Saturday, October 21, 2006

Taxis and Bases

Thursday night was my first time volunteering with the Women of Hope Village project. After work I went straight over to Betsy's (or I tried to, the driver thought I said Beth's house, so I ended up on the wrong side of town -- I tried to tell him we were going the wrong way, but both men assumed I didn't know what I was talking about). Eventually I arrived at Betsy's, just in time to help load up M's taxi to head over to the Army Corp Engineer base. Now, it is amazing how much stuff Betsy and M can cram into a station wagon. They fit in the biggest suitcase I've ever seen, a regular sized suitcase, two big canvas bags about 3 ft high and two ft wide, a metal clothing rack, 4 wicker baskets, a huge duffel bag and three people. M, Betsy's Afghan counterpart, isn't a taxi driver, but he rents them once a week to transport crafts to different events.

This was my first time riding in a regular taxi, and it makes for a whole different experience. My NGO has several vehicles, all of which are four wheel drive, so you don't really feel how bad the roads are. In a taxi with almost no shocks, you get a whole new experience. So, I was bouncing around in the backseat when I noticed movement above the little one story shops crammed tightly together. A couple of kids were running along the roofs of the shops, playing tag. In the SUV it's hard to get a clear view of the roofs, but on that ride I also noticed shop owners climbing up piles of their wares to take breaks on the roof and men sitting in chairs chatting. I feel like I discovered a whole new level of the city.

I don't think I've talked much about driving in Kabul, but it really is a free-for-all. There aren't any rules of engagement, no traffic lights or lanes, and traffic at roundabouts goes in all directions. It is a constant game of chicken. M cut off another driver, and the driver pulled up, rolled down the window and politely asked him if he wanted to fight. Honestly, it seems a bit more civilized than the US, where road rage ends in accidents and shooting.

When we reached the base we had to pull in to have the car inspected, but there was a problem and we were told to wait. So, we waited and waited and watched other cars get cleared to go in. When I inquired about the delay, Betsy explained that we were waiting because she refused to pay the guards a bribe to let us in. We were ordered to move from our spot onto the main street and then waited about 20 minutes until one of the guards finally waved us in. While we waited four or five beggar kids came up to the car and knocked on the windows, trying to sell gum and get money. It is really sad. Sometimes they are as young as four and five years old, walking between cars on busy streets with rags, wiping down the cars and hoping for some charity.

Eventually, we entered the base. Once inside we all got out of the car while it was checked with mirrored poles (bombs hidden in the undercarriage) and bomb dogs. While the car was being searched Betsy made small talk with the guy in charge, and everyone looked at me uncomfortably thinking that I was an Afghan woman. I joined the conversation, and it was funny to watch the soldiers' reaction to my American accent. M was searched, and one of the soldiers finally asked if we were both American. I said yes, and he said that they didn't have to search me, but they did need to go through my bag. Now, this was hysterical because before we left the house Betsy stuffed my bag full of snack size Dorito bags, cookies and crackers because we would be on the base when the sun set (and the fasting ends) and none of us had eaten all day. You can image the soldiers' expressions as they pulled out bag after bag of snacks.

There is a little bazaar set up for the Afghan vendors, but Betsy is set up separately because she is a non-profit. So, we had a porch area all to ourselves with tables and chairs. It took about a 1/2 hour to get everything displayed, with a 5 minute break because Betsy had to talk to the lead soldier to get the Afghan guard away from our tables - he was ogling us the entire time we were setting up, and Betsy said the Afghan vendors probably bribed him to spy on our wares and report back. He disappeared shortly thereafter, and we waited. And waited. I think we were set up by 5, but people didn't wander over to our little porch until 6:30. We made less than 10 sales that night, but we pulled in around $500 because the pieces people bought had a lot of embroidery on them. Then, at 8 we packed everything back up into suitcases and canvas bags, lugged it back to the car, dropped it off at Betsy's and headed home. Needless to say, I was exhausted after working all day and then spending the evening moving wares and shivering (it's getting cold here). It felt great to come home physically exhausted from working for a good cause. Then, I got up at 7:30 am the next day to do it again, at a different base.

Friday was a little more difficult because I'm back on the Kabul diet (got the runs), so I was popping Kaopectate caplets before I left the house. The second base is set up very differently from the first, and we were much busier, but overall it was a similar experience. We made over $3,000 on Friday (9-4) and all three of us were busy most of the time. Betsy was really pleased because that is the biggest day they've had so far, and it was perfect timing for the women who create the crafts - they got their money just in time for the Eid holiday.

Although selling crafts at US Army Bases isn't exactly my ideal volunteer situation, it is one of the few things that I can do as a foreigner that doesn't take an opportunity away from an Afghan, helps Afghan women and gets me out of the house. I still haven't solved the problem of interacting with the local community, but at least I am contributing in some small way. And, admittedly, it's nice to hang out someplace where I can sit outside in short sleeved shirts and jeans and not offend anyone.

*** Sorry, no pictures. Cameras aren't allowed on the bases. . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Its meshari. I thought our family could pack a car pretty well but damn... we got beat. It sounded like a lot of fun going around to the bases, almost like garage sales but on the move. Im glad to see you're enjoying yourself a little more. Miss you lots and can't wait to see you.

Love always,