The patio of the one floor ranch house was packed. Smoke driftedfrom the grill and everyone seemed to have a red Solo cup in his orher hand. Were it not for the babel of languages and high wallstopped with barbwire, it could have been a weekend BBQ anywhere inthe world. But this was Kabul and the voices were those of aidworkers, security contractors and journalists. They only died downwhen one of the guests began talking about hitchhiking to Khost. |
A heated debate erupted between the Dutch tourist who uttered theremark and an aid worker who basically called the traveler crazy.With a mix of anger and shock in his voice, the aid worker tried toexplain that Khost in the heartland of the dreaded Haqqaninetwork, the group that carried out the recent wave of coordinatedattacks in Kabul is a warzone and not somewhere to wanderaround with no plan. "They'll shoot you," he said. To which theDutch traveler replied, "Why would [the Taliban] waste a bullet onme?" The Dutchman had come to Afghanistan through Couchsurfing.org,social media's answer to corporate travel sites. If you do not seeyourself as a tourist, want to live like a local for a while orsimply do not have the cash for a hotel, then couch surfing is theway to go.
The website puts a face on a place by allowing travelersand hosts to set up profiles and swap messages about travelarrangements. Visiting Moscow and looking to meet up with a localfor cappuccino and a chat? Hitting up Rio for Mardi Gras and need afree place to crash? These are the normal exchanges and theyusually result in staying at a person's house. But when it comes tocouch surfing in Afghanistan, "usual" is out the window. The question is: who would want to live like a local when "local"is Afghanistan? Of the more than 4 million "couch surfers" on thesite representing 251 countries and territories and 366 languages,the answer is, at the moment, around 381.
That is the number ofpeople who are members of the Afghanistan group on the CouchSurfing site. As the website continues to grow it has expanded intostranger and stranger travel destinations: Afghanistan has becomeone of these, representing what could be described as Extreme CouchSurfing, with tourists with no experience of combat zones stayingwith hosts whose profiles are as likely to feature "armed guards"or "razor wire" (apart from the more usual caveats of "no dogs" or"foldout couch"). Of those 381, few will actually make it here for goodreason. "I'm on the Afghanistan couch surfing forum because I wasthinking of going to Afghanistan this summer, but due to recentevents, it doesn't seem like a good idea for a solo white woman togo now," says Elisabet Sole, Spanish member. But some still come drawn by the beauty of the Hindu Kush Mountains, thedestroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, natural wonders like the Band-e AmirLakes and the remote Wakhan Corridor.
Others are drawn byquasi-philosophical cravings, want to find the truth behind thenews, are attracted to the danger or simply want to prove their owncourage. Still, Couch Surfing in Afghanistan cannot be considered a 2.0version of the Hippy Trail of the 1960s and 70s. Today, fightinghas dragged much of the country's population to the depths ofpoverty and despair. A United Nations report released in Februarysaid that 3,021 civilians were killed in 2011, representing an 8%increase from 2010. This is the fifth consecutive year that thenumber of deaths has increased.
The country is routinely ranked asone of the most dangerous in the world for violent death. The pastmonths have not been kind: a bombing in December left scores deadat a religious ceremony in central Kabul and the burning of Koransand the massacre of civilians in Kandahar has strained relationsbetween Westerners and locals to the breaking point. (More on unrest in Kabul.) Years ago, the first time this correspondent looked at theAfghanistan Lonely Planet guide's "When To Go" section, the advicewas blunt: "Never." Today, that's changed little. The latestedition's section on "Getting In" to Afghanistan from Pakistanadvises: "Before leaving Peshawar you must go to the KhyberPolitical Agent (Stadium Rd) to collect your gunman.
Without himyou'll be turned back at the first checkpoint. There's plenty tosee as you drive through the Khyber." Though a tourist brochurethat featured words like firefight, landmine, bad roads, poverty,kidnapping and insurgency would deter your average traveler, thecouch surfers who do make it here are not your average travelers.They are the ones that have Libya, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Syria, NorthKorea, and Colombia listed as places they want to go to next ontheir Couch Surfing profile pages. "My first day in Kabul was September 13, . I was walking pastMassoud Circle, around the corner and east of the US Embassy, whenan Afghan man came up to me and said something that sounded urgent,but that I didn't understand," says a couch surfer from Alaska, whodid not want to give his name because he did not want his family toknow he had gone to Afghanistan. "Moments later I heard a smallblast, followed by a huge explosion and then automatic gunfire asmilitants began an attack on the embassy and other targets in Wazir[Akbar Khan, a heavily fortified neighborhood of Western embassiesand NATO bases].
I had to run for cover. If I had walked a fewminutes more in the direction I was going I would have been in aworld of trouble," he tells TIME. "I was petrified, mostly aboutthe idea of abduction. After getting caught up in the attack inKabul, in what was supposed to one of the most secure areas of thecountry, I worried more about getting injured or killed." But, headds, "Kabul was Kabul how could a tourist not be fascinatedby the real thing? It's like the anti-Paris of tourism." (Read more about the Kabul firefight.) Most, however, have more prosaic experiences.
"I wanted to talk topeople and hang out with them, get a sense of what it's like to bean Afghan," Tashi Bucinel, a European couch surfer, tells TIME. "Iwas scared the first couple of days. I wasn't sure what to expectand I didn't know how trustworthy the people are, so I was veryapprehensive." On her first morning in Kabul, she decided to walkto meet the Dutch couch surfer. "When I was walking down thestreet, I was looking at the people around me and my heart wasbeating fast.
I thought of the warnings I'd heard before like,'don't walk: take a taxi!' or 'you never know who is a potentialsuicide bomber' and regretted not taking a taxi. I saw everybearded man in a shalwar kameez [men's traditional clothing] as asuicide attacker and was just waiting to hear a bomb blastsomewhere. I was so scared!" After a few days, she wrote in an email to TIME, she began torelax. "I was still apprehensive, but less scared than the firstday.
I realized how friendly the locals are and that they areactually very honest and trustworthy people. After a few days Ilost my initial fear and felt like I was in any 'normal' city inCentral Asia." In the end, she said there was not much to do inKabul partially a result of more than three decades of war and she ended up visiting a few tourist sites nearby andhanging out with some foreign workers. "Kabul is generally prettyboring. There's not much to do.
I was lucky to have met wonderfulpeople, who I had a lot of fun with. We spent many fun afternoonsand evenings together, but if it wasn't for them, I'd be prettybored I guess." Still, Bucinel's experience "outside the wire" as NATOsoldiers here call leaving a secured compound is moreinteraction with Afghanistan and its people than most foreigngovernment employees, soldiers and many aid workers will ever have.Most will remain hidden and safe behind their blast walls andbarbwire during their time in Afghanistan, impeding their abilityto understand life in the country and to effectively aid itsdevelopment. At the same time, it is hard to say what the benefitof Bucinel's experience is: since she is not in Afghanistan towork, is she simply a goodwill ambassador? Indeed, when an Indian couch surfer wrote on the Afghanistan CouchSurfing forum that, "I want to come to Afghanistan and I want tosee the war affected areas. Which areas should I visit and what isthe perfect time to come?" a storm of incredulous replies shoutedhim down, including one surfer who wrote, "I can't believe what Iam reading... traveling to war affected areas??? Do you think itsfunny? Do you want to prove how brave you are? I think it's verydisrespectful towards people who suffer under such conditions!Shame on you!" Couch surfers will have to begin questioning the wisdom of visitingAfghanistan as security worsens in parallel to the drawdown ofregular U.S.
and NATO troops that will be completed in 2014. But,for now, many will continue coming to pursue their own particularbrand of tourism. "I guess the principle of couch surfing is thesame wherever you go. It has to do with trust; and trust always andeverywhere contains risk," says an Austrian hostess who spoke oncondition of anonymity because her organization did not give herpermission to speak. "And, if we finally give up on trust, thenconflict, war and distrust have already won." See TIME's Pictures of the Week.
See the Cartoons of the Week.
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