Keeping in touch

While out wondering in Wardak, I had to stay in touch with Kabul, sending regular messages each day to let my boss know I was still alive: ‘tout ok’. Which was definitely a good thing, but sometimes a bit of a pain in the arse. Especially when it meant trying to balance a sat phone in such a way as to keep a signal, while in a car bumping about like a bucking bronco cross-bred with a rollercoaster. Or when it meant having to climb a hill at night to then stand on the edge of a collapsed building at the top to try and get connected, a chill wind trying to blow me off.

Meanwhile, my companion was climbing up the hill with me to try and get through to his family, assuring one uncle he was safe, while trying to find out where another group of relatives had got to. They were travelling from Kabul to Herat – a journey along a good road one can do in a day if you start early enough. The first contact he had was when they were stuck in the other part of Wardak, blocked by fighting ahead of them, with helicopters and fighter planes buzzing overhead. After they’d got passed that, there was a silence. Delayed, they’d have to stay the night in Kandahar, we reasoned. They should have network coverage there, but he couldn’t get a response. Driving over another hill late the next day, he finally got through to them. They’d made it back safe and well, having been five minutes behind another bus that had been stopped and robbed on the road ahead of them.

Mobile phones have had an incredible impact on this country. Farmers in remote parts of Wardak can now phone contacts and get the latest market price for livestock or crops in Kabul, allowing them to sell to traders at a better price. People can stay in touch with friends and family travelling across the country. And we all get to worry about each other a lot more. As my companion said, ‘what is this country like when we have to phone every hour to know if they are alive….?’

Easy connections also mean it’s easier to receive messages you’d rather not get. Like the request that came over the crackling HF radio, asking me, if I didn’t mind, since I’m already there, if I could just do this wee little bit of work for somebody. Or being told, having just reached one of our offices and putting my feet up for a few minutes with a cup of tea, that somebody had changed their mind and I wasn’t allowed to spend the night there because of security, so I’d just have to cancel my plans for the rest of the day, drive two hours back to another base, and come again tomorrow.

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