It was a two-chocolate-bar day. And not garbage either—I ate the good stuff I bought at duty-free before I flew to Kabul last week.
The Afghans don’t eat chocolate much. I didn’t understand this at first. In fact, I considered it a sign of an inferior civilization. Then I tasted a bar that one of our translators bought at the local market. I had to rinse my mouth. I hope Osama Bin Laden, hiding in his cave, has run out of everything else. He’ll choose to starve.
The reason for the two-chocolate day—I’m usually more moderate—was twofold. First was the usual stimulus, which is stress. Some people drink, some smoke, I eat chocolate.
Today the loya jirga, Afghanistan’s national political assembly, was in marvelously democratic chaos, which we reporters hate. Debate and delay are poisonous to deadlines. We prefer to know the outcomes in advance, get the quotes we need without fuss, and meet our deadlines. This turned out to be a day of talk and little action. I had confidently predicted the election of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s leader today, only to see the loya jirga not do it. Dark chocolate time.
The more troubling development, and the reason I later ripped into the milkier second chocolate bar, was fear. Increasingly, I dread eating here. With nearly every bite, I’m inviting mysterious, unwanted creatures into my tender body.
Refrigeration is not widespread in Kabul, nor is observance of basic sanitation. I walked through the kitchen of a restaurant here once and made the mistake of having my eyes open. The cook was alternately scratching his bare feet and making meatballs.
At our house in Kabul, we have a little more control over the food preparation, and we bought a refrigerator. But where’s it been before it got here? Butchers hang their meat in the 100-degree heat until a customer comes along. Bakeries display their bread unwrapped on streetside racks, where it gets dusted with the pulverized dried leavings of the sheep and goat herds that stroll through town.
The U.N. health experts call it “airborne fecal matter.” Sounds better than “flying turd dust,” I guess. I wonder if my lungs know the difference. I coughed tonight when I was talking to my editor. I assured her it was OK.
My food fear, however, reached a crescendo today.
My friend Colleen from the AP came into the press center today looking for Immodium, the little pills that apparently turn into corks in your bowels. Rachel from NBC was so sick last week they had to fetch a doctor and nurse. She’s better now, but a wire guy who’s traveled third-world countries for years said his iron stomach had finally cracked.
During one of the morning’s long recesses, we gingerly discussed not the feisty Afghan debate but the worms that were found crawling around in some colleagues’ intestines.
By lunchtime, I couldn’t swallow my angst. I wandered to the restaurant in the press center hotel and sat down with a couple of friends. They were serving a buffet. It smelled pretty good, especially because I hadn’t had breakfast. But I didn’t even look. Worms tied my tongue when the waiter came.
Fortunately, I was saved when a colleague from Berlin offered half of her fruit bar, bought in Germany. Carol has a vacation planned later this month and isn’t taking any risks: She even washes eggs before she cracks them and cooks rice with bottled water.
Fortunately for folks like Carol, and increasingly like myself, the selection of canned and packaged goods here is steadily increasing. There’s a good variety of pasta and sauce, canned fish and vegetables, and sterilized long-life milk. I’ve even bought Pop Tarts on Flower Street, where a little row of shops caters to foreigners willing to pay a little extra.
All that said, I haven’t given up entirely on eating out. I’ve now eaten twice at Kabul’s first post-Taliban Chinese restaurant. And I still chew the odd kabob, so long as it’s well charred. I figure it’s part of a reporter’s duty to experience the culture, even if it’s a bacteria culture.
Besides, I’ve got lots of Immodium.