With the fall of Afghanistan, I am reflecting my travel experience there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “hippie trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it is a poor yet powerful land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on devaluing.
In this 1978 journal entry, stay away from me when I travel 500 miles across Afghanistan and tour the capital city Kabul.
Tuesday, August 1, 1978: From Herat to Kabul
At 4:00, we woke up and it was dead night. At that time no one was awake but I sat on the edge of the bed. We ate a watermelon and caught the Qaderi bus in Kabul.
The bus was organized, punctual, and we were moving. People sleeping on the sidewalk were breaking the dawn as soon as it started to shake. Our overbearing bus honked loudly as if it was preparing itself for the 800-kilometer journey that was ahead. The road was good and we maintained a good speed, stopping all morning for just a quick coke. The countryside was desolate, hot, and unpredictable. A herd of camels, a stray nomadic or quiet bunch of tents, the ruins of mud bricks melting like sand castles in a wave, and the secluded power line with narrow, but wide, US and USSR-built roads. Across the deserts of Afghanistan. It wasn’t really a natural ride, but at the end of the 14-hour ride I gained an appreciation for the vastness of this country of 10 million people.
We had a short lunch stop where gin and I had a fanta and some peanuts and I used some from my zoom lens and then we ran. This was the biggest ride. Our driver actually wanted to keep a good tempo. The countryside has not changed all day. The cities of the same lazy, stupid camels and sleeping gray-brown earthen forts are lined with dirty mounds in the background. In the afternoon we had three stops to pray in Makkah and as darkness fell we entered Kabul. Jean was not feeling well so we took a cab to the tourist “Chicken Street” and found the most beautiful hotel available to us – not very nice, but okay, Sina Hotel.
Jean went straight to sleep while I had a bad dinner with a friendly student from Philadelphia who came here to study the language. I’m ruined after our great Herat Hotel.
Oh, I’m in Kabul. Imagine – very close to my dream – Khyber Pass and India. I believe I’m from Seattle more than half the world. I need to check a globe. I hope Jean is well – and I’m still well – in the morning.
Wednesday, August 2, 1978: Kabul
It is wrong to go to bed without a watch. I went to bed but got up very early. Jean was in a very miserable condition so he lay down on the bed. For breakfast I ate a watermelon, a large carrot and two boiled eggs and tea in the courtyard of the Sina Hotel. I was behind from the beginning today because I knew we had two days in Kabul and there was nothing to be excited about. I spoke to a German girl who was recovering from an eight-day battle with “Tehran Pete” and who wanted to go home. Home is a very nice thought when you are traveling to India. It’s more heavenly when you’re sick.
Going down to business, I went to a bus company in Pakistan and took a ticket to Pakistan through Khyber Pass on Friday morning. Then, with some incredibly incredibly persistent shoe-shin boys tailing me, I entered the Pakistani embassy and was glad to know that Americans do not need a visa to travel through Pakistan. We were set. Wow – Khyber Pass, Pakistan, then India!
Back at the hotel, I checked the gin. She was still feeling very rough. I brought her special magic tea and two boiled eggs and hung her for a while. His tendency was to fast and sleep.
It was so hot when I set out to cover Kabul, what an irresistible job. I had no maps or information. I really couldn’t turn to this blobby, hodgepodge capital. The city is like a giant village spread over several valleys that come together. It seems to love its sadly dried up river, which has very little water with a wide and rocky bed. It was hot and dusty, the shadows were sparse, and I felt very clear being alone and wearing my shorts. Still, I covered a good portion of Kabul on foot.
I walked through some very seedbeds, searched in vain for tourist information, and caught a taxi to the Kabul Museum. It was a long journey and he vehemently resisted the 40 afghani I gave him. He wanted 60. I thought 40 was too fair and finally, to lose him, I paid 50 bucks. Then I found out that the museum I had visited was closed. I was a little disappointed and for the people gathered around me, I got on a crowded bus and got to the end of it where I wanted to stay. It was a busy place. The only original city in Afghanistan and it had several large buildings and fancy establishments. But tribal chaos is everywhere. In the vicinity of a modern department store, old men donkeys with tomatoes, little girls selling little lime, piles of honeydew watermelons, a man sitting on top, sleeping and smoking.
I checked out a fancy hotel and sat in the cool bar sipping a coke and eating a pretty girl’s bread and then I climbed to the top of the “Afghan Store” which is the closest thing to a western department store and found a beautiful restaurant with a beautiful view of ugly Kabul .
An old man sat me down next to him and said, “I am Professor So-and-so. What’s your name and reputation? “He was excited about eating with an American but I’m afraid I wasn’t really in the right mood and I wasn’t talking much. He told me that he was” Mr. Rick “. I taught him the do-ri-me scale and what a radish. That was the only thing on my plate that stopped him. He left and I finished my meal with the silent gaze of the other diners and then I headed home.
Evidence of the recent revolution is everywhere. Upon entering Kabul our bus was checked (I guess for guns), copies of the headlines were seen posted on the day of the change, there is an 11:00 curfew and soldiers are armed with bayonets everywhere. On the street I saw what was left of a tank key, blown up in bits and left as a reminder that the old government was dead.
Later we entered our cozy little Cena Hotel courtyard for a light dinner. I worked on a honeydew watermelon, we both ate boiled eggs and tea. Jin had tea with some of Sina’s special sick people. The rest of the evening was lazy and dull. I wasn’t looking forward to another day in Kabul but there was no bus before and it would be good for Jean.
Thursday, August 3, 1978: Kabul
Today was Malaria Pill Day and our third weekend on the road. We were on the doorstep of India, most of our work was behind, and most of our adventures were ahead. Our health was at its worst but we were both determined that nothing could stop us now. I swallowed my super vitamins with zinc pills with black tea and ate toast and eggs before going out for a walk. I had no big plans for today – just to spend time and enjoy myself.
I walked down Afghanistan’s tourist high-pressure point “Chicken Street”, countless “Come to my store Mister, just look” and realized that out of all the rubbish everyone wants to see, I’m actually nothing. Wanted
I went down to the American Center to read a little and escape the midday sun and then I joined Jean with me. This is the first time in almost two days that he has left the hotel. We just read the loose and old news. The latest Time magazine was censored by the new government here. They censor any issues with USSR related articles. It leaves old news for us to read. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s better than nothing. Reading an American magazine on the street is like going to an American movie on the street – it takes you home as long as you’re immersed in it.
After lying around the hotel for a while, I grabbed Jean’s bag, white Afghan pants, grabbed my camera, and grabbed a bus on the outskirts of town. It is better not to know where you are going or not to care. I got on any old bus, paid an afghani, and drove as long as I wanted – which was the end of the line. The bus driver invited me for tea, which I accepted, and the party gathered to look around. Boy, can I really be a friend to these people who look really weird – they can look endless. 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 in a tent where an entire community lived. It’s really sad that they were camera-shy. I was able to find a lot of Afghans, however, who were dying to take pictures of them and I tried my best to keep them. By bus I soon returned to the tourist world of “Chicken Street”.
Jean was tired of being knocked up and finally had an appetite. I myself was suffering from a little loose bowel problem and, after taking several alternate turns to the toilet, we slowly walked down the street looking for dinner.
The “steak house” caught my eye when we first arrived in Kabul, and now we’ll try it. I wasn’t counting on anything great – just hoping. In fact, I got a very good steak and vegetable dinner for less than a dollar, complete with soup and a pot of tea. That stains both of us wonderfully. After the meal, we exchanged a little money – our release from Iranian and Turkish rupees and 50 Pakistani rupees.
After that good meal we felt good and went back home. I spent the evening in the yard catching this journal, repairing a strap on my pack, and enjoying tea and a Fleetwood Mac tape. It would be great if we could move again tomorrow.
Being so rich (even as a humble backpacker) and being so white in this poor and struggling corner of our world puts me in a strange quandary as a traveler if I can change that. It’s kind of sad, but I realized today that I want to build a wall between me and any potential friends in the world. In Europe I love talking to people and making friends. This is one of the main reasons for me to travel there, but there are some obstacles. I think a lot of it is doubt, lack of understanding and fatigue. Also, most of the people I meet around here speak English, seemingly speaking it to make money from tourists. I want to speak the local language, but I don’t.
(This is a five-part series journal entry # 4. Stay tuned for another episode tomorrow, as I am 23 years old and traveling from Kabul to Pakistan via the Khyber Pass.)