Live Journal 2005:
David McLoda in Afghanistan

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14) Trekking in South Sumatra
15) North Sumatran Experience
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Dave's Reading List
- History of God, Karen Armstrong
- Buddha,Karen Armstrong
- Life of Pi, Yann Martel
- The Evolution Deceit, Harun Yahya
- Doubt and Certainty, Rothman & Sudarshan
- Kim, Rudyard Kipling
- Holy Qu'ran
- Symposium and the Death of Socrates, Plato
- A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
- A Free Man's Worship, Bertrand Russell
- The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra
- I Am Right, You Are Wrong, Edward DeBono
- The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead Frank J. Tipler
- The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism,Bernard Shaw
- Sufism
- Enlightened Views: A Baha'i Introductory Book

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Thursday, November 03, 2005
The First Day of Eid (Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan)

As Afghans are little inclined to celebration, I was surprised to hear brass band music coming from the direction of Hazarat Ali's shrine.  I ventured outside my decrepit hotel to see what was happening and found a convoy of military and police vehicles blocking the street in front of the shrine.  There was indeed a small brass band, but the celebration was short-lived and they had dispersed.  Thousands of devotees began to swarm across the gates to get kneeling space in the courtyards outside the mosque to pray and listen to the preaching of the local mullah.

Today marked the first day of Eid and the end Ramazan, the month of fasting and abstinence.  It has been announced by the mullahs at the first sighting of the first sliver of the waxing moon. 

I stood near a fence minding my own business when some guys in suits asked me, "What do you want?"  I had no answer to this odd question so some soldiers searched me and my bags.  These guys were unnecessarily rude and therefore ruffled my feathers more than normal. I demanded to be taken to the police headquarters since the curious group of onlookers that had gathered around me was very unnerving.  Instead, I was merely ejected from the park.

The novelty of being regarded a suspicious foreigner was now warn away.  I desperately wanted to be regarded as a strange, clumsy, tourist again.

I decided I should check the Buzkashi field to see if I could get information on when the next game would be.  The grounds are a thirty minute walk directly south of the shrine along a paved road that abruptly ends in a desert. 

Being the first day of Eid and a major holiday, men and women were dressed very well.  Of course the ladies were all covered in burkas (some of them baby blue, the others white, but not one black one did I notice.)  Prepubescent girls were all adorned in cute little dresses and gobs of makeup.

Just where the paved road ends is a huge, yellow Russian-built silo and granery.  Behind this is the desert-like Buzkashi field, at this time completely empty except for a old plastic bags that stuck to the weeds and flapped in the wind.  I sat down on the wood bench next to a little shop built into an metal box that turned out to be an old trucking container.  These converted ready-made shops can be found all over Afghanistan's cities.  This shop sold a variety of cheap colorful kites, along with some biscuits and soft drinks. 

A Hazara boy invited me to his house for some refreshments a few minutes away.  Behind, of course, a tall dirt wall, was a scrubby but clean courtyard, then two "houses" each one only a single room.  The interior of the room followed that plan typical of Afghanistan: thick cushions cover the perimeter and against the walls lay matching pillows for back support.  In the middle of the floor was rolled out a big sheet of vinyl and individual settings laid out of pistachios, raisins, dal and chick peas.  For lunch the boy's little sister made us scrambled eggs wth tomatoes, and over tea we watched Iranian bootleg dance videos on the computer.  It seemed very Western and progressive with bellydancing girls wrapped in albino snakes in very elaborate sets.

In the evening, of course, I visited with Rafi but also met another tourist, Stano, from Slovokia.  He traveled overland through Iran and across the rugged central route of Afghanistan and was taking lots of photos with his nifty new camera.  I agreed to meet him in the morning to show him the Buzkashi fields.

Posted at 09:09 am by dwmcloda
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Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Hotel Ejection and Benjamin Franklin (Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan)

Apologetically enough, I was kicked out of my hotel this afternoon.  The manager is closing the hotel and going home to be with his family for the four days that include Eid and the weekend after.  Barat Hotel was recommended but I refused to stay there for the obnoxiously high tariff of $20.  The Hotel Ammo was also being closed for Eid.  The only option left was a dumpy unsigned hotel down the back alley that was completely empty except for one boy who remained during Eid to work there and stayed in the room opposite me.  I moved into a big cold room with four beds and with three walls of glass covered by dusty green curtains.  I was careful not to touch anything in the room including the curtains or the blankets since a I find any disturbance would send a fine dust into the air that lingered for hours.

There was no running water or electricity, and the toilets were in a dismal decayed state with a stench that made even the flies pass out.

I more or less shut it all out and became engrossed in reading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, which I nearly finished in a single day.  Benjamin Franklin has always been a man whom I wished to emulate in many ways.  He was a virtuous man, moulded not primarily through environment or religion, but through his own intentions.  In the spirit of exploration he visited foreign nations and performed scientific experiments.  He was a great writer and inventor and helped establish such useful civic endeavors as a circulating library, fire brigade, and street paving.  All in all, he lived a long, happy, and productive life...and got his picture on $100 notes.  Now that's what I call success!

Posted at 09:00 am by dwmcloda
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Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Of Fruits and Fanaticism (Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan)

Having spent an entire week in one place, I've developed a sort of routine.  Upon waking, I go out to the market to pick up two pieces of roghani nan from the bearded Uzbek who keeps them fresh and warm underneath the cloth covered basket.  It goes down well with Happy Cow cheese or peanut butter.  I read for several hours, nowadays imbibing the philosophy of Bertrand Russell and wisdom of Benjamin Franklin. 

I keep a store of fruits on the counter of which my favorites are the honey melon and pomegranates.  But today I discovered a new delight; I am sure it is a kind of pear, but like no pear I've had before.  The flesh is not of the boring grainy mush we are used to back home.  This pear is crisp and juicy with twice the sweetness and ten times the pear-ness.  When I was previously asked which country had the best fruits I would invariably answer Thailand, for the variety and deliciousness of those tropical fruits are second to none.  But perhaps it was also the novelty of new and exotic specimens that influenced my opinion.   If I am to compare apple to apples, quite literally, then Afghanistan has better apples, better pears, and better melons than any of their counterparts back in the States.  A fruit back home is a mere shadow of what it could be.

In the afternoon I sat with some young carpet sellers who are studying to become engineers.  I was abhorred to find that these educated young men actually applauded the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan.  This underscores the threat that religious fanaticism poses to a developing nation.  In spite of common sense and a broad education, there are individuals who will remain blinded by religious conceit and who seek to impose their own small-minded views on others whom they consider inferior, executing their philosophy through the destruction of history and degradation of the country's minority groups.  Nothing grates on my nerves more than this ...

Today a boy from a village near Balkh had come into Rafi's antique shop with a small horde of coins he had discovered while building a house.  The coins bore the inscription of Ghengis Khan who ruled the surrounded area in the 13th Century.  I was curious what kind of price they would fetch but they would have to be examined more closely.  Rafi's brother told me of a gold coin he once bought from a local boy for $100, which he in turn sold for $800, and which was subsequently sold in the West for $5000.  He was wracked for not having sold it at a higher price, not content with his mere 800% profit.

For dinner we sat on the floor of the shop and had some very special "balany" made in the tandoor by Rafi's mother.  The balany are like spinach filled quesadillas and are dipped in fresh yogurt that is much like sour cream.

Rafi lamented that since the shooting few days ago, no foreigners had come to the shop.

Posted at 03:44 am by dwmcloda
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Monday, October 31, 2005
Eat Your Finger (Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan)

Construction work outside the hotel kept me awake a good part of the night, the hammering and booming sheets of tin echoing like gunshots and bomb blasts.  I moved therefore to a different room in the hotel, and curled up under a dusty blanket, read books for the most of the morning.

The Dunya Internet Cafe costs a steep 80 afg which is more than a dollar and a half an hour.  It's hard to get anything done in only an hour and it's twice as difficult to concentrate with that silly background running program that pops up a stripper every now and again in the right bottom corner of the screen.  To download my journal from my Palm, I pop the SD flash card into an external USB reader and connect it to the desktop.  But my card reader had malfunctioned and I had to borrow one from the staff.  It seems the more stuff you have the more things go wrong.

In the evening I joined Rafi and his two brothers at their antique shop.  Rafi had travelled to the dusty Balkh town of Shibarghan, known for its delicious grapes.  He spent $2000 on antiques to stock his shop of which included an ancient agate stamp carved with the likeness of a scorpion, a bronze arrowhead, and an old Russian tea pot.  We shared a meal of tender juicy lamb, simmered in an onion gravy.  I learned the expression "Finger lickin' good" has a local Turkmen equivalent that roughly translates to "So good you will eat your finger."

The boys outside my hotel make a delicious fruit shake thick enough to eat with a spoon.  Its main ingredients are over-ripe bananas, sugar, cream, almonds, and dates, topped with a generous drizzle of condensed milk.

Posted at 03:42 am by dwmcloda
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Sunday, October 30, 2005
Ancient City of Balkh (Afghanistan)

I made a list of sights to see in Balkh from my 30 year old Historical Guide to Afghanistan. Squeezing two in the front seat and cramming the back, it's only half a dollar in a shared taxi to Balkh, 18 kilometers away.

Balkh is an ancient city, once of great fame as a spiritual center from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism to Islam. Zoroaster preached here sometime between 1000 and 600 BC. It is the birthplace of the famous Sufi poet, Rumi and contains the tomb of the tragic poetess Rabi'a Balkhi.

I followed a path into a round central park, surrounded by tall trees and with a dry fountain at its center. Dominating the park was the 500 year old shrine of the theologian Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, with a blue fluted dome, flanked by interesting corkscrew pillars. Nearby was the tomb of Rabi'a Balkhi. A simple marble tombstone of Arabic inscriptions sits atop the dungeon in which she died. Her wrists were slashed by her brother who did not approve of her affair with a certain manservant. Using the blood from her own wrists she composed her last poem.

To the north of the park is Bala Hissar, the massive ruins of ancient Balkh. Here I found a lone French archaeologist sitting in the dust overlooking his dig. In his lap lay a notebook of maps, graphs, and scribbled notes. I asked if anything interesting was found recently. They had uncovered some of the original walls and some old pottery, but nothing of the Greek era, which is what they are most interested in finding.

I walked further up the hill and was surprised to find the massive scale of ruins that they before me. Spread out all the way to the horizon was nothing but mounds of rubble and dust. The city was so thoroughly destroyed by Genghis Khan that nothing remained but piles of grey dusty bricks. Some of the outer city walls stood in the desolation. When I climbed up to peer into the distance, all I could see were a few boys on donkeys crossing the plane in a wake of dust.

I descended the other side of the wall back towards the new city. A swampy area stood between me and the mud huts that I had to walk around. I felt vulnerable so far from the main road and self-conscious of the town's suspicion. I tried to comfort myself with extending a lot of "Salams" and "Hellos". I was glad to find a main road again.

I climbed another wall and sat on top of an old Russian tank with two teenage boys. Below my feat was a heap of white sun-bleached bones. I kicked over a human skull with dried mud bulging from its eye sockets.

The two boys took me down to a second archaeological dig site run by the French. I managed to get permission for a single photo, but when the French team came back from tea I think they were afraid of me and weren't very friendly. The problem was that I was dressed in the local style, and while it helps to preserve anonymity at the market it compounds suspicion in other cases. When I said "good luck" to the young French girl at the dig, she looked terrified. I decided to get back to Mazar. The sights here were only mildly interesting anyway.

It had been a month since my last head shaving so I straight away found a barber. There is something very relaxing and enjoyable in getting a shave. Of course I kept the length of my beard alone; now it hangs perhaps three inches off my chin.

Since the charger to my Palm device had burnt out in the night, I had no choice but to cut the connector off the transformer and to have it soldered onto another power supply. Thankfully, Maimana Market was full of electronic parts and the request was easily fulfilled, and for free.

Then I explored the road north of the shrine. I rummaged through some traditional chapans, those brightly colored robe-like jackets, but I much preferred the old style I had seen in the antique shops.

I napped straight through Azan and was hungry when I awoke. I had the same plate of Kabuli rice I had when I first arrived. Walking back to my hotel I ended up next to a massive British soldier with a ripple of fat behind his head and a big black tribal tattoo on his arm. There were a dozen or so patrolling the dark streets this night. At one point a soldier raised his gun down a dark alley and I thought he was going to shoot at something. He was only looking through his night vision scope. I wasn't keen on being in the line of fire so I darted back to my hotel ASAP.

Posted at 06:22 am by dwmcloda
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Saturday, October 29, 2005
Terrorist Attack in Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan)

I was reading my Historical Guide to Afghanistan in my room, when around 9 AM shots rang out just outside the hotel on the main road in front of the shrine. I heard around 20 controlled shots, a pause, then maybe 20 more. I looked outside my window to see a stream of panicked locals make a mad dash down the narrow alleyways away from the road. I stayed in my room, only occasionally peeking outside from my balcony. After half an hour the British Army and throngs of local police with over twenty jeeps and pickups blocked off the road. Desert-fatigued storm troopers roamed the streets with menacing dual action machine guns that shoot both bullets and RPG's. Standing from my balcony I noticed a soldier peering at me through binoculars so slipped back inside to read a book.

Around Noon, things seemed a little calmer so I came outside to look for something to eat. Much of the main street in front of my hotel was still cordened off so I went around the back side, through the gold market and back to my friend's place at the carpet shop. There was a lot of speculation to what had happened this morning. It could have been an Al Quaida attack or the Taliban. Perhaps a foreigner was paid to carry out the attack. Some said it was a Hazara local, working for Iran. Three soldiers were either killed or wounded and they were either British or Dutch. Apparently some locals in the crowd captured the shooter andd turned him over to the military.

I was going to Maimana Market to get a new charger for my Palm with my new friend from the carpet shop. When I came out of my hotel I was nabbed by a Afghan military agent who had a rocket launcher carelessly thrown over his shoulder. I left my original passport in my room so I only had a photocopy which he apparently found unconvincing. They took me into custody, put me in a jeep, and brought me to the police headquarters where I was searched and presented to the commander. Nobody spoke English. The commander just sent me back to my hotel to get my passport, and after showing my visa I was left alone.

Posted at 06:19 am by dwmcloda
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Friday, October 28, 2005
The Sublime Tomb of Ali (Afghanistan)

Lying at the center of the town is the magnificent tomb of Hazarat Ali named Mazar-i-Sharif (The Tomb of the Exalted) for which the city is named. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and the fourth Caliph of Islam. The whole of the Muslim world believes he was buried at Kufa, Iraq, when he was assassinated in 661 AD, but local tradition dictates otherwise. It is said that his body, for fear that it would be desecrated, was carried away on the back of a she-camel until it dropped here from exhaustion. Various shrines have been built and destroyed at this location over the centuries until it was restored in modern times to its present condition.

So in the early morning light, crisp and chill, I wrapped myself in green embroidered scarf, and began my own pilgrimage to the shrine. After depositing my sandals at the counter I walked with the rest of the pilgrims to the entrance of the shrine, stopping briefly at the entrance and holding palms upward in front of my face as a kind of prayer. Then I entered the inner sanctum, the center of a circular room was a cubicle of gold latticework in floral design with the actual tomb situated inside. Ladies in white burkas kneeled at the base with heads pressed against. The men stood, laying both hands and head against the tomb in prayer. Along the edge of the walls sat men and women in meditation, some clicking rosary beads, others quietly reciting portions of the Holy Qur'an. The lighting was dim but the atmosphere both somber and magnificent in the splendour of its ancient Islamic design. I sat near the wall and marvelled at the massive dome above, painted with brilliant colors and intricate details of floral and geometric motif. Niches of infinitely varying patterns cut into the walls added to the effect of depth and dimension. No ordinary man could be buried in such a place.

I stepped outside the shrine to gawk at the outer design of the complex. Fitted top to bottom with a mosaic of earthy glazed tiles of blue with traces of yellow and brown, it dazzled in the morning sun. Every tile seemed to excite its very own cell in the back of my retina.

Walking around the outside park planted with trees and rosebushes, I came across a ground covered in thousands of identical pure white pigeons. A few men had bought some grain from the hawker and were sprinkling the stuff on their heads so that the pigeons would land and feed there. It is auspicious to have a sacred white pigeon from the tomb of Ali peck grain from your head, I suppose. Local legend also says that the place is so holy that a grey pigeon will turn completely white after 40 days at the shrine.

I walked three times around before picking up my sandals. I noticed many beggars around the shrine. Ladies crouched by the sidewalk, anonymous behind their dingy white or blue burkas, with an old withered hand thrust out from underneath. There were the blind, sometimes guided by the hand of a young son or other relative, sometimes woefully alone. Many men and a few children were without legs, no doubt the consequences of landmines. A few of the more enterprising poor sat on the sidewalks and with a simple broom swept up a line of dust for tips.

After having marvelled at the shrine, ran through the pigeons, and doled out a few small notes to the poor, I had worked up quite an appetite. I've gotten into a habit, and I hope it's a wise and healthy one, of replacing one meal a day with the local fruit. I picked up a kilo of plump, red pomegranates to take to my room. It not easy to relate the simple and sublime pleasure of eating a fresh Kandahari pomegranate, which are reputed to be the best in all the world. If it's a particularly good specimen, upon pealing away the outer skin, brilliant red seeds pour fourth like gemstones. I carefully pluck them one by one, careful not to break them (they tend to squirt when broken and will stain your clothes). I can sometimes fill two full cups from each, after which I eat with a spoon. The inner kernel is a little hard but is certainly edible and I'm told is also a kind of medicine for the stomach.

I spent the late afternoon with three brothers in their carpet and antique shop east of the shrine. One whose English was good could convey a few of his many grievances. Afghanistan is not a nice place he declared. There is too much dust here, he said, and it was definitely true. It fills every cubic inch of air, inside and out. Then there is the corrupt and uneducated police and government. Where is there a good government; where are there honest police he asked? Singapore came to mind, but my experience there was too limited to back it up with facts, and my local friends there would surely disagree. He said US soldiers are big buyers at the carpet shop but they always come with interpreters who promise the soldiers a cheap local price then demand in Dari that the shopkeeper inflate the price and pay a hefty commission.

After hearing the Azan, we shared a pot of home cooked squash, eaten with warm, fat roghani nan.

Posted at 06:18 am by dwmcloda
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Thursday, October 27, 2005
The Bazzar of Mazar (Afghanistan)

I collected a bag full of cookies at the local bakery for breakfast.  I walked first down the road to the west of the shrine until the shops petered out and there was nothing but traffic.  The bazar continues north of the shrine where I noted the exquisite embroidery of the little Muslim caps. 

When I got around to the northeast corner, I found some shopkeepers who spoke good English.  I looked through the various lapiz jewelry, buzkashi whips, and old Taliban money.  The owner had one old chapan, an extra-long-sleeved coat made of silk that had green vertical stripes.  I  tried it on and it looked pretty good, especially with the "Karzai hat" that the president of Afghanistan wears.  You have to bunch up the sleeves of the chapan or they hang past your fingertips a full foot too long. 

I sat with the owner for a long time and he gave me advice on my overland trip to Herat.  A couple of British soldiers came in and bought a lapiz chessboard for $15.  They told me they play soccer with a group from the Texas National Guard.  The Texas team always get beat, and I replied we don't take that game seriously.  When I said goodbye, he put his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers,"Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah!" and walked out the store.

Posted at 05:41 am by dwmcloda
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Wednesday, October 26, 2005
From Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif

It was time to say goodbye to my new friends and skoot off to Mazar-i-Sharif.  I took a taxi to Sarai Shomali where I joined a minivan in the comfy front seat this time ($12).  Sometimes I get special treatment because the locals think I'm a Saudi pilgrim.

The driver's side is on the wrong side of a lot of these cars and it makes passing very dangerous.

Not too far north of Kabul, we entered into a jagged mountain pass.  It looked like the land had been raked over by a giant fork.  We darted in and out of tunnels and "galleries", half-tunnels that are meant to thrawart landslides from blocking the road.  At the top of the pass a sprinkling of powdery snow filled the gaps between rocks.

Several areas had signs warning of landmine danger just off the roadside.  Rocks painted either white or red showed where it was safe to walk.  Dozens of destroyed tanks littered the fields.

We passed through a narrow gap in the cliff and on the other side the landscape opened up in brown rolling hills, then to a flat desert plain.  At one time there was a good electrical grid and big electric poles followed the road.  During the civil war, thieves stripped the electrical delivery system of all the wires to sell as scrap.

When we arrived in Mazar around 4:30 PM, I was little impressed by the traffic, noise, and pollution.  I trotted around the perimeter of the shrine of Hazarat Ali looking for accommodation in the market before finding the Aria Hotel for $6.  I took a cold bucket shower and waited for the Hazan.  I walked to the old market to the west of the shrine and found a basic restaurant.  Everyone had already finished eating because they wait for that call from the mosque, fork in hand, then totally dig-in.  I had a big plate of Kabuli rice, with a generous sprinkling of raisins and a portion of meat buried in the middle.  I sat next to a heater contraption that used coal to heat the room and also to heat water in a reservoir for tea.  There was a TV and someone switched between a Hollywood basketball comedy, a devotional music program, and Hindi films.

Posted at 05:40 am by dwmcloda
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Tuesday, October 25, 2005
The NGO Paradox (Kabul, Afghanistan)

This evening I talked with the young Shoaid about the situation in Afghanistan, especially with that of the NGO's.  He concurred with the multitude of others that their is a troubling paradox surrounding the presence of NGO's in Afghanistan.  The NGO's have caused real estate prices and rents to skyrocket in the area around Kabul.  Now locals cannot afford to buy a home and businesses struggle to pay the rent.  For example, the Malik Express office costs $1200 per month in rent while in neighboring Pakistan a similar spot in the city would cost $200.

Millions and millions of dollars pour into Afghanistan.  Does anyone ask where the money is going?  There is no reliable water or electricity.  Why is that?  Aren't these the first and basic needs?

It is an unfortunate fact that much of the money gets funneled into government officials pockets.  Corruption and greed has been part of the culture for too long and continues to be a huge problem.  One of the most ludicrous examples of misspent money is the direct fault of NGO's and their employees.  Most of the aid money given to the Afghanistan government goes right back out of the country through the outrageous salaries given to greedy foreign employees.  These high dollar "consultants" and nation building "experts" can earn $50,000 a month!  It's no wonder the Afghan people remain suspicious of the foreign presence.  The money that comes in only serves to sustain the presence of those NGO's without providing any real benefit to the people.

Posted at 05:38 am by dwmcloda
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