylayed for nearly three hours total, appear ready commence a hijacking. As the plane ascends into the sky over Dulles airport, I wrap myself in a blanket and swallow a sleeping pill. Lights out.

Lights on. I check the flight map and look out the window. Below, the lights of some city in southern Iraq quickly give way to the darkness of the Persian Gulf.

*

Dubai does indeed dazzle like Las Vegas, and Dubai International Airport is every bit the “Mall of Arabia.” After checking in with Safi Airways, I go to the women’s washroom and shower. I didn’t bring a towel, so I use my shirt and put on a new one. Then, I got to my boarding gate. For the first time in two years, I drink coffee. 20 minutes to go.

I pull out my laptop and hastily email my loved ones, assuring them I’m ok. Time to go. With a bleary-eyed collection of foreigners –crunchier aidworker types, slickly-dressed consultants, and a few men who give off a very creepy security contractor vibe– and chatty Afghans, I board the Safi Airlines shuttle bus. Two American toddlers begin singing ‘Old MacDonald’s Farm.’

My hands shake from a mixture of caffeine and nerves. The engines roar, and the landing gear retracts. Dubai becomes a bright blot below the clouds and then disappears. I think about all the people who helped me get this far –how much I love them, how much I owe them. MGMT’s ‘Kids’ plays on my ipod. The memories fade/Like looking through a fogged mirror/Decision to decisions are made/And not bought/But I thought this wouldn’t hurt a lot/I guess not.

*

Just before dawn, when the moon is still high, I see the mountains. They appear first as ribbons of white against a shade of blue just darker than the sky. As the sky pales, the valleys come into view, plunging downward, seemingly forever. People live in those valleys, but there are no lights. Kabul comes into view, a soup of lights in a dark bowl. “You will see Kabul on your left,” the pilot says, “Welcome to Afghanistan.”

A familiar smell greets me as I disembark into the cold morning air. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s tangy and mechanical. Butmir Airport in Sarajevo had the same smell.

In the shuttle bus, I sit next to another expat woman. I make small talk and fuss with my hijab. She can tell I’m a first-timer.

Before I can collect my bags from the carousel, an airport worker grabs them and heaves them onto a trolley. No, no, I can take those, I tell him. It’s ok, he says, and begins pushing the trolley into the arrivals hall at a mad pace. Not knowing what I’m supposed to do, I just follow him. As we leave the terminal, I see drivers waiting for passengers from my flight. One holds a sign that says “Blackwater.”

The airport worker asks me if I speak Dari. Not really, I say, just a few phrases. He laughs as I recite them, and I laugh too. “Germany?” he asks me.

“No, United States.”

“United States good!”

I chuckle. “Sometimes it is.”

“Afghanistan good?”

“Yes,” I say, looking around me, amazed I’ve made it. “Afghanistan good.”

We hurry through parkinglots A and B. Men and children are everywhere, huddled together talking, selling food, and crouching in shawls to conserve heat in the early morning cold.

My colleague S stands out in the crowd. His shirt is incredibly shiny. I wave to him and he waves back. We’re off for the office. I ask S to explain my surroundings. He obliges. This is airport road, this is the biggest wedding hall in Afghanistan, these are ANP, these are UN people, these are new apartments.

Whump. We’re rear-ended at a checkpoint. “Kabul traffic is every day crazy,” S chuckles after he makes sure the car is ok. The passengers in the car behind us, members of a young family, are laughing.

The car pulls up to the office. A man in a leather jacket and a woman wearing a pulled-back burqa are standing at the gate. S and the man haul my suitcases inside. S takes his shoes off and I start unlacing my boots. He protests, saying I don’t have to. I do anyway.

I’m shown to my office. It’s cozy and toasty. A little too toasty. One of the wood-fired bukharis I’ve been warned about is smoking up the place. But that’s not enough for my officemates, apparently. There’s an electric heater set to high blazing away as well. Because I’m the only one in the office so far, I shut off the electric heater and open a window.

My colleagues start arriving. I meet J and A, fellow researchers, and M, the grandmotherly cook, now minus burqa. M brings me tea and I sit down to call David on Skype.

*
It’s hard for single women in Afghanistan, researcher JP tells me. She’s from Ghazni; her entire family moved to Kabul when she was accepted to university because it’s not socially acceptable –or safe– for single female college students to live alone or with other students.

When I get up for tea, I bring a cup back for JP. Oh no, don’t do that, she says, I should be bringing you tea!

Absolutely not, I tell her. We’re colleagues, and you’re my superior in this organization.

*
S takes me to my guesthouse. Like most houses in Kabul, it doesn’t have an number and street address, just a location description.

The house was probably built in the 1960s, in Kabul’s heyday. It is in a sad state of disrepair, but probably improved from what it was like a few years ago. I walk around the yard and imagine myself sitting outside, drinking tea and letting the sun shine on my face.

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