FOR years I used to joke that Phnom Penh was a hardship post for diplomats, UN and NGO officials - enabling them to get an added hardship allowance on top of their salaries - because the city only had two go-kart tracks, one water park, one inline skating rink and fewer than a dozen membership tennis courts, swimming pools and/or health clubs. Life was so difficult, of course foreigners needed to be paid more to work there.
Kabul, however, is a city where the rubber meets the hardship road.
For starters there are no go-kart tracks, and very little of the rest. Kabul is a no-dependents posting, anyway, so none of the foreign officials in town are here with their spouses or kids.
The hotel staff where I'm staying, UN officials and embassies strongly encourage all foreigners not to walk outside day or night. In the two weeks I've been here while driving around town in daytime, I haven't seen one foreigner on the streets anywhere.
After nine at night, one rarely sees anybody walking on the streets, Afghan or otherwise.
Restaurants, hotels, major shops and government buildings all have guards with guns, usually AKs, standing out front. Major intersections are all manned by "technicals" sporting heavier weapons. The closer one gets to UN or NATO premises, the larger and more sophisticated the hardware.
The Gandamak Hotel is a good example of a place sufficiently fortified for approved use by UN staff.
The front metal gate has no sign, at least none that I could see. A guard opens a small door, and you walk 10 metres past more armed guards to a concrete, bunker-like edifice with another heavier, solid-metal door. An invisible guy mysteriously buzzes you into a small cement lockdown room with only a tiny grilled window inside. The door locks automatically, and you are in a small cell, where you have to show some ID. Only then will the guard behind the grill unlock the second steel door to let you enter the hotel premises.
Inside are the hotel and a garden surrounded by 5-metre- high walls. I was told that there was no music as the owners didn't want neighbors, outraged by blasphemous infidel rock 'n' roll, to lob grenades into the compound.
It was time for a well-deserved infidel cocktail at US$7 a pop, the price no doubt a reflection of the hardship.