We are asked to report Kabul airport 5AM sharp; I intensely detest these early morning reporting times, especially in Afghanistan; but we have little choice. Fajr next day is at 3:05AM so I get perhaps 4 hours of restless sleep at Wasi’s hospitable home. Although Kabul can be freeing most winter months, summers are the other extreme. We report at 5 sharp and after understandable checks at 4 separate security posts, we find ourselves at the departure lounge full of groggy adults and irate sleepy children. Kam Air flight to Herat is supposed to depart at 7:30 but there is no ways to tell the status come departure time. Eyes smarting from the lack of sleep, I try to follow an old Dari dubbed Bollywood movie (Amish Poori in an awful costume – Mugaambo, I think) on the screen.
At eight, I become irritable; the lounge is packed with people, many with unwashed bodies and it is getting hot outside; Kabul domestic airport does not have air. I get up and ask a security guard what the problem is, why are we late. The young lad looks at me with bored expression and shrugs his bony shoulders; I don’t think he cares. Don’t know, Besheen Aaghaa – please take a seat, Sir. I return to my seat that is now taken, as the hall is jam packed with people. After about 10 minutes, as if given an invisible signal, everybody, including me, leap up and make a run for the departure gate, as if the flight will take off without us. I later understand there are no assigned seats; the mad rush is for choice seats.
The exit door, however, remains locked, with no security guard in sight. There is very little concept of personal space in Afghanistan, or the Indian sub-continental for that matter. Not intentional, mind you. The line that forms is not single file, but hordes of warm bodies pressed together, straining for an exit. A Kam Air rep comes to the front, pushing his way through the crowd. We are late, open the door, open the door, where is the ahmek guard with the key, he demands into a walkie-talkie. There is confusion for about 5 minutes before a heavyset, potbellied security guard with the key comes jogging from the other side, fumbling with buttons of his pants and a sheepish grin on his face. Where in the world were you, you ahmek goof, demands Kam Air rep. Ah, I have the runs, bad runs, and very bad stomach. Ate very stale kaboobs yesterday, beebakshe. The Kam Air rep snorts in contempt. You have runs everyday! Stop eating – forever! Or at least for a year, open the door! The guard fumbles with the lock, doors swing open and the crowd surges forward; phew, fresh air, I take big gulps. We look at the puzzled Kam Air rep for guidance, where do we go from here?
The Rep looks this way and that, Now where is the baadbakh bus? It looks like he is going to pop a vein, screaming into the walkie-talkie. The aircraft is about 50 feet away from us; I clearly can see the pilots playing piano with instruments. We could have, in half a minute, walked and boarded the aircraft. No, says the Rep, security rules, we must take the bus. This a problem, as both buses are busy ferrying passengers off just arrived Safi Air from Dubai; it may take some time… An old man complains he is tired and cannot stand any longer. Beebakshe Aaghaa, besheen, says the Rep in sympathy; the old man flops on the steps, we wait. After another 30 minutes, the busses arrive and we scramble for our hour-long flight to Herat in the west. Herat is super, super hot, 105F with crippling power cuts; sleeping is almost impossible. After inspecting 41 homes for poor widows CAI donors are constructing, visiting CAI orphanage and her orphans, we return to Kabul the next day.
We have another 5AM reporting for our chartered flight to Yawkawlang the day after. I am yearning for an elusive good nights sleep, but with late dinners and very early airport reporting, this is becoming impossible. Predictably, we are told Bebakshe Aaghaa, besheen, at the hangar where our chartered single engine Kodiak is ready to soar. NATO is on military exercise so we cannot fly, we have to wait. Before my short fuse blows at being called early again just to wait around, Chris, our 28 year old pilot tells me NATO takes a no-nonsense attitude on aircrafts within its training vicinity and would probably blow our aircraft out of the sky if we attempted to take off; I shut up in a hurry. When we do take off, the flight is smooth and eventless, the view over the mountains as usual, fantastic.
We have to attend CAI sponsored mass marriage for 100 deprived couples today at Yawkawlang, followed by sheep distribution to poor widows as part of CAI Economic Uplifting Project and a nights stay at our medical clinic before our flight back to Kabul tomorrow. I request Aziz for a later pickup instead of the usual 6AM next day. You sure, Sir, he asks, strong winds pick up later in the day and the going will get quite bumpy. I have little choice, as the clinic is at least a good 2-hour drive from the landing strip and we have work to do; we settle on 11AM.
The marriage ceremony is on a grand scale with almost the entire village in attendance for this rare occasion to be merry, 25 sheep are handed over to 5 widows to make them economically independent then we drive to Imam Sajjad (A) Clinic in Sacheck. I am here to do a quick audit of CAI operations and meet our new doctor. I am happy to note expansion and modernizing of clinic is on track. As usual, I get to meet few severe medical cases that cannot be treated at the clinic; they want to go to Kabul for treatment but are too poor. A 3-year-old girl with a tumor in her nose and a young boy who rectum pops out every time he has to go to the toilet are approved; CAI donors will foot the bill for their transport and treatment, if possible. It is early next morning, when we are readying to return to Yawkawlang for our return flight that I almost faint in horror. A man working nearly has hit a land mine, his 2 fingers of left hand blown off; there is blood, oh so much blood. The man however, as many of his countrymen in such distress, is stoic, shows no emotion of pain; we dispatch him to Kabul pronto.
Aziz, an alternate pilot we have earlier flown, is at the airstrip on the dot; we take off. I am treated to the co-pilots seat with headphones so I can hear the chatter from fellow aircrafts in the vicinity and Kabul control tower. The aircraft bobs and dances as it is tossed by strong winds streaming through the mountains. Basheer, our engineer, is ashen faced, wants to puke; I am, happily, sitting out of range.
My departure from Afghanistan the next day is no different. I am at the airport at 5AM; spend over an hour pressed in line for security inspection only to be told the flight is delayed.
Bebakshe Aaghaa, besheen.
View photos here.