musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dear Post-Conflict, (Apparently) I’ve Missed You

Rising above Adult Disneyland (i.e. Dubai), it suddenly dawns on me that I’m on a flight to Kabul. Four days ago I was in Cuzco enjoying roasted guinea pig and the finer points of lunchtime cocktails. Today I’m on my way back to post-conflict.

For someone not naturally inclined to thrill seeking (see here), having Iraqi, South Sudanese, and now Afghan visas in my passport may seem counter-intuitive. Some people (many of whom are sporting khaki cargo pants, crew cuts and ballistic sunglasses on this very Safi Airways flight) seem to thrive off of post-conflict environments, seeking them out perhaps for the same reasons they liked roller coasters as children. Not to mention that the money one can earn in a place like Afghanistan is nothing to scoff at and, in some places at least (thankfully not where I’m going), thrills and close calls are a dime a dozen.

Or maybe they are more like me (though I did leave my khakis at home this trip). I’d be perfectly ok never experiencing the inner workings of an RPG attack, money is important though not everything and roller coasters still give me the willies.

I was lucky enough to get my first bit of field cred in 2009 at a time when ‘coalition of the willing’ troops still maintained outposts on large swaths of heavily guarded Iraqi land. That first overseas posting is ever important for a young international and it doesn’t hurt that it was in an area of key US foreign policy importance.

But as charming as towns like dusty Hillah or sandy Ramadi were, it was my colleagues that made me want to stay despite the lack of freedom and other inconveniences. A proud people, my Iraqi friends embraced me as one of their own, regularly inviting me to their homes and family festivities. They threw parties for us and, through our project, dedicated their lives to improving the lots of their neighbors often at great risk.

Although one will always hear stories of shenanigans that permeate post-conflict environments (Afghanistan and Iraq are by no means exceptions), I’ve heard similarly glowing things about the people of Afghanistan from friends and from books. From the ever-controversial “Three Cups of Tea” and “The Places in Between” to “The Kite Runner” and “The Photographer”, a common theme is the decency of Afghans and their treatment of guests as family. Add to this ethnic diversity, quality tea and the physical beauty of snow-capped mountains on the border between ‘middle’ and ‘east’… needless to say I’m looking forward to it!

This morning I saw a CNN special on Iraq: Ten Years On where Arwa Damon returns to the neighborhoods she visited while embedded with US troops. No helmet, no armored vest, just an uncovered western woman walking the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad, re-interviewing folks she met under fire all those years ago. I’d love to take Lauren back to Hillah and Ramadi one day, finally able to accept my former colleagues' dinner offer. One can only hope the day when this will finally be possible is approaching.

And perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, the same will be true about Afghanistan.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

In the Footsteps of the Incas

I am fully convinced that the best way to see Machu Picchu is via the Inca Trail.

There were times during the four-day, three-night trek through the mountains of Peru that these convictions were a bit shaky. But arriving tired, sweaty and a bit wet at the Sun Gate before 7am on the fourth day after a 40+km, four-day hike to see the glorious Inca city below… words can not do justice to that feeling.

To those, like me, who have yearned to see Machu Picchu (literally “Old City” in the local Quechua language, not to be confused with Machu ‘Pichu’ which apparently means *ahem* old male genitalia), I highly recommend getting into shape and braving the Inca Trail. Topping out at just under 14k ft at the Dead Woman’s Pass (based on the shapes of the rocks, not on historical events) on day 2, the daily hikes are stunning. Literally breathtaking. If you go in a big group like ours, a ridiculous amount of porters and guides (seriously, at times it felt like we were going on a colonial expedition in Rhodesia) make sure that you only have to worry about getting yourself–and your daypack of course–to the finish. When you arrive at the campsite your tent will already be erected and water will be boiling just in time for a nice hot cup of coca tea and some popcorn.

But back to the walking. The copious amounts of walking.

Littered with smaller ruins along the way showcasing systems of infrastructure, culture, transportation and communication unknown elsewhere in the ancient world, the trail is sometimes gradually up and down, oftentimes not so gradually up and down. Not for the faint of heart/breath; hence the whole getting in shape thing. Apparently one porter made it the whole length of our trail (about the equivalent of a marathon) in 3 hours, 40 minutes; needless to say were weren't going that fast. The vistas along the way showcased, as our guides pointed out several times, the copious and varied ‘flora and fauna’ that can change at every turn. Peru is, in a word, beautiful.

And it all builds towards the final views of Machu Picchu. An homage to the gods. A place of serenity nestled atop a mountain. A miraculous feat of ancient ingenuity. A chance to use a western toilet.

Sure, it rained on us (unfortunately Lauren’s spring break didn’t line up with the dry season in Peru). Yes, at times the altitude thumped my head (though 3 days acclimatization in lovely Cuzco certainly helped). Naturally, running down the stone paths pretending to be Quechua porters may not have been the smartest idea in the world. And of course, our collective smell after several days with no showers made even the llamas cringe.

But that’s what made arriving in Machu Picchu on that final day that much better. We worked hard for it. We… well, some of us at least… sweat for it. We mended blisters and fought colds for it. We woke early and walked hours and hours each day for it. We earned it.

Highly, highly, highly... times infinity... recommend it!

Photos from our trip can be found here.