MarySmith’sPlace – When roads become rivers – back in Afghanistan

I thought I’d provide some random snapshots from my second tour of the clinics in Afghanistan, in particular some of the problems we faced while travelling. We left on May 01, 1990 in two vehicles. I was in the Mobile Team vehicle along with Dr Epco, a doctor from Holland who was going to spend several months in the clinic in Lal, Jon and Jawad, the driver from Hussain’s clinic. In the other vehicle, Moosa from the field hospital in Jaghoray was returning after finding an organisation willing to sponsor the hospital.

We’d only reached the border town of Badani when we had to hire a replacement jeep and driver because without four wheel drive, the journey would be impossible. Delays waiting for a new driver – who came highly recommended because as a former highway robbery he could guarantee our safety – coupled with a series of punctures and a leaking water tank meant it took almost four days to reach the Mazar Bibi clinic. The hole in the water tank was temporarily but effectively fixed by melting a plastic water jug to use as a sealer. When darkness fell the first night we discovered the second driver had no lights on his vehicle. In the bazaar of Shahjoi, there was no room in any of the hotels – the driver went home, Moosa slept in one jeep, Jawad and I in the other and the rest of the group under a tree. Around 2 am I was awakened by a persistent tapping on the window – two armed mujahideen were demanding car park fees. Jawad paid them and we went back to sleep.

Although travelling could be wearisome the constantly changing landscape makes up for it – from flat, scrub covered desert to rugged mountains to white rockscapes wind-carved into fantastic shapes. Large tortoises, recently awakened from hibernation lumbered across the road – ponderous but determined. The weather was glorious making memories of last year’s battles in the snow fade.

The snow, however, hadn’t finished causing problems for us – or, rather snow-melt, which had turned tiny trickling streams into raging torrents. The road to Malestan was closed so we had to go over the high pass on foot, helped by donkeys, one to carry our belongings and one for us to take turns to ride.

On the return journey, as we went through a village, Epco was riding the donkey. It suddenly put on a great burst of speed and galloped directly into a house. Epco is over six feet tall, extremely thin and at that moment, totally without control of his donkey, lacked any trace of the dignity expected from a foreign doctor.

From Mazar Bibi we headed off, north to Lal-sar-Jangal. In Naoor, where we had to spend a night sleeping outside it was still freezing, despite being the middle of May. We heard conflicting reports about the road conditions, with some people feeling we wouldn’t be able to cross the swollen rivers. We decided to try. At the first river, running high and fast, Jon waded through first to check the depth and solidity of the bottom, decided it was doable and we did it.

This checking the depth was something we all had to take turns to do. The water was freezing. One of my flip flops floated away, watched by a gang of kids who did nothing to rescue it. I threw its partner out the window later.

On one occasion, the road seemed to be quite good – until the first river crossing where it was obvious we couldn’t go through. Back in the bazaar Jon negotiated the hire of a truck on which to load our vehicle. This created great entertainment value for the local people but it worked and we were able to carry on.

In Bonshai (not sure of spelling) even the trucks couldn’t ford the river. Everything coming from the south had to be unloaded – wheat, rice, sugar – and carried across a narrow, ramshackle bridge to the waiting trucks on the other side. Jon measured the bridge, decided there were about four inches on either side of the vehicle and charge across before anyone tried to stop him.

It took seven days to reach Lal and just before we arrived at the clinic, we got stuck in mud. Qurban and Ibrahim came charging down on horseback like a miniature cavalry and lots of people turned out to help. They attached ropes to the front of the vehicle and hauled it out of the mud. We still had the river to ford and a line of men formed up in the water to mark the way for Jon to drive through. The final obstacle was a steep climb up the bank on the far side and again, the ropes were attached, the tug-of-war teams took their places and with much revving of the engine and churning mud and pulling on ropes we were safely up the bank.

The last few yards drive had something of a triumphal entry as everyone jammed into the vehicle or hung onto the sides as we drove – very slowly – to the clinic.

69 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – When roads become rivers – back in Afghanistan

    • Thanks, Judith, glad you enjoyed the post. I’m all right, thanks – apart from the waiting. It doesn’t do our mental health any good. A week ago I had the dates for all the radiotherapy session then the oncologist said she might change the start date – since then, silence.

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    • That water was freezing, Sally, but at least it let me understand what the driver’s mates had to put up with. I did rather enjoy that journey and finding solutions to the problems. Well, usually it was Afghans who found the solutions – they had this to cope with every year. The roads are, I believe, much better now.

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    • Exactly so, Jemima. Though I did love seeing marmots – and an unidentified creature which looked like a large mouse with a long tail and the biggest ears imaginable, totally out of proportion to its size – and it jumped like a kangaroo.

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        • No, not a gerboa. I looked on the site and the creature I saw had really large ears. I commented on them in my diary. Of course, no photos. It didn’t look like a hare. It looked like a Disney creation 🙂 I’ll probably never know. The Afghans I was with didn’t know much about the wildlife. I’d point to a bird and ask what’s that and they’d say, “It’s a bird.” If it was edible they’d know! There were also little animals like guinea pigs. I didn’t think guinea pigs were found in Afghanistan. Someone caught one for me – the poor thing was terrified and I made them put it back – but it did seem very much like a guinea pig. Sometimes, I really think I should go back to have another look.

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          • The guinea pig-like thing might be a pika.
            Although since guinea pigs originally arrived in Europe as pets brought by sailors, it’s possible they also made their way to Afghanistan with other travellers. The terrain is probably more like the Andes than Europe’s ports!

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  1. i think you guys had a great time in my country . and you guys had some bad experience as well , Because it was during war and lots of things were going on. specially in JAGHORI . i have some memories from my childhood and I remember you guys were at MAZAR BIBI Clinic and some times you used to come to our house in QADI with my Uncle ( Hussain). i miss him alot .
    Thank you for your help and supporting our people .

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    • Thanks so much for leaving a comment. I remember visiting Qadi and eating a wonderful thing for breakfast – can’t remember the name, bit like a fried doughnut – and sweet milk tea. I miss Hussain a lot, too. Are you still in Jaghori?

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    • Riding a donkey is not comfortable, Olga! I was grateful when going up the steepest parts of the mountain pass but once at the top was glad to dismount. I don’t remember it being so uncomfortable when I was a child riding on a donkey at Blackpool – but they had stirrups for your feet. In Afghanistan, your feet just sort of dangled 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Afghanistan Adventures -MarySmith’sPlace – When roads become rivers | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  3. Pingback: When roads become rivers – back in Afghanistan ~ Mary Smith | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  4. Your experiences are so engaging, Mary. They never cease to amaze me. It is so strange tot think how opposing the seasons were. The snow melts (we called it ‘breakup’ in Alaska) can certainly wreak havoc. I am just glad you all made it through safely. It must have been off-putting to have someone tap on your window asking for car parking fees in the middle of the night. And the runaway donkey! What a story.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Maggie. That crossover from winter to spring is probably a risky time for travellers in several countries. The runaway donkey was a hilarious sight – much more than two armed mujahideen knocking on the window in the middle of the night 🙂

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