Policemen, red-eyed, washing their truck at the lakeWords and Photos by Joe Dowling 

We’ve all woken up, a bit confused, with a mouth that tasted like a curtain, and thought “What happened last night?” Then you check your emails and see an itinerary — two passengers, one-way to Kabul, Afghanistan.

Being told you’re definitely going to die by people who don’t know Kabul from a Quarter-Pounder gets pretty boring. I mean I wouldn’t stand outside McDonalds telling everyone that they’re going to get heart disease and slowly die. Nick and I were not interested in coming back in body bags, so we did our research, made some contacts, and by the time Air India had put the only westerners on the flight in the emergency exit row, we were in on the joke.

The pervasive salute, this time from a young waiter at a roadside restaurant

Flying into Kabul airport is something you don’t forget. People shouted prayers during take-off, there was applause on landing, and we got more stares on the flight than a butcher covered in blood in a vegan restaurant. For some reason it felt fitting to play “This Must be the Place” by Talking Heads as we stepped out onto the tarmac. Thankfully, we had organised an armoured UN Land Cruiser to collect us and we checked into our hotel without incident. We sat down on our beds and exchanged a ‘what-do-we-do-next?’ look at each other. We had been told point blank that we should stay put in the hotel, but voluntary imprisonment was not an option.

A rare dose of Afghan street photography

To say that it’s a foreign way of life in Kabul is an understatement. We weren’t the type for culture shocks, but security head-fucks were certainly on the agenda. The second time we got into a car we happened to pass by the Iranian embassy. It wasn’t signposted, though I guess a shitload of guys clad in black with guns can lead you to certain conclusions. Indiscriminately, I lifted my camera up, certainly not planning on shooting a photo — I was merely adjusting my seatbelt or ashing my cigarette. Anyway, a guy with big fucking assault rifle ran across the road, gun raised, yelling, and halted the car. We were casually in for it and I knew it was my fault. I apologised as if I had just accidentally punched his son in the throat, but the language barrier did us no favours; we were lucky our Afghan brothers were good at making excuses for the white guys in the back seat. We certainly didn’t shoot many pictures in the street after that.

A soldier peering through a window of Darul Arman palace as he quietly escorted us around the war-torn ruins

The level of security was jarring, expensive, and totally justified — everyday we read and heard stories of the Taliban doing stuff that Charles Manson would turn his nose up at. The main targets were political, but when they began firing rocket-propelled grenades at the airport the day we attempted to book our one-way flight out, we certainly gulped with discomfort. As much as we loved the place, sleeping on a stoop in downtown Kabul was not very appealing. Aside from educating and protecting us, our Afghan friends also acquainted us with the hashish Afghanistan is famous for. Now, the reefer is not something I champion so much these days — to be honest getting high in a place where guns are more common than bicycles and western faces are akin to bulls-eyes, sounded to me like a paranoid nightmare you would one day describe to a psychiatrist. Still, when in Rome, so they say.

A young Afghani man who burns incense as a blessing sits in a restaurant

Our first introduction found us in a hash-hazed car driving through the city — cue a heavily armed police checkpoint and our car marshalled into the “bad” part. Where we come from, it was a red-handed, down-to-the-station, cry-until-they-set-you-free type of situation. Our boys were having none of it — no weapons, no problem. The police, as we were to learn, did not give two hoots about the Afghan-kush and everybody knew it.

A young Afghan boy serves us yoghurt at another roadside restaurant

A few nights later, our buddy Saraj came to our hotel with a well-built friend of his and proceeded to pull out a stick of hash. We smoked some and began our conversation, disjointed by our cackling and with Saraj translating. Soon enough we discovered our newest mate was a cop; and when a few days later we bought hash from some of his workmates at the deposed King’s playhouse over-looking Bagram airbase, we realised the difference. In a lawless, warlord-run land, cash at farm gate means you can farm whatever you damn well feel like.

Kabul city

King Shah's Masouleum above Kabul

A typical Afghan picnic spot

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