As Afghanistan fell, I was thinking about my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old traveler on the “hippy route” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it is a poor but formidable land, which foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating.
In this daily entry from 1978, walk away with me as I drive 500 miles through Afghanistan and explore the capital, Kabul.
Tuesday August 1, 1978: From Herat to Kabul
At 4:00, we woke up and it was a dead night. Nobody should have woken up at that hour but I sat there on the edge of my bed. We had watermelon and we boarded the Qadri bus at five o’clock to Kabul.
The bus was orderly and punctual and we were on the move. The dawn was cracking when the sleepers on the sidewalks began to stir. Our noisy bus blared loudly as if it was preparing to ride the 800km waiting for us. The road was fine and we maintained a good speed, only stopping for a quick Coke all morning. The countryside was desolate and alarmingly hot. A flock of camels, a wayward nomad or a group of quiet tents, an adobe ruin that melts like a sandcastle after a wave hits it, and a solitary power line escorted the narrow, but well-paved road, built by the United States and the Soviet Union. across the desert of Afghanistan. It wasn’t really a scenic trip, but I gained an appreciation for the vastness of this country of 10 million people by the time the 14-hour trip was over.
We had one short lunch stop where Jane Fanta and I had some peanuts and I took my zoom lens and then we raced. This was the greatest trip. Our driver really wanted to keep a good pace. The countryside hasn’t changed all day. The same lazy, goofy camels and sleepy gray-brown mud castle towns continued to pass with the glaring dirt mountains in the background. We stopped three times to pray to Mecca in the afternoon, and when it got dark we entered Kabul. Jen wasn’t feeling well, so we took a taxi to the touristy “chicken street” and found the best hotel we could – it’s not very nice, but OK, the Sina Hotel.
Jane went straight to sleep over a lousy dinner with a friendly student from Philadelphia who was here to study the language. I am spoiled after the wonderful Herat Hotel.
Well, I’m in Kabul. Imagine that – very close to my dream – the Khyber Pass and India. I think I’m more than halfway around the world from Seattle. I’ll have to check the globe. I hope Jane does better – and I’m still fine – in the morning.
Wednesday August 2, 1978: Kabul
It is wrong to go to bed without a watch. I slept well but woke up very early. Elgin was in a very sad state so he just stayed in bed. For breakfast, I had a watermelon, a large carrot, two boiled eggs, and tea on the Sina’s courtyard. I relaxed from the start today because I knew we had two days in Kabul and there wasn’t much to get excited about. I spoke with a German girl who was just recovering from an eight-day bout with “Tehran Belly” and wanted to go home. Home is a very nice idea when you travel to India. It’s more heavenly when you’re sick.
Coming to work, I walked to the Pakistan Bus Company and got tickets to cross the Khyber Pass into Pakistan on Friday morning. Then, with several very insistently shoe-shining boys, I walked into the Pakistani embassy and was glad to learn that Americans do not need visas to travel through Pakistan. We are set. Wow – Khyber Pass, Pakistan, then to India!
Upon returning to the hotel, I checked on Jane. He was feeling very stiff. I brought him a special magic tea and two hard-boiled eggs and paused for a while. He tended to fast and sleep.
It was so hot now while I was planning to cover Kabul, what an unenviable task. I had no map or information. I really can’t head to this tricky capital. The city resembles a giant village stretched along several valleys clustered together. Unfortunately, it seems to like its dry river, which is very little water with a wide and rocky bed. It was hot and dusty, shade was scarce, and I felt too obvious to be alone in my pants. However, I walked and wandered covering a large part of Kabul.
I walked through some lively parts, searched in vain for the tourist information place, and took a taxi to the Kabul Museum. It was a long journey and he fiercely resisted the 40 Afghanis I paid for. He wanted 60. I thought 40 was very fair, and in the end, just to lose him, I paid 50. Then I found out that the museum I had come to see was closed. Feeling frustrated and frustrated with the people who bothered and gathered around me, I jumped on a crowded bus and rode it to the end where I wanted to be. This was a busy place. The only real city in Afghanistan has a good number of big buildings and luxury institutes. But tribal chaos permeates everything. Around a modern department store, there are old men carrying donkeys of tomatoes, little girls selling little limes, and heaps of watermelons with a man sitting on top as he sleeps smoking weed.
I checked into a fancy hotel and sat in the cool bar sipping a cola and eating a nice girl’s bread, then climbed to the top of an “Afghan shop”, the closest thing to a western department store, and found a nice restaurant with a nice view of ugly Kabul.
An old man made me sit with him and said, “I am Professor So-and-so. What is your name and nickname?” He was very excited to have a meal with an American but I’m afraid I wasn’t really in the right mood and wasn’t too gossip. He told me that he would never forget his meal with “Mr. Rick.” I taught him the do-ri-li scale and what a radish is. That was the only thing that fascinated me about my plate. He left and I finished my meal under the silent eyes of the other diners and headed home.
Evidence of the recent revolution is everywhere. Our bus is checked (I think) upon entering Kabul, copies of the headlines are posted on Change Day, there is an 11:00 curfew and soldiers are everywhere with bayonets. On the street I saw what was left of a tank, abandoned to pieces and left as a reminder that the old order was dead.
Later, we entered the cozy little Sina’s courtyard for a light dinner. I worked on honeydew melons, we both had boiled eggs and tea. Jin drank some of Senna’s Sick Man’s tea. The rest of the evening was lazy and boring. I wasn’t looking forward to another day in Kabul but there was no previous bus and this would be better for Jane.
Thursday 3 August 1978: Kabul
Today was malaria pill day and the end of our third week on the road. We were on India’s doorstep, most of our work was behind us, and most adventures awaited us. Our health was poor at best, but both of us were adamant that nothing would stop us now. I swallowed my super vitamin with zinc pill with black tea and ate toast and eggs before going out for a walk. I didn’t have big plans for the day – just to pass the time and enjoy myself.
I walked down “chicken street”, Afghanistan’s high tourist pressure point, oblivious to the countless “come to my store, just look” and realizing that out of all the rubbish everyone was trying to see, nothing really was needed.
I went to the American Center to read a little and escape the afternoon sun and then got Jane to join me. That was the first time he’d been out of the hotel in about two days. We just relaxed and read the old news. Time magazine’s latest has been censored by the new government here. They censor any issue of articles related to the Soviet Union. That left us old news to read. It’s completely different, but it’s better than nothing. Reading American magazines on the road is like going to an American movie on the road – it brings you home as long as you immerse yourself in it.
After lying around the hotel for a while, I put on Jane’s loose white Afghan pants, grabbed my camera, and went to the edge of town. It’s nice that you don’t know or care where you’re going. I just rode any old bus, paid one Afghani, and rode it as long as I wanted – which was the end of the line. The bus driver invited me for tea, I agreed, and the gang gathered around her to stare. Oh boy, I must be a weird looking guy for these people – they can stare endlessly. Last night I wrote a poem called “Afghan Eyes” about a little girl who stared at me for five hours on our bus ride from Herat.
I put on my zoom lens and walked around a group of tents where an entire community lives. It’s really a pity that they were camera shy. I was able to find a lot of Afghans, however, who were dying to be photographed and I did my best to accommodate them. I hopped back on the bus, and was soon back in the world of “chicken street” tourism.
Jin got tired of being locked up and finally had an appetite. I had a little trouble with bowel secretion, and after making several alternate turns on the toilet, we slowly walked down the street to find dinner.
Steakhouse caught my eye when we first came to Kabul, and now we’re going to give it a try. I wasn’t counting on anything fancy – just wishing. In fact, I got a very good dinner of steak and vegetables for under $1, with soup and a bowl of tea. It hit both of our sites nicely. After the meal, we changed a little money – we got rid of our Iranian and Turkish money and got 50 Pakistani rupees.
We felt better after that good meal and went home. I spent the evening in the yard catching up on this magazine, fixing a belt on my bag, and enjoying tea and a Fleetwood Mac bar. It would be very good to be on the move again tomorrow.
Being so rich (even if I am a humble traveler) and so white in this poor, struggling corner of our world puts me in a strange predicament as a traveler that I wish I could change. It’s kinda sad, but today I realized that I tend to build a wall between myself and any potential friends in this extra-European part of the world. In Europe I like to talk to people and make friends. This is the main reason for my trips there, but something is on the way. I think a lot of it is doubt, lack of understanding, and fatigue. Also, it seems that most of the people I meet here who speak English, only speak it to make money from the tourist. I wish I could speak the local language, but I don’t.
(This is entry #4 in a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as the 23-year-old myself travels from Kabul through the fabled Khyber Pass into Pakistan.)