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.