Penny Travis is determined to be all she can be. But she's not joining the Army. On Sat. Aug. 22, she will board a plane for Afghanistan where she will spend the next 10 months teaching at the American University in Kabul. Whether she changes the world — or maybe a few lives — remains to be seen. There is no doubt that she will be changed when she comes home.
"This is something I have been thinking about doing for years," she told me last week. "The thing that finally convinced me it was time to stop thinking about it and to do it was seeing the Arzu carpets last spring."
To the uninitiated, Arzu, Inc., (arzurugs.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty in Afghanistan by giving Afghan women a fair market price for their hand-crafted rugs and providing them with education, healthcare, and community infrastructure improvements.
Travis had no desire to get into the carpet business, but she did have something she wanted to share. After seeing an exhibit of Arzu rugs in Charleston, she returned to her Folly Beach home, went online, found a job opening at the American University, and started e-mailing. By the end of May, she had a contract to teach biology and chemistry to Afghan undergraduates. It should be a pretty comfortable fit for Travis, a doctor of epidemiology who has been teaching chemistry at Trident Tech for the past 15 years.
Travis has picked an interesting time to go to this ancient and mountainous land in southern Asia. If you haven't read a newspaper in the past eight years, the U.S. Marines are fighting to throw out the old Taliban regime, which harbored Al-Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban is still entrenched, and some 29,000 Marines are fighting almost daily in the southeastern Helmand province. July was the bloodiest month for American troops since the first days of the war.
Complicating matters is the fact that Afghanistan will hold national elections on Aug. 20. President Hamid Karzai is running for reelection against some 40 challengers, in what looks to be a free-for-all, with no one likely to take an outright majority of the vote in the first round. The Taliban is the wild card in this deck, urging its supporters to boycott the election and pledging to disrupt voting in those regions of the country it controls.
Welcome to Afghanistan, Ms. Travis.
But Travis is optimistic. First, she points out, Afghanistan is a democracy today — if only marginally so. And two of the numerous presidential candidates are women.
"I'm rather impressed with that kind of courage," she told me. "This could not have happened a few years ago."
Another sign of progress is that 20 percent of the students at American University are women and all students have computers and cell phones. In some ways, Travis said, Afghanistan is a modern democracy holding a modern election, even as pack mules carry ballots into some of the more remote and mountainous parts of the country.
Travis has been preparing for this adventure for years, studying the Arabic language and Islamic culture. The Afghans speak Pashtun, but it is written in Arabic script, and she says that will give her a head start in learning the language. As for Islamic culture, she will keep her hair covered when she is out in public.
Travis is aware of the potential danger and so are her hosts. Kabul is protected by a large international force, and all hotels have security measures in place. She will stay in a walled compound, live in a guest house, and travel by van to approved restaurants and bars. Yes, she will be allowed her beer — one of her few indulgences — in these secure and selected establishments for Westerners, but she will never forget where she is.
Travis said she hopes to get out of Kabul and explore the local flora and fauna of the region's Hindu Kush mountains. "I just hope I don't find palmetto bugs as big as squirrels," she said.
Palmetto bugs are only one of the things that will be on her mind when she is abroad. Travis follows state and local politics passionately and will vote by absentee ballot while she is out of the country.
"I don't want to leave it to the nut cases," she said of the state political scene. "And there are so many of them. God, this is an awful state."
Travis hopes that a few months in Afghanistan might change her attitude about South Carolina. "When I come back and see what goes on here, maybe it won't seem so outrageous. I hope so. Maybe Afghanistan will make me appreciate this place more."