My second night in Afghanistan I stroll a few blocks down the street to grab a beer at Gondamack Lodge, the high-end guesthouse and resto-bar run by a former Australian journalist. The Afghan government banned alcohol earlier this year, but they turn a blind eye to several foreigner-friendly establishments in the capital, all of which are heavily secured.
First I'm asked for my passport on the sidewalk. American, check. Then a man peeks through a sliding eye-level panel in the exterior door, sees me, slides a heavy bolt and opens. Finally a third security guy buzzes me thru two steel doors and into a tranquil green garden, where aid and development workers sip room temperature pinot, quacking ducks amble after healthy portions of pasta and beef and, from rather robust stereo speakers, Yaz worries “we're moving farther away.” I secure a picnic table next to a tree and gape.
So here it is, I think to myself, the other side of Kabul. I'd go on to find a similar scene at other ex-pat frequented hotspots – Cabul Coffee House, where the coffee is from Italy and the banana juice is swoon-inducing; Chaila, where the burgers, wraps and coffee are first-rate and missionary workers are thick on the ground; La Cantina, which has excellent burritos for the low low price of $15 and any beer you like as long as it's Heineken in a can; and the ultimate in ex-pat decadence, L'Atmosphere, a sleek indoor/outdoor restaurant/bar/cafe complete with ping-pong table, well-oiled battalion of ever-present servers and, in case the Kabul heat is getting to you, a cool, shaded swimming pool.
I order a beer and start reading the local newspaper. By the time I've finished my second cold one darkness has fallen and the novelty has waned considerably. On the walk home I fall in step with a chatty young Afghan. “You have no bodyguard?' Safeed asks me. “You are here alone? That is not good idea; there are many bad Afghans.”
Must be why the foreigners need their little islands of fantasy.