A while back I got tapped to be the extra guy in a vehicle to take a few visitors over to a meeting at what passes for a luxury hotel here in Kabul. Any vehicle we travel in needs a minimum of two, but preferably three or more, people in it. That way, in the event of an attack where the vehicle is immobilized, two people can set up a proper security perimeter while the other person stays inside where he can reach the radio and call for help. Since I'm usually desperate for any excuse at all to be out of the office and paroled from the HQ compound, I was glad to go along.
Anyway, we made the trip out to the airport to pick up the visitors and then headed over to the hotel. Once we got there, we had to drive through a couple of gates, get the vehicle’s undercarriage, trunk, and engine compartment searched for bombs, and proceed past the armed guards to the secure parking lot inside the hotel’s defensive perimeter. Our visitors then doffed their body armor and helmets, cleared and stowed their rifles, and went inside.
Since we didn’t know how long their meeting was going to take, the other two guys waited at the parking lot while I went in with our visitors to find out if we should wait around or just take off and return to pick them up later. As we walked up to the main entrance I spotted a couple of snipers stationed on the rooftops, part of the hotel’s security force and a friendly reminder that we were a long way from Disneyland.
The lobby itself was appointed at least as well as any Marriot you might find in the states. But what was really fun was when the doorman approached me as I walked in. At first I couldn’t understand the look on his face or why his posture was so deferential.
“I’m sorry sir,” says he, “But we can’t allow you to openly carry your firearms into the hotel.”
I’d completely forgotten that I was strolling around in full body armor with an M16A2 assault rifle slung over my shoulder and an M9 pistol strapped to my leg. Oh the silly little faux pas we find ourselves in in a combat zone.
So I waited outside while one of our folks went in to find out what our timeline looked like. He came back and said they’d be looking for a ride back to the airport in just over two hours, so we opted to stick around and wait it out. Back at the vehicle, I ditched my armor, helmet, ballistic glasses, rifle, and gloves. Since US forces are not allowed to be outside our own secure facilities unarmed, I opted to hang my hat on my pistol grip so I wouldn’t be “openly” carrying it into the hotel.
There were three of us with not much to do, so we opted to head to the hotel restaurant for the breakfast buffet. It was pretty much the sort of mid-range breakfast offerings you’d expect to find anywhere. There was a selection of fruits and pastries, some hard-boiled eggs, juice, and water. When the waiter came along, the three of us each ordered a cup of coffee.
Over the next hour or so we sat in the restaurant watching the other hotel guests wandering by and sipping our coffee. As near as I can figure, it was a sort of freeze-dried instant coffee that had probably been sitting on some basement shelf in the hotel since before the Soviet invasion of 1979. It was pretty foul, but with enough cream and sugar you could just about cover it up well enough to gag it down.
So after a lot of sea stories, two bites out of a couple of stale doughnuts, three pieces of toast, and three cups of the worst coffee in the Eastern hemisphere we asked for the check. The total: $54.00! At first we thought maybe we’d misunderstood it. Was this in Afghani?* Was there some misplaced decimal point? What the fuck?
We asked the waiter to verify the total. When he gave us a funny, almost scornful, look, we went on to ask the restaurant manager to confirm it as well. We were just plainly unable to believe that any meal in Afghanistan, let alone coffee and toast for three, could possibly cost $54.00. Then the manager actually had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, the sheer effrontery even, to scoff at our question! It was as if this poor bastard was usually the maître d’ at the Waldorf Astoria and didn't realize that today he had woken up as the dude who runs a breakfast buffet in one of the most miserable, third-world nations in the universe.
Now by my math, assuming a cup of freeze-dried coffee and a stale donut have approximately the same value, each cup of coffee cost us a little over NINE U.S. dollars. To put this in perspective, the starting salary for an Afghan National Police officer is $70/month. To take it one step further, this would be like finding a hotel in Manhattan that serves yesterday's Folger’s for $230.00 per cup.**
Needless to say, we did not leave a tip.
Once we’d settled the rather ridiculous bill, we wandered over to the hotel gift shop. There we were able to peruse a tiny little room full of all the same sort of dusty crap we can buy on base in the HQ compound as well as in the weekly bazaar they set up for us to shop in. The only thing missing was the Chinese knock-off electronics and the pirate DVDs.
Since we were killing time, we sat and chatted with the shopkeeper about the design and construction of the various rugs he had for sale. It turns out that he actually owns a factory on the other side of town where they make handmade rugs in traditional as well as his own original designs. On top of that, he imports and sells pure silk rugs from Iran too.
While we were there we got a lengthy lesson in how to shop for rugs and I fell in love with a particular Persian rug he had on hand. It was pure silk in dark blue and rich golden hues and represented about two months’ worth of labor for an entire extended family. Fortunately I didn’t have enough money on hand to buy it, because I’d probably be pretty upset the first time I had to figure out how to clean dog urine out of a six thousand dollar rug.
Besides, I’d rather spend a lot less money on a rug made in Afghanistan. This makes sense to me because I'm actually in Afghanistan. I figure I’ll have to wait on buying an authentic Iranian rug until we invade Iran. At the current rate it’s only a matter of time.
*54 Afghani is something like twenty-five cents.
** Starting salary for an NYPD officer is about $25,100/year, or about $2,100/month, and no hotel in Manhattan would serve freeze-dried coffee.