It took two days to fly here from New York (both night flights) to London, then to Islamabad, Pakistan, then a short 45-minute flight over the mountains. The plane turned hard to land in the Kabul airport. The air was clean and thin. Afghan guards had on new nylon green jumpsuits.
A year ago there would be a long line to get your passport stamped. I would arrive without a visa, go into a back room – a tiny room filled with stacks of papers – and sit and wait as men came and left, swinging open a thin plywood door, each with a question, me not understanding a word, just that I would have to pay $100 or $200 – get criticized, and wait, because to do it too fast would be rude.
Now, they had 8 or 10 guys in bright nylon green that contrasted sharply with their tired faces and graying beards. They all stood around one table. Initially I got at the end of a long single-file line that looked like an hour, but then I saw people moving to the table. I looked, took a step and was waved in by one of the men. They had just one passport stamper between the eight of them, so they looked at your passport, filled out a form slowly with English letters and numbers, then took the stamper and pressed down easy, like they did not want to break it. My guy did it so gently that he had to do it a second time. Then other guys reached for the stamper. It passed around the table like a saltshaker.
Young guys with carts swarmed around when you came through the passport line. I pointed to two, held up two fingers, then moved to the conveyor belt. I put my noise-reduction headphones on. I held up nine fingers for the number of cases I had and stretched out my arms to show they were big. I looked around the conveyor belt at the crowd. Lots of aid workers with cardboard boxes marked "Help for Afghan Children." The music helped. The headphones helped on the plane, when I was seated next to a snoring Pakistani businessman. After the flight, I looked at him and thought about saying, "You snore terribly," but did not.
Among all the young baggage handlers there was one old man with a long gray beard I remembered from before. I smiled at him and pointed to my head and he smiled back. Before the belt started, people climbed through the hole in the wall and began dragging out their luggage. The crowd surged to the hole. I stayed against the wall, listening to "My Morning Jacket." Two people tried to take my carts. I put my laptop on one and my messenger bag on the other.
The fixer came, Akhbar. He said it was possible to drive or fly to Herat, in the West, where there was fighting, and to drive to the border with Pakistan, where there was heavy fighting. It was a two-day drive, he said. I had done the drive and knew how bad it was. The last time I was in Khost the people put a note under the gate telling us to leave, then shot up the live shot position at night. Their chief concern seemed to be that from our mud roof position we could somehow look down and see their women naked. We hung up a barrier of sheets to block our view of the courtyard but it failed to satisfy them.
I knew I was hated in Khost, hated for being an American. It felt odd, novel, to be discriminated against. In the end, the village gathered in a crowd and our fixer warned us with wide eyes that we had to leave right now, we had to throw everything in the jeep and speed away. It was like being Frankenstein, chased out by the villagers. If only they were carrying fire.
So I did not want to go back to Khost. You would need to hire armed guards, who at $50 or $100 a day would not help you.
We loaded a van and drove towards the Intercon Hotel, where I had lived after the Taliban fell. It was a grim, cold, miserable place back then. Now they had one floor renovated - carpets, new furniture, hot water, cable TV, and a buffet (which meant no more three-hour wait for a meal.) The biggest surprise was that my cell phone worked. No need for a satellite phone, antennas, cables, standing outside in the cold, in the dark, waiting. In Kabul, at least, some things had gotten a lot better.
There are still some hitches, though. The power blacks out intermittently. Both cameramen got caught in the elevator at different times today. Pierre got caught between floors and had to push the doors open and climb up and out. I take the stairs. Because the air is so thin at an elevation of 6000 feet, you can get winded after five flights.
We do our live reports from a camera position on the roof. There are no lights up there and a lot of obstacles, so you have to have a flashlight. I keep a Maglite in my right coat pocket at all times. When the bulb burned out tonight on the roof I had a mini Maglite hooked to the key chain inside my messenger bag. I was almost glad my bulb burned out to show off my backup. The mini Maglite worked well, throwing a bigger circle of light than expected. Once back in the room, I tested the Maglite with new batteries. A cameraman once told me the spare bulb for the Maglite is hidden under a spring in the bottom of the handle. After a search, Pierre and I found it and made the switch, with real satisfaction. Now I'm wondering what to do if this bulb burns out...