A Tourist’s Afghanistan

Travel Stories: Cullen Thomas recounts an independent traveler's time in the war-torn country

12.10.09 | 11:09 AM ET

REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

Of course, people in Kabul asked my friend Barry Misenheimer what he was doing in Afghanistan. Not a spook, not military, not a contractor, not a consultant or NGO worker, he was rarer, more absurd than all those.

“I’m a tourist,” he answered people, recalling his trip recently from his apartment on the Lower East Side. The other foreigners laughingly called him “the tourist.” 

And so he was without an agenda, had no objective in Afghanistan other than his own on-the-fly itinerary: to see and experience the country independent of General McChrystal and President Obama, the front pages of the Wall Street Journal.

A middle-aged North Carolinian and former executive for Coca-Cola, Barry had done this before: Sarajevo in 1995; Saddam’s Baghdad in 1998; smacking golf balls into the Taedong River in Pyongyang in 2005; driving by nuclear facilities in Iran in 2006. Chasing war, despotism, political intrigue. Chasing history. It had taught him a great deal. 

And now he sat at a white linen breakfast table in the Kabul Lodge on Passport Lane. He’d arrived on September 11, 2009. That felt very odd, he said. His companions at the table: a Scottish health consultant for the European Commission’s support staff to the Afghan government; a mysterious French woman who said she was working on a book—though people whispered that she must be an intelligence agent (what white Westerner travels independently to Kandahar in a burqa?)—; and a Dutch man also working for the Afghan government.

Barry asked what they thought: How safe was it? What was the state of the place? Each had a different take, and they quickly talked into a heated argument. “It was like that story of the blind men touching an elephant,” Barry said. The Scottish woman had to review reports of ongoing, hideous things, reports the French woman didn’t see, but then she’d been to Kandahar in a burqa, and how bad could it be?

Some expats said it was safe to walk around Kabul, but, as far as Barry saw, “nobody did.”

Photo of the Kabul Lodge by Barry Misenheimer

He took room 26 at the lodge, one of the larger bedrooms. It had dark wood paneling and an eerie feel. The French woman refused to stay there; she told Barry the room was haunted. Haider, who owned the lodge, said the entire place had once been occupied by one of Bin Laden’s wives.

Had the wife stayed in the room? Barry wondered, trying to sleep on the bed. Had Bin Laden himself been in it? Or had they tortured prisoners there, in that very room, as was rumored around the lodge? Barry had been to Tuol Sleng. He changed rooms straight away.

Then the Italian convoy was bombed, not too far away, not too long after Barry had passed that way. And he went to the site and was appalled by the crater in the road.

He hired a driver and guide and took the road north toward Mazar. People had said it was the safest. But outside Pul-e-Khumri he saw the fresh, not even an hour old, charred remains of a bombing, the trees along the road blackened and cracked. His guide and translator, a former policeman named Esmed, said it had been a suicide bomber, that he’d been aiming at a U.S. convoy but had killed only Afghan civilians. Later, Barry looked for reports of this attack, but not even Al Jazeera had word of it.
Even as he ventured out, taking careful steps in a land of war, and was surprised himself to be able to hire a car and just drive north out of Kabul—an unarmed American tourist—he still felt like something was closing around him, on that place. 

Outside Balkh, at the No Gombad Mosque, one of the oldest in Afghanistan, a cannabis plant grew naturally at the side of the road, right next to the door of the car where they parked. Aggressive wasps had made nests in the mosque, the old caretaker lamented, and before a few years ago he’d never seen any. Some called the wasps Americans, he joked.

They spied a Japanese man and woman wandering in the area, the only other tourists Barry would see. And how crazy were they, he thought. He and Esmed insisted on driving them back into town; walking was dangerous. The young Japanese man said he was planning to take a bus from Kabul to Herat, which Barry had been soberly warned was a deadly Taliban route. He tried to talk the guy out of it. “I wanted to tell him that he should just hang himself in his closet, at least save himself the bus fare.”

Wondering about their fate, back in Manhattan Barry googled “Japanese tourists, Afghanistan.” Nothing, just a story about a different Japanese couple murdered in the country back in 2006.

At a checkpoint on the road back from Mazar, an Afghan soldier called out to Esmed and Barry’s driver, “Why isn’t this American you’ve kidnapped screaming?” The joke went over huge with the other soldiers. Barry laughed too. You scream or you laugh, one of the two.

He flew to Herat. Through the air is the best way around angry, land-locked Talibs, for they’re tied to the dirt of the earth and can’t touch a tourist tailing it thousands of feet over their turbaned heads.

Then to Bamiyan to see the effaced Buddhas, but on the trip he’d have to wear a pakol on his head and a scarf over his face. The road might not be safe, at least not for an American, one with a southern drawl. After dinner the first night (everything soaked in oil, naan bread slapped on the floor where people had walked), a tall Afghan with dark hair and blue eyes approached Barry outside the restaurant.

“Welcome to Bamiyan!” the jolly fellow called out. “No Taliban here. Safe here. You want woman?”

After roughly a month, having traversed 3,000 miles of the country, 1,500 by road, he estimates, Barry was back in Kabul. The window for trips like his in Afghanistan was closing, he felt.

Then on the morning of October 8, one of his last days there, while at breakfast with others in the lodge, he raised his coffee and was accosted by a massive explosion. A powerful wave pounded through his body as the glass of the windows burst in on him, throwing shards across the room. A Taliban suicide bomber in a car had detonated just a hundred yards away, at the intersection of Passport Lane and Interior Ministry Road. He was stopped trying to come down their street, stopped by the guard who Barry waved to each day, the guard whose forearm was found still clutching his rifle.

Stunned but unscathed—unlike the 17 who died in the blast and the dozens of others injured—Barry videotaped the scene not long after: the site of the explosion, the random, vicious disorder left behind: a little picture of hell, dark blood stains splattered on the cement walls lining the road, bees hovering around the spots, the blackened engine block and chassis of the madman’s car tossed separately down Passport Lane, strangely malevolent things that looked almost alive.

Then chains were tied around these parts and they were disturbingly reanimated as a crane jerked them a few yards at a time through the debris.

Barry wanted to know their names, the bomber, the guard who may have saved their lives. The bomber, it was reported, was named Khalid, from Paghman, where the Kabul Golf Club is. Barry had been out there to see it. Esmed said the guard’s name was Matin. Barry wanted them to be real. The last thing could well have been the two of them looking each other in the face—militant Khalid, noble Matin.

A German business consultant staying at the lodge led Barry and the others in collecting $1,000 U.S. for the guard’s widow. Weeks later the German wrote the group in an email, “Some shops opened again but there are no kids anymore in our street on their way to school.” Barry was back in New York, staring out over the East River, saying how much talk of the war in Afghanistan sounded like our history in Vietnam.

A tourist’s Afghanistan, ancient and in trouble. By the end Barry couldn’t help but feel as though he were being stalked. But he’ll never forget it. He brought back a few souvenirs: worn and faded Afghani bills, a Kabul Golf Club key chain, and a ten-inch piece of metal from a car, most likely the bomber’s, which is carbonized, thin and sharp all around, twisted into an indescribable shape.

Cullen Thomas is the author of the memoir "Brother One Cell," a 2008 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Salon, GQ, and the Washington Post.

9 Comments for A Tourist’s Afghanistan

Mike Barish 12.10.09 | 12:38 PM ET

Outstanding and haunting piece. With each anecdote, I found myself waiting for the silence to be broken by something tragic, so I can only imagine how it must have felt to be there. Well done.

James L. Moore 12.10.09 | 2:38 PM ET

Wow.  I cannot possibly imagine voluntarily inserting myself into places so torn with strife and war, and yet still so filled with normalcy.

Barry’s tale indicates it is both worse than you hear on the news—- much is left unreported—- and better than any of us who have never lived in a battle zone can comprehend. 

Barry ranks in the top ten of intrepid travelers as far as I am concerned, especially considering his track record.  Thanks for the report.

Emma 12.10.09 | 2:42 PM ET

A powerful piece that reminds me how far removed my daily life is from the fighting that affects so many .

David Scott 12.11.09 | 12:27 AM ET

There is not enough difference between the Democrats and Republicans.  Until we remove all our troops from the middle-east and do something to solve our problems at home, our reputation in every country is ruined. If I could afford to go anywhere after the damage the neoconservative war/profit-mongers have done to our economy, I would definitely say I was from Canada.  Both Democrats and Republicans have been ripping off the taxpayers, since way before I was born. The thing that worried me about Obama right from the beginning was his warlike and hawkish attitudes. We need to stop giving money to the military, and Obama never talked about that. I invite you to my website devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on freedom: http://pltcldscsn.blogspot.com/

Wanderluster 12.11.09 | 10:52 AM ET

Early in this article you state that in Barry’s travels to war zones, “It had taught him a great deal.” I’d like to know what he learned by going to Afghanistan.

In my opinion, “tourist” and “Afghanistan” should not be in the same sentence, at least not right now. I’m all about experiencing the world, but putting yourself in harm’s way in a war zone for the sake of adventure (or learning?) is just plain, well, silly. It’s another thing if you’re going to do something productive with that information - like write a story for or against the war there.

A great read is The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. It’s about his walk across Afghanistan. He was at least fluent in the language and in some instances able to pass as a local. I learned a tremendous amount about Afghanistan from that book and one thing is for sure, it’s not on my top 10.

Good for Barry for being so fearless but I’d like to know that he came back with more than a few souvenirs.

Jeff 12.18.09 | 3:59 PM ET

If more articles were like this, World Hum would be a much better site.  An engaging, well-written article about a unique travel experience.  I haven’t visited this site in months because I can’t deal with another “What I Twittered On My Vacation” piece.  But I’m glad I checked in today to read this.

Jennifer Gilbert 12.18.09 | 5:45 PM ET

very interesting.put me on your list, please!

George McCarten 01.10.10 | 10:15 AM ET

A strong nults and bolts anecdote of a free-lance reporter who travels under the status of ‘tourist’.  And why not?  The Viet Cong were guerillas, whereas the current insurgency are ‘terrorists’.

ika 01.19.10 | 5:21 PM ET

Im a tourist, he answered people, recalling his trip recently from his apartment on the Lower East Side. The other foreigners laughingly called him the tourist.  this is mean that he is a reporter

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