Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Adventure in Afghanistan - slumdog travels east

Afghanistan has never been a land for tourists. Thus Oxford-Johnny and myself only got a kind of transit visa with a 14-day-limit.

We arrived and left Herat, near the Iranian border and continued to push forward to Kandahar, right in the middle of this strange country. We were in a hurry because 14 days is not much when hitchhiking, meaning www waiting, waiting, waiting. Here the story begins.

At that time, Kandahar was somehow an American zone of influence. Thus the city had a slight Western tinge to it, shops , restaurants with chairs and selling beer, things like that. Thus, instead of camping somewhere, we went to a cheap hotel and stayed there.

Next day we set out in the morning to hit the road. You don't start to hitchhike in the middle of a town and it took us quite a long time with our heavy backpack to reach the outskirts of Kandahar and the road leading to Kabul.

Road is just of way of talking. It was a large dirt path with wide and deep potholes everywhere. So we were squatting by the roadside, waiting for a car. Since Turkey, we never met many cars or lorries but those we saw invariably stopped.

Noon was coming and going, the heat was getting severe but no car, no lorry, no truck, nothing. At about three in the afternoon I got upset and desperate. "Johnny", I said to my pal, "we have to do something, otherwise we'll stay here for all eternity".

In a Third World Country, the only authority worthwhile is the police. So we trudged back to town and went straight to the Kandahar Police Headquarters. Johnny did most of the talking "take us to your leader", he told the cop in rags sporting a gleaming rifle in front of the entry door.

Inside, we explained our problem. "You see, Sir, we just can't find the British and German embassy! We must go there to ask for money. And we know there is one here in Kabul but nobody could show us the way". Naturally, the police officer told us "this is Kandahar, not Kabul" and then "In Kandahar, no embassy".

We explained in length that we thought we were already in Kabul and that we must go there in order to fetch our money. "What can you do for us? Please help us".

And he did. First, he walked us to the hotel where we stayed the previous night and ordered the manager to put up with us till next morning. The hotel manager was disgusted. He had to serve us food for free by order of police. First thing he did was to empty the room completely to show us who is the master of the premises.

We were used to rough it. Having a good meal under our belts we spread our sleeping bags and slept soundly till next morning waiting for our free breakfast. At around noon, the police officer came back and took us to the the bus station for a free trip to Kabul.

We thanked him effusively, he did a great job on us two leeches. At the bus station, we were to ride to Kabul in two buses. I suppose he did not want to put too much strain on the drivers who were probably the owners and who were under order to ferry us to Kabul for free.

The bus started around 5 pm because of the intense heat during day time. Sitting on the roof of the bus, the wind dried up my face in no time. I really felt my skin turning into parchment. Next to me were sitting some Afghanis about my age. "Want some snap". I said no because the stuff smelled foul and was green. Till now, I don't know what "snap" is. It had a smell like synthetic shit, really, no kidding. Was it dope?

Eventually, the bus stopped somewhere near a shag-like restaurant. For me there was another problem. I was hungry like everybody else. But my free ride hinged on the fact that I had no money.

The idea to have very little money, something like the minimum does not sound convincing in a desperately poor country like this one. Furthermore, lots of the passengers were carrying some kind of weapon with them. So I stayed mum near the bus waiting for things to happen (or not).

Then some nice and friendly people people invited me into the restaurant. Sure, I was thankful but very much annoyed and uneasy, too. Annoyed with myself and I wowed to avoid such ambiguous situations in the future.

The bus ride was an adventure in itself. The cooling system of the motor had sprung a leak and fresh water had to be added all the time. Thus the motor slave* sat or better straddled the motor servicing it during the ride with a iron watering can, spilling more than half of the precious stuff.

We drove through the night, desert country. Never seen a sky like that, clean deep blue, the Milky Way clearly visible!

We arrived in Kabul around noon. A bit shaky, I felt every bone inside and was hungry, too . Early in the morning we had a second stop for ritual prayer washing and breakfast. But I refused to be invited again pretending to have stomach trouble.

*Motor slave: I met them again and again in Iran and Afghanistan when I managed to pick up a truck. Normally, these young men of about my age were always clad in greasy rags and made the trip sitting somewhere behind and when off duty outside on the running board. They had to do all the dirty work and when we were eating with the driver he was never invited to join us.