My Kabul

John Connolly, Vice President at Paxton International, Virginia, finds Kabul a rejuvenating experience

Published: Dec 7, 2009

Kabul is not Afghanistan,” says John Connolly, meaning the city of about 3 million isn’t the dusty frozen-in-time war zone seen on the news. He travels there four or five times a year. “I love the people,” he says, “and so I enjoy my time there.”

First Impression
“I’d travelled in many developing nations but had never seen decimation on the level I saw in Kabul. There wasn’t a pane of glass in the city.”
“Kabul is 6,000 feet above sea level, so you have to be able to deal with that. You’ve also got to be comfortable with a lot of police presence and convoys of Western soldiers.” And there are many building projects: “The sound of Kabul today is shovels on concrete, because everything is done by hand.” He “did a double take” when he saw a new toy store on a familiar street. “That said there’s disposable income — and hope.”

Image: Jerry Lampen/Reuters
Getting Around
Depending on traffic, the airport is up to 45 minutes from Kabul’s center.
Connolly always travels with an Afghan or Afghan-American member of his staff. Taxis are plentiful, but only those arranged by one’s company or hotel should be used. He likes Golden Taxi for its
radio-dispatched cars and English-speaking drivers.

Home Office
Like many foreign companies, Paxton houses its employees in a no-frills compound, with offices and sleeping quarters under the same roof. There’s no space for outdoor recreation. Foreign nationals, staff, guards, and visitors eat communally. “The cook and his repertoire can make a great difference to your quality of life,” he notes wryly. Connolly suggests the 177-room Kabul Serena Hotel for the luxury to which travelling executives are more accustomed.

Dining Out
“Everything’s behind walls,” and guests must pass through double-locked doors. Nothing stops when the power goes out — as it frequently does. “Conversation stays at the same level. At some point, the generator kicks in or somebody fetches candles. The service continues.” Connolly pronounces Sufi “excellent” for Afghan dishes, many made with rice, braised meats, and lots of fresh vegetables.

Fear Factor
Ongoing conflicts make kidnapping and other threats to foreigners a real concern, but “I was comfortable enough to let my son spend four months as an intern in our Kabul office.”

Making a Difference
Connolly says foreigners doing business in Kabul are inevitably drawn into pro bono service. (He’s on the board of Gifts in Kind International, which helps distribute clothes and other essentials to those in need worldwide.) “Working here is very edifying. I actually find it rejuvenating.”

“Learn that an Afghani is a unit of currency, and Afghans are the people.” And, “You always have to allow time for tea” — a highly cherished tradition.

— Jim Brosseauw

(This story appears in the 18 December, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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