A harsh winter

We are headed for Dubai. It is intended to a be a short break in the middle of winter, and a break that does not involve death or bush fires or crisis. I am badly overworked and Julie not far behind.

As we drive to the airport, Mohammed Ali, asks me where we are going. I tell him we are going to Dubai.

‘And then to your home?’

‘No’, I say. ‘Just Dubai.’ I don’t add, ‘for a holiday’ because I realise I feel somewhat guilty about all of this. Going to Dubai if we are in transit to home is one thing; a discretionary, gratuitously chosen break in Dubai is another. Mohammed Ali – who is not trying to imply anything, I am sure, and would not even understand about guilt in such a context – has more questions:

‘What is the airport like then, here in Kabul? Isn’t it cold? Is it heated in winter? Will you wait long? What about in Australia? Do you have to arrive three hours early there too? Is the security process similar?’

As I answer, it is immediately clear that Mohammed Ali has never gone anywhere by air. Well, neither have the vast majority of the farmers, labourers, herders and miners of the poorer parts of the world. But this whole issue of inequity is one Julie and I have been thinking a lot about recently, in part because it has been such a hard winter in Afghanistan.  We have sat it out in minimal discomfort, complaining mainly about chilled toes and slipping in the ice. When we run out of kerosene to heat the house, we buy another barrel. When we get truly sick of the cold, we fly to Dubai.

Afghans just sit it out. Quietly or noisily, they just sit it out, trying to make it. Some don’t: there have been many deaths this winter. There will be more, yet. Quite a few Afghans we know ran out of wood to heat their houses weeks ago. They do not have the ability to simply ‘buy more’. A week or so back, Julie was talking to our watchman, and he cried, openly, in front of her. When she asked him the matter, he simply said, ‘We are cold and hungry. We ran out of wood. We just don’t have anything.’

While we are volunteers here in Afghanistan, we still, if truth be known, live like kings compared to 90% of Afghans. Like kings. We will go back to Australia one day, without having made any money on this whole venture, and that is fine – we are not here for money, at all. And sure, there are many expats here who live a whole lot better than us, on six week R&R cycles and $4K/ month ‘danger’ money; but the fact is undeniable: we live like kings. We all live like kings. When our watchman cries in front of us, we are wealthy enough that we can give him money, easily, and not even miss it.

I do the math as Mohammed Ali drives. Flights to Dubai: $1400. Hotel/ guesthouse for the week: $900. Meals: maybe $50/ day. We will buy unnecessary things there, like books, clothes and gadgets. We will go to a water park, a movie, a play-gym. The whole nine days will cost maybe $3500. Mohammed Ali makes $250 a month, our watchman about the same, and by Afghan standards, they are both doing pretty well.

We live like kings in the middle of awful poverty.


5 thoughts on “A harsh winter

  1. Dear phil, you are brave to be so honest; with yourself and with the blogosphere. Mate, just remember you and Julie are an inspiration to me and many others… Most of us who could never do what you folk do, regardless of sanity-breaks to Dubai or not. And meanwhile we live like kings over here without making the sacrifices you folk do… Anyway you know all this, but just reminding you. Enjoy the break… Love & peace, kezza

  2. Hey Kezza. Thanks for that. Part of the struggle is that (and I know you don’t suggest it) it’s not really guilt I feel. I think it is something deeper and harder to push off. Something like pain, at the inequity of the world and the ineffectiveness of my efforts to change it, and of me to change. Centuries of struggle yet to come. You have to take the long view, I suppose. But there is a lot of suffering between now and then.
    It was grand having you visit.

  3. Dear Phil, I love reading your blog and I enjoy the privilege of being able to speak to you by other means. But here are some questions that you might want to answer in this context; things you’ve commented on before, but I’d value your current insights; questions that others might like to ask too. So, do you want Kabul to be like Perth or Dubai? If so, how? If not, why not? Is Perth poor? If so, how? What are the Kabulites teaching you? Are they rich in other ways? What do you want Kabul to look like when it is ‘finished’? Thank you. Love & peace, Stizzy. (you & Julie being the only non-relatives allowed to call me that.)

  4. We all live like kings, at least those of us in a position in life to follow blogs. Like Kezza said, most of us could never trade places with you and Julie. Enjoy the break, the warmth, the luxuries and try not to feel guilty. If it recharges you to return to a hard place it is worth any expense.

  5. Hey Phil, if you have the time and inclination, I’d be interested in your response to Steven too. A lot of people tell me that the poor are ‘rich’ in ways that westerners are not, but (although I happily concede that there must be things in which they far outstrip us) to me the poor just look poor – heartbreakingly, vulnerably poor. “Rich” can’t mean much if it doesn’t stop your children freezing to death… I hope you are able to enjoy your break together. Good luck, coming back to face the pain.

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