After a few weeks, Kabul begins to fray my nerves. My head pounds from the pollution and the hours I have to spend in traffic every day, and playing the “what will be bombed next?” guessing game gets old quickly. So, I was relieved when I headed out into the countryside with a few friends last weekend.
We piled into an SUV and drove to a fishing village in Kapisa province, about two and a half hours from Kabul. There, we ambled atop stone walls running alongside a river. Local boys followed us on horseback and teenage girls in brightly-colored dresses watched us inquisitively while weeding fields. At one point, I pulled a Girl Scout move and carried a toddler across the shallow river and handed her to her laughing, surprised dad on the opposite shore. The little girl wore a sequined purple dress and her big green eyes were thickly lined with kohl. She grabbed my sweater in her tiny fists as I clomped and splashed across the river in knee-high rainboots I purchased with my mother in Boulder last December.
My friends and I inhaled deeply as we walked. No diesel fumes here. No sewer stench. The air was clean and smelled of the cold beginning of spring in Central Asia. One member of our party sang little English folk songs as she walked. I picked a thorny branch and teased my friends with it.
The war was still with us, though, even in that place, and it demanded recognition. Every fifteen minutes or so, American warplanes screamed high overhead, their sleek, black forms briefly visible through breaks in the clouds. Later, when my party sat to eat some local fried, spiced fish on a wooden platform over the river, two loud noises shook the hills behind us and made us sit up straight. I didn’t recognize the sounds, but my more munitions-savvy friend Erin thought they were mortars being fired. Sunburned farm girls who had been aggressively hawking cornbread to us stopped giggling and coaxing for a moment, but only a moment.
On the way home, we drove through the vast, still-fallow fields of the Shamali plain and passed NATO vehicles parked on the side of the road. The turret gunners swiveled and looked into our car through their sunglasses as we drove by. Soldiers always find it strange to see foreign civilians moving about with neither weapons nor armor.
Kapisa gave way to Parwan and Parwan to Kabul. We drove in silence. Gazing out the window, I noticed Peshawari-style apartment complexes and office buildings, half-finished, standing in the middle of otherwise timeless fields and mud villages. None of these new buildings appeared to be connected to the power grid. I wondered who built them, and for what purpose. I tried to imagine what the farmers of the area thought of the Corinthian columns, mirror glass and whimsical purple umbrellas in their midst.
As we drew closer to the Kabul gate, one of my friends talked about moving his family from Kabul and Kandahar to Dubai. He wants to work on political reform here, but he’s realistic about the violent days to come, and he wants his loved ones to sleep safely at night, even if that means living apart from them.