Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Gandamack Lodge, Kabul



With the news websites awash with talk about the time frame for troop withdrawls from Afghanistan, I've been reminiscing about my 2004 trip there. I ended up clicking on some video footage and was reminded of a guy I met, named Peter Jouvenal.  He is the BBC cameraman who shot the liberation of Kabul in November 2001. Peter opened the Gandamack Lodge in Kabul later that year. Since then, Peter's place has been a hang out for journalists, similar to the Oloffson in Port au Prince, Haiti, which I wrote about here...but that's another story.

Anyway, the Gandamack must be buzzing these days and I keep wondering who might be staying in the room I occupied during my visit to Kabul. The room in question is on the main floor next to the front desk, just down the hall from the gun display/sales cabinet.

The door to the room had been kicked in a few too many times and it wouldn't latch, but that really didn't matter, because anyone trying to get in would first have to get through the iron gate out front, or scale the barbed wire fence and navigate past the armed guards, dogs and the two guys brandishing AK47's at the door. Besides, since the room didn't have a private bathroom, the broken door made it more convenient when I had to go down the hall to use the facilities.

On one wall of my room was a kerosene heater from the 1970's with a dilapidated vent system that leaked like a sieve. The room smelled like a fuel depot, but hey, it was my temporary home and the other guests at the lodge were pretty interesting folks, so I was happy to be there.

On my first night there, the Taliban blew up a school just down the street and the explosion woke me up.  After that, I slept fitfully for the rest of the night, and was anxious to get breakfast and meet some of the guys who I had heard drinking and partying well into the night.  It turned out that they were two British ex-SIS guys (Secret Intelligence Service) and a retired Navy Seal from Iowa. They were all doing private security in Kabul. Arriving at the long, family style, breakfast table they each un-holstered an assortment of 9mm semi-automatic pistols and several clips of ammunition.  One Brit had a copy of Soldier of Fortune Magazine under his arm. 

The first guy to speak greeted me with "So, what the Fuck are you doing here?", I replied that I was in Afghanistan to take some pictures for an NGO doing a women's education program and several community development projects funded by USAID...he looked a little confused at my answer, then asked me what I was "packing".
"Uh....Canons" I said as I reached under the table to pull out my Mark IIs, one with a 70-200 f 2.8 and the other with a 16-35 f2.8 attached. ...the two Secret Service guys and the Navy Seal looked at each other, shook their heads and burst out laughing, then the second Brit exclaimed... "goddamn, you're fuckin' crazy!"

That was my welcome reception in Kabul. For the next few weeks I would travel around the country photographing Education Development Center's programs in and around Kabul and in the north near Herat.
I'll be blogging tomorrow about that experience and the NGO, Education Development Center, for whom I have shot jobs on 4 continents.

 
Bt the way, for those of you planning a visit to Kabul for the holidays, it's good to know that Peter has body armor for rent right there at the Gandamack and he will even help arrange fixers and/or body guards for you. Oh, also...don't forget the house rules at the Gandamack, which clearly state that only sidearms are permitted in the dining room, so please, leave those RPGs and your larger weapons at home or in your room.

The Gandamack is located at Sherpur Square, next to the UNHCR HQ, just up the road from DHL, across the road from the queues for visas at the Embassy of Iran. TELEPHONE +93 (0) 700 27 6937 there website is here

2 comments:

RuthDeB said...

Only sidearms are permitted at dinner? What's UP with that??

Anonymous said...

It's Afghanistan. It's called "war zone" and lots of folks are packing heat. And it's not cool to bring your AKs or RPGs to the dinner table. But MP5s are ok.