Traveling to Afghanistan is hard, but living there is much harder. It’s a daily struggle, even for the locals who grew up there and are more used to hardships than foreigners, so it’s only natural that it proved to be a real challenge for me. If you want to visit Afghanistan, you might want to keep in mind the mistakes I made so you don’t do the same.
1. Being “too foreigner.”
As an experienced traveler, I would have expected myself to be more humble in Afghanistan. I think my first reaction was a combination of social pressure and increasing frustration. My frustration was caused by not understanding the language, by not understanding the culture and — entirely my fault — by not having enough patience. It was a combination of factors, among which was the pressure of trying not to disclose I was a foreigner and to go unnoticed. It was not always easy, I tried not to speak, or to talk as quietly as I could, and when, inevitably, people would guess I wasn’t a local, we worried about safety.
If you decide to visit Afghanistan, don’t be or act too confident, and do pack an extra load of patience. Remember not only that you are a guest but that Afghanistan is a very complicated society. Its people have endured four decades of war and at times (often, actually) can show caution and even suspicion towards cameras and video cameras, especially when held by foreigners.
2. Not investigating the dress code enough.
After years of traveling to Iran, I thought I was prepared for Afghanistan. Neighboring countries, much-shared history, culture and traditions, similar dress code, plus my long travel experience made me feel somehow confident. On the first day in Herat, a very conservative city, I went out wearing the manteau I had bought in Iran and only got catcalled and whistled.
The shopping mall I went to with my husband and mother-in-law was fully managed by men (as women are barely involved in jobs that require contact with the public) and I could see them literally startling at my sight. I felt like I was wearing a bikini and not a knee-length tunic on top of long trousers and with my hair fully covered with a headscarf.
The pressure of not being spotted as a foreigner mixed with the obligation of adhering to the local social norms made me understand the lesson pretty fast and from then on I wore either a much longer, shapeless, black tunic or a full-length chador.
3. Not learning Persian.
Granted, Persian is pretty hard to learn and for Europeans, not an easy language to grab. But I had been to Iran several times already and I even attended a Farsi course because it’s my intention to keep going. It would have been wiser of me to learn the basics in order to at least understand when someone was telling me something.
Learning Persian would have also made me feel safer when out in the street with my husband as I could have better understood what he was telling me and shown a higher degree of self-confidence, also by looking less “lost”.
I have two Persian courses and my pledge before going back to Afghanistan is to complete them all and be able to carry out basic communication. I’m positive this will enhance the quality of my trip to a huge extent.
4. Not bringing first-aid medicine.
The health system in Afghanistan is next to non-existent, hospitals and clinics don’t have the necessary infrastructure and supplies, and there aren’t enough doctors. More than that, drugs are either not available or fake, so you can’t really trust what you find in the pharmacies.
Before traveling to Afghanistan, I had no idea what rhinitis was, but the dust and the ever-present carpets (that I couldn’t help but see as true dust vessels) gave me the worst case of allergic rhinitis I could imagine. I wasn’t prepared so I didn’t have any medicine for it and ended up sneezing my way around the country. The remedies I tried from a local pharmacy in Kabul helped a little, but I wished I had brought something more with me.
If you know you have allergies, intolerances, or even planning ahead to face the flu, do travel with your usual medicines and remedies as you might not find them in Afghanistan.
5. Getting too “relaxed.”
Even inside the house, something my husband always told me was not to get too relaxed. Even though it was fall, it was very warm in the house, so I was wearing comfortable clothes and for sure not a headscarf. And even though my husband’s apartment is on the 4th floor, all the rooftops of the houses around are always full of people, either adults working or kids… you guessed it, running their kites.
When someone knocked on our door, even if it was the 10-year-old kid of the family living on a lower floor, I had to cover up, so it’s better to just stay alert all the time, except probably at night, when you are unlikely to receive guests.
If you are traveling to Afghanistan as a tourist, you will probably stay at a hotel, but this still applies. If someone knocks on your room door, forget about showing up without a headscarf, or short sleeveless t-shirt. Cover almost as if you were going out (aside from wearing shoes), and you’ll be fine.
6. Packing too many clothes.
When you travel to Afghanistan, make sure you don’t make the mistake I made by packing a diverse range of clothes: you won’t need them. Just pack extra comfortable shoes, clothes, and in case of women, a couple shawls knowing that you will use them every day. No need to carry fancy shoes, even though you can use them, the roads are unforgivingly potholed and very dusty, so you will only ruin them. I broke a pair of lovely green sandals after only a couple of times using them in Herat. Try not to wear anything too bright or flashy and especially nothing that could look like military or security contractor clothes.
My husband and I were coming from India, so I also had clothes for the other trip, but next time I go to Afghanistan I will make sure to pack only trousers, long jumpers or tunics, and old and comfy shoes such as runners or any other walking shoes I’ve been using for ages. This will also prevent standing out from the crowd, as it’s always better for foreigners to keep a low profile.
This article originally appeared on Chasing the unexpected and is republished here with permission.