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 article from 1978, get away from me for another dreamy day in Herat, Afghanistan.
Monday, July 31, 1978: Herat
I haven’t moved for nine hours. After breakfast we took our rental bikes and started a little adventure. I felt good about having wheels. We can stop when we want, and if people get too stressed, we can make the escape clean. The breeze cooled us down and things happened at a much faster rate than when we traveled on foot.
We drove quickly through the part of town we know so well, and made our way to the old ruined minarets which we had seen as we approached Herat two days earlier. Examining this historical site, an old man let us into the mosque for 10 Afghans and we saw the tomb of an old Afghan king.
Now we have seen the great historical site and stopped to visit some striving species in the shade. We had a nice chat and learned something about the culture and language. We also learned from our friend that we were spending a lot of money on just about everything.
As I happily landed on the road, I took a series of great photos. This is the photographer moment you have been waiting for. I have men throwing watermelons, girls of color perching on rails, lazy teens slacking off in warm wagons, and plenty of little tidbits about Afghan life. People are really friendly and proud, and they shake hands with me firmly and equally. I’ve had one small fruit, but overall, this is one of the friendliest I’ve been to. Any woman who ventures into the streets and has not yet reached puberty is completely covered up and seen only through a small mesh in the cloth that covers their faces.
We were determined to pedal in one direction until we got to the edge of town. After wetting our whistles with sprite, we made our way down the crowded, dusty street until the town became a mud village like the ones I’ve seen in Egypt and Morocco. Taking the side roads, we found ourselves surrounded by a new and different world. The quiet, brown mud streets became high, long and narrow ramparts. The walls were occasionally broken by the small shops and rustic wooden doors. Young and old sat as if waiting for a stranger on a bicycle. I’m sure we were a pretty rare sight for them. I wonder if they enjoyed our presence or if we were violating their peace.
I’ve tried different greetings from saluting to waving a child, to “kiss the hand and put it to the heart” that religious-looking people give us. This one gets great results. I had a pocket full of candy for gifts and I feel better giving that than giving money.
As you know, everyone in this happy society seemed satisfied and I saw no hunger and very few hard beggars. They have modest needs for their meager productivity and things seem to be going well and there is more than enough tea, cannabis and watermelon for everyone.
We just walked around until we were full and realized this was hard, hot work. Then, on the way back, we stopped at a haystack that had been romantically crushed by a couple of oxen pulling a wooden straw-chewing device. What a dreamy tourism and photo opportunity! I took the opportunity to drive the car and had an unforgettable explosion. I sat on the chew, driving the oxen around and around and thinking the peasants got as big a kick out of me as I got out of them and their hay. This is optimal.
We got our bikes back 2 hours later and paid for each one. We picked up a watermelon and went to our hotel. Hot and happy, we stopped by the pool, stripped off our underwear and took a dip in the cold. Instant refreshment! Fabulous! What a wonderful day we are enjoying! We walked around, took a few dips and some good pictures and thought ‘Oh my God – that’s what the vacation is supposed to be’. We went down to the room, went out for a while and went down to lunch. Good sleep, good food and vitamins were my formula for the rest of this trip to be fun and successful. I don’t think I can go wrong with this recipe, but we’ll have to wait and see, shall we?
After some rest and some cold rain, the sun was a little lower in the sky and we went outside. While I was mired in a bargaining match with a cute mink guy I had fallen in love with, Martin passed the Istanbul-Tehran bus, chatted, and highly recommended the endless bazaar. We said we’re headed there.
I turned on my zoom lens and got such a thrill when zooming in on these awesome guys. I can’t wait to see my photos. We switched or melted from one scene to another enjoying all the pictures of the bazaar. What a sensory experience. We’d go from making waterpipes to markets or neighborhoods, to tinsmiths and weavers and bead-makers and bead-stringers, people working in storms, people sharpening knives on foot-operated reiki wheels, chain-linkers, and nail-benders. Everything was done by hand. Old and young have worked hard at the same menial task all day – all of life. I will never again complain about a long day of my work – teaching piano lessons.
Every store was about five yards away and every five yards was a new sight – a new glimpse into Afghan life. Some things we couldn’t even understand. At one point the little kids weren’t going to give up on asking for “tipping” (gifts of money) and we had to plunge into a huge mosque as a policeman chased after them and we had to take off our shoes and pay him something to check this place out. It was awesome.
Now we were exhausted. At the hotel we went swimming and a strange dog pulled my glasses out of my bag and the lens fell off. I was worried but it came back in – looks as good as new. I dread the thought of my glasses breaking and having to wear the high school horns I brought as a spare.
In the room we tried more hash and went out to mingle. The mixing was slightly intensified. Little things, like a guy weighing tomatoes, were especially tickling me and I was more receptive to potential pests and willing to roam a little more freely. I didn’t know it was because of cannabis or because I’m in a very good mood.
We hopped in a funny mini three wheeler taxi which looked like a portable ice cream truck to ride to another part of town and it really got into some exciting photography. Existing light themes and lantern light. It made guys pose exactly how I like them. I would even like to push my chin up a bit or get close to the lantern. It could be exceptional, or it might not be, but my subject and I had an unforgettable time trying.
We walked around some more and then hopped on a fancy two-wheeled horse-drawn taxi. We were charging around town like we were in a rickshaw, singing really entertaining songs, or at least entertaining, our chauffeur. We surprised him with ten self-confident Afghans who barely had time to get up when we jumped. These tourists were not taken for a walk except on horseback. You decide that if you try to agree to the price before boarding, they know you’re new to the game and they’ll cheat you. If you go ahead and say “Home James” and pay them what you think is reasonable, you’ll be fine.
On the way home, I bought Goody for five small afghanis (1 cent). Then we stopped to check on my friend with a mink. I knew I was going to find myself negotiating too hard again and that’s what happened. This was my third time in his shop and I knew if I came home without this mink, I would kick myself. I loved it just as much as I loved my old “ringworm” (a cat I befriended and brought home in second grade—which gave me ringworm). I finally went for 460 afghans ($12) and came out with amazing skin.
Now we were hungry and our hotel was waiting. We live in a fantasy. We sat where the waiters know us, we ordered a hearty meat meal with tea and watermelon. We were drinking water and hard stools, so we had more of that. I feel very good. I’m in control and whatever I want, I can have it. Fabulous.
In the room, I took a long shower, cleaned my bag, enjoyed small souvenirs, and hit the bag. I couldn’t help wondering how cockroaches got their names. (Maybe I’m high after all).
People enjoy the same things all over the world. The old janitor ignored my plea for more toilet paper and said dreamily, “Look, right?” We both stood motionless on the hotel roof watching the torch-laden chariots rushing in as the sun went down behind the distant mountain.
We were sitting and talking with some hardworking Afghans in a park when someone asked, “Aren’t you traveling with your women?” I said my girlfriend was at home and he replied, “Oh, that’s so hard—I could never do that.” I feel like I’ve been “on the road” for a long time now.
(This is Journal Entry #3 in a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as the 23-year-old rides 500 miles through Afghanistan and explores the capital, Kabul.)