MarySmith’sPlace – On the road still Afghanistan Adventures #28

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It was still dark when I heard the urgent whisper, ‘Sister, sister, it is time to go.’  I crawled out of my warm nest, pulling my chaddar on straight. Khudadad had already rolled up his bedding. Under his impatient gaze I fumbled clumsily trying to roll my sleeping bag to a size small enough to squeeze back into its ridiculously tiny nylon bag. Finally he took over and somehow stuffed it in, picked up our bags and headed for the door. ‘Come. Sayed is waiting.’

‘But, I have to go outside first,’ I whispered.

‘Now?’ Khudadad’s voice rose to a hysterical pitch, provoking mutters and grumbles from the sleeping bodies scattered about the room. ‘Sayed will be angry if we are late. We will stop soon.’

I trotted along the deserted street, trying to keep up with Khudadad’s hurried stride, hearing the thrum of the trucks’ engines warming up. One look at Sayed, fingers drumming on the steering wheel, was enough for me to climb into my place and keep my mouth shut about needing to pee. He was obviously not back on home ground yet.

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My travelling companion Khudadad on the right. This was taken on a different journey. 

At precisely four o’clock we departed, roaring off through the still sleeping bazaar. I snuggled into my little corner of the hard wooden bench hoping I could sleep away the time until Sayed made the breakfast stop. I dozed fitfully, waking when the truck stopped. Khudadad clambered down to see what was happening. My hopes were dashed when he returned, saying, ‘One truck has a puncture. There is nowhere for you to go here.’ I squirmed uncomfortably on my seat. Seeing a line of truck crews relieving themselves didn’t help.

Angry with the delay Sayed, determined to make up lost time, kept on trucking. I became increasingly desperate. It was worse even than being trapped on the bus in Maqoor – at least it had been stationary. This was sheer torture. How I didn’t end up with an attack of cystitis, I’ll never know. I’d just decided to risk Sayed’s wrath by insisting he stop to let me pee when, finally, after almost six excruciatingly painful hours on the road, he announced that we had reached our breakfast stop.

‘Tea!’ gasped Khudadad, heading for the hotel. I stared at him.

‘Well, do you think, first I, em, ….?’  Khudadad was contrite.

‘Oh, I am sorry, sister. I forgot.’ Yeah, because you’d already relieved yourself. He led the way under some trees, along a river bank. Each time I indicated a suitable place he dismissed it and marched on. I was beginning to wonder for how many miles he intended to walk, when he stopped, pointing towards a group of scrubby bushes. ‘I think there should be all right. I’ll wait here.’ I decided, Khudadad was taking the foreigner’s need for privacy a bit too seriously if was going to lead me on a route march each time.

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Together we rushed back to the chaikhana, terrified that Sayed might be ready to move on already, before we even got a sniff at the tea. Khudadad indicated a rickety ladder which led to an empty room above. Strangely, a bed stood in one corner – a metal-framed, hospital bed.   After a few minutes a loaded tray appeared through the trapdoor. Some sticky brown, very sweet halwa was accompanied by nan, and of course, two pots of tea. I was learning how wonderful tea was as on a journey when throats are clogged with dust.

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A marmot

Footsteps sounded on the ladder and a man appeared carrying a bundle which he deposited unceremoniously on the bed. A woman followed, shrouded in a voluminous chaddar. We greeted each other before the man began to talk at some length to Khudadad, occasionally gesturing towards the bundle on the bed.

Khudadad translated, ‘Their baby is sick. Diarrhoea. They want you to give it some medicine.’

‘But I am not a doctor.’

‘They think you are.’

‘Please, Khudadad, tell them I’m not. They must go to a proper doctor. There’s a German hospital near here, isn’t there?’

Khudadad nodded, spoke to the baby’s father, too rapidly for me to follow. He turned back, ‘I told him that you don’t have any equipment or medicines with you, but he said you can write a prescription and he will buy the medicines in the bazaar.’

Before I had a chance to protest at Khudadad’s duplicity, the hotel keeper popped his head through the trap door to offer the loan of a blood pressure set. I wondered if the German sponsored hospital had noticed that a bed and a BP set were missing. In the meantime, the mother was eagerly un-wrapping the bundle on the bed to show me the baby.

‘Khudadad, I can’t give a prescription for medicines when I don’t know the cause of the diarrhoea. It’s dangerous. The only thing I can say is that they give the baby plenty of fluids – they can surely find rehydration salts in the bazaar – but they must go to the clinic.’

Khudadad talked for a very long time and I wondered what embellishments of his own he was adding. The baby’s father did not look impressed. Finally, Khudadad turned back to me, saying, ‘I told him how to mix the ORS but he says ORS is not a proper medicine. He wants injections. He says you are not a good doctor.’

I opened my mouth to repeat that I was not a doctor but a bellow from below indicated Sayed was ready to go. I murmured polite goodbyes to the disappointed couple, now busily re-wrapping the baby, tying it up like a parcel with embroidered ribbons.

Back in the truck I mused on how easy it would have been to make the couple happy by scribbling a prescription for antibiotics. They would have gone away thinking I was a good doctor rather than a useless and unhelpful foreigner. But, I knew my conscience would have troubled me, worrying if I’d inadvertently killed the baby. Of course, the baby might die anyway – or get better if the mother prevented it becoming dehydrated. Oblivious to my dilemma, Khudadad snored next to me.

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MarySmith’sPlace – #Documentary tonight #Pictures from Afghanistan #David Pratt

I know it’s short notice and probably only a few of you will be able to access it but tonight (March 24) at 10 pm BBC Scotland is showing a documentary called Pictures from Afghanistan made by journalist David Pratt.

David has spent almost 40 years capturing images of conflicts around the world. Afghanistan, though, is the one country that has stamped its place on his life and career. In this documentary, David aims to demonstrate why Afghanistan, the country and its people are so important to him. We were both in Afghanistan at the same time but we only met last year when we were on a panel discussing Afghanistan at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.

During the documentary, which recently premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival, David visits the Russian Centre for Science and Culture, a site he photographed when it was a ruin on the frontline, and Kabul Zoo, once reduced to rubble.

Also, I want to say a big thank you – tashakor – to new followers, most of whom are Hazara. I suspect it’s thanks to Atiq Lotan spreading the word about my blog, which resulted in 600 visitors yesterday, not only from Afghanistan but from all over the world – from everywhere Hazara people have settled. Bisyar Tashakor!

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan Adventures #27 We’re still trucking on

IMG_0038 (Custom)Earlier I had been unable to find a position to let me sleep but now, exhaustion was overcoming discomfort.  As my eyes began to close, Sayed turned right round in his seat.  ‘You see that big mountain?’  I nodded.  You couldn’t miss it really.

‘We are going to cross it. Very high pass.’  I hoped I looked suitably impressed but my eyes would not stay open. At last, I slept.

Moments later, Sayed yelled, ‘Hey, you can’t sleep now! Look! We are almost at the dangerous place. This is not the time to sleep.’ I wondered what I was supposed to do – get out and push.  Pray? A line of trucks were on the narrow, winding track ahead of us. The lead one was slowly reversing round an impossibly angled hairpin bend. It was impossible for these huge vehicles to get round forwards. One by one, each truck completed its manoeuvre; sometimes the wheels would actually be hovering over the edge of the precipice.


Hajigak Pass, at 3,700 metres is one of Afghanistan’s main routes. Subject to landslides and avalanches – it’s snow-covered for much of the year – it’s not a road for the faint hearted.  When our turn came, I held my breath until we were once again facing the right way, continuing our slow upward progress. I had taken one quick look out of the window down the sheer side of the mountain and shuddered, wishing Sayed had left me to sleep, peacefully unaware of any danger.

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At the summit my companions let out resounding cheers. Sayed turned to me, bellowing, ‘Hajigak Pass finished. Now you can sleep.’ Someone switched the cassette on again, full blast.

It was evening when we reached Tezak bazaar, in Behsud district. I reckoned we’d been on the road for around fourteen to fifteen hours – it felt like days. A mujahideen chain (quite literally, a chain across the road) guarded the entrance to the main street, but Sayed’s convoy was allowed to pass without any problem. Khudadad led me through the bazaar to his favourite hotel. We passed vehicle workshops where the mechanics, with their young apprentices, none of whom looked older than twelve, still worked in the gloom.

At the hotel, we were ushered into a large room whose bare earth floor was covered by the filthiest gilim imaginable but, following the custom, I took off my shoes at the door and tried to ignore crunchy, sticky things under my bare feet. As we waited for our food I studied the posters on the bare mud walls. A large map of Afghanistan, dripping blood from its many wounds, was being carried off by a vicious looking eagle, which was being clawed by a ferociously snarling bear. The artist clearly had no doubts that Afghanistan and its people were the victim of a war between the world’s two superpowers.

There were pictures of mujahideen who had died fighting in the jihad – the holy war – who, as martyrs, had assuredly taken their places in Paradise. One picture which made me shudder every time I saw it – it was displayed in almost every tea house – depicted a small boy, a cherubic expression on his chubby, baby face. He was dressed in a soldier’s uniform, clutching a Kalashnikov, while in the background were lurid scenes of bloody battle.

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Our food was a bowl of soup with nan and half a dozen pieces of goat meat. While we ate, I watched a travelling salesman go through his sales pitch to a group of potential customers.  As though selling nothing more innocuous than brushes and brooms, he nonchalantly opened several bundles wrapped in sacking, producing half a dozen Kalashnikovs. Each weapon was handed round to be examined by the little group of men. Although I had long since grown accustomed to seeing the majority of the male population carrying weapons, I had supposed that arms dealing was conducted in secret – not openly in a roadside hotel.

Khudadad said the guns had most likely been stolen in Kabul – they were about $50 dollars each. He also informed me that, a few days earlier, the Government had bombed the bazaar, suspecting that many of the mujahideen fighting around Kabul came from this area. Seeing the look of panic on my face, he hastily assured me it was unlikely that there would be a bombing raid that night. By now, the travelling salesman had wrapped up his merchandise and vanished into the night, the other travellers had rolled themselves in their patou –that so useful shawl – for sleep. They looked like so many bundles of dirty washing.

‘Do you need to go outside?’ asked Khudadad.  He led the way across the road, down a grassy bank, over a small footbridge and along another path. I felt that we were embarking on a cross country hike and was very relieved – in more ways than one – when he finally stopped.  ‘I think this place is all right. You take the torch. I will be near the bridge.’

Back in the hotel we stepped carefully over sleeping bodies and unrolled our bedding.  Khudadad fussed over me like a mother hen, asking if I needed an extra blanket, rolling up his jacket to provide a pillow. It was only eight thirty in the evening and as I lay down, anxious about bombs and the number of Kalashnikovs about, I was sure I would never sleep. The moment my eyes closed, however, I was dead to the world.


MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures #26 Truck travel

By the time we reached Naoor the landscape had changed. Gone were the jagged rocks and boulders and rugged mountains of Jaghoray, replaced by sandy desert. Sayed drove along tracks made by other trucks; tracks which zigzagged across the plain in a bewildering manner. Everything was bleached and dry, the only patch of colour the hazy blue of a lake, at the foot of a distant line of mountains on the far horizon.

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Bellowing to make myself heard above the noise of the music I asked the name of the lake.  Sayed gave a chuckle, the only sound of humour I had heard from him so far, and bellowed back, ‘No water there.’

Did he mean it was a mirage? Not having the vocabulary to ask, I gazed at the strip of blue, wondering if I was being teased. Sayed suddenly, with a surprised exclamation, pulled the truck to a stop. When the dirty, dusty, bleeding face of Khudadad rose to the level of the cab door and grinned toothily at me I wondered briefly if this was another mirage. He launched into voluble explanations in Dari, occasionally interrupting himself to say, in English, ‘I am sorry sister, very sorry.’

Sayed nodded and grunted saying little in reply to the proffered explanations, revving the engine, impatiently indicating Khudadad should climb in.

Khudadad squashed in beside me, scrubbing at the dust and blood on his face. ‘I am very sorry, sister, really I am sorry.’ He scrubbed some more. ‘I promised Jon I would take care of you on this journey – really, I am very, very sorry.’ Resisting the urge to shake him until the flow of apologies stopped, I waited until he was sufficiently composed to tell his story.

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While returning on his motorbike after the wedding, he’d collided with another motorcyclist. Neither was hurt, and no damage was done to either bike. Unfortunately the other motorcyclist was a mujahid. Being knocked off his bike sorely wounded his pride. He’d demanded money. ‘His bike was not broken. Why should I give him money?’ Khudadad grumbled. The mujahid had a Kalashnikov, Khudadad did not. He got locked up in the jail.

‘I could not sleep. I was worried about not getting back to Qolijou. At five o’clock the Commander, my friend, came to the office. When I told him the story he released me. I jumped on my motorcycle and drove very fast to catch you. I fell off just before Sayed stopped. Really, sister, I am very sorry, very sorry for all your trouble.’

‘Khudadad, you are the only one who has had any trouble. Please, please, stop saying you are sorry.’

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With difficulty, he swallowed his apology and to change the subject I asked him about the lake, still visible. He shook his head, ‘No, no water, it just looks like water. Naoor is a very strange place; it makes everything look big when it is small and small when it is big.’

I had no idea what he meant until shortly afterwards I saw a train of camels walking some distance ahead of us. I was astonished when we drew near to see that the camels had shrunk, and were in fact sheep. Khudadad grinned at my amazed expression. I was sure there must be a scientific explanation involving the landscape and atmospheric conditions – or something but I simply nodded in agreement. Naoor was indeed a strange place.

When we made our lunch stop Khudadad made arrangements for his motorcycle, which had been tied on top of the truck, to be left for collection on his return journey. I waited in the truck for him. Sayed, obviously relinquishing all responsibility for me now that Khudadad had appeared, had already gone off with his men.  By the time we entered the chaikhana, they were already emptying their plates. Khudadad ordered the hotelier to bring our food quickly.

As the plates were being cleared I broached the delicate subject of needing to go to the toilet.   Khudadad leapt instantly to his feet, once again apologising profusely, and led me around the corner of the chaikhana.  Having checked that the ‘toilet’ – the piece of land at the back of the building was not already occupied he retreated to stand guard. Sayed had the truck started up when we returned.

Shortly after leaving the bazaar Sayed exchanged places with his son. He was obviously a novice, made increasingly nervous by his father’s wrath every time he crashed the gears.  At last, Sayed dropped off to sleep and his son relaxed.  Maybe it was tiredness which caused his bad temper, I wondered to Khudadad.

‘No,’ he said, ‘it is fear. There are many bandits on this road. And sometimes the other Parties make problems at checkpoints. Sayed is with Harakat which has no power in this area. He is always very nervous when out of his own area.’  I was glad to be reassured I had not, inadvertently, upset the man in some way.

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It was a relief to reach the end of Naoor and again approach mountainous, more interesting, terrain. The flat, dusty landscape was depressing, as were the visible signs of the poverty of the area. The crops on the small patches of cultivated land were stunted and sparse. Women were harvesting the wheat one stalk at a time. The children, dressed in rags, all looked malnourished. They either waved, or threw stones at the truck, depending on their feelings.

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Writer and Blogger, Mary Smith

I’m delighted to feature on Darlene Foster’s blog today, answering some interesting questions. Do pop over to read it – and have a browse round Darlene’s blog which has all sorts of fascinating posts.

Darlene Foster's Blog

I’ve been blogging for almost ten years and I love it. It’s a great way to communicate with like-minded people, and I’ve made wonderful friends all over the world through my blog. The blogging community is so supportive, sharing ideas and providing encouragement.

One friend I’ve made is Mary Smith from Dumfries, Scotland. She has written some wonderful books including a guide to her hometown. When I finally get to Scotland, I will be taking this book with me.

She has also written a couple of books based on life in Afghanistan, where she lived and worked for a number of years. This is my review of No More Mulberries.

I bought this book because I love reading stories that take place in the middle east. I was not disappointed. Mary Smith has written a wonderful story about cross-cultures, family, relationships and Afghanistan. The detailed descriptions of the land…

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MarySmith’sPlace – On the road again in Afghan adventures #25

The next two days were chaotic as I packed what I thought I’d need on the journey and said goodbye to Jon who was heading for Pakistan. As my journey was to have a very early start from the Qolijou hospital, I spent my last evening there. Khudadad, one of the two drivers at the hospital (the other being Moh’dullah, my escort from Pakistan) was to accompany me on the journey north, organising transport for after Sayed left us.

Sayed and his crew arrived but there was no sign of Khudadad. He had gone to a wedding. Sayed seemed surly – very different from the amiable, grinning bear who had hugged Jon so affectionately in the bazaar – while his two oil and grime bespattered companions looked positively villainous. Taking her place for dinner Rosanna asked, ‘You’re not really going off with them, are you?  I don’t trust them. You’ll wake up one morning with your throat cut and your belongings gone.’

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Part of our convoy

I cringed, partly because Rosanna’s tone of voice and facial expression needed no translation and I did not wish to alienate my travelling companions before the journey had begun – partly because her remarks mirrored my thoughts. ‘Khudadad will be with me.’ I murmured.

Rosanna snorted. ‘If he turns up,’ she said. The arrival of the food stopped further conversation. The hospital was infamous for its appalling cuisine. The cook was in a permanent sulk because he really wanted to be a doctor. As Sayed silently tackled the bullet hard lubia – red kidney beans – and bone dry rice he looked increasingly moody. Perhaps he was regretting making the offer to transport me north?  Immediately the meal was over, Sayed curtly informed me that we would leave at four o’clock in the morning, and unrolled his sleeping bag. I went off to Rosanna’s room to spend a sleepless night, terrified I wouldn’t wake on time.

By four o’clock Khudadad had still not returned. Impatiently pacing the floor like a caged animal while I dithered about what to do, Sayed made clear he could not delay his departure.  My choice was clear – go now, alone, or wait, possibly for days, for another truck. I chose to go, hurrying after Sayed down the mountainside to where he was parked. Despite the almost full moon illuminating the narrow, rocky path I stumbled clumsily and could feel Sayed’s unspoken exasperation at my slowness.

The moment I had taken my allotted place on the wooden bench behind the front seats, Sayed took off, anxious to reach his rendezvous with the other truckers. We were travelling in a ‘Komaz’, one of the Russian trucks which travel the length and breadth of the country carrying supplies of wheat, sugar, salt – and often guns – as well as passengers who, because of the dearth of public transport, pay for the privilege of perching on top of the load.

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Incredible vista

Sayed drove silently but his three man crew, squashed together in the front seat, kept up a constant stream of chatter, cracking jokes, sharing naswar – tobacco used in a powder form, a pinch of which is kept tucked between gum and lip before being spat out in a stream of greenish brown, evil smelling liquid.

Two hours in and I was ready to fill my grumbling stomach but it was four hours later before Sayed stopped. He turned and, in English, spoke the first word he had addressed to me since our departure, ‘Breakfast.’  Eager to stretch my legs, which were too long for the small space between the bench and back of Sayed’s seat and had to be tucked under me to prevent my knees being bashed and bruised, I scrambled out. I wondered desperately how and where I could find a ‘toilet’.

Sayed must have read my mind because he suddenly asked, ‘Wash hands?’ and, when I nodded gratefully he disappeared, returning with a jug of water. He pointed across the road, handed me the jug and turned away. I looked about; the countryside was totally flat with no rocky outcrops or bushes to provide cover. ‘Where ….?’  I called out beseechingly to Sayed’s retreating back.

He looked pityingly at me, waved his arms vaguely and said, ‘Everywhere.’ Gazing in consternation at the open landscape I eventually spotted a slight dip in the ground. Averting my eyes as I passed several crouching figures, I reached the spot and squatted in the middle of some tallish, if sparse, grasses. I wished my upbringing had not left me so prudish about natural functions.

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Not the only travellers on the road

Inside the chaikhana – teahouse I tucked into a good breakfast of fried eggs and nan while Sayed tried to settle any doubts I might harbour about travelling alone with him. He assured me Jon was his brother. Feeling that some declaration of trust was expected from my side, I agreed, as I greedily mopped up the remains of egg yolk, that if he was Jon’s brother he was my brother too, and with beaming smiles we returned to the truck.

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There were times when I wondered if this would have been a more comfortable way to travel!


The boys put on a cassette, the volume at maximum. It was religious music, specifically about the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandsons, Hussain and Hassan, and before long everyone in the cab, including Sayed, was beating his breast rhythmically and chanting, ‘Hassan Jan, Hussain Jan, Hassan Jan, Hussain Jan,’ as thousands of Shias do in processions during Muharram, the month of mourning for the martyrs. Muharram had long since passed and I found their fervour somewhat alarming, briefly wondering if I had fallen amongst a group of religious fundamentalists but quickly reassured myself that, with the exception of Sayed, my companions were far too good humoured to be fundamentalists.  More alarming was the very real possibility of deafness.