Letter from Afghanistan V: The Potato Exchange

Sent on 31st August 2009, in this letter our correspondent talks about the local markets.

This past week has been almost normal, I mean that I have been getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home and eating the, by now, legendary bad food. Therefore I thought I’d try to paint in words a few pictures of life round here. Now there have been quite a few books written about Afghanistan in general and Kabul in particular but nothing beats living here for making you appreciate almost everywhere else in the world.

Yes the people are charming and hospitable but those characteristics disappear as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car. Then they are fearless warriors charging into battle on their steeds complete with flowing robes and flashing swords held aloft. Ok the steeds do tend to be Toyotas in various stages of decomposition bit they do have the robes and probably more than a few have the swords or some other armament tucked away. It seems that traffic laws, if they exist and even I can’t believe that a whole department of traffic police exist solely for the purpose of extracting al fresco taxes from the motoring populace, are merely an advisory including which side of the road to drive on, the correct way to go round roundabouts (traffic circles for my transatlantic readership) and that one way streets really should be one way and not just the one way that someone feels suits his planned route.

The net result of this is gridlock of the kind that totally belies the low percentage of car owning here but of course you can also throw donkey carts, horse carts and herds of goats into the equation. If this somewhat unstable mix is then given a good stir courtesy of the traffic police on point duty then anything can happen. A favourite trick of these guardians of the highway occurs when they work in teams at a complex junction the definition of which seems to be any choke point in the road system with the potential to cause chaos. Instead of working as a team they perform as individual prima donnas each with their own personal style. However the end result is always the same, each of them will wave through traffic supposedly under their control without even pretending to look at the other officers. No one stops to think that the other traffic is moving, they all rush to the centre of the junction and stop. There then follows some bizarre dance of the cars as the upholders of law and chaos attempt to move enough cars to create a gap, a bit like one of those little games where tiles are shifted around a grid with just one space. Eventually everything is sorted out only for the problem to shift somewhere else and life carries on.

Another aspect of driving here is closely linked with the lack of a proper sewage system in Kabul. Between pavement and road (sidewalk and pavement) there is in most places a gully . This gully or channel varies between 200mm and 400mm in width and around 600mm deep. The depth is a bit difficult to gauge as it is usually impossible to see the bottom on account of the contents. For the most part the channels carry some sort of liquid, I don’t know precisely what the mixture is and I don’t want to, if you then add the detritus that abounds in the city streets the resulting evil mix certainly makes its presence felt on a warm day. The thing that really amazes me is that I have never seen a car put a wheel down one of these things despite every available millimetre of road space being utilised. I have seen a motorbike in one but i think the stand was broken and the owner had simply parked it there in order to keep it upright.

Of course on some streets the kerbside is lined with stalls selling freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with the bacteria laden local water or maybe fresh produce such as tomatoes or water melon. This brings me on to the next part of my letter and eventually the meaning behind this week’s title. The one product/service culture. I mentioned the stalls selling the lemon drink and tomatoes well this goes a lot further. Street traders invariably deal in just one product, in the case of fresh produce you will see whole stalls filled with apples, bananas, grapes, water melons or some not readily identifiable green stuff and this will be just the one item not a mix of produce.

This practice goes beyond street traders and stalls and extends to whole streets. The most famous ones are called Chicken Street and Flower Street. These are the actual names on the road signs, Chicken Street quite obviously sells chickens as well as a variety of other animal bits, the chickens are very fresh and in most cases are clucking until the money is handed over, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the other meats on display, very often hung up outside the shops. As if being contaminated with the bio hazard dust and used as a meeting place for flies wasn’t enough then the joint or carcass can cut up on the bandsaw in the street or put through the mincer powered by a car engine. Neither of these machines will have been cleaned in decades save for the half-hearted occasional wipe over with the all-purpose rag that five minutes before was being used to clean the car windows or another task which I will leave you to speculate about.

Flower Street sells flowers but even here things are not what you would expect. It’s all artificial flowers made of paper, plastic or cloth in some of the brightest shades never seen in nature. Everywhere you go you will find the most ornate and bizarre floral arrangements, indeed some of them on the tables in the guesthouse are so large it’s like trying to talk to the guy across the table through a jungle. There is another reason for the many shops selling the artificial flora, weddings. Now I have no idea how the wedding venues are decorated but cars taking the bride and groom as well as the guests to weddings are decorated in the most elaborate manner. This is all part of the service offered by the Flower Street shops and it is carried out at the kerbside thus reducing the available free road to one car width if you are lucky.

There are other streets which have a one product or service aspect, near to me is a preponderance of sari shops, further down the road it becomes what I have dubbed Toilet Street because every shop sells porcelain products. Think of a commodity and there’s likely to be a street full of shops dealing in it. Tyres, metal gates, rope, computers, you name it and I bet you’ll find it here. On the way to work we pass through a particularly shabby district which deals in vehicle parts, it is said that this is where the locals come to buy back their wing mirrors, hubcaps and other easily collectable spares which get collected by others at night.

About now you may be wondering what potatoes have to do with this week’s ramblings, well I will get to the point. At the foot of the hill leading up to the Intercontinental there is a partially completed road with a reasonably good surface, every morning a selection of horse-drawn carts are parked there along with drivers and several young boys. On the roadway are heaps of potatoes and onions which presumably have arrived on the carts. The boys seem to be picking over these heaps and sorting in what must be a crude grading process. The vegetables are then loaded onto carts and everybody goes away, there doesn’t seem to be any cash changing hands or any locals arriving to buy for home use merely an exchange of produce.

It was at this location that I witnessed the coming together of two of the subjects previously mentioned, the waste channels and the unidentifiable green stuff. This horse and cart driver was parked up near the potato guys with his load of greenery when i saw him take bunches of it and rinse it in the gully. I made a mental note not to eat anything remotely like that ever while I am here.

On that delightful thought I will round off this week’s letter, it’s been a quiet one by local standards at least in Kabul and I can only hope that it stays like this. Good bye for now and I hope it won’t be too long before I see some of you in person again.

The correspondent has had the dubious pleasure of knowing MG for several years and she counts him as a close friend. During a lifetime of trying to earn as much as possible for the minimal amount of effort he has been taught to cook by the army, fooled lots of people into thinking that he knows what he is talking about when it comes to AV installations and toured the globe. Now firmly into middle-age, he can occasionally be found slumming it in various exotic locations courtesy of the UN.

Comments are closed.