’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan

’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan
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Once a popular stop on the well-worn hippy trail between Europe and South Asia in the 1970s, Afghanistan has seen the number of foreign travelers crossing its borders dwindle in the past four decades of almost non-stop conflict. (AFP)
’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan
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Dozens still make the dangerous journey every year, ignoring clear warnings from their own governments to stay away from a country infested with suicide attackers, kidnappers and armed robbers, and which by some estimates is now the world’s deadliest conflict zone. (AFP)
’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan
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Many take their chances by staying with Afghan strangers they find through the Couchsurfing network, rather than paying for a room in a hotel protected by armed guards and bullet-proof doors. (AFP)
Updated 16 January 2019

’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan

’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan
  • Despite the country’s decaying security nearly 2,000 Afghans have signed up to host guests on the Couchsurfing website
  • Couchsurfing’s concept is like a modern-day version of Afghanistan’s tradition of hospitality, which obliges Afghans to provide food and shelter to strangers

KABUL: Seeking an “authentic” experience as he backpacked through war-torn Afghanistan, Dutch tourist Ciaran Barr searched the Couchsurfing website for locals to stay with. He found an astonishing number of potential hosts.
Despite the country’s decaying security nearly 2,000 Afghans — the vast majority of them men — have signed up to host guests on the social networking platform, which connects travelers around the world with locals who are willing to put them up for free.
“You feel like you get a more authentic feel for the city so you don’t get trapped in tourist hotspots,” Barr, 24, tells AFP in heavily-militarised Kabul, where he spent several nights sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor of his Afghan host’s bedroom.
“Not that there are any in Afghanistan,” he adds wryly.
Once a popular stop on the well-worn hippy trail between Europe and South Asia in the 1970s, Afghanistan has seen the number of foreign travelers crossing its borders dwindle in the past four decades of almost non-stop conflict.
But dozens still make the dangerous journey every year, ignoring clear warnings from their own governments to stay away from a country infested with suicide attackers, kidnappers and armed robbers, and which by some estimates is now the world’s deadliest conflict zone.
Many take their chances by staying with Afghan strangers they find through the Couchsurfing network, rather than paying for a room in a hotel protected by armed guards and bullet-proof doors.
“Staying with people and dressing to blend in a bit makes it possible to travel in Afghanistan with not too big of a risk,” says Barr, who — with his dark hair and beard, and dressed in the baggy pyjama-style shalwar kameez favored by most Afghan men — stands out less than most foreigners.
Couchsurfing’s concept is like a modern-day version of Afghanistan’s tradition of hospitality, which obliges Afghans to provide food and shelter to strangers.
But it is risky. Couchsurfers only have their host’s online profile and references to judge their character.
In a country where kidnappings remain common and foreigners are highly-prized targets, they have no way of knowing if their host is connected to criminals, who may see a chance to get rich by abducting them or giving them up to militants.

“You can end up with the Taliban,” says a diplomat in Kabul, who has been involved in negotiations to rescue kidnap victims.
“It’s naive and reckless.”
That is what happened to North American couple Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, who were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012.
They were freed from the Taliban in 2017, along with their three children who were born in captivity.
But Norwegian tourist Jorn Bjorn Augestad, who has couchsurfed in Iraq and the Central African Republic, tells AFP in Kabul that government warnings exaggerate the dangers.
“They are too careful. You have to be smart about a lot of things, having contact with a local is the best way to stay safe,” says Augestad, who is on a mission to visit every country in the world, including Syria, before his 30th birthday this year.
He adds: “This is part of the cultural experience, seeing how people live and hearing people’s life story and getting an understanding of the country that you are in.”
Barr and Augestad began their week-long Afghan odyssey in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, famous for its ancient Blue Mosque and buzkashi, a savage version of polo played with a goat carcass.
The pair met through a local travel agent, who found them a taxi driver to take them more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the Afghan capital.
After reaching Kabul, the deadliest place in Afghanistan for civilians, Barr and Augestad stayed with Couchsurfing host Naser Majidi, 27, who works as a technical adviser for a water utility company.
For Afghans consumed by wanderlust, hosting a foreigner is a chance to travel vicariously through their experiences, as more and more countries make it all but impossible for Afghan passport holders to obtain a visa.
“I can make it easier for them to see the beauty of this country,” says Majidi, who has hosted six guests since signing up to Couchsurfing in 2016.
“It’s a good experience for me — I get more friends and I know the world better.”
But his family worry that he is putting himself in danger.
“They have advised me many times that this is very risky for you and for them (guests),” Majidi says.
Elyas Yari, who became a host in 2017 despite the objections of loved ones, says he enjoys listening to his guests’ travel “experiences and their ideas.”
“It’s fun for me,” says Yari, 19, who has received visitors from Canada, Russia, Mexico and Taiwan.
Afghanistan is “not as dangerous as it looks,” he says.
But Barr and Augestad are not oblivious to the potential pitfalls of traveling independently in Afghanistan where the Taliban and the Daesh group terrorize much of the country.
“Things can go well nine out of 10 times,” says Barr, adding: “It just takes that one time when things go wrong and so far nothing has gone wrong.
He concedes: “We also have been lucky.”


Global virus death toll passes 1.5 million as nations plan for vaccine

Updated 04 December 2020

Global virus death toll passes 1.5 million as nations plan for vaccine

Global virus death toll passes 1.5 million as nations plan for vaccine
  • US registers record of more than 210,000 new Covid cases in 24 hours
  • UN chief warns that even if vaccines are quickly approved, the world would still be fighting the pandemic’s aftershocks

WASHINGTON: The world passed the grim milestone of 1.5 million coronavirus deaths on Thursday, as several nations planned to deliver much hoped-for vaccines early next year to break the cycle of lockdowns and restrictions.

The total number of cases worldwide jumped to 65,127,355, according to the John Hopkins University of Medicine's coronavirus monitoring center.

US President-elect Joe Biden said that on his first day in office he would ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days to help reduce transmission of the virus that is again surging in the country with the world’s highest number of deaths and infections.
“I’m going to ask the public for 100 days to mask. Just 100 days to mask — not forever,” Biden said in excerpts of an interview to be broadcast on CNN later Thursday.
But even as the latest positive news about a vaccine was announced, with the Moderna candidate showing it confers immunity for at least three months, several countries marked new Covid-19 records.
The US, for instance, posted an all-time high of more than 210,000 new cases in a 24-hour stretch to Thursday evening, meanwhile notching more than 2,900 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
And Italy registered 993 deaths, topping its previous record of 969 earlier in the year when it was the first European country to be affected by the pandemic.

To build trust in vaccines after they are approved, the 78-year-old Biden said he was willing to be vaccinated in public — following up on similar commitments from former US presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Biden also used the interview to say he had asked the government’s top infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci to join his Covid team and serve as a chief medical adviser.
But in a sign of the difficult work ahead, California announced new statewide bans on gatherings and non-essential activities, as hospitals in the nation’s most populous state face being overwhelmed.

The pandemic is showing little sign of slowing, with more than 10,000 new deaths recorded worldwide every day since November 24 — a rate never reached before, according to an AFP tally.
As the world tires of economically crippling restrictions, attention has turned to the race for a vaccine.
Britain on Wednesday became the first Western country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine for general use, piling pressure on other countries to swiftly follow suit.
But Fauci said Britain “rushed” its approval process.
“In all fairness to so many of my UK friends, you know, they kind of ran around the corner of the marathon and joined it in the last mile,” he told CBS news.
He later walked back his comments, saying he had “a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint.”
Also on Thursday, a study showed that the Moderna vaccine, which was recently demonstrated to have 94 percent efficacy, causes the immune system to produce potent antibodies that endure for at least three months.
In anticipation of such vaccines being approved, France announced that its vaccinations will be free and begin in January for one million elderly in retirement homes, February for 14 million at-risk people and spring for the rest of the population.
France was also mourning the latest high-profile figure to succumb to Covid-19, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who died at the age of 94.
Belgium’s government also said it intends to start vaccinating its most vulnerable in January.
But the raised hopes didn’t only garner the attention of governments — IBM said Thursday that hackers are targeting the Covid-19 vaccine supply chain.
The tech giant said it was “unclear” if a series of cyberattacks it uncovered against companies involved in the effort to distribute doses around the world had been successful.
IBM could not identify who was behind the attacks, but said that the precision of the operation signals “the potential hallmarks of nation-state tradecraft.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that even if vaccines are quickly approved, the world would still be fighting the pandemic’s aftershocks.
“Let’s not fool ourselves. A vaccine cannot undo damage that will stretch across years, even decades to come,” Guterres said while opening a special UN summit on the virus.
Guterres reiterated his call that vaccines be considered a “global public good” that are shared around the world.
More than 180 countries have joined Covax, a global collaboration initiative by the World Health Organization to work with manufacturers to distribute vaccines equitably.
A reminder of the pandemic’s society-altering effects came again Thursday with a landmark announcement from Warner Bros. studio, which said it will release its entire 2021 slate of movies on HBO Max streaming and in theaters simultaneously.
But some British football supporters were given a reminder of pre-pandemic days as Arsenal welcomed a crowd of 2,000 for Thursday’s Europa League win over Rapid Vienna.
It was the first time in 270 days that fans were back inside a Premier League ground.