Saturday, January 19, 2008

How to leave Kabul

We are back in Washington now, after about 44 hours - count 'em - in transit.


10 a.m. The expediter calls to say that our 2 p.m. flight had been delayed until 3 p.m. and that our shuttle from the airport would be leaving at 12 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. Apparently there was a VVIP (not kidding - a very, very important person) at the airport in the morning, which caused all flights to be delayed or canceled.

11:45 a.m. We lug our bags to the shuttle departure point, arriving exactly 15 minutes in advance so as not to miss the it (the emailed schedule said "DON'T BE LATE. THE SHUTTLE WILL NOT WAIT." In capital letters).

12:30 p.m. The shuttle arrives to pick us up. There are three of us, but only two flak jackets. The driver says whoever wants to go without the vest should sit in the middle. I sit in the middle. After we drive through the multiple checkpoints standing between the compound and Kabul, I am amazed to see life outside of the sandbagged huts and barbed wire. There is traffic - horrible traffic - and there are fruit carts piled high with tangerines. Little kids scurry between honking motorists, skirting death at every veer, and a few women still wearing sky-blue burqas clutch at them as the wind tries to tear them off. The scene is chaotic and dusty and desperately poor, but it is more life than we have seen in five weeks.

1 p.m. We arrive at the airport and spend several hours sitting in the VIP lounge. It has chairs and a gasoline heater, but more importantly, it is inside. I have my one and only conversation in Dari since I have arrived in Afghanistan, with a three-year-old girl who approaches me as I am looking out the window.

Girl: Are you going?
Me: Yes, I am going.
Girl: I am going.
Me: Where are you going?
Girl: To America.

It was a proud moment.

4 p.m. We board the plane. I lament not being able to take a photo of the mountains, which are magnificently framed in blue sky, their snowcaps dazzling in the sunlight. As passengers file on and jockey for overhead bin position, the pilot comes on the PA, frantically saying "Everyone please hurry up and sit down; the weather is getting worse and we need to take off quickly." I look outside, and the sun is gone; in its place are fast-approaching black clouds.

5 p.m. Three other planes take off before us. By the time we have reached the runway, the windows are coated in snow. The pilot comes on again and says the flight is canceled due to weather. We file off, and call the Embassy to arrange sleeping quarters for the night.

6 p.m. We hear that weather, in fact, was not the reason for our cancelled flight. Apparently the plane was overweight. We are told that there is a 767 on the ground that will take us all to Dubai.

7 p.m. We board the 767. Seating is free-for-all, but we are just too late to make it into first or business classes. It's too late for us to make our 8:50 p.m. connection to Kuwait. Our travel agent rebooks us on a flight through Frankfurt that leaves Friday morning at 8:40 a.m. He says an agent will be at our arrivals terminal in Dubai with the tickets. Yeah, right.

8 p.m. They start to serve food. We are still on the ground. The lamb and rice is the best thing we've ever tasted, as we haven't eaten since 11 a.m. The pilot comes on and says that we have to wait for another couple of planes to take off, and then de-ice, but that we should be gone in "no more than an hour."

9:45 p.m. We are still on the ground. The pilot turns on the engine. I don't know anything about machinery, but it sure sounds like a giant car that has stalled out.

10:30 p.m. The pilot comes on again to say that, during the three hours we spent eating and sitting on the ground with the lights out, the electricity has died. It turns out we need a jump start. I kid you not. A generator or engine-starter, or something, arrives from the ISAF (coalition) compound. Finally, at

11:30 p.m. We are in the air.


1:15 a.m. Dubai time. We arrive in Dubai. Not only is there no agent with tickets for us, but the people at the service counter say that we don't have reservations on the flight to Frankfurt and onward connection to Washington. We can't do anything about this until we've gone through customs, collected our luggage, and transferred to the other terminal.

2 a.m. The luggage starts to come out. And then, about 20 pieces later, it stops. None of us have our bags. Turns out that the 4.5 hours we spent on the tarmac in Dubai was not sufficient to load our bags off the original plane and onto the 767. So they just flew the original plane out after us, with no people on it.

3:30 a.m. Our luggage is here! We grab it and move to the taxi line, where we spend about 20 minutes waiting for a cab. Thankfully, there is a snack bar nearby, and we gratefully scarf down soggy sandwiches - it's been a long time since that lamb.

4:00 a.m. We arrive at Terminal 1. The nice Emirates Air check-in guy finds our reservations and tries to convince us to rebook on a flight through London. We are too tired to understand what he is saying, and stick with our original itinerary, realizing only later that the London flight left earlier than the Frankfurt flight, and that that itinerary might have saved us some time. Oh well.

4:20 a.m. We proceed to the Emirates business class lounge. Which is awesome. They have comfy chairs, showers, and an array of finger sandwiches, Arabic mezze (hummus, grape leaves, baba ghanoush, kibbeh, etc.) and fruit. At 6 a.m. they bring out the scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon (turkey) and sausage (veal). They have wine, beer, liquor, juice, soda, coffee and tea. We agree that we could get used to this.

8 a.m. Freshly showered, fed and pretty tired, we board the Emirates flight. We try to sleep, but only manage a couple of hours' rest on the 8-hour flight. I watch Ratatouille for the fourth time (but I don't mind, because it's really good).

1:30 p.m. Frankfurt time: We arrive in Frankfurt, change terminals, and proceed to the C gates. If we had made our connection to Kuwait, we'd be home by now.

2 p.m. Having reached C gates, we find that the security checkpoint is closed, and C gate is being swept. There has been a "change in security levels" and they have to take everyone out of the C gates and check them again.

3 p.m. We arrive at the Red Carpet Club lounge. It is not awesome. But it is better than sitting at the gate.

4:15 p.m. We board the plane.

5 p.m. The pilot informs us that due to heavy winds, we will arrive in D.C. somewhere around 9:30 p.m., instead of our scheduled 8 p.m. arrival. I don't care. We eat dinner, I watch December Boys (which is a surprisingly good movie starring the Harry Potter kid, who must be a great actor because at no time during the film was I reminded of Harry Potter).

7:30 p.m. I pass out. Jeremy and I had discussed this possibility earlier, and had agreed that, should I fall asleep on this flight, he was not to allow me to sleep longer than one hour, so that I would be sufficiently tired upon arrival in Washington to sleep through the night.

8:30 p.m. - 1:30 a.m. Jeremy attempts to wake me up several times. I, apparently, snap at him and go back to sleep. I have only vague memories of this. He gives up.

9:30 p.m. Washington time: We land. We proceed through customs, collect our bags, which arrive very quickly, and head to the Washington Flyer taxi line.

10:30 p.m. We arrive at my family's house. We go to sleep at around 12:30 a.m. It's now 5:45 a.m. Jeremy is sleeping blissfully, and I am wide awake, my penance for snapping at him in my sleep when he tried to wake me during our flight.


  1. Welcome Home!!

    I'm glad to read that you finally made it and safely :)

    Thanks for sharing your adventure w/us. I'm hoping to travel to Paris this fall, hopefully my trip won't be as exciting as yours!


  2. Welcome back to DC. I hope you don't mind that I have included a link to your blog on mine ( I am trying to compile as cpmprehensive a list as I can of FS-related blogs.


  3. Frankly, I don't read a dispatch about Kabul, security, or the Taliban without thinking of you two.


    PS. You might consider being happy Jeremy no longer feels the need to personally help folks load and unload aircraft.

  4. You know, Masha, I can't believe that you and Jeremy have already moved to and away from Kabul before I even got there! I was hoping to get to see you guys when I arrive in August, but apparently not! Had you even begun unpacking???

    Well, I guess I'll just have to get used to disappointment :) I'm glad to hear that you two are safe and sound, and nonetheworse for the wear. Where do you think you'll end up heading to?

    Bryan K

  5. I pull up your blog to see how you and Jeremy are doing, and to my surprise, I see that you've temporarily returned to DC. I'm glad that y'all have returned safely and that your return trip was just as ridiculous as your departure. Let's get together--for sushi perhaps :)--before you ship off again. I'd love to hear about the experience in general.


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