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Spa Kabul

In search of respite in the middle of a war zone.
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An Afghan security officer tries to stop photographers from taking pictures outside the Park Residence guesthouse in Kabul after a suicide bombing on Feb. 26, 2010. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan seems once again to be on the back burner, overshadowed by more momentous events. A ten-year-old war cannot possibly compete with the more colorful conflict in Libya, the arrest of IMF chairman Dominique Strauss-Kahn for attempted rape, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 14-year-old indiscretion.

There have been no new government corruption scandals here for at least a few days, and the furor over the killing of Osama bin Laden has at last died down.

I have to confess, the past few weeks have been a bit stressful, what with the Taliban’s spring offensive, a crop of particularly painful civilian casualties, and my finally opening a Twitter account.

I decided that some down time was in order. So, on a beautiful spring day in Kabul, what’s a girl to do to try and relax? I recently read in a blog by a Westerner that the “guilty secret” of journalists in Kabul these days is that it’s, well, fun.

We’ll see.

My first stop is the Serena, Kabul’s only five-star hotel, which has a decent gym and a very nice spa area. In the old days, four or five years ago, I used to spend weekends by the pool, finishing the day with a massage.

But that was before the Taliban lodged an attack on the Serena in January 2008, killing at least eight people, including the masseuse.

I did return to the Serena once it opened again, and resumed my old schedule. Then I was yanked out of the shower one day when the insurgents lobbed a few mortars into the garden, shattering the glass in the newly renovated lobby. I spent hours in a bunker, with wet hair and no makeup.

The Serena has now been attacked a total of three times. It is still considered the safest place in the city.

Nevertheless, faute de mieux, I work out regularly in the gym. But I never stop waiting for the sound of an explosion or shattering glass, and I’m always wondering where I’ll hide if the insurgents get inside the gym again, as they did in 2008. It does not make for a calming experience.

I have avoided the Serena’s pool ever since it became tattoo central. Everyone seems to be sporting body art these days, including the women. I am all for freedom of expression, but I find the experience, and the conversations, disturbing.

I could go shopping, I suppose. There are two “malls” in the city, both of which have been attacked at least once. City Center is still boarded up in places, and Gulbahar is just a little too spooky for my taste, with its dark winding corridors and confusing layout.

Besides, what is there to buy? I don’t need the gaudy wedding jewelry on display, tacky clothes from Pakistan or the pirate videos that invariably stop just before the ending.

I would love to go for a walk, maybe poke around in the carpet shops on Chicken Street, or drool over the painted Nooristani wooden furniture at the Istalef Gallery downtown.

But a major alert has gone out that there has been an unspecified threat against journalists. Apparently a kidnapping is planned. Having had several friends taken by various insurgent groups, and one actually killed, kidnapping is something I take seriously. Besides, walking around is not so much fun since children started throwing rocks at Westerners who refuse to give them “bakshish.”

The major food stores are open, except, of course, for the one that was blown up in January. At least 14 people were killed in that attack, including a prominent Afghan family. A human rights official, her husband and their four children were apparently standing near the suicide bomber when he detonated his vest.

I decide to stop by another shop, which has an ATM as well as Perrier. I am a bit short of cash. As I withdraw a few hundred dollars, I think uneasily of a friend of mine, who insists that her bank card was cloned after she had used the same machine. Her credit card had a great time in San Francisco, apparently, racking up $3,000 in bills while she was slaving away in Kabul. I stuff the money in my purse and step away.

I could wait until evening and go to a bar; the Gandemack has a snug little pub, all made of wood, where the cool people hang out. But alcohol consumption at 2,000 meters gives me a headache; Kabul, like Denver, is a mile-high city. And after seven long years in Kabul, I do not fit in with the cool set. Instead of planning weekend getaways to the Maldives, I whine about the mess we seem to be presiding over in Afghanistan and debate endless policy options.

In fact, I’ve been told that I’m a bit of a buzz-kill.

In the end I opt for my garden, an oasis of peace in the midst of the chaos. The roses are in bloom, the peach trees in flower, and a haunting smell of jasmine comes over the fence from the next-door neighbor’s house. A few hours sitting among the greenery reading a book will be just the thing.

But no sooner do I take my place under the grape arbor when the wind kicks up and a dark brown dust cloud envelops the neighborhood. I shrug and head for my office. Surely work will be preferable to all of this.

Kabul: love it or leave it. I may have to think about that.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/dispatches-afghanistan/kabul-hotel-travel-spa-bombing