Welcome to Afghanistan
The plane eventually left Istanbul just before 0600 on the third day. We flew in to the dawn, which was spectacular, and then over the mountains and deserts of eastern Turkey and Iran. Normally we’re flying at night, and I’m asleep, so there’s not much to see. Even in daylight there’s not that much to see from 30,000 feet but the names which kept popping up on the route map evoked strong memories. Sivas, Erzurum, Van, Tabriz, Qom, Isfahan … all places I travelled through nearly 40 years ago, after I had left friends in Ankara and travelled alone by bus, train, and truck, wide eyed as I experienced a landscape like no other. But those are stories for another time. From the plane I could watch the tree-bare slopes and vast deserts unravel beneath me. Do nomads have a hundred words for brown, I wondered, as the sun mirrored off salt flats and sparkled along the ridges.
When you arrive in Kabul you first pass through passport control. This is quick and efficient. You enter a small hall and a Border Police officer directs you to one of the seven or eight booths. You line up, go forward, present your passport to be scanned, the visa is checked and stamped, et voila! You’re now in Afghanistan.
You walk past the booth and in to a narrow corridor, past the flat eyed men who look carefully at each passenger, and go through in to the baggage area, where to your right is a small desk. Two men from the Ministry of the Interior sit behind the desk, and one of them gives you a form to complete. Name, passport details, address in Afghanistan, purpose of visit, all the usual stuff. You complete the form and give it back to the other officer. He painstakingly copies your details, by hand, on to the Foreigner’s Registration Card. You give him the two passport sized photographs that you remembered to bring with you, and he staples one to the form and the second to the Registration Card. Often the staple goes through your forehead. You have to carry this card at all times when you’re in Afghanistan, as well as your passport, and these are examined if you get stopped at one of the police or army checkpoints around the city.
If you have forgotten to bring your photographs, or if the Ministry of the Interior people are not present, then you go and register as soon as you can get to the main Ministry office. A year or so ago the officers were there only half the times that I arrived, but recently they have met every flight. Is this a sign of an improving bureaucracy, perhaps?
Once the Foreigner’s Registration Card is safely tucked away, you have to work your way through the press of porters to the luggage carousel. Some people prefer to pull their own bags, but I don’t mind making a small (100 Afs, less than two dollars a bag) contribution to the local economy.
The porter and I stood and watched as the bags arrived. “Bags” is perhaps not the correct term. “Luggage” is more accurate, as great taped bales come careening around the belt. I have no idea what was in them, but they required two hands to lift, turbaned men in white shalwar kameez, some with a brown patoo wrapped around their shoulders, heaving them on to their trolley.
My bags were nowhere in sight. The Star Alliance priority tags don’t hold much sway here. We waited.
“Ah, Canada! My brother, Toronto!”
“Have you been?”
“No, only my brother.”
Our conversation halted and we stood in silence. Then wonder of wonders, my bags appeared. We loaded them on to the trolley, and left the hall past the officer who matched my luggage tags with those stapled to the back of my boarding pass. Then we got to the x-ray machine.
Kabul is the only airport I know where they x-ray your bags going in to the country. We put them on the belt and then walked around to the other side. Sure enough, as my small red suitcase came through the machine, the customs guys called me out. I walked over with the bag, and opened it.
“It’s water softening salt.”
I don’t know quite what the Customs people thought, as they looked at the 20 kilo bag I’d bought at Home Depot. My colleagues in Kabul had asked me to bring something to counteract the terrible effect of the hard water on their laundry. Some sort of tablets, perhaps, anything that would stop their clothes becoming rough and scuffled. At one shop in Charlottetown they’d suggested a liquid product but I hadn’t wanted to risk that exploding all over my suitcase. At Home Depot I’d explained my predicament, and the helpful man had suggested water softening salt.
“It’s over by check-out six,” he’d said, “but you might want a trolley instead of that,” gesturing to the basket I was carrying.
We got to check-out six and there they were, a pile of white heavy duty plastic bags, each filled with 20 kilograms of water softening salt. We looked at them.
“You could open it and divide it in to 20 of those ziplock freezer bags,” he suggested, “that might spread the load a bit. But I’d mash it up with a hammer first, it tends to clump up a bit.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said, “taking 20 one kilo bags of white powder with me in to Afghanistan.”
“A bit ‘coals to Newcastle’,” he muttered.
Luckily I had left it in the manufacturer’s heavy duty plastic bag, which one Customs officer was now examining. The soldier next to him looked bemused. I told him that it would make his uniform feel soft and clean, instead of hard and scratchy.
The two of them looked at each other, and then at me, shaking their heads.
“Salt for the laundry?” said the guy in charge, eventually, and I sensed a certain note of ‘what will these crazy foreigners think of next’ in his voice.
He waved his hand at me.
“Go away,” he said, “welcome to Afghanistan.”