Afghanistan in the Autumn

Afghanistan isn’t the first place you would imagine I (Jeremy) would go for a break from Africa, however as my parents are both doing aid and development work there it was a perfect chance for me to visit them at “home” for an all too short 10 days before going on to Yemen to travel around with Richo for a few weeks.

For a couple months I moved my base of operations from the UK to Dubai for the cheaper flights around the Middle East and to enjoy the company of the friends who I could stay with while I was based there.

A word about Dubai, it is everything that is wrong with money and power in this world, with huge skyscrapers, wide congested roads filled with large obscene cars. Where the price of beer is more than London and the cost of everything else in this tax-free playground for the rich also feeling pretty obscene after Africa. It’s a place devoid of culture, but full of air-conditioned shopping malls, the size of which would frighten you. And then there is the slave labour… tens of thousands of Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos and many other Asian nations, all working for a pittance, scrabbling to earn enough to send money home to their families and at the whim of a government and people (Emiratees and ex-pats) who treat them with at best indifference. It’s a sad place for so many when money is your sole purpose!

Of course there are some shining lights in all of this and I met some truly wonderful people in Dubai who were doing a great job and having an impact, but it’s a place that lacks the culture and creativity of Africa. All the creative energy has been invested in making money and showcasing it to the world.

Flying out of Dubai on one of the new, safer, Afghan airlines into Kabul you can’t help notice the difference immediately. From the vast air conditioned DXB airport you arrive in the single hall of KBL International Airport with a single small room for the baggage and a once again almost refreshing hassle around you of passing through red tape (ID cards for foreigners – but first you have to find the guy and give him 2 passport photos!) and the many layers of fort Knox like security to get to the outside world.

Afghanistan is such a sad place, with heart rending stories all around, and unlike my visit two years ago when there was a real tangible sense of hope the feeling now is one of hopelessness and you can feel that people now just want all the foreigners to leave because then maybe all the fighting will stop.

Sometimes the perception in the west is that the Taleban are a major force in making the country extreme, keeping women covered up, repressed and un-educated along with stifling all progress in the country, however it isn’t as simple as that because the mindset of most people outside of Kabul is probably as conservative as the Taleban and only a few people are beacons for progress and development.

Everything and everyone from the outside world is treated with distrust and apprehension by the religious authorities that control the hearts and minds of most of the people. Anything that might break their control over people is scorned and banned.

In the midst of all of this there has been a huge explosion of information flooding in through the countless satellite dishes that receive hundreds of channels, the mobile phones clutched in everyone’s hands and the other trappings of the west you see appearing in the market places of Kabul. DVDs of all the latest movies in our cinemas are available, Bollywood is a favourite with similar family values and themes and an Indian soap opera is a huge hit in the country, along with the series 24 which has just started to air!

Kabul is really a hot bed of development and progress with new buildings springing up all around, some huge Mosques approaching completion and even several Dubai style glass shopping centre where you can even buy genuine iPods alongside their Chinese counterparts! The sheer number of ex-pats and returning Afghans has made Kabul far more cosmopolitan than the parochial towns filling the rest of the countryside.

I guess it’s no wonder then that Kabul has increasingly become a target for more and more attacks, there is so much there that seems abhorrent to the Taleban and the place is chock full of foreigners who often make such soft targets that hit the news big time. One of these disgusting attacks happened while I was there.

Where my parents live in the north of the country is one of these parochial towns. Quieter, simpler, agricultural people, who just want to be able to run their farms, feed their families and continue with their lives as they have done for centuries. However the combination of war, instability and drought has most scrabbling in grinding poverty. This year’s harvest was poor and most people will struggle through Afghanistan’s bitter and vicious winter barely able to keep their families alive until the next harvest. A predicted lack of food aid across Afghanistan is going to mean that many will starve in inaccessible parts of the country, or where their tribe doesn’t get the attention that other tribes might from the government.

Everywhere you go throughout the country you see the symbols of the war that has been passing up and down this land, from the Soviet era tanks littering Red Hill (so called because of the amount of blood spilt here) to the heavily armed foreign forces that drive down the middle of the road forcing all other traffic to peel off to the side until they are past. This is not a country of peace and the people haven’t experienced that in a long time.

In the midst of this you find a people where hospitality is everything, you can’t leave any shop without first having a cup of tea and a sweet with the shopkeeper! While I was there I had the pleasure of being invited to an Afghan home for lunch, it was quite an incredible spread with some really delicious food that the women of the house had spent hours preparing! Despite this I never saw a single woman from the house!

Segregation of the sexes in Afghanistan is pretty much complete, the only person who will see the face of a woman is her husband and immediate family. They are fully covered up if they leave the house or work in the compound and only then if escorted by a male relative. Men do the shopping for their wives and every other possible chore that needs to be done outside. If you pass a woman in the street she will look away and gather her burkha around her even more so you can’t even see the full-length dress she has on. Even young girls are covered up from a very young age and you rarely see even the youngest without a head covering. Good luck trying to capture one of these floating ghosts on the street without a zoom lens and a fast car!

It’s a place with staggering raw natural beauty, jagged dry mountains that cut the country in bits and surround towns and cities. Drying rivers flowing down onto green plains where the river flows and a dust bowl everywhere in between. But the environment despite all of it’s beauty is a harsh place to try and survive, it’s hot sun and hard winters score the faces of it’s people and limit their life spans.

But these are proud hardworking people eking out a living in a hot and dusty land and unlike in Africa where every child is asking for a gift in a lush and green paradise, there is something strong and dignified about the Afghans, like no matter how much you put on their back they will continue move. The built in human survival instinct.

I don’t know how much hope the Afghan people really have left for their country, will the American’s next surge make any difference or have they lost their window of opportunity for another generation? I would like to think that things can change in this place but I must say my heart is beginning to fail just like I sensed it was in the Afghans.

I took hundreds of pictures of this most photogenic of countries and regret the hundreds more I didn’t take, I’ve selected a few to put up on this blog for you to browse through with captions in the Afghanistan section of the gallery.

If you are interested, here is another article by a BBC correspondant who visited Kabul.

Merry Christmas from Africa

Merry Christmas to you all from a sunny Africa! As we write this we can hear the chirping of the birds in the trees, the sound of the waves against the rocks and the sun is just burning through the last of the morning clouds. Its a lovely place indeed to spend Christmas, though we do miss all of you friends and family so much too! Hope to see you all in the New Year sometime.

Leaving Nigeria

After 6 months of working at Drill Ranch in Calabar Jeremy finally got back to Nigeria so that we could get rolling on the road again. Jeremy had just acquired a 48 hour transit visa and my Cameroonian visa was about to expire so we had to get out pronto. It had been an awesome and compelling 6 months working at Drill Ranch and it was sad leaving the team behind. There’ll be more about DR in another post.

So with everything packed and the route ahead planed we set out to embark on the notorious stretch of road to Mamfe, often known as one of the worst stretches of mud road in Central Africa. The road is in Cameroon and lies between the border town of Ekok and the inland town of Mamfe which is located about 70k’s away. On leaving Nigeria and entering Cameroon the road instantly goes from nicely paved tarmac to complete dirt road.

We made it to the Nigerian side of the border crossing around 2:30pm after having fuelled up the bikes and ourselves at Ikom. The border crossing itself took an eternity. There was a sea of bureaucracy on the Nigerian side (5 guys had to individually take our details in their books and the boss man had to finish his lunch before he would check everything was okay!). There was also a small problem with my visa on the Cameroonian side.

As usual it all takes time here in Africa, and by the time things were all sorted it was getting late and a huge downpour broke upon us.  On finishing immigration one of the women who worked there took a long and judgemental look at us. She made a kind of grimace and asked if we had ridden the bikes all the way from Europe. We retorted with a triumphant ‘Yes!’ and then she said ‘Next you’re going to see my road. After that you’ll really know what Africa is-o’. With that she turned and walked away with a sadistic smile on her face. It was clear that the road ahead was not going to be a walk in the park.

As usual we were offered the ever amazing African hospitality. The border officials offered us a place to pitch our hammocks for the night. It was like an open air rectangular bandstand. The main thing is that it was free, dry and had the the ever present sound of the jungle to send us fast asleep.

In all fairness the road was probably very manageable 2 days before we set out on it but with massive downpours on the last two days it was wet, muddy and slippery. There were a few events, non-events and falls. The funniest of which saw me ride straight into a deep patch of  mud. It took an hour to dig the bike out with my bare hands.

Finally we got to Mamfe after the 4 and a half hours it took to clear 70K’s of slippery craziness. However all was not well. After setting out from Mamfe to Limbe Jeremy’s bike decided it had had enough. His bike kept dying every 10K’s and we were forced to make 10 minute stops before the bike would start going again. The problem kept deteriorating and the intervals were going from every 10K’s to every 2k’s. We knew it was a fuel delivery problem so we stopped in a small village and ripped out the entire fuel delivery system right down to the carburettor which was completely full of dirt. After 3 hours of meticulous cleaning the carb was clear but it also became very clear that we weren’t getting to Limbe that night. It was 6 o clock and we decided to stay in Manyemen for the night.

We arrived in Limbe the next day after riding through awesome roads and scenery. Limbe is a spectacular and beautiful place on the Cameroonian coast at the base of Mount Cameroon – it’s truly idyllic and the people are great. We started out staying at the botanic gardens on the edge of the sea but then met Jules who has put us up in his mansion to house sit while he’s gone to Gabon. Cameroon is like getting back to real Africa again. It’s bursting open with cheap food, beer and great bakeries. The people are also super friendly and the weather, apart from the odd bit of rain, is hot and sunny. We thought we were only going to be here for a couple of days to recharge, sort out any niggles on the bikes and get ready to move on to Douala but my bike decided to put a spanner in the works and up and die. The TDC sensor inside the engine is toast. It took around 3 days, numerous diagrams and a multimeter to figure that one out. So now we’re waiting on a part to be flown in from Europe. I suppose waiting in a mansion with views overlooking the sea in one of the most idyllic places on earth really isn’t so bad.

More pictures in our new Cameroonian gallery here.