Invisible cities: the Twilight Zone version

21 June 2007 / 31 Jauza 1386

A foray into the unknown

[Caution: there is some whining involved in this essay, which may be irritating. But this farce of errors is also informative.]

Yesterday I received a text message from Marianne O’Grady:

We r here @ park palace. lv 4 ghazni 2mro.

Marianne had been kind enough to buy and bring two urban planning books for me to Kabul, and it looked like yesterday evening would be my only chance to pick them up from her. I was two days post-op, and getting cabin-fever from lying on my back reading books and watching DVDs, so I thought a small foray would do me good.

Unfortunately I could not contact Marianne. The number her SMS came in on was not her phone number, and I could not send an SMS back; Roshan had failed to fix this problem on my phone for a month running. But I thought I knew which was the Park Palace Hotel, in Chahr-Ra-e Deh Afghanan. As it turns out, the Park Hotel and the Park Plaza hotel are both at Deh Afghanan, but the Park Palace was apparently somewhere in Shahr-e Naw. The taxi driver to took me to Chahr-Ra-e Ansari said that the upper levels of Kabul City Center were the Park Palace. However the concierge there ssniffily pointed out that it was the Hotel Safi, and the Park Palace was in the building next door. But the building next door was the Park Residence, and the guard made it clear this was not the Park Palace. He said it was on the other side of the intersection. So I went there, and found the Sultan Palace hotel, and the folks at the front had never heard of the Park Palace. So I went to a travel agency across the street, and they were also at a loss; but they speculated that it was on the road adjacent to the park itself, just north of the Park Residence hotel.

Meanwhile I was desperately trying to get my SMS to work, by calling Roshan customer service. every other call would fail, as usual; and when the call got through to ringing the help desk, every third call would simply hang up at that point. Through various calls I learned that the instructions on the Roshan website were wrong: you had to add the international calling-code prefix in front of the SMS service number, which meant:
0093 0799 900 100
Instead of:
0799 900 100
Hoewver the longer number did not work, and then after another call I realized that when I had added the international calling code, I had forgotten to drop the zero before the local number. So I changed it to:
0093 799 900 100
and it still did not work. I still could not contact Marianne, and two hours later, she had not called (so I did not have her phone number), and I was feeling faint. I had not meant to be out and walking and in a very high-stress situation only two days post-op. But I had been waiting more than a month for these books, and this looked like my only chance to get them.

The suggestion that the Park Palace was adjacent to Sahr-e Naw Park was also wrong. But a building manager there knew where it was, a half-kilometer west of Chahr-Ra-e Ansari, beyond a UN compound. I trudged out there, found his directions to be exact, and came to a gate with three guards and no sign whatsoever. I asked them where the Park Palace hotel was, and they said, ‘here.’

Overlapping but mutually invisible geographies

All of my search for the Park Palace Hotel had been through Afghans, in Farsi. That was my primary mistake. What I should have done at Kabul City Center is gone down into the cafe where the foreigners have espresso and ask, in a loud, flat, American accent: Does anyone know where the Park Palace Hotel is? There are many sites, like Guesthouse #26, Anar Restaruant, and the Gandmak Lodge, where Afghans almost never go. Most of these places have no signs on the outside, and they are a bit out of the way. But since the expat community socializes mostly with itself, you get to learn this geography informally, by word-of-mouth or dropping off friends after dinnner-parties. If you are not in that circuit, the geography is almost completely invisible.

On the other hand, the geography of the rest of Kabul is opaque to foreigners, as I have mentioned before. You need to understand a fair bit of Dari or Pashto and have a good idea where the major landmarks and intersections are. If I am trying to take a 10-Afghani ‘tunis’ from Kota-e Sangi to the Polytechnic, I need to know that “Kart-e Parwan, Sara’-e Shomali!” means the minivan can drop me off near the gate of the Polytechnic. Since there are no street names, and foreigners have their own landmarks to go by, I have heard of party invitations being emailed out that do not show a single locally-familiar landmark. A local taxi-driver could not follow those directions even if you translated them into perfect Farsi.

It is like recently-discovered dark matter and dark energy: whole civilizations could be passing through our bodies right now, but since these forms of matter and energy do not interact with our own, we can be co-located but totally unaware of the existence of the other. I had spent all my time and energy in Kabul learning one geography, so I had not developed the contacts and tools to learn the other. It was uncanny.

At last I found Marianne and she delivered the books: Great Streets and The Boulevard Book, by Allan Jacobs and Jacobs, MacDonald, and Rofe respectively. I think these will be enormously useful here, so I am so thankful she brought them! But by the time I arrived at the hotel, two hours later, I was totally spent and Marianne was very displeased that I was not more gracious about the favor she had done me by hauling these books literally halfway across the planet. Since I was about to pass out by then, I just paid her and headed off as quietly as I could, to get back to my antibiotics and ibuprofen. On the way, I found a Roshan shop and dared them to get my phone to send SMS messages. The fellow behind the counter looked at the number I had put in, and said: “all of the numbers here in Kabul switched to ten digits two years ago, but not the Roshan SMS service number. You had:
0093 799 900 100
in your phone. I took out the extra nine in the prefix, so it is now:
0093 79 900 100.”

Now it works; I can send SMS. Perhaps if I had gone to the central Roshan outlet in the first place and paid $49 for a new SIM card rather than buy it off a local for $21, this problem would have been resolved at the outset. But one month ago I actually did go to the central Roshan office, both to fix whatever problem was preventing me from sending SMS messages and to change over the SIM-card registration from the fellow from whom I had bought the card. Maybe if I had called the Farsi-language customer help, and understood Farsi with absolute fluency rather than my ugly-but-utilitarian pidgin, someone could have explained this all to me. The problem is being in between. If I had played strictly by expat rules and only spoken English, maybe all these frustrations would not have occurred. Perhaps it is time to learn that game too, and pretend that I understand no Farsi at, all like 90% of the foreigners here. It is a whole parallel universe, right here.

Comments are closed.