I arrived in Afghanistan on the eve of the September parliamentary elections, concluding 30 hours of travel on a commercial flight that dropped toward Kabul in a steep spiral, as if down a drain, to avoid surface-to-air missiles.
I paid five bucks to ride the "free" bus to an outlying parking lot, where my driver and a translator commenced shoving and hip-checking my luggage, including my oversize bike case, into the trunk of their small sedan. We sped along a wide boulevard flanked by coils of razor wire, bullet-scarred barricades half-hiding new four-story homes with gold-plated eaves—the showy "narchitecture" of the nouveau riche, paid for with poppy money or graft from the billions in aid flooding into the country. At the Park Palace guesthouse, armed guards ushered me through three groaning steel doors and two- foot-thick concrete blast walls into a grassy courtyard lined with rosebushes. It was empty except for a blond woman sitting at a picnic table, writing in a notebook. When she saw me, she raised an arm and waved.
This was Shannon Galpin's sixth trip to Afghanistan since starting her nonprofit, Mountain2Mountain, in 2006. For a couple of years, Galpin, a 36-year-old single mom and former Pilates instructor with no prior aid-work experience, had organized fundraisers from her home in Breckenridge, Colorado, to support various NGOs, including the Nepal-based dZi Foundation and Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. By the fall of 2008 she'd decided to focus primarily on women's issues in Afghanistan and, with barely a handful of contacts, bought a plane ticket and flew to Kabul.
"I didn't want to just sit on the sidelines and applaud," says Galpin, who is rangy and Nordic-looking, with light-blue eyes and straight hair trimmed at the shoulders. "Some people think it's crazy, I know, but I seem to thrive when I'm in over my head."
One might conclude, then, that she is flourishing. Galpin currently manages half a dozen projects, including building a school for the deaf, launching a rural midwife-training program, managing literacy programs in women's prisons, and financing a college training course for high school students. With a staff of one—herself—and an annual budget of $80,000, she's kept the projects tracking through private donations, a few impassioned volunteers, and her own charms. (A guy once handed her a $2,000 check after they'd struck up an hourlong conversation in a Vail coffee shop.) But it's been a fitful, month-to-month endeavor with more ideas than money and a future as clouded and uncertain as the country in which it will unfurl. "I'm better at doing than planning," she said at the Park Palace, holding up her notebook to reveal words and phrases, some bolded or double-underlined, scrawled in all directions and across the margins. "This is me," she said with a half-smile.
I'd come to Kabul keen to see how, or if, she was making an impact, and I wasn't sure what to think at first. Was this merely some quixotic attempt to bolster her own self-worth, or an efficient alternative to the lumbering bureaucracies of institutionalized aid?
I was equally intrigued by Galpin's intent to ride her mountain bike across the Panjshir Valley to the top of the Anjuman Pass—a 100-mile, 10,000-vertical-foot undertaking that would be part personal adventure, part peace mission, and, thanks to a handful of simultaneous charity rides organized by volunteers and friends in seven U.S. cities, part fundraiser. The ride was so brazenly ill-advised, so contrary to every convention people held about the place, that their reactions could be summed up in a few simple statements: "You can't," "You shouldn't," and "You'll die," not necessarily in that order.
We had a week or so before we'd find out, so I ate a plate of chicken kebabs with rice and curry and excused my jet-lagged self from the dining room. There was much anxious chatter from the hotel staff about potential election-day violence; the entire metro area was under a strict security lockdown—a situation expats refer to as "White City"—and a few threats had specifically mentioned the Park Palace. I was almost too tired to care.
"No rush in the morning," Galpin said cheerily as I departed. The last time she was here, in the spring, insurgents had blown up the guesthouse next door, and she'd been pinned down in her room for several hours while a firefight ensued in the street outside her window. "We have to stay put until after suicide-bomb time, which is usually before 10 a.m. If nothing's happened by then, we're probably good."
Around two or three in the morning, I was awakened by an intense rumbling sound. I felt the building shudder, and fine plaster flakes snowed down onto my head. I jumped up and ran into the bathroom but then, remembering that the Park Palace maintained a fortified panic room in the basement, changed my mind and dashed into the hall, where I nearly ran over an Afghan man wearing fatigues and a flak jacket, a Kalashnikov slung around his neck.
"It's just an earthquake," he said. "Relax. Go back to sleep." I recognized him as one of the guards. He grinned at me and then sauntered nonchalantly toward the lobby, his arms draped over the rifle.
THE QUAKE, a 6.2-magnitude event centered more than 200 miles north of Kabul in the Hindu Kush, was the only election-day disruption we suffered at the Park Palace. But the rest of the country shook with violence. The Taliban launched grenades, kidnapped and murdered parliamentary candidates, and tacked "night letters" on villagers' doors threatening anyone they saw at the polls. A few blocks from our hotel, an insurgent drove a car bomb into a UN-affiliated convoy, killing seven people. Someone else fired a rocket at the palace of President Hamid Karzai, but it failed to detonate, clattering impotently into a concrete barrier.
Galpin strode into this quagmire with far more ambition than experience. Unlike the vast majority of the internationals and aid workers in the country, who work for established NGOs, the military, the media, or one of the many private companies fulfilling lucrative construction or security contracts, she isn't on someone else's program. She belongs to what Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has dubbed the "D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution"—inspired amateurs, many of them young women, who are writing off the traditional aid organizations in favor of their own grassroots startups. "You have a confluence of factors driving these people," Kristof told me. "The rise of social entrepreneurship, powerful tools like Facebook and Twitter to get the message out, and people searching for meaning in their lives."
For Galpin, that list also includes the birth of her daughter, Devon, in 2004, and a souring marriage that would culminate in a midlife crisis of sorts, prompting her to focus on altruistic pursuits. "I wanted to see women stepping up to the plate in a big way," she says. And when her marriage dissolved, along with a business venture—a fitness center in downtown Breckenridge—a few months later, that's exactly what she did.
She started Mountain2Mountain in part because she'd been deeply moved by Greg Mortenson's bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, about his efforts to build girls' schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2006, Galpin organized a trail run and a book reading in Breckenridge to raise money for Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. She would have been thrilled to generate a few thousand dollars for the cause. But when the event raised $107,000, she was struck by the notion of running her own projects, not just raising money for someone else. It's the kind of impulsive reaction that Mortenson, who's been in the game for 15 years, encounters often. "It's good that people want to go over and help, but it's a serious commitment," Mortenson told me. "You can't go over there and hand out a few bonbons and pencils or give 'em a little money. It's really about spending time with people there."
It was hard to know where to begin. Anywhere. Everywhere. The problems in Afghanistan outpaced capacity by several orders of magnitude. With the help of a fixer named Najibullah Sedeqe, a soft-spoken Afghan with Coke-bottle glasses who works for a trade organization named Global Exchange, Galpin began to make contacts and line up projects. She set up several kindergarten programs in women's prisons where children are incarcerated with their mothers. She arranged for computers to be donated to a school run by Afghans for Tomorrow. She signed on to build a new school for the Afghan National Association of the Deaf, a $500,000 ground-up construction project that remains her largest undertaking to date.
The learning curve has been steep, and rarely smooth. On one visit, in Faryab province, Galpin's driver was yanked from the car and kicked and beaten by locals for chauffeuring a khareji—foreigner. Gradually she acquired friends, a colorful group of expat artists and young modern Afghans, and became confident enough operating in Kabul to travel around town by motorcycle.
As she made more trips, new projects materialized. Spurred by the grim fact that more women die during childbirth in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world, Galpin started a rural midwife-training program in the areas around Kabul. She organized the Streets of Afghanistan art and photography show, which is slated to tour the United States this spring. Most recently, she began developing a relationship with the Regional Support Command in Afghanistan, a branch of the U.S. military that provides logistical services and oversees reconstruction projects. They were hoping to fix up a large girls' school on the outskirts of Kabul but needed the help of an NGO to do so.
It's all amounted to a well-intentioned but sprawling diorama of aid. Managing it—and still being a full-time mother to Devon—has required a delicate juggling act. Galpin will typically spend a month in the country and then trade head scarves and meetings over tea for cocktail dresses and fundraising events back in the U.S. Gradually, people have started paying attention. CNN, NPR, and Dateline NBC have interviewed her, and money has begun to trickle in. To date, she's raised around $300,000.
The bike ride, which she was hoping to turn into an annual event, added yet another complicated dimension. It's one thing to ride in the States to raise some cash, quite another to transect a valley in plain sight where women have been beaten, disfigured, or killed for lesser transgressions. "It's needlessly provocative," says Ted Callahan, an anthropologist who has worked with the military and NGOs in Afghanistan to better understand local cultures. "There are definitely more pragmatic ways to advance your cause."
Galpin recognized that some people perceived the ride as a reckless publicity stunt. But she was willing to take the risk, in part because she had to: using her own savings to run M2M, she'd been draining her reserves faster than she could refill them. She yearned for the day she could afford to hire a couple of full-time staffers to help lift the mountain of logistics from her shoulders, or, better yet, find an angel donor willing to float the whole thing. "We're not financially sustainable right now," Galpin told me. "I thought working in a war zone was going to be the toughest part of the job. But that's the easy part. Raising money is way harder."
A FEW DAYS AFTER the election, Galpin had arranged for us to tour the Deh Khudaidod girls' school with a couple of the Regional Support Command's top officers, Major Veronica Ko and Colonel Robert Wicks.
Because military vehicles in front of guesthouses tend to make tempting targets, Ko and Wicks picked us up curbside a few blocks from our hotel. They arrived with a personal security detail, or PSD: two bulletproof Toyota SUVs containing four soldiers with full body armor and M4 carbines.
The school, which served 3,500 girls, was dilapidated and overflowing. Many of the windows had no glass, and ad hoc classrooms had been set up outside, under a sagging canvas tent. Ko and Wicks wanted to install glass in the windows before winter set in. They could provide some of the materials, but due to some complicated rules that prevented uniformed officers from soliciting funds themselves, they couldn't raise any cash to buy the rest. That's where M2M came in.
Despite the worthiness of the cause, Galpin was conflicted about partnering with the military. Some critics argue that modern aid blurs the line between counterinsurgency and humanitarianism, particularly in Afghanistan, where the military's central strategic principle entails "winning the hearts and minds" of the local people.
Large-scale aid, the argument goes, fosters dependence on the West and promotes corruption. The international community has pledged some $25 billion since 2001, and Jean Mazurelle, the former director of the World Bank's operations in Kabul, has estimated that as much as 40 percent of that aid money has been "badly spent." The money often goes to bribes or padding the accounts of more than 60,000 private contractors at work in the country. "The systematic lack of control of aid funding is called 'Afghaniscam,'" journalist Linda Polman wrote in The Crisis Caravan, a scathing look at the seamy underbelly of humanitarian aid. "In areas where the Taliban have regained control, their fighters are able to use unsupervised aid funding to strengthen and expand their popular support."
Such concerns notwithstanding, Galpin eventually concluded that the plight of the girls' school trumped any potential controversy. Besides, Ko and Wicks seemed genuinely concerned about the students, the temperatures were already beginning to drop, and something had to be done.
We spent the rest of the week before the ride pinballing around Kabul and the surrounding areas, meeting with her expanding roster of contacts, discussing various new projects, and shepherding along old ones. Everyone we spoke with, from Afghans to internationals, seemed to take Galpin seriously, and I admired her tenacity. But I wondered how long she could keep the enterprise running on willpower and small contributions.
Part of the problem is that when people ask Galpin what M2M does, she doesn't have a snappy answer. Unlike Mortenson's CAI, which has leveraged a simple, clear narrative—building schools for girls in places that have none—M2M's mission is more complicated. "It's tough to boil down what we do into an elevator pitch," Galpin acknowledges. "We build schools, we work in prisons, we do community projects. It's community development, and my slant on it is gender equity."
One afternoon Galpin, Sedeqe, and I went to check in on M2M's biggest venture, the new school for the Afghan National Association of the Deaf. The facility was being built on the outskirts of town at a five-acre site donated by the Karzai government. The builder, an Afghan based in the U.S., specialized in green construction. Not surprisingly, there had been some setbacks. A few months earlier, when one of M2M's most dedicated volunteers, a young Kabul-based Australian named Kate O'Rourke, had visited the site, only about 20 linear feet of the mile-long, ten-foot-high security wall had been built. A couple of laborers were lazing under a tent drinking tea, and the "eco-brick" machine sat broken down in a corner of the lot. They couldn't figure out how to fix it, and while the company apparently had another machine in the country, no one knew where it was.
Galpin had harassed the contractor for weeks by e-mail and phone, but she still had no idea how much progress, if any, had been made. To everyone's surprise, though, we arrived to find the entire rectangular perimeter demarcated by a tall wall of freshly stacked mud blocks. (The builder had bailed on the eco-bricks.) "Yessss!" Galpin enthused, clutching Sedeqe, who was a good foot shorter than her, in a bear hug so vigorous that it dislodged his glasses.
LATER THAT EVENING, we joined one of Galpin's good friends, an Australian expat photojournalist named Travis Beard, at L'Atmosphere, one of the local clubs. Beard was the final member of our bike-riding crew. Since he had ridden a motorcycle over the Anjuman the year before with his riding club, the Kabul Knights, and seemed to share Galpin's fearlessness, she had signed him up as the ride's official photographer and unofficial guide and videographer. (A documentary about the ride and M2M, entitled Waking Lions: Bombs, Burkas, and Bikes, will be released this March.) Because she hadn't been able to devote much time to the charity rides back in the U.S., she now looked at the bike tour as a dry run. Tomorrow morning we would pack up our bikes and head out.
Tonight, however, we would relax. Beard's three-person punk band—called White City, borrowing the oft-mocked security term—was performing. Though live music is now tolerated by the government, it's still pretty uncommon in Kabul. By the time the set started, so many people had shown up that the club had run out of beer.
When we arrived at Beard's apartment the next morning, he emerged in the same T-shirt he'd been wearing at the show, looking as if he hadn't slept much and trailed by a pretty Afghan woman who went by the nickname Sharkey. Beard insisted that she come along as our "translator." Soon the four of us were rattling north in a battered Toyota 4Runner with our driver, Najibullah Panjshere.
We sped along a freshly paved stretch of the intercity Ring Road, one of the largest reconstruction projects in the country. After a few hours and several terrifying passes, we finally arrived at the entrance to the Panjshir Valley, a steep-walled gorge marked by a military checkpoint, with the frothing Panjshir River sluicing by below. Just beyond the guard station, Galpin and I unloaded and assembled our bikes and, under warm sunshine, clicked into our pedals.
A half-mile later, the valley opened up and I could see a patchwork of verdant farms wending north along the floor, guarded by soaring brown mountains. Low walls of stacked stone outlined terraced fields under a bluebird sky. A camel caravan trundled by, followed by a flock of sheep. Narrow canyons forked away from the main thoroughfare, hiding emerald mines and caves rumored to still contain weapons caches of the mujahedeen.
Beard stood up through the sunroof of the truck and took pictures while we followed fresh tarmac north through the green valley, the roadside littered with rusting carcasses of Russian T-62 tanks, relics of the Panjshir's storied rejection of intruders. As we spun along, boys rode up alongside us on their rickety bikes, eager to race. Galpin would give a good fight but always let them win, chatting them up the entire time with her limited Dari. Hubisti? Chealdri? Chetoori?—"How are you?" "How's your brother?" "How's your mother?"
Galpin took her cycling pretty seriously, riding a new single-speed, painted "burka blue," with 29-inch wheels. Back in Breckenridge, she sponsored a Mountain2Mountain race team, of which she was a part, and used it to fundraise at endurance events like the 240-mile Breck Epic. She tapped out a blistering pace, and even though I consider myself a pretty strong rider, I struggled to keep up. Whenever the incline increased, she'd leave me behind.
Galpin had always been athletic and independent, growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota, in a "completely middle-class average family." Despite her parents' reservations, she skipped college and instead moved to Minneapolis to pursue a dancing career. She landed a part-time gig but quickly realized she wasn't cut out to be a professional dancer. Seeking adventure, she moved to Europe—Germany, France, Wales—and Lebanon, supporting herself as an athletic trainer and Pilates teacher. While living in Germany, she got married to an English engineer and rugby player. Eventually, they moved to Breckenridge, bought a big house, and had Devon.
By some standards, particularly those of her youth, it was an exotic, adventurous life. But the most indelible encounter she'd ever had occurred back in Minneapolis. After she gave up on the dance dream, she got a job at the Gap. Coming home from work late one night, she took a shortcut to her apartment through a city park. A man emerged from the shadows, held a knife to her throat, and said if she made any noise he would kill her. He forced her to the ground, raped her, and then disappeared into the night.
She didn't tell many people about the assault, just her family and a couple of close friends, until this past June, when, during a Dateline NBC segment on M2M, she discussed the incident with Ann Curry. "I don't know that I ever really processed it until now," Galpin told me, "but I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing if it hadn't happened. Sometimes when I'm getting ready to come over here, I think, What's the worst that can happen to me? If I'm killed, I know Devon will be with her father, in a loving home. If I'm beaten and raped? I've lived through it once before, and I know I could again."
WE WEREN'T THE first to head to the Panjshir for risky recreational purposes. The Panjshir River had been kayaked by an American working for the UN a couple of years earlier, and an Italian climbing guide had briefly run mountaineering courses here in 2006. But Galpin would undoubtedly be the first woman to ride a bike the length of the valley. She'd come up with Beard the previous fall and done short rides near the villages, mostly to test the locals' reaction. She wasn't shot or pelted with rocks, so she reasoned it might be possible to pull off a longer ride.
Today we hoped to reach the village of Dasht-e Riwat, 50 or so miles upvalley, where one of Galpin's contacts, a Tajik businessman and principal of the local school named Idi Mohammed, had agreed to put us up for the night. Beyond Dasht-e, however, we'd "see how far we could get." The ultimate goal was the top of 14,000-foot Anjuman Pass, at the northern end of the valley. A friend who had ridden over the pass on motorcycles with Beard had even offered to donate $500 to M2M if she made it. "But you won't," he told her with dry cynicism.
After a few hours, the road kicked up steeply and we came upon a huge white marble monument jutting up from a broad ridge with a sweeping panorama of the valley: the tomb of Ahmed Shah Massoud, a.k.a. the Lion of Panjshir. Though casual observers of the war in Afghanistan have long forgotten his name, Massoud, who was fatally wounded by suspected Al Qaeda assassins on September 9, 2001, had been the adored leader of the Northern Alliance, a sports fan, a connoisseur of arts and culture, a defender of democracy, and a fierce warrior. He'd succeeded in repelling both the Soviets and the Taliban from the Panjshir, and many, like Galpin's friend Fahim Dashty, believed he could have led Afghanistan down a very different path.
A few days earlier, we had visited with Dashty, a former confidant of Massoud's—he still referred to him simply as "the Chief"—who now lives in Kabul and edits the Kabul Weekly newspaper. "The Chief knew it wasn't about education versus security versus politics," Dashty had told me. "You need to focus on all problems at once. You can sit around and look for a way, he would say, or you can make a way."
We pulled into Dasht-e Riwat just as it got dark, greeted in the street by Mohammed's two brothers and their brood of eight boys. I never saw any of the wives or daughters, except once: a small, curious face peeking through a curtain of the back room where all the women were required to stay, out of sight of the men.
Galpin and Sharkey were the exception, of course. The men assumed that Sharkey, simply because she was traveling with us—foreigners—was a prostitute. Galpin, on the other hand, was considered a "third gender"; Western women were simply treated the same as men. The Mohammed clan joined us for dinner in the guesthouse, while the women stayed in the back of the house and cooked and cleaned. The boys brought out chapati that we tore into pieces and piled on rice, roast lamb, and diced tomatoes. I asked the men what they thought of Galpin riding through the valley.
They conferred among themselves for a minute, then one of the eldest brothers said, "It is very impressive, and we admire her for doing it. She is very strong."
Would you ever allow the women of the village to ride bikes?
"Oh, no. Never. This would not be appropriate."
Do you think we can make it all the way to Anjuman Pass?
There was more animated discussion among them, some glances over at us, and finally nodding all around.
"Yes, Shannon will make it," he declared. "But you will not. You are too fat."
THE NEXT MORNING, we were eager to get an early start, since we were mapless and didn't know how far we still had to go to Anjuman Pass. The only hitch was that we'd run out of water yesterday. We'd assumed we could simply restock in Dasht-e Riwat, but there was no bottled water, or much of anything else, for sale in the area.
"We'll just drink from the rivah!" Beard declared.
"That's insane," I said, though no one else seemed to think so. The Panjshir looked clear enough, but it served as the central plumbing system for the entire valley. Eventually we persuaded Mohammed to provide us with boiled water from his well, but it was warm and rank, and made me loath to sip from my CamelBak.
Beyond Dasht-e Riwat, the road undulated through the valley, climbing gently, the pavement ending and resuming at unpredictable intervals. The district police stopped us and asked what we were up to, and then the lecherous commander tried to buy Sharkey from us. In the distance, I could see the high peaks of the Hindu Kush glimmering with snow. The Anjuman Pass was up there somewhere, beyond the foothills' brown folds, though it still seemed like a very great distance.
The road grew steeper and rougher, forcing Najibullah to pull over often and douse the smoking engine with a plastic jug of river water. Beard seemed cheery enough, but he kept complaining that he'd contracted dysentery from the dodgy meat at Idi Mohammed's. He would bark at Najibullah to stop the truck, then run behind the closest rock, yank his pants down, and squat. Sharkey found this much more entertaining than watching us pedal, and she grabbed his camera to film the episodes in their entirety.
Late in the afternoon, we passed the last of the villages, just a few listing mud huts, and splashed across a bridge that was flooded by several inches of river water. The road had degraded now to a rough jeep track, and we started gaining altitude quickly; I guessed we'd reached 10,000 or even 11,000 feet. The valley's eastern slopes were full-shadowed, and tall white clouds with dark underbellies had wrapped around the high peaks. We hadn't seen any locals for a while, the truck was somewhere ahead of us along the road, and the area felt deserted, spooky.
Soon a man came down the road, using a cane and following a donkey with kindling on its back. A long, thick white beard hung to his chest, and a white turban was piled high on his head. When he saw us he stopped abruptly in his tracks and stared. Then, to our relief, he smiled and began speaking animatedly in Dari. When we told him where we were going, he pointed up the mountain and mimed shooting a rifle.
One hundred aid workers were killed in Afghanistan in 2010, and the single worst incident occurred not far from the pass. Six weeks before our ride, a ten-person medical team from the International Assistance Mission, including six Americans, had crossed this way, dropping down the other side into the neighboring Badakhshan province. They were on their way to a remote village when they were ambushed by insurgents, lined up outside their vehicles, swiftly accused of espionage, and then shot with machine guns while their Afghan driver fell to his knees and muttered verses from the Koran. He was the only one of the team left alive.
When we caught up with Beard, Sharkey, and Najibullah, they were talking with a small crew of men working on a half-built bridge. Woodsmoke wafted from their nearby canvas tents, and Sharkey shared some of the information she had just learned. Nuristanis from the neighboring province had been running guns over the pass, they told her, stealing from locals and shooting people in their sleep.
We dismounted our bikes and began weighing the options. We'd been riding steadily for eight hours, and everyone was all tired and cranky. I pointed out that we were standing on a dirt road late in the day in a remote valley where our very existence was enough to get us killed—and that the top of the pass still seemed a long way away. My concern didn't seem to register. Galpin and Beard mulled aloud whether we should bivouac in the truck and head for the pass in the morning or pull out our headlamps and ride through the night. They appeared to be hell-bent on getting to the top.
After a few more moments of tense discussion, they suddenly seemed to come to their senses.
"Forget it," Galpin finally conceded. "It's too risky. I'd really like to see my daughter again."
We declared Operation Anjuman Pass kaput and reversed course, coasting down the road into the encroaching chill until dusk. Finally we stopped, took the wheels off the bikes, packed them back in the Toyota, and folded ourselves inside. I joked that our attempt was all wrong; it would have been much easier if we had driven up the pass and ridden back, downhill all the way.
Galpin slumped in her seat. What would be the point of riding down? she said. As we wound back through the Panjshir twilight, she began plotting a return trip in the spring. The more she brainstormed, the more animated she became. Now that she knew what was involved—where the villages were, where we could find potable water, how long it would take—she was determined to return and finish what she'd started.