G-string journey from Kabul to Cork

Why a former Markham woman is driving her beloved VW Bug from Afghanistan to Ireland (and why it's a 'G-string' journey)

The original Volkswagen Beetle is an enduring popular icon guaranteed to turn a few heads. When Sheilagh Henry drives her 1969 VW bug, Humpty, on the dusty streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, everyone looks.

Not only because a VW Beetle, once the favourite choice of suicide bombers, is a very rare sight in Kabul, but because it was illegal for women to drive in Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban.

Henry has a loftier goal than simply chalking one up for female equality in this male-dominated society: she plans to drive the old Beetle from Afghanistan all the way to County Cork, Ireland.

If all goes according to plan, Henry; her husband, Seamus, and Humpty, the bug, will set out from Kabul this July and travel 11,800 kilometres across 17 countries on their Kabul-to-Cork adventure.

Originally from Markham, Henry left home at 17 to backpack around the world.

She inherited her wanderlust from her mother, who ?always had us in a tent trailer, on a plane, or in the back of the car.?

Armed with a degree in international studies, Henry turned that passion into a vocation, a career in humanitarian and development work. She has travelled the globe, drawn by challenging environments and the desire to help people in need.

In 2001, Henry met Seamus Clancy. They worked together in Indonesia, as part of the tsunami response effort, and in Ethiopia and Angola.

When Clancy had to return to Ireland, Henry followed, with the intention of settling down there.

They got married in 2007.

Unable to find suitable employment, Henry accepted a one-year contract in Afghanistan.

?This work is my passion. I was to head up the co-ordination of humanitarian efforts for the Department of Peace Keeping for the Northern Region. That year saw flooding, avalanches, drought and war.?

When Henry decided to stay, Clancy made the difficult decision to give up his blue-chip corporate job in Ireland and join her.

He now works as a chief of party with The Asia Foundation, where he oversees a
fund that provides financial assistance to governors, helping them build their communities.

Having lived in some of the world’s most dangerous regions for more than 20 years, Henry faced her biggest challenge when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease.

?It’s a debilitating digestive disease under the best of circumstances; it’s mind-blowing in a warzone,? she says. ?I was informed by every doctor that I needed to leave Afghanistan immediately in order to undertake treatment, which included steroids and immuno-suppressants. I decided, instead, to stay and fight the so-called disease in my own way.?

That meant adhering to a special diet, not an easy task in one of the most remote places on Earth. Her diet consisted of a mixture of healthy carbohydrates and an adapted version of the Wakhan Menu, the traditional diet of the indigenous people who live in the Pamir Mountains in northeastern Afghanistan.

Henry’s reason for embarking on such a journey is twofold: not only does it support women’s right to drive, but she’s hoping it will create an awareness of the abysmal state of Afghanistan’s healthcare.

Henry will write about her adventures on her blog, ?G-String Journey.?

(The name is a tongue-and-cheek nod to the limitations imposed on her by her disease, which she feared would prevent her from ever wearing a G-string again.)

Instead, she’s living life to its fullest and embarking on the challenging trip, on which, she says, she ?has every intention of wearing my G-string, without a bathroom in sight.?

The VW Beetle has its own story. When Clancy needed a car, he recalled his wife’s lifelong fascination with Beetles, and set out, with an Afghan colleague, to find one. It wasn’t easy, but after several days, he acquired the car and parked it in front of their compound.

When Henry arrived home, she called her husband out to look at the bug.

?Isn’t it the coolest car ever?? she asked.

?I know, that’s why I bought it,? he replied.

Humpty, the bug, needed work.

?The car certainly has its quirks,? says Henry. ?It has an unforgiving gearbox that I am only now getting used to, but still manage to stall too frequently. There is a wire where there should be the lever for the gas tank, a hole instead of a radio, carpets instead of door panels, decaying trim, and a horn that falls into the trunk if you get too zealous.

?But we love it!?

The previous owner not only replaced the VW logo with a Toyota badge, he covered the inside panels with Afghan carpet and laminated pictures of Bollywood actresses.

Realizing they needed help transforming the car, the couple approached RMA Group in Kabul, and Emilio’s Beetles in Ireland. After bringing a ?suitcase or two? of parts back from Ireland, the team at RMA managed to put Humpty together again.

More than a decade has passed since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Although a few brave women have mustered up the courage to become licensed drivers, it’s not yet a widely accepted practice and a female driver remains a rare sight.

There remains some prejudice and resistance, and women drivers risk being subjected to verbal, or even physical, abuse. Although it’s not forbidden under Islamic law, women must cover their hair with a hijab when they get behind the wheel of a car.

Henry acknowledges the very real risks of driving in Kabul, and never travels alone. ?The Bug draws attention, which draws attention to me,? she says.

One way to avoid problems is to ensure the car is in good running order; breaking down in such a eye-catching vehicle quickly draws a crowd.

?On the road, many women in full burka were peering at me from the backs of taxis and the backseats of cars,? says Henry. ?As I couldn’t see their faces, I couldn’t read any expressions, but the body language said it all.

?Normally demure women were sitting upright, and, if inside, were almost plastered to the window. I have no idea if they were astonished or excited, but they were more animated than I have ever seen burka-clad women in taxis.?

Henry has yet to run into any problems, and police officers she has encountered have all been friendly.

She recalls her first fender-bender in the Bug, which happened in the middle of Kabul, jamming up traffic and drawing throngs of onlookers.

?The traffic cop came over. First, he stared at me. Normally, this would be a perfect opportunity, a foreigner in an accident, for him to demand money,? she says. ?As he contemplated this option, a large crowd appeared. This is normal. Any incident anywhere in Afghanistan, even in the most remote places, will attract every person within a certain radius, like pins in a pinbox to a magnet.?

Instead, the officer controlled the crowd and directed the other driver on how to rock his van back and forth to free it from the Beetle’s bumper.

?He was wonderful,? says Henry.

The crowd of onlookers pitched in to unhook the two vehicles.

The Beetle will need to be in good repair to tackle the trip to Ireland, the first leg of which includes the 12,723-foot Salang Pass over the Hindu Kush.

Henry and Clancy gathered spare parts and armed themselves with the knowledge they’ll need when they have to perform the inevitable repairs.

Obtaining the various permits required has been a logistical nightmare that couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of friends and the liberal use of payments made to the right people.

The two have met obstacles head-on as their departure date approaches.

Their final destination is the home they bought together in Cork.

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  • G-string journey from Kabul to Cork
  • G-string journey from Kabul to Cork
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