The ride up through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad was, as I said, frightening, but at the same time awesome, in the old meaning of the word — it filled me with awe. What kept hitting me along the way every time I dared to look out the window of that bus was the sheer magnitude of the mass of stony earth we were climbing on this zig-zag path along its outer edge. And to think that so many invaders of the Indus Valley had come through the pass, heading down of course, and had conquered the people who had been living by that mighty river.
But I was glad to be through with that and finally on my way to Kabul. I arrived late in the evening and found a hostel of sorts, where I took a single room rather than a group room with 6 beds.
In those days I avoided drugs of any kind. I had drug years behind me. And I would have some drug years again in the future. But in 1971 I wasn’t interested in any of those things. I was learning how to see and hear and be without the blur that drugs induced. Certainly I wasn’t against drugs, I have never been one who wants to ban them. In fact, I believe that all drugs should be decriminalized, made legal, and be available in pharmacies for anyone who wants to take them. If you are not a responsible person, then too bad, you die of an overdose or you go to a hospital to endure a cure. The only purpose in banning a substance is to jack up its price on the black market. Rather get it pure and at the lowest possible price, generic and unbranded if possible. It’s your body, destroy it any way you like. As long as drugs are not “pushed” onto the buyers, then where is the problem? Ideally, 50% of the profits from their sale could be sent into the health system so that we can all benefit from the maladies of the few, because there is no way that suddenly millions of people will start injecting heroin just because it’s available for five bucks a shot at the pharmacy down the road.
Anyway, Kabul was just a stop on the way to Kandahar. There were buses leaving every day, so one wouldn’t be so hard to find, but I wanted to rest up a bit before starting on the next leg of my journey. In those days Kabul was a peaceful place. The streets were wide and the people walked most everywhere. There was a king as head of state, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was a modernizer. Women worked as doctors and lawyers and were able to move about freely without wearing special clothing or covering their heads. At least that’s how it was in Kabul when I was there. I saw women in skirts and high heels and men in business suits, and although from time to time I also saw a woman in a burka, it was more of an exception than a rule.
The country had always been clannish and tribal and I suppose that hasn’t changed. But the new element that crept in after the Russian invasion was the religious fanaticism. It was used as a tool to excite and motivate resistance against the “godless” communists, but it has since become a cancer in the body politic of the nation. Even in Pakistan, where religion had been used to split Pakistan away from India, it was not really openly visible. I had the impression that religion in these countries was like religion in Italy, a part of their lives and culture, but nothing to scream and shout about.
I only had that one rucksack with me, washed-out green like an army rucksack but nowhere near as large. A couple of pairs of underwear, some t-shirts, an extra pair of jeans, two pairs of socks. If I needed something more I would be able to buy it along the way. Clothes were cheap everywhere. The cotton fabrics came from India, most probably smuggled in so that no tariffs applied, and I had already learned in Africa that you should never wear anything synthetic in those climates, it would stick to your skin because it created a kind of sauna around you.
Yes, I was a cigarette smoker in those days, and cigarettes were cheap in that whole region, so I bought a carton of unfiltered cigarettes, which I determined not to break into because I wanted to deliver them unbroken to my half-brother David when I eventually got to London. The Afghans used a type of tobacco called naswar, a kind of snuff which they took a pinch of and placed under their lower lips or snorted. That was definitely not for me. Once upon a time I had tried chewing tobacco and it burned my mouth and made me vomit. But I stuffed the carton of cigs into my rucksack and only bought single packs to smoke along the way. Actually, during the trip I hardly smoked at all. I didn’t have that much time on my hands, even though the bus journeys were extremely long.
In fact, the journey from Kabul to Kandahar turned out to be much longer than I expected.
On my second day in Kabul I went down to what you might call a bus station. It certainly didn’t look anything like where Greyhound buses left from. It was just a place where there were lots of buses and lots of drivers and lots of people all more or less haphazardly gathered in one rather spread out location. I went from group to group and asked about a bus to Kandahar. They told me the next bus would leave early the next day. But I kept asking different people until I got the answer I wanted, which was that a bus would be leaving after lunch, which meant around two in the afternoon. I went to the bus and the driver and found out where to get a ticket for that bus. Since it was already after ten in the morning, I went to a nearby restaurant and sat down, drank some tea, smoked a cigarette, read my book (I always had a book with me) and then around noon had lunch (rice and some lamb curry), a postprandial cigarette, more tea and read another chapter of my book (probably something by Somerset Maugham, because I felt that after reading Ulysses by James Joyce while I was in Delhi – it took me six months to do that – that I was allowed some literary entertainment from an author who had passed through exotic lands).
I went back to the bus I was supposed to take to Kandahar and a small crowd of potential passengers had already gathered there. All of us were obviously anxious to get going. It was already past two in the afternoon and the journey to Kandahar is about 480 kilometers (about 300 miles). The road is on a flat surface all the way, with no mountain passes, but the buses were not capable of traveling faster than 80 km/hr (about 50 mph), and even if they had been capable, you wouldn’t want them to go faster because of the poor state of the buses and the unknown competency of the drivers.
So we were looking forward to at least a six hour journey, perhaps longer, depending on the condition of the road and if we stopped often along the way. The road turned out to be in pretty good shape, even though I heard that after the war with the Russians the road was practically unusable for most of its length.
At four, we boarded the bus. At just before five we left the station. We managed to get to the edge of Kabul around the time it got dark and that was when the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road and said that we would be spending the night there because it was much to dangerous to drive through the night. Nobody complained. I had a double seat to myself so I used my rucksack as a pillow and stretched out over the seat and fell asleep. It was cheaper than another night in lodgings.
The next morning just after sunrise we were on our way. After about 50k we stopped at a roadside shack where tea and flat Afghani bread was on offer. It was a wonderful breakfast. And behind the shack, a little way up the sandy hill, there was a place where we westerners went to pee while some of the religious passengers went to pray facing Mecca. In fact the bus stopped two more times that day for prayers, which gave the others among us a chance to stretch and pee. Smoking was allowed in the bus.
The only other remarkable moment of the journey was when, sometime after we had covered a little more than half of the distance, and we were in the middle of nowhere, just sandy plains on the left side of the bus and some sandy hills on the right, the bus stopped. It wasn’t a prayer stop and it wasn’t a toilet stop. It was just a stop, with the motor still running. Nothing but dusty plains and sandy hills. We waited about 5 minutes. Then, like an apparition, the turbaned head of a man appeared over the ridge of the hill. He grew taller as he emerged and I could see that he was toting a cloth bag over his shoulder and an ancient-looking musket-like rifle in his hand. He came determinedly down the sandy hill and the driver opened the door for him. He gave the driver a slip of paper which might have been money or might have been a ticket, I don’t know, and he came down the aisle of the bus and took a seat on the right about halfway up.
The driver closed the door and we were off again to Kandahar.
Our new fellow passenger was a man of a certain age, wiry, a sun-browned face, a thin grey beard and an isosceles triangle of a nose, large and strong with wide nostrils, as if breathing through it in the sandy environment was essential in order to filter out the dust particles in the air. However it seemed that those nostrils were also essential for the intake of some naswar, because after placing his rifle in the overhead baggage rack and his cloth bag on the seat next to him, he took out a round tin, put a few grains of its contents on the skin of his hand behind his thumb and inhaled through his nose. This did not cause him to sneeze. But it did cause him to sit up straighter. Then he pinched more of the naswar between his thumb and forefinger and placed it between his lower lip and his teeth, closed the tin, put it away inside some hidden pocket of the many folds in his roomy khet partug. (If you want to know exactly what that is, look it up in the encyclopaedia.) After about 10 minutes, he spat on the floor, a big green glob that landed directly in the middle of the aisle.
Three hours later we were in Kandahar. When I got off the bus, it was 40 degrees (C) and dry as a bone.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: To Herat and then to Mashad
On the journey, mostly by bus, I slept a great deal. After reading a few pages in the heat and bouncy noise of the bus there was nothing else to do. The view out the window was always the same: dusty brown landscape stretching to the horizon, with no vegetation, but with an infinitely deep periwinkle blue sky. Sleep means dreams, and dreams turn into poems:
she is a sorceress
drunk on submission
ejecting her soul
red blood alarm
flight from anchorage
clouds on the horizon
lights of destruction
she is a bird
any old bird will do
on the ground
thief thief thief
and three cousins from
sweet houses of voice
(our witch our)
quiet rather aphonic
united with sky
hooked fingers blue-green
frowns oppose moons
night crashes headlong
and her soul (soul?)
is not a bird
just a wandering thought
in the hermetic void
of finite infinity