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First Impressions of Kabul

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2012-04-06-WelcometoKabulsign4.JPGAfter all the build up, uncertainty, and fear, I finally arrive at my destination. I'm so relieved to be travelling with Matt, Teresa and Jakob. They chat and laugh, divulging stories about Afghanistan. "Don't worry, you're going to love it", Matt reassures me. "You'll go to the most amazing parties; you won't believe you're in Afghanistan." I find this difficult to believe, but he was absolutely right.

As we fly over Kabul city I'm surprised to find I'm filled with the thrill of a new adventure. All those years working with people from diverse cultures, and more recently for the BBC in post-conflict countries, have paid off. I'm very comfortable working in this environment, and incredibly relieved I'm not coming in completely green. Even more surprisingly, despite the clear and present danger, my unrelenting love for adventure cushions the landing.

We're picked up at the airport by an incredibly handsome (as many of them are), friendly, young Afghan guy. He's engaging, warm, and welcoming, and I immediately feel at home. We're driven at great speed through the streets of Kabul in a large armoured plated vehicle, which on occasions I was never sure was a help or hindrance.

I'm surprised how busy the streets of Kabul are, like a Bruegel painting buzzing with activity, movement and colour. There are many people walking with seemingly great purpose on the dusty unmade rutted roads, women in burqas, bearded men wearing traditional hats and long, flowing shalwar kameez, children playing, vendors selling vegetables from makeshift tables, large cuts of meat hanging outside run down butcher's shops, rickety carts pulled by scrawny donkeys, horses or humans, young boys selling anything from phone credit to smoke from a can to purify your car, all mingling with the occasional anxious looking goat herd.

Afghan police are on every corner with guns hitched over their shoulders standing at check points, often searching cars as they enter Kabul's porous protective boundary, or Ring of Steel as the meagre metal signs declare. The infamous Ring of Steel around the perimeter of central Kabul comprises 25 check points, each one overseen by Afghan National Police. And there are the ubiquitous sand bagged walls called hescoes, a word I'd never heard of until I arrived, offering limited protection to these brave men.

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Also defining Kabul are the many cars tackling choking traffic jams; there are few traffic lights and no obvious road rules other than - "look out I'm coming through". There are bombed out buildings as seen on western TV, but what you also won't usually be shown are the bustling bazaar's, shopping arcades, roads under construction, and the many buildings, houses, and apartment blocks currently being rebuilt.

Kabul is a thriving city of over three million people and comfortingly captivating in its own, distinct way. It reminds me of Kazakhstan, the streets, the look of the people, the unmade roads, the dusty, dirty old cars, the run-down, utilitarian, Soviet style, dilapidated buildings; except in Kabul it's a war zone, which is palpable. I loved the sense of disorder, the unknown, and the anticipation of an adventure about to unfold.

The armoured vehicle swings around yet another corner and we're stopped at a metal boom gate. The car is turned off, the hood goes up and the entire vehicle is searched with a metal detector. We show our ID's and after five minutes are waived through. We drive in zig zag around long concrete blocks for 100 metres when the car is stopped again, this time we all have to leave the vehicle except for the driver. Once checked by a sniffer dog the car drives through while we enter the compound through a series of metal doors, x-ray machines and more id checks. And so my life for the next 12 months begins.

The compound is heavily guarded by numerous thick metal gates, high concrete walls topped by barbed wire, armed guards dotted strategically throughout, and snipers patrolling every corner - all legendary Ghurkhas from Nepal. The compound itself is small (approx. 200 metres square), for the 60 of us who will live, work and play here, and the thick concrete, bunker like buildings purely purposeful.

I was relieved however to see my room was well decked out with a double bed, two arm chairs, a TV with many international news networks that I would be thoroughly sick of after a month, tiny dining table and two chairs, and a small kitchen and bathroom. It's unfortunate it's all from Ikea and not uniquely Afghan, but it's comfortable, cosy, and all I need. My small but functional room felt like home quite quickly.

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