The start of 2018 saw me at my lowest emotional state.
My job had become an ever-increasing struggle during the preceding two years, not least for having to deal with a horrendous bully as my senior. This person with apparently not a single redeeming feature to their character had succeeded in making my life hell on a daily basis, rendering mere presence at work unbearable. I was desperate to escape their suffocating grip and the best way to do that, I judged, was through a promotion – the surest way to help me rise in my bully’s eyes and force them, however involuntarily, to control their behaviour better. Very luckily, I did indeed end up on the promotions list for last year and waited, desperately counting down days, for that elusive breath of fresh air to arrive.
Having spent years trying to undo one misjudged step in my career, I was finally feeling that I had succeeded. It was a huge relief: I was by now desperate to close the prolonged previous chapter in my work history and move on to better things.
It was then that my hopes and plans suffered a fatal blow. My long-coveted promotion was turned down on a technicality, plunging me to a state of indescribable hopelessness. I was truly broken, crying for days on end and shunning social interaction. My fragile state of mind was further damaged by some painfully unresolved family matters and an exhausting two-month bout of bronchitis which I couldn’t seem to be able to shake off. In true British understatement, things were not going well. It was not a good period of my life by any stretch.
Soon enough, I became a barely recognisable mess, drinking to excess, eating spoonfuls of calorie-rich cheese for dinner and staying up late binging on Greek soap operas. I was never rested and, when I did sleep, suffered from exhausting, recurring nightmares. If I wasn’t an exercise freak, I could not have carried on without help, but my passion for fitness just about kept me afloat – despite not helping my utter exhaustion – and let me struggle on on my own.
TRAVEL HEALS… UP TO A POINT
The single aspect of my life saving my sanity was, of course, travel. Travel has been the central focus of my life for many years and travel planning has always given me a continued sense of purpose. Quite simply, my life revolves around travel, to which my two other hobbies – photography and writing – are inextricably linked.
Unfortunately, by the start of the year, my depression had taken such a strong grip on me that even travel was ceasing to shield me from its deadly clutches. I still shudder remembering the huge meltdown I suffered while returning from Faro, Portugal, in March. I had been looking forward to my long weekend in Faro for months and all had been going well, right until the point I accidentally managed to bypass passport control before boarding my return flight. How on earth did I manage to do that? Shaking, I was taken off the plane, to the accompaniment of some horrifically insensitive remarks from British pensioners who I immediately in my mind wrote off as horribly privileged. I, of course, managed to re-board swiftly after passing passport control – but the damage to my mind had been done. I cried for the entire 3-hour flight and the unexpected 1-hour bus home – why on this day of all days did they have to close the rail lines to prolong my agony – plunging in and out of indescribable hysteria and terrifying fellow passengers, before finally collapsing at home in the middle of the night – a worn-out mess of a failed tourist.
But the worst was still to come. My long-awaited trip to Sudan was almost ruined by a sandstorm (of all things!) ravishing Khartoum on the exact day of my flight. I was stuck in sweaty Doha for a whole day, entrapped in my overly warm clothes, imprisoned in a peripheral hotel, without access to my checked-in luggage and with no news on when I would be able to depart. Did I mention that Qatar is the one country I cannot stomach? I was crushed. For the first time in my life, I longed for any, any substance to numb the searing ball of a pain in my soul, but did not even have a painkiller. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing.
READ MORE: VISITING SUDAN: THE TRIP THAT ALMOST WASN’T
I eventually did reach Khartoum and had an amazing time. This trip raised my spirits somewhat, but was simply too short to allow any real healing. Back in London, I soon resumed my destructive routine. The slightest provocation threw me off to the extent that, with the exception of my parents and my husband, I could barely stand being around other people. I had developed a painful physical reaction to the slightest things: even hearing a hand dryer blow would send my anger spiralling out of control. Outwardly I was doing my best to preserve a façade of normality, but inside I was rotting.
And then I had to leave for Afghanistan.
DEPRESSED? HEAD TO AFGHANISTAN
This trip really could not have come at a worse time. Frankly I was not looking forward to Afghanistan at all. There I was, barely able to make it from one day to another, yet facing two weeks in a challenging destination requiring a lot of prior preparation I simply had no strength for. Heck, the place is outright dangerous, a feeling not helped by the Taliban announcing its annual spring offensive just days before my trip. Bluntly, I was longing to be elsewhere.
Reluctantly though, I caught my flight to Dubai one fateful Friday evening. I had paid thousands of dollars for a private trip with a highly reputable travel agency, and could no longer bow out of it. Pouring copious amounts of red wine down my throat, I watched the UK disappear, the damp mess below matching my state of mind. I was irreversibly on my way to Afghanistan.
I arrived in Kabul confused and slightly defiant in my (by then normal) state of a mild hangover. Knowing my bad luck, I was almost expecting to go down in an explosion within minutes of my arrival. Every man with a semblance of a beard screamed ‘Taliban’ to me, and the sight of Kabul’s well-known landmark – the TV Tower Hill with dozens of masts piercing the afternoon haze – sent an unpleasant chill down my spine. In front of a concrete maze leading to my guesthouse, I was greeted by Kalashnikov-clad guards, both quickly recognised as common features in this extremely unsafe, violent city.
I did not need to wait long to be reminded of the acute dangers of being in Kabul. Three terrorist incidents took place in the city during my two weeks in Afghanistan, including the attack on 30th April resulting in the death of nine journalists, the deadliest for media workers since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Of greater psychological impact, the second incident had a would-be suicide bomber shot by the security forces in the park opposite my guesthouse and, whilst I was not in Kabul during any of the attacks, the knowledge that something so horrific could happen in such direct proximity to me was chilling.
But, even against this sobering backdrop, local people continue to lead relatively normal lives. Despite the ever-present risk of another suicide attack, Kabulis appeared primarily preoccupied with the same everyday matters dominating the minds of people in safer parts of the world, such as work, family and bringing food to the table. Perhaps the first thing to shake me about Afghanistan was this stark contrast between the danger-stricken reality and the constant glimpses of normality I was so familiar with living in the West.
And, perhaps strangely, feeling so close to danger made me feel more alive than ever. In a very odd way, I felt at peace to be in Afghanistan, sharing some of its challenges with the locals while being painfully aware of the cursory nature of my visit and my privilege. Visiting a very dangerous destination, I didn’t feel brave – if anything, I felt stupid and guilty in front of my loved ones to do so – but, having travelled extensively for the past decade, I also couldn’t help but feel accomplished to be traversing a country so spectacular yet rarely frequented by other tourists.
Watching those Hazara boys shoot a sling in a Hazara village near Mazar-i Sharif made me rethink it all
A LADS’ TRIP TO AFGHANISTAN. WAIT… WHAT?
Terrorist attacks aside, my journey in Afghanistan was by no means smooth. It was in every way a far cry from my usual adventures. Fiercely independent, I tend to spend entire days on the road exploring places on foot, taking public transport, talking to locals to the best of my language ability and shooting countless photos.
Sadly, neither long walks nor public transport were accessible to me in Afghanistan. Not used to seeing foreigners – especially Western women – locals inevitably created a commotion around me, attracting attention and severely threatening security. And, save for scheduled domestic flights, public transport was a complete no-go for a foreigner on Afghanistan’s dangerous highways. As a result, I found myself confined to a car for vast stretches of time, especially while traversing Kabul’s notoriously choking traffic.
There were other inconveniences. Afghanistan is well-known as a conservative Muslim country and restaurants in the country have segregated “family” areas for women and families, while single or unaccompanied men sit in the main area. I absolutely resented sitting in the darker, unappealing family areas, but had to oblige on several occasions to avoid attracting too much attention to myself. Having to rely on my guide and / or driver to make that call definitely did not make the free-spirited traveller in me comfortable. And, as much as I adored wearing salwar kameez – my outfit of choice in Afghanistan – I did not necessarily enjoy having to cover my head in public places. Why don’t men have to cover their eyes instead? End of rant.
Amidst all this, two very special locals ensured that I had an amazing time: Sardar, my guide, and Sakhi, my driver in Mazar-i Sharif. The youthful vigour of the 24-year-old Sardar was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the gloomy “work comes first” culture I had grown used to being surrounded by in London. And it balanced perfectly with the composed confidence of Sakhi, a former mujahedeen whose simple presence filled me with calm.
Taking an obvious liking to each other, the three of us went happily crazy. Perhaps defying security considerations, we indulged in one wild activity after another. From playing loud music in the car and dancing along, to splashing each other in a stream of ice-cold water we laughed uncontrollably for most of our time together. We enjoyed long meals over cans of contraband beer in the evenings. We developed inside jokes, including introducing an imaginary fourth “member” to our team, whom we named Fatima and whose physical forms ranged from a headscarf-wearing tissue dispenser to a teapot.
Hilariously, I felt like I was on a lads’ trip with old friends – the only thing missing was picking up girls in clubs! The more time I spent with Sardar and Sakhi, the more I felt the worries I had brought along from London slip away. My detachment from my daily life started letting me put things into perspective, and I suddenly felt surprised to have let myself sink into such a deep depression for what was essentially a first world problem. Promotion? I still had a stellar reputation and a permanent contract at a large publicly owned financial institution, with 35 days of guaranteed, mostly paid holiday per year on top of national holidays. I was leading an amazing life in London. Was my life ending? It wasn’t. Was I overreacting? I probably was.
Posing in Hairatan, the border city between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. You can tell my spirits are on the mend.
NO WORK EMAILS OR SOCIAL MEDIA
But I did not only have my “lads” to thank for my gradual recovery.
Whilst I normally check work emails on holiday, I had assumed, before leaving, that I would not be able to do so in Afghanistan. Don’t ask me why, but I did not for a moment imagine that I would be able to access WiFi in every single guesthouse where I stayed, and even use data roaming from my UK phone. As a result, I had cleared and delegated all my work tasks before leaving for Afghanistan. Suddenly I found myself not having to check work emails at all: indeed, no-one expected me to do so. It felt wonderfully liberating not to have work weighing precariously on my mind on holiday.
But what probably did my destroyed spirits most good was a social media ‘fast’. Having to keep my trip secret for security reasons, I did not publicly announce the exact dates of my being in Afghanistan. My parents and most friends had no idea I was travelling to the country, which meant that I could not mention my trip on any social media platforms.
And you know what? It felt amazing. I had grown used over my previous trips to putting enormous pressure on myself to post frequent updates from the road in almost real-time. This self-inflicted obligation to select, edit and caption photos late into the night to be able to then share them on social media often felt exhausting and indeed more like work than a holiday.
To make things worse, in early 2018 in my mood of depression and worthlessness I was feeling like a failure for not seeing my blog statistics improve. I accept that my blog is niche but it is, in many ways, my baby, and I would love for it to do better. While I certainly have things to be proud of – namely, several very popular posts covering relatively infrequently visited destinations, and strong accolades on my photography – I have a long way to go to achieve the readership I am hoping for. The problem is exacerbated by the hangover my blog still has from its migration across platforms, meaning that every single post I wrote before 2017 requires substantial reformatting and re-uploading of every single photo. Just imagining the sheer volume of work still looming in front of me to make the blog readable – ever snowballing into an unmanageable monster – sends shivers down my spine. It is certainly not time I have on my hands.
But, in Afghanistan, I let it go. Certainly no-one out there – except me – is suffering because some of my older posts are not perfectly formatted. And my livelihood does not depend on me posting on social media in almost real-time. My holidays are, and should always have been, mine to enjoy – and, having my evenings free in Afghanistan, I suddenly let myself enjoy my trip without additional, self-inflicted pressures. Oddly enough, evenings in Afghanistan can be surprisingly fun with the right people!
AND THEN I WAS BACK, A CHANGED PERSON
To sum up, in what was perhaps an odd combination of events, Afghanistan helped me discard a lot of old, sometimes nasty baggage. Cut off from my usual routine of work, blogging and social media and with no links to my normal world whatsoever in Afghanistan, I completely detached from the reality that was actually making me sick – a separation that made me reassess my entire life. My holiday in Afghanistan became about enjoying every moment and embracing every new experience presented, be it trying hash once and discussing religion for hours, or simply seeing the world with the innocence of youth once again, instead of seeking out photo opportunities and material for stories everywhere.
Most importantly being in Afghanistan, with its undercurrent of danger masked by a sense of normality, helped me realise that I had forgotten how to live for myself and let me leave behind crippling doubts about my self-worth. I do not need to flog myself into posting anything on social media unless I actually want to say something. My blog is my hobby, and the world will not end if I decide not to write anything for months. My banking job can very much carry on as normal without me wasting my holiday time checking emails. I do not owe anything to anyone.
Previously, I had built my annual travel plans around hitting as many new countries as possible to increase my (ever modest) country count. I held off returning to places I knew and loved as they would eat up my precious holiday time and prevent me from travelling to entirely new countries. You say I visit Greece every year? Here is the caveat: I count Greek islands I visit, and had also always stopped myself from revisiting my favourite islands in a bid to add new ones to my “collection”.
This madness ends now. I am already making plans to revisit Samos, a Greek island I enjoyed visiting immensely earlier in 2018. Next year, I plan to return to Russia after nearly a decade of absence. And I am considering dropping Azerbaijan – where I have never been – in October and revisiting an old favourite instead. From now on, I will enjoy life and choose what I want – not what I think others expect from me.
It is ironic that, of all places in the world, I had to travel to Afghanistan to find peace and let me rise from the ashes of a terrible period in my life, renewed and reinvigorated, with a true sense of being alive.
Thank you, Afghanistan.