I can’t believe that my last weekend in Afghanistan has finally arrived. In a matter of days, I will be on a flight to Hong Kong to catch up with my running buddies and RacingThePlanet family, and then onwards to Canada to reunite with my quirky and wonderfully supportive family. It’s going to be awesome, eh??? I have started to take down my Indian wall hangings, roll up my Afghan carpets, fold my head scarves and pack away my belongings. I came in with two suitcases and now I’m leaving with three… but these bags fail to represent everything that I have gained this year.
It strikes me that this past year working in Kabul has been similar in many ways to running an ultra. You can prepare as much as you can before the adventure, but you really don’t know what you are getting yourself into until you are already there – or perhaps not even until you reach the end.
There are moments of pure exhilaration and euphoria when you realize that life is more beautiful and more grand than you ever thought possible. In an ultra, this type of feeling can brought on by delirium, a sugary snack, or exhaustion…. but here in Afghanistan, inspiration is waiting around every corner if you are willing to see it. The experiences I have had running on behalf of Women for Afghan Women, teaching and playing with the students at the School of Leadership – Afghanistan (SOLA), and witnessing the strength of female activists and politicians in this country has been more powerful than even the strongest energy gel on the 20th hour of an ultra. When I see one of the students’ eyes sparkle when telling me about her dreams of becoming an ‘international diplomat’ or a ‘doctor who delivers babies’…or when I hear an Afghan women’s rights activist stand up to a panel of bearded and turbaned men, voice filled with passion and enlightened rage… or when I feel the warmth of the Afghan sun breaking through the thick layer of pollution hanging over Kabul. In all of these moments, I have felt more blessed and connected to myself and those around me than ever before.
However, as any ultrarunner will know, these highs can be punctuated with the darkest lows imaginable. I have experienced a few of these lows in racing before and I’ve learned to expect and remind myself that they are short-lived. However, when you are in the moment experiencing them, they can be all-consuming and black. You feel alone, exhausted, and unsure if you can take another step. Sometimes you can’t even figure out which direction to take and you end up flailing around in panic and confusion in the woods, desert, or mountains. Looking back on the year in Afghanistan, I can say that I have definitely experienced some tough times here that would rival any ultrarunner’s low.
On the professional side of things, I have often been overwhelmed by a sense of complete hopelessness and futility. It is not uncommon when working for ANY international organization to feel like all we are doing is trying to legitimize our own presence. Talking amongst ourselves, meeting amongst ourselves, criticizing and praising ourselves (and for what?). Although I fully recognize I have led an extremely sheltered life while living under UN security rules, I have tried to expose myself to as much of Afghan culture – and especially the challenges faced by Afghan girls and women – as is possible in this current environment. Through this process, I’ve been angered at some of the conservative views I am meant to try to understand and respond to diplomatically when working on women’s issues. I’ve struggled with the feeling that the international community – and me included as a member – is rapidly abandoning the country. I’ve felt guilt at not trying hard enough and not staying longer.
On the personal side, I can’t deny that certain aspects of my life have suffered as a result of being here and have made me question whether it was worth it to stay…. Or whether I even could stay. Sounds of gunfire, sights of explosions and warnings of IEDs are only one aspect of the stresses that one endures here. One is physically and emotionally isolated from everyone important in one’s life, and if something goes wrong on the ‘outside’, it is not always possible to get out. More than a couple of times this year, I have been ‘stuck’ inside at times of trauma or crisis, and it is truly one of the most helpless feelings I have ever experienced.
However, I can say without a moment’s hesitation that this has been the richest, fullest and most memorable years of my entire life. The relationships I have developed here with friends and colleagues simply cannot be replicated anywhere else. Whenever I felt alone or lost in the metaphorical woods, desert or mountains, I was able to rely on them, as they have on me other times, and for that I will always be grateful. I feel as if I’m emerging with one extra suitcase of carpets and an entire warehouse of experiences that have made me stronger and more inspired to take on my next set of challenges. It is true, I am exhausted at the moment and craving good food, good company and a good night’s sleep. But these are the same feelings one gets when crossing the finish line of a 100 miler or a week-long stage race. It is exhaustion with a face-cracking smile.
I’m going to miss the girls, my colleagues, my friends, even my ‘Kompound Kilometers’. But I cannot WAIT to see my friends and loved ones on the outside and thank all of my ‘crew’ members who have supported me through the toughest checkpoints in the race that is Afghanistan…
This morning as I left SOLA, the girls threw some water at my UN vehicle when saying goodbye. Apparently in Afghan culture this is a way of wishing that someone will return soon. It was only a cupful of water, but in my mind, I will remember it as a full bucket, covering the entire back of the armoured car with the hope of future plans.
On Tuesday, I will say goodbye, but I have no doubt I will be saying hello again very soon. Inshallah.