Friday, November 7, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XVII)

It was late, cold and again we had no dinner. I didn’t know where to sleep. The guys could just check into the local hotel/guesthouse but as a woman, I am not allowed to sleep in the hotel.

A hotel in Central Highlands means a big hall with 30 or more men sleeping on the same floor. Contagious diseases have been known to spread amongst the lodgers due to unhygienic and unsanitary condition at the guesthouse particularly when you have so many people who have travelled from far distances without so much as a shower sleeping closely together.

Bugs on the carpet are known to feast on the lodgers’ blood which then causes skin diseases. Shawn, the UNOPS Logistics Officer, had experienced chronic skin rashes for one week after sleeping on the floor at one of the local guesthouses. Apparently bugs had laid eggs under his epidermis and the eggs had possibly hatched through his skin follicles, creating extreme itchiness and inflammation on his skin. Ouch! Sounds painful.

I thought my last resort was to ask IAM whether I could stay with them. Raffaele had told me that my last option should be IAM because the last time he went to Lal, they were unfriendly and did not take in guests. At this stage, I hardly had any other choices and the thought of sleeping in the car, shivering all night, hungry and holding my bladder was just too insufferable.

So, we went to IAM and knocked on their door. Aliase said something in Dari. The voice that answered was a female’s voice and she spoke Dari. She then spoke in English, “Go away! I don’t know who you are and what you want. Just leave us alone!” As soon as I realized that it was a foreign woman’s voice, I started introducing myself.

She then opened the door just wide enough to take a peek at me. The lady before me looked African Caribbean, wore glasses and had a veil covering her head. I told her that I had nowhere to stay that night and I needed a place to sleep. What came out from my mouth was completely new. I had never in my entire life asked a stranger to give me shelter for the night. It was almost like begging and I had no choice. To be honest, it hurt my pride a little bit but it is all part of surviving in this God forsaken place. If you don’t learn to swallow your pride, you’ll just end up alone and miserable.

The lady asked grudgingly, “Is it just you or the rest of the guys as well ‘cause we don’t take in men.” She didn’t sound friendly at all. I told her that it was just me and the men were staying at the hotel at the bazaar.

She immediately responded, “Well, we don’t take in people and this is not a guesthouse but I suppose you can stay for tonight.” I was relieved and then made a last call to Raffaele informing him of my situation. I had not called him since the Oxfam incident and had taken off by myself without letting him know what the conclusion with Oxfam was. When he answered the phone, I was so close to screaming down the phone at him and cursing him for sending me off somewhere without a place to sleep. But instead, my voice was shaky and very much close to tears.

I was angry alright but it was also because of the exhaustion, cold and also the humiliation of being rejected by Oxfam and having to beg for a place to sleep. I could have cried on the phone but I managed to tell myself that I had to be strong for my own pride. I don’t want Raffaele having any excuse to tell anyone, “See, a woman! We can never send a woman off on a mission. All they do is cry.” I also did not want Raffaele to feel bad or guilty about sending me off on my own. I’m a team member and I want him to know that he can count on me to do as good a job as any other men. Here, as a woman, you need to constantly prove yourself lest you succumb to their stereotype.

So instead, I told him as calmly as I could that I was staying over at IAM and everything was fine. Good night! He said he was going to call Bamyan to report on Oxfam’s hostility. Apparently, most of the NGOs have agreed to assist and support UNAMA Electoral team in the field and what Oxfam did was against the agreement. But heck it, I am never going back there again.

What was meant to be only one night in IAM turned out to be 7 nights! I got to know the residents there; Martha, Erin and Rita. The lady who answered the door the other night was Erin, an American girl from Michigan. Erin and Rita are doctors. Rita is from Norway and Martha is a nurse from Germany. They are devout Christians funded by Scandinavian countries to provide medical care for the people of Afghanistan.

In fact, those 7 nights were very chastised nights. These women could very well be missionaries or nuns. They say grace before every meal, sing praises and have Sunday service in the house. Everything is organized and works on clockwise. Breakfast at 7:15am every morning, lunch at 12pm and dinner at 6pm. Bedtime is at 8pm. The doctors are on call 24 hours and often have to rush to the nearby clinic to deliver newborn babies. Oh not forgetting, shower on every Thursday evening only. Yep, shower only once a week. I do not know whether this policy has anything to do with the scarcity of water or the burden of heating up the bukhari for hot water or the cold weather because neither is Lal a desert, nor is it that cold at that time of the year. I had seen many rivers and it is getting warmer now.

When I related the stories of my adventure in Lal to the Panjao team, it has now become a standing joke about the nuns taking shower every Thursday only.

Martha must be at least 70 years old. She has been in Afghanistan since 1960s under the order of King Zahir Shah. She speaks fluent Pashto and Dari. She cooks all the time and was like a grandmother to me. In fact, they all treated me well after getting to know more about what I do, etc.

I was well-fed in Lal because they always have proper meals unlike when I am in Panjao. Meals in Panjao consist of pasta, potatoes, beans, rice and bread…and may I add… every day. No fruits at all. There is absolutely nothing else in Panjao for us to eat. But with IAM, I got the occasional kebabs, fish (from cans), local homemade yogurt (“moss” in Dari), salads and even cheesecakes baked by Martha. She would churn her own cheese from the fresh and homemade yogurt. The yogurt in Afghanistan is absolutely fantastic and possibly one of the best dairy products I have tasted. It makes a great dessert with a little bit of honey and cinnamon sugar.

We had a lot of conversation during dinner and I must say that I enjoyed the company and by the end of my stay, I was sad to go.

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