Thursday, April 26, 2007

Life in a Kabuli guesthouse

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

I thought it might be interesting to describe a day in the life here. It’s a very different life, and being the only, well not just American, but westerner I see or even speak with all day gives everything an interesting slant.

Sun rises just after 4:00 am in Kabul. For the first week I was up even earlier. A mosque around the corner and the mullah begins calling over a tinny loudspeaker around 3:30 AM. I quickly learned that using earplugs I might get another hour or so of sleep. I live in what is known in Afghanistan as a guest house. There are scores of them in Kabul, and have a long history of being a major lodging for travelers. There are only 2-3 full-service hotels in Kabul at the moment (very pricey and not worth it), and the guest houses fill the gap.

Guest houses are 2-3 story buildings in a compound with high walls topped by concertina wire. They have 5-10 comfortably sized guest rooms. Mine is about 12x14 ft. There is a wardrobe and a closet. The walls are nearly 2 ft thick masonry and stucco on both sides, but there are 2 large windows. Opening the garish red velveteen curtains provides views of the 8 ft. high walls with concertina wire crowns. But the sun shines in when I pull open the curtains-- if they don’t fall down from the tugging-- and you can see a slice of blue sky a few taller green trees and birds flitting from them. It’s like a prison, actually. You begin to appreciate the smallest things.

The bed has been very lumpy, but they put on a new three inch thick foam mattress, so it’s much improved, despite being three inches too short to fully stretch out. There’s no TV, but I do have a reading light, and I bought a tiny Chinese-made shortwave radio (a “Singbox”) that picks up the few local stations. In the right weather I can pick up the BBC. Hearing clear English is a comfort. There is a desk where I keep a 2 litre bottle of purified water and a power strip to recharge all my battery operated things: camera, computer, cell phone, video camera batteries, etc. A thin red carpet that keeps down the echos bouncing off the concrete walls. Stains cover the walls and furniture. It looks like a cheap city flop house room. Adequate, but nothing comfortable about it. Nothing at all.

The bathrooms are down the hall in one “bathroom” suite. There are 4 private bathrooms for 5-6 men. It’s an all male guest house. Each bathroom has a western sink and toilet, but the shower juts out of the wall into the middle of the room and splashes on the floor, so the whole room is the shower stall. Well, floor to ceiling is all tiled, so what the heck, but the water does splash everywhere including the toilet seat, your shaving kit on the little shelf, your dry towel hanging on the door, and your night clothes hanging on the wall. There’s plenty of hot water before 6:30 am, which is the one comfort, not the least because the dry dusty Kabul air cakes in your sinus, and the steam gives them a good cleaning. The five minutes after a shower is the best breathing of the day.

(to be continued)

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