5 Kabul Taxi Rides

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Because of the ‘bad situation’ we are told not to take pictures from the taxi or walk around, So I’ve been trying to remember a few things from each journey.

1

Mountain range to the west covered in snow, street crier pulling a wooden barrow, woman in long black walking with a jaunty step, 4 young men chatting around a telegraph pole, 2 policemen in blue grey uniforms by the corner sentry box, sand bags stacked up to its window, guns slung over their shoulders, carpet shop, men sitting on the floor of a sea container sharing a meal, yellow anodised aluminium teapots for sale, man in a purple shell suit hitched up around his waist. At the last minute, at the blue wall of the centre, the taxi swings to a halt.

2

Petrol tank, green Toyota police car with blue lights flashing, man pushing trolley laden with socks and scarves, man selling phone cards, boy guiding car out of car park, boy crouched in front of a garage washing his hands with fairy liquid, man carrying  two loads of blue plastic jugs,  the same kind we use in our bathroom.

3

Young girl carrying a shiny black quilted bag with gold chain handles, wing mirrors for sale,  wire bedstead for sale, urn on top of pillar, green soup for sale, windscreen wiper sellers, one each side of the road, women in black crossing the road with red bucket.

4

Money changers

5

The Kabul river, the sun setting over the Red Bridge, the ‘hello kitty’ duvets just handed out, man handing out coats, firewood in huge piles, the wood merchants by the side of the river. Each merchant has a huge old curved band saw. Sections of concrete pipe.

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5 Kabul Taxi Rides

Kabul: First impressions

My way of getting to know a new city is to set out on foot, see where my feet will take me, stop for coffee. In Kabul, this will not be possible. At the moment, it is too dangerous for foreigners to walk anywhere; all trips will be by taxi. We will disguise our presence, heads down, keep silent in front of strangers.

Stepping off the plane, into the bright yellow light, there is a sweet smell, partly diesel fumes partly something chemical. Pale yellow, grey dust covers the roses, trees, soil, in the small airport garden. The dust and the smell are the same painful yellow gray.

From the airport, the taxi noses round pot holes, round pedestrians and cyclists. Men in the street, gather in small groups, drink tea. Young women walk in small groups, girls gather around a school gates.

We pass garages, exhaust pipe and tyre shops, bumper shops, bodywork shops. Men crouch on the kerb, selling petrol from a long tank. The road passes marble shops, cement stores, concrete mixers, carpet shops, signs of a construction boom. There are new houses, with tinted glass and ornate balconies that look as if they have already seen better days or waiting for better days to come.

The atmosphere, the bright yellow light and the strange smell of diesel fumes and wood smoke, seems personified and in my jet lagged state seem to follow us into Kabul, into the flat where we’ll be staying. After a good sleep, the bright yellow light streaming across the carpeted floor, I soon grow accustomed to our inside life.  In the day I pick up sound clues, the neighbour’s ringtone, the neighbour’s children. I can hear the thud of a football against the wall and scuffling feet in sandals. I distinguish the street cries from the muezzin. The silent gap between our garden wall and the next building is the Kabul river bed.

Best of all I get to know our hosts, the young men and women of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, sitting round the beaten metal stove, eating the Celebrations we’ve brought. After a few days I start to hear their stories how the war has affected their lives and their families.

Kabul: First impressions

Night shelter

So this is where I am today, Friday morning having spent the night at the Hackney Autumn Night Shelter. My fellow overnight volunteer and I divide the hours into two shifts. For the first half I stay up with my knitting in the light from the kitchen door, left ajar. The guests are coughing and spluttering, getting up and bedding down, wandering about in their underpants, swinging the squeaky door to the toilets. Our guests are astonishingly vulnerable: one wets the bed, can barely straighten himself up, can hardly pull himself up the stairs. Then there are the young ones. In the morning we strip the dampish bedding, damp from the night of coughing and spluttering and fevers.

Going to spend the night at the night shelter is like visiting another country. I think oh, how many hours until I can go home to my nice warm bed. But then my bed is at the other end of a cold bike ride. Then at three it’s my turn and I settle into the camp bed, the same flowery duvet and pillow case that all the guests have, thirsty from the roaring heater but soothed by the sound of regular breathing, that gets slower and slower. And we enter the quietest part of the night, around four. Extreme quiet settles over the group.

Angry that so many vulnerable people have only a camp bed in a church hall to sleep on, rickety joints not well, chesty, asthmatic, too young, too elderly and infirm. Just today Cameron proposes no benefits for EU migrants for four years after arrival. Two polish men get up at six, grab a sandwich from the breakfast team, and set off for work. None of these friendly people should be sleeping in a church hall.

It’s unsustainable that’s what it is. Piles of washing, armfuls of volunteers, church hall heating full blast through the night, cooked breakfast, wet socks, wet coats. The health risks from staying out all day in the winter, are a cost, not just physical.

Some of the guests help clear away the folding chairs and tables, swinging them quickly into place, experts at leaving no trace, everything spick and span in the twinkling of an eye. Others sit motionless, watching, waiting for the last possible moment before they will be chucked out.

It’s a terrible violence against the poorest, most vulnerable, infirm. It’s a terrible violence, that someone elderly and infirm is not cared for, getting worse not better. It’s not possible to have any worthy thoughts about any of this. It’s only my own experience, sleeping on the same creaky camp bed, tip toeing to the same freezing church hall loo – someone’s been smoking in the toilets again – that makes me realise sorrow and anger. I don’t have to see anything; I just have to remember that if I’m longing to reach my own warm bed, my own kitchen table, then what must the guests experience night after night.

Night shelter