The mistakes I made when I traveled to Afghanistan

Travelling to Afghanistan is hard, but living there is much harder. It’s a daily struggle for the locals who grow up there and are more used to hardships than foreigners, so it’s only natural that for me it proved a real challenge. If you want to visit Afghanistan, you might want to keep in mind the mistakes I made so you don’t do the same and can have a smoother trip.

Helping you not to make the mistakes I made when you visit Afghanistan

Do you want to visit Afghanistan? Learn from the mistakes I made during my trip

Being “too foreigner”

As an experienced traveler, I would have expected from 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 first of all 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 a big role was played by 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 do it as low 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 to cameras and video cameras, especially when held by foreigners.

–>> Read more about my experience of traveling to and living in Afghanistan as a Western woman here.

Not investigating enough the dress code

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 the day after I wore either a much longer, shapeless, black tunic or a full-length chador.

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 already several times and I even attended a Farsi course because it’s my intention to keep going, so it would have been wiser of me to learn the basics in order to understand at least 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 a basic communication. I’m positive this will enhance the quality of my trip to a huge extent.

READ MORE: Do you want to visit Afghanistan? Check out our full and detailed Afghanistan travel guide.

Not bringing first-aid medicines

The health system in Afghanistan is next to non-existent. Hospitals and clinics don’t have the necessary infrastructures and supplies, and doctors are not enough. More to 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 with me.

If you know you have some allergies, intolerance or even only to face the flu, do travel with your usual medicines and remedies as in Afghanistan you might not find them.

Getting too “relaxed”

Even inside the house, something my husband always told me was not to get too relaxed. Even though Fall, it was very warm and in the house 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.

Also, 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, so I’d just better stay alert all the time, except probably at night, when you are unlikely to receive guests.

If you are travelling 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 (you don’t need to wear shoes), and you’ll be fine.

READ MORE: If you are thinking about visiting Herat, check out our post on what to see and do in this historical city.

Packing too many clothes

When you travel to Afghanistan, make sure you don’t make the mistake I made to pack a diverse range of clothes: you won’t need any. Just pack extra comfortable shoes, clothes and, in case of women, a couple of shawls aware that you will use them every day. No need to carry fancy shoes either, even though you can use them, the roads are unforgivingly potholed and very dusty, so you will only ruin them, as 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 can remind of military or security contractor clothes.

With my husband we were coming from India, so I had also clothes for the other trip, but next time I go to Afghanistan I will make sure I will pack only trousers, long jumpers or tunic, and old and comfy shoes such as runners or any other walking shoes you’ve been using for ages. This will also avoid you stand out from the crowd, it’s always better for foreigners to keep a low profile.

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2 Comments
  1. Good to know Angela. If I do visit this fascinating country I will keep these tips in mind for me and my wife. A month of covering everything up in the most conservative fashion works OK for me. After a month, back to the tropics with my flip flops and shorts ;) Really though I always find it fun and intriguing to visit cultures so unlike my native USA; makes this interesting, these cultural differences.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Ryan

  2. spent 9 weeks in Afghanistan this Summer and it was a wonderful and amazing trip, beautiful scenery, beautiful people. I was invited to 2 weddings and stayed with Afghan friends. Since I have known them for over 20 years, I was well aware of the dress code and security issues and arrived already properly dressed. Even then my scarf was considered too thin for safety. I travelled several times to Jalalabad, visited Panjshir, Laghman, Pahgman and even ventured into Kunar and Tagab in the province of Kapisa. The My-Khyber Pass road is not for the faint-hearted but the scenery is amazing and our driver was fantastic. The idea was for me to blend in with the crowd, not because I could he attacked but because if people knew I was Canadian, I would be in danger of being kidnapped for ransom. This was not easy as I am – a woman – tall, blue-eyed and have silver hair (I’m 73) and people did ask where I was from. My friends would say I was from different countries and as long as I passed for a muslim woman (I’m christian), that was okay. I could not speak either Dari of Pashtoo except for the formal greetings and thank you phrases so would avoid speaking in public. Finally, I suggested my friends say I was deaf and that worked very well. People were always respectful and very solicitous, even strangers in the market would offer me a chair or some tea or sweets. Of course I was never alone and would not really recommend visiting in Afghanistan unless you speak the language well or are with Afghan friends. Employees at the Canadian Embassy were jealous of the many places I visited, because of security issues they were not allowed anywhere alone. I received all the necessary vaccinations and carried recommended medication, antibiotics, Imodium etc. I also brought some face masks but wish I had brought more because the pollution in Kabul is really bad and I never left home without a mask even in the 50C heat of Summer. This served a dual purpose, allowed me to breathe and also partially hid my face and made my presence safer. If you are invited to Afghanistan, and you do need a letter of invitation to receive a visa, I would encourage you to go. I hope to go back to this fascinating and lovely country as I felt so welcomed and at home with the people I met. Salaam

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