I am back on Afghan soil!

I am so excited to be here – and yet, I still can’t quite believe it.

I sat on the plane from Dubai with my laptop on my knee, furiously typing in my impressions of the journey, and the next minute the stewardess was announcing that we were to make our descent into Kabul. And as I looked down and felt my heartbeat pick up I began to wish I had got chatting to someone at the airport – there were a handful of westerners on board  – because I so wanted to share my excitement with someone.

Instead, I pressed my nose to the window and stared at Kabul below me – in the same way I first saw the city in 2004 – the memories of which I used to write the start of my novel:

 

“Natasha leaned forward towards the scratched plastic and looked down. Far below her a brown landscape revolved; an earthenware bowl of hills; a shiny tape of river spooling away; and everywhere, tumbling down the hillsides, what looked like hundreds of tiny boxes.”

 

But now I was looking at a very different city. Before we reached the “tiny boxes”, the compounds, houses surrounded by walls, we flew over what seemed like acres of industrial development – huge warehouses; gas silos; scrap yards. Some of this was here in 2006, the last time I was here, but the development has grown and grown.

And then we were bumping down – onto a new runway, a second runway by the looks of it – and in true Afghan style everyone was un-buckling their seat belts and standing up as we taxied along, despite the frantic pleas of the stewardess.

And that’s where I began to really feel how long it is since I’ve been here.

We left the airplane via a fixed walkway into a new building, a part of the airport I didn’t recognise – passengers no longer climb down steps directly onto the tarmac and walk into the airport.

Then we queued at immigration, and had our fingerprints taken! (I’m guessing the Americans have helped with setting up that system) – definitely no being waved to the front of the queue because you are western (not that I agreed with that) but I’m still not sure that the officer even looked at that visa that took three days in London to get!

Then we collected our baggage from a moving carousel!

I know none of this is revolutionary, but when we lived here, we carried out training courses all over the country, so I spent a lot of time at Kabul airport – once for three days on the trot while we waited for weather to clear to fly to Jalalabad – so its inadequacies were etched on my mind.

Now it’s as functional as many other airports. (Although this comes at a price – someone was telling me today that when you go into the airport from Kabul you have to pay 50 Afghanis just to enter – shades of Belfast International Airport? However, 50 Afghanis is just 56 pence…)

But then things got a bit complicated. I had spent so long imagining meeting up with my friends, and so long worrying about being too conspicuous, that I was a little daunted to find no one to meet me. Then a ‘helpful’ young man who could speak English told me I had to walk to the correct car park – you can no longer come into the airport to pick people up, or park anywhere near it – not a bad precaution in a place where car bombs still explode – but it meant I needed to know which cark to go to. After much to-ing and fro-ing, in the mercifully not too bad heat, the guy phoned my friends for me and they came to collect me.

I had by now realised that this ‘helpfulness’ was the way he made his living and so I offered him five dollars, which is still a fairly large amount in Kabul. But he began wailing he needed 20 dollars. I didn’t have 10 and I had entered that head zone where foreign currency doesn’t seem like real money – plus he really had helped me – so I gave him 20. It was only when I calculated that that was £15 that I began to kick myself.

So the drive through Kabul was a heady mix of me exclaiming at the things that had changed as we hurtled through the bustle of the city, and trying to catch up on 7 years of life with my friends. But one of the questions for me was very familiar – No, I’m still not married!

The city is bigger and busier; many of the half destroyed buildings now gone; new high-rises in their place.

 

The shops are still doing a brisk trade.

There are definitely more cars and fewer carts on the road, and many of the streets that were tracks have now been tarmaced. But the traffic jams are particularly bad in front of the Traffic Department!

 

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the house we used to live in. Inside the compound, the garden is flourishing and the house interior has been beautifully redecorated; but outside is now bristling with security, fortified walls, security cameras, steel shutters, and an armed guard!

With all the excitement and the lack of sleep, when I was presented with a traditionally enormous Afghan meal of dal, chicken, bread,salad and a delicious soup, that was enough to finish me off.

I skyped Mutley and then fell into bed.

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