With Oktoberfest celebrations taking place around every corner, and each bar promoting their own version of a unique “drinking experience,” I can’t help but think of the best bar adventure I ever enjoyed.
Prior to 9/11 and the autocratic rule of the Taliban, Kabul was Afghanistan’s most happening city. But after the attacks, the Taliban locked it down. They set up their headquarters in the once posh and thriving Hotel Ariana. It’s been reported that as U.S. Special Forces were kicking down the front doors of the Ariana, the Taliban honchos were scurrying out the back. A good amount of intelligence was discovered in the former Taliban stronghold, and exploited to America’s benefit. After the smoke settled, and the fight continued into the mountains and borders of Afghanistan, the U.S. Intel community made the Hotel Ariana their own headquarters. And in typical American fashion, the hotel’s original bar was once again opened, and appropriately, (and hopefully offensively to the enemy) christened, “Hotel Ariana Tali-Bar.”
The Tali-Bar was a place of solemn reflection and camaraderie. The walls were lined with the spoils of war and handwritten notes left by any weary servicemen, spook or lawman passing through Kabul en route to their assigned mission. The notes, memorialized in permanent marker, included moving epitaphs, poems and a few bawdy and giddy limericks. There were some letters from home pinned to the walls — a couple were hard to read with a dry eye. There were Russian rifles, expended military hardware and even a part of a helicopter all nailed to the walls and ceilings. An RPG hung nonchalantly over the door. Having seen that elongated, deadly weapon in so many movies and photographs over the years, it never crossed my mind then, that in a few weeks I would be shooting one in the mountains near the Khyber Pass.
There was a display above the bar, where, because of the solemnity of it, cameras were not allowed. In an adjoining room, cards and pool were played nightly, and black market Cubans were smoked by men who were seemingly born with poker faces. At any given time, you could bump into someone from the CIA, FBI, DEA or U.S. Special Ops, along with the occasional Brit SAS operator. To be sure, the atmosphere was testosterone laden, but no one ever got out of line. If this bar had been packed up and moved stateside, it would be reminiscent of the old Trader Joe’s in Pensacola. The Trader Joe’s I knew as a young Ensign: beers, shots and black and white signed photographs of Alan Shepherd, Pappy Boyington, the Blue Angels and Chuck Yeager haphazardly pinned on the bulkheads.
In the spring of 2005, I was fortunate enough to spend a night in the Tali-Bar. I didn’t imbibe too much; it was my first night in-country, and I was still in a bit of shock. After nearly 72 hours of airports, international flights, and a layover in Tashkent, I found myself in the middle of a country that resembled pictures of the Moon that I had seen in magazines as a youngster. A country ravished by war for hundreds of years. A country mired in its own sinking, stinking waste, unable to pull itself out of the vortex of hate and ignorance it had created for itself. The safe confines of home were literally thousands of miles away…I wasn’t in Naperville anymore, Dorothy.
I downed a few Foster’s and made some small talk with hard men that revealed nothing of their true purpose there. I was in awe that night. I took in the sights and sounds of a war zone tavern. The next morning I got my marching orders – Jalalabad. I was on the first C-130 out. I never again stepped foot in the Tali-Bar, much to my regret. But for a bar guy like myself, it was a Mt. Everest-Tour de France-Super Bowl drinking establishment experience of a lifetime. I still think about it quite often….and reflect upon its meaning.