MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Single-Speeds in a War Zone
This is a bad idea.
Breathe. Just breathe. Steady.
Just let go of the brakes and ride through. You got this. You know how to ride a bike.
Damn, these rocks are sliding! Worst trail ever. Don't crash. Please, please, please. Not here.
The mountainside was more rock strewn than it had appeared. These barren slopes were not like those I was used to biking in Colorado. Devoid of trees, the slopes looked like someone had dynamited the mountain and left the rubble where it had fallen. My bike was rolling down what had started out as a narrow goat path farther up the mountain. Almost immediately the path disappeared, and there was no clear way up or down, just rocks in all directions.
The ground slid, and small stones sprayed underneath my tires. I tensed.
Whose idea was this?
Yours, my brain replied.
There's no path!
Yeah, well, there could be land mines if you ride off the path.
My heart pounded. I focused downhill. Picking a line through the rubble, I steadied my nerves and took a deep breath. I gripped my handlebars and tried to keep my bike upright. The school and the open courtyard sat at the base of the mountain, a small white oasis in the sea of brown. I shifted my weight over the back tire. I let go of the brakes and let the speed take me through. Shades of brown rushed by in a blur as I picked up speed. I bent my elbows deeper to allow my arms to absorb the bouncing. My teeth chattered with the vibrations. My tires slid more than they rolled, searching for solid ground.
You're almost down. Relax. Breathe. Just ride. You know how to do this. Breathe! Dust stung my eyes. My hair was sweaty and plastered to my head under my checkered head scarf. My heart pounded even harder—whether from fear, exertion, or the layers of clothing I wore that felt like a sauna, I wasn't entirely sure.
Suddenly the tires stopped sliding and I was on level, solid ground. The mountain had spat me out alive. As if a mute button was released, sound flooded my ears: cheering. Six hundred boys were cheering. I looked up for the first time since I'd started my descent and smiled in relief through the cloud of dust. Six hundred Afghan boys smiled back. And one threw a rock. Six hundred to one? I'll take those odds.
Travis was smiling at me from behind the sea of faces. "Nice job, mate. They loved it. They can't believe you didn't crash. It would have been more entertaining if you had, though."
I wanted to punch him, but in Afghanistan women don't punch men, playfully or not. But, in Afghanistan, women also don't ride bikes.
In a remote village, in the heart of the Panjshir mountains, six hundred boys, their teachers, and a few random villagers who wandered over, had just watched a woman ride a mountain bike behind their schoolyard. This was the first time any of them had seen a girl ride a bike. What they maybe didn't realize was that they had just witnessed the first time any woman had mountain biked in Afghanistan.
* * *
I didn't go to Afghanistan planning to ride a mountain bike. Does anyone travel to a war zone and say to themselves, "I wish I had remembered to pack my mountain bike, helmet, and lycra! This would be an awesome place to ride." No, they probably don't.
But on my fourth trip in 2009, I decided to bring my tangerine Niner 29er single-speed and challenge the gender barrier that prevents women from riding bikes. Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world that doesn't allow its women or girls to ride. But I'm not Afghan. Standing tall at five foot nine, with long blond hair, I am clearly not a local. While many back home assume being so obviously a foreigner is an inherent risk, it has become my biggest asset. A foreign woman here is a hybrid gender. An honorary man. A status that often allows me a unique insight into a complicated region.
Afghan men recognize me as a woman, but as a foreign woman. I am often treated as a man would be. I sit with the men, eat with the men, dip snuff with the men. I have fished with them. They have let me ride buzkashi horses. All while their women are often shut away in the family home, not to be seen or heard. I'm in a fascinating position, being able to speak freely with the men who make the decisions, while having full access to the women because, despite my honorary male status, I am a woman. It allows me a unique insight into both sides of the gender equation, which often have extremely divergent perspectives.
I have discussed this with other foreign women I know who live and work in Afghanistan and Pakistan—journalists, photographers, writers, and aid workers—and they all have the same experience. They are most often met with curiosity and a willingness to talk as equals. Unfortunately, too often they are also faced with overly flirtatious Afghan men. More than once I have been groped in close quarters by a man who thought he could get away with it because I'm American. The assumption that American women are promiscuous is an unfortunate and deep-seated stereotype that has preceded me in many countries throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. It has led to more than one unwanted advancement, and the occasional marriage proposal. Thanks to globalization, the only consistent exposure many cultures have to American women is through movies, television, and music videos. Do we realize that our gender is judged on the standards of rap videos, Miley Cyrus, and the Kardashians?
Shaima, a friend I met on my first visit, illustrated the gender issue succinctly. Shaima was an American from Boulder, Colorado, and was half Afghan and half Costa Rican. She was in the country for several months to work with an Afghan nonprofit. Because she looked Afghan, she often encountered men who wouldn't speak to her. She would be at a meeting discussing next steps with the program they were working on, a program she was in charge of, and Afghan men often wouldn't shake her hand or speak to her directly. They would speak to her male colleagues as if she were invisible.
Over time I began to embrace the access that my honorary male status allowed. I was frustrated by the double standard, but I soon recognized the opportunity to challenge the gender barriers as a foreign woman in ways that might not have been tolerated if I were an Afghan woman. My theory was that beyond illustrating what a woman was capable of to Afghans, I would also be able to experience Afghanistan in a way few others had before me. By sharing my experiences and stories back home, perhaps I could challenge perceptions in both countries.
So it was on October 3, 2009, that I first put the rubber side down on a dry riverbed in the Panjshir Valley. It was part of the small but strategic Panjshir province, its mountains so steep that they'd kept the Taliban out—one of the few areas able to do so.
Travis, Hamid, Shah Mohammad, and I were driving through the province on the main road that followed the Panjshir River. Our driver, Shah Mohammad, was a sweet man I'd met on my first visit. Short and stout, he had a solemn face framed by a neatly trimmed beard and an ever-present embroidered white taqiyah prayer cap. We had seen some goat trails and a truck path on the other side of the river, so we were keeping our eyes peeled for a bridge large enough for our car. When we spotted one that seemed safe enough, Shah Mohammad drove through a small village and over the water. He opened the hatchback of the white Toyota Corolla so we could unload our gear.
Travis Beard and I had also met on my first visit a year prior. He'd become a trusted friend and an advisor to my fledgling non-profit organization, Mountain2Mountain. Focused on women's rights projects, it was what had brought me to Afghanistan in the first place. Travis was an Australian photojournalist, rock musician, motorcycle tourer, and aspiring filmmaker, and he was on hand to document the trip. I trusted his opinions and advice, if not necessarily sharing his comfort level of assumed risk. As he spent a lot of time traveling through Afghanistan on a motorcycle, he supported my desire to ride and had encouraged me in previous discussions. Trav came across as a brash and cynical war journo, but he nonetheless cared deeply about Afghanistan. He's done more for mentoring young Afghan photographers, artists, and musicians than anyone else I knew. Unlike most aid organizations and embassies, he's done it without the stamp of approval or the desire for credit, and often out of his own pocket.
Also along with us was Hamid, Travis's Afghan "brother." Hamid was working for me on this trip as my translator. He looked like a young Lenny Kravitz, circa "Fly Away," with a short curly fro and killer good looks. He would break hearts wide open if he lived somewhere where dating was acceptable. Not only was he always up for adventures, but his family was also Panjshiri. It was important to have someone with us who was local and considered part of the province's social fabric.
On this visit to Afghanistan, I was staying with Travis and Hamid, along with their other housemates, Nabil and Parweez, in their large private house in Kabul's central Taimani district. Living with a group of young Afghan men for several weeks was proving to be interesting. When I arrived with my bike, Hamid and Parweez were curious about my plan to ride it, and they watched the assembly as I took it out of the Thule bike box in pieces. We discussed the components, the tools, and what did what. Both of them rode motorcycles, but neither rode bicycles, and they thought I was a little crazy to want to ride a mountain bike instead of something with a motor. We talked in broad strokes about my plan, potential obstacles, and what to wear on a bike to keep from offending people in a country where women don't ride. The beauty of staying with them was that their house, like most in Kabul, had a walled courtyard, and I could take off my head scarf and dress as Western as I liked. And so, wearing my halter dress and jeans, I pulled on my cleats and took the bike outside into the courtyard, to see if my reassembly was adequate or if I'd forgotten something important.
Their courtyard was small and contained a car, three motorbikes, and one frisky stray cat they'd adopted named Mojo. So it was a bit like a small BMX course for three-year-olds. My handling skills are poor at best and I'm not great with tight corners and switchbacks, so this was actually a challenging environment. I soon realized I needed more air in my front shock and my rear tire, and my seat was too low, but the brakes worked, and I thought I'd done a damn fine job at the first-time assembly. This coming from a girl who rarely washes the mud off her bike and whose only maintenance is occasionally remembering to oil her chain. Very occasionally.
More important, in the courtyard I discovered that I could, in fact, ride in jeans and a skirt. Not ideal in the heat, but feasibly rideable and socially respectable. I had a few Patagonia halter dresses that I liked to wear over pants and under a tunic around town, and the combination proved comfortable for riding—a big start toward figuring out cycling attire that wouldn't offend in rural villages on or off the bike. So I continued playing around, coming up with a little clockwise courtyard circuit, round the garden, through the carport, under the clothesline, over the grass, up the concrete porch, and down the other side over the loose pile of bricks. I got more confident on the loop and picked up speed.
The trouble came as I reversed direction. Not paying attention, I rode toward the carport between the pillars that supported the clothesline I'd been ducking under. From this angle, I could get more speed but also had to go up the curb rather than down. I rode toward it, focused on the curb and lifting my bike up it, forgetting about the clothesline. It cut me across my right eye and the bridge of my nose, whipping my head back. I swore loudly as I instinctively took my feet off the pedals to keep my balance and put them on the ground, on either side of my bike. I doubled over and tentatively felt above my eye.
It was official. In my desire to be the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan, I had injured myself on day one, in a private courtyard, with a clothesline.
My eye hurt, but one of the housemates, Nabil, was on the porch watching, so as I got off my bike to go inside, I felt obliged to chat with him. My eye was starting to throb, so I excused myself, and Najib said, "Oh, yeah, your eye is bleeding quite a bit. You should go clean that."
How about telling me that ten minutes ago when I was trying to pretend that I'm okay and could have a coherent conversation with you?
So I went upstairs to take a look and sure enough—I had gashed the bridge of my nose and my eyelid and they were already swelling. Nice. Really smooth, Shannon. My penchant for clumsiness was front and center in Afghanistan.
I decided that I'd had enough humiliation for one day, so I went back downstairs to put my bike away in the front room.
Three days later, I was unpacking it from the hatchback of Shah Mohammad's Corolla, beside a dry riverbed in the Panjshir Valley. Behind my sunglasses, my eye was still sore.
While I put the wheels on the bike, Travis went up the road and perched on a small hill to shoot some video from above. Hamid hung back with me while I attached the wheels. Shah Mohammad watched quietly, obviously curious as to what I was going to do next.
I considered my bike helmet. Wear it over my head scarf? No head scarf? What if I had to take my helmet off? Did I even need my helmet? How do I do this with the least amount of offensiveness and the least amount of awkwardness? I was already wearing many layers: long pants under my long dress under a long-sleeved tunic. The helmet seemed to fit over the head scarf, which I pulled down and wrapped around my neck and tied behind it—checking the length of drape so it wouldn't kill me Isadora Duncan–style by getting caught in the back wheel and breaking my neck.
I did a quick once-over … all seemed to be in order. Glasses. Bike gloves. Two wheels. By this point a healthy crowd of men had gathered around, mostly workmen from the construction trucks we'd passed. Since we were off the main road, I'd assumed we would be mostly alone. Nope. Word spreads like wildfire when something unusual is going on. Great, no pressure.
A stormy gray sky was developing, but the clouds hadn't yet covered the sun. I looked around. The rugged mountains rose up on all sides, and ahead of me a dry riverbed offered a rocky path that I could navigate. When I got the signal from Travis that he was ready, I took a deep breath and started pedaling. And, voilà! I was riding my bike. In Afghanistan. On my thirty-fifth birthday. A huge, goofy grin pasted itself to my face.
The path was strewn with boulders and was bumpy as hell. Since construction trucks came through here regularly, we knew this area was clear of land mines. I played around, hopping my bike over rocks, just enjoying the experience, and riding around to see what the terrain was like, how it felt to ride it, and what sort of reaction I created among the men who saw me. I had to go through runoffs that crisscrossed the ground as I picked my way through the riverbed. Each crossing sprayed water as I splashed through like a kid, trying not to slide on the slippery rocks just under the surface. It felt almost like riding back home, where I hit puddles and water at every chance, much to the horror of friends who try to keep their bikes clean.
Many of the men who were working in the area shouted "Salaam" when they saw me, but most simply watched curiously. I was riding back and forth along one section that was smooth and fun to play on when I noticed a mother and young girl sitting quietly, almost hidden, under a tree watching me. I immediately thought of my daughter, Devon, four years old and half the world away. I wished she could be here with me. As I rode past them I waved shyly, and they both smiled and waved back. I smiled and put my hand to my heart, the way Afghans do when they are saying "Salaam" to show respect, and they did the same.
My heart happy and my pants muddy, I arrived back at the car boiling hot under the layers of clothing. I couldn't stop grinning. I took off my helmet and grabbed a bottle of water. Hamid and I talked to a few of the local men who had gathered around. They asked where I was from and what I was doing there. I asked about their work and families. One young man shyly asked if he could ride my bike. I smiled and offered it to him, nodding. "Bale"—Yes. He smiled back more confidently as he took my bike. He pedaled around in wide circles while the men laughed and joked with one another.
The clouds rolled in, blotting out the sun, so we said our good-byes, and I quickly took off the wheels to put the bike back in the car. We were heading to the village of Dashty Rewat and didn't want to arrive in the dark. We still had a few hours of driving ahead of us, much of it on dodgy dirt roads. Until now we'd been on paved or relatively smooth dirt roads just inside the entrance to the valley, and we'd made good time.
Unfortunately, when we hit the dirt roads, it became apparent that Shah Mohammad should not be driving outside Kabul. He couldn't see the numerous crudely constructed concrete speed bumps made to slow down traffic through the villages that dot the main road. His ancient Corolla was not meant to take on these things at high speed, yet he seemingly couldn't see them until it was too late. The lack of shocks in the car rattled our bodies each time the car made contact with the speed bumps. The problem came to a head as we were driving around the hill of Massoud's tomb. It sat in the middle of the valley overlooking the river. As we rounded a bend, Shah Mohammad overcooked the turn and suddenly the car was careening straight toward the cliff.
Travis had been sleeping in the seat next to me, holding his camera in his lap, when I screamed.
Luckily for us, a few months prior, as part of the ongoing construction work being done on the road, and on Massoud's tomb above us, rock barriers had been built along the cliff. I hadn't noticed them the last time I visited. Even more luckily, the barriers were solidly built. We busted off a chunk when the Corolla made impact, but the car didn't follow the rocks tumbling down the cliff side. Shah Mohammad quickly tried to reverse the Corolla so he could keep driving. We all shouted for him to stop so we could check the car, the barrier, and collect ourselves.
I looked over at Travis, he looked at me, and we both leaned forward to look into the front seat to check on Hamid. He appeared stunned. None of us had been wearing seat belts. I wasn't even sure there were any functioning in the car. We'd come inches from death, and I realized that in a so-called near-death experience your life doesn't flash before your eyes. You just think, "Oh, shit!" and everything else is blank.
Without saying a word, we all got out to look at the car and the barrier.
"What the hell, dude?" said Hamid in a low voice to Travis.
His years as an English translator for American troops and hanging around expats like Travis had honed his slang and timing, and I often forgot that Dari was his first language. The fender and wheel panel were smashed in, but there was far less damage than I'd expected. Judging from the rectangular barriers on either side, I guessed that the one we'd hit had lost half of its concrete. We looked at one another again, and then we all started laughing, the adrenaline leaving our bodies. Hamid and Travis peered over the edge. "Daaaamn," said Hamid.
"Uh, guys? You gotta look at this." They turned around. I pointed at the car.
Shah Mohammad had gotten a crowbar out and, as if to prove that Corollas were as resilient as the Afghans themselves, he hooked the curved end of the crowbar under the fender and pulled it back into place. He did the same with the wheel panel. Good as new! Sort of. Hamid shook his head in disbelief.
We piled back into the car and continued onward as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. We got about an hour or so farther down the road, which had quickly become bumpy, rock strewn, gutted out, and four-by-four worthy. It was around this time that Shah Mohammad started complaining. He wasn't happy he had to drive so far, on such bad roads. Hamid, who sat beside him and was the only one of us fluent in Dari, one of Afghanistan's two national languages, took the brunt of it. About fifteen minutes from Dashty Rewat, we encountered a massive rock pile that we had to navigate across. Shah Mohammad told Hamid he wouldn't go any farther. The discussion became a bit of a kerfuffle, and I said I wouldn't pay the full day's rate if he turned around. I told Hamid to explain that we had hired him for the day to go to Panjshir. If he had a problem with the distance or the roads, he should have said so and we could have hired another driver. He continued to complain but he also continued to drive. I didn't blame him really. We were all getting cranky, hungry, and tired. The road was battering our bodies as well as our moods. But Travis continued to sleep, his camera cradled in his lap like a small cat.
Travis and Hamid had spent time in Dashty Rewat on their first attempt to summit the Anjuman Pass, which borders the back end of the Panjshir Valley. They traveled there by motorcycle with their good friend and fellow adventurer Jeremy Kelly. They'd randomly stopped here at dusk to ask if any of the villagers knew where they could spend the night. Idi Mohammad, one of the villagers, had immediately offered his home. In the time-honored tradition of Muslim hospitality, all three had received a warm meal and a place to sleep. It turned out that Idi Mohammad was the principal of the boys' school and Travis told him about me and the work I was looking to do with my organization, Mountain2Mountain. Travis, Hamid, and Jeremy were unsuccessful on their first attempt to summit the Anjuman Pass, and were stopped by the local police in Parion and forced to spend a night in their custody. They returned a few weeks later with a letter of introduction from the Panjshir governor to complete the ride, and again stayed with Idi Mohammad's family. Knowing I would be interested in meeting Idi and discussing education in a rural community, Travis had promised to introduce me to him the next time I was in Afghanistan.
Dashty Rewat looked much the same as any of the other villages we'd been driving through—crumbling mud walls and shipping containers that housed various shops along the dirt road. It had the general look of a village recently used for bombing practice. The only distinguishing feature was its remoteness and a new structure being built. Two men were on the roof of a two-story white building. One turned out to be Idi Mohammad, in a light-brown pakol hat, the type favored by the Northern Alliance mujahideen leader and Panjshiri hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Panjshir is known as the Valley of the Five Lions, and Massoud was often referred to as the Lion of Panjshir. He was a powerful figure not just in Panjshir but throughout Afghanistan, a rare Che Guevara type, with iconic photographs on buildings, roadside banners, and even in the windows of cars. He was not just beloved by his own Panjshiris, but potentially had the ability to unite Afghanistan. He rose to fame as a mujahideen leader fighting the Soviet-backed central government. After the Soviets withdrew, the Afghan government collapsed. Civil war erupted and Kabul became the battleground for mujahideen factions fighting for control of the city and the country. Eventually, the Taliban took Kabul, and Panjshir became a key staging ground in the fight against the Taliban under Massoud's leadership of the Northern Alliance. The high mountains surrounding the narrow province create a natural defense, and Panjshir was not taken by the Taliban. Massoud was assassinated on September 9, 2001, by posing as a news crew under the orders of Osama bin Laden. When the United States was attacked two days later on 9/11, many analysts made the connection to the major terrorist attack Massoud had warned against several months earlier in a speech to the European Parliament. The United States soon found itself in Afghanistan, hunting Bin Laden, and fighting the Taliban on the side of Massoud's Northern Alliance. Revered in life, he is still revered in death. The tomb under construction on the hillside overlooking the valley is a symbol of the people's love, as are the men that still serve him and his cause. There is a pride and independence in Panjshir that comes from their love of their commander and his love of Panjshir, which is still plainly visible in every village.
Idi's face lit up when he saw Travis and Hamid stepping out of the car, and he shouted down at us, "Salaam! Salaam!" He quickly climbed down from the roof, beaming broadly, while we walked around back, gathering a crowd of children and men. Travis shouted up, "Salaam," in his Aussie drawl, waving up at the men. "Salaam, salaam," he said to the children, smiling and high-fiving some of them as we walked through the crowd.
After Travis, Hamid, Idi, and the second man, Idi's brother Fardin, embraced and shook hands, I was introduced and found myself, once again, mesmerized by the handsome features of Panjshiri men. Photos of Massoud highlight his charisma, and my Panjshiri friends are all striking. Idi Mohammad was no different. Idi was genuinely happy to see the guys and asked how their motorbike trip went. He'd been worried about them. There was no cell phone service, so he had no way of knowing if they'd encountered problems, if they'd been successful, or even if they'd gotten back alive.
The men were disappointed that Jeremy was not with us. Travis explained to me that they'd loved his red hair and beard. Hamid explained to Idi in Dari that Jeremy was working in Kabul, but that he was healthy and sent his best to everyone.
Idi asked us to come inside and join his family for dinner and to spend the night, since the sun was already behind the mountains. Hamid explained to him that we'd wanted to drive out to Dashty Rewat so that they could introduce me, but that we had to go back tonight, especially now as our driver was being such a pain in the ass. Idi Mohammad looked concerned and unhappy that we couldn't stay. He offered a second time in case we were simply being polite in declining, but we explained that our driver was the main issue and that we would come back next week and plan to stay longer. Idi agreed and we sat down to talk on a stone wall overlooking the road and the mountains as the entire village watched, or at least the men and the children. Not one woman was to be seen.
Idi explained to me that he was a teacher, and like many Afghans during the civil war, he'd spent years as a refugee with his family across the border in Pakistan. In Pakistan, he received an education, and when he returned to his village, he started up a school for the local boys with a few other teachers. It expanded as more and more families sent their boys, and they now had a school that provided education through high school. He was the principal and while they had a school and teachers, they lacked supplies. This was something I could potentially help with. We discussed the immediate need for paper and pens. Ironically, the simple lack of supplies is the unfortunate reason many children do not attend school in countries like Afghanistan. Families are often too poor to afford the twenty cents for a notebook. The school housed six hundred students on average. Amazingly, their other need was computers. I was surprised and asked why. Idi Mohammad explained that it could connect them to the rest of the world and allow their remote village to provide a better education. They already had a teacher trained in computer science, so it was simply a matter of machines. Many of their boys hoped to get into Kabul University, and basic computer skills could help.
When I asked about the girls' education, he replied that there was no school in the village or nearby.
"Would the village be open to the idea of a girls' school?" I asked.
"Yes, we would allow our girls to go to school. It is a very necessary thing for all children. Boys and girls."
"Is there land that could be used, or a building that could be improved? Are there any female teachers in the area?"
"Yes, we can discuss that more. There is a piece of land that used to be a girls' school before the Russians. There are no female teachers. But if it was just through year five, we could use male teachers."
"Could we discuss this more when I return?"
"I would be most honored to discuss it further, and I will help in any way I can."
During the last few minutes of the talk, we heard banging. Behind us, in the street, Shah Mohammad was striking the front fender with the crowbar. Was this passive aggressive behavior to get us moving along, or did he really think it would further improve the dents?
I shook my head in disbelief, but I reluctantly stood. I shook Idi's hand and the hands of many others in the crowd. "Tashakur, Idi. Khoda al fez." Thank you. Good-bye. We all said good-bye, and I promised to come back the next week with school supplies as a start, and we'd stay for a few days.
Back in the car I was positively giddy. I was fully aware that this meeting wouldn't have been possible without the previous visits and cups of tea drunk by Travis and Hamid—opening the door for me to step in with solid connections already in place.
"Thank you, thank you, Trav. I am so grateful. You have made this the best birthday ever." He smiled amusedly and muttered in his dry Aussie drawl, "Yeah, yeah," and promptly fell asleep again.
I leaned back and sighed with contentment as we began the long drive home, dusk already setting in as Shah Mohammad bitched to an uninterested Hamid, who continued playing his role as seeing-eye dog in the front seat, pointing out speed bumps and upcoming curves. Strangely enough, Shah Mohammad was now wearing a pair of glasses. Perhaps they could have been of use a few hours ago when we nearly died? I thought to myself.
Five days later we drove back to Dashty Rewat in a rented four-by-four. We left Shah Mohammad in Kabul. Hamid was at the wheel. The back was filled with a thousand dollars' worth of school supplies and my bike, which I hoped to ride some more. We had a five-song playlist of American hip-hop in the tape deck and another tape with five Bollywood songs. "In Da Club" by 50 Cent bumped loudly on repeat halfway through the trip while Hamid sang along gangsta-like in his new black sunglasses we'd bought at Bagram's black market that morning. Travis was in front of us on his Honda dirt bike.
Once we got inside the Panjshir gates and completed the security check-in with the guards, we stopped at several places we'd spotted on the last visit where I'd wanted to bike but hadn't had time. Four or five times along the route, I unpacked the bike with Hamid's help. None of the paths connected, so I couldn't ride far, but I explored different areas and had discussions with new groups of men. On each ride, I gained more confidence and was soon enjoying the interactions with the men that gathered. Hamid answered questions while I rode and when I returned, he made introductions and the discussions continued. I was met with curiosity about who I was and why I was there. I answered and asked my own questions: Did their kids go to school? Girls and boys? Could girls play sports? Would they allow their girls to ride bikes? If not, why not? Impromptu discussions by the side of the road naturally unfolded and progressed down different rabbit holes. Each time, I had to tear myself away and decline offers of tea or dinner at their homes.
Several hours later, as we pulled into Dashty Rewat, night was falling. Idi Mohammad's brother, Fardin, welcomed us back. Thirty seconds after our arrival, flashlights came out of the courtyard and we were led back into the home. We'd let Idi Mohammad know when we were coming, but he was in Kabul for a few days to buy supplies for the guesthouse he was building. His brothers made us feel more than welcome. We were led into a large rectangular room, with traditional dark-red toshaks lining the floor and three sea-foam green walls. While seated on the toshaks and pillows, we were fed, watered, and introduced to a few neighbors who came to check out the foreign visitors. One in particular was a real comic. Older, missing a few teeth, he wore a traditional pakol hat and a pale-green shalwar kameez that matched the walls. He had the look of a real outdoorsman, Afghan-style. He brought an old boom box—circa 1970s. It was encased inside a burgundy velvet "purse" brocaded with mirrors.
"So Afghan," Travis said with a lazy smile, shaking his head in wonder at the scene that was unfolding. Laughing at the unexpected entertainment, I glanced over at him. Chuckling, Travis winked at me and stood up. He put the velvet-encased boom box on his shoulder to demonstrate how they were carried in the hood. As the entire room clapped and sang, Hamid perked up from his toshak, where he had been quietly watching. Travis handed the boom box back, grinning, and sat down to the appreciative laughter of the entire room. Our visitor was a natural comic. He left the room, and when he came back in, he strutted through the doorway with the boom box on one shoulder and his hat cocked over an eye—another Afghan gangsta. He sat with a big smile, and I took his photo, laughing so hard my iPhone shook. The entire room had erupted in laughter.
The family lived together in this compound, three brothers, four wives, two grandmothers, and approximately fourteen children, although I never got an accurate count. The women stayed in a separate part of the home. The young boys served dinner, so the women were still not seen. After dinner I was invited to go back and have tea and talk with them, but was told no camera, and no translator, since Hamid was a man. One of Idi's boys came along and offered to translate. His English was very basic and my Dari was even worse—but it was sufficient for niceties and general questions. The four wives were beautiful and the two grandmothers had heavily lined faces, full of character and with smiling eyes that made me feel welcome. Children ran around and were allowed free rein through the compound. They were curious, having never met a foreign woman before, and they gestured for me to sit on the floor. The oldest girl, maybe thirteen, brought me green tea and placed a dish of dried berries and walnuts in front of me. They sat, surrounding me on all sides—four wives, two grandmothers, and about a dozen children.
Only three men lived here so I assumed one had two wives, but didn't feel it was appropriate to ask so soon after meeting them. With the confusion my young translator had with family words—brother, cousin, mother, sister all interchanged randomly—I figured that I wouldn't understand the answer even if I asked. I didn't know if this was a case of two wives for one brother, or if perhaps one was a sister whose husband had died. Instead, I asked less complicated questions, mostly about the family. I complimented the children and learned how to sit quietly, smile, and drink tea with twenty silent faces watching me. I offered to answer their questions as well, but they didn't have many, were too shy, or didn't understand what I'd said. Sometimes I want to share that I, too, have a daughter, but then there's the husband question. Where is my husband? Why do you only have one daughter? Are you barren? I have learned to avoid this question simply by saying that he lives in the United States and takes care of my daughter while I'm in Afghanistan. This is essentially true, and the subject is dropped, but with the people I am building relationships with, it sometimes feels like a falsehood not to explain that I'm divorced and to allow them to think what they will. Divorce is rarely an option here, and women who are divorced are typically looked upon dishonorably. Family is everything in Afghanistan. Men may take many wives, but rarely will they request a divorce. It is rarer still for a woman to be granted one should she choose to request it. When a Muslim man decides he wants a divorce, he can just say the words, "I divorce you," and it is official under Islamic law. The courts are starting to hear women's divorce cases, but it is still rare. Yet, as with many other things, like riding a bike and motorcycle, or sitting with the men, I am a foreign woman and divorce isn't so shocking. But without the ability to communicate well, I didn't want to risk delving into this subject.
Despite my desire to sit and talk with the women all night—as I would in the United States—I'm much more comfortable with the men. I said good night to the ladies after an hour or so, and asked if I could come back in the morning to take photos. They told me that photos of the children and grandmothers would be okay, but the older girls and the wives were off limits. I wondered if it was an issue of simply not liking their photo taken, or if it was forbidden by the men. But the gorgeous wife of Idi Mohammad mimed getting slapped if I took her photo. It was forbidden. This still surprises me when I meet the wives of men I think of as more progressive, or at least less conservative. Idi Mohammad was a principal and teacher; he valued education, including girls' education. He treated me as an equal and yet had these deep-seated cultural restrictions firmly in place with his own women—always hidden away. That's not to say they weren't treated well by Afghan standards, or were even unhappy. That I couldn't answer. But they were not free. They did not have the same rights as men. Their lives were controlled by men, and often even by the sons they'd raised. And that was not freedom, nor could I believe that anyone could be truly happy without it.
Amid hugs, handshakes, and smiles, I again promised to come back in the morning to take photos. I walked through the inner courtyard to the men's side. I ducked under the low doorway and found Travis and Hamid laughing. One of the neighbors, the toothless one with the Afghan boom box, had expressed interest in purchasing me as a second wife. Prices had been discussed, half-jokingly. No harm or unease apparently, just a laugh on the boys' part. Apparently, they talked him up to $120,000. They were quite pleased with the amount and figured they could retire on the beach somewhere cheap. I played along halfheartedly, joking about selling women wasn't as rib splitting to me as it was to them. I told Hamid that I'm worth at least half a million. Good luck raising that kind of cash in the rural mountains of Afghanistan, I thought. Still, we were sitting in the heart of the emerald mining region, so who knew what was possible?
As we got ready for bed, I realized I had no idea where the bathroom was. Bathroom facilities are always an interesting experience in the developing world and seem to be a source of much discussion and comparison by travelers. In Afghanistan, they cover the entire spectrum: from the luxury of a flush toilet in foreign guesthouses and cafés, to porcelain squat toilets on the floor in restaurants and government buildings, to a concrete floor with a hole cut in it Porta-Potty style, to the horror of a facility that involves any of the above three, reeking of urine and with nothing but a watering can to clean up with. No toilet paper, coupled with no running water or soap.
Here, the outhouse was like many in rural areas, a small raised mud structure with a hole in the floor through which everything simply dropped on the ground below. I had a group of children following me everywhere to make sure I was okay, and that I had everything I needed. When I asked, "Tashnab kujas?" they offered me a small shared roll of pink toilet paper and even gave me their slip-on sandals so that I didn't have to put on my cumbersome motorcycle boots. It is a little unnerving to be the center of attention and the recipient of so much curiosity in the best of times, but to be the center of attention for a trip to the bathroom is more than a little awkward. We walked to the outhouse as a procession, and I smiled and thanked them as I went up the step and inside. Eight or so children waited for me. I closed the warped wooden door and blocked it with the rock placed there for that purpose. I hoped I wouldn't have performance anxiety as I could hear the kids chattering excitedly while they waited for me. When I emerged, eight smiles greeted me, and I couldn't help but smile back. I let them lead me to a pump where I washed my hands, and then they escorted me back to the main room.
Hamid, Travis, and I were invited to sleep there on the toshaks. Big heavy blankets were brought out from the corner where they'd been stacked neatly, and the men literally tucked us all in—even Travis and Hamid. It was possibly the strangest bedtime ritual ever, but quite sweet. I felt like a little kid and wondered if I'd get read a bedtime story. We slept in our clothes. I'd been mountain biking in mine all day and would be wearing them for two more—day and night. The men made sure we had a flashlight and everything else we needed and bade us good night. A couple of the older boys slept with us on the other side of the room, either out of curiosity or for security.
Travis and I woke up at a predawn six o'clock to do some biking in the village. I wanted to ride without attracting so much attention. I should have known better. Even at this early hour, we were the talk of the town. All the village men came out to watch and chat, and many invited me to breakfast. Throughout it all there was a lot of curiosity and no animosity. An old man in a traditional brown blanket worn as a shawl and a matching pakol hat stopped me in the street to talk. He mimed pedaling, and I understood that he wanted to know how I clipped my feet in, so I showed him the cleats on the bottom of my cycling shoes and how they clipped into the pedals on the bike. Several young men took turns riding my bike around the village street. One man who I stopped to chat with—and by "chat" I mean mime and speak with in my limited Dari since Hamid was still sleeping—apparently worked in the emerald mines in the mountains behind the boys' school. He mimed necklaces and bracelets and invited me to breakfast. Maybe I'd found Afghan husband number two? I explained that I had plans to visit the school and thanked him. A few minutes later, I was stopped by an older man with a striking long white beard, a kind wrinkled face, and twinkling eyes. He was strolling through the early morning in his traditional green striped Afghan coat, the ones with the long, skinny arms that aren't used but instead hang down the back; the coat itself is draped from the shoulders like a cloak. He asked if I was cold, and we commented on the weather and the beautiful mountains in the sunrise. He had the sort of face that spoke of stories to be shared, and I cursed Hamid in his bed for preventing me from a deeper conversation. Then I cursed myself for my dependence on a translator. I vowed to make learning Dari a priority. Whether from lack of focus and time, or simple laziness, I have struggled with foreign languages, despite having lived overseas for a decade prior to Afghanistan.
Many people peeked out of windows and came down from the fields to watch the crazy woman on the bike. Amazingly—just like on yesterday's ride—no one was hostile, offended, or annoyed. There were just smiles, laughter, joking, simple curiosity, and the desire to chat. "What is your name? Why are you here? Why are you riding a bike?" In exchange I got to share about myself—my love of bikes, my work with Mountain2Mountain, my desire to see Afghanistan and learn about its people. Men nodded and smiled, and invited me to have tea with their families. I asked questions about girls playing sports, if that was acceptable, and if so, which sports? Soccer and basketball were the most common answers, both sports that could be done in privacy, at school or behind courtyard walls.
I rode through rocky, dried-up fields, empty after the early fall harvest. I had to navigate piles of dirt as solid as concrete and practiced bunny hops, working hard to avoid crashing. I had a first aid kit, but I'd have preferred not to break it out. My future husband was there, this time strutting through town to show off his hunting rifle and prove his prowess as a skillful provider. He'd told us last night that he was a proficient deer hunter. Apparently, there were several hundred deer in the area, but he was in need of binoculars to spot their grazing areas. I smiled weakly, took a few photos, and when he saw I had the camera out, he again hammed it up, tilting his hat like a French beret and strutting, the rifle jauntily held over his shoulder. He then stopped and offered to take us fishing after we visited the boys' school. I knew that both Travis and Hamid would be keen to go after the school visit, and I was curious to check out the local fishing techniques. I had seen Afghans throw sticks of dynamite into the river to get fish. Another friend had watched RPGs launched into the river to catch dinner. Hoping for something less dangerous and more sustainable, I agreed that we'd come along. Fishing would be another experience that continued to link my life and work in mountain communities here to the mountain community where I lived in Breckenridge, Colorado.
I discovered a much better way to bike with the men's kaffiyeh scarves, which was what I began to wear on the motorcycle to look like a man. These were black-and-white patterned scarves often worn around the neck or wrapped around the head like a turban. I wrapped it around my head and my face, leaving only my eyes peeking out when I was traveling by motorycle. It helped keep the dust out of my nose and mouth, and disguised my gender. It was perfect for the bike, but instead of wearing it like a full-face turban, I wore it like a hadji from the nineties, or the politically incorrectly named "cancer patient" style, and then I simply added another scarf around my neck. If I could get away with it, I'd wear them all the time. They're much more my style than the women's head scarves, still respectful but edgy and much more functional. My walk is even different when I wear men's scarves. Women's scarves blow off in the wind, and I have to constantly hold them, so I tend to look down more to keep them in place and as a result I don't make eye contact with others. I wear the men's, and I'm actually more covered up—my blond hair all tucked away, the scarf so tight it doesn't slip like the women's, and my neck covered completely. Yet I walk like me, big strides, head up, athletic, with a more confident, almost defiant, demeanor. I stand out because women don't wear men's scarves, but I stand out anyway in the women's scarves that show much more blond hair and constantly fall back off my head. So it's a crapshoot. The men's scarves wouldn't work in the south or in more conservative areas, or for formal meetings, but for around Kabul and Panjshir they're perfect. Hell, with my reputation for forgetting to wash my hair in Colorado, they'd be perfect back home!
We went back to the house after an hour or so of biking and making friends. Immediately, Travis crawled back into bed, laying down on the toshak next to Hamid, who hadn't yet stirred. I needed the bathroom and a wash after two days of wearing the same clothes while biking in the Afghan dust. The bathroom processional followed me to the outhouse and again I listened to them giggle and chatter on the other side of the door. I walked back to the main room, and my young translator from the night before asked if I would like to wash up. He pointed to the door across from the room where we were sleeping. Inside was a small concrete cubicle the size of a Western shower but without a drain. A broken mirror was propped against a tiny window that let in a few rays of early morning light. I nodded gratefully with a "Bale, lotfon." Yes, please.
He brought me a jug of blissfully warm water that the wives had warmed up. He placed it on the floor, and I closed the door with a "tashakur." I washed my face and my feet but couldn't bear to take off all my clothes in the cold air just to put them back on again dirty. I would get a full shower soon enough. The warm water and the cold air on my face refreshed me, and I felt ready for the full day ahead.
We'd passed by the boys' school during the bike ride through town and discovered that we would have to cross a narrow bridge to get there. This made delivery of the school supplies more complex. After a quick breakfast of naan, fresh cream, and cherry jam with the men of the house, we drove the four-by-four along the road to the path that led down the hill to the bridge. As we unpacked the supplies and stacked them on the ground, various men gathered around to watch and help us unload. When the four-by-four was empty, the villagers stopped the young boys walking by on their way to school and had them help carry boxes. The young boys each took a small box, and the teachers and older boys took the heavier loads. We walked as a long procession down the steep path to the bridge.
The boys led the way across, and we walked up concrete stairs into an enclosed dirt courtyard at the foot of a mountain. I hung back as the boys went inside and took their seats in the classrooms, the courtyard briefly quiet. It was such a small gesture, giving school supplies. But if it meant these boys, who might have the chance and opportunity to go on to university, felt that others were valuing their education, then perhaps they would feel more valued in return and understand that an American woman cared whether or not they went to school. Or maybe they just thought, "Hey, you crazy infidel, thanks for nothing!" Hopefully, it was the former.
I knew some people might wonder why I would help a boys' school when my focus was on girls' and women's rights. This was a simple first step, a drop in the bucket, that could help the children at the school where Idi Mohammad and his brother worked. When I made this first step and then opened up a discussion of their views on girls' education and potential sites for future schools, they understood that my intention was sincere. I wanted to help the children of this area get an education. Educating boys often leads to more understanding of the value of education and can open the doors to educating girls. I continued to discuss land potentially available for a girls' school. Building a school was perhaps not necessary if we could find available rooms in the village. The real issue is that there simply aren't enough female teachers in Afghanistan. Doing a little bit to support the boys and visiting the school would give me more leverage to say, "The boys already have a school, teachers, and education through high school, but the girls have nothing right now." Both Idi Mohammad and his brother had girls—none of whom were in school. I wanted to ask them bluntly, "If you believe in education so much, then why aren't you working to get your girls in school? Why aren't you teaching them at home? Why are they worth less than your sons?" But I didn't. Instead I looked for a back door into that discussion.
Distributing the supplies was bizarre. I wanted to get photos and film a little so that I could show the images to donors back in the United States. But trying to get the teachers and administration to "do it for the camera" was hilarious. I hated having to do these things for the camera. It felt false, and I was sure they were wondering, "Why are we pretending to unpack the boxes here when we want to do it over there?" Though I'd like to do the work without fanfare and let the work speak for itself, I needed to document it to build support for Mountain2Mountain back home so that I could fund future projects. The video camera is a powerful tool to share stories and engage supporters.
Distributing the supplies in a second-grade room, I encountered a stern teacher in camo fatigues. He didn't smile or shake my hand when we greeted each other, and I wasn't sure what he thought of me or the situation. We were led to a fourth-grade class. As I began to distribute supplies with a couple of the teachers, the room quickly became chaotic, with notebooks, pens, and pencils being passed in all directions, one gruff teacher shouting at the boys. They looked dumbfounded, as if they were wondering what was going on. No one had made an introduction or an announcement to explain what we were doing there.
Down the hall, we visited a twelfth-year class with their English teacher. He was very interested in getting computers for the school. He'd studied in Pakistan and recently returned to Dashty Rewat. He stood at the front with me, and we talked to the boys. When I asked how many wanted to go on to university, all of them raised their hands. Most wanted to study to be doctors and engineers, but there was a journalist as well. I asked how many thought they would need to use computers to reach their career goals. All of them raised their hands, but when I asked how many had used a computer before, only one raised his hand.
After visiting several classrooms, I sat down to interview the head of the teachers, but the conversation was stilted, and I struggled to get answers from him. The English teacher was also there and replied to a few more questions. Sitting next to him was the Islamic teacher, who said nothing. He didn't smile and was impossible to read. Oh, the questions I had for him … but most of them were inappropriate for a first meeting and too deep for an informal discussion. I couldn't think of any questions for him that weren't controversial. During these trips to Afghanistan, I was often stepping into the shoes of a journalist. I was excited by the opportunity to have conversations with remote villagers, government officials, school teachers, members of Parliament, and prisoners, but I'm not a trained journalist. I'd prefer to have meandering conversations inspired by my curiousity about their lives, families, communities, and thoughts.
Outside, the students gathered in the courtyard to sing for us while the teacher in camo fatigues tried to bully them into some form of order. After they finished, I let a few of the older boys take turns riding my bike. They rode it around the courtyard, narrowly missing the younger boys, scattering them like bowling pins.
We said our good-byes and walked back across the bridge to the four-by-four. Idi Mohammad's youngest child was in the backseat. He'd been there since we started to unload more than an hour ago. He was sitting quietly, looking as if he'd been left there as a gift or a bodyguard. As we unloaded the boy and loaded up my bike, men gathered around to discuss the day's events thus far, and as if on cue, my future husband turned up to take us fishing.
Travis, Hamid, and I walked with our personal fishing guide through town, and went down a small path that led behind his house. We stopped in the patch of yard behind his house and watched him don green waders and matching rubber boots. He grabbed his weighted net and nodded at us with a mischievious smile. We followed him to the river just below his house. He had a large Afghan dog with pale blond fur and black markings on its face, and it followed us to the water's edge. I reached down to scratch his head. Our guide waded to the middle of the river and expertly threw his net. On the second throw, he aimed into the current and pulled the net back with a fish. He smiled triumphantly at us. He threw the fish onto the beach where a young man, maybe his son, picked it up and speared it on a stick. He caught six fish in about half an hour, and I was presented with them all strung up on the bendy stick, some of them still thrashing. I was unsure whether by accepting I would be accepting more than just the fish, but as no money had exchanged hands and I didn't see Travis and Hamid high-fiving or discussing vacation plans, I assumed that I was still a free and single woman.
We walked back to our house, and when the men saw the fish, they took them to the wives, who cleaned them and packed them in plastic for our journey to Kabul. I would have been happy to leave them there as a gift, but alas, they were returning with us in the four-by-four.
We stayed for lunch—not that we had a choice. It was already planned so we gratefully sat down and stretched out on toshaks. While we waited, we chatted aimlessly, and the men pulled out tins of naswar and shaped small balls that they then slipped into their mouths. Naswar is essentially snuff. The ball of powdered tobacco sits against your gums for a while and then gets spit out. Travis said it was like a really intense cigarette, and the men offered some to me. After checking that it was straight tobacco, not mixed with hashish or opium, I accepted.
Fardin handed me the tin, and Hamid used the lid to section out a small amount that he put into my hand. The technique is to use the forefinger and thumb of the other hand to squeeze the powder into a tiny ball and place it into the crease of the bottom lip. Hamid laughed as I tried, unsuccessfully, to make a ball like Fardin's. He poured a little more into my hand, and this time I squeezed it properly. I pulled my lip down and placed it where they showed me, and sat back. The men smiled and nodded, and Travis and Hamid were laughing. A slight burning began at my gumline then spread; my entire bottom jaw became somewhat numb. Travis told me about being given a large portion of naswar by a villager last year. It was so strong he had to run to the toilet and vomit—this coming from a man who smoked cigarettes and marijuana regularly. I laughed, then realized my head was spinning. I felt very mellow and a little sleepy. Hamid joked that we'd get home faster this way since I'd be sleeping in the car and we wouldn't have to stop to bike or take photos. I would have laughed out loud if my head wasn't so woozy.
After about five minutes, I discarded the little wad into the spittoon as directed and spat a few times. The naswar tasted awful, and I didn't want to swallow any.
I sat back. I was starting to break out in a cold sweat. I decided I should go to the outhouse. I stood up—a little wobbly—and immediately realized I needed to move quickly. I thrust my feet into my motorcycle boots and hurried to open the front door. Two big rocks were blocking it, and the children were all signaling that I should duck under the other door that led to the inner courtyard of the women's area to get to the outhouse. One handed me the pink roll of toilet paper, and they all followed. I felt the bile rising and was desperate to figure out which direction was the correct one, never having been this way in the daylight. I burped, the taste of bile in my mouth, but I controlled myself. I saw the outhouse and raced inside, barely having time to put the stone in place before I hurled into the hole.
Vomiting is unpleasant enough into a clean toilet. Vomiting into a hole with a mound of feces so high that my face was mere inches away took things to another level. I spat a few times, then slowly stood up. I steadied myself with a hand on the wall and looked out the open hole at the chickens wandering around the dirt courtyard. One of the little girls was chasing them with high-pitched squeals. I wished my head would stop swimming. I breathed deeply but immediately regretted it as the stench alone was enough to bring on another round of vomiting. I slid the rock out of the way with my foot and stepped down into the courtyard. The women and the children were all waiting to see how I was. They waved me over to the water pump so I could rinse my hands. I smiled weakly in gratitude, then splashed my face.
"Tashakur, tashakur," I said, thanking them. Two of the wives came over to the water pump and started talking quickly. They were either miming eating, washing my face, or vomiting. I tried to keep up, but my head was still fuzzy, and I didn't have my little translator with me to fill in the gaps. I mumbled, "Naswar?" and they mimed the mouth action again. I took it to mean vomiting. I nodded, and they giggled, and I nodded some more, said tashakur one more time, and turned to leave.
As I walked slowly back, I wished I could just find a quiet corner and sit down for a few minutes alone. The emotions and experiences were swirling around. The constant yin-yanging of fear and exhilaration was playing havoc with my emotions. The constant questioning and the feeling of being a specimen under a microscope, being examined and judged, was more overwhelming than I had anticipated. I just wanted a little space to get grounded and absorb everything that was happening. I was experiencing Afghanistan in a way few get a chance to, and it was opening up so much. I wanted to do so much, but the learning curve was still wickedly steep—much like the mountains I tried to conquer on my bike.
As I explored rural Afghanistan, the bike was proving to be a valuable tool. I'd wanted to engage here in unique ways. I wanted to share the beauty of the land and its people back home. But more than that, the bike had become an icebreaker among the Afghans I met in ways I could never have imagined. The idea that I could ride a bike—something that symbolizes personal freedom and mobility—in a place known for war and oppression was amazing. It was even more amazing that I could challenge this particular gender barrier as a foreign woman. I was struggling to reconcile that joy with the knowledge that the women here were still confined to the back part of the home and couldn't leave without wearing a burqa.
I took a deep breath to steady myself and reminded myself that each step brought me a little closer to understanding what I wanted to do here.
I entered the room where the men were all still seated, feeling sheepish, and sat back down.
Just in time for lunch.
Copyright © 2014 by Shannon Galpin