Back to the Land

Jun 7, 2007 21:26 UTC

Before I joined Reuters I worked in Africa for a while, where I developed a strong sense of how geography shapes civilisation. The quality of land, access to water, distance from markets — all these can sow the seeds of conflict. Nowhere is a better example of this than Afghanistan, and I often try to throw a little geography lesson into my stories.

Afghanistan, and Helmand Province in particular, has some of the most extreme geography on the planet, and a quick helicopter flight over the area, like we had this morning, tells quite a tale.

The desert and mountains are utterly incapable of sustaining life. Except for the Helmand River itself and its scattered mountain tributaries, there is simply no water. All along the
river is an intensely fertile, heavily populated crescent where centuries ago the local Pashtun tribes carved immense networks of irrigation canals. Truly, these are wonders of engineering. The canals need to be constantly maintained in order to make the land arable, which is backbreaking and expensive labour. That means most people have access only to very small plots of usable land, and to survive they need to grow the crop that produces
the most value out of the smallest possible plots. That, of course, is opium. Other crops may be cheaper or easier to grow, and many people say they are opposed to opium on principle. But few other crops can produce enough income to feed a large family with only a tiny plot of fertile land.   soldiers2.jpg

The international community and the Afghan government, of course, are officially opposed to the opium trade, which is one of the why many locals, rightly or wrongly, have sought the protection of the Taliban. Lately the British have made a point of telling the locals that they are not here to interfere with the opium crop. But American contractors are helping to train an eradication force, and the signals from NATO are as loud as they are mixed. Winning back the trust of people who think you have come to destroy their livelihood will be hard, slow work.

I have just two acres of land and 20 people to feed. I have to grow poppies. Otherwise, I cannot feed my family! one of the elders shouted at the meeting I attended today. NATO, and the Afghan government it supports, have yet to give a simple answer.

Back in Bastion

Jun 7, 2007 14:58 UTC

    We have hit the ground running. No sooner were we
comfortable in Kabul then we were whisked off in the back of a
Hercules cargo plane to Camp Bastion, the tented camp for
British troops in southern Afghanistans poetically-named Desert
of Death of Helmand province. The camp, as a British sergeant
once reminded me, is not far from where an entire British
brigade was wiped out in the Afghan wars of the 19th century.
The Baluchi and Pashtun tribesmen who first called it the Desert
of Death named it well: it is about as forbidding a landscape as
Ive seen anywhere. Flat and dry as the moon, covered in pebbles
and grey dust like talcum powder. Blisteringly hot in the summer
and (as I learned last December) freezing cold in winter.

    Camp Bastion was set up just a little over a year ago and
has grown rapidly. The British are in the process of nearly
doubling its size. It is still quite Spartan when compared to
the luxurious digs on the big American airbase in nearby
Kandahar. Parts of it still smell a bit of sewage. But its a
whole lot nicer than it was a year ago. They have added a very
nice bar, with lots of TVs (But no booze. Unlike the American
military, British forces allow drinking, but not at frontline
posts like Bastion.) They have at last brought in a railway
box-car containing what promises to be Helmand Provinces first
Pisoldierszza Hut, but its not open yet.                                                           





 Which meant that when we arrived after dark we were stuck on
British Army rations. I had the infamous biscuits, brown with
chilli beef paste, every bit as yummy as it sounds.

In Kabul nothing changes, everything is changing

Jun 6, 2007 11:06 UTC

Welcome to the blog of our reporting trip to southern Afghanistan. I’ll be your host, Peter Graff. I’m the Reuters London defence correspondent. This is my sixth trip to Afghanistan since 2001.

I’m travelling with Stuart McDill — a Reuters TV cameraman trying to shake off a bout of flu — and Ahmad Masood, a photographer from our Kabul bureau.

The Kabul bureau is where I am sitting now. It’s a remarkably pleasant little villa around the corner from a whole bunch of embassies in what has always been an expensive part of town.

From green to black at G8

Jun 5, 2007 18:35 UTC

The U.N.’s top environment official flourished a bright green tie to help celebrate World Environment Day.

“We’re breaking through,” declared Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme, about what he sees as growing impetus towards a global deal to fight climate change after years of frustrations.

Fewer and fewer people doubt that human activities, led by burning fossil fuels, are heating the planet, he told Reuters over a cup of coffee in an Oslo hotel.

Home Chicago – journeys end after 2,500 miles

May 25, 2007 20:24 UTC

Twelve days and more than 2,500 miles ago we left Santa Monica, California, bound for Chicago along old Route 66. That journey ended today as weve arrived at our destination.

We just had lunch with our boss (Midwest Bureau Chief Peter Bohan, upper right) at Lou Mitchells, the last of our trip.
This famous diner almost right at the eastern end of Americas Main Street and is renowned as a starting point for taking Route 66 westward almost everyone else goes west.

Linda Carnes, one of the waitresses here, said to say hello. She said the last time they put me in the paper, I got hate mail.

One piece of advice for the Dixie Truckers Home

May 25, 2007 20:00 UTC

Dixie3.jpgThe Dixie Truckers Home in McLean, Illinois, off Interstate 55 and alongside what used to be Route 66, may not be the first American truckstop. But it’s definitely one of the oldest — and one of the most revered among aficionados of the old cross-country highway.

Opened in 1928, just two years after Route 66, the Dixie Truckers Home survived the federal highway’s decommissioning in the early 1980s and continues to serve as a home away from home for long-haul truckers and other road warriors and travelers.

If there’s a downside, it’s this: The original owners sold the Dixie a few years back and the new owners seem more interested in making the place a comfortable one for modern travelers than in preserving the old ambience (though they have opened up a Route 66 memorabilia room.)

Breezy stroll on Route 66s most famous bridge

May 25, 2007 19:36 UTC


This bridge was once the point at which Route 66 crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Now there is a picnic table near the middle and the closest you can get to being run over is by a short-sighted cyclist.

This is the Chain of Rocks Bridge named for a seven-mile stretch of rocks under the water stretching north of St. Louis which once carried cars and trucks over the river on their way east or west.

Built in 1929 as a toll bridge, it is roughly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) in length and has a 22-degree in the middle of the river to enable navigation. From the late 1930s until the completion of the New Chain of Rocks Bridge just a little further upriver for Interstate 270, this bridge carried all Route 66 traffic.

Dark side of Route 66 and the open road

May 25, 2007 19:26 UTC

As the Route 66 Team traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago, celebrating Route 66 and the allure of the open road, we drove past a lot of reminders of the carnage that automobile travel entails.

Yeah, we’re talking roadkill.

Here’s a handful of the poor critters we came across during our the 2,500-mile journey.

Signs of life returning to Times Beach

May 25, 2007 19:08 UTC

You won’t find Times Beach on any up-to-date map of Missouri. Atimesbeach5.jpgnd all referenTimesBeach1.jpgces to it have been taken off signs on Interstate 44, the major east-west highway that replaced old Route 66 in this part of the country.

But 25 years ago, Times Beach, located about 25 miles west of St. Louis, was Missouri’s best known — the right word is notorious — city after the waters of the nearby Meramec River rose more than 20 feet above flood level, inundating homes to near ceiling level and spreading an oil that the city had sprayed on its unpaved roads.

Unfortunately, that oil, applied to keep the dust down, wiped Times Beach off the map.

Snapshot from St. Louis: Oh yeah, thats what traffic looks like

May 25, 2007 15:53 UTC

congestion2.jpgIf like us you travel Route 66 the wrong way round the vast majority of people take the trip west for the true highway experience then once you leave Los Angeles there are no major cities until you reach St. Louis in Missouri.

And the traffic on the roads reflects that. There is nothing reminiscent of the broad, clogged highways of Los Angeles until you reach St. Louis though even then St. Louis is nowhere near as busy as Los Angeles.

It’s true that Albuquerque in New Mexico, Amarillo in Texas, plus Oklahoma City and Tulsa in Oklahoma are also on the route.