For all those who participated in the guessing contest as to where I was and for all those who did not participate, here is the answer: Afghanistan. (One person guessed it -- quite amazing, actually.) What an interesting trip! I cannot say it was enjoyable exactly for I was in the outskirts of civilization, even Afghani civilization, without connectivity of any kind that would have been available in central Kabul. I did use my iPhone to communicate for a while until AT&T sent a dire text message that based on my location and amount of text, I would have to work until I was 99 to pay off the costs. That halted any further connection with the rest of the world.
I had seen pictures of Afghanistan -- the dusty desert, the musty mountains. It seems that life of any sort -- animal or plant or human -- has an incredible struggle to live. Dusty feet in worn, torn sandals walked the streets where I was. In Kabul, there were similar sightings, but there were also cars, many of them, old but running. There was the constant lowering of men's eyes and the shuffling of women within burqas. (One Afghan wanted to put a burqa on me and take me home to his family. That would have been risky for both of us, so I declined what might have been an interesting cultural experience.) Good food at good prices with good service was the norm in restaurants, but these were things mainly for foreigners. I found essentially two classes: the haves and the have-nots. As always, there is potential in that disharmony for violence. And certainly violence can be found there. The Afghan is perhaps best described as a soft soul in a hard shell. As a foreigner, one wonders which of the hard shells are safe to attempt to break open and which are not. More than anything, I wanted to help these people, but there is little that one person can do, so I just lent my professional expertise, which is really all I have to give anyone. (I suspect that any side that can give these people jobs and a life that allows just a little peace and even a tad of comfort will win the current war.)
By way of stark contrast, I got stuck in Dubai when my luggage did not hop from one flight to another as quickly as I did. So, I slept in a house of glass, chrome, and mirrors (the Hilton Hotel), rode to and from the 106th floor of the Birj Khalifa (Khalifa Tower) in an elevator that moved faster than free fall, ate scrumptious hammour, the tastiest fish in the world, in an well-cushioned Arab restaurant that offered shisha (hubbly bubbly) as well. I did not feel rich. I felt unfairly privileged, embarrassed, ashamed that I could waste $30 on an elevator ride to overlook the city when many families in Afghanistan would be grateful for only a part of that to feed their children.
Safi Air, the airline of Afghanistan, blended rather harmoniously the characteristics of one of the richest cities in the world, Dubai, with one of the poorest, Kabul. The airplane, purchased from a Slavic nation (I could read and understand the signs on the plane but did not recognize the language other than through its Slavic roots), was clean and modern. The stewardesses were dressed in beautiful traditional genie-style uniforms. The food was tasty and high quality. On the other hand, there was no airline-owned magazine; a bank provided its magazine for readers (good advertising, I guess). Customer service was superb. I would recommend the airline to anyone.
In fact, in leaving the country, I told the ticket agent that. I had some time to talk to him on an interpersonal level because a traveling companion took our luggage to be strapped -- his had broken enroute to Dubai and, having repaired it, he did not want a repeat on the way home. I told the agent that we had brought some work stuff with us in a foot locker that was overweight so that he would be prepared to expect the overweight. We had come early so that we would have time to deal with overweight requirements and fees. (We had to pay $400 enroute to Afghanistan in overweight fees.) When my travel companion (another employee of our organization) brought the luggage over, the agent weighed each piece, marked it, and gave us the baggage tag, along with our tickets. When I asked where to go to pay the overweight fee, he looked at me and said simply, "I have waived the fee; that is Afghanistan's gift to you."
All I could think was that it is always seems to be the people with the least who give the most. Thank you, Afghanistan! I will be praying for you, for all your people -- those that might be considered friends and those that might be considered foes. That will be my gift to you.