While rereading my latest blog entry, I realized that I had not given enough contextual details to help translate what we do in Afghanistan. The single most important common piece to all of our trips is our car. And Part 2 of the two part blog entry I am writing depends upon specific details about this car.
Our “Magic Carpet” is a 2008 Toyota Type 76 Land Cruiser. It typifies, in many ways, the completely backwards and messed up way the West has approached efforts in Afghanistan. Because of little details like our sponsors gave us the car, and in fact, we are forced to use this car or they withdraw all elements of sponsorship, such as a place to live, food and permission to actively work in Afghanistan.
Normally, a Type 76 Land Cruiser is an excellent car for getting around in rough terrain and undeveloped countries, as it is reliable, stout, has a short wheelbase and good ground clearance and room for up to 11 people inside, (with seatbelts) if you really, really like each other. It is old technology, remaining fundamentally unchanged for 40 or more years. Everything is rebuildable and repairable with very little in terms of tools.
The engine is the naturally aspirated 4.2 liter six cylinder diesel, which is not very exciting or intended for high performance, but it would be sufficient to go nearly anywhere, if one were careful to keep the car’s overall weight down.
Which is the nub of the problem.
Someone, somewhere, decided that in order to do field work in Afghanistan, a bit of armor would be nice. And if a bit of armor would be nice, why not just cram armor everywhere you can fit some.
Normally, putting armor on a car as large as a ‘Cruiser would raise the assumption of adding a larger engine, supercharger and suspension. Toyota makes a delightful supercharged 4.2 liter diesel that can really move a 9000 pound car down the road, over the hill, through the dale, etc. But nevermind that. Why not just save money and leave that itty bitty, teensy tiny 4.2 L non-supercharger job in there. I mean, what could go wrong with that?
The resultant lack of power gave me fits, and because of it, my shifting arm and my clutch leg look like Popeye on steroids. Sometimes I think I am rowing the damned thing down the road, I have to shift so much to keep it going.
If that were the only problem, I could live with it.
The people who bought the armor also obligingly upped the suspension to carry the nearly double the weight vehicle body. Which is great, I suppose. Except with the armor plate and the additional suspension bits, my clutch throw is reduced to about half an inch. And that is when the car is cold. As it warms up, my clutch throw slowly diminishes. Until it disappears completely, and the car starts stalling during shifting. Especially when I am doing delicate maneuvers in traffic, or over treacherous terrain. And the car knows when I at my most vulnerable, and like the cold-hearted critter she is, will stall just to give us a heart attack. The people I go out with are convinced the car is powered by me rowing the gearshift and the power of curse words. I do both a lot.
And speaking of the people I go out with, the armor-laden door weighs somewhere upwards of 500 pounds. And it has the regrettable tendency of trying to crush passengers as they attempt to enter or exit the car. And friends Zok and Rachel are not large people by any means, so I have nightmares of watching them being crushed as they try to get into the car sometimes.
So, in the effort to be risk averse, we start out way behind the ball, much like other Western efforts in Afghanistan. We’d be much better off with a 10 year old Toyota Corolla, just like the majority of Afghans do.
One thing that works very well on the car, which I like, is the radio. Very good sound from the speakers, and when sitting in typical Afghan traffic (which is incredibly chaotic and illogical) we like to listen to Afghanistan’s first rock station, called 108.0 FM “Kabul Rock”.
I have to say that one of the brightest parts of my day, every day, is to tune into FM 108.0 and listen to Kabul Rock, Afghanistan’s only 24/7 rock station. It is home to an incredibly eclectic and sometimes rare mishmash of music, with very little attention paid to format. http://tkg.af/english/kabul-rock-radio It was founded by Killid Group, and is managed by members of the Afghan rock group “Kabul Dreams”. It is music only, with a playlist that varies every 3-4 months.
When I say the music is eclectic, I am talking Muddy Waters, followed by an extremely rare version of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison doing a duet of FHITA, uncensored, followed by Sarah Mclachlan doing a Christmas song, followed by who knows what else.
The DJs do not talk between songs, and there are no advertisements, except for the infrequent bumper music with announcements for the station, including a hokey, fake cowboy twang saying “We all gonna have some fun…” and “It’s Kabul Rock, Laddies!!!” in a fake Scottish brogue.
They have a strong preference for Reggae and Green Day, as well as some of Bruce Springsteen’s folk music. A friend and I visited the Shah M book store (remember “The Bookseller of Kabul”? Well, that’s the store) and when talking to AJ, the eldest son, there, he claimed that the initial playlist was actually lifted from his iPod, which they played on “shuffle” for about a year.
Our car versus Russian Kamaz Truck
The other thing I like about the car is the Land Cruiser’s toughness. Traversing Kabul traffic is difficult, with no one really obeying traffic laws, and plenty of traffic circles, which combined with the typical Afghan driver’s lack of driver’s education and/or giving a shit, leads to huge traffic jams. I was having a particularly difficult time crossing one of these traffic circles one evening, and no one was yielding me right of way, so in frustration, I rammed the rear tire of an old Russian Kamaz truck, and fully compressed my front bumper in a loud and resounding “WHAM!!!!” which echoed across the intersection. And suddenly, traffic parted in front of me, as evidently even the most foolhardy and daring Afghan driver lacked the courage to get in the way of a crazed, bearded westerner who would actually ram a Russian Kamaz truck just to get across an intersection.