3 March 2009
So, the visa issue got sorted faster than I thought, but only by leaving London on short notice and flying out to Dubai for a shot at the reportedly top-notch Afghan consulate there. A visa had been obtained (in ONE day!) by a compatriot of mine earlier in the week, and I was assured that none of the shenanigans present at the Afghan embassy in London would impair further progress. Needless to say, I was a little dubious.
However, armed with some vague directions, a plane ticket (economy class) and an envelope full of US dollars, I boarded a flight Sunday evening for the sunny exotic Persian Gulf.* The Dubai airport is surprisingly modern and efficient, with the usual array of hotel kiosks and duty free shops. The only wrinkle was that, unbeknownst to me, there is a limit of 400 cigarettes that one is allowed to import in one’s luggage. To all of you non-smokers, 400 cigarettes may seem like a lot, I’m sure. However, to me, a heavy smoker about to embark on six months in a country paradoxically known for high percentage of heavy smokers and an inherent difficulty in obtaining basic goods, two cartons just wasn’t going to cut it. So, at Heathrow I bought four cartons (that’s 800 cigarettes- they’re like currency, right?), which was twice the allowed amount. After being hustled around by customs in Dubai for half-an-hour, I was deposited in front of an unsympathetic looking young lady in a burka and a member of Dubai’s elite customs police who made his companion look positively amorous. They stared at me for a full minute, taking turns examining my passport and ticket, and then to my surprise, the lady smiled and said, “Enjoy your trip. Welcome to Dubai.” Her partner merely glared at me and said, “Don’t do it again.”
*As it turns out, Dubai is not all that exotic, more like Houston with more sand and fewer steakhouses. Nor, on the day I arrived, was it very sunny. In fact, the predominant colors appeared to be gray and tan, a motif which would reoccur at my next destination.
So, I’m off to the cab stand and a full day of driving around Dubai sorting out visas and onward tickets. As it turns out, the hyper-efficient Afghan consulate in Dubai is actually about half a dozen Pashtuns hanging around listlessly in a small, dingy flat behind the immigration office. I dropped my application and fee, chatted with a few Westerners heading the same way, and then proceeded to the hotel to drop my bags and check in. That accomplished, I headed back out to the travel agent to pick up my ticket for Kabul and then returned to the hotel for some sleep.**I never sleep on planes. Not sure why, I can (and have) slept nearly anywhere, in the main train station in downtown Warsaw, on a railroad siding somewhere in rural Slovakia, on top of a dozen crates of mortar shells in the back of 5-ton truck, even in the waiting area of the Villa Park, Illinois DMV. But never on planes.
The nap turned out to be a mistake, a victim of my misplaced faith in the efficiency of the Afghan consular officials. They had said (and it was confirmed by others present) that it would take several hours to process the application and that I should just wait. Not likely, I thought. I’ll just duck out and complete my other tasks and return this afternoon to pick it up. Easy-peasy-Japaneese, as we used to say as kids. Not so much in this case.
Upon my return at 2:50 PM, I was informed by an extremely surly Afghan that the consulate closes at 3:00, and anyway he hadn’t processed my application since I hadn’t been there when he called my name. For what exactly is unclear. Come back tomorrow and try again was his only suggestion. Knowing that I had to fly at 6:00 AM the next day, coming back tomorrow was not an option. Reason, pleading, logic, all were met with a practiced indifference. At a loss for what to do, I simply stood there and stared at him while he went about his business closing up shop. Apparently, despite having a reputation as Master Starers, 1st class, Afghans don’t care to be stared at themselves.* In less than five minutes, he relented and with much sighing and complaining**, he processed the whole thing in sixty seconds flat. Apparently, they are capable of being efficient when they choose to be.
*More on the staring thing later. It’s really quite remarkable.
**At least I think he was complaining. It was all in Dari/Farsi (probably) so I can’t say for sure.
At last, armed with plane ticket and visa, I headed back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before my 4:00 AM wake-up call. And, as anyone about to fly out to take up a new job under uncertain circumstances in a country with a well-deserved reputation for violence and dislike of foreigners would do, I got drunk.