A second dreamy day in Herat – Rick Steve’s travel blog

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.

Stay away from me for another dreamy day in Herat, Afghanistan, in this 1978 journal entry.

Monday, July 31, 1978: Herat

I did not move for nine hours. After breakfast we started a little adventure with our rental bikes. Nice to get the wheel. We could stop whenever we wanted and, if the people were too intense, we could have a clean escape. The wind has cooled us and things have happened much faster than we have to travel on foot.

We hurried through the part of the city we already knew to the old ruined minarets that we had seen two days earlier when we came to Herat. Examining this historic site, an old man at 10 Afghans lets us enter the mosque and we see the tomb of an old Afghan king.

Now we saw the big historical place and we stopped visiting with some kind of study in the shade. We had a nice chat and learned something about culture and language. We learned from our friend that we are spending too much money on almost everything.

Happy shore down the road, I took a string of gorgeous photos. This is the moment of the photographer that I have been waiting for so long. I’ve got boys throwing watermelons, colorful girls sitting on the shore, lazy teenagers leaning on warm wagons, and lots of little news of Afghan life. People are truly friendly and proud, shaking my hand firmly and equally. I threw a small fruit at me but, all in all, it was one of the most friendly countries in my experience. Any woman who has taken to the streets and who has reached puberty is completely covered by a small gridwork of cloth covering their face.

We are determined to paddle to one side until we reach the edge of town. After soaking our flutes with Sprite, we descended the busy, dusty streets until the town had turned into a mud village as I had seen in Egypt and Morocco. Along the sidewalk, we found ourselves locked into a new and different world. The calm brown dirt road has become high walls, long and narrow. The walls are occasionally broken into small shops and rustic wooden doors. Young and old sat as if they were waiting for a stranger on a bike. I’m sure we had a very rare view for them. I wonder if they enjoyed our presence or if we were violating their peace.

I’ve experimented with a variety of greetings, starting with a baby wave greeting, the serious “kiss the hand and keep it in the heart” style that offers us a religious look. That one gets great results. I had a pocket full of candy for the gift and I felt better giving it than giving money.

You know, in this happy society everyone seems to be satisfied and I have never seen a hungry and very hard beggar. They have decent demand for low productivity and things seem to be working out and everyone has enough tea, hashish and watermelon.

We peeked around until we were full and realized it was hot and hard work. Then, on the way back, we stopped at a haystack, where a wooden hay chewing machine pulled a few bulls romantically. What a dreamy tourist and photographic opportunity! I got the chance to run the kart and there was an unforgettable explosion. I sit on the chewers, running the oxen around and around and I think the farmers kicked as big as I could and I pulled them out and out of their hay. That adaptation.

We got our bikes back two hours later and paid everyone one. We picked up a watermelon and headed back to our hotel. Feeling hot but happy, we stopped by the pool, took off our underwear and plunged into the cold. Instant refreshments! That’s great! What a wonderful day we are having! We walked around, took a few dives and took some good pictures and I thought, “My goodness – this is going to be a holiday.” In the drop up room, we packed up for a while and went downstairs for lunch. Good sleep, good food, and my vitamin pills were my formula for enjoying and succeeding the rest of this trip. I don’t think I could go wrong with that recipe, but we have to wait and see, right?

After a short rest and a few cold showers, the sun was a little lower in the sky and we came back. While I was in love, Martin got off the Istanbul-Tehran bus while bargaining with a nice guy for that mink, and we chatted, and he recommended endless markets. We said we were going there.

I turned on my zoom lens and I got a thrill to zoom in on these beautiful people. I can’t wait to see my picture. We have soaked all the images in the market and transformed or melted from scene to scene. What a sensual experience. We would go to the water pipe making sock or the surrounding area to the tin pounder, weaver, bead maker, bead stringer, billow working man, Ricky foot sharpening knife, chain pounder and nail bender. Everything was done by hand. Old and young worked hard all day for the same little thing – all their lives. I will never complain about the long days of my work – teaching piano lessons.

Each shop was about five yards across and every five yards was a new scene – a new glimpse of Afghan life. Some things we didn’t even understand. At one point, the little ones would not give up asking for “bakshish” (gifts of money) and we had to enter a huge mosque where a policeman chased them and we had to take off our shoes and give him something to check. Out of this place. It was impressive.

Now we were tired. Back at the hotel we went for a swim and a strange dog snatched my glasses from my bag and the lens fell off. I was worried but it came back – apparently as good as new. I dreaded the thought of breaking my glasses and wearing my high school hornroom which I brought for extra.

Up in the room we tried to hash out a little more and went to mix. Michelle was a bit intense. Small things like a man of tomato weight made me particularly tickled and I was more receptive to insects and ready to move around a bit more freely. I didn’t know if it was because of hashish or if I was in a good mood.

We boarded a fun little three-wheeled taxi that looked like a soup-up ice cream truck for a ride to another part of town and I got into some really exciting photography. The subject of the existing light and the light of the lantern. I have been able to pose men properly that I like them. I would even push their chin a little higher or bring the lantern closer. They may be exceptional, or they may not be, but my subject and I both had a memorable time to try.

We turned around a bit more and then got into a fancy two wheeled horse drawn bogie taxi. Across the city like a chariot, we have our drivers singing really entertaining, or at least fun songs. We surprised him with a confident 10 afghani and we didn’t have time to grab his hand as we ran. These tourists were never taken for a ride without a horse. I decided that if you try to agree on a price before boarding, they know you are new to the game and they will tear you down. If you just say “Home James” and pay them what you think is reasonable, you will be fined.

On the way home, I bought a nice little five afghani (1 cent) goodie. Then we stopped to check on my friend with Mink. I knew I would be able to bargain with anger again and that is what happened. This was my third time at his store and I knew if I went home without that mink, I would kick myself. I like it just as much as I used to like the old “ringworm” (a cat I befriended and came back home in 2nd grade – which gave me the ringworm). I finally went for 460 afghani (12) and came up with a great skin.

Now we were hungry and our hotel was waiting. We are living very nicely. Sitting where the waiters knew us, we ordered a hearty meaty meal with tea and a watermelon. We were drinking water and my stool was hard, so we had more. I’m feeling very good. I am in control and I can get what I want. That’s great.

Up in the room, I took a long bath, cleaned my pack, enjoyed my little souvenir, and hit the sack. I lay there without thinking about how cockroaches got their name. (Probably I’m high, above all.)

People all over the world enjoy the same thing. The old cleaner ignored my request for more toilet paper and said dreamily, “Look, isn’t that beautiful?” We both stood motionless on the roof of the hotel, watching the sun set behind a distant hill where the torch of the chariot flew.

We were sitting in a park talking to some studying Afghans when someone asked, “Aren’t you traveling with your women?” I said my girlfriend was at home and she replied, “Oh, it’s too hard – I never did that.” I feel like I’ve been on the “street” for a long time.

(This is a five-part series journal entry # 3. Stay tuned for another episode tomorrow, as the 23-year-old has ridden 500 miles across Afghanistan and is touring the capital city of Kabul.)

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