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Vacation in Afghanistan

Only a few days before I was to leave on my trip, a week after the elections, the Taliban broke their silence. A suicide bomb ripped through Chicken Street, a shopping area famous for rugs and frequented by westerners.

Check out thefullmonte.com I came to Afghanistan to cover the first-ever democratic elections with an American documentary film team. In the weeks leading to the Afghan elections the Taliban vowed bombings and kidnappings. However, the only excitement over the month of campaigning and Election Day was that from the Afghan people rallying for their candidates.

With a week left before I was to leave Afghanistan, I had planned a 3-day trek to Bamiyan with my colleague, John Monte, a cameraman. Kabul had become a fortress city where dwellings were not called homes or offices, but compounds with 2 to 3 guards holding AK-47s. There was a slight tension in the air. International security forces, ISAF, rumbled through the city in armored personnel carriers and Humvees swinging 70 caliber machine guns. And there was a constant buzz of Apache attack helicopters above.

Only a few days before I was to leave on my trip, a week after the elections, the Taliban broke their silence. A suicide bomb ripped through Chicken Street, a shopping area famous for rugs and frequented by westerners. Two blocks from where I was staying, John and I walked over (We learned later that a common tactic is to attract a crowd with the first bomb so the second one can inflict mass casualties).

At the scene we were told that a man with 6 grenades strapped to him started tossing his arsenal at ISAF soldiers. Beside himself, he killed 3, including a little girl begging on the street, and wounded 7. The carnage laid on the ground. In the days following the bombing, a soldier was shot in the park next to my guesthouse in Sharhe-Now, and a UN worker was critically wounded in a drive-by shooting. All UN and humanitarian workers in Kabul were locked down, forbidden to leave their compounds.

After five weeks running all over Kabul I was burned out, and in serious need of a vacation. I needed to see another side of Afghanistan besides the chaos and dust of the city, and the latest incidents only added to this desire. John, who had traveled to Afghanistan two years earlier in 2002, kept telling me how there is an addictive charm to the country. I still hadn’t come to this conclusion.

Bamiyan ” the place where the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas ” was a 10 hr. drive on brain bruising dirt roads that gave your neck permanent whiplash” but it is said to be some of the most beautiful country. We rented a 4 wheel drive van and hired a driver who we thought spoke English (but actually only knew the word “yes”) for $350, and we began our sightseeing tour.

The only souls in the mountain passes, altitudes for which we could only find on Russian maps, were farmers on donkeys herding their sheep. In a barren country, this terrain sees snow-capped peaks rise from lush river valleys. Women in bright colored head scarves and men in turbans wrapped around their faces to protect from the harsh elements, separate wheat from its stalk. I was told these are the descendants of Genghis Khan, the Hazara people, and their elegant facial features look Mongolian. I felt I had traveled back 4 or 5 centuries in time.

As men tossed the wheat in the air with wood shovels John and I filmed and took pictures. They could not believe the digital camera. Little laughs bellowed out as they looked at their image (maybe for the first time). Their look of surprise was priceless as they called their friends over to have a look”others started posing for the photo shoot. Women in burqas quickly scooted by, avoiding the cameras altogether.

The Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhas is truly a shame. These enormous sculptures were carved between 400AD and 600AD and overlook the village of Bamiyan. Although they are now big holes, one still feels their immense presence. As Jake Sutton, a well-known cameraman in Afghanistan said, “they couldn’t have picked a more perfect place to overlook for eternity.”