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, Mashhad took a bus with me from Iran, Herat, the main city in western Afghanistan.
Saturday, July 29, 1978: Mashhad to Herat
My Spanish friend woke me up at 5:45. I think if he hadn’t come I would have slept all morning. We got off at the station and took a ride and weakly I searched for breakfast. Half a liter of milk and a small cake did quite nicely and we were on our way.
Here was the beginning of a new world. Compared to Iranians and Afghans, Afghans look Asian and Mongolian and their twine-wrapped luggage is full at the bus station. Our bus left at 7:20 and was quite full of western travelers – the most we have seen since the Istanbul-Tehran bus.
Jean and I were calm and weak. I sat there, the hot air blowing in my face with the whip around my hair, hoping the kilometers would last and I knew I was sinking further away from Europe.
At 10:30 we arrived at the deserted Iran-Afghanistan border. What a place! Stuck somewhere in the middle. We left our passports and went to the building. An interesting museum with a message greeted us. In a few glass cases there were stories and hideouts of many unfortunate drug smugglers. It was made for interesting reading – who smuggled what and where and was sent to prison. I have this terrible fear that someone will plant some dope in my Rocksack and I will be leaked. That wouldn’t be any fun.
We got through Iranian customs quite easily and then we crossed a windy desert to an abandoned, isolated VW van and small orange bus full of locals bordering the area. We just stood around. The wind and heat were intense. The barren plain stretched around and I said to Jin, “Then this is Afghanistan.” We found shade in one of the wrecked VW vans and peeled a small apple. Then a bus came and we got in. Quickly stopped to check the passport, I couldn’t believe it was so easy. It wasn’t.
A few minutes later our bus pulled up to the search yard and we started to sit and wait for the bank and doctor’s office to open.
And here I sit. Time is good for doing nothing but catching up in the journal, which I did in the end, and thinking. When I brush ants bigger than me and protect my eyes from sand and blown things, I think about the fun things I can do. I think of friends returning home, of my parents in their leisure time on their yacht in cool, green, fresh British Columbia., And the fun I could have in Europe. I’m glad I’m finally doing it but I’m really looking forward to it. I hope for health, no problem, and a good flight back to Europe.
The funny little bank opened and to change my 100 franc note I had to sign three, write the serial number of the bill and ask a few times for the correct change. I brought 775 Afghans.
The next few hours tried my patience as we bounced back and forth from a dusty office to take care of everything so we could enter Afghanistan. The luggage “search” was a little more than a glance, our shot certificates were checked, the police and customs officers checked us out, we had fanta and finally everyone got back on the orange bus and we were on our way – or so we thought.
About 100 yards later there was a police check and most of the Polish passengers on the bus jumped on it and had to go through more red tape. Then we went to the dusty vastness of the desert in Afghanistan.
The countryside was arid and barren, supported by dark brown hills and eroded by mud huts, some old ruins or flocks of goats or sheep. It always feels good to enter a new country. So far this summer I have only discovered two new ones. But everything that lies ahead is as new.
Just when it seemed like we were getting up somewhere, a fight started in front of the bus. Afghans have decided to double the price of the ride from 50 to 100 afghanis. Our tourists were stubborn and we refused. The driver turned around and pulled out a rough-looking Afghan knife as he approached the Iranian border. You could tell they were on top of a barrel of ours.
There was a commotion, And everyone was trying to solve the problem. A soft-spoken but commanding Pakistani asked us to pay but we all believed that if we paid then there was nothing to stop them from using the same tactics again. We have compromised – we will give them 60 afghanis now and the rest will go to Herat. We were all on edge after that episode and I think if they had tried to get more money, they would have had a lot of trouble with the burden of their terrific passengers on the earthly bus.
We stopped at a secluded tea shop where a well and a group of locals were picking up a warm goat skin. The word “hotel” was a sign and I was expecting the worst. Many people are notorious for “highly recommending” certain hotels. Although it was an innocent tea stop, and it gave Jean and me the first good look in Afghanistan. The leaking well provided cold, dirty water to everyone. I cooled down really nicely, wallowed it. We shared a 25-cent watermelon and my weak, hungry body chewed it. I thought I had really abused myself by not eating much. For two days I skipped any real food and just drank pop and sucked watermelon. I have decided from now on that I will eat well and stay in good hotels for both my mental and physical health and to keep my spirits high.
The tea house for a tea house in Afghanistan was exactly the image I had. Men dressed in old traditional clothes, who look like they have worked hard but they sit around lazily, sitting on the floor drinking tea and eating hashish. The room was filled with smoke and their black glass eyes caught. We were joined by a few tourists and I was just standing on top of my watermelon peel and looking out the window as if I was watching a documentary on TV. Word spread — we had more drivers and the crew would be quieter. What a strange society. I guess when you’re so far behind physically you just give up – sit in the shade and eat melons, drink tea., And smoking hash.
Back on the hot bus we set off for Herat and dawn fell on us, “You know, this place is beautiful to look at.” We were definitely in a new and different culture and both Jin and I were delighted. I punched him on the shoulder, “Okay, let’s start our trip now!”
Herat was, like the information in our minimum guidebook, “hard to choose.” Very green, As far as cities go in this part of the world, And with lots of parks, I loved Herat right now. Cheap, sick of Scoozy Hole, I’ve lobbied for a first class hotel. We found a dilly.
Hotel Mowafaq, a fancy hotel in downtown Herat, was all we needed. Located in the center, shower, swimming pool, clean restaurant, And free from all the men who are tormented by cheap hotels, it will make us feel human again. I feel a little softer, but I prefer a place where I can leave my belongings without worrying and walk around barefoot and find easy peace when needed. Our double cost was only 200 afghanis ($ 5) and we were willing to spend more.
We had a sprite and we stopped at a small clothing store in this central area of Herat where Jean and I could get some local clothes so we could go “native” for the rest of the trip. Local baggy clothes make a lot more sense, And they will also be fun souvenirs. Jean bought a piece of hashish from the man for about 1. We’ll wait and see what we do with it.
Now we were clean and ready for a feast. A nice cool shower and an enjoyable and highly successful activity in a real sit down toilet (you don’t appreciate the little things in life like sitting on the toilet unless you have them). Coming out of the bathroom I thought, “Well, there was a quick punishment for bragging about the diarrhea I had yesterday, how I traveled with hard stools for two months, and now I’m a new person.”
Below we ordered two local specialties served on Saturday and we noticed that there was a small note on each page in the menu. Since the People’s Revolution, all prices have been reduced by 10 afghanis. It costs just 50 afghanis ($ 1.25) for each meal of soup, bread, rice, meat and cold water. We were both thirsty and cold water attacked our self-discipline like forbidden fruit. We surrendered to it and it was good. I couldn’t help but feel “iffi” about it when I drank suspicious water as I always do but it didn’t diminish its initial goodness. The black and green tea finished the meal nicely in a well-sized container and I can’t believe how everything turned out so wonderfully.
The people here are nice, with soldiers and police on the streets in the wake of the recent revolution. Flower-decorated taxis like horse-drawn chariots come down the road. We stood on the windy porch under the stars thinking that this place is no different than the constellations.
My hair is fluffy, the hall has air conditioning and we have a bug screen in the open window. There is a fixture of light, my teeth are clean, my stomach is full, I feel healthy (and hopefully will be tomorrow) and I think I will go to bed early tonight. It is very important to live well and enjoy yourself and, without going through periods of sadness and discomfort, you will never know you can really enjoy it.