To Herat and then to Mashhad

One of the things I have realized since I began writing about events that happened almost 50 years ago, is that memories slide into each other and compress. During a seven or eight hour bus journey, not all moments are clearly distinguishable. Arriving in the next hot dusty city seems just like arriving in the one before that.

There were no bus terminal buildings in Kandahar like there are in modern cities. The bus stopped and there were other buses parked nearby on a big dusty square off the side of the main road. There was a kind of trestle table with bottled drinks on it about 15 meters away and a couple of the European passengers (who I avoided all contact with) were looking at what was on offer. Some of the brands looked familiar, like Coca Cola, but there was no way that anyone with a little sense and will to survive would ever buy one of those bottled invitations to diarrhea or food poisoning or worse. Although the caps were all firmly on the tops of the bottles, the contents looked suspicious. The colors were strange. Shades of red and green that didn’t look like any cherry or lime I had ever seen bottled. And the Coke, well, it was definitely black liquid of some kind, but it looked flat and muddy. So I gave the turbaned vendor a nice smile and moved across the dirt square to the tea stand where all the Afghans were gathered drinking tea out of earthenware bowls.

You can’t travel through this part of the world without treading in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. In fact, as I found out later, Kandahar was founded in 329 BC by Alexander the Great who named the place after himself, as he often did, calling it Alexandria Arachosia. Apparently there was already a small settlement there called Arachosia.

The purpose of my journey was to get to London as quickly as possible and pick up my half-brother David who had written to us in India and said he wanted to visit. He has good memories related to our return journey through Turkey and Iran and Afghanistan. My memories of the journey toward London are untainted by the presence of any kind of companion, so they are my memories alone, even though, as I said, they are probably distorted by the passage of time.

Anyway, next stop was Herat and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. Finding out which bus actually was going to the destination you wanted was a matter of talking to three or four or even five or six different people. Nobody wants to disappoint you, so you get many different answers and all of them sound promising. What you need to listen for however are two or three answers that are the same, that refer to the same bus leaving at nearly the same time and to, if possible, the same driver, one who is visible and has not disappeared and “will be back shortly.”

While doing this research it is important to remain polite and smile and thank the people who give you the information. Maybe some people lie to you on purpose, but most just don’t know the answer and provide you with an answer that sounds like it will help you even if it won’t. They are being nice and trying not to disappoint. So, through the process of gathering more information than needed, I finally got the answers that were consistent with the truth and found the driver who would be taking me to Herat. And, as usual, the bus would be leaving in the early evening, about an hour before sundown. This would mean that somewhere along the way, also as usual, the bus would pull to the side of the road and we would sleep there until sunrise when the faithful would exit for prayers and the Kafirs, like me, would stretch their legs, have a smoke and get ready for the next long leg of the journey.

No, there was no water in plastic bottles that you could carry with you. I drank large quantities of tea before getting on the bus in the evening. During the journey the bus always stopped at small roadside settlements where more tea and simple food, along with naan, Afghan bread was available. You get a taste for naan. It’s a long wide flat bread and you tear it into smaller strips and use it to pick up the food on the plate and bring it to your mouth. Well-cooked vegetables were what I ate most with the naan. No meat. My method for choosing food was to see what the older Afghans ate and then order the same. Most of the older men restricted themselves to vegetable dishes with naan. I did the same. Meat was available, mostly roasted over a coal fire and skewered, a kind of shashlik. The smell was always good. The pieces of meat were small and well cut and skewered on a piece of iron with a flat handle. Still, nothing for me, even if it was lamb, like it was supposed to be.

The hours I spent on the bus were not wasted hours. Since I had no companions and avoided all contact with the other Europeans on the journey, I had time to think and gather in the landscape, which changed from brownish desert to green fields and back to brownish desert. This was flat land mostly. We went through some semi-mountainous regions, but it was mostly flat and mostly brown along the way. Just before we entered Herat, the green returned.

Now here is a point where memory compresses so that I’m not exactly sure of where I was when I went to a Hammam. What I do remember is that the building seemed huge to me, like a fortress, with thick mud walls. Inside it was humid, in contrast to the dry heat outside. There was hardly anyone inside, but one of the men, who had a thin cotton sheet wrapped around his waist, came to me and showed me to a private cell, where there was a trickle of water flowing, and a bowl to gather it in. The cell was of concrete, about three meters long and two meters wide. It had a concrete bank where I could sit and a hook in the wall where I could hang my clothes.

My first instinct is to say that this Hammam was in Kandahar, where the drink stand was as well. And where I had arrived at more or less the hot part of the day. But it could have been Herat. I remember that in Herat I walked about before returning to where the buses were, and from around a corner a rather corpulent man appeared, dressed in shabby brown western clothes, a wrinkled suit jacket, baggy pants, a round face, head balding on top, his eyes concentrating on me, his smile trying to charm me, though it looked more like a serpent’s smile. In his hands, which had stubby little fingers, he was kneading a large lump of something that looked like light-brown dough. He hung close to the wall and tried to coax me to follow him around the corner, all the time saying: “Hashish? You want hashish? Good hashish.” He kept kneading the light-brown mass and showing it to me, like an offering. And kept that snake stare on me, hoping to transfix me. I gave him an angry look, turned away and immediately went back to the buses.

That bit was definitely in Herat. I remember distinctly. But where the Hammam was located is not clear. At any rate, being in that cement cell was a wonderful experience. For the first time in days my pores opened and the sweat rolled out. The man who led me to the cell had given me a tiny bar of soap and a thin cotton washrag. I scrubbed myself with soap. It was simple yellow soap that didn’t foam up so much, but it did the job. I soaked the washrag in the water and scrubbed away days of dirt, enjoying the humidity after pouring bowls of water over my head and body to clean away the soap.

I sat on the cement bank and leaned against the wall, relaxed in my nakedness, enjoying the privacy and the sound of the water trickling from the tap onto the floor and along the groove in the floor to the drain. I’m not sure how long I was in there. Maybe an hour, maybe a little less or a little more. Perhaps because it was so enchanting and so unique for me, my memory has placed it in a location that is not tied to geography, only to experience.

Outside – and this I remember very well – in the dry heat of the day, I felt like I had been reborn.

Getting to Mashhad from Herat meant crossing the border of course. In those days Iran was under the Shah, a rather non-benevolent dictator supported by Anglo-American oil companies. Only about ten years later would the Islamic revolutionaries drive him from power. The border crossing had army personnel everywhere and it was clear the customs people were not going to put up with any crap from anyone. We all had to get off the bus, walk through the checkpoint, show our passports and wait until the bus joined us on the other side. Once again, being an Italian citizen had its advantages. I got a nice smile from the guy who checked my passport and the one word: “Italiano!” before he waved me through.

Back on the bus, we found we had some new passengers, two young men who were tall, had well-tended short hair, were rather light of skin, handsome, energetic and spoke perfect English. They stood up in the aisle and enticed the young European passengers, encouraging them to join them in a short tour of Mashhad when we got there, to stay in a student hostel over night. They said they were university students on vacation. Some people responded in a friendly manner and the young men would sit with them and talk and laugh. Not me. It was obvious to me that these guys, very fit and of military age, were certainly not just a couple of college students taking a bus to Mashhad from the border. I took out a book and buried my nose in it, so they had no chance to engage me in conversation.

A few kilometers after the border crossing, the bus was stopped by an army patrol. A young guy in an army uniform, with crazy eyes and a white bandage around his neck, entered the bus and went down the aisle, all the time sniffing like a dog and swinging his crazy eyes from person to person. Apparently he didn’t get a whiff of what he was sniffing for and he turned around and went back down the aisle and out. But an old Afghan man had been taken from the bus. The baggage compartment had been opened and his suitcase was on the ground, open, and full of cartons of cigarettes. In a few moments the baggage compartment was closed and the bus started back along the road to Mashhad. The old white-haired and white-bearded Afghan stayed back there with the soldiers.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Mashhad to Tehran

 

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