Saturday, April 28, 2007

Streets of Kabul

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

Exiting the Airport brings you into a wide boulevard. And scenes of vast destruction. The scars of 30 years of war and tyrants are everywhere. Piles of barely identifiable rubble are interspersed with buildings pockmarked with hundreds of bullet and shrapnel hits. Some 4-5 story buildings are partially collapsed on one end, with fronts and backs blown out. 1,000 lb. chunks of concrete dangle over the sidewalk, attached only by a piece of re-bar—and there’s no yellow caution ribbon (imagine that).

Other buildings are completely collapsed, the floors pancaked on top of one another. Some larger buildings are not terribly damaged, but all the windows are blown out and a fence surrounds them. You wonder if they are due for rebuilding or demolition.

The streets. The thing about the streets and sidewalks here are that they look like they were once comfortable and elegant. Most are wide and were once well paved. There are sensible traffic circles and definitely identifiable districts of nice-looking4-5 story buildings 50-100 years old. Now, though, most of the grand boulevards are an obstacle course of potholes. Many are 1-2 feet wide and 3-6 inches deep. If you drive through them at more than 5 mph, you’ll tear off a wheel and give every passenger a concussion.

So driving here is like a bumper car ride slalom course, with a little grand prix video game mixed in. Drivers swerve at top speed left and right to avoid the pot holes. The main boulevard into downtown from where I work is maybe 6 lanes wide. There are no lane markings, and the goal of drivers in both directions is avoiding potholes. We’ll frequently swerve 2 lanes into opposing traffic to avoid a series of nasty potholes on our side. I now know the definition of a “hair-raising ride”. I sit in the backseat, the only one wearing a seatbelt, screaming “how could you do that?” Amazingly, I have not seen a single accident. We kissed bumpers with another car once in traffic, but given the condition of most Kabuli cars, if nothing falls off in a crash, then no harm done. Think bumper cars at an amusement park—or NASCAR unplugged.

I haven’t seen a single road sign, in Kabul, not one traffic light, one street light (operating), nor one stripe on a road. I was told they were all destroyed in the wars to confuse invaders. Besides the wide boulevard, the city is a warren of small roads and neighborhoods that look nearly the same. A river and a few canals slash through the city, adding unexpected barricades and detours. I don’t know how anyone finds their way around. If I drove a car here, I’d be lost for years.

There are many traffic circles, and some even have policemen sitting inside little sheds in the middle. They don’t appear to be too interested in directing traffic. A few times when traffic became a hopeless snarl they would wade out into the sea of cars with a little paddle like sign that said stop. It had a small effect on the half dozen cars in his immediate vicinity, but mostly no one else knew he was there. At one circle, a traffic cop shouted directions over a loudspeaker from his car. Innovative and unique, but doubtful anyone paid much attention.

In my neighborhood where there was a lot of fighting during the Afghan Civil war in the 1990s, so the sidewalks are torn up into large concrete chunks, and most people walk in the streets. On the side streets, speed is kept down by significant speed bumps at each intersection. They must have been built as a defensive measure to discourage drive by shootings. They’d never get past the intersection without coming to a full halt. The speed bumps are just piles of rubble, and in some places they have worn away to reveal a 3-4 deep by 12’ wide trench, a concave speed bump that is just as effective in slowing or stopping cars.

Despite all the craziness, I never see road rage. Horns honk constantly, but they are politely melodic horns that play a little ditty, not loud and pushy like American cars’ horns.

People constantly cut each other off, but it’s all part of the game, like a chess game. Stoic drivers all, they know that the aim is to get in front of the person who is in front of you. And after a week of hundreds of what Americans would call close calls, no car I’ve been in has been hit, or hit another (well, one little tap at a stop), and I’ve never even seen a wreck—though I hear there are terrible ones all the time.

On some street corners, there are piles of trash 4-5 feet high in a 20’ circle. Sometimes a herd of goats browses on top looking for something to eat. Every couple of days a dump truck is there and a handful of guys shovel the trash for a couple of hours. This is the trash disposal system for this neighborhood. I’m told that after the US led invasion trash littered the streets everywhere for months. This is a huge improvement.

There is remarkably little trash blowing in the streets or piled other than these apparently designated spots. I’ve seen worse on I-77. Among the great needs here are dumpsters to contain the trash and a fleet of trucks to empty them. The health risks are huge, especially considering the dry dusty winds that pick up all sorts of junk and blow it everywhere. The US should melt down all its SUVs and send the steel to Afghanistan where they could mold it into dumpsters. That would be one of the most effective things we could do to “fight terrorism.”

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