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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.