MarySmith’sPlace – Winter approaches AfghanistanAdventures#49

Lal-sar-Jangal, November 1989

Lal scenery

Scenery at Lal-sar-Jangal

The first week of November was almost over. It had become extremely cold. The sun, though still shining brightly in a deep blue sky, barely thawed the iced puddles in the compound, before they again froze hard. My daily activities were interspersed by increasingly frequent trips to the latrine – some hundred metres from the compound – as I tried to combat the cold with copious quantities of hot tea.  Once I heard Qurban call to me through the dividing wall between the two loos, ‘Would you like your desk and chair brought out here? It would save you an awful lot of walking.’

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Escorting the bride to her new home.

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The bride is stopped at a barrier until a ‘toll’ is paid.

I’d finished the stock taking and was now spending most mornings working on reports, and in the afternoons I taught English to Qurban’s young brother, Bashir, and Khadeem, the cook’s assistant. Khadeem had leprosy, fortunately discovered in the early stages so he would have no deformities and would soon finish his treatment. His family were poor; his father a landless labourer. Qurban, rather than provide hand-outs from the social budget, had employed Khadeem to work part time in the kitchen. His salary, though small, helped his family survive and Qurban had also enrolled him in the local school.

Both boys were enthusiastic students but Bashir was brighter and quicker to learn. Khadeem, although he tried very hard, could never quite catch up, and sometimes Bashir teased him over his mistakes. After a while a third student surreptitiously joined us, sitting hidden in a corner, listening intently.

Zahir, a leprosy patient, not yet sixteen years old, had many deformities.  Not only had he lost his eyebrows, his nose was completely destroyed; only two holes appeared in the middle of his face. His mouth was contorted, and a hole in his palate created a speech defect which made understanding what he said difficult. He always wore a turban, its end pulled tightly across his face to hide his nose and mouth. When eating, he sat as far away from others as possible and, if strangers were present, he didn’t eat at all. His hands and feet were also deformed, the fingers and toes foreshortened. He was staying in the clinic until Jon arrived then we would him with us to Pakistan for reconstructive surgery.

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Zahir, keeping his face covered, en route for Pakistan and reconstructive surgery

Finally he plucked up the courage to ask if I would give him lessons. After Bashir and Khadeem’s class was over I spent another half hour with Zahir, who proved to be a willing pupil and quick learner. He had already absorbed words and phrases through listening to the boys, and before long had almost caught up with Khadeem.

In the evenings, after dinner and lessons were over, we often played cards. This helped to round out my vocabulary, which still leaned heavily towards things medical, though not my card playing skills. I frequently felt moved to apologise profusely to whoever had been unlucky enough to partner me. The problem was caused only partly by my ineptitude.  The biggest problem lay in my inability to cheat. The others, Aziz and Ibrahim in particular, gave the most obvious signals to each other, indicating which suit to play, or that they had just played their last trump card.  Even when I had learned the various signals – the slamming down with force of a card, the eyebrow scratching and ear tugging – I was quite unable to put them into practise myself, to the utter despair of my partner.

As the weather became ever colder, a heater was installed in my tiny room, reducing even further what little space there had been. The mice, I am sure were as grateful as I, for the warmth. The stove was a frightening contraption with a metal box, divided into two compartments. A tap opened to allow kerosene to drip from the tank to the second box and, to get it going I had to throw a lit match inside to ignite the fuel. Often the match fizzled out before anything happened and the temptation to peer inside before trying again was strong, until Ibrahim warned me people had been severely burned doing the same thing when the kerosene suddenly ignited with a whoosh of flames. By bedtime the room was beautifully warm but, apart from removing my socks I slept fully clothed, thermal underwear included, because within minutes of turning off the heater, a bitter chill invaded the room.

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General scenery

I began to worry about the snow arriving before Jon did, leaving me stranded in Lal for the winter. I didn’t think I could cope for long with the temperatures. Besides, I was running out of toilet paper, a commodity not stocked in the bazaar. Jon was already several days late and once the snow came I would be well and truly stuck. Ibrahim, Rahimy and the others were quite pleased with this thought, planning all kinds of teaching programmes, convinced they would be speaking fluent English by spring time. They seemed hurt by my lack of enthusiasm about the prospect of five, snowbound months in the clinic.

Every night, I’d retire to my room with only the mice for company trying to feel positive and hopeful. Maybe tomorrow, Jon would arrive? Hope isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when it isn’t realised and I’d be disappointed all over again at Jon’s non-arrival by the following afternoon.

I calculated by which date I must leave if I was to reach Bamiyan and find transport south to Jaghoray. If I did not meet Jon en route at least Hussain in Jaghoray would be able to find a way for me to get back to Pakistan. Rahimy was to go to Karachi for a training course so he could accompany me – Ibrahim also offered to come as a guide, as did Aziz.  Qurban was horrified to discover half his team was preparing to leave in a week or so, especially as he knew they would be unlikely to return before late spring. I promised I would only take Rahimy.



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Blue skies and mountains – landscape to fall in love with

48 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Winter approaches AfghanistanAdventures#49

  1. I can imagine what it was like… “he mice, I am sure were as grateful as I, for the warmth.” I’ve been in places where there were mice, and it is — to put it mildly — disconcerting.

    Although this happened in 1989, I’m on the edge of my seat, hoping you get out on time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Lauren. Before I saw you had left a comment I went back to the last post on your blog to ask how Annie is getting on. I saw from comments she is improving but still needing lots of TLC. I hope she continues to make good progress. Thanks so much for dropping by when I know what you have on your plate right now. Give Annie a cuddle and tell her I’m rooting for her.

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      • Thanks Mary. She is doing much better. She is off meds and still eating soft foods. It’s funny that before she was my empath and knew how I was feeling. Now I am hers and can tell when she needs her cuddles. She is playing fetch with her very soft toy but just a couple of tosses. One more step to being herself. Thanks for the good wishes.

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    • Same for me 🙂 After an evening of playing cards and drinking tea I dreaded the long walk to the loo in the freezing cold – and then, often, after I’d settled for the night I’d need to go again. On the plus side, I’ve never seen skies so ablaze with stars and the silence was total. Biggest worry was running out of loo paper.

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  2. It’s always a stretch to place Afghanistan is central Asia and yet find it’s so cold for so long. And they manage cricket!! Fascinating to hear about leprosy. It feels like it should have been consigned to history years before and yet…

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  3. I had never realised before how common leprosy still was in this region. I am sure your kind attitude toward the sufferers must have led them to hold you in high regard indeed. Running out of toilet paper in those conditions is no joke either, so small wonder that was on your mind.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • The situation has improved greatly nowadays, Pete, thanks to the work of those Afghan paramedics running the clinics both in finding and treating patients and working towards removing the stigma. Toilet paper was much on my mind and I was eyeing up the books I’d read 🙂

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  4. I am not very good with cold weather (I have Raynaud’s and my hands and feet suffer badly, no matter what I wear) so I can’t really imagine how bad it must have been, and I understand the worry. Having eager students must have been great, although not an easy task given the circumstances. I’m eagerly awaiting to hear what happened next, Mary. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments, Olga. I can sympathise about the Raynaud’s as I also have it. Fortunately, I didn’t have it when I was in Afghanistan and so far my feet are not affected. Glad to know you are enjoying the posts and looking forward to the next one.


  5. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – Winter approaches AfghanistanAdventures#49 | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

    • He had reconstructive surgery and the surgeon rebuilt his nose. His face would never look completely normal but it was a vast improvement. He could also replace lost eyebrows by grafting new ones taken from the scalp. They grew very quickly – like hair on the head and had to be trimmed often. I always remember one patient who was so delighted with his new eyebrows he seldom trimmed them. The snow in Hazaristan comes up to the rooftops. In Mazar-i-Sharif the city in the north where I lived later we didn’t get much snow but it was so bitterly cold the water pipes were frozen solid.

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  6. Not knowing how long you might be stranded had to be a tough thing mentally. That’s quite the setup to collect a “toll.” Was there some type of gambling going on in the card games, or did those cheating simply want to win?

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    • It was tough, Pete. Always hoping each morning then having those hopes dashed and hoping again that maybe next day. There were lots of ceremonies surrounding weddings and often games of buzkashi and tent pegging were organised. There was no gambling, which is forbidden by Islam, going on in the card games. People played for fun. Sometimes chickens but they never materialised, which is fortunate as I probably owed hundreds 🙂

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  7. Thank goodness it doesn’t get cold here I couldn’t cope… I really don’t do cold I do hope you managed to get out in time before the snows settled in. It is pleasing to hear (from) the comments that Leprosy is under control but it has been replaced with Tuberculosis those poor people don’t have an easy life at all…That many have that thirst for learning is good to hear …

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    • I don’t do cold very well. The summer months in central Afghanistan were beautiful. In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif temperatures could read 40 C in the summer and it was bitterly cold in winter – no happy medium!


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