In the morning, our breath escaped in great clouds of steam. The mountains to the north were topped by white snow caps, glistening in the early sunshine. With no sounds from other travellers to disturb us we had slept late and it was after eight o’clock before Khudadad, went in search of transport.
I watched a donkey train being led into the compound. Two very young ones frisked around playfully, kicking their heels and nipping at the necks of the older donkeys. They bore this abuse stoically before suddenly nipping back, in a far from playful fashion.
Khudadad returned, saying he’d finally tracked down a driver who was going past our destination on his way further north. We would leave around midday. He looked depressed. ‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘Even with a late start we can still reach Lal today can’t we?’
He nodded, ‘Yes, yes, we can reach Lal today.’ I’d still not fully learned the Afghan habit of giving an answer the person asking most wanted to hear, with a disconcerting disregard for truth. I accepted his reply, assuming his desolation was only in having to travel in another boneshaker rather than a Mercedes.
We sat outside where it was warmer in the sunshine than in our ice box of a room and watched the donkeys. The littlest one had by now decided that the compound was no longer big enough, it was boring, and he wanted to see the world. Off he went, out of the compound and down the lane towards the bazaar. ‘We better catch him,’ said Khudadad, and we gave chase. By the time we reached the main street the donkey was galloping along, hotly pursued by his master and a couple of passers-by.
Leaving them to it we crossed the street of what, Khudadad explained, was the new bazaar, turning down a little track which led to open fields bordered by a wood of poplars. Their leaves, dressed in autumn shades of gold, shivered and danced in the breeze as we wandered towards the river. It was wide and fast flowing, although shallow. ‘In spring, when the snow on the mountains melt it becomes very big, very deep. All the land is flooded then,’ he explained.
Soon after lunch we boarded the truck but did not, as I had anticipated, take to the open road immediately. Instead, the driver went to the old bazaar where he took an incredibly long time to load up with apples, bound for some market place beyond Lal. I was becoming increasingly impatient to be on our way, afraid that if we delayed much longer we wouldn’t reach Lal that night. When the driver eventually began to rev the engine, three men pushed their way on to our bench and, although Khudadad protested to the driver, we had no choice but to squeeze up. An additional passenger who tried to gain entry was vociferously refused a place by all five of us, now squashed like sardines in a tin. He was found a space behind, making a total of nine people in the cab.
I marvelled at how little the others seemed to mind the discomfort. Even Khudadad, had he been travelling alone, would not have voiced any protest about the cramped conditions. The alternative to travelling for hours this way was to walk, for maybe up to two days. I wondered how I would cope, faced with a two day hike to Lal, and tried not to feel too resentful about Khudadad’s elbow in my ribs.
The driver was a large man, but his conductor was a giant. An oblong of solid muscle whose clothes, all stopping well short of his ankles and wrists, gave him an uncanny resemblance to the Incredible Hulk. An elderly, white bearded man, who sat very erect – or it may have simply been that he had no choice but to sit bolt upright sandwiched between the travelling companions on either side – was the truck owner.
By the time we left the bazaar Khudadad had fallen asleep. As well as his elbow in my ribs, I now had his full weight against me, squashing me against the window. Feelings of resentment grew. When we stopped after little more than an hour’s driving – much too soon for a tea break – I asked if we had a puncture. Khudadad looked a bit shifty. ‘The truck owner lives in the village over there and has invited us for tea.’
I couldn’t just about see a huddle of houses in the distance. ‘But if we stop for tea now how will we reach Lal tonight?’
Khudadad looked shiftier still. ‘He says the driver is going to stay here for the night.’ Interpreting my expression as one of concern that we were being abandoned by the roadside, he added, ‘We are invited too.’
I was furious with Khudadad. He’d known all along we wouldn’t reach Lal that day. Added to the day’s accumulated delays and discomforts, this “invitation”, which could not be refused, was the final straw. The realisation I had absolutely no control over events in my life while travelling made me doubly angry. I jumped from the cab, refusing to be helped by Khudadad, and marched towards the village, thinking bad thoughts about so called hospitality thrust on one whether wanted or not. By the time we arrived I had succeeded in regaining my composure – throwing a tantrum, though it may have temporarily relieved my feelings, wouldn’t change the situation.
The village was lovely. Bathed in late afternoon sunshine the half dozen mud houses and tiny mosque had a picturesque appearance complemented by the browns of the surrounding fields, newly ploughed. A sparkle of water indicated where the river cut through a thicket of poplars. Khudadad and I were installed in a room which had beautiful gilims and rugs covering the floor. The mattresses were at least a foot deep and their enormous bolsters all wore matching, embroidered covers. I began to look forward to bed time.