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To Afghanistan And Back: The Process Of Getting A Visa
"I need to include a prepaid, self-addressed Priority envelope to get my passport sent back," I said to the young man at the mail counter.
"Oh, are you sending this to the passport processing center?" he asked looking up from his computer.
"Um, no ... the Embassy of Afghanistan."
His response to my answer was silence, but I could see the wheels turning in his head, wondering why in the world I was sending my passport off to the Embassy of Afghanistan, but professionally polite enough not to ask.
Like many countries, to get to Afghanistan as a US citizen you need a visa, and to get a visa you must fill out an in-depth application that includes a letter of introduction. Despite the handful of conflict zone tourism groups, for Americans, getting to Afghanistan as an individual requires being somehow connected to an organization, media outlet, or business operation that has an affiliation to the country that can basically "invite" you to come.
Wanting to promote the country as a destination for culture and unique experiences, the Embassy of Afghanistan offers information for travel groups that organize trips for those interested in traveling to Afghanistan. Note that the United States Department of State warns against travel to Afghanistan.
Since I was going to volunteer with a nonprofit, I had a one-page letter of invitation from Mountain2Mountain, explaining what the organization did in the country and what I would be doing while there. Then it was on to the visa application, which included providing a passport photo and a three-page document with questions ranging from the purpose of my journey (no I was not going for a convention/conference) to the number of children that would be accompanying me (zero) to whether or not I had a criminal record (no). The entire visa application is clearly laid out on the Embassy's website; given the amount of foreign aid workers, journalists and nonprofit volunteers that head into the country, it's no wonder that they have streamlined the process.
Visas do of course take time and money to process, and for a short-term, single-entry visa good for 30 days, there was also a $100 Money Order that had to be made out to the Embassy of Afghanistan. Fortunately I got to write that in myself and managed to avoid odd looks at the bank.
To be perfectly honest, when I put my passport, application and Money Order in an envelope and watched it get thrown into the pile of other mail, I wondered if I would ever get it back. Parting with your passport is a nerve-racking thing.
Considering where I was headed, I expected a much more complicated visa application process, but the Embassy was quick and within a week, it was back in my mailbox, in the exact envelope that I had addressed and pre-paid for Priority shipping; there's no point in skimping when your passport is in question.
Eventually I had a passport complete with a visa in my hand. That left other logistics, like a stack of crisp new hundred dollar bills to avoid unreliable Kabul ATMs and a temporary membership to Global Rescue (always good to know you can count on an evacuation in the event of serious madness, illness or otherwise).
The usual rules for extreme travel apply to Afghanistan: hit up the travel doctor to make sure you have the right immunizations (no one wants Typhoid after all), make sure you have a stash of Imodium and pack a good first-aid kit.
The travel part is easy; if you can stomach a 13-hour flight from DC to Dubai and then a 12-hour layover before getting on a three-hour flight to Kabul. United and Emirates both have partnerships with Safi, an Afghan airline, meaning that you can check bags at your departure destination in the US and they'll make it all the way to Kabul many hours and time zones later. The hard part was the emotional side of things.
After weeks of planning and discussing with Shannon, I was still uncomfortable telling friends and family about my upcoming trip; traveling to Afghanistan initiates certain reactions, many of them unwanted. It was my first time traveling to a conflict zone; I trusted Shannon and Mountain2Mountain's connections, but that didn't stop me from being nervous and even a little hesitant.
I was quick to find that many outside of my core peer group didn't want to hear that hesitation; if I was the one choosing to go then I better keep up a united front. Choose to go to Afghanistan and you better feel good about the decision. Just imagine how stressed they were that I was choosing to go to such a dangerous place in the world. So I stopped telling people about it, internalizing my emotions and sharing them only with a close group of friends.
But the inside of your mind can be a dark place, one that can easily spin out of control, and you need a reality check once in awhile; that's what sharing your concerns with others does for you. Of all people, I have the travel doctor to thank for putting things back into perspective.
"If you don't mind me asking, why are you going to Afghanistan?"
I explained to her that I was volunteering with an organization and would be producing a series of public photo exhibits, with larger-than-life photos, many of them taken by Afghan photographers.
She looked me straight in the eyes and said, "good for you."
It was a sincere response, far from the emotionally loaded ones I had been getting.
"Wow, that's the first time I have heard that response, " I said. "Thank you."
A woman that deals with all kinds of travelers going to all kinds of places on a regular basis, proceeded to give me a full rundown of the calculated risks that we take every day in our lives, and that ultimately, I would probably be killed in a car crash walking down a street in my home city of Portland.
"Not that you shouldn't weigh the risks, but just remember that we encounter risks every day and no one thinks twice about them," she ended with.
The sentiment was duly noted, and I embarked on a series of long flights and connections fully protected against the risk of Typhoid.
At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it's like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.
[Photo credits: Anna Brones]