Some people have wanderlust: literally, a desire to travel and explore. Me? I don’t have wanderlust. I have full-fledged wanderaffairs. And they are everything you would imagine affairs to be: intoxicating, exhausting, and a little bit dangerous.
Last month, I took my much-needed week of rest and relaxation from Gaza and returned to Afghanistan for the second time since leaving there in 2013. When I lived and worked in Afghanistan for the UN, I was forced to live under UN security rules, which meant I was locked away in an armed compound. At the time, I felt like I was having a rich experience, but actually, I really did not know what I was missing. I was a road runner experiencing a high at the end of a marathon. I had not yet felt the full-body tingle of a 100 mile finish (with all due respect to marathon runners).
Through my work with Free to Run, I have seen a completely different side of Afghanistan – the outside of the country and the inside of its people. I have rediscovered its charm, its beauty, its challenges and all of its wonderful frustrations.
In the central highlands region, I got to hike up to 3000 meters with a group of young girls that we are helping to learn martial arts. In the valley, they are constrained by cultural norms and ideas about the role of women and girls in society… but up on the mountain, they are free to run, laugh, throw snowballs and karate chop to their heart’s content. I can’t show you photos of their faces, but I can tell you that they were plastered with ear-to-ear cheeky grins.
In Kabul, I met with the national female boxing team and their inspirational female trainer, who we’ve now recruited to teach in shelters for women who have experienced domestic violence. I sparred with a 13 year old boxer who just about broke my ribs as she giggled behind her gloves and shook my head at how these girls were training at the stadium where the Taliban used to carry out their executions.
Finally, in the north, I got the chance to meet up with our ultramarathon team, Nelofar and Zainab, who I’ve been
communicating with for months. Their spirit and determination had come through over skype before, but in person, I was completely blown away. Nelofar is this seemingly quiet 19 year old woman at first, but once you get to know her, you discover that she is extremely driven, intelligent beyond her years, and a total goofball. After experiencing difficulties with trying to find a safe place to train for the Gobi March, she is coming up with plans to open her own gym for women so that others don’t have to face the same challenges (and I’m going to do my best to help make that happen). And then there’s Zainab, a strong-willed and articulate 25 year old woman who is has the confidence and self-assurance of someone twice her age… The potential in these women is palpable. I can’t think of better women to spend seven days with crossing the Gobi desert!
I came back to Gaza after two weeks in Afghanistan feeling completely inspired, energized, and whole-heartedly overwhelmed. Not to mention the fact that I had a nasty head injury and broken nose at the time, but that is another story (if I ever meet you in a bar, remind me to tell you about the time I took on a fight with a dead Afghan ibex). It is a hard place to leave behind in the physical sense, and an impossible one to leave behind mentally…. So I don’t. I’m more determined than ever to support the women and girls I’ve met and to keep our programs going. Afghanistan is one wanderaffair that I hope never ends.
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Please also check out my latest podcast with Kickass Canadians!