When I tell people I visited Kabul for eight days, the reaction tends to be pretty stock standard. Eyebrows raise, bottom lips drop, a small noise of surprise is made and it's always followed by the same question:
"What was that like?"
My first response is pretty formulated and consistent. "Amazing, incredible, beautiful," I say. This seems to surprise people because I haven't just returned from the likes of Ko Samui, or been on an Alaskan Glacier cruise.
But it's an honest answer, honestly.
The amazing culture, the incredible people and the beautiful scenery; these are the clichéd words that spring to mind when I recollect the experience. They easily outweigh the lowest points of the holiday, which didn't really get much graver than the arduous series of security checkpoints at Kabul Airport, or the hassle of having to find somewhere else to stay after some accommodation arrangements fell through at the last minute.
Of course I understand why people ask the question with such incredulity. We're accustomed to what we get from the media and our social feeds. Without much insight into normal, everyday happenings in Kabul, it's hard to comprehend life beyond the worsening economy and fragile security situation.
In fact, some people misinterpret the Taliban's strengths in some parts of the country as them still having formal control in all parts of the country. Which means they probably envision me standing around in the blood and chaos of a war zone, when, in reality, I was sitting around drinking tea in the warmth and comfort of locals' homes. I wasn't out there being harassed and targeted as a Western woman; I was being proudly taken care of as an international guest.
Even for those with a bit more idea of what it meant for the country after the Taliban fell in 2001, it's difficult to imagine Kabul beyond the rubble, rifles, bombs and burkas. I was certainly stretched to find anyone talking about the simple joys of walking down the restored streets or smoking hash with the locals at popular downtown venues. Bloggers weren't recommending the open-mic nights or contemporary art exhibitions that were on. And I'd never found anyone discussing the cultural delight of sipping on fresh pomegranate juice, or the cultural quirk of decorating cars with curious windshield stickers.
My interest in visiting the country was sparked by an encounter I had with an Afghan guy I met on a dance floor in Delhi. I didn't really think much of our dance-off at the time, so you can imagine the surprise I got when he found me on Facebook and handed me an out-of-nowhere declaration of love. From fear to fascination, this developed into a sort-of cyber friendship with him, and he exposed me to the realities of middle-class family life in Afghanistan. He was absolutely adamant that the country was nothing like the picture painted for the West by the media.
When I started to look into it, I noted that a smart traveller would take safety precautions, such as avoiding embassies, government offices, police checkpoints, hotels and popular restaurants for expats -- all popular targets for terrorists. But there's no way I would have gone if 2015 hadn't also offered me direct communication platforms to engage with locals and expats on the ground. Couchsurfing, for example, played a major part in helping me create an entire support network in Kabul, all from the comfort of my desk in London.
I spoke to an Australian journalist who, while reluctant to give me any guarantees of safety (for obvious reasons), discussed her general ease of movement and the fact that, in her four years living there, she had never had anything tragic unfold in front of her. She gave me tips on what to wear -- loose headscarf and loose clothes, with trouser zippers covered at all times because apparently it's considered quite risqué -- and overall gave me reasons to believe I could go there feeling relatively comfortable and safe.
I had to obtain an invitation letter from someone living in Afghanistan to apply for my visa, so I asked a Canadian NGO who was more than happy to help. He wasn't actually going to be there at the time of my visit, so he prearranged my accommodation with a female Iranian friend of his. He also organised for an Afghan colleague to pick me up from the airport and drive me around in his spare time. "Just grab him a bottle of Jack Daniels from duty free, he'll be happy with that deal," he suggested. After I did my research and found out that foreigners were allowed to bring two litres of alcohol through the airport, I was happy with that deal too.
I also contacted a few bold travellers who I could see had visited Kabul in recent months. The American offered: "walk around like you own the place" and "be confident" or be "eaten alive". I appreciated this because I believe perceived confidence to be powerful. The Frenchman's advice, on the other hand, was a little less brash: "keep a low profile" and "try to change directions to avoid being followed or kidnapped". This I took seriously by researching what to do in the unfortunate event of kidnapping.
Lastly, I connected with local Afghans, who were more than helpful in answering my frenzy of questions and concerns, not to mention hospitable in offers to host or guide me. These interactions were utterly invaluable; not just because I was gaining important insights and information, but I was actively transforming my perception of a society that pre-conceived notions had caused me to fear. By breaking down these barriers I was preparing myself emotionally. I was developing an understanding of what to expect and teaching myself to put faith in humanity and trust my own instincts. I realised that doing this trip wasn't about me being brave or adventurous, it was about me maintaining an open mind.
By the time I actually landed in the country, I was not just full of creamy chicken and fuzzy feelings towards the attractive Afghan football team on my flight, but I really was psychologically prepared. I knew how to convert the intimidation I felt from people's stares into acceptance about their curiosity; I knew to look at the guns perching on every other street corner as security and protection, not any sort of immediate threat.
After delighting my new friend with a bottle of Jack Daniels, he drove towards my accommodation and I absorbed life on the streets through the car window. The bright lights and colours of shops, restaurants and juice bars astounded me -- Kabul bustled with way more liveliness than I had ever imagined it would.
The next eight days were spent mingling with a variety of locals and expats. I was invited to lunches, dinners, local Afghan events and embassy functions. I learnt about the popularity of hash and even felt a considerate level of intoxication at a cocktail party one evening. Most people I spoke to had the opinion that while terrorism is a real threat, it's a real threat everywhere else in the world too. It really seemed to be a common point of view that getting caught up in an attack is always going to be a case of wrong place at the wrong time -- again, an assessment relevant to anywhere, any atrocity and any type of evil.
Travelling imposes a certain level of risk. Full stop. But with the ability to trust strangers and keep an open mind, you can access the right level of knowledge and understanding of those risks. And with this sort of mental preparation, you'll find that you can go places that others don't know how to.