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.
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.
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.
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.’
‘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.