Alistair Caldicott

Through Afghanistan

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Chapter 9 - Crash Course on the Road to Nowhere

Early morning in the teahouse, I woke to the delightful sound of phlegm gobs being vigorously expelled from the backs of throats. Everyone wakes up, but not many people can make themselves move in the cold. Some people were clambering over me. Amongst all the spitting and guttural retching, a fair amount of praying was also taking place.

I made myself get up, or rather my stomach made me get up, and took a walk to my favourite donkey yard outside. No need for a lantern to avoid getting shot this time. I desperately willed the sun to haul itself upwards. Before it could shed any meaningful warmth, I was reminded me how cold and desolate this place was, and how much I wanted to leave as soon as we could. Realistically, there was more chance of me being served a much-needed full English breakfast, than there was of finding transport to continue our journey eastwards.

Previously, getting straight answers to questions about how much it would cost, how far we could go, when we could go, even whether we could go, had proved impossible to obtain. So we had left it to chance.

Once again, as we were hanging around waiting to leave, a swell of people seeped out of the wooden and mud built buildings to intimately share every breath and movement we made. Such was the crushing boredom of life in Lal. In the donkey yard and beyond, people were indiscreetly squatting over their heels and having conversations with each other at the same time. Some were wiping their bottoms. We were all packed and ready to start finding and negotiating for transport. But our Finnish friend was not quite fully ready.

'I think maybe I need to do, not a pee, but something more.' he announced with a moderately pained expression on his face. 'Do you know somewhere where it is best to this?' he asked me, daunted by what daylight might reveal.

I looked around me, and cast my arm across the large arc of space, which incorporated the donkey yard and beyond. Night-time was probably better, for not being able to view your surroundings, only smelling them instead.

'Also I think maybe I will need some paper. Do you have any?'

'What is that falling out of your pockets there?'

'Ah yes, I did not notice, but perhaps maybe I will need some more. I have, maybe a lot, of business to do.'

I leant him some more paper, and off he wandered, with a small crowd of followers trailing unsighted to him in his slipstream.

So we left him to it, while we had some fun and games with a man who seemed to have a permanent grimaced sneer etched across his face. This was probably because he seemed to be the only man who could take us to the next town we wanted to go to, Yakawlang.

The day before, he had come down to a price of seventy dollars, as we would have to hire an entire vehicle to do such a trip. But now, to our incredulity, he was demanding one hundred dollars again. Kathrine and I did our best to bargain hard, but he knew we had no other options. Our price climbed from sixty, to seventy, to eighty, to ninety. He didn't budge one inch. It became totally farcical as he refused our token ninety-nine dollars offer.

'No, no, no, no. One hundred.' was the wearily familiar statement, repeated over and over again.

'OK, but it is very important for us to leave now, this morning, today that is.' I tried to stress for the umpteenth time, knowing that we had no choice.

Santtu was still wandering out in the donkey yard somewhere, trying to decide where to do his ablutions, while the sneering man insisted on us taking tea with him in his tiny auto workshop before leaving. Reluctantly, we agreed. So much for leaving immediately. He had barely poured the tea, when he insisted on rising the price to 160 dollars. I nearly choked at his audacity and greed.

What did, in no sense whatsoever, help matters, was this ugly man's young assistant, who was stood right next to me. Every time his boss said something, this man seemed to think it was his duty to repeat his words at a volume of several thousand decibels directly into my right ear, which he had ensured was only a few centimetres from his mouth. The less I understood, the louder he shouted.

Again and again, he shouted into my face. Again and again, I told him not to. Then he yelled. A portable radio was also blurting out some Islamic prayer music. As the inside of my head pulsated, I sorely wanted to change the frequency of everything.

This was proving to be one of the most mentally challenging travelling situations I had ever found myself in. I was frustrated and angry, but just about stayed calm. Kathrine did not. It had ignited a deep feeling of unease, which suddenly erupted to the surface. Anger seized her. She burst into tears, and unleashed a deserved torrent of shouted abuse onto him.

'You are greedy and have no shame! Why do you do this to us?'

Fingers were wagged. His sneered lizard like expression of cynicism never flinched, as if to say,

'Stuff you, you'll have to pay me, otherwise you'll be stuck here for more days with me always sneering at you!'.

It was my turn to go mad, so I added some long overdue negative comments of my own. I decided to join in with Kathrine and get angry too. It was a healthy emotion for such a situation. We grabbed our bags and stormed out, dragging the confrontation out onto the street, where the crowd of locals staring on had never properly dispersed.

However, at the precise moment we were shouting and finger wagging at the man with the sneer, our Finnish friend appeared back on the scene, after his call of nature. His woolly hat, misshapen as always, was protruding above his head. He had a look of immense satisfaction and serenity, that only ignorance can bestow.

'Everything is good. We are ready to go now?' he said confidently. He was ready to go, but it was a bit of a shock to discover we were not actually going anywhere. Or, it would have been a bit of a shock to most people, but not to him.

As always, he took it all in his stride. His sense of confusion was no greater than normal. I expected nothing less from a man who had long ago become resigned to finding himself in entirely the wrong country altogether.

So, in perhaps one of the most audaciously optimistic things any of us had ever done, we all grabbed our backpacks and started to walk the road towards Yakawlang. Whatever it took, we would get out of this town.

Eventually, a strange looking boy, whose face appeared older than his body, approached us, to tell us of another vehicle that would drive us to Yakawlang for one hundred dollars. Desperation forced us to accept.

The alternative was a slow, lingering death of more days spent in Lal. So we awaited the arrival of the Toyota Hiace minibus, which was to be our escape vehicle. It was not a terribly uplifting sight to see it being towed around the corner, where we were standing with backpacks on.

'This your bus.' the boy declared. His name was Amir.

'There is small problem now, but we fix.' he continued.

'Fair enough.' I said. 'Can we put our bags on?'


Except we couldn't put our bags on, because the large, sliding passenger door would not open. Different people tried hitting it, banging it, shunting it and shaking it, but nothing budged.

So we all had to clamber in over the front seat, and then over the gearbox. But this was trivial to the amateur attempts to jump start the engine, by having an excessively long nylon tow rope for such a confined area to drive around in small circles. Predictably, it snapped. So the rope was retied. Then it snapped again. This happened three more times. We could do little more than watch on, half in disbelief, half frustration. As displays of poor Afghan logic and slapstick incompetence went, this was certainly a major gold medal contender so far.

'By Allah, this bus will work.' Amir assured us unconvincingly.

I wanted to laugh so badly, we all did, but it was far too serious. What next?

A large crowd gathered again to gawp at this endless, trivial torture. I was losing what was left of my sanity. What particularly riled me was the cackling of the sneering lizard man, who had come to gloat at our misfortune. I deliberately played to the crowd, attempting to expose his greed and shame him.

'This man very bad man.' I pointed at him for the benefit of the crowd. It stirred them into something approaching laughter.

'And this man very good driver.' I pointed at our much friendlier looking, and younger, new driver. It elicited little reaction, but I felt better for saying it. Pointing and delayed laughter rippled through the crowds. The 'very good' driver was busy hammering away with crude brutality at something under the bonnet.

I was grasping gratefully at small symbols of progress, like the doors being shut, and the engine being ignited. However, I was being made to look a fool, and regret my choice of words, because there was no burst of throttle, and no immediate prospect of the new 'very good' driver, when he had finished banging away, actually having a working vehicle to drive.

There were many attempts to start the engine. The circular tow rope farce continued. At one point, even little Amir tried to pull it all by himself, so desperate was he for us to leave. Finally, just when we were on the point of total despair, the vehicle spluttered into life and even the door managed to open properly. It felt like a miracle had been bestowed.

With the engine roaring disconcertingly loudly, and fumes belching, we just about made it to the top of the hill outside Lal, after being overtaken by donkeys at one point. We honked them out of the way. At least now, we were away from the staring crowds and the nasty sneering man, just about.

'How I long for the buses in Iran.' Kathrine sighed. 'And their tea and biscuits servings.'

Little did she know that her pinings might be later fulfilled.

For the best part of the next ten hours, I could go no longer than five minutes, without being convinced we were going to break down, or even make it at all to Yakawlang. We had some company on board, too much company almost.

The driver had quietly picked up one or two other passengers and their luggage. To mild dismay, I looked round and realised the bus was full of bodies. We had hoovered up a succession of locals, and what looked like half of the driver's entire family. So much for our special, private vehicle.

They were mostly women and children dressed in bright, colourful clothes. Everyone smiled a lot, which helped to defuse our anxieties a little. Although, they had an unfortunate habit of repeatedly sliding windows open.

Before long, it was snowing dust outside and inside the vehicle. Some of it drove with unexpected venom into our eyes and nostrils. When the dust subsided, it revealed steam bellowing out from the overheated engine under the front bonnet. Steam made a change from dust, but we were all directly in the firing line, one way or another.

Piping hot steam diffused like a mini geyser from under the radiator grille cover. This was nothing compared to what we were subjected to next. The three of us were sitting behind the driver, still getting our breath back (in different ways) from our earlier experiences. The driver with the friendly face wanted to make sure we were happy, and with alarming regularity, he turned around to talk to us.

'This road, very good road.' he exclaimed. Seconds later we slammed over another pothole.

Not content with conversation, he also sought to launch his own personal on-board catering service, by turning fully around, while in mid-control of the vehicle, to offer us biscuits. He did so with a big beaming smile.

They were World Food Biscuits from India. Politely, we refused. The irony of a country as poor as India, where millions of people struggled to feed themselves, sending food aid to another country, was lost on us at the time.

'Maybe this driver has some constipation problems.' Santtu uttered.

'I think you mean concentration,' I corrected him, as I wiped more dust from my eyes.

But the smiling driver was not to be deterred. Once more as we swung around a corner, he swung around from his seat. All too predictably, just as I opened my mouth to remark to Kathrine about having her wish for an Iranian style on board biscuit service, the bus swung off the road hard into a immovable wall with a shocking thump. All conversations came to an abrupt halt as well. We had careered nastily off the road. He wasn't smiling now. No one was. It was mostly women and children behind me. They were shouting and screaming.

But the most dangerous part was still to come. The bus had now teetered over to a 45 degree angle, and was indecently exposing itself. Out of my window, the road was coming to meet me. Because the main sliding door was jammed again, the only escape from the vehicle was through the small window next to my seat.

Everyone rushed over to where I was sitting, which made things even worse, as we were on the verge of toppling over. So, quite forcefully, I had to restrain them in their panic, and control a slower evacuation through my window, so we avoided sudden weight transfer and inevitable collapse. Once I had climbed out of the window, I assisted everyone else out, totally forgetting how wrong it was to touch the women in burkas. I think they cared little for religious etiquette right there and then.

Somehow, we shunted the vehicle back upright and onto the road again. There were a few nasty dents, but the engine produced no more steam than normal. So we took some deep breaths, reflected on what had just happened, before dreading what might lie in store next. The World Food Biscuits, which were supposed to save lives, had nearly endangered plenty of other ones.

We seemed to still be climbing in altitude, to the point where the cold relentlessly shuddered my bones. However many clothes I tried to swathe myself in, the cold still bit into me. There were many, many more miles of terrifying driving ahead of us.

The public show of praise I had earlier lavished on him for being a 'very good driver' was, I now painfully realised, totally without foundation. He could barely drive the vehicle properly at all.

When it came to the gears, there was more grinding of them than finding them. I began to take it for granted that we would be over steering into and out of corners, and had to tense my body accordingly, each time. The vehicle grudgingly relented to the driver's frantic attempts to spur it on, like a horse stubbornly refusing to respond to the blunderingly excessive brute force prompting of an amateur rider.

Inexplicably, this driver also had a serial and inexplicable desire to drive through rivers. We all winced every time a river of unspecified depth came into sight, knowing that we would be heading straight for it, or into it. One vehicle we passed remained stranded in the water.

This was also a mountain world, without proper roads. Was it really a road, a track, a river, a footpath, or nothing more than a misplaced line in the ground, we were driving over, along or through? After a while, I did not need to look at the facial expressions of my companions, because I knew they were the same as my own: disbelief moulded into nervous fear. I felt most reassured when we were driving up cracked riverbeds, because the chances for collision or swerving off somewhere were relatively minimised. It was feeling like another day confined in unofficial, uncontrolled captivity.

'I think maybe, next time I will fly this route to Kabul.' the words shuddered out of Santtu's mouth, while miraculously managing to maintain some of the famous measured Finnish equilibrium of meaning.

'Hopefully, there will not be a next time.' Kathrine exclaimed, as she lurched from one side of the vehicle to the other for the umpteenth time.

It was only after four hours or so of this ordeal, I actually grasped the fact that he did not actually know how to drive at all. He controlled the vehicle with all the finesse of an elephant attempting to ride a bicycle. In what now felt like a previous part of my life, driving dangerously fast with Zahir, the unpredictability and unforeseen adventures had eventually delighted us. Here they drained and terrified us.

There were many woeful detours and unexplained stops at cold places, that you would be hard pressed to find on any maps, in the middle of nothingness, too. With more hours of waiting and walking than actual driving, the effort was more in argument than forward motion.

It wasn't even worth getting in and out of the vehicle at these stops, largely because the door might cease to work and the hold up would be delayed even longer. Just one extra obstacle to pile on to all the others preventing us from actually going anywhere of consequence. Only well after the anger had defused into mere resignation, did a stirring of activity suddenly take place.

Even when we were stationary, my body continued to bounce and bump. I felt colder with every stop. Although Kathrine was feeling better and Santtu was just the same as always, I was starting to feel ill. It was a miserably depressing ordeal at times. My head was thumping. I was uncomfortably dehydrated and longed for a drink from somewhere, but there was precious little I could do about it. My neck was stiff, my brain had slowed down and my body was lethargic.

Not for one minute could I sit back comfortably and enjoy the journey. Never mind road signs, there were no roads worthy of the name. Whatever obstacle course it was we were traversing through - pretty much everything from revving up rivers, to hurtling down black run ski slopes - I was always on the edge of my seat, anticipating the next incident to strike us down. It was an unscripted roller coaster ride.

Every twist and turn of the wheel seemed to promise an impending precipice. Rarely, was I fully able to enjoy the panorama, as my heart was being swallowed down my mouth. Santtu looked like his heart had already passed speedily through his stomach long ago. Meanwhile, the rest of my body parts were being gratuitously dismembered, like a rag doll trapped inside a food blender.

Why were we still taking so many throttle-strangling detours to these remote places, I wondered. Or was this such an off the beaten track area anyway, that this was actually the main route through it? I could not begin to guess. We were doing repetitive wheel spins sat in the middle of a shallow river. The river gushed towards us and then turned to see it rushing past us, as it also washed away more of our hopes.

Everything to do with our journey - our bodies, our vehicle, ourselves - was deteriorating rapidly. Everything was being pushed to the breaking point.

Sometimes, when we had broken down for the fourth time inside half a mile, and the situation was so troublingly absurd, the only thing left to do was burst out into spontaneous laughter.

From time to time, we had to get out and walk. I noticed a road or track of sorts, which followed the path of the river we seemed to be constantly zigzagging across. Then we lurched straight up an improbably steep and exceedingly muddy hill, which would have tested mountain goats. At this stage, I was convinced it was a matter of when, rather than if, and how badly, we would roll over.

The sharp hiss of air, indicated pressure escaping from one of the back tyres. Hopes and expectations for reaching somewhere where we could sleep and eat before dark also began to deflate with it.

At irregular and unpredictable intervals, the driver would stop and take a walk away from the vehicle, for what seemed like an eternity. I was close to wearing out all my emotions of frustration and anger. They had all been used up to fight off the cold. I couldn't even muster the energy to be properly exasperated. If the noise of discussion and debate could have been bottled as a fuel we would have had al lifetime's supply to take us to Yakawlang. But, in reality, we seemed to be running out of the real thing.

Perhaps most infuriating, was realising that we were actually going back the same way we had just driven on some stages. Not that using roads mattered. Or was I just imagining things? A few prayer stops were also thrown in for good measure. Maybe this was related to the fact that we appeared to run out of oil. Salvation only came in the form of a truck passing the opposite way, from which we bartered oil, in order to continue the crazy journey.

All the time, there was an undercurrent of uncertain thoughts swirling in my mind. How much further to Yakawlang? Was this the right way? Would we break down? Would we crash? Would we reach there in one piece? Could the driving possible get any worse? Did Yakawlang really exist? We started comparing it to the Holy Grail. Everything seemed so elusive, I could never be sure of anything.

The deep wells of experiences from other arduous travels, which I thought I could always draw on in moments of discomfort, had run very dry. The pain of pushing into the unknown was proving greater than the pleasure of doing so. I felt like someone had thrust a poisoned spear into my heart and was very slowly twisting it.

It made me realise that this country, so far removed and detached from anything I had become used to from my own culture, was lived in by people who came from a very, very different part of the world to my own. They lived in one of the world's most inaccessible and ravaged countries. I momentarily considered if I would ever make it back again to where I was before.

But I made it to Yawkawlang.

I wilted onto the floor of the communal room inside the teahouse, and surveyed the scene around me. It was all men, maybe thirty or forty of them. Something of the rugged mountain terrain we had just scraped our way over was reflected in the faces of these Afghan men; a kind of nobility, vigorous strength of spirit; expressions which reflected their self-confidence and devil-may-care attitude to many things; their defiantly senseless disregard for personal safety; a savage, madcap quality. I was able to certify the madcap qualities. Thankfully, for our own experiences, it had been more madcap than savage to this point.

Each face probably had their own story to tell, nearly every one of which we shall never hear.

All around me, there was a hardness, but also an indomitable elegance about people's lives here. The roomful of men, huddled around the deliciously crackling warm fire, radiated cool wariness.

Stale and stiff nan bread, and some kind of soup, was as far as the menu expanded. Still, it could have been much worse, I reminded myself. People subsisted on this stuff alone, for weeks or months at a time. Men ate with such enthusiasm, that I thought they might start gnawing off their own fingers and thumbs. Shortly before the fall of the Taliban, the country had endured a four year drought, which most people abroad had long forgotten about.

The teahouse offered little more than the bare minimum. Because, we were tourist infidels, or because we had a woman with us, I was not sure which, we were not allowed to sleep in the main communal area, which was the only source of warmth. We were expelled to a colder outer room, which had the temperature of an igloo. And we were made to pay extra for this privilege too.

Rustling plastic flapped on the broken window. The room would have made a freezer seem cosy place to spend the night. There was one carpet on the floor and that was it. The only salvation for Kathrine was the privacy, which enabled her to take off her headscarf.

Even someone running a busy teahouse, like the one we were in, would be lucky to earn more than a few dollars a day. It is difficult to say for sure, but although Afghanistan may be a country richly fertile in special minerals, like iron ore, the only real revenue earners are smuggling and extortion.

That night, the three of us had to huddle together on the floor to stay warm. A nasty winter wind tried to attack us through some flapping sheets of plastic that poorly imitated windows.

I reflected that this had to be the most gruelling nadir of the journey so far.

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