Leaving so I could arrive elsewhere, with a few illuminating details
In 2011, I left the United States for perhaps the 200th time in my life on a plane. I’ve come and gone and come and gone so many times I’ve lost count. This time, I was headed for Kabul. The capital city of war-torn Afghanistan. A place where (so they tell me) the dust in the air is 15% animal and human feces. Fun pseudo-fact. You are quite welcome to look it up and challenge my second-hand information.
Grammar is important in some places. Kabul, generally speaking, is not one of those places. I plan to write extensively about my time there (due to the ghosts that haunt my dreams). This story is about the crab boy of Kabul.
We, being NATO contractors paid ungodly amounts of money to pretend that we were making better officers out of Afghanistan’s national police force, lived in a “first-class hotel.” That, in and of itself, is another story. I intend to tell it too.
The camp was strategically positioned only 25 or so kilometers from our daily post at the Afghanistan National Police Training General Command, or ANPTGC for short. The place known as ANPTGC is, of and in itself, worth several of my fascinating anecdotes. Let’s set the scene for those of you who have not have the privilege of visiting or living in the city of Kabul:
Kabul smells like a mixture of burning things and offal
It is a maelstrom of chaotic activity. Situated at a relatively high elevation in a semi-arid climate and populated by about 3.5 million souls (give or take a few thousand a day), Kabul is 3,500 years old. And no smell has ever blown away from the city since it became one. Imagine a mixture of burning things, dead things, sweating things and shitting things. That will, perhaps, give you a 10% idea of the amount of nose crinkling I did during my time as a resident.
The streets are paved, sometimes. The motorcycles winding their way recklessly past donkeys, running children, roaming packs of mangy dogs, caravans of paranoid, egotistic, armed elites, and all other manners of roaming life careening wildly through what passes for avenues of transport are a cacophony of suicidal carelessness. The streets are not paved, sometimes. In less than two years I saw more than two dozen human traffic fatalities, an uncountable number of dead dogs, and one horse that dropped dead in the middle of what passes for a road in that particular place.
I’m coming around to the crab boy. Bear with me.
There are no traffic lights in Kabul. Only roundabouts. Some routes are two lanes. Some are twelve. The veins and arteries converge without warning. When there is a traffic jam on one side, drivers immediately begin to use the opposing lanes in a fashion that, if employed in the West, would result in dozens of fatalities per mile of road (do you like how I switched units of measurement?). That doesn’t happen in Kabul.
There are accidents, to be sure. But the beggars that sit in between lanes, combined with the other flotsam and jetsam everywhere, conspire to keep maximum speeds well below a catastrophic situation. Traffic in Kabul is tense. Especially inside an armored Chevy 2500+. But it isn’t suicidal. Not for us contractors, in any case. It’s just asshole tightening. Sweat inducing. Shoulder knotting intensity.
Which brings me to the crab boy of Kabul
As the armed driver of an armored pickup truck in Kabul, commuting up to 60km a day round trip six days a week, I saw many notable things. One of the most memorable, and spotted on more than one occasion, was the crab boy. The city of Kabul is full of dysfunction, disease, pestilence, and poverty. And it’s the capital. He was one of its many lesser citizens.
No armed convoy to convey him to important meetings with egotistical officials wanting bribes. No donkey to take him to market to sell vegetables honestly farmed. Not even a stolen bicycle to get him to the bread vendor so his stomach would not feel empty.
What I remember most is his smile. The kid with the twisted spine who couldn’t stand up. He had to scuttle along like a crab, begging. But his smile. It was like the sun in his brown face. He made me feel things I don’t know how to describe. He was the sun, the life giver. That smile was so genuine.
There I was, inside an armored steel and glass mechanism that probably cost ten times the money that boy will ever touch. Sweating, bitching and arguing with my fellow contractors about banalities that mattered so very little.
The crab boy was happier than I. I made more than 10,000 dollars a month. Tax-free.
He scuttled around with his bent spine, unable to stand up, seeing the world from the dust clouds kicked up by that bustling, insane place. I don’t know how much his begging earned, but I gave him one hundred dollars every time I got the chance. I hope it made something better. For him. For his mother. For whoever his caregiver was.
Every time I unlocked the door of my armored bubble, I was breaking a rule. Every time I broke a rule, his smile was worth any punishment that could have been inflicted on me. Some rules aren’t worth following.
Some smiles are worth handing out whatever hope I have to give.
I hope that he’s still smiling, and I hope his belly is full tonight. I dream of him sometimes and wish the world was different. If I see him again, and I can, I’ll give him another hundred dollars. Or a million.
I wish I could let him see the world from a higher vantage point. I try to switch places with him. Sometimes. When I’m dreaming.
I know I can’t.
Thank you for reading this. If you have a hundred dollars, give it to someone who needs it. If you can spare it.
Also published on Medium.