MarySmith’sPlace – Lockdown country walk

As wee change from Afghanistan, I thought I’d show some images from our lockdown walks. Our usual walks have become very congested so we’ve been seeking out quiet country lanes instead.

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Impossible to keep six feet apart on this path

This path leads from the town to Threave Castle. There are places, usually at gates, where it opens out into the fields and people can pass each other, keeping a safe distance. However, while most walkers will wait at an opening for others to pass, some (most likely visitors come to hide out for lockdown) just barrel on down the path. Their sense of entitlement apparent.

I thought I’d share a few photos from recent walks. Apologies if you find photos of cows boring – I like cows. They are so wonderfully nosy and curious and friendly (as long as they don’t have calves with them)

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Go on, then, take a nice family shot!

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Photo shoot over

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Less usual farm animals!

MarySmith’sPlace – On the road again: Afghan Adventures#32

Autumn 1989. Thanks to comments from new visitors to the blog not everyone knows when my first trip to Afghanistan took place. I’ll try to remember to put a date at the start of each post.

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I was immersed in the clinic statistics one day when Hassan burst in.  ‘I have found transport, but the people are leaving immediately. Are you ready?’

I was ready. Khudadad was ready and grabbed my bags as we hurried down the steep mountain path behind Hassan to where an open-topped jeep was parked. It was bursting at the seams with mujahideen, all, naturally, clutching their AK-47s like so many security blankets.  Hassan introduced the large, black bearded man behind the wheel, ‘This is my very good friend, Commander Husseini.’ The Commander looked remarkably like Sayed, only bigger – and fiercer. He gave us a brief nod, and we were on our way.

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Small hamlets of flat roofed, mud built houses hugged the steep slopes of the mountains and orchards of apricot, almond and mulberry trees dotted the valley. The open topped jeep afforded a wonderful view as we snaked up the pass. At least, it did for the first ten minutes. Dark clouds loomed overhead and a stiff breeze made me pull my chaddar more snugly around me. The higher we climbed the less able I was to hide my shivering. Khudadad asked where my jacket was. I glanced round at the stony-faced mujahideen perched on top of our luggage.

‘It’s in my bag. Don’t bother about it; once we are over the pass I’ll be fine.’ I did not relish having to ask the mujahideen, the surliest group so far encountered, to move. Khudadad had no such reservations. After telling the Commander to stop he evicted the muj., before ferreting amongst the baggage and bits of what looked like bomb making equipment, but were probably spare parts for the jeep, until he unearthed my jacket. I wriggled around trying to get it on without allowing my chaddar to slip immodestly, the mujahideen scrambled back into their places, expressions, if possible, even more surly.

At the summit of the pass a heavy downpour of sleet-laden rain, viciously stinging our faces, drenched us within moments. Wishing I wore contact lenses, I attempted to wipe my rain spattered glasses for the hundredth time on a chaddar which had become a sodden rag.   ‘Where are the blankets?’ demanded Khudadad. I nodded towards the back of the jeep.

‘You can’t ask them to get out again,’ I protested. He could. This time his ferreting produced a large blanket which he proceeded to wrap solicitously around my shoulders, reserving part of it for his own use. I suggested he offer the end of it to the soaking wet muj at his side; he stoically refused Khudadad’s offer. Despite my shivers, I could not help but smile at the sight we must have presented.  Khudadad and I huddled together soaking wet, blue with cold, wrapped in a big, fluffy yellow blanket, across which strutted a handsome blue peacock, while around us a dozen grim faced freedom fighters steadfastly ignored both the rain and their unorthodox travelling companions.

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Shahr-i-Zuhuk, the sandstone mountain stronghold, looked menacing under its mantle of black cloud as we passed, branching off onto the Bamiyan road. After about an hour, Husseini pulled up beside a small stream and everyone climbed out. I was hopeful it might be a tea stop but Khudadad explained with a heavy sigh, ‘They want to pray. I have to pray too.’   He left the jeep reluctantly. It was the first time I had known him pray on our journey, and to do so in such appalling weather conditions indicated just how much a man of influence and importance was our Commander Husseini.

As the men washed in freezing water before spreading their patous as prayer mats on the cold, wet ground I was thankful no such pious devotion was required of me. The rain had stopped but, with the approach of evening, the temperature was falling, the leaden sky remained threatening, and I was chilled to the bone. It was the first time I had been cold in months, an unpleasant warning that winter was on the way.

Commander Husseini assured me that we would soon be in Bamiyan and the sun suddenly broke through the clouds for a few, brief minutes as though to encourage us. In the deepening dusk the commander pointed out the many, many graves whose fluttering flags indicated that here lay some of Afghanistan’s martyred heroes. I remembered the reverent hush which had descended on our jeep one day in Jaghoray when Gul Agha had shown me the site of one martyr’s grave. Here, there were countless and I realised the men with whom I was travelling had really fought against the Soviet troops, who’d held Bamiyan until shortly before their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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The smaller of the two Buddha statues carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan.

Before darkness fell I was able to catch a glimpse of one of the giant Buddha statues in the cliff and a series of caves. The journey had taken five, rather than the anticipated three hours, and my excitement at seeing the Buddha was tempered with thoughts of finding somewhere warm and dry. Khudadad directed Commander Husseini to stop outside what, he assured me, was the best hotel in town.

I followed him up a flight of steep, narrow, stairs, asking, ‘Is this the hotel I’ve heard about from Jon? The one with kebabs and a toilet with a door?’

Khudadad laughed, ‘Very good kebabs.’ He stood aside to let me enter a large, empty room.   A boy hurried in with a gas lamp which he was about to suspend from a hook in the ceiling until I indicated that I preferred the only source of heat on the floor beside me. I was shivering violently. The boy immediately handed me his patou and I pulled it round my shoulders. The heavy woollen shawl soon helped to overcome my shivers and I was grateful for the boy’s concern.

Khudadad and I cupped glasses of tea in our numb fingers, sipping thankfully at the reviving brew. By the time I had drunk my second glass I was warm enough to start thinking of other matters. ‘This IS the hotel with the toilet isn’t it?’ Smothering a sigh, he picked up a torch, pulled his patou more firmly round his shoulders and led the way back down the stairs. At the far end of a very muddy yard the dark shape of a small outbuilding was just discernible.  Taking the torch, I picked my way carefully through the mud, skirting puddles. The building had not one, but three loos – a five star establishment, indeed.

I pulled open the first door and recoiled at the sight of copious mounds of excreta deposited around the hole. Hastily shutting the door, I tried the second, then the third, which had clearly, and quite recently, been occupied by someone with severe diarrhoea. Returning to the second toilet I attempted to find two turd free spots for my feet while concentrating on hanging on to the torch and my hand bag, unfastening the string of my shalwar, ensuring they did not drop too fast into the shit and keeping my chaddar above ankle height. Finally, torch clenched between my teeth, hand bag slung around my neck, I completed the task – resolving never to utter a word of complaint at Khudadad’s marathon hikes in the great outdoors ever again.

The kebabs were, indeed, very good and well fed and warm again I unrolled my sleeping bag. As we settled for the night Khudadad told me not to worry if I heard things – gunfire, soldiers marching – as it would be the mujahideen carrying out night exercises. ‘Just practising,’ he assured me.

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I was glad of the warning when, lying awake long after Khudadad began snoring gently I heard the menacing ring of the night patrol marching through the town. However, it was not that which kept me awake – but a flea in my sleeping bag. As it feasted, I scratched until finally, I had to drag myself out of my warm cocoon to grope in the dark for the Stingeze.  This revolting substance, whose main ingredient is ammonia, had been a real find in Sangi Masha bazaar, the only thing to bring instant relief. It did mean, though, by the time I was finally able to sleep, I smelt strongly of wet nappy.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#31 Women’s health, women’s work, women’s place in the scheme of things

Next day, I spent the morning in the women’s clinic with Zohra. I was embarrassed at finding it difficult to understand the women who fired questions at me, making me feel my command of the language was still pitiful. In my defence, their accent was very different from that of Jaghoray.

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Besides those patients with diarrhoea or throat or eye infections, several women had come for ante-natal check-ups. Two had vaginal infections, one, a prolapse of the uterus; four wanted contraceptive pills while another desperately wanted to become pregnant. Most of Hussain’s female patients complained of a mixture of infections of eyes, throat or chest. Apart from the occasional woman who complained of burning urine, he rarely had any patients with gynaecological problems. Afghan women simply cannot discuss such intimate problems with a male health worker, never mind allowing a physical examination. A great many women suffer appalling health problems in silence.

Islam teaches that women should be modest in dress and behaviour but, somewhere along the line, this has been reinterpreted in such a way that modesty has given way to women feeling a terrible sense of shame women regarding their bodies and reproductive systems. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), in his teachings, surely never intended women be denied medical help, nor be allowed to die before exposing the most private parts of their anatomy to a male doctor?

As long as the words of the Prophet continue to be interpreted, in the rural areas in particular, by illiterate misogynists, women will always be denied rights – and the west will continue to misunderstand the teachings of Islam.

The nearest hospital which could provide obstetric services was in Kabul, a journey which could take two or more days depending on road and transport conditions and whether there was fighting along the way. A woman needed a male escort but going to Kabul was a dangerous mission for young men who risked being press ganged into the Afghan Army.

In the afternoon Zohra introduced me to her neighbours, Gul Chaman and Fatima, who lived below Zohra and Hassan’s house. Since their husband, despite the protests of Gul Chaman, had taken Fatima as his second wife ten years previously, the two women had not spoken to each other. Gul Chaman, with her children, occupied one room of the house, Fatima and her brood, the other. A strict rota system had been instituted for conjugal visits – and for the use of the tandoor in which each wife baked the bread for her own family. Hostilities between the mothers did not extend to the two sets of children who played together, receiving comforting cuddles for scraped knees and bloodied noses from whichever mother happened to be nearer at the time.

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Bread straight from the tandoor. On the left fresh pasta called ‘ash’ I should maybe say this and the next photos are not from Sheikh Ali but from a different place on my travels.

When it was her turn for the tandoor, Gul Chaman showed me how she baked bread. As the heat inside the oven was tremendous she wore a long, very thick leather gauntlet on her arm.  She would reach right into the furnace to slap the prepared rounds of dough on the walls. When done, she hooked them out with a metal rod. The smell of bread fresh from the oven is one of the most delicious things in life.

Not to be outdone, Fatima gave a display of weaving the brightly coloured gilims and laughingly persuaded me to try my hand. I soon realised this was not a skill I could master – my inexperienced fingers proved to be all thumbs, and totally uncoordinated. It was slow, tedious work and even with three or four women working together at the long frame it could take a month or more to complete one gilim.

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Working on carpets

After clinic was over for the day, Zohra often had friends visit for tea and chat, but she admitted in the last year she had been out of the compound only twice, once to offer condolences when someone died and once to attend a wedding. I was unhappy when I realised I was expected to behave within the prevailing standards set by Hassan. When I mentioned going to see the bazaar the suggestion was swiftly vetoed, ‘There’s nothing to see in the bazaar, this is a poor village. If you need anything I can get it for you.’  It was the same whenever I enquired about Khudadad. ‘Don’t worry. He’s fine. He’s happy.’ Whenever I asked Hassan about transport he would tell me not to worry. Then he would embarrass me by asking if I was not happy in his home, was I not being looked after properly and was there anything I needed to make my stay more comfortable?

I was happy to spend time with Zohra listening to her stories about the work she did to improve the women’s health but there was really no work for me here and I was anxious to reach Lal.

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Spinning wool

Choosing a time after lunch, when I assumed Hassan had left on one of his undisclosed outings, I slipped into the guest room. Khudadad gave me a huge grin. ‘Where have you been?  When are we leaving?  I am very bored here!’  We managed about three minutes of conversation, centring mainly on the fact that Hassan seemed not to be trying to find transport to Lal and did not want Khudadad to wander about the village by himself before Hassan’s soft voice made me jump.

‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked, from just inside the door.

‘No, nothing. I just wanted to talk to Khudadad. I haven’t seen him since we arrived.’ Hassan sat down and I understood that he was not going to allow me to sit alone with Khudadad. As his guest I felt I could not make an issue of my freedom being so curtailed. Conversation rather dried up and, after a few moments, I rose to return to the family section of the house. I wondered if Hassan thought that, if left alone together, Khudadad and I would immediately fall on each other in an ecstasy of unbridled passion. What did he think happened when we slept in roadside hotels without a third person to guard our morality?

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Washing sheep’s fleece before spinning. 

One day, a beaming Hassan informed me he had arranged for a jeep to take us to Bamiyan, the following day. We were to be ready to leave at the usual setting out time in Afghanistan – four o’clock in the morning. It seemed a bit excessive. Bamiyan was only a three hour drive from Sheikh Ali – as did Zohra’s contribution of hard boiled eggs, chicken and dried fruits and nuts.

The driver never showed up. We ate the hard boiled eggs for breakfast and had the chicken for lunch and Hassan was very apologetic about it all and promised to look for another driver.



If you have shelves of books at home, author Jessica Norrie suggests lots of creative and fun ideas to do with them in her Bookplay blog post.

Words and Fictions

Still determinedly sticking to the positives about this p**ndemic, the creativity it’s brought out in some people is amazing. Have you seen the tableaux of famous art made in response to the Getty Art Museum Challenge? And last week this clever storytelling game appeared online (read the titles on the spines in order). If anyone can tell me  which clever librarians created this, I’ll happily credit them.Book games 4

Of course I rushed off to see what I could come up with. I found myself immediately in sinister realms – by the way it helps if you add punctuation:

bookgames 5 Missing, presumed a matter for the jury, invisible women vanish in an instant. Snap!

Some titles are easier to play with than others. Anything with that begins with “The” is tricky, but Invisible Women could have made multiple contributions, and I’m keeping an eye open for titles to go with, well, Keeping…

View original post 770 more words

MarySmith’sPlace -AfghanistanAdventures#30

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I puffed my way into the compound where the clinic In-charge, Hassan and his wife, Zohra met me. Hassan whisked the menfolk off to the guest room and I joined Zohra and her three children for a welcoming breakfast in the family room. It was utter bliss to sit on a soft mattress with clean plump cushions to lean on.

Hassan popped his head in to tell me Sayed was leaving and I went outside to say goodbye, thanking him profusely for delivering me safely. He grinned amiably through his black beard, waved in farewell, and hurried down the mountainside, no doubt anxious to make up for lost time.

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There was already a queue of women and children waiting to consult Zohra, and she left to attend to her patients while I took a much needed bath in the luxury of a bathroom, warmed by a wood burning stove which also heated the water. And, oh joy, the latrine outside had a proper door with a bolt! Later, relishing the luxury of lounging against soft cushions, instead of being battered and bruised in a jolting Komaz, I wondered briefly where Khudadad was. I hadn’t seen him since we got here.

From time to time Zohra would emerge from the clinic to feed the babies. We had met before, albeit briefly in Karachi, before the couple came to open the clinic in Sheikh Ali so were not entirely strangers.

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As well as her own six month old plump, jolly Shaheed, there was Sadiq, a two month old emaciated bundle of skin and bones, whom she had admitted for intensive feeding. He was one of twins and his mother, herself weakened by several successive pregnancies had insufficient breast milk. The youngest of her three older children was only eighteen months, and Zohra, understanding the exhausted mother’s workload in the house, and in the fields, knew she had no chance to take the rest she so desperately needed to recover her strength.  Knowing, also, how much extra time would be required to bottle feed both babies, Zohra suggested that she leave Sadiq, the smaller of the two. She would feed him until he was strong enough to be less at risk, before sending him home to take his chances with his brother. Sadiq’s grandmother agreed to stay with Zohra and help care for her grandson.

The grandmother was horrified at some of the things Zohra suggested, such as leaving the baby unswaddled, so that he could wave his arms and kick to develop his muscles – though poor little Sadiq was too weak to do much kicking. He could squirm, though thoroughly alarming grandma who was unused to a baby’s natural wriggling when not tightly swaddled. Terrified she would drop him, the poor woman, already deeply distressed about her grandchild’s condition, was struggling to cope with a seemingly unending assault on all her dearly held beliefs, handed down by generations of mothers, on child care.

She was shocked when Zohra suggested cutting the baby’s very long, dirty fingernails and even after Zohra explained that it was to prevent Sadiq scratching himself and possibly infecting the scratch she remained sceptical. Everyone knew that it was bad luck, and sure to bring down the evil eye, to cut a baby’s fingernails.  Zohra wanted to bath the baby but said, ‘I think this would be too much for grandma to accept.  No-one bathes babies here and I fear that if he does die, she would blame me.  For now, I just wipe the important bits with cotton wool and warm water. When I make up his bottle she watches like a hawk – not to learn, as I first hoped, but to check I remember to put sugar in.’

Towards evening, Hassan returned. I had already explained I needed to move on as soon as possible, to the clinic in Lal. He told me his jeep had been sent to Pakistan for repairs and would not be available for at least another ten days. ‘Would it be possible to find a truck going that way – even if only to Bamiyan?’ I asked.

Hassan shrugged, ‘It might be difficult to find someone to take you. Better you wait for the jeep and I can take you.’ My concern must have shown as he added, ‘I will try. Don’t worry.’

I understood that Hassan’s reassurance was nothing more than “telling the guest what she wants to hear”. Bamiyan was only a few hours travel, and I didn’t think it could be so difficult to find people travelling to the capital of the region. I refrained from saying any more but I was worried – there was a lot of work to be done in Lal, and time was short.

As we ate our evening meal, I ventured to ask Hassan about Khudadad’s whereabouts. He had not appeared for dinner.

‘Oh, he is in the guest room. He cannot come into this room because of the women.  Someone is looking after him. Don’t worry.’ As the only women in the room were Zohra and me, I could only assume that Hassan did not want Khudadad to see or talk to his wife. I dropped the subject, resolving to meet Khudadad next day.

A bed was prepared for me – clean blankets and soft mattress – on the floor of Zohra’s clinic. And I wouldn’t have to climb into that truck at 4 am.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan Adventures#29 Last stretch

Khudadad confirmed we were now travelling through a Harakat controlled area so Sayed was on his own turf and became more relaxed and good humoured.

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From surly driver he now became a tourist guide, stopping to show me a hot spring. The water, which bubbled from the spring then into a large natural pool, was remarkably warm, making me long to soak in a hot bath. Sayed scooped some water in his hand and put it to his lips, urging me to do likewise. There was a burst of laughter from everyone when I spat out the foul tasting liquid. It may well have been a cure-all for all kinds of health problems, but it would have required a life threatening condition to make me swallow the stuff voluntarily.

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At one point we travelled through an area where it looked as though there had been a light snowfall. Sayed waved an arm expansively at the landscape and announced, with great authority, ‘Milk!’ Astonishment silenced me while the boys in the front, for the first time indicating they understood some English, exploded into loud gales of laughter. Sayed bellowed at them and they stifled their mirth, although their shoulders still shook with suppressed laughter. Solemnly, Sayed, turning right round to face me – I so wished he wouldn’t do that – asked, ‘What do I mean?’

‘I think you mean salt.’ I replied, equally solemnly. For a moment there was silence as Sayed assimilated this information. Then he too broke into loud laughter – which set his companions off again. Surprised by his readiness to enjoy a joke against himself, I decided I rather liked him after all.

The landscape became ever more rugged and spectacular. The mountains on our left rose sheer, from the level of the track, which was liberally littered with boulders and rocks that had come crashing down the mountainside. On our right a river fought its way over and around even more gigantic rocks in great swirls and eddies and miniature waterfalls. We climbed yet another steep pass with an awe-inspiring drop of thousands of feet.

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I marvelled at the magnificence of the landscape and I also thought about the fact I was here, travelling through central Afghanistan in a truck full of strangers. Not another person in the world knew where I was. It could have been a scary realisation but instead I experienced a bubble of pure giddy happiness. I knew I was safe, protected by these people whose language I barely spoke and felt so privileged to be here. I grinned at Khudadad, who grinned back.

Coming down the pass into the valley the mountains changed from grey rock to red sandstone, honeycombed with caves. Suddenly, before us was the great mountain fortress which once had guarded the entrance to the city of Bamiyan.  Shahr-i-Zohuk, glowing a brilliant red in the late afternoon sun, was so reminiscent of pictures in childhood fairy stories – magic castles with crumbling towers and ramparts – that I would not have been surprised to hear it was inhabited by giants.

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In 1221 the fortress withstood an attack by Genghis Khan’s army, during which his grandson had been killed. Genghis Khan had taken swift revenge. Not only did he destroy the fortress, but the whole of the Bamiyan valley. Sayed told me that in days gone by many tourists had visited Shahr-i-Zohuk. Now, it was the home of a small political party, Mustazifeen.  I had occasionally heard about this group which, although small, was very progressive, its few hundred members reputedly highly educated and supportive of women’s rights. It had established two small field clinics, one in nearby Sheshpul, and the other on the outskirts of Bamiyan.

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Soon after passing the fortress Sayed gave the order to halt for the night in a little bazaar, whose only street was already full of parked trucks. Khudadad and I were shown to an enormous room, which could have slept twenty travellers. Here we ate in solitary splendour before Sayed joined us later, for tea.

In his own area and almost at journey’s end he was now relaxed and charming. He’d been a teacher in Kabul, in pre-Soviet days and was actively involved in the village schools in Sheikh Ali. He had been instrumental in ensuring girls also attended school, believing education was a right for everyone. My respect for him grew. He was a man who truly tried to live his life according to the teachings of Islam. He had no time for the illiterate fanatics, whose main aim seemed to be the exclusion of women from all areas of life outside the four walls of their husbands’ homes. He had not wanted to live under communist rule, fearing they would try to eradicate Islam – but nor did he want the end result of the jihad to be a return to the dark ages.

When he rose to leave us, I asked what time we would start in the morning. He looked faintly surprised.  ‘Four o’clock.’  He left the “of course” hanging, unspoken, in the air before asking, ‘Is that a problem?’ The eyebrows were beginning to pull together.

‘No, no problem if I can be wakened a few minutes earlier. I have to go outside before we leave. This morning was a bit difficult for me.’

His brow cleared instantly and he grinned, ‘All right, quarter to four.’

At precisely 3.45 am, someone knocked on our door giving Khudadad ample time to roll our sleeping bags and march me across a field, through a wood and over a stream to a spot he deemed suitable.

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Shortly after it became light there was loud cheering when the crew spotted a fox amongst the rocks. To see a fox while travelling is supposed to ensure the success of the journey. This fact did not prevent Sayed grabbing a Kalashnikov, leaping from the truck and trying to shoot our good omen. I was glad he missed. Rabbits, apparently, are unlucky omens on a journey.

At the foot of a mountain, Sayed stopped the truck. He waved vaguely at a point about half way up. ‘There is Hassan’s house.’  Despite the training I had been receiving on Khudadad’s route marches I felt that mountaineering was quite a different matter. When the boys carrying my boxes overtook me as I gasped and wheezed upwards, I vowed never to touch another cigarette.

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