Dubai Airport and things are already a charlie foxtrot. I had checked my bag in Dulles all the way through to Kabul ("You can do that?" "We can do that. Trust us."), but Safi Airlines indicated that in order to transfer the bag from United, they'd need the baggage claim number. I had been late for my flight -- it was pouring in DC and my cabbie stopped in traffic and informed me that he wasn't willing to go to Dulles, and I had to beg another cab for a ride, and arrived at the airport late. In the sprint from check in to gate via an intensely slow security line, I lost the baggage claim tag.
"You can't have checked the bag through to Kabul," Safi Airlines told me. "They don't do that." ("They said they DO do that!")
"We can't locate the bag without the claim ticket," they told me. "Go to the gate and see if you can find it in your bag. You can't talk to United here because they only run night flights, so they're closed until the evening. And you're late, so run."
I tried to run to the gate but got stopped at customs, waved to a separate office where an officer scanned my passport, type type typed something into his computer, stared at the screen, called over another officer, type type typed some more, keyed in my passport number again and again and again, stared at the screen, typed, stared, waited. I had done the same thing thousands of times to visa applicants in Islamabad and karma picked a hell of a time to come back and bite me in the tail. Ten minutes later, near frantic, I was stamped through and allowed to leave. I have no idea what the delay was.
I was flying on Safi International (the name is derived from the word "saaf" and roughly means "cleanliness") and our flight was delayed at least an hour. This was great news, since it gave me a window to locate the baggage claim number. I called United in the UAE; they routed me to the airport baggage desk. "Have you filed a report for your lost bag?" baggage asked. "I just need the tag number," I said; "The bag isn't lost. Yet." "Ok," they replied. "Do you have the tag number? We can't file a report without the tag number."
I tried again and was transferred to India. "Cargo services; what is the nature of the material you'd like to ship?" Try again. "Reservations. Do you have an existing itinerary?" Panting in panic. God only knows what these phone calls cost me, on my US cell phone, roaming on Dubai telecom.
Finally I got through to baggage in the US (via a call center in India), who gave me the number, which I gave to a sparkling gate agent named Sama who was lovely and helpful and with whom I fell instantly in love. "Check back at noon before boarding," she told me. "I'll know then if we've located the bag." I did; they had: everything was ok.
I struck up a conversation with another guy at the airport and found out he was a contractor working in aviation out of Kabul airport. I ran into another colleague -- a USAID guy whom I'd met in Indiana -- and we started talking. The aviator asked what we do and I muttered State and the AID guy said AID, and then all of the training I'd had about loose lips sinking ships kicked in and I got started to get panicky that maybe we should just stop talking because god only knows who's listening. This is the paranoid schizophrenia that State wants us to have, and it was by god driven into me. They kept talking and I couldn't handle it (DID YOU LEARN NOTHING?), and so I put on my iPod so I couldn't answer more questions.
Safi Airlines. I was crammed into seat 24 Bravo; back of the bus, middle seat, sandwiched between two enormous gentlemen.
This is the profile I observed of people traveling to Kabul: heavily American (based on the accent of overheard English) with an added dash of Arabs (guttural Arabic) and only a few Afghans (more Pashto than Dari overheard); amongst the Americans, an almost equal split between white and black; significantly more male than female; stocky to muscular with little in the way of a neck; heavily tattooed. One guy wore a shirt proclaiming When I die, I'm going to heaven. I've done my time in HELL: Konduz, Afghanistan. The "hell" was in flaming block letters; I felt less conspicuous in my jeans and polo shirt.
Tuckered out from my fight for my baggage, I fell asleep immediately. They woke me up for the in flight meal (beef with rice and vegetables, side of mango pudding, definitely not bad), and I fell back asleep until near landing. I woke up as we were starting our initial approach over desolate, red dust mountains and low-slung houses in valleys. Either it was hazy or there was a dust storm, but visibility was limited. We approached, came in for a landing, and then pulled up hard for a second go around, denied landing permission by the tower. We came back ten minutes later, landed hard, bounced twice, and then taxied to the gate.
Welcome to Afghanistan.