A cheer from the passengers roused me from my reverie. Five hours after leaving Chirman we were finally stopping at a roadside chaikhana (tea house). Moh’dullah found us a secluded spot under a mulberry tree where we could drink our tea undisturbed, even allowing me to stretch my vocal chords a little although a cigarette was still out of the question. Apparently, so, too, was blowing my dust-clogged nose. As I raised a paper tissue Hussain hissed, ‘Not here, not in public! You must never blow your nose in public in Afghanistan.’ I sniffed and turned to watch what our fellow travellers were up to.
In a small, shallow stream running in front of the chaikhana, groups of men washed, preparing to pray. Women, their minds on more earthly concerns, washed their children, or rinsed out soiled baby clothes which they spread to dry on flat stones and branches of nearby trees. The realisation that I was actually in Afghanistan – without having been arrested on the border – caused such a sudden bubble of happiness I laughed aloud, earning a disapproving look from Moh’dullah.
When the signal came to move we learned that one of the trucks in our convoy had developed an irreparable mechanical fault, so its passengers with their belongings were divided between the remaining vehicles. Our bus protested loudly about its increased burden and, after barely an hour, ground to a shuddering halt. The driver disappeared under the bonnet. Loud banging issued forth, as though the poor bus were being severely beaten for its recalcitrant behaviour. Satisfied he had taught it a lesson the driver revved the engine and, triumphantly we lurched forward again. The bus, however, was elderly and, as the road became ever steeper, it faltered more frequently.
Each time it stalled on a gradient the driver reversed to the bottom and the men clambered out. The driver would rev the engine furiously and suddenly rush, full tilt, at the incline. The women grasped the backs of the seats in front of them, rocking themselves backwards and forwards in a rhythmic frenzy until, on the final forward thrust, as the driver accelerated they released a united chorus of ‘Y’Allah’. And it worked. The men re-joined us at the top of the slope and we limped on again. Evening approached and perhaps the women had grown tired from their exertions or perhaps the old bus had simply had enough for one day but it refused to tackle another hill. Despite desperate banging and tinkering under the bonnet it was clear that we were not going any further that day.
Hussain escorted me from the bus, far enough from the other passengers to allow us to talk. ‘I am sorry but what can I do?’ He looked pleadingly at me. I shrugged, assured him spending the night on the bus was no problem, nothing to it, like going on some sort of spiritual retreat with no dinner, no tea, no talking and no smoking – just the sort of adventure I enjoyed. He peered through my veil, trying to decide if I was going crazy or just cross. While I crouched behind him, puffing a surreptitious cigarette, he continued to make reassuring noises. ‘We should reach Angoori by lunchtime – this time tomorrow we shall be in Jaghoray.’ Once again he forgot to say Insha’Allah.
Back on the bus I fell asleep immediately and, surprisingly, slept deeply until shortly before dawn. Seemingly refreshed after its night’s rest the old bus fairly lurched along until we reached Maqoor, an untidy, straggling place, whose dismal appearance the bright morning sunshine could not improve. As I started to move, Hussain whispered urgently, ‘No, you better stay here for now. This place is dangerous. There are many Pushtoon and they are not friendly to Hazaras. I’ll bring your tea here.’
At first, I enjoyed the luxury of stretching out on two whole seats but I was impatient for my tea and by the time Hussain reappeared, over an hour later I was irritable. As I gulped the tea he informed me I still could not leave the bus. ‘There was fighting near here yesterday and the Commanders say we cannot travel any further today. The drivers are meeting with them now to try to persuade them to let us continue, but, well, maybe we can’t go until tomorrow morning. I’ll come back when I know more.’
‘I can’t stay on this bus until tomorrow morning,’ I raged. Actually, it’s impossible to rage in a barely audible whisper. It came out as a petulant whine. Hussain made a hurried exit.
It was becoming unpleasantly hot and, under the burqa, I was sweaty and sticky. I dozed. I awoke, glanced at my watch. Another hour had passed. Where was Hussain? I tried to escape back to the oblivion of sleep but was too hot and thirsty. My head itched and I longed to tear off the burqa and scratch frantically but a couple of old men were stretched out, apparently asleep, behind me. I longed to blow my nose. My lips were dry and cracked. This, I decided was not much fun.
Hussain appeared. ‘Are you all right?’ With a big smile, he thrust half a cold nan at me. The smile did it. I exploded – quietly, of course. ‘No, I’m not all right,’ I hissed. ‘I’ve been stuck here for bloody hours, it’s like a furnace under this stupid burqa, and I’m thirsty and I…’ I stopped as I heard my voice rising and felt tears pricking my eyes.
Hussain poured a couple of inches of water from our precious water cooler – precious, not for the water, but for the clinic’s budget wrapped in plastic at the bottom. ‘Have a drink,’ he urged. ‘You’re dehydrating.’
I hissed, ‘Get me out of this bus or I’ll go mad!’ Hussain looked stricken. Scared as he was that someone might realise I was a foreigner if seen outside, he realised if I had hysterics the whole of Maqoor would soon know it anyway. Reluctantly, he agreed. ‘Come on, keep your head down, and don’t talk.’
Still snivelling, blinking back tears and feeling ridiculously guilty, as though the whole situation was somehow my fault, I kept my eyes dutifully downcast. We picked our way over piles of mud bricks, climbing over the low walls of various building projects until we reached the end of the bazaar. Glancing down, the piles of human turds around our feet reminded me of my own immediate problem. Hussain indicated a nearby wheat field, ‘Go over there, but be quick,’ he snapped. He was angry – with me, with the situation, with his own helplessness and fear and I trotted off, without further argument, through the waist high wheat.
Shortly after I was returned to my prison the drivers were given permission to continue the journey. As there was still some uncertainty as to whether or not we were about to drive into factional fighting on the road ahead we were provided with a group of armed guards some of whom perched on the roof while others squashed themselves in amongst the bags of sugar. Although not relishing the thought of running into fighting it seemed preferable to remaining in Maqoor and as we pulled out I longed to join in with the resounding chorus of ‘Y’Allah’, which burst from everyone’s lips.