Monthly Archives: April 2013

On the road, waiting for a lift. Early morning outside Mazar-e-Sharif

Waiting for a lift on an early morning outside Mazar-e-Sharif

BOMZh is a homeless person in Russian. Technically, it is someone who moves every three or four months and does not have a propiska (registration) in their passport. The term was born in the Soviet bureaucracy. One would use it in official documents on the line the “permanent address” if they did not have such an address. The term literally means a person without a permanent place of residence.

It used to be a kind of curse my parents would use when I was a child. It was one of the most offensive words. When I would wander out onto the street with my hair un-combed, or when I managed to cover yet another pretty dress in mud, or when my bed was not made, I would hear, “You are just like BOMZh.” And I would get all flustered, because I didn’t want to be that – not that I understood what it meant.

One time, when I was renewing my visa for Afghanistan, my Afghan colleague who was helping me with it came back with a form I had filled in earlier. In it, I used my address in Kabul. He looked somewhat puzzled as he said, “Here you need to write an address where you live.” I was equally puzzled. “I did just that, here is my address in Kabul,” “No,” he said, “where do you really live?” “When I am not in Kabul I am in London, Istanbul or New York,” I replied, growing both impatient and curious. He was even more confused by that statement. “Yes, those are the places you visit, or stay in, but where do you actually live.” I was not going to go back around in circles. “What do you mean, where I actually live? You know where I live. What would you write in?” “In Kyrgyzstan,” he said, “where do you live in Kyrgyzstan?” I laughed out loud. “I don’t live in Kyrgyzstan, I haven’t for over a decade.” We did go around in circles for a bit until I gave up and wrote my last known address in Kyrgyzstan.

It was a comedy of errors, but it shone light on one of the strangest puzzles I knew about Afghanistan. A person who is a born-and-bred Kabulian would always qualify that they are from such and such a province, but that they live in Kabul. I couldn’t quite understand their sentiment. Only later I realized that person’s official place of residence had very little to do with the place where they go to sleep every night, where they have their things, where they call home. In official documents, their home, their residence is in the place where their parents are registered, and where their parents’ parents were registered. In fact, most people in Afghanistan actually have to travel to their “provinces of origin” to get their identity documents. So it is no wonder that my colleague was so bewildered when I said that I “live” in Kabul.

The other day, I brought with me two thin spatulas for a friend’s kitchen in Kabul. I dug them out from my things, which I stored at another friend’s place in London. I figured they would be better off being used ithan gathering dust and mold. “But won’t you need them?” my friend asked me. “I have not used them in the last five years.” That prompted a pause and then a question that I used to dread, “Where is home?” “I don’t have one, I’m afraid.” “Same here.” We looked at each other with an understanding of people who no longer know what is home, yet having stuff stored all over the globe, having bits and pieces of memories here and there, and living on what became a kind of uniform.

In my years of travel, I have perfected the art of minimalism. My entire travel pack is a suitcase and a shoulder bag. My suitcase contains a suit and a pair of dress pants, a pair of jeans, two shirts, two t-shirts, two tank tops, a dress, two shawls, and a pair of pajama bottoms with a set of underwear and socks, three pairs of shoes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a travel towel, nail clippers, deodorant and few tiny pieces of jewelry and cuff-links. In colder seasons, I would add a sweater. My shoulder bag contains notebooks, a computer, a Kindle, a camera, phones, and essential documents. I could live out of that suitcase for months.

Just a few weeks ago, I had to log all of my travels over the previous ten years. I was surprised to realize that in the last six, the longest I managed to stay put was two stints of three months. The rest I spent an average of three to four weeks in a single location. I have stayed in five-star hotels, in the best beds with the softest linen. I have slept on the floor in a mud house with a sleeping bag as bedding and no shower for days. I learned that it helps to have a warm and safe place to sleep in, but once you have that it does not really matter what you sleep on, be it a thinly stitched mattress on the floor or a custom-made king-size mattress on an intricate frame.

I have met the strangest people. I have spoken to all sorts of high-level officials and found that they have passions and desires. I have met women who had never seen a bra in their lives, who had delivered babies without painkillers and medical help, and who could not imagine the freedoms I have living on the road. I walked the fields with farmers whose hands were so thick with callouses that my hands were like flower petals next to theirs. I have spent time with border guards dreaming of distant lands, even though the majority of them had never crossed that thin line separating their country from the next. The more people I met, the more I started to see how similar we all are. We all walk under the same sun and each of us is burdened with our own curses and lifted by our own blessings. In the end, our happiness is not a function of our material possessions.

The more I reflected on my life in the last decade, the more I saw that I don’t have a place where I live, I don’t have a home. I am a person without a permanent place of residence. My home is where I decide is home for now. Realizing that, I smiled. I have nowhere to rush to when I wait for my cars, or planes, or trains, for I have arrived, I am home already. Here is my home. And maybe for others I am BOMZh; I have no place where I live, I have no roots to hold me in place, but in a strange way I am home, every day; it’s just that my home is the whole planet, not just a tiny space others can pinpoint on a map.