Discovery of Herat Offers Nice Surprises

14 May 2011

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Herat’s fortress
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Aurel’s journey in Afghanistan has taken an unexpected turn for the best in the last week. After three weeks of frustration in Kabul, a city where he has all the best connections possible (The head of the major Afghan TV and radio network’s personal fixer on Aurel’s case 24/7 and still no results!), it is in Herat, where he arrived last week without a single contact, where things are starting to come together. We gave you a few highlights of the situation in the last post, but here’s the full story.

Herat is the 3rd largest city in Afghanistan, situated about three hours from the Afghan-Iranian border in the northwest corner of the country. Traces of the rich history of Afghanistan still linger in the city’s tree lined streets, and the giant clay built fortress that stands in the downtown area has 12 huge minarets, 5 of which are still intricately tiled with traditional Islamic tessellations.

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It’s incredibly dust free compared to Kabul; its roads are in good shape, and the people have managed to protect their beautiful pine trees, which provide shade throughout the city and dot the greater landscape. There are even a number of working stop-lights, which Herati drivers actually respect! (This is in sharp contrast to Kabul where encountering a working stop-light is about as likely as spotting a sea lion). Herat looks like pre war Afghanistan, refreshing after Kabul’s mishmash of old, destroyed, and garishly tacky new.

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Aurel landed in Herat with no contacts, no place to stay, and no clear idea of how he was going to get through the nearby border. The one thing he had in abundance was determination. It has been far too long a journey, and this project has been far too many years in the making to quit now. Abdullah, a friend from Kabul had offered him a chance to meet the chief of police in Herat who he hoped would be willing to at least hear his case.

After checking into the Marco Polo hotel, and being shown his fully tiled, windowless hotel room, Aurel set off to locate the main police station. The bus, which was sent over land from Kabul on top a passenger bus, had been delayed in Kandahar due to a break down and a sandstorm (see our last post for more details).

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In the police station he was searched, questioned and subjected to the routine of inquiry that he has become so accustomed to in the past four weeks. Luckily the offices in Herat are a slightly less crowded than those in Kabul and are without the normal gaggle of curious onlookers and their ever intensifying stares. Without an English translator he fumbled his way through explaining that he had a connection with the chief of police and was requesting a meeting.

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After an hour of waiting, The General arrived, extending his chubby hand warmly to Aurel and exposing the enormous gold watch, which adorned his wrist. Six couches lined the walls of his office, and tea flowed freely. This man was clearly the chief of chiefs and he happened to be not only the chief of police but also the general who controlled the Afghan Iranian border. What luck!

All went very well, except for the fact that Aurel lacked the technical vocabulary to describe the myriad of items that needed to be procured—certificate, validation, certified copy, notarized document, technical control, all these concepts needed to find their way to the general, a dramatic endeavor that had to be completed within 30 minutes which, he was reminded again and again by various random staff throughout the interview, was when the office would be closing for the day.

Even so the general approved the request for the road pass with a smile and definitive nod—the document that allows the vehicle to cross the border and the very piece of elusive paper that Aurel and Diego had spent every waking hour working toward getting during their three weeks in Kabul—and after the verbal consent he clapped Aurel on the back and told him, “Come tomorrow with the bus!”

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Aurel and Suleiman the mechanic

Aurel neglected to divulge that the bus was stuck in Kandahar, hoping with all his heart that tomorrow it might magically appear. And it came true. Word did come from the driver of the passenger bus where the Combi was sitting patiently atop. They were on the road again and would be arriving the following evening around midnight. Everything from that point on barred along recklessly and yet too slow—Aurel’s afghan visa was to expire in five days, starting the following day all offices closed for two days of the weekend, the hotel was expensive and had the worst cheese a Frenchman could imagine, a friend he met on the plane to Herat invited him to an evening lamb roast, the one social event that might bring him out of his tiled cell for a social evening, but a rain storm rolled in at the last minute and caused major flooding, turning the streets to rivers and canceling the lamb roast.

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The bus arrived too late to be retrieved from the bus station, which closed at 10pm so Aurel got up early the following morning to be there at 7am to pick it up. He and negotiated for hour over the customary bribe that is supposed to grease the wheels of this ridiculous system—a bribe to take back what was already his, what he had paid to have sent, what has arrived 3 days late and was dented by the careless crane activator—but it was useless to argue and in the end he had to pay not only a the bribe to the driver, but a fee for the housing of the bus overnight!

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But the coming of the bus brought some good luck, finally! The friend from the airplane introduced Aurel to a colleague, Alfred, a 60 year old German man who has run an NGO called HELP in Herat for five years. HELP is a very active and effective NGO with a mission to reintroduce Afghan refugees formerly living in Iran back into Afghan society. They provide all kinds of transitional programs, including job training of many kinds. Alfred is a ball of energy and the NGO’s presence has made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of Afghans.

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Alfred immediately won Aurel’s heart and mind by inviting him to a dinner where the (non alcoholic) beer was plentiful and the kitchen staff prepared a special French dessert called Mystere. After the full run down of our situation, Alfred’s German heart swelled with excitement as he fell head over heels for the Combinations project. There were a million ways he could think of that he and HELP could do what they do best—HELP! First of all was to relieve Aurel of his posting at the Marco Polo Hotel and offer him and the combi a place to stay at the HELP guest house where he could have a window in his bedroom and the auto mechanic training center could pamper the bus. Second, and even more important he was able provide a full time translator and driver to deal with the paper work and the general in order to get the road pass. Thirdly, Alfred was set to make the Combinations project local and part of HELP’s general work in some way (More on this in the next post).

So, the bus is happy, Aurel is happy and he and the two Afghan musketeers that have been assigned to his care, with the help of the general are well on their way to a roadpass—serious this time, it’s going to happen!

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