If there is just one thing I’ve learned during our time in the Panjshir province, it’s that I am a natural-born mountain climber.
After training with the Afghan police, we ate a big dinner that night at the base. A meeting was held as we ate to discuss the next day’s mission.
“I encourage all of you to get to bed early,” said the Colonel. “We’re going to be hiking for 11 miles. That’s about four hours one way up steep mountains and down valleys. We’ll be using donkeys to carry our gear.”
JZ, JV and I had known about this hike. We were briefed about it our first day at the base. The mission was simple. The team’s three medical Airmen (one officer, two medics) were going to set up two clinics in a remote village – one for men, one for women and children. The other team members were going to provide security and hand out other humanitarian aid: rice, tea, toys, hygiene kits, etc. In all, there would be a little more than 20 of us and in order to get to the village, we had to climb over a mountain ridge and down a valley. Not easy.
But for some reason, I had no fear. In fact, when we woke up the next morning at 4 a.m., I was ready to go.
“You have way too much energy for this early in the morning,” said Airman W as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes as we waited out by the trucks for the others to join us. I just smiled.
“Positive energy,” I said. “Positive energy.”
One of the Army soldiers on the team overheard this and laughed.
“I’ll see about your positive energy on top of the mountain,” he challenged. I gave him a super-flashy grin.
He laughed. “Just wait for me in case you get there first,” he back-pedaled. “I might be coming up on one of the donkeys.”
JV soon joined us, carrying his mandatory cup of coffee. (As a side note, I must say that JV has an amazing ability to find coffee in the most remote of locations. He always carries a mug of it. The few times I’ve seen him without a coffee cup in hand, I got this weird feeling something’s missing.) His eyes were swollen with that
“I’ve only slept two hours” look.
“Are you ready to go?” I asked, trying not to sound too perky. He just raised his eyebrows and sipped his coffee, mumbling something unintelligible. JZ came up behind him, lugging his equipment. He was a little sour, having scratched a lens during our mountain climb a few days before. He flung a bag down on the ground.
“This is going to be a challenge shooting this with one lens,” he said to nobody in particular. I felt bad for him.
“You’ll make it work,” I encouraged. “You’ll be fine.”
He didn’t have time to reflect on it. The others had arrived, loading their gear into the vehicles. Within minutes, we were rolling out. I stared out the window, watching as the sky turned from blue-gray to a pinkish gold hue as the sun began to rise. We pulled onto a side road and began our steep climb to the starting point – a small village on the very top of the mountain. The road got bumpier as we climbed, and more narrow. I made the wise decision of sitting on the side closest to the mountain, but every time I looked over to the translator, it looked like we were in the sky, as the drop was on his side.
We rolled past a rusted-out Russian tank, and parked alongside the road just past it. A few villagers were standing outside their huts, watching us. The Colonel immediately took control.
“Okay, guys,” he said. “The donkeys aren’t here yet, obviously. Let’s go ahead and unload the bags so we can be ready when they get here.”
We immediately got to work. JZ and JV scrambled around, taking pictures while I tucked my notebook in my pocket and helped unload. The beauty of being a writer is that I don’t have to write all the time. I liked being an extra set of hands.
Within about 30 minutes, a nice-size group of children gathered to watch us. No donkeys, yet. Sergeant B, who is a services troop that cooks for the team and does a lot of the odd-jobs around the base, motioned for me to follow him to the back of a pick-up.
“Start passing these out,” he said, pulling out a bag of bright-green Frisbees. I noticed they had the ISAF logo stamped on them. The kids immediately went for them, tossing them to each other and to some of the team members. There was enough for everyone, plus some left over. I looked around to see if I missed anyone.
That’s when I noticed there was a hut on the other side of the road, its roof parallel to the road since it sat a little ways down the mountain. Four little girls were huddled in a corner, watching us. I took four Frisbees from the stack and pointed to them.
“I’ll be back,” I said to Sergeant B. He nodded, ducking just in time before getting decked with a Frisbee. The girls watched me as I slowly approached the roof. The littlest one got up and ran behind the two older ones, hiding. I stopped midway to them. Not wanting to scare them, I pointed at them, then to the Frisbees, then to a rock between us. I gently set the Frisbees down on the rock, pointed at them again, then turned and left, feeling their eyes on me. I looked back when I reached the road. They were in the same spot, frozen. Oh, well. I thought. They’ll get them eventually.
We had to wait another thirty minutes for the donkeys. In the meantime, we played Frisbee with the kids, handing out pens, too. At some point, I noticed the girls on the roof were playing with the Frisbees, meaning they finally got them from the rock. I caught one’s eye and waved. To my surprise, she waved back, which made me smile. How cool.
The donkeys were led to us by three teenage boys dressed in the “man-jammies.” One wore a baseball cap. They immediately got to work, loading the bags of rice on the donkeys.
The Colonel divided us into two groups. The first half – the Colonel and medics, along the some of the civilians and translators – left right away while the second half stuck around waiting for the donkeys to load up. J-Team 2.0 was part of the second half.
We started off, leaving the kids and the Frisbees behind. The sun was up by then, beaming brightly upon us. I tightened up the straps of my backpack. I had tried to pack light – a change of socks, sanitizing gel and toilet paper, plus extra notebooks and pens. But the water – about six bottles full – added some weight, as did my camera equipment. No fear, though, right?
We fell into a good pace, taking a 10-minute break wherever it was flat. The air was pretty thin and I could feel it. I had to really force myself to open up my lungs to suck in as much air as possible. It was intense, but the views from that altitude were amazing, so it was easy to let my mind wonder away from the pain of mountain climbing.
At some point, though, I realized I had pushed faster than the others. I was somewhere between the first group and the second group. I could see both, one far ahead, the other far behind. One of the translators, Sayad, was with me, too. He noticed, too.
“You are faster than the men,” he said. I laughed.
“Of course,” I said. “I’m younger than they are. They are old.”
This time, he laughed.
“Maybe we will catch up with the first group?” he suggested. I took it as a challenge. We kept climbing. Sure enough, we caught up with the two female medics. Airman W had found a walking stick.
“You just go ahead and pass me,” she said, carefully watching her step as the trail got narrower. “You know I’m terrified of heights.”
So, I passed her. Sergeant R, the other medic, was not too far ahead.
“You can pass me, too,” she said, stepping aside for the translator and me. So, we passed and kept going, never once stopping for breaks. He and I talked about his life in Afghanistan. I learned he and his family fled to Pakistan after the Taliban took over, where he learned English in school. He returned to Kabul a few years ago, where he took a teaching job to help adults learn English. I asked him his age.
“I’m 23,” he said. I was impressed. He’d done a lot for his age. We kept walking and talking. He explained how young people date in Afghanistan (they don’t, really) and how one finds a bride. I asked if most men had multiple wives. He said not really – that’s mostly in rural areas.
“I’d only want one wife,” he said. “That way, it’s just about her.”
By this point, we were climbing down into the valley. I could feel it in my thighs as I tried to keep balance. We
could see the village below us. I stopped to take some pictures and video. That’s when I saw the bridge we had to cross over the rushing water.
“That’s it?” I asked, looking at the rickety wooden sticks laid across two large wooden logs. Visions of me floating down the Panjshir River danced across my mind. Sayad just walked ahead of me, oblivious to the giant gaps between the sticks.
“You just walk,” he instructed. I snapped a picture of the bridge, just for evidence in case my body was recovered from the water, and took my first step. I didn’t look down. I just looked at Sayad and then, I was across. Whew. No watery death for me that day.
One of the sergeants from the first group was waiting on the other side. He pointed to the trail we had to follow. There were kids waiting alongside it as Sayad and I made our way into the village. The trail grew narrow as we walked, the huts coming in closer together. I was led to a room, where the Colonel was meeting with the village elders. I recognized other team members, too. This time, there was no furniture – just rugs. I sat down and a glass of tea was promptly set in front of me with a fresh slab of bread. I didn’t need encouragement – I was famished.
“You made it,” said the Colonel. “Where’s the rest of your team?”
“Somewhere on the mountain with the donkeys,” I said a little boastfully. The Colonel nodded.
“Well, its good you got here when you did,” he said. “The women’s clinic will be set up soon. The doctor is already with the men.”
I sat there for about 15 minutes more, listening the Colonel and the elders discuss various topics. I heard some noise outside the room’s door, and realized the medics had arrived. I soon stepped out to go after them. I was led to another hut in the center of the village, to a room inside. I stepped inside and saw the two medics on the floor in the corner, sitting with two women. A little boy was laying in front of Sergeant R as she listened to his stomach with a stethoscope.
“Hey, you guys,” I said, sitting down next to Airman W. She smiled at me.
“It’s going to get busy in here,” she whispered. “Just wait and see.”
I nodded, taking out my notebook, ready to take notes. I looked at the two women sitting next to me. Their blue burqas were lifted, revealing their faces. It was clearly a mother and her daughter. The mother looked about 40, while her daughter looked about 20-something. A weeks-old baby girl sat in the daughter’s lap, her big brown eyes lined with black eyeliner, which I heard was to repel evil spirits. Both women were very beautiful, with prominent cheekbones and wide, brown eyes. They talked to each other with such animation, and it was easy to see the love and respect they had for each other. The mother had her hand on the boy’s foot, giving him a reassuring look on her face that only a grandmother can give. When we made eye contact, I gave her a smile. She nodded her head in acknowledgment.
One of the team’s translators, Qatar, sat next to me, talking to the two women as Sergeant R asked questions about the boy’s diet. Apparently, he’s been suffering from upset stomach for the past few days. The women answered the questions earnestly, anxious to hear what Sergeant R would say. Sergeant R listened intently, before reaching over to her bag to hand over some medication and vitamins.
“Explain to them that he’s to take the vitamin every day, just one,” she said. Qadar relayed the information.
The women looked pleased as Airman W helped the little boy to his feet. They got up to go, thanking the medics for their time. By this time, another group of women and children had come into the room.
“It’s going to get busy,” Airman W said again. “I can feel it.”
Sure enough, as time moved on, more and more women and children started filing into the room. I took notes as I listened to Sergeant R and Airman W evaluated the kids that were placed in front of them: upset stomach, fever, sore throat. The women also had ailments: back ache, head ache, shakiness. The two medics did their best to keep up, handing out pain reliever and vitamins. I even found myself making faces at the kids, who burst into tears whenever Sergeant R and Airman W held up the stethoscope or needed to see into their ears. I soon became the unofficial guinea pig for such procedures, letting them show the kids on me what they were going to do.
I leaned over to Qatar.
“Do you think they’ll mind if I take some pictures?” I asked. He shrugged.
“I can ask,” he said. “But they may mind.” I nodded my head – it didn’t feel right at this moment.
A woman sat down in front of them with a baby in her lap. She began to talk about her chest and back, how it hurt very much and she couldn’t lift anything. Sergeant R began asking questions. I looked down at the baby in her lap, who was sleeping comfortably.
“Is this her first baby?” I asked. Sergeant R shrugged.
“Out here, it could be her ninth,” she said. I made eye-contact with the woman as she continued to describe her pain to Qadar. I looked back over at Sergeant R.
“I bet you that is her first baby and she just started nursing,” I said. “It sounds like she’s going through what I did when my milk came in.”
Sergeant R considered this, and asked Qadar to ask the question. The woman nodded.
“It’s her first baby,” said Qadar. Sergeant R smiled over at me.
“You talk to her,” she said. I smiled back, pulling out my identification card holder, which has a picture of Martin and Miss C. I showed it to Qadar.
“Explain to her that I’m a mom, too, and that’s my baby girl,” I said, talking to the woman and pointing to the picture. He did. She looked over at the holder and smiled when she recognized what it was. I tucked it back into my shirt, holding up my hand to my heart.
“Tell her that her back hurts because of the milk,” I said. “It’s totally normal and it will go away once her body gets use to nursing.” I explained how a warm compress on her back could help with the pain and that when she nurses, she needed to be supported with a pillow or something. Qatar did so, with the woman listening intently. She looked a little relieved to hear this, and smiled at me as she got up to leave, clutching a bag of pain relievers. I smiled back. It was a mom thing.
After that, something in the room changed. The other women had seen this interaction, and as they came
forward, they seemed less shy. Airman W, who is also a mother, also began talking about her children, and how she treats them when they aren’t feeling well. We had gained their trust. I picked up our radio and put out a call for JV, who was at the men’s clinic.
“Do you have an extra camera?” I asked. “I think I could get some good shots in here now.”
Within minutes, JZ brought me one of JV’s cameras. I thanked him and returned to the group. Sure enough, as I lifted the camera to take photos of Sergeant R and Airman W treating the patients, there was no resistance. They trusted me. It was a great feeling. I ended up getting a few really great shots.
At lunchtime, the women stepped aside and food was served to us on large platters. It felt strange, eating all that food in front of them, especially when so many of the problems we were seeing involved malnutrition. But
Sergeant R explained that this was their way of repaying us; that being a good host is paramount in the Afghan culture and it would be worse if we didn’t eat. So, we ate.
After a pause, Airman W sat back and looked around the room. A woman sat near us, holding a little baby girl. Airman W looked over at Qadar.
“Can you ask her if I can hold her baby?” she asked. “I miss holding mine.”
Qadar asked the question. The woman smiled broadly and handed the little girl over to Airman W. The little girl looked up at Airman W curiously. I snapped a picture. The little girl whimpered, but Airman W cooed at her.
“You are so cute,” she said. The baby quieted. The mother watched carefully, still smiling. After a few minutes, Airman W passed the baby over to me. I was shocked by how light she was. And there was no diaper butt, something I wasn’t used to for a baby so little.
“You are a feather,” I said to the little girl. She looked at me with wide, brown eyes, her head covered with short brown hair. Miss C also has brown hair and eyes. I wiggled my nose at this little one. She looked at me like I had three heads. I laughed and cradled her in my arm for a picture. She looked over at her mom.
“Buh,” she said, pointing to her mom. I understood.
“Thanks for letting me hold you,” I whispered before handing her to her mom. The mom nodded her head at me and smiled again. I thanked her in Darbi and sat back down. There were many more people to see.
In all, we were there in that room for about four and a half hours. It was suppose to be a three hour clinic, but at the three hour mark, there was such a line that the women began to wail and hold up their children to us when they heard we were suppose to leave. The Colonel heard this over the radio and extended the hours.
“We don’t want to disappoint anyone,” he said over the airways. It was madness, though. Qadar explained that many of them had traveled quite some distance to see the medics. As the two Airmen were probably the only medical personnel these women have seen in a long time, they were anxious to get to us.
Even though we were there for another hour, it was total chaos. The women wanted to be polite, but they also wanted to be seen. Voices were raised, each wanting attention. Sergeant R ended up handing me a bag full of vitamins, telling me to start handing them out with the translator. As I handed them to the women, Zak (the other translator who joined us) explained the vitamins would help their diets, and make them feel better. It didn’t take long for the medics to run out of medication to hand out, and once the women saw we were completely out of medicine, they didn’t protest so much when we started packing up.
We met up with the men in our team, and the village elders thanked us for coming. Since we had given out all the humanitarian aid, we only needed a few donkeys to carry some of our equipment, so we watched as the boys led them away ahead of us. We all left as one big group, but after a few minutes, it was clear there would be two: the fast ones, and the not-so-fast ones.
The Hike Back
I was in the fast group. This time, we were walking along the river valley, and not up and over the mountain, so it didn’t hurt so much to breathe. I followed the Colonel as we all navigated the rocks.
“I am surprised you are up here,” he said. “We had our bets on you that you wouldn’t make it.”
Surprisingly, I wasn’t offended by this. During the mountain climb the first day in Panjshir, I was operating on “Afghan time.” When God wills it, the time will come. I was in no rush to get to the top that day, and so they had me begged as a slow poke. I just smiled.
“Don’t look so surprised, sir,” I said. “You underestimated me.”
He shook his head at me and kept going.
We took a break somewhere in the valley, not far from the village where the donkeys would have our gear.
From there, we would have a steep climb to our vehicles. JZ and JV, who were in the “not so fast” group caught up. JZ plopped down next to me.
“You are kicking serious butt today,” he said.
“Why do you act so amazed?” I asked. He shook his head.
“Seriously. You’re just moving along like you do this every day,” he said, geniunely impressed. I let it go to my head a little bit by jumping up.
“Yeah, well, that’s enough of a break. Let’s keep going.”
He just waved me on as a few of us started on the trail again, leaving the stragglers behind.
Once in the village, we found our bags. Because there was nobody around to watch them, the Colonel wanted us to take them all. So, we geared up. I had my backpack on my back with someone elses on my front. The steep climb to the top of the mountain loomed in front of us. I heard a few grumblings in the back, but I just gritted my teeth.
“Let’s do this!” I said. The Army soldier who had teased me in the morning marched past, carrying extra bags himself.
“Positive energy, right?” he asked as we started up the moutain. I grunted, pulling myself up onto a rock.
“Postive — energy,” I panted. Okay, this part was seriously tough. I seriously needed some serious postive energy. Ugh. The extra weight slowed me down considerably. Halfway up the mountain, JZ was catching up. He caught me singing to myself for distraction.
“Look at you!” he said. “Singing a song while climbing a mountain with extra crap hanging off of you. Way to go!”
It felt good to hear the encouragment. I didn’t mind so much when he passed me. After a few more minutes, the top was in view. One of the Airman, Sergeant F, was trudging the rest of the way, his arms hanging limp beside him, his head rolling back and forth.
“I’m so tired,” he moaned. “Ugh. I can’t make it.” He dramatically flung his hands in the air, to the delight of a few Afghan girls who gathered on the side to watch us. We were entering the same villgage we departed that morning, and I’m sure we looked pretty ragged to the girls. I decided to invoke a little girl power.
“Come on, Sarge,” I said, giving him a nudge forward. “You can do it!” I pushed him forward again, to which he stumbled like a slapstick comedian. This made the girls laugh, which only encouraged him to act more exhausted. I rolled my eyes and marched past him.
“We might as well be entertaining!” he called after me. I ignored him because up ahead, the team had formed a sort of finish line. One of the Soldiers had his iPod blasting the theme from Rocky. It was hilarious. Those who arrived stood to the side, sticking their hands out as those of us made it over the top of the mountain. Some of the Afghan kids joined in. I slapped a few hands and then dropped the bags on the ground. My gosh, I did it. I climbed some friggin’ mountains.
Who cared if my legs were shaking and my back ached? Who cared if I wanted to fall into a heap on the ground and sleep for 100 years? I did it!
JV arrived shortly thereafter, giving high-fives, too. JZ did a sort of victory dance when he saw all of us made it, throwing his hands in the air. When the entire team reached the top, we all posed for a group photo. We look exhausted, but happy.
That night at the base, before we all scattered to our bedrooms and showers, the Colonel congratulated us on a job well done.
“You guys kept going even when you felt like dying,” he said. “And you provided a great service for those Afghans. You should be very proud of yourselves.”
I couldn’t agree more.