Two elderly men sit on the ground in Kabul. Photo Credit: Abdurahman Warsame/Flickr Creative Commons.

Two elderly men sit on the ground in Kabul. Photo Credit: Abdurahman Warsame/Flickr Creative Commons.

“This your visa?” he asked in broken English, pointing to the Afghan visa I’d acquired in Berlin from the Afghan embassy, which was located in a leafy residential neighborhood and had appeared to double as a home for the few officials stationed there.

“Yes,” I replied. “I am going to India, so it’s a transit visa.”

“Transit,” he said with a pause before stating, “OK.”

“OK,” I said, cracking a nervous smile.

“You may go.”

“Thank you,” I told him. “Inshallah (God willing) I shall make my flight.”

Inshallah,” he called out as I walked away.

Past security was the main departure “hall” of the airport, which was really no more than a small corridor reminiscent of a tightly packed sardine can that made tiny Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe look large by comparison. There were no more than a handful of check-in counters, and armed security outnumbered passengers by nearly a three-to-one ratio.

“May I help you, sir?”

Turning around, I stood face-to-face with a young man in civilian clothes who barely came up to my shoulder.

“With what?” I asked confusedly.

“You seem lost,” he remarked. I noticed his clothing was rather disheveled.

“I just need to check-in for my next flight,” I told him. “It is very soon.”

“Maybe I can show you the way?”

I knew the trick. This youth would likely “offer” to help guide me through the airport, and then demand an exorbitant fee for his “services.” It was one of the oldest scams known.

“I think I can find it,” I told him. “It looks like it is right here,” I added, pointing to the counters. “But thanks anyway.”

“Here, I can help you sir,” he continued. Boy, was he persistent.

“I’ve got it,” I said tersely, getting slightly annoyed.

Turning away from him, I headed for the check-in counters. The youth followed me.

“See, I have led you to it,” he said.

“Uh, thanks,” I said. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference if I told him even a blind person could have found out where to check-in for their flight considering the airport’s miniscule size.

“I am glad to help,” the youth said. “But, you know, life is very hard here. Perhaps you can give me a tip?”

I had a feeling he was going to say that.

“I have only very little money,” I said. “And I don’t have the local currency.”

“It’s okay, you give me dollars.” The boy’s hair was extraordinarily greasy.

“I only have euros.”

“Then you give me euros.”

“I do not have very much money. All I have are coins.” The last part was a lie, but I needed to get rid of this scammer.

“You give me paper money.”

“I said I have none.”

Now the young man was getting cross. “Paper,” he said.

“I do not have any.”

I actually didn’t have very many coins either, but it would be a way out of this situation without calling for security.

“Here,” I said, reaching into a rear pocket with my right hand. “You can have what I have.” I handed over all the coins I had. It amounted to about 13 euro cents ($0.15). I didn’t want to encourage such ne’er-do-wells, but it seemed to be the best way to end this unfortunate business without running the risk of missing my flight by having to explain to an official what was going on.

“Thank you sir,” he mumbled, grabbing the coins and walking away quickly. I relaxed my hold on my wallet and passport in my front left pocket when he was finally out of sight.

I was prepared for a host of questions as to why I elected to have a stopover in Kabul on my way to India, but I was checked-in for my flight with barely a word from the Air India employee at the dirty-looking counter.

“Here is your boarding pass,” the man said, handing me my ticket. Save for a printed logo reading “Air India,” all information — name, seat assignment, flight number and more — had been filled in with a pen. There was no way such a boarding pass would ever be considered valid in Europe or North America.

Standing in line for yet another security check, it was plainly evident that my beard — which I’d been growing out for an entire year — was one of the shortest in sight. Some people in line — many of whom were clad in traditional shalwar kameez (a loose, pajama-like outfit consisting of a shirt and trousers, popular in parts of South Asia), or its variation known as perahan wa tunban — sported facial hair reaching nearly to their waists. I shuddered to think of all the things that could get lost in such a hirsute hideaway.

Forced to remove my shoes for the first time since a trip to Oregon to visit my family in June, security and exit customs was a breeze. I had only a few minutes to wait in the main waiting lounge, but it was long enough to get another strong whiff of body odor as hundreds of men were crammed into a space not much larger than the average McDonald’s. In the far corner, dozens of these men prostrated themselves on the ground, praying toward Mecca and to Allah for a safe journey.

It was now almost time for midafternoon tea, but there was no opportunity to indulge in a tradition famous in Afghanistan due to the influence of past British occupation (and the source of the title of Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s controversial bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, about building schools in the country and neighboring Pakistan and Tajikistan).

“Sir, are you flying now?” a man in a wrinkled suit asked me.

“Um, I think so,” I said, pulling my boarding pass out of my pocket to examine when specifically my departure time was.

The man snatched it from me and examined it.

“Yes, you fly now,” he said. “Follow me.”

Several other men joined us as we exited the waiting area and navigated a series of maze-like corridors with bare walls and narrow staircases. Given how small the airport had seemed, I was surprised it boasted so many passageways.

“Go through these doors,” the man told me, pointing to a pair of glass doors leading out to the tarmac, near which stood two armed men. A little ways distant, a plane bearing the distinct red and gold livery of Air India sat idly.

Heavily scuffed linoleum gave way to jagged asphalt as I went through the doors. A blast of cold air slammed into me as I returned to the outdoors and headed in the direction of the plane with the other passengers. The two men with guns near the door followed us as we boarded a bus, which reached the plane in about 20 seconds.

Namaste,” a flight attendant clad in a traditional Indian sari said as I boarded the plane, folding her hands together and smiling.

“Namaste,” I answered, repeating the Hindu greeting and gesture, which loosely translates as “I bow to the divine in you.”

The plane was almost entirely devoid of passengers, meaning I had not only an entire row to myself, but the rows in front, behind, and to the left of me. I didn’t think I’d ever been on an emptier flight. The amount of money Air India must have been losing on the route was undoubtedly enormous.

Taking my seat, I flipped through the inflight magazine. I’d written for Air India’s magazine in 2012 (about Jordan Romero, a California boy who became the youngest person to climb the highest mountain on each continent), but since then the entire editorial staff had changed and the magazine had been renamed Shubh Yatra. I was curious to see if I could find contact information for the new editor-in-chief, so that I could perhaps pitch a story to them depending on what happened during my time in India.

A flight attendant spoke on the intercom in Hindi, Pashto and Dari (the latter two being the official languages of Afghanistan, as well as the most widely spoken), none of which I understood much of beyond a few simple greetings and commands.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice now said in soft yet assertive English, “we will soon be departing. Please fasten your seat belts and store your belongings.”

I did as instructed. The sun had noticeably lowered in the sky as the plane rolled away from the gate and onto the runway. With a great deal of rattling and a sudden whoosh, we blasted down the 11,482-foot (3,500-meter) strip of pavement and took to the sky.

I had been on the ground for barely two hours. In that time, I had realized at least one thing about Afghanistan: people are very, very helpful.

Stay tuned next week for Benjamin Mack’s adventures in India!