Afghanistan Adventures #18 – Russian jeeps and hairpin bends

I had established a stock keeping system for the clinic and now was going to set up a similar one in Mubarak Shah’s neighbouring clinic in Malestan district. Jawad was to take me there – about a three hour journey – and collect me a few days later.

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In the bazaar Jawad filled up with petrol. If you are picturing a filling station with pumps – forget it. The fuel was stored in large drums. It was poured into the vehicle’s tank through a plastic funnel over the mouth of which was stretched a piece of cloth to filter out some of the dust and dirt.

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Once we had left the bazaar behind us I eagerly accepted Jawad’s offer to let me drive. I set off cautiously.  It was the first time I had driven a Russian jeep – and I was nervous about hurting Hussain’s pride and joy on one of the innumerable boulders littering the rough track. Apologising whenever I crashed the gears, we progressed rather jerkily along. Jawad was very relaxed and uncritical about my driving.

As I became more confident I occasionally succeeded in getting into third gear, and began to enjoy myself. Jawad chatted about his family and his hopes for their future. The eldest, his daughter, Shanaz, was followed by two sons, after which Jawad felt their family was complete – three children were enough if each was to be given the best chance in life.

It was Jawad’s main concern – how to ensure his children were able to receive the education necessary to allow them to achieve more in life than he had. The boys could now attend the school which had opened near their village, but there was no such opportunity for Shanaz. Although Jawad had arranged private tuition for her at home, he knew this was not a long term solution. He himself had had to give up his education when the mujahideen closed all village schools some years before, accusing the teachers, who were Government employees, of teaching communism.

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A mountain loomed ahead and I held my breath as I manoeuvred around each hairpin bend, praying that we would not meet any traffic coming towards us. It was unimaginable two vehicles could pass each other on such a narrow, twisty road. About three quarters of the way up I risked a backward glance and gasped at the dizzying sight of the road corkscrewing down the mountain. Feeling rather proud of my driving ability I approached the second to last bend. Jawad remarked conversationally, ‘This is one of the most dangerous passes in Hazara Jat. Many big trucks fall down the mountain.’

‘Wait until we reach the top before telling me horror stories, please,’ I begged. Realising the bend could not be taken in second I attempted to change to first gear. The jeep began to roll backwards – straight towards the edge of the mountain.

‘Brake! Brake!’ yelled Jawad, the one and only time he offered me superfluous advice.  I already had my foot jamming the brake pedal to the floor but with no effect. Jawad leapt out of the jeep. I wondered momentarily if I should do likewise, but the thought of Hussain’s reaction when we told him we had lost his jeep down a mountain kept me paralysed in my seat. I tried the brake again and this time the vehicle slowed. At the same moment Jawad hurled a boulder into the path of the back wheels. About three feet from the edge the jeep stopped. I was shaking like a leaf.

Jawad grinned, ‘That was close.’ I expected him to take over the driving, and was more than willing to relinquish my place, but he slid into the passenger seat again.

‘I need a minutes,’ I said, still feeling wobbly, trying not to think about what happened to the drivers of those lorries which kept falling off the mountain. For a few minutes we sat admiring the view far below us. The fields shone jewel green and gold in the sunlight in sharp contrast to the grey, rocky backdrop of the mountains. The scattered houses looked like miniature models from a toy box, and a narrow blue ribbon of river ran through the valley.

‘In winter and early spring this pass is closed, first by snow and then because of floods when it melts,’ Jawad said, adding, ‘the only way in and out of Malestan is by foot, in the snow, over another pass.’

With trepidation I began the descent. Negotiating the hairpin bends was harrowing, but the bits in between were worse. It seemed the jeep was determined to hurtle down to the valley below at an ever increasing speed, without bothering to take the bends. Jawad sat quietly but I noticed that his clenched knuckles were white. Finally, he said, ‘You do know don’t you that in these jeeps you have to pump the brake twice? If you only put your foot down once, they don’t work.’

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‘That information might have been helpful a little sooner, Jawad.’  Following this advice I slowed the jeep to a comfortable snail’s pace.

I noticed the women working in the fields did not immediately pull their chaddar over their faces and turn their backs when they heard a vehicle approach, as would any Jaghoray woman.  Some of them, recognising that a woman was driving, even waved, although most stared in open mouthed astonishment. I felt I was going to like Malestan if the women were so much freer than in Jaghoray.

At the clinic we were greeted by Mubarak and Khala and Baba, the elderly couple who worked as his cook and chowkidar. As I entered the living room Khala bombarded me with sweets, throwing them with considerable enthusiasm. Being hit on the face by handfuls of boiled sweets was a painful experience. I struggled valiantly to keep a happy, “oh what a lovely surprise”, grin on my face.

Afghanistan Adventures #17

Friday is the Islamic equivalent of Sunday and therefore a holiday from work.  Outings were occasionally organised and I agreed enthusiastically to a suggested fishing trip. Gul Agha, for once leaving his Kalashnikov behind, and his young brother, Hazrat, now one of my English students, accompanied us.

The surprising absence of fishing tackle was explained when we reached the river and Gul Agha and Hussain began to attach fuses to several home-made bombs.

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Attaching the fuses

Explosive had been packed into small plastic medicine tubs and, once the fuses had been lit, these were hurled into the river.   The dull explosions were followed by a mini tidal wave. The men jumped into the river, screaming and yelling with delight as they grabbed for the fish which rose, stunned, to the surface.

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Going fishing Afghan style

When I told them about the heavy penalties paid by poachers caught in similar activities at home they fell about laughing.

It was a scorching hot day and the water looked invitingly cool. After a while, I began to untie my trainers. ‘What,’ demanded Hussain, ‘are you doing?’

‘I thought I’d have a paddle.’  Recognising the mutinous expression on his face I sighed, waiting for the explosion.

‘You can’t go in the water! If it was just me and Ali Baba then it would be no problem, but Gul Agha would tell the people in the village. Everyone would talk. Our women do not go swimming.’

‘I don’t want to swim, just dip my feet in,’ I protested. I looked at the cool, shallow water of the river flowing gently past the willow trees then I looked at Hussain’s face, and reluctantly began to retie my laces. Cooling down would not be worth the resulting sulks.

After the fish had been harvested, Ali Baba and Hazrat collected fuel for the fire while Gul Agha, assuming the role of chief cook, unpacked frying pans and cooking oil and bundles of nan wrapped in cloth. Soon the aroma of frying fish was making us all hungry. The fish, a small fresh water trout, were cooked whole, fried until they were crisply edible on the outside with beautifully tender flesh inside. I put my concerns about the lack of ethical fishing practices behind and tucked in.

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Remains of the catch after we’d had our picnic


As we wandered back to the jeep, carrying the remainder of the fish threaded onto thin sticks, we passed a farmer leading three donkeys towards the river.  Hussain said, ‘The donkeys get very hot and tired in this weather so the farmers take them to the river. They love to stand in the water to cool down.’

‘I see,’ I remarked, ‘only women have to suffer in this heat. They work as hard as any donkey, but the donkeys get better treatment from the men than the women do.’

Hussain maintained a stony silence throughout the return journey. At home he said, ‘Gul Agha asked why you were in a bad mood. I told him you wanted to go in the water and he said it was no problem. He said you are accepted as a family member by everyone here. Then I asked him if he would allow his sister, or mother, to go in the river. He said no.’

It was my turn to be silent – I simply couldn’t think of any more to say on the subject.

Another outing was for a shooting competition. The target, a large green cloth about the size of a double bed sheet, was spread out on a mountain across the valley. From our position it looked very small to me.

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Shooting competition

Firing commenced. After each shot little black figures, like animated stick people, ran about around the target. One of them would jump up and down, waving its arms to indicate where the shot had landed. On several occasions the little figures jumped up and down even more vigorously, bringing to the notice of the marksman that a shot, off target, had landed uncomfortably close. I sat under a walnut tree slowly growing deaf and trying to show some enthusiasm when someone succeeded in hitting the centre of the target.

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Wearing my birthday dress and trying to look excited

Someone suggested I have a go and I took the Kalashnikov gingerly. I lay down, wriggling into position. As I peered doubtfully at the target someone suggested I just shoot and not bother to aim. I insisted that I must have something to aim for, but preferably something a little larger – closer to me but further away from those little stick figures.

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Going deaf under a walnut tree

However when someone suggested I simply try to hit the next mountain I felt deeply hurt. The suggestion I required an entire mountain as a target seemed to cast rather too much doubt on my marksmanship. I handed the Kalashnikov back to Gul Agha without firing a shot.

I would like to think I refused to shoot because of high moral principles regarding the use of weapons as playthings but I fear I simply did not want the embarrassment of making a complete fool of myself. What if I had missed the mountain?

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Regular readers may remember the birthday cake – I found a photo of it today.  The blue embroidered dress and waistcoat on my lap were birthday gifts.

MarySmith’sPlace – Steps to organising a book launch – and a book signing #MondayBlogs

After my post about the launch of A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History, a number of people asked how we organised it. Some of you were particularly interested in the book signing at Waterstones and if it was worth doing. I should clarify that the book launch and the Waterstones book signing were two separate events.


Organising the book launch:

A-Z of Dumfries is traditionally published but everything I did applies equally to an indie-published book (my friend Lynn Otty and I held a joint launch for our indie-published short story collections following the same steps).

Whether you are buying at author discount from your publisher or from Amazon if you’ve gone down that route this is the main event. This is the one at which you hope to sell lots of books, make a bit of money – and generate interest in your book even after the event.

Decide on a date and time:  we chose a Thursday evening towards the end of November, starting at 6.30pm. It’s probably best to avoid a weekend when folk tend to have other commitments. On timing – I’ve found it’s better to make it early enough so people can come along and still have the evening ahead.

Find and book a venue: okay, in this I’m lucky in that as an alumnus of the university I can book a lecture room free of charge. It’s a bit out of town but I live in a rural area, so even a town centre venue means people have to drive to get to events.

Design your invitation: Make sure you include a date by which people should RSVP – some will, some won’t so it’s always a bit of a guessing game but it does help.

Send out invitations: go through your address list and invite everyone, unless they live an unrealistic distance away. Friends, family, authors you know, journalists, acquaintances, everyone you can think of. Send personally. Don’t send it so it is obvious you’ve done a mass mailing. Invest in a ‘send personally’ thingie, it’s worth it. Don’t forget friends on Facebook who aren’t on your email list – send them a pm with the invitation attached.

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Here’s our invitation

RSVP: The RSVP date has arrived. Try not to panic. Out of over 200 invitations only 20 acceptances have come in. Resist the temptation to re-send the invitation or phone people!

Media: Send a press release to all media outlets in your area. You can find out contact details of the news desk on the internet but if you have a named contact that is better. Write your press release as if it’s an article you would read in the paper (don’t read your local paper? Then shame on you and why should they be interested in supporting your book if you don’t support it?  Sorry journalist’s hat on for a moment) rather than adorning it with PRESS RELEASE PRESS RELEASE across the top and a list of facts. No, really, check out your local paper to see how they publish information on a new book release. Include a pic of you and your book and/or a couple of pics from the book. Send it to local radio stations as well – without the pictures – and local TV stations. We had A-Z of Dumfries featured in the entertainment section of two local papers, a full page spread in another a few days before Christmas, a photo and para in a lifestyle magazine which is going to do a double page spread in the next issue and a radio interview. For Secret Dumfries we even had a 15 minute slot on a local television programme thanks to Keith’s contact. Remember though, a television programme can’t be seen to promote you book – there has to be a hook. In our case that was local history secrets – in yours it might be a local site chosen as a crime scene, or a new slant on a character based on a local legend…

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Full page in a local paper

Social Media: Put it on your FB page and on any other FB pages which are relevant. We put A-Z of Dumfries on certain local pages. Go for pages relevant to your genre. Respond to comments, including an invite to the launch party. Do this after the RSVP date. You don’t want your specially invited guests to think just anyone can come along! Tweet about your book coming out. Always include a link to where they can buy the book. It’s unlikely Twitter followers will be able to come to the book launch but they may click on an Amazon link and buy direct.

Refreshments: Now you have to calculate how many bottles of Prosecco you need and how many bottles of fizzy water to make non-alcoholic elderflower cordials, nibbles (vegetarian, gluten free, vegan, nut allergies, dairy free – nightmare). Avoid nuts and browse your supermarket shelves for savoury bites to eat – apologise profusely to those guests who can’t partake. Most people are not in the least interested in nibbles – just keep topping up the Prosecco. We buy from a supermarket which lends the glasses for free. And they were so thrilled when we brought them back washed – most people don’t. Yuck!

RSVPs: More acceptances come in – other apologies, too. Reply – just a line to say how much you are looking forward to seeing them (or sorry you can’t make it).

The Launch: Arrive early enough – with helpers – at the venue to ensure there is enough seating, have a sign pointing to the room where the launch is being held, set up a serving area for your refreshments, mix the elderflower cordial, open the wine, decant nibbles into bowls, set up a table for your books.

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At the book launch

It’s a party. As people arrive, offer drinks, introduce them to other people, let them mingle and chat. After a while people will sit down; give them time to settle. Do your talk/reading, starting with a big thank you to everyone for coming along. Keep it to a maximum of 15-20 minutes. Invite questions. Invite everyone to top up their glasses – and mention the book is available to buy and you’d be happy to sign it. Mention Christmas. If your launch is at any other time of the year, mention birthdays.

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Happy guests at the launch

Chat to people as you sign their book (check spelling of names), thank everyone. People will start to drift away at this point and it’s difficult to say goodbye to everyone while still signing books for others. Once the last guest has gone, pack up.

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Keith and I posing for the obligatory ‘me and my book’ shot

Out of the 200+ invites we sent we had over 60 guests, who bought over 40 books, which meant we were in profit. Also many of the people who could not attend asked if we could keep them a book so we made a lot more sales over the next few of weeks – plus the sales in local bookshops and on Amazon. When I thanked people on a local Facebook page and included the Amazon link, the book sold out in a day. The second order sold out and for almost two weeks before Christmas it was out of stock. This happened last year with Secret Dumfries so I need to work on improving the timing.

Waterstones book signing: We did a book signing on a Saturday morning a couple of weeks before Christmas between 11am and 1pm.

Before the event, I took in some fliers and laminated posters. I also left fliers in places where they were likely to be picked up – libraries, university coffee bar, shops which take promotional materials for local events. Waterstones put an advertising board outside the shop with event details.

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The advertising board Waterstones put outside the shop a week before the signing event

I emailed some photos from the book which they used in a display inside the shop. In fact, they removed the display material for the latest Billy Connolly book and replaced it with ours – how cool is that?

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Part of the display inside Waterstones. We didn’t think to take a pic of the display of books!

Waterstones ordered the books direct from the distributors. We will eventually receive royalties for the sales. If it had been a self-published book we would have brought them along and they would have taken fifty per cent of the sale price.

I sent out a press release and we advertised the event on social media.

On the day, a table and chairs were set up directly opposite the door with a full height display of the book behind us and more piled on the table. We don’t approach customers but wait for them to come to us. At one time Waterstones refused to host local indie-published events because of authors following customers around the shop suggesting/begging they buy their books. Blanket ban – which is understandable. We signed books for those who wanted them signed. Before we left, we were asked to sign twenty books and a ‘signed by the author’ sticker was attached.

We were not sure how many we’d sold because, with all the chat, we forgot to make a note. I went in two days later to ask. We’d sold almost 20 in the two hours plus several copies of last year’s Secret Dumfries and all the signed copies had been already sold. The shop had sold a total of 72 – with two weeks left until Christmas and a full page feature in a local paper still to come.

Worthwhile? Yes. It requires a lot of work in advance and Waterstones isn’t going to give window space to a book which sells in the numbers we’re talking about here, nor are they going to spend time promoting the event, though given the materials they did make a good show for us.

Launching the book has been hard work but it’s been fun and it gets our names known, which will help when we publish future books.

Happy to answer any questions on the nuts and bolts of organising a book launch, writing press releases or anything else launch related.

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The book!

MarySmith’sPlace – #RussianJeep #Leprosy #AfghanAdventures 16

As the clinic was soon to have a vehicle, a driver, Jawad, was appointed. When, through his network of cousins and uncles he heard of a jeep coming on the market in Angoori bazaar he and Hussain went off one morning to check it out.

The noise of an engine signalled their return late in the afternoon and we rushed out to greet the arrival of a beaming Hussain and his magnificent ‘Model Konah’ Russian jeep. On the threshold I stopped, stunned into silence at the sheer frightfulness of the vehicle.

The windscreen was so adorned by garlands of plastic flowers and other shrubbery, the driver’s visibility was reduced to almost nil. The floral theme was continued by chintzy curtains at the side windows while, suspended from the front bumper, was a collection of chains and medallions, chiming and chinking in the breeze. When Jawad put the vehicle into reverse a female voice with an American twang proceeded to warn, ‘Attention Please, this car is backing up. Attention Please this car is backing up.’

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The jeep which became Hussain’s pride and joy

The enthusiastic spectators who had gathered welcomed the jeep, as they would a bride to her new home, by bombarding it with sweets.

Hussain so loved the chintzy curtains he at first refused to remove the side windows – they did not open, having to be completely removed – but when his passengers all became faint and nauseous from the terrific heat inside he did reluctantly allow the windows to be taken out.

Now he had transport, Hussain was eager to try to find a leprosy patient he’d received news of. By now he had registered two, previously untreated, patients who had come to the clinic but this man apparently lived in a village some distance away. We set off one morning to find him, with only the vaguest of addresses and directions.

At a fork in the road, Jawad stopped. The road on the right curved around the side of a mountain.  ‘That’s the road to take,’ said Ismail. ‘It’s a short cut which joins this road again on the other side of the mountain.’

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The road round the mountain.

‘Are you sure?’ asked Jawad. ‘It doesn’t look very wide.’

‘Oh, yes, even big trucks use that road,’ Ismail replied with great authority so Jawad turned onto the mountain track. Half an hour later, increasingly concerned at how narrow the road had become, he stopped, insisting Ismail accompany him on foot to investigate further ahead.

A shame faced Ismail re-appeared to break the news the track simply disappeared about a quarter of a mile further on. There was nothing for it but to go back the way we’d come.  Except the road was already too narrow to allow Jawad to turn the vehicle so we had an agonizing thirty minutes of American accented ‘Attention please, this car is backing up’. My suggestion of pulling out a wire produced such a look of horror on Hussain’s face the idea was quickly dropped. I nursed a slight hope the mechanism might self-destruct under the strain of overuse but the nasal tones rang out with what seemed to be an increasingly persistent warning. Finally Jawad decided that it might be better to risk falling down the mountain in the middle of a three point (well, probably six) turn, rather than witness his passengers have nervous breakdowns.

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Ismail assured us the road was wide enough for big trucks

Hussain asked everyone we met on the road, and in a village shop but no one knew of our patient. One man thought he knew of a person with leprosy and gave directions to a farm. The way was obstructed by a small river whose muddy banks were too soft to bear the weight of the jeep so Hussain and Ismail continued on foot to the farm, returning after almost an hour looking thoroughly fed up. Eventually Hussain had to admit defeat and abandon the fruitless search.

A whole day wasted, leaving us tired and with a guilty niggle that perhaps we had not done enough to find the missing patient. Perhaps he was afraid his neighbours would ostracise him if it was known he had leprosy and he didn’t want to be found. To cheer everyone up I introduced the game of ‘I Went to Market and Bought’ which, played in English, soon had everyone laughing as they struggled to remember the ever lengthening alphabetical shopping list.

A second outing, to the home of one of the newly registered leprosy patients was more successful. The family were obviously very poor and the room in which we sat, although spotlessly clean, had nothing more than one threadbare gilim on the floor and a bright red geranium in a pot on the windowsill. The patient, Moosa, had been referred to Hussain by a doctor in Angoori bazaar – one of the few doctors in Afghanistan who knew anything about leprosy. Moosa had long been suspicious the tell-tale anaesthetic patches indicated the dreaded disease. Like many others, he had tried to hide the signs, afraid once it was known he had leprosy, he would be forced by the community to live as a social outcast. The doctor assured him the disease could be cured and sent him to Hussain.

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The jeep in all its glory!

At the clinic Hussain had explained how easy it was to cure the disease if Moosa took his medication regularly, and promised if he followed advice he need never suffer from the deformities which have made leprosy a disease feared throughout history. During the house visit Ismail began to teach the patient how to protect and care for his feet, showing him how to rub off the hard skin with a stone, how to soak and oil his feet each day to prevent cracks in the skin which, if left untended could cause ulcers.

While all this was going on I examined the women and girls in the family. This caused great hilarity, especially when one little girl ran away, screaming hysterically, convinced I was about to give her an injection. She was brought back and tearfully submitted to the examination after which she joined in the general laughter.

The family invited us to stay for lunch. None of us felt we should burden this poor family with the cost of feeding us but Moosa was insistent. Hussain whispered to me we should accept in case he thought we were refusing to eat with him because he had leprosy. There were many apologies for the humbleness of the meal but, served with simple dignity, the large bowl of yoghurt, crisp spring onions, fresh, warm bread and salt became a banquet.

MarySmith’sPlace – Walking off the mince pies #3 #HappyNewYear

The 1st of January 2019 was a glorious, sunny day; the 31st December 2019 was a glorious sunny day so we were looking forward to walking off the mince pies on New Year’s Day. The day dawned dismal and grey. Not raining, though, so at least there was that.


Screel, to the left, on a clear day!

Our plan was to climb Screel Hill, which is close to where we live in Dumfries & Galloway. At 344 metres, it’s not a very high hill, though it’s a bit of a tough scramble in places – and it does offer fabulous views out over Rough Firth and Auchencairn Bay.

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Unfortunately, from our bathroom window Screel wasn’t visible behind the low cloud.

I’d have opted for an alternative walk – or maybe hot chocolate and a good book – but the DH was adamant we should do it. Wee-sis and Sula the Labrador were joining us and we did have those mince pies to walk off.

The car park was full, which made me feel we were not being totally foolhardy in heading out into the mist. Others had gone before us and I thought, as Wee-sis pulled into the only space, some had even returned.

At least this year the DH was sensibly shod in proper boots rather than the crocs he wore last year.

The first part is fairly easy walking but looking back down at how far we’d come the views over the coast were not inspiring.

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Imagine how fabulous this looks on a clear day

We crossed a path and into the woods where the going became a bit tougher and a lot muddier. Pausing for a breather we discovered the DH, although sensibly shod, was not sensibly dressed. He’d forgotten when he jumped in Wee-sis’s car that his jacket was in his own car. By then, I, over-warm in my many layers had removed my fleece, so the DH struggled in to it and on we went.

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Stopping for a breather

Sula the Labrador was ecstatic as we set off – a walk with three of her two-legses family, one of whom might be persuaded to throw an occasional stick for her, is her idea of heaven.

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The last part to the top is a scramble over slippery rock, bog and mud. That only takes you to the ridge which is still some way from the summit of Screel – again over bog – which we still couldn’t even see. Sula didn’t care, she was having a wonderful time and if only these stupid humans would throw her stick, all would be perfect.

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We’re going up there – somewhere

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Wee-sis leads the way through the mist

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DH battles on – it was his idea!

Finally, we made it to take the obligatory photos and looked round at the non-existent views.

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Why you should never work with children or animals!

The return route is easier after the initial scramble. We could chat again instead of puffing. And, to add to her joy, Sula dog found something wonderfully fox-scented to roll in. And the DH only fell over once. Walkers 3 Mince pies 0

Does anyone have an easier solution to working off the Christmas excess consumption?


MarySmith’sPlace – Temper tantrums Afghan adventures #15

When the Programme Coordinator, arrived from a tour of the other leprosy clinics scattered around Hazara Jat he brought with him the money to buy a vehicle for Hussain – a second hand Russian jeep. Rather foolishly I’d assumed Hussain, understanding the precarious financing of the project, would accept, with disappointment perhaps, this was a reasonable way forward. Hussain however, on the subject of a vehicle for his clinic, was beyond reason.


Hussain with his cousin before he came to Pakistan for medical training

An Afghan sulk beats a Scottish humph any day and Hussain was an expert. I couldn’t complain about lack of exercise as he, on numerous sulky occasions, asked me to accompany him on scrambles up and down the mountain – to ‘discuss things’. Incapable of participating in a conversation while puffing up a mountain, I would be forced to listen to Hussain’s latest round of complaints, mentally trying to prepare diplomatic, reasonable arguments for when we finally stopped.

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Hussain not long after returning to Afghanistan

An appeal to Hussain’s concern for his patients was often successful. It was encouraging that, no matter how bad his mood was, he never allowed himself to be anything other than professional in his medical work. Even on the occasions when he was not on speaking terms with me he always showed tremendous care and concern for the welfare of his patients. The day Hussain realised the cash for his vehicle would not buy a Toyota our route crossed an almost perpendicular cliff face. Creeping cautiously in his wake, I wondered, for a moment, if he was trying to terrorise me into agreeing to somehow find the money for his coveted Toyota. But he was totally oblivious to his surroundings and to any danger we might be in.

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By the time we had reached the safety of a plateau I was too angry to attempt further reasoning. ‘Stop behaving like a baby. You’ve been told you can buy a Russian jeep now and we can ask for money for a new vehicle in next year’s budget. What’s the point in going on and on it?

‘You keep telling me your only concern is to do your work properly but I don’t believe that any more. You want a flashy vehicle to show off in, driving round the bazaar, visiting your family, your friends, showing what a big person you are!’

His face registered total shock and I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to throw me or himself off the mountain, or simply burst into tears. Speechlessly, avoiding the precipitous route by which we had come up, he led the way back down the mountain. Miraculously, by the time we reached the clinic he had regained his good humour and accepted that for this year at least, there would be no Toyota for his clinic.

It was astonishing how he could sulk for days, being thoroughly obnoxious then suddenly flash a big happy smile to show it was all over. He assumed everyone around him would instantly forget and forgive the horrors of his black mood and barbed tongue. This time, I was not so easily placated.  It was wearying, struggling to get through every day trying to avoid being snapped at by a child monster. I demanded to know why he persisted in taking his anger out on me.

He fell silent for a few moments before replying, ‘You know my mother and father both died when I was very small. My sister-in-law looked after us but she was horrible to me and even worse with my little brother, who was only a baby. I had to protect him or she would beat him for any little thing he did wrong, even if he passed stool when he was too small to help it.  I had to do all the work, fetching water, looking after the sheep and goats. I did not mind the work, everyone must work, but my sister-in-law was always angry with me and beating me for no reason. When I remembered my mother I would cry.

‘Now, after years of being alone I feel that I have a mother again and if I can’t say everything that is in my heart or show my feelings to my mother who else is there? It’s not that I am angry with you; I just get in a bad mood because I am angry with other things and I want you to understand how upset I am. Sometimes I don’t know how to explain things.’


Ready to leave for Pakistan to train as a paramedic – less than three years later he was in charge of a clinic

His voice broke and I realised again how very young he was. I thought of how it must have been for that small boy growing up, never able to cry in his mother’s arms, never receiving or giving a loving kiss or hug, never given approval, having to keep his emotions buried deep inside him.

It was emotional blackmail of the first order – and I was suckered.


Hussain, newly arrived in Pakistan. In need of his mum.

Fortunately life at the clinic was not all angst and emotional trauma. My birthday was a happy occasion. I was allowed to sleep late and Hussain brought me coffee in bed. The others trooped in bearing cards and gifts. The grand finale was when Hussain bore in an enormous cake with an iced birthday message piped in lurid colours across the top. The baker had never before been asked to create such a thing but the finished product was a visual masterpiece which had been hidden for the last two days in the depths of the kitchen.

It tasted absolutely vile. I noticed, as I finally swallowed the last nasty mouthful of my slice, no-one else was keen to have second helpings. I think Baqul took the remainder home for the children.

MarySmith’sPlace – #14 Food & Friendship

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Harvest time

Islamic rules, and the traditions of the country, dictate that hospitality is shown to guests. People, therefore, felt obliged to invite the foreigner round for dinner. Some would have felt easier fulfilling their obligations had I been a man, unsure as they were of the etiquette in dealing, on a social footing, with a foreign woman. Hussain, and usually, at least one of the others from the clinic would accompany me to the dinner party – mehmani.

Some men would greet me with a handshake, although often this was the merest brushing of palms – as though the touch of a woman may necessitate some kind of decontamination procedure to be carried out later.  I soon made a policy decision not to offer my hand unless the man offered his first after several embarrassing situations in which I would extend my hand, realise that the man did not want to shake it and withdraw it, just as good manners forced him to extend his. We looked as though we were attempting a badly synchronised performance of Pat a Cake.

There was always tea before the meal, with fancy sweets – the imported variety always referred to as “choclat”, although there was rarely a hint of that substance in them. Once the tea was poured everyone would greet each other all over again. ‘How are you?  How is your life? How is your house? How is your family? Is your life good? Are you well? May you never grow tired.’ These people saw each other regularly, and were more than likely to have met at least once that day already. At first, I could only mumble and stumble my way self- consciously through the ritual – my responses never quite coordinating with the queries, never knowing when, or how, it was all going to end.

After tea the long, embroidered cloth would be laid on the floor, at which point everyone shuffled forward into place. Several young boys of the family served as waiters sitting at strategic intervals behind the diners, watching carefully, ensuring that plates were constantly replenished.  The main course would be either korma – stew – of chicken and potatoes with rice, or shurwa – the liquid in which the meat or chicken had been cooked. Into this soup we would throw pieces of broken bread to soak up the liquid. The host divided the meat into equal portions, surreptitiously watched by all his guests, each anxious to receive his full share.  A simple salad of raw onions and tomatoes was a usual accompaniment, along with small dishes of subzi, a green vegetable similar in appearance and taste to spinach, and bowls of yoghourt.


In some houses each guest had his own plate; in others, there were several, large communal bowls around each of which four or six diners would gather. If there was chicken, a game was played with the wishbone. However, the person with the larger piece was not the winner, eligible to make a wish. Pulling apart the wishbone symbolised an agreement between the participants – an agreement “to remember”.  From then on, if one of the contestants tries to hand something to the other, the second person must say ‘I remember’.  If he forgets and takes the object offered to him he loses, and must pay a forfeit. This may be something previously agreed, such as a chicken dinner. Or, it might be whatever possession of his the first person was holding out, be it radio or a handkerchief.

At the end of the meal a prayer of thanks would be offered, often catching me unawares still gnawing at a chicken bone. More tea followed with the young waiters, sitting by the teapots, anxiously watching for signs of an empty glass. The only way to avoid drinking a gallon of tea was to place one’s hand firmly over the empty glass, signalling enough.  Conversation became a little more animated after dinner, often centring on the activities of the various local political parties: who was having falling out with whom, who was planning a takeover bid.     An effort would be made to include me in the conversation. ‘’Afghanistan chator ast? – How is Afghanistan?’ they would ask.

I would reply, ‘Afghanistan khele khub ast – Afghanistan is very good’.

They would respond, with much head shaking, ‘Afghanistan khub neest – Afghanistan is not good.’ Similarly, when they sought my opinion of the people, I would reply diplomatically that the people were very nice and I liked them very much. At this, they would laugh uproariously and inform me that the people of Afghanistan were very bad. I could never think of what else to say after that, denial on my part simply led to repetition on theirs. The ordeal would come to a sudden end when, at a given signal, invariably unnoticed by me, everyone would abruptly get to their feet and leave.

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My friendship with some of the women continued. As well as Fatima, there was Kulsom and her twenty-year-old daughter Latifa. She was a beautiful young woman, and didn’t she know it. Somehow succeeding in appearing provocative even when cocooned in her chaddar she was an outrageous flirt. When she walked about in the village or across the fields to the orchards, various young men would appear to exchange greetings with her. She would tug demurely at her chaddar but her flashing eyes were full of mischief.

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The lovely Latifa – probably a grandmother several time over by now.

At harvest time, the area outside the clinic was levelled for the harvest to be threshed and farmers worked there all day, guiding the bullocks which pulled the heavy wooden threshing machine around and around. And every day Latifa appeared bringing a jug of water for the thirsty workers or some fruit after their mid-day meal. She stayed to chat and joke with them.  The big window in our living room would become all steamed up as the clinic staff, and visitors such as Engineer, feigned great interest in the threshing. At the same time they were critical of her “free” behaviour. I berated them for their double standards, but to no avail.


None of the women came to my room, maintaining Hussain would be angry with them for disturbing me. I assured them this was not the case. One evening I had decided not to go to a mehmani and moments after the staff left, in trooped the Fatima, Kulsom, Latifa and Sughra, with tiny Amina tagging along behind. They had decided to come and keep me company. Before long another couple of women arrived, eager not to miss out on anything.

I offered tea but Fatima firmly insisted they would like coffee – having heard from Baqul about this delicious alternative to tea. With the addition of large quantities of sugar and plenty of powdered milk they obviously found it to their liking. Latifa asked to see my photographs and they were soon poring over family snapshots and studying postcards of sheep, cows and scenes of rural Scotland. One of the women turned most of the photographs upside down to study them. When she suddenly realised that she was looking at an inverted sheep she hastily turned it the right way up, darting a look of embarrassment at me as she realised her mistake.  It was always the familiar they appreciated most, the things with which they could identify, so farmland scenes were enjoyed while pictures of strange houses containing peculiar furniture were largely ignored.

When we had exhausted the photographs, the women turned their attention to Latifa, teasing her that soon she would be married.  Latifa was blushing furiously as she protested, ‘I am never going to get married – never.’ She ended the discussion by flouncing out of the room, amid much laughter from the other women. At the sound of the men returning, my guests rose to leave, still wiping away the tears of laughter. Sughra and I rolled our eyes at each other in incomprehension of what, I assumed, had been the ribald comments made to Latifa on the subject of her marriage.

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Latifa (in green chaddar) helping pick over the harvested grain with women from the village

MarySmith’sPlace: The Blogger Recognition Award – A thank you to bloggers who support so generously.

I am delighted to have been nominated by author and blogging star Sally Cronin and by author Jessica Norrie for the Blogger Recognition Award. I was going to nominate Jessica but she beat me to it but I still want to thank her for her support.

This gives me the opportunity to thank some of the wonderful bloggers out there who have supported me and my blog. If you have already been nominated on another blog (bound to have happened because like the ‘coo’s tail’ I’m always behind) then you know you are an extra special supporter.

If you have an award-free blog or are simply too busy (not many sleeps left until the big day) there is no need to participate so participation is optional. I simply want to say thank you to people for their support and let them know how much they are appreciated.

Sally made her own award plaque and, not being as technologically savvy, I have copied it.


First there are a few guidelines attached to the award should you wish to participate….

My thanks of course to Sally Cronin and Jessica Norrie for nominating me.


  1. Thank the blogger(s) who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
    2. Write a post to show your award.
    3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
    4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers.
    5. Select up to fifteen bloggers you want to give this award to.
    6. Comment (or pingback) on each blog to let them know that you’ve nominated them and provide a link to the post you’ve created.

How My Blog Started:

For a few years I was posting about my dad when he had dementia, his wife left him and I moved in to care for him. I often wanted to post about other things but felt it should be in a separate place and so MarySmith’sPlace began on 28 December, 2017. Here’s a link to the very first post. It’s a bit of an eclectic mixture of stories from when I worked in Afghanistan to walking in Scotland, from local history to an annual blog about bunions (not mine, I am fortunate not to have any).

Give Two Pieces of Advice to New Bloggers:

  1. Think carefully about why you want to blog – if you hope it will help to sell thousands of your books, don’t bother. It won’t. Blogging should be fun so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage to post every day or even every week. If it becomes a chore to you, take a break.
  2. Do respond to comments people leave on your posts – the interaction with people from all around the world (many of whom become ‘real’ friends) is one of the things which makes blogging so much fun.

Select up to 15 Bloggers:  If you have already participated, or don’t want to, don’t worry – this is just a thank you for your support.

Author Barb Taub  is one of the funniest bloggers around – she’ll make you spit your coffee all over your keyboard

Author and blogger and a great supporter of indie authors and bloggers Marcia Meara

Lynn Otty – poet and short story writer

Pete Johnson with his wonderful dog, Ollie blogs at:

Author Janet Gogerty blogs at Tidal Scribe.

The lovely Willow is a wonderful supporter of my blog – many thanks, Willow.

James Cudneyis an author, blogger, book reviewer – and a huge supporter of indie authors

Maggie’s lovely blog at Cave Walls is well worth a visit

The next few bloggers, as well as supporting my blog, are responsible for my tbr pile reaching a monstrous height:

Liz Lloyd

Alison Williams

Jessica Norrie

Rosie Amber

Jill’s Book Café 

Cathy Ryan

I could go on adding to this list but I know some of those I’d like to thank for their support – such as Sue Vincent who has shown me tremendous support over the years – have already been presented with the award by other bloggers so, a huge thank you to everyone who should be on this list and whose support I truly value.


MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures #13 #Babies

Although Hussain didn’t encourage house visits he could never bring himself to refuse, even though experience was teaching him the messenger’s ‘emergency’ was probably nothing worse than an indigestion attack. But there was always the fear that perhaps, this time, it really was a crisis.

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Shortly before dinner, one evening, a man arrived at the clinic to say that his wife was in labour and the ‘baby did not want to come out’. This threw us both into a panic. When visiting Rosanna, I had examined quite a number of women in various stages of pregnancy, but never had anything to do with actually delivering a baby. Before hurrying after the expectant father, we thumbed through the obstetrics books, trying to memorise relevant chapters.

When we were ushered into the house, none of the three women in the room looked pregnant, and for a brief, wonderful moment I thought the baby had been born. Instead, I was ushered behind a curtain and there lay our patient, looking a lot more calm and in control than either of us. I examined her, calling through the curtain to Hussain that as far as I could tell the baby was the right way round and the head was well down. ‘Ask how many babies she’s had.’

Hussain translated the question and the woman, smilingly held up three fingers. ‘Well, ask what problems she had with the other deliveries.’

Back came the reply, ‘No problems and all are alive and healthy.’ Mum-to-be smiled complacently. A strong contraction came and went. She nodded encouragingly at me.

‘What’s different about this time from the other times?  Why does she feel that the baby won’t come out?’ I asked, instinctively holding the woman’s hand as another contraction began.

There was a longer discussion on Hussain’s side of the curtain then he called, ‘You can come out now.’ As I emerged from behind the curtain he continued, ‘The woman says this time is like all the rest only her husband thought that as there is now a doctor in the village he should call us. We don’t need to stay, the women will help her and we are only minutes away if they do have a problem.’

I didn’t feel I wanted to be only minutes away from a delivery problem. Hussain glanced at me. ‘If I had a vehicle then we could take her to Qolijou,’ he said. I had to agree. Back at the clinic we resumed our study of the obstetrics book. Less than hour later the husband re-appeared to tell us that a healthy son had been born and both baby and mother were fine.  Hussain and I whooped with relief that we were not going to have to practise our non-existent midwifery skills after all.

Soon after this episode I did get a chance to participate at a delivery, fortunately under Rosanna’s experienced supervision. I’d gone to spend a couple of hours at Qolijou while Hussain attended to some work in the bazaar. ‘Come on,’ she said when I arrived. ‘You’re going to see a baby born this afternoon.’ She was just about to examine the very young woman who had been brought in early in the morning. It was her first baby and the girl looked petrified. Her contractions had begun the previous evening but when, mid-morning, they had stopped the family decided to hire a jeep and bring her to Qolijou. Rosanna had started a drip to induce labour again but the contractions were still very weak and infrequent. ‘It’s going to be some time yet,’ she said.

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A trip in this kind of jeep on these roads was almost guaranteed to kick start a labour!


Suggesting the family take the girl for a drive in the jeep she added to me, ‘Driving for half an hour on these roads should get things going nicely.’ Sure enough, when the little group – panic stricken wife, bemused husband, mother-in-law and confused looking aunt – returned the contractions were stronger and more frequent.

Although she had delivered countless babies Rosanna admitted she was slightly worried about this one. I found her in the delivery room, sitting on the floor, poring over her own obstetrics book. The husband was becoming increasingly nervous, making moves towards the door, but Rosanna encouraged him to make himself useful by gently massaging his wife.  Normally the husband is nowhere around for the delivery of an Afghan baby and the two women attendants at first looked shocked, then amused.

Hussain arrived to collect me but there was no way I was going anywhere until the baby arrived. He went off to take a nap.

It grew dark and lamps were lit. When Rosanna next examined the girl she said triumphantly to the father-to-be, ‘Your baby is on the way. Look, you can see the head – so much hair!  Now, you help your wife to push, encourage her.’

She turned to me. ‘When the baby arrives I’ll give it to you, don’t let the women get hold of it until I have finished. I’ll tell you how to tie the cord.’

As the woman pushed to bring her baby into the world Rosanna was there with her, pushing with all her might, puffing and blowing and panting until I began wondering which one of them would deliver first. Suddenly, the baby was there, yelling a protest at its arrival.   Rosanna told me how to tie the cord – giving me the chance to feel that I was actually doing something useful. As I tended to the baby girl, so beautiful but so slippery, I was overcome by awe at the miracle of new life coming into the world.

The father was totally bowled over by it all, the only father in Jaghoray if not all of Hazara Jat who had actually witnessed the birth of his child.

Only the mother seemed totally disinterested and we were afraid that she wasn’t happy because her baby was a girl and not a boy. Rosanna questioned the husband about this but after he had spoken lovingly to his young wife we saw her smile and he said, ‘O khush ast lekin kheley khasta shud – She is happy, but very tired.’ When the baby had been cleaned she was taken over by the two older women, impatient for their turn to participate and they expertly swaddled the child, binding her with a band of beautifully embroidered cloth.

The beaming father took his baby in his arms and invited Rosanna to choose a name and, after some thought, she decided on Gulzeba, meaning Beautiful Flower.

The only time the father lost his composure was when, the afterbirth having come away cleanly, Rosanna began to stitch up a small tear. He spoke excitedly to Iqbal who translated, ‘He is afraid that if you sew her up they will have difficulties in the future.’ When Rosanna explained what she was doing, promising that this was not a new form of family planning technique he relaxed again, looking rather sheepish. Rosanna and I returned to her room where we celebrated with a pot of tea and a biscuit.

On the way back to our clinic, I gave Hussain a graphic account of the birth to which he replied, ‘So now you can deliver all the babies in the village.’

I looked at him, aghast, ‘Not on my own, I can’t – send them to Rosanna.’

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The bridge of terror from a different angle