Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Remembering My Afghanistan

Ten years ago, in November 2002, I spent a month in Afghanistan for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reporting on life in that country one year after the fall of the Taliban.

I wrote a series of news and features stories for RFE/RL. I had had many years of experience as a reporter and an editor, but I was, to put it mildly, nervous. I was scared. Scared of failing. I was even scared of getting injured or killed. It still felt a bit dangerous on the streets, if not from the Taliban who had evaporated into the teeming crowds then from the packs of wild dogs that still roamed the streets at night. And of course, I didn't speak the language.

In the end, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

I covered a deadly protest at Kabul University, visiting students in their squalid dormitories and interviewing injured protesters in an equally fetid hospital.

I spent a day with a family to see first-hand how the political and social changes in the country were affecting real people.

I flew a kite high above the dusty streets of the capital, as the traditional Afghan hobby could once again be practiced in the wake of the Taliban's demise.

I covered maternal mortality, crucial highway projects, and the challenges posed by getting much-needed food and medicine to refugees and to Afghans living in remote parts of the country.

I flew on a small plane over the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains west to the city of Herat, the capital of a province ruled by a warlord named Ismail Khan as his own private country. People there told me they felt "kept in a cage." It was the only time in Afghanistan I felt genuinely concerned for my personal safety.

Herat is famous for its five remaining 15th-century minarets. Many have already fallen. UNESCO is working to try to save them.

I reported on efforts to save the remaining 15th-century minarets of Herat, true national treasures.

It was a beautiful city, but it was permeated by a palpable atmosphere of fear.

I met so many wonderful Afghans, including someone who has become a dear friend, Mustafa Sarwar, then a medical student at Kabul University who would be my translator and "fixer" for the duration of my trip. Any reporting successes I enjoyed in Afghanistan were all due to his untiring efforts and good humor. He's now working as a journalist in Prague at RFE/RL. You can read more about our friendship here.

I'm sure a week hasn't gone by in the last decade that I haven't thought about my trip to Afghanistan. I'm still in disbelief that I actually went there and did what I did, which was not to embarrass myself and to write a few stories that I am still proud of.

Ironically, it's much more dangerous there today than it was just a year after the fall of the Taliban. But you know what? I'd go back in a heartbeat.

An expert kite-flyer (the man to my left) let me have a go. He was in a kite war with another flyer in another part of the city. Kite flying is a national passion in Afghanistan. By the way, I grew my beard long for the trip. Men with red beards are treated with more respect in Afghanistan. Many men dye their beards with henna to turn them red. Mine was all natural.

My fixer, Mustafa Sarwar, and I flew from Kabul in the east to Herat in the west in a small plane. Turned out, we were the only passengers. Imagine your own private jet flying over Afghanistan. It was also Mustafa's first airplane ride. He was able to see his country for the first time.

Flying back to Kabul from Herat, low over the snow-covered mountains.

A family was living in this crumbling building. Notice the small kids perched on the edge.

I wrote a story about this family, chronicling their lives as they struggled to find work and care for their sick baby.

Looking out across Kabul.

Another view of Kabul from on high.

Mustafa and I on the rooftop of the famous Hotel Intercontinental, Kabul spread out behind us.

Arriving in Herat, near Afghanistan's western border with Iran. The province was a country unto itself when I was there, ruled by the feared warlord Ismail Khan.

The ancient tile work had mostly fallen off the minarets in Herat. I collected a few pieces of colored tile before I left. There were no guards to stop me, and people were walking on them and turning them into dust. UNESCO, I've got them if you want them.

A billboard advising Kabul residents about the hazards of wild dogs, of which there were many.

Mustafa, my fixer, happily playing his drums, which had been hidden away during the Taliban years, when music was banned.

Mustafa and his uncle, who was our driver, outside Bagram air base, where they bought lots of U.S.-government C-rations and other food designed for soldiers. It was readily available outside the gates and provided sterile, dependable and cheap food for the family.

An old Soviet tank by the side of the road to Bagram.

I profiled this family in 2002, telling how their lives had changed since the fall of the Taliban. Girls could now to school, women could work, life seemed promising. We revisited the family in 2011 to see how they had fared (read that story here). That's them below.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Grandfather Redux (UPDATED)

Another shot of my paternal grandfather, Peter H. Podelco, with his wife, Mary Ostrowski, and what I am assuming is their first born, my late uncle Fred Podelco, the oldest of my father's brothers and sisters. I didn't really know either of my grandfathers. Peter died when I was about 5 or 6 years old. My mother's father died before I was born.

Just like the photograph of Peter and a friend that I posted a few weeks ago, this old photo is striking for so many reasons: my grandmother's severe black dress and long black gloves, my grandfather's spiffy suit and incredibly coiffed hair, and how unhappy they both look.

Don't you wish that these photos could come alive, like the posters and newspapers in Harry Potter, and you could see them moving and hear them talking after the photographer was finished with his portrait?

UPDATE: Fred was born on February 19, 1913, so this would date this photo to just a few months after that. My grandmother's father was a prominent tailor in Lautenberg (Lauterburg?), Germany, which may explain not only my grandmother's amazing outfit but how well-dressed my grandfather is.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


My father, Edward Podelco (above), who served in the U.S. Army as a radio teletype operator for the Signal Corps from 1956-60. He served in Hawaii and in the Philippines. Not sure where this slide was taken.

My dad's brother Tom Podelco, on the left, who served in the 82nd Airborne in the late 1940s, stationed at Fort Bragg, NC. The other guy is identified on the back of the photo only as "Seacrist from Rainelle, WV, just before a jump." It also says the negative was flipped. "I should be on the other side of him. Reserve should be turned around and weapon on the other side." 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Grandfather (UPDATED)

No, I didn't add sepia to this photograph using Instagram. This sepia tone is real. It's an old photograph of my paternal grandfather, Peter Podelco (on the left), with an unknown friend. I just noticed that he's holding a photo of a woman, which is attached to a stick, like a fan. Could be my grandmother. Hard to tell.

I never really knew either of my grandfathers. Peter died when I was about 5 or 6. I have vague memories of him. He lived in Piedmont, West Virginia, and was a coal miner. A real tough son-of-a-bitch, to hear my dad tell it.

(My cousin just told me a story about my grandfather that I hadn't heard: His mother died after being crushed by one of their horses in the barn. She died a few days after the accident. He was so upset, he punched the horse, and it died instantly.)

Interesting setting for this photo, in addition to the woman's photograph. The bottles of beer or spirits on the table. And it's hard to tell what his friend is doing with his left hand. My grandfather is impeccably dressed, with hat in hand; his friend, not so much.

Interesting, too, because my father grew up quite poor, although his father looks like a million bucks in this photo. Perhaps everyone had their Sunday best, even if they didn't have much else.

I'm assuming everything in the photograph has a meaning. Just not sure what that meaning necessarily is.

My great and good friend, Stewart Moore, who is an artist, noticed the similarities between the photograph and this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Ambassadors," where, indeed, everything does have a meaning. (Notice the weird shape at the bottom of the painting, which, when viewed from an obtuse angle, becomes a perfectly shaped skull.)

UPDATE: I'm told by my Uncle George that this photo was taken on my grandfather's wedding day -- May 25, 1910. The setting is the parlor of the family home in Piedmont, WV. The other man is Charlie Kasmier, my grandfather's stepbrother. They are each drinking a bottle of beer, and there is a small bottle of Champagne and a bottle of liquor on the table.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Going Hog Wild In Karlštejn

It was the type of motorcycle trip I had envisioned doing a lot more of when I first got my Czech motorcycle license -- and subsequently my 2002 Honda Shadow 600 -- back in 2008. Until a few weekends ago, Daisy and I had taken only one overnight motorcycle trip, to Český Ráj in 2010. Busy schedules, I guess. Other travel, by plane and car and train and bicycle.

So it felt great to have carved out a free October weekend for me and my Shadow and my Daisy.

A few weeks before, I had seen advertisements for what looked like a cool hotel outside Karlštejn, a small village about 35 kilometers from Prague, famous for its storybook castle. I booked a "relax package" on the hotel's website, and off we went.

We could have gotten to Karlštejn in about 30 minutes if we'd taken the highway, but that's no fun. We chose a meandering, picturesque route, heading east from Prague through the Czech countryside to Křivoklát Castle, from there to Beroun along more hilly roads, and on to Karlštejn.

The fall foliage was gorgeous, the sun was shining, and the winding roads were largely free of cars.

In the end, we took the same route that my cycling buddy Rob Coalson and I had chosen for our ill-fated attempt in 2007 (hard to believe it was so long ago!) at a so-called "century" -- that is, a 100-mile trip on a bicycle.

Having now ridden that same route on a motorcycle, I can't believe that we -- or rather, I -- managed to survive that trip on a bicycle. The number of hills on that route -- long, steep hills -- is ridiculous. It was a crazy route to choose in an effort to make 100 miles. I hate hills, and I'm a terrible climber. (Read how that quest turned out here.)

The hotel -- the Romanic Hotel Mlyn Karlštejn -- turned out to be (almost) everything we had hoped. A comfortable, if slightly smallish, room overlooking the Berounka River and a lovely spa area that can be booked for private enjoyment, and surrounding land inhabited by a friendly, bristly hog and a gaggle of donkeys, all for what we thought was a very reasonable price -- 3,590 CZK ($186), including 1.5 hours in the spa, a bottle of Czech sekt, breakfast, and 1,000 CZK ($52) credit toward dinner in the restaurant.

The view of the Berounka River from our room.

I would say that the only minus is a restaurant that has a long way to go to uphold the standards set by the rest of the hotel. The food -- Angus rib-eye steak and baked trout -- was ho-hum, the service perfunctory, the atmosphere rather bland and anything but romantic (accompanied as it was by a silly pop-music soundtrack). They can do better.

(Speaking of food, since we were passing through Beroun, we thought it was a good chance to finally sample the food at the Black Dog Cantina, praised -- with a few caveats -- by food bloggers such as Brewsta over at Czech Please. We stopped by on a Saturday for a late lunch, thinking we could beat the crowds, and found instead a line snaking out the door and along the sidewalk. We returned the following day just before it opened at noon and still found ourselves surrounded by like-minded folks who wanted to snag one of the cantina's few tables. When the doors opened, we all poured into the tiny space and quickly filled every table. Even though we were one of the first in line, we were served last, which I must admit left me frustrated. We didn't get our food until 12:45,  which seemed like an awfully long time to wait for a hamburger and a plate of nachos. Especially considering that, in our opinion, neither the hamburger nor the nachos were all that much to write home about. The burger was fine but unremarkable. I've had better -- and cheaper -- burgers in Prague pubs, and the nachos were rather sweet and lackluster. Based on one visit, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. The place does have an admittedly cool vibe, though. I'll be back to see if we were there on an  off day.)

Sunday morning in Karlštejn was overcast and chilly, the Shadow covered in a thick coating of dew. After breakfast and a few games of backgammon on the back deck overlooking the river, we retraced our route back home, since it had been such a beautiful ride the day before.

It's nice to know such a fun little getaway exits just a few kilometers from Prague. I have a feeling we'll be back.

And funny, we never did get to see the castle at Karlštejn on this trip, tucked as it is up a winding, pedestrian-only lane and hidden behind the hills.

The Romantic Hotel Mlyn Karlštejn.

A chilly morning and a few games of backgammon before heading back on the bike.

Daisy was victorious on this morning.

The castle at Křivoklát.

The roads around Křivoklát were a motorbiker's paradise.

In the spa.

Part of the hotel's fantastic spa area.

Heading home.