Today I had an opportunity to travel into the heart of Herat. We had some visitors from Virginia working on a dormitory for Herat University fly in for just a few hours to see the site and I was able to hitch a ride to see it as well. This wasn't just because it's good to be the king, but I was better able to pitch our office's ability to oversee the eventual construction of the facility. So yes, I went because I'm the boss and I could.
While riding around in body armor and Kevlar helmet in an up-armored SUV is not getting old (yet) it is becoming something I can expect. As you may imagine, it isn't comfortable. The windows, obviously, don't roll down, and while they up sized lots of parts (suspension, transmission, etc.) I don't think they increased the climate control much. Something you notice in the back at 100+ Fahrenheit even if the dashboard thermometer is in Celsius. The seats may be after-market, but they still leave something to be desired, not uncomfortable, but you don't fall asleep real easy either. There is limited visibility from the back seat, and I always have to sit in the back. This isn't a complaint, I just see less and have to turn my head (in a Kevlar helmet) more.
An unintended side effect happens once we're at the site. When we stop the driver stays in the vehicle, but the other team members get out and secure the site. Imagine any TV or movie where a pair of armed police or soldiers cover one another in almost exaggerated movements. Now change the pistols for rifles and put the snazzy dressed cops in military garb. Don't forget to load the medic down with rounds (I swear he has at least 300 rounds on him at any given minute). Now you have it, except it is more fluid, graceful, and less stupid looking. Once the site is secure, someone opens my door for me. I keep telling them when I get home and go to the grocery store I'll be waiting for my wife to come around and open the door.
Our driver lives in Herat, not far from where we drive. Several of our local national workers do. I always kind of wonder what he thinks. To him this is just like his commute in to work, and yet we go armed to the teeth in armored vehicles. Even he has an AK-47 in the vehicle with him. So, he wakes up, drives down to Camp Stone, gets dressed in armor, grabs a rifle, and drives back home.
One of the things I hate is the fact that by the time I see something through the window it is too late to take a picture of it. I travel around a lot with my iPhone ready to take pictures, but still miss several things I would love to share. Lucky for you, I'm a dangerously overeducated writer.
Along the way there are people in cars, on motorcycles, on zarangs, on bicycles and on foot. All over. This is a vibrant city full of life and activity. Yes, it is a war zone, yes there are suicide bombers somewhere among the masses of people (and yes, they don't operate often around this area). There are IEDs found along the road often. My security team keeps up with these things and adjusts my plans accordingly so I am safe, but those are things that are out there.
And yet, children go to school. Old men sit on the corner drinking chai tea and watching the world whiz by. I would love to compare their conversations to those had at corner stores in urban or rural America. No doubt they are similar. Businessmen hurry along with briefcases, kids with backpacks, families travel together, groups of like minded people, vendors push their wares, or just stand in their shops. Swinging gates provide glimpses into cloistered courtyards and private parking lots crammed with dirty, banged up, old cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Shop doors are swung wide open and inviting. There are strip malls and convenience stores. They don't say Circle K or Outlet Store, some are in English so I know. My security team points out landmarks, the Texan points and says, "That's Herat's Best Buy." The driver says, "Over here is a high school." There's the Governor's mansion.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but I've wasted 749 to get to this one.
We passed a small ferris wheel. It had four seats, each 90 degrees from each other. It stood about 2.5 meters high. It is made of steel tubes but they are well worn. Dirty, dusty, not painted, at least not a color that's recognizable. The seats have no padding I can see. A man in a scarf and loose white robes turns the handle that manually operates the ride. As it enters my limited field of vision, a young boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old is riding from the 10 o'clock position to noon. He holds on to the sides of the seat bucket. Is he smiling? I can't tell. Before I can notice more he is gone.
Another fleeting scene of life that won't be duplicated. In a country ravaged by war, constant battles over and over since time immemorial. But a youngster had a chance to ride a street ride. His parents took the time for him to have some fun. Pleasant memories are built one small mind at a time.
For my part I recalled a ride on a merry-go-round many many years ago. I was maybe six or seven. I never noticed the cars go by.
A young boy had a scary yet thrilling ride on a portable ferris wheel and one grown man felt a connection for a fleeting second with a spot of life far from his comfort zone yet close to his heart and mind.