MarySmith’sPlace – Reading tea leaves, first snow &chocolate eating mice. AfghanistanAdventures#50

Lal-sar-Jangal, December 1989

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One of the few friends I’d made amongst the women was Aziz’s elderly mother who visited me sometimes to chat over a glass or two of tea. Unlike most of the women, she did not hound me for blood pressure checks and injections – contenting herself with the occasional plea for aspirin.

Aziz’s mother – I never knew her first name and adopted the local custom of referring to her as Mudder-i-Aziz – Mother of Aziz – thought rather highly of her powers of prediction. In an effort to provide consolation over Jon’s delayed arrival, she would sit tracing swirling patterns in the dust with a forefinger. These she would study with the utmost concentration until able to pronounce, decisively, the date of his arrival.

The fact her predictions had, on each occasion, proved wrong, never daunted her in the slightest  She would simply try some other method of divination, including peering hopefully into her (not my) tea leaves. These were not read in the cup but would be dumped on to the staff room floor.

On the first day of December I awoke to find everything white with snow. After shivering my way to the latrine, I headed swiftly to the warmth of the staffroom where the breakfast conversation was about the weather. This snow I was told was ten days early and everyone was most indignant about it. Haboly said, ‘The snow doesn’t start in Lal until almost the middle of December. It never snows at this time.’

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‘What,’ I asked, ‘is the white stuff all around the compound?’

‘Oh, this is not real snow,’ he replied firmly. It certainly felt real enough to me.  However, by early afternoon, Haboly had been proved correct. The snow, real or imaginary, had all melted except for in those few corners of the compound the sun never reached. Haboly again assured me it was a false alarm.

The second false alarm of the day came when he rushed in to my room, shouting, ‘Jon is here. His jeep is coming up the hill.’ I rushed outside to stand with the others, in a huddle at the entrance to the compound. But when the jeep appeared over the crest of the hill it was not Jon’s. As everyone dispersed back to their various tasks I stamped off for a walk, holding back my tears. I thought over the situation and gave myself a good talking to about being such a wimp. Staying in Lal over the winter would give me the chance to do so much more than I’d been able to achieve. I would have companions whose company I enjoyed. I’d be safe. I told Ibrahim I’d decided if Jon didn’t arrive, I would stay.

Two hours later I heard the faint sound of a vehicle, still a long way off, but as this time no one came shouting excitedly into the room I ignored it. It was only when, on hearing a commotion outside, curiosity led me to peek out and discover Jon had arrived.

He had loo rolls and a big bar of Cadbury’s chocolate – not the ghastly stuff made for the overseas market, but the real deal. Next morning, I discovered the mice thought it was the most delicious thing they’d ever eaten.

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Jon was anxious to leave Lal as soon as possible because he’d heard snow was already making driving difficult. It was easy to pack my boxes, though saying goodbye to Ibrahim and Aziz and my students and Qurban was more difficult. It was a bitterly cold morning, still dark, when we loaded the Toyota and made our farewells. Qurban, looking utterly miserable, took me on one side to say he was sorry for his behaviour.   ‘Really, I do and say things sometimes before my brain has understood what will happen.  Try to think of some good things about me.’ I assured him I would. There was no time to say anything more. I wanted to go but hated to go.

Ibrahim, bless him, had the perfect antidote to the emotion-charged situation. He appeared with a gift he wanted us to deliver to Zohra in Sheikh Ali – a large sheep. By the time we had stowed the struggling bundle of wool into the back of the already overloaded Toyota, slamming the doors firmly on it, we were laughing again.

Rahimy, Zahir and our third passenger Ghulam Ali made themselves comfortable in the back seat, excited to be on their way. Actually, Ghulam Ali showed no emotion whatsoever. He was a leprosy patient who required some minor surgery to remove part of a bone from his big toe. On first meeting him I thought him rather a miserable character. Later, I learned his permanent expression of stony faced disapproval in no way reflected his feelings – damage to his facial muscles had left them paralysed. Even with this knowledge, talking to him was disconcerting, since his expression never altered.

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As Jon pulled away, it was with mixed emotions I waved to the little knot of people at the gate. Zahir who had never been away from home before, sat, almost quivering with excitement, gazing out at the slowly lightening sky. Although we had explained to him, and to his tearful mother, it would be at least two years before the necessary surgical procedures would be completed in Karachi he seemed undaunted by the prospect. He was the first to break the silence by asking questions about our journey – when would we reach Pakistan, which places would we visit on the way, would it be hot or cold in Pakistan?

Once everyone started talking, my own spirits rose. It was good to be on the road again – especially travelling in the luxury of a Toyota (no wonder Hussain had held out as long as possible for one) with a whole seat to myself. We agreed until we reached Sheikh Ali in two days, we would relax, and enjoy playing at tourists. Best of all, from my point of view, was the knowledge I could tell Jon to stop the car at once whenever I had to pee.

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44 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Reading tea leaves, first snow &chocolate eating mice. AfghanistanAdventures#50

    • It really is. I’m tempted to use the word awesome – only I know Pete hates it 🙂 But in its true sense of the word it is. I went back in the spring on 1990 to make a tour of the clinics. Then I was in Pakistan (having a baby for one thing) until 1992 when I went back and we opened an office base in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, mainly because it was becoming dangerous making the cross border crossings and because in winter it was impossible to reach some of the clinics. I went back to Waras to set up a training project and was in Afghanistan from then until I came home in 1996.

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  1. I was happy to hear you mention the ghastly Cadbury exports. I always felt that way. Another super episode, Mary. I so enjoyed No More Mulberries and as soon as I have my launch material all done I will get to the review. Five stars of course.

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  2. Wow! 😀 Mary, I say it again, your posts about Afghanistan are superlative and would not go amiss in a book format! This farewell chapter is wonderful, from the Azziz’s mother and her predictions and love how she was undaunted that they were often wrong. Oh no, how sad that the mice ate the chocolate – they must have thought they were in mice heaven! Your portrayal of all the people you met are incredible and with just a few words I feel as I’ve known them myself! Yeah .. so glad you had a luxurious journey for once with no worry about pit stops!😀

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  3. Thanks, Annika. We’ve not quite reached journey’s end yet but travelling in a comfy Toyota with plenty of loo rolls and not having to squirm for hours until a truck driver decided to stop felt pretty luxurious. It was bittersweet leaving Lal – even the mice – and I’m glad you feel you know the people I met.

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  4. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – Reading tea leaves, first snow &chocolate eating mice. AfghanistanAdventures#50 | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  5. That false alarm must have been upsetting, but at least Jon showed up soon after that.
    We take so many things for granted. Having to wait two years for a medical procedure is an eye-opener.

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    • He did – with the chocolate and loo rolls 🙂 Reconstructive surgery at that level is a long process. In itself it wouldn’t take the full two years but it would be a couple of months before Zahir arrived at the hospital and was ready for the procedures to start. A bit different from a western style cosmetic nose job!

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  6. Clever mice! I’m pleased Jon arrived, although I can imagine you had mixed-feelings as well on leaving these wonderful people. It must have been very exciting for your travelling companions as well. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures, Mary. Thanks for sharing them!

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  7. Cadbury chocolate for the mice? Lol Now the mice know, where living is for. 😉 Thank you for another surprising sequel, Mary. If I assume that things are not much better there today, I understand that they are fleeing from there to Europe. Michael

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    • Those mice must have been very sad when I left 🙂 The situation in Afghanistan is very bad these days with Taliban on the rise, not unity among political leaders and America interfering as always. In some ways things have change a lot. Even in remote villages there are satellite dishes and televisions!

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  8. Those photos are, indeed, awesome in the fullest meaning of the word. You convey so much and with honesty and a wry humour that I love. Looking forward to the next installment.

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  9. Beautiful writing Mary, and I am in awe of your experience you write about here… I fell write into your story, wishing I could walk along with you. You connect well with the locals, which is such a great gift. I had to laugh about the line “He had loo rolls and a big bar of Cadbury’s chocolate…” I’ve experienced similar joys of getting the little things of home that can bring a smile, although I probably would have cried if any mice ended up eating my stash. Wishing well and carry on 🙂

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    • Ah, thank you so much for your kind words. Comments like yours make me feel it’s worth carrying on with the posts. I’m not sure if I was happier about the loo rolls or the chocolate 🙂 The mice had no such questions – straight for the chocolate.


      • Ha, yes I think I understand your feelings – chocolate is nice, but… And the more we head into the 21st century, the more the adventures and experiences like yours become more valuable! Cheers to a great weekend.

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  10. Pingback: Reading tea leaves, first snow &chocolate eating mice ~ Mary Smith, AfghanistanAdventures#50 | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  11. So pleased I’m able to read these blogs Mary. I loved the nod to not always knowing what affects peoples facial responses…I hope the surgery was successful. And I might add here, wishing the next cemo bout is kind to you.x

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    • Thanks, Steph, I’m so pleased you are enjoying them. I’ve always been sensitive to facial responses since my English teacher sent me to the headmaster for what he called a “look of dumb insolence” – when it was just the way my face settled 🙂 Thanks for your good wishes for the next chemo.


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