1230 Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in the lounge at Kabul airport, waiting for a plane. Nothing unusual about that, you say? Except … the plane, which was supposed to have left at 0800, hasn’t actually arrived yet.
I woke up at 0515, got organized, and was picked up at 0600. The streets were pretty quiet, with lots of police and soldiers around. Today is Muhajadeen Day, or Heroes Day – it celebrates the day (now 20 years ago) when the Russian Army made its exit across the bridge over the Amu Darya. There is a worry that this will be a day when the insurgents will strike again, and so travel has been restricted. Some embassies and organizations have ‘locked down’ their staff, meaning that nobody can leave their compound. We haven’t done that, but our office is closed.
The roads were dusty and the sun shone through the haze. There were a number of horse and carts – I’ve not seen those before. Apparently people from villages around Kabul come in to town early, to deliver their crops or animals for sale, and are gone before the normal morning commuter traffic is around. We see donkeys, piled high with bags of old pop cans and discarded water bottles, or pulling carts laden with all sorts of things. But not horses, prancing down the streets with heads high, hooves kicking up the dust. I wish I had my camera out, but the soldiers don’t like to be photographed, and it’s not worth accidentally catching one in the corner of a shot.
Security at the airport was tight – I was searched three times, my bags x-rayed twice, and a large German shepherd dog was encouraged to jump in to the back of the vehicle and have a sniff around.
Through the formalities and boarding passes in hand, I went through immigration and then a final security check. I was in the lounge by 0700.
Lounge is an image laden word. The one at Kabul is a long rectangle, about 30m long by 10m across. You enter at one corner and are faced with the Afghan Duty Free Shop, a small kiosk which only sells cigarettes and tobacco products. Moving in to the hall with the kiosk on your left, on your right is an opaque glass wall topped with a metal grill. That forms the bottom end of the rectangle. At the end of that short wall is another kiosk, this one selling bags of fruit – raisins, dried apricots – and nuts – almonds, pistachios, walnuts. The bags are each 1kg in size, a bit big to be considered a snack!
From the kiosk the long glass wall of the lounge looks out over the airport. There are posters on the glass, “No Photography Allowed”. Looking out of the window you see first the boarding area, where hopefully my plane will eventually come and connect with the walkway, and then beyond that the runway. On the other side of the runway is the reason for the no photography signs – the main military air base for Kabul. Helicopters fly up in pairs, and now and then a large Hercules wanders out and lumbers down the runway.
On the civilian side, planes come and go, to Delhi and to Istanbul, to Tehran … and to Dubai? No, not my plane, that still has not arrived. A pair of men in blue boiler suits walk past. One has a neat little dustpan on a stick, and a long handled broom. He flicks his wrist and the broom catches a pop can or a piece of paper, and flips it into the dustpan. He raises it, and then empties it in to the large black plastic bag held by his colleague. They are very thorough, and the floor is very clean.
I sit and read a chapter of my novel, but I’m finding this one a bit slow. So I put that aside on a little bench next to my chair, and take out my notebook, and review the notes I took from the meetings we had this week. Someone from the World Bank, a senior official from the Ministry of Education, our CIDA colleagues … key points all carefully recorded for the reports I have to write. I start a “To Do” list, and soon have 15 items on it. I put my notebook aside and take out my computer, and start on number 12. That’s a quick one, “low lying fruit” as they say, and I soon finish.
Another flight is called, and people stand up to go to the gate. I stand as well, and stretch, and then slide my computer into my backpack and wander down to the toilets. These are at the other end of the hall, next to the door to the Business Passengers Lounge, which is much the same as outside, except it has fewer chairs. The toilets are interesting, to western eyes, but shallow breathing helps me cope. I come out and wash my hands, drying them on my shirt like everyone else, then wander back in to the lounge. The fourth wall is a long solid wall, dotted with a few posters and the “No Photography” notices.
The room has emptied once or twice, and then refilled, a mass of people. They come and go, as I stand and watch. I wander around and check out the smokes, why anyone would want vanilla flavoured tobacco is beyond me. Perhaps for a shisha, the Lebanese-style water pipe? I go to the fruit and nut man and discover he sells bottles of water. I’ve run out of Afs, the currency of Afghanistan, but he takes a US dollar off me and I take the water. I wait until a seat becomes vacant, then sit down and open my drink.
Suddenly I think of something else to write, and I grab the computer from my bag. Funny, there seems to be a lot of room in the pouch! I open it wider and realize, no novel! No notebook! Panic. I jump up, put the computer away, cap back on the bottle and it into the side pocket, then back to where I was sitting before.
There are eight rows of chairs, arranged in long lines back to back. I have to go to one end and then thread my way down, stepping over feet, bags, sleeping children. I get to where I was sitting. There is nobody there I recognize, they have all boarded planes or, like me, moved elsewhere. I search under the seats, around the floor. I move a couple of large plastic bags filled with someone’s possessions, he crossly looks at me.
“Mei bahkshim, have you seen a red book here?” No, nobody has seen it. I don’t care about the novel but I really don’t want to lose my notes. I ask again. A young man tells me there is no book here. He is proud of his English, and I agree with him, and then confuse things by asking if there used to be a book here. He stares at me like I have presented him with the most existential of conundrums. “Perhaps before?” he offers, wonderingly.
I rack my brain. I can see someone taking the novel if they thought it was just left lying around, but why a notebook? Perhaps it was the cleaners?
Suddenly there is a stir. My flight has been called. I dash to the back of the hall and find a man sitting at a desk. Has anyone handed in a book, a red notebook? No. If they did, where would they hand it in? To here. But they didn’t? No.
Last call, Dubai.
I take out my boarding pass, and my passport, and walk to the gate. I hope my colleague took good notes at those meetings. I can’t remember what number 8 was on the list. But I am getting on a plane, even if it is six hours late, even if I have nothing to read on the long flight to Dubai.
1830 Friday evening. Dubai. I missed my connection, of course, and the next available flight to Heathrow is at 0750 tomorrow. I’m offered a flight to Gatwick, leaving at 0250. I accept the offer, I can always get a bus to Heathrow from there.
There’s a hotel somewhere in this airport … I wonder if it has rooms I can rent for a few hours?