I’ve never spent so many hours in the sky until I got here. Early this year, I began working for a company that flies US government missions–oftentimes people, sometimes just cargo, sometimes I don’t care to know what–all over Afghanistan. I did expect to do my fair share of flying, but not as often as I have been doing lately.
There was that hectic week where I flew in to Kandahar in the morning, dumped my clothes and what-not in a gorilla box, and was rushed to the waiting plane less than 20 minutes later via a Gator, to fly back to Kabul. I flew back and forth, Kabul to Kandahar twice in a week! I saw the mountains change from bare to snow-capped. I flew on four different types of planes, most often the only female in a planeload of men. I have gotten used to all the curious glances and the bug-eyed stares.
Kabul to Kandahar by plane takes at the most, two hours. On the B1900, it’s close to an hour and a half, on the AN-26, probably 1 hour and forty-five minutes, the DC-3: two hours, practically. I love the Dash-8 best, since it takes less than an hour. I have flown on all our aircraft, and was among the first passengers to go on the maiden mission of the Dash-8, our newest plane. I didn’t know my job would entail this much flying, but I’m certainly not complaining. I’ve flown so many times the load masters working our flights tease that I must be accumulating a lot of reward miles.
All flight durations depend on the weather, of course. You would think that in this place, which is mostly plains, desert, and mountains, weather would be a constant thing—but no, the strong winds and resulting dust storms play havoc with flight schedules. A plane set to take off on a bright, sunshiny morning can get grounded by a sudden dust storm. Or one that’s already up in the air will need to turn back, unable to land in the zero visibility of swirling, brown-orange dust.
Flying has always been a thrill for me. I actually enjoy the sensation of getting off the ground, and I’m never anxious during take offs. My excitement would rise as the plane taxies down the runway. I would watch, smiling unabashedly from the window and get a palpable rush the exact moment when the plane makes that breakaway push from the tarmac. I love that feeling of sudden lightness, of being free from the earth. I think it is so heroic, that act of defying gravity to surge up the skies in one thrust. My rational mind scoffs, it’s all just physics. I know that, of course, and yet for me, there remains a certain romance to flying, how one’s feet are finally unfettered, how we all become just bodies floating in the air.
When I am on a plane, I am neither here nor there. Not yet in the destination, and yet no longer in the place of origin—suspended in the sky with reality and all its travails left far, far below. From this vantage point, I am free to imagine what lives the miniaturized world continues to live down there. Flying over Afghanistan, I see the lay of the land, the expansive plains and valleys that unfold in the cradle of jagged mountains. It is a terrain that will never be conquered, I think, and looking down, one can see why. The logic of it is simple; this place’s defense is rooted in terra firma. Even if you bomb everything–for instance, the vast expanse of plain populated by civilians–the mountains on the fringe of all that space will remain a steadfast refuge. Good luck finding the Taliban or any other declared enemy in the myriad nooks and crevices of the Hindu Kush. I keep this opinion to myself, though, since this is not my war.
When I look down at villages (cities, perhaps), the series of walled compounds and concrete barriers that define the maze-like spread of Afghan civilization makes me wonder how, for centuries life in this place has gone on, mostly unchanged. Various legions of invaders have plowed through these cities time and time again, and yet they spring back up to reclaim the same kind of life, even as the last war-weary soldier leaves.
The dreamer in me imagines how, as we fly overhead, we pass over houses that sit peacefully on meandering streets that echo with the noise of children running and playing. We arc over backyards a-bloom with pomegranate trees, see women flinging colorful bed sheets and clothes on the line. The plane drifts by and I glimpse open doorways where bearded men squat, a few of them talking, their hands making emphatic gestures. It is a sleepy world filtered through the window of the plane, a world that appears complete in itself, oblivious to the drone of the beast in the sky.
As we glide from up high, I imagine that for the world down there, there is only the blue sky above, the endless horizon as far as the eye can see, and the ever-present dust, descending softly everywhere.