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.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Afghanistan Adventures#60 final journey

Afghanistan, December 1989 Jaghoray to Quetta

Suddenly, it was time to leave. The last few days were hectic, full of frantic packing and emotional farewells.

Dinner party

So many people were joining us on the journey to Pakistan that we needed two vehicles. The night before departure the clinic was overflowing with people and, desperate to escape the noise and confusion, for a few minutes, I persuaded Hussain to take a last walk on the mountain with me. Now I was leaving, he was full of remorse for all the times he had acted badly. 

‘Really, Mum, I never mean any of the bad things I say when I am angry. I know you are right when you try to teach me how to behave, and I don’t want to fight with you. It just happens. You will find a different Hussain when you come back next year, I promise.’ I didn’t hold out much hope the growing up process would take place within five months – five years, perhaps – but I accepted his promises in the spirit in which they were made. We returned to the clinic to find some floor space on which to sleep for the last few hours left of the night.

Jon, Engineer, Malim Ashraf

We left before light. I travelled with Jawad and Hussain in the clinic jeep as they accompanied us as far as the checkpoint on the far side of Angoori where, if all went according to plan, we would pick up a hired vehicle for the journey to Badani. As the sun rose, chasing the early morning mists from the mountains, the sky changed colour from pearly grey through pink to blue, and Jaghoray had never looked more beautiful. The politics of a small minority of people may cause us more trouble than in any other place we worked, but it was the place in Hazaristan I loved best. Well, I silently amended, maybe second best; after Waras.  

We were allowed through the checkpoint with no problems. In the Toyota, which Jon was driving, Rosanna was comfortably ensconced in the front seat. Malim Ashraf, the headmaster of one of the Jaghoray schools, one of his students and Sharif sat in the back.

Friends I still miss

I shared the hired jeep with Rahimy, Zahir and the driver’s mate. Saying goodbye was painful and for the first few miles I was miserable – but it’s impossible to maintain such a high level of emotional intensity when total concentration has to be given to hanging grimly onto one’s seat. As we bumped and jolted viciously over rocks and holes, I thought my battered body would be hurled through the open roof.

Gul Agha and Ismail in the summer days when first arrived

By the time we stopped for a break every muscle in my body was aching and stiff. Jon asked if I wanted to change vehicles but I said I’d carry on until we reached Tang-i-Chaddar, where we planned to stop for lunch. I regretted that decision when our jeep broke down, several times, before we at last limped into Tang-i-Chaddar.  Almost too tired to eat, I managed to swallow an egg and some nan before stretching full length on the floor, falling asleep almost before I had time to cover myself with my chaddar. I awoke to find the room full of thick smoke, coming from a fire in the next room. Rahimy was shaking me urgently, yelling in my ear that I should get out. Coughing and spluttering, we ran outside to gulp fresh air into our lungs.   

Typical road

I changed vehicles, to sit in the back of the Toyota with Zahir and Malim Ashraf.  As Jon is tall he needs the driving seat pushed back as far as it will go so, sitting immediately behind him I had no room to stretch my legs. Hour after hour we drove while I fidgeted, trying to find a comfortable position. Once, Zahir demanded in a loud voice why I did not change places with Rosanna, who’d claimed the front seat for her own. I shushed him, but if she heard his suggestion she ignored it. Darkness fell and still we drove on, Jon keeping close to the jeep in front. Eventually the driver stopped to admit that he had no idea where we were.

We only knew we were somewhere in the desert. Jon and the driver wandered around with torches, trying to find the track. The others set fire to the shrubs to try to keep warm as it was, by then, bitterly cold. We huddled round each bush as it blazed into life, holding our hands to the heat then, as the fire died down, someone would light another. The road had disappeared.  There was nothing for it but to stay put until morning. I persuaded Jon to pull his seat forward to allow me a little leg room, feeling extremely envious of Rosanna’s short legs and ability to ignore the discomfort of others. Surprisingly, I was soon asleep.

In the morning, we gazed at the desolate desert, dotted with fire blackened shrubbery. The ground was a maze of tyre tracks, one of which, we hoped, would prove to be the one for Badani. For a while we drove in circles, as we had presumably done the night before, judging from the number of tracks going nowhere, but at last the driver of the hired jeep drove off with a sudden burst of confident speed.  

We still had several hours ahead of us before we reached Badani and, after a loo stop, Jon suggested that some of us might like to change places. ‘I don’t think so,’ replied Rosanna. ‘I’m quite comfortable.’ 

‘I was thinking of the others,’ Jon said, but Rosanna nimbly leapt back into her place in the front passenger seat. Wimps that we were, none of us in the back, dared confront our formidable travelling companion and so condemned ourselves to suffering in silence all the way to Badani.  

We said goodbye to the driver, who could not continue any further into Pakistan in his Russian jeep, and looked about finding alternative transport for the rest of the journey to Quetta. Badani was one of those places which, before the Soviet invasion, barely existed, but had expanded rapidly when it became one of the main, unofficial, border crossing points.  Now there was a large bazaar, where money changers were trading openly and an International Red Cross Hospital. Trucks, buses and jeeps were travelling in both directions.

After breakfast, we hired a Toyota and Rahimy, Sharif, Zahir and I travelled together. Our driver knew everyone at the checkpoints and I noticed money exchange hands occasionally, once even a mysterious package.

At our lunch stop, Malim Ashraf kindly stopped me from taking a mouthful of meat to which still clung a large tuft of the goat’s hair. After lunch we discovered our driver had been arrested.  One of the people we’d driven past hitching a lift had been an out of uniform, off duty police officer returning to his post. He seemed to think the driver should have recognised his authority even dressed in civvies, and was incensed he’d not stopped.  Catching a lift in another vehicle, he had arrived at the bazaar, just in time to have him arrested.  

Jon rushed off to the police station to secure his release by apologising profusely for any unintentional injury to the policeman’s feelings. The driver, on his own behalf, slipped a little baksheesh into the outstretched palm of the police officer.  

At the last checkpoint at Pishin no guards were on duty and our driver didn’t stop but when, sometime later, we checked behind us, there was no sign of Jon’s Toyota. We turned back to look for them. The driver was reluctant to go all the way back to the checkpoint. If they had been stopped there, our arrival would only cause more trouble.  It was dark, when we pulled up in a small bazaar to wait, but our presence aroused the interest of the local constabulary and we were told to move on. Further down the road we stopped again. The road behind us remained ominously deserted and, finally, we decided to continue to Quetta to enlist help.

As the driver started the engine we caught the gleam of headlights behind us and, a few moments later, the Toyota pulled up behind us. Rosanna leapt out, eager to tell the story.  They had reached the Pishin checkpoint only minutes after us, by which time the duty guards were again at their post. They were waved through without a problem until one of the guards pointed out that Jon had a flat tyre. Realising it would look suspicious if he drove off without checking condition of the tyre Jon stopped and realised he’d have to change the tyre. The guards kindly lent a hand but, just as Jon was thanking them for their help, one of them, peering in the back of the vehicle noticed, for the first time, the Afghans.  

Their manner changed from friendly to officious and they started questioning Jon. The policemen insisted they stay the night until the D.C. arrived in the morning to decide what to do with two foreigners driving around with a group of Afghans, all emphatically denying that they had ever set foot on Afghan soil. Jon tried to convince them that they were all working for the Pakistan leprosy programme. Whether his story was believed, or the guards just couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork keeping them until morning would entail, and they were allowed to go.

We were nearly at journey’s end. As we rounded a curve in the road and saw the lights of Quetta twinkling in the valley below us I heard a collective breath drawn by my companions in the back who had never seen anything like it in their lives. Even Sharif who, as a small child had seen Kabul, and thought he had seen the world, was impressed. Zahir truly thought it was magic.     

After six months of pressure lamps and torchlight, and dark, dark nights in Afghanistan, I also thought it was a pretty magical sight.

MarySmith’sPlace – Falling off a mountain – snow, ice & wolves AfghanistanAdventures#57

Afghanistan, December 1989

As we prepared to leave Arif’s clinic he became unusually quiet until, as he was saying goodbye, I realised how upset he was by his young brother, Sharif’s departure. He was coming with us to Pakistan where Arif had arranged for him to attend school in Karachi. I promised to take care of him, and with tears in his eyes he finally released Sharif from a tight embrace. If Sharif felt similar emotion, he concealed it well, appearing self-possessed about the prospect of not seeing his family for several years.

Leprosy patient, Zahir on the left, Arif’s young brother Sharif preparing to travel to Pakistan

We stopped for lunch at the edge of Naoor where I noticed Sharif patiently helping to tear up Zahir’s nan before requesting a spoon for him, without which it was impossible for him to eat. His right wrist, which had previously flopped about, had now been firmly splinted.  We feared a bone was broken (in fact X rays in Karachi showed the bone had not broken, but had crumbled away, attacked by pus bacteria which had presumably started life in an old, infected wound.) Despite his sorry state, Zahir still retained his high good humour, dissolving into his terrifying asthmatic giggle at the slightest thing. He was also becoming less self-conscious about his appearance, no longer keeping his face hidden behind his turban tail.

As there was only another three hours travelling in front of us to Malestan we decided there was no need to re-fill the thermoses at the chaikhana – more fool us. As the road began to climb steeply, becoming increasingly twisty and treacherous, we found ourselves, once again, in a snowy landscape. There was nothing to be seen, except a few rocks, appearing bald-headed, where wind had swept off their snowy caps.

Piles of snow drifted along the edges of the road, often obscuring dangerous ice patches. The single set of tyre tracks preceding us indicating how rarely this lonely stretch of road was used. We cheered ourselves by thinking of the welcoming tea we would soon be sipping in Malestan.

Near the top of the pass Jon had difficulty negotiating a tight corner. Reversing, to make another attempt, one back wheel slipped off the edge of the road. Further attempts resulted in all the wheels going off. Tyres spinning in the snow, the vehicle slid a few yards down the mountain. For the next two hours we struggled to get the vehicle back on the road.  

We unloaded everything and tried pushing, to no avail. We attempted to build a “road” with suitably flat stones, laying them in front of the Toyota like offerings to propitiate some angry god – which is how it felt by then. Nothing worked. By the time the sun began to sink, resulting in a dramatic drop in temperature, we had to admit we were well and truly stuck and we knew no other vehicles would come this way before morning. Jon decided to walk back to the bazaar, hoping to find someone with a truck and a tow cable. Realising we may have to spend the night on the mountain, Rahimy, Sharif, Zahir and I made ourselves comfortable in the Toyota.

We had plenty to eat – dried fruit, toffees and busrock (a deep fried biscuit) but no hot water for tea or coffee. Very soon the inside of the windscreen iced over, and we were all becoming shivery. I switched on the engine, turning the heater up full. This alarmed Zahir, huddled in a blanket beside Sharif in the back seat. ‘Turn it off! The jeep will run down the mountain.’ I tried to assure him this was extremely unlikely but he was not convinced, afraid I would fall asleep in the warmth, nudge the gear lever and send us crashing to our doom. I switched off the engine, suggesting Zahir try to sleep but he refused. Sharif sat quietly, as always, seemingly unruffled by events, calmly chewing toffees.  

When we could no longer see out of the windscreen because of the layer of ice, I’d turn on the heater, just long enough to melt the ice, and stop us all from freezing to death before the rescue party turned up. Rahimy became quite chatty, using the opportunity to practise his English. I asked if he would miss his family very much and he began to talk about his two wives and children.

I was interested in the way Rahimy spoke with evident fondness for both two wives. His first marriage had been arranged when he was young, and seemed to have been happy enough.  Then Rahimy had met and fallen in love with the woman who became his second wife. He was worried about how his second wife would manage without him. Her family had disowned her when she married Rahimy, and she lived far away from his first wife and the rest of Rahimy’s family. Before I had a chance to ask how and where he’d met his second wife, Zahir made us all jump by suddenly crying out, ‘Gurk! – Wolf!’

I peered excitedly out of the window at the expanse of snow gleaming in the moonlight, ‘Where?’ I demanded. Zahir explained he hadn’t actually spotted one but they were everywhere around here. He was now worrying Jon would be eaten before he reached the bazaar. I reassured him that, as winter had only just begun the wolves should not yet be hungry enough to tackle Jon. 

Jon, the previous winter.

After about four hours, when I was thinking we really ought to try to sleep, we caught the sound of an approaching truck. We listened intently to the faint but unmistakable sound which, though still a long way off, surely signified help was on the way. Zahir, however, now started to worry about robbers and we looked helplessly at our piles of baggage heaped at the edge of the road. At last, an ancient truck rumbled into view, stopping a few yards in front of us. Jon leapt out of the cab. 

The first tow rope snapped as soon as the truck took the weight of the Toyota but, finally, after a great deal of shouting and yelling between all parties, the vehicle inched slowly forward, until it was standing safely back on the road.  

Jon paid our rescuers and I urged Zahir to stay in the jeep while we re-loaded our baggage.  He was turning blue in the bitterly cold night air, coughing and wheezing in a terrifying way, as he struggled to help lift heavy bags with one hand. At last, we set off, everyone sitting in silence until Jon negotiated the last of the corkscrew bends and then, feeling the worst was over, we relaxed a little. Rahimy, Sharif and Zahir soon fell asleep, so they missed the next pass which was even more hair-raising. The summit was 3,600 metres and the bright moonlight illuminated the frozen snow, the hairpin bends and the sheer drops in a way which was both awesomely beautiful and terrifying. 

Although exhausted, I was reluctant to sleep in case Jon, who must have been even more tired, did the same. It was a great relief to reach the valley and know that we were almost “home” in Malestan. At the clinic, Khala and Baba, unperturbed by our arrival at three o’clock in the morning, hastened to provide tea. Then we collapsed into bed. 

Baba and Khala outside the Malestan clinic.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#55 – Pesky commanders, dentistry & an inside loo

l to r: Ashraf, Arif’s Field Assistant , Arif, and important people

Afghanistan, December 1989

When I requested a tour of the premises Arif led me up and down staircases and along passages and in and out of so many rooms I lost all sense of direction. From the guest room there were two exits, one leading through the kitchen down a flight of stairs to the storerooms below, one of which was filled with a supply of wood for winter heating. The second exit from the guest room took us along a short passage to the consulting room and the pharmacy. I was astonished to think this had been built as an average family home. Arif rented the premises from the owner who lived in Kabul with his family. He did say the landlord was a wealthy man, so perhaps his home was more splendid than average. I haven’t found any photos so I guess I didn’t take any – have included random pics for you to enjoy.

I particularly liked one of the upstairs rooms, which was empty and unused; a beautiful room with fret worked wooden designs decorating the walls and ceiling, arched alcoves in the walls. Sunlight streamed through two large windows which gave onto a view of the sloping hillside below us. ‘Why don’t you use this room? It is lovely,’ I asked.  

Arif agreed, ‘Yes it is a nice room but there is no heating and it is too cold. If we were going to stay here I would install a bukhari but as you know we are going to build a new clinic in Saydabad.’

The decision to move the clinic had been taken earlier in the summer. Arif was not from Day Mirdad and had faced difficulties in being accepted by the people who were suspicious of strangers. These problems had been made worse by the animosity between Pashtun and Hazara, both of whom came daily to the clinic. Frequent disputes arose as they waited in the compound to consult Arif. The Pashtun people did not trust Arif because he worked with Hazaras, and often went touring in Hazara areas to treat leprosy patients. The Hazaras were equally suspicious of him because he was Pashtun. There were no leprosy patients amongst the Pashtun in the surrounding district and they resented the clinic being closed when Arif went to his monthly tour programme to treat Hazara leprosy patients.

I spotted a staircase leading further upwards. ‘What’s up there? More empty rooms?’  

Arif replied, ‘The bathroom and toilet.’ Eager to see an inside loo and greatly intrigued as to what kind of plumbing system was used, I went upstairs. It was a hole in the floor, but the room had been constructed to jut out from the rest of the house so the waste dropped down a three storey lift shaft to a deep pit below. I’ve seen such arrangements in old Scottish castles.

Next morning Rahimy, bored with having no work to do, offered to help in the clinic. Jon frowned forbiddingly over Arif’s accounts. From time to time, Arif would take a break from his patients to come and see how things were going. As he became more manic, the more silent Jon became. The building estimates for the new clinic were too high, and Arif had already overspent on the work done. The difficulty in finding money from donors was explained and when I suggested he could perhaps manage with fewer rooms; perhaps an office and two guest rooms were not entirely necessary, he seemed agreeable to the suggested cut backs.

I was silently congratulating myself on how easy it had been, when he took the wind out of my sails. ‘Now it is winter the builders will not be able to work until next spring. You can go back to Pakistan and write your reports for the donors – I shall tell you many stories, sister, stories they will like – and get the rest of the money we need for the building to continue in spring.’

I repeated all the arguments and finally, the budget was reduced to an amount more or less acceptable to both parties, though I suspected we’d have the same arguments the following spring.

In the meantime, I was happy to hear Arif’s stories. Each month he travelled to one or other of the treatment points, established to allow patients from further afield to come for medicines. Once, on the way, he was kidnapped by a Party commander and imprisoned in a mountain cave. The commander and his men spent several days joy riding around in Arif’s jeep, almost wrecking it in the process. When Arif did not arrive at the expected time at the treatment point, the people began to worry about him, and when his jeep, mujahideen spilling over the sides, was spotted, they guessed what had happened. The villagers marched, en masse, to see the commander, demanding Arif’s release. The commander tried to persuade them it was in Arif’s interests for his clinic, medicines, equipment and money to come under the control of the commander and his Party – so they could ‘look after it’. The people insisted the clinic, the jeep and everything else belonged, not to the Party but to them. Sweeping aside the commander and his men, they released Arif from his mountain jail and carried him, shoulder high, back to the village.

Despite a tendency to tell stories which dwelt rather lovingly on his superior medical knowledge and his excellent public relations successes Arif was also able to tell stories against himself – such as his first tooth extraction. Not having any dental equipment other than local anaesthetic and dental cartridges, Arif sent his assistant to the carpenter to procure a pair of pliers. In the meantime, he prepared the anaesthetic. His patient, despite the pain his rotten tooth was causing, became slightly anxious.

‘Sister, it was dreadful. I forgot how hard gums are. When I tried to inject my patient the needle bent, just like this.’  He crooked his finger to demonstrate before continuing, ‘Most of the anaesthetic dribbled out of his mouth, so his lips went numb more than his gum. Ashraf brought the pliers and I tried to pull the tooth out. You know, Sister, I am a very small person – and that tooth was deeply rooted. It was a struggle. By this time, my patient wanted to leave, and tried to get out of the chair but I put my knee on his chest and pulled really hard. The tooth came out. There was a lot of blood, though, and the patient was not happy with me.  I did not charge him any fees for this service.’ Having been a lifelong coward in the dentist’s chair I could feel my toes curl as Arif told his story.

A butcher’s shop

Another commander objected to Arif working amongst the Hazaras and was trying to push him out of the area. When Arif was visiting a village on tour, he was asked to go to the home of an old woman who needed medical treatment. The woman had an eye infection which had caused her pain and distress for some time but it was easily treated. It turned out she was the commander’s mother. When Arif returned to check on the progress of her eyes, the woman asked if there was anything she could do for him. He explained the problems he was facing because her son did not want him to work there. She assured Arif he would have no more trouble and indeed, a few days later, the commander himself arrived at the clinic – bringing a gift of a chicken from his mother, and assurances that Arif could come and go and work freely in his area.

Bazaar scene

MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures54 Winter travel

Afghanistan, December 1989, Day Mirdad

The delay meant we were a long way from our destination, when darkness fell. At the next check post the mujahid guarding the chain, tried to persuade us not to continue our journey. Jon thanked him, but said we must ensure our patients reached the clinic in Day Mirdad. The mujahid played the beam of his torch into the back of the vehicle. When he spotlighted Zahir, without his turban, he jumped back hastily and waved us on. Poor Zahir, for once, we were grateful for the terrified reaction he provoked.

At the next check post Jon tried the same story. The mujahid peered into the back, saw Zahir and said calmly, ‘Oh, a leprosy patient. Never mind, we can give you a separate room for him.’ Jon requested permission to speak to the Commander who opened the window of his office a grudging few inches. We watched as Jon talked, gesticulating occasionally towards the vehicle. We saw the Commander shake his head and give a brief reply. Jon tried again – the Commander slammed the window shut. We were not going to reach Day Mirdad that night.

We were directed through a gateway into a large, bleak compound. Crunching over the frozen snow, we reached our room, unwilling guests of the Nasre Party for the night. The room was frigid, my head was hurting and we were all cold and cross. A man came in to light the bukhari around which we huddled, morosely sipping tea. We had to ask twice for food before we were eventually served a quantity of greasy, grey liquid with a few pieces of very stringy, dried up meat. Not even Zahir could find anything to laugh about.

When I awoke in the morning I discovered I’d lain on, and broken, my glasses, my head was throbbing worse than ever and, when I learned, despite the fact we’d not exactly been willing guests, we were expected to pay for our board and lodgings I was furious. Determined to tell the Commander exactly what I thought of his shabby treatment of us I headed across the compound towards his office. Rahimy talked me down – otherwise we might still be there. With bad grace I climbed into our vehicle.

At least the day was crisp and sunny, which helped lighten the mood, as we headed towards Day Mirdad. We left the snow behind us, but it would soon catch up with us again, and we would have to complete the work in Arif’s clinic as quickly as possible. For Jon, it meant examining the accounts and handing over the money required for the running of the project through the winter months. For me, it meant interviews with Arif to collect information, statistics and stories about his work, to be included in reports.

Day Mirdad is situated between Pashto and Hazara lands. Arif was Pashto. Before the Soviet invasion had forced him to abandon his studies, he’d completed two years in medical college in Kabul. Arriving in Pakistan as a refugee, he somehow heard about the leprosy centre in Karachi, and was accepted as a candidate in the training programme. Arif and Jon had been class fellows in Karachi but were not close friends. As a Pashto, Arif could never accept coming second to anyone in anything, while Jon, south-of-England-born, had a similar arrogance. Somehow or other at the end of the training, each was able to feel he had done better than the other, and honours were even.  

As we approached the clinic the landscape became more desolate and barren. Grey, naked mountains rose on every side until it seemed there was no level ground anywhere.   Everything was on a slope; the buildings, the fields – tiny handkerchief sized patches of brown – the few trees growing sparsely here and there. Houses were hidden behind very high mud walls in which heavy gates were set. Occasionally we had a glimpse, through an open gateway, of the mud built homes, constructed like fortresses. Pashto women are even more jealously guarded than Hazara women who, by comparison, are allowed tremendous freedom.  

We drove through an imposing entrance into a large compound, on three sides of which was a two storey building. Arif came bounding down the steps to meet us, arms outstretched to embrace Jon in a welcoming hug.

Many are the tales of encounters between the soldiers of the British Raj and the fiery tribes from the Frontier Province, depicting the Pashto as tall, swarthy tribal chiefs, tangled black curls escaping from beneath their turbans, dark eyes flashing in challenge. Arif is nothing like those romantic heroes. Standing at barely five foot four he is stocky, has brown eyes which don’t flash particularly challengingly (well, maybe when angered) and a fair complexion. He is restless, excitable, unable to sit still for more than five minutes, and given to generous arm gestures when talking – which he does at great length and speed.

After embracing Jon he clasped my hand warmly, grinning, ‘Welcome, sister. I have many stories to tell you, but first we will drink tea.’ We followed him upstairs to the guest room which was large and sparsely furnished – a gilim which barely covered the floor and a pile of bedding. A Kalashnikov stood in one corner of the room, and when Arif saw me eyeing it, he rushed to give an explanation, ‘For protection, sister, for protection. When I go on tour Ashraf, you know Ashraf? My field assistant. He carries the Kalash – just in case. There are many thieves about, and maybe they think Arif has a lot of money because he works for a foreign organisation.’

We had stipulated weapons should not be kept on clinic premises by staff, a rule we suspected was frequently broken, although usually they had the sense to hide the thing before we appeared. I knew Hassan kept a Kalashnikov in Sheikh Ali, despite having made a big drama once about returning it to the local Commander. Now, he ensured we didn’t see it, but occasionally forgot, as when telling a story of being attacked by a wolf, which ran away when he fired his gun. He’d suddenly stopped talking as he realised he’d given himself away – then made matters worse by trying to say that he was just taking the gun home for a friend.  

If Arif felt he needed the protection of a Kalashnikov while on tour, often on foot, I felt there was little we could say against it but I could never really see the justification in having one in the clinic itself. If thieves broke in to steal the medicines, they would surely be well armed.  There would be a bloody shoot out which would most likely result in our staff being seriously injured, or killed – and the medicines would still be stolen. In this part of the world, however, men, from when they were still young boys, carried guns. It was expected. Only it used to be an old Lee Enfield which somehow seemed less of a killing machine than an AK-47 assault rifle.

MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures53 Foreign(Non)Diplomacy

Afghanistan, December 1989: Bamiyan, Sheikh Ali & onwards to Wardak Province

We’d enjoyed our day of playing tourists with very hospitable and friendly mujahideen

We returned to the French clinic to find Ghulam Ali, huddled under his patou, looking more miserable than usual. The room we’d been allocated was like a fridge, the promised stove had not materialised. Ghulam Ali was bored and cold and thoroughly fed up. Jon went off in search of someone to help, and soon a bukhari was installed and we huddled in a circle around it drinking tea, waiting for the temperature to rise. 

Shortly after seven o’clock the cook appeared to inform us dinner was ready and, indicating Jon and me, told us to go to the house. I pointed to our fellow travellers and asked, ‘What about them?’ The cook explained food would be brought to the room for the Rahimy, Zahir and Ghulam Ali, but Jon and I were expected to eat with the kharijee – foreigners.

He trotted out. Minutes later he returned and said, this time, in English, ‘Dinner is ready. You go to house.’

I shook my head, ‘No, we all eat together, here.’

The great Buddha of Bamiyan

Looking ruffled, he departed and we sat in an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t know what the other three were thinking about their exclusion from the invitation. Rahimy broke the silence to say, ‘If you want to eat in the house, it’s all right. We don’t mind.’ His hurt expression belied his words.

Before I could reply, the cook shuffled in bearing a tray with three plates of food. Setting it down, he was about to leave, when I remarked, ‘We are five people – there are only three dishes here.’

‘Your dinner is in the house with the foreigners. They have meat.’ He was sounding agitated by our steadfast refusal to go to the house, unsure if we simply did not understand his English, or were being deliberately obstructive. I sat down and began to eat from one of the dishes and the cook went out, slamming the door. He soon returned, with another two dishes, which he dumped unceremoniously on the floor before, shaking his head at the crazy behaviour of foreigners, he departed. We had no meat on our plates.

No Afghan host would invite people to stay the night, and then expect to eat with only a chosen few. I tried to apologise, explaining that in some organisations the expatriates and the local people tended to live separately, but Rahimy’s only comment was, ‘Foreigners are not all the same then, are they?’ I agreed this was true.

By this time Zahir was gasping and wheezing. At first, we were afraid he was having an asthma attack but he shook his head at our concern. Finding the ridiculous situation quite farcical he was giggling helplessly. Once reassured the dreadful sound was laughter, the tension in the room eased instantly and soon we were all laughing together.

Later, the foreign doctor appeared. ‘We wondered if you would like to join us for a drink?’ His eyes slid over the Afghans, coming to rest on Jon. The invitation was, once again, only for us. I indicated our friends.

The doctor shrugged, ‘You can leave them on their own for an hour, can’t you?  We don’t let our Afghans use the house.’ We explained we travelled together as a team, sharing everything, and, even before the doctor had left the room, Zahir, deciding the peculiar hospitality of foreigners was too funny for words, dissolved once more into giggles.

Next morning, Rahimy went to beg, buy or steal fodder for the sheep and leaving Ghulam Ali with the doctors, who were happy to operate on his toe, if not to allow him in their home we departed for Sheikh Ali. We made it in three hours.

We climbed up the steep path to the house, the sheep bounding ahead, none the worse for its journey. Hassan and Zohra were in the midst of preparations to go on leave; their first holiday for three years. The sheep, while a welcome gift, had to be rehomed until their return. Zohra and I had little time to talk but I asked about baby Sadiq, whose life had still hung so much in the balance when I last saw him. ‘Oh, he grew. He’s at home now, and his twin brother also survived. Even the grandmother finally began to accept my strange ways were sometimes right.’

We said our goodbyes in the evening as the family were leaving at four am. My cold which had started in Bamiyan was much worse so I was grateful our departure would be at the more civilized time of eight. I crawled into my sleeping bag feeling utterly wretched, awaking in the night, feverish, my head and face gripped in a band of excruciating pain. Jon dosed me with painkillers which allowed me to doze again but I slept fitfully and in the morning was no better. Jon, diagnosing a sinus infection, gave me antibiotics and postponed our departure. I spent the day swaddled in my sleeping bag, obediently swallowing medicines and innumerable cups of tea, feeling much too ill to enjoy the luxury of a day in bed. 

Next morning, although my sinuses were still painful and my teeth and jaws ached – even my hair hurt – I decided I was fit to travel. After breakfast we set off for Arif’s clinic in Day Mirdad in Wardak Province, expecting to arrive by late afternoon.

The sky was grey and heavy with snow as we began climbing the pass leading out of the valley. We were soon driving through a snowy landscape, and progress became ever slower as we carefully followed in the tracks of the trucks, which had preceded us. Near the summit, we caught up with the tail of the convoy, inching its way upwards on the treacherous road.

The snow had come sooner than expected, catching the drivers unprepared. They had not yet fitted the huge, heavy chains which allow them to grip the road in snow and ice and several trucks had already stuck fast in the snow and mud. 

Jon and Rahimy went to provide some extra muscle power to dig out the trucks. I persuaded Zahir to stay with me in the jeep, afraid the bitterly cold air might start off his asthma, and thankful women were not expected to shovel snow.

We gazed out at a forlorn and mournful landscape in which, apart from ourselves, there was no sign of life.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#52 legends, dragons & Genghis Khan

Bamiyan, Afghanistan, December 1989

Once on the main road, Jon tilted the passenger seat and dozed until I woke him to inform him I’d achieved fourth gear on the reasonably smooth road and the giddy-making speed of forty miles per hour.

We passed the turning to the Valley of the Dragon, named after the dragon-slaying feat of Hazrat Ali. It had been terrorizing the citizens of the area, wreaking havoc and devouring everything until the king made a deal with him. Providing the dragon was given sufficient sustenance each day, including, amongst other fodder, two camels and a virgin, he wouldn’t bother anyone.

Valley of the Dragon, near Bamiyan. Pic from Wikipedia

Understandably, many families were still upset by the way their daughters kept disappearing.  Given the task of destroying the dragon, Hazrat Ali, split it in two with his sword, Zulfiqar, leaving its dead body blocking the entrance to the valley. Blood and tears poured from its body and head. The illusion is retained by mineral springs trickling from the giant beast’s head, and the groans of the dragon can be heard at the place where Ali’s sword sliced the dragon.

It was late evening, and bitterly cold when we reached Bamiyan. At the hotel we were given a small back room to ourselves. Rahimy took the sheep for a short stroll down the street but couldn’t find fodder for it. It was singularly unimpressed by the dry nan it was offered and so went to bed hungry.

Shahr-i-Gholghola also known as City of Screams

There was a strong smell of sheep clinging to our bedding, but by then I was coming down with a heavy cold and was spared the worst of it. We huddled close together, under assorted layers of blankets and sleeping bags while we ate our kebabs. I was shivering when I snuggled into my sleeping bag, feeling wretched. Everyone else was equally cold and miserable, but in the morning we cheered up, after the hotel’s breakfast speciality. 

Our first task, before becoming tourists, was to find the clinic run by a French medical organisation. We hoped their doctors could operate on Ghulam Ali, thus sparing him the hardship of the long journey to Pakistan. There were two French doctors, one male, one female, on duty, and they invited us for coffee. A warm sun had banished the previous night’s cold and we sat in the garden admiring the late roses in bloom. A table was laden with goodies: breakfast cereals, jam, biscuits and drinking chocolate. Our hosts looked surprised when the three Afghans ignored the pot of tea, clearly brought for their benefit, and helped themselves to the instant coffee. 

On the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola looking over the Bamiyan Valley

The doctors said they could perform the minor surgery on Ghulam Ali the following day which would allow him to return to his home before the road was closed by snow. When they heard we were staying in a hotel they invited us to spend the night in the clinic buildings. There was an empty room if we didn’t mind sharing it. We accepted gratefully, hoping it would be warmer than our room at the hotel. As Ghulam Ali was unable to walk far we left him sitting in the sunshine outside the room.

Rahimy let the sheep out for some exercise and fresh air. Finding food for her was still proving difficult but a man, who seemed remarkably unsurprised at the sight of a sheep being driven around in a Toyota by foreigners, kindly shared the fodder he’d just bought for his own five sheep. 

The first visitor attraction on our itinerary was the giant Buddha. I’ve already written about the visit HERE.

From there we drove through what had been Bamiyan’s ‘new’ city, built in pre-revolution times. The Government offices, hospital and tourist hotel, all of which must have been incredibly ugly edifices of concrete, had been bombed out of existence. We gazed up at the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola, the ancient mountain citadel of Bamiyan. A mujahid yelled an invitation for us to climb up.  

Defending the city

We followed a well-defined path which twisted and turned as it rose steeply towards the top.  Just off the path some areas were roped off, like valuable exhibits in a stately house and, thinking one of them looked suitable to be used as a loo, well hidden from view, I was about to step off the path over the rope when Rahimy gave a shout of alarm. “Those are mined areas,” he explained. I decided to wait.

Three mujahideen welcomed us, as we rounded the final bend and, delighted in their role of tour guides, proceeded to show us around. We scrambled about on the earthworks, in between and over sandbags, all the while being given a detailed account of the battle which had forced the Russian troops to flee. Apart from the path up which we had climbed there was no other route to the summit, and seeing the awesome, sheer drop it was easy to imagine that whoever held that position must have felt reasonably safe.

Earthworks and foxholes, all part of the defence system

We stood drinking in the tremendous view of the fertile Bamiyan valley below us, until our guides led us to inspect the rubbish tip which was full of empty tin cans left by the Russian soldiers. The mujahideen spoke with such dismay and disgust about this environmental vandalism he gave the impression he thought the invaders should have had the decency to take their rubbish with them, or at least bury it deep in the mountain. 

Over tea, Mukhtar, the self-appointed spokesman, told us tales of another invader of long, ago: Genghis Khan. He and his army had surrounded the citadel of Bamiyan but the besieged inhabitants, despite dwindling food supplies, refused to surrender. The wife of the ruler, however, realising defeat was an eventual certainty and, not wishing to share the fate of her husband and his people when it happened, decided to negotiate with Genghis Khan.            

Slipping out of the palace one night, she secretly met with the Mongolian warlord, telling him of a secret water supply to the citadel and where its flow could be stopped. Once the water supply had been cut Bamiyan soon fell. Genghis, who was always hardest on those who withstood his forces for longest, ordered that every man, woman and child be slaughtered.  The king’s wife was suitably rewarded by Genghis – he had her publicly executed for her treacherous behaviour towards her own people.

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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MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#46

Waras, Afghanistan – early winter 1989

A narrow defile between towering mountains led us out of the Kirman valley. There was no indication of a way out and I assumed there must be an opening at the far end, not yet visible.  It took some time before I understood that the only way out was up – straight up. The track was almost perpendicular, and so narrow it was difficult to believe anything other than a mountain goat could have climbed it. Trying to reassure myself that horses are extremely sure footed, I sat, in a cold sweat, the reins loose in my hand allowing Zeba to do things her way. Whenever one or other of the horses in front stumbled, – which they did with alarming frequency – showers of small stones clattered down the mountain – and shudders of fear down my back.

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Looking down to the valley

The views from the mountaintop were superb, but I could only gaze in horror at the tortuous path, wondering how the hell I would ever get back down other than on my hands and knees.  I was relieved when Ibrahim assured me the return journey was by a different route. The rest of the journey was straightforward and I was able to relax. Occasionally we rode through small villages but mostly we seemed to be the only people in the world. It was a glorious feeling to be a part of such a deserted, rugged landscape which can hardly have changed since the world was created.

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Ibrahim’s village

Arriving at Ibrahim’s house I was confronted by a sea of faces and wondered how I would survive the next few days amongst so many strangers and if I’d ever learn who was who. I was invited to stretch out so that one of the young women could massage my aching legs. I submitted willingly. All Hazara women are experts at massage techniques – often able to massage away a blinding headache within a few minutes.

By the time we had eaten, and the whole family were sitting around with the inevitable after-dinner tea, my anxiety had evaporated. There was something about these people which made me lose my normal self-consciousness, especially about my poor language skills.

The biggest surprise was seeing so many women in the company. These were not women who sat unobtrusively near the door, whispering amongst themselves, allowed in by the men to look at the foreign guest. These women joined in the general conversation as equals, they laughed aloud, they made jokes and – second surprise – the men played with the innumerable babies and toddlers, who crawled and climbed from lap to lap. I understood about a tenth of what was being said but no-one made me feel stupid. Everyone laughingly competed with each other to find another way of phrasing the question or remark to aid my understanding.

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Dinner – a banquet

I even found I could laugh at my own mistakes such as when asked what things I liked to eat I listed raisins – or, rather, I thought I had. ‘Man ishpish kheily khush darum.’  There was a sudden silence, followed by an explosion of laughter.  ‘Chi guftam?’ – ‘What did I say?’ I had announced I enjoyed head lice very much. The word needed was ‘kishmish’, not, ‘ishpish’. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be allowed to forget that one.

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Preparing animal fodder

After a day being shown round the valley by Ibrahim and meeting more members of this vast extended family the women immediately whisked me off to the smoke filled kitchen to talk, while they prepared the evening meal. The stove was a lump of moulded mud, under which a fire of wood and cow dung roared. The cooking pots sat over two holes on the top. Everything came to a fast boil when fuel was added to the fire; the flames allowed to die down to achieve a slower simmer. A hole in the roof drew the smoke out though only a tiny amount – the rest billowed around the kitchen making everyone teary eyed.  At the bottom of the tandoor, which had retained heat from the morning’s bread baking, a kettle of water was kept warm, to be speedily brought to the boil whenever tea was required.

They found it difficult to speak slowly and our conversations involved many repetitions, with exaggerated mime thrown in to aid comprehension. I didn’t care. I was so delighted to discover how different they were from the women in Lal – no whining demands for medicines, a considerably greater degree of personal cleanliness, and an enthusiasm for life which bubbled over into laughter at the least opportunity. It wasn’t that they had easy lives either – they had the same long days of back breaking work, both around the house and in the fields as women elsewhere.

It seemed, too, they had more freedom than I’d seen before, as evidenced by the stories of love marriages. Hassan and his wife had fallen in love. When his family approached the girl’s family, they said she was too young. The couple should wait for a year. At the end of the year, though, her family still refused to allow the marriage to take place. The young lovers continued to meet in secret until, one day, they ran away together. For several days and nights they hid in a mountain cave. When they returned to Hassan’s father’s house the mullah was called to conduct the ‘nikah‘ or marriage service. The happy couple settled down, with the blessing of Hassan’s family.

Two weeks later, the new bride’s family called at the house, announcing that they too, now wished to accept the marriage. Her father suggested that Hassan’s family might like to pay the dowry that would, under normal circumstances, have been paid before the wedding. The family agreed, sending the requisite horse, sheep, goats, a donkey and cash. From that day on the girl’s family ignored her existence.

She was sad about the loss of contact with her family, but happy to be part of the network of strong female support formed by her various in-laws. Ibrahim’s own sister, Agha, had also married for love, unopposed by her family, although the man she married was not of their choosing.  I liked this place and these people.

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Afternoon tea on a rooftop

 

 

MarySmith’sPlace – Back in the saddle! Afghanistan Adventures #45

I discovered some more slides, handed them over at the print shop – they say at least three weeks! Photos included this week, while relevant to the post are taken on different times.

three horses

Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989

It was time for the trip to Waras which I was anticipating with trepidation. Not only would my equestrian skills be sorely challenged by two days on horseback – each way – but, so too would my conversational abilities. Although my Dari had improved, my vocabulary was very much women orientated. I wondered how far lines such as “Does the back pain come just before your monthly bleeding?”, “Does your bleeding come regularly?” or, “Is there any smell or itching?” would take me.

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Ibrahim’s brother, Hassan, arrived to accompany us on the journey and early one morning we assembled outside the clinic. All the staff, several patients plus curious onlookers gathered to watch our departure. My horse was a pretty little thing, brown with a white star on her forehead. Outwardly displaying a degree of confidence, inwardly belied by the nervous churning of my stomach, I mounted, waited for Ibrahim to adjust the stirrups, mount his own horse and give the signal, “Y’Allah”, to be off.

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He and Hassan trotted off. I stayed put. It was acutely embarrassing, in front of so many people, all much too polite to laugh, but who must have found the situation hilarious. On previous occasions, the horse had at least started out. After much kicking of my heels and frantic tugging on the reins, I had to suffer the ignominy of being led by Haboly for the first fifty yards, until the horse finally accepted that she was part of the expedition.

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Probably 1994 with son, David and ‘his’ horse

Despite having reluctantly agreed to carry me, there was no way that she was going to put herself out any more than was strictly necessary, and I could not coax even a gentle trot out of her. Resorting to the method used on our way to Haboly’s village, Ibrahim rode in front with Hassan close behind me, occasionally giving my horse a flick with his whip. After about an hour of this Hassan decided enough was enough, and that if he did not teach me something about riding, it was going to take us a week to reach Waras.

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He connected with horses like a horse whisperer!

His method was simple and direct. Riding up alongside me he handed me his whip with the command, ‘Bezi – Beat!’ Reluctantly I took the whip and, feeling acutely self-conscious, attempted to do as ordered but only succeeded in striking the saddle bag behind me. My second attempt connected with the horse’s rump. This so astonished her, she was galvanized into charging forward in a fast trot for all of a hundred yards. As she began to recover from this surprise action on the part of her soft-touch rider and slow down again, Hassan was right beside me yelling in my ear, ‘Bezi!’ There were a few more fits and starts but, at last, she understood, and accepted, that her novice rider actually meant business. She settled down into a steady trot. Flushed with success, I grinned my thanks to Hassan and patted the horse’s neck at which her ears pricked quizzically. I began to feel quite fond of her.

Ibrahim and Hassan sat loosely in their saddles, completely relaxed.  I felt like a sack of potatoes lumping around in the saddle, and with every step my spine connected with the wall of my stomach. Progress may have become speedier, but it was excruciatingly uncomfortable. When, after two hours of trotting, Ibrahim suggested a stop for tea I was extremely grateful. Dismounting gingerly, I winced as my cramped muscles protested, but the tea and boiled eggs revived me and when Ibrahim said, ‘We must go.’  I remounted, eager to continue. It was nerve-racking when everyone else in the chaikhana came out to watch how the foreigner rode a horse. To my relief she responded instantly to the dog calling sound, which means “gee up”, and trotted off beautifully. I loved her. I decided to call her Zeba, meaning beautiful.

We were to break our journey at Ibrahim’s uncle’s home in Kirman and Hassan rode ahead to alert the family to expect guests for the night. I watched enviously as his horse galloped over the flat grassland on which we were riding, wondering if I would ever attain such confidence and proficiency on a horse. Ibrahim rode alongside and showed me how to gather the reins in my left hand, Afghan style, my right arm, holding the whip, hanging straight down by my side. I felt that at least I was beginning to look the part.

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Never thought I’d be so comfortable on horseback!

The family had gathered outside to meet us. As soon as we were led inside Ibrahim’s aunt pounced on me and proceeded to massage my aching legs until the muscles relaxed and the pain melted away. Bliss. Later we played cards until dinner was served. Ibrahim never travelled anywhere without a pack of cards in his pocket. On this occasion he offered to teach me a new game but every time I thought I had grasped the rules, he seemed to change them.  By the time dinner arrived, I owed him forty five chickens.

I slept little that night, devoured alive by an army of fleas sharing my blanket. In the morning Ibrahim caught me scratching furiously at my ankles and asked, ‘Fleas?’

Not wishing to offend anyone by saying their bedding was flea infested I muttered, ‘Perhaps I got them from the horse.’

Ibrahim was shocked by such a suggestion, ‘Oh, no, the horses don’t have fleas. They must have been in the blanket.’ When his uncle appeared and was told about the fleas he apologised for my disturbed night, but otherwise seemed to take the philosophical attitude that flea infested bedding was just one of those things in life with which we must cope. I escaped outside to find some privacy in which to enjoy a good scratch at the bites in less accessible parts of by body.