I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Siena: Italy’s Medieval Soul

I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good for the soul. Stow away with me to Siena, Italy, in this excerpt from my book For the Love of Europe, a collection of 100 of my favorite places, people, and stories from a lifetime of European travels. 

Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers perhaps Italy’s best medieval experience. Courtyards sport flower-decked wells, churches modestly share their art, and alleys dead-end into red-tiled rooftop panoramas. This is a city made for strolling. With its stony skyline and rustic brick lanes tumbling every which way, the town is an architectural time warp, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.  

Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by its Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater — and it’s been one ever since. Siena’s loss became the traveler’s gain as its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic identity.  

This is most notable in Il Campo, where I begin my stroll. At the center of town, this great shell-shaped piazza, featuring a sloped red-brick floor fanning out from the City Hall tower, is designed for people, offering the perfect invitation to loiter. Il Campo immerses you in a world where troubadours stroke guitars, lovers stroke one another’s hair, and bellies become pillows. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.  

Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but Il Campo gathers Siena’s citizenry around its City Hall with its skyscraping municipal tower. Catching my breath after climbing to the dizzy top of the 100-yard-tall bell tower, I survey the view and think of the statement this campanile made. In Siena, kings and popes took a back seat to the people, as it was all about secular government, civic society, and humanism. 

The public is welcome inside the City Hall where, for seven centuries, instructive frescoes have reminded all of the effects of good and bad government. One fresco shows a utopian republic, blissfully at peace; the other fresco depicts a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny. 

But the Church still has its place. If Il Campo is the heart of Siena, the Duomo is its soul — and my next destination. A few blocks off the main square, sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, this white- and dark-green-striped cathedral is as ornate as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics. The stony heads of nearly 2,000 years of popes — that’s over 170 so far — ring the interior, peering down from high above on all those who enter. 

Great art, including statues carved by Michelangelo and Bernini, fills the church interior. Nicola Pisano carved the exquisite marble pulpit in 1268. It’s crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling. I get up close to study the scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment. 

Trying to escape the crowds in the cathedral and on the main square, I venture away from the city center. I get lost on purpose in Siena’s intriguing back streets, studded with iron rings for tethering horses and lined with colorful flags. Those flags represent the city’s contrade (neighborhoods), whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio, a wild bareback horse race that turns Il Campo into a thrilling and people-packed racetrack. 

Wandering further into the far reaches of the city, I’m tempted by Sienese specialties in the shops along the way: gourmet pasta, vintage Chianti, boar prosciutto, and the city’s favorite treat: panforte. 

Panforte is Siena’s claim to caloric fame. This rich, chewy concoction of nuts, honey, and candied fruits impresses even fruitcake haters. Local bakeries claim their recipe dates back to the 13th century. Some even force employees to sign nondisclosure agreements to ensure they won’t reveal the special spice blend that flavors their version of this beloved — and very dense — cake. 

A key to enjoying Siena is to imagine it in its 14th-century heyday while taking advantage of today’s modern scene. After chewing on a chunk of that panforte, I decide to linger here into the evening, after the tour groups have boarded their buses and left town. I duck into a bar for aperitivo (happy hour), which includes a free buffet and now I’m primed and ready to join the passeggiata — an evening stroll. I time my arrival back at Il Campo to savor that beautiful twilight moment when the sky is a rich blue dome, no brighter than the proud Siena towers that seem to hold it high. 

Picasso’s “Guernica”  

Watching the recent events in Afghanistan unfold in the headlines, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to humanize far-away tragic events — and the unique ability of artists to do so. 

Picasso’s monumental painting “Guernica” — more than 25 feet wide — is a powerful example of this. It’s not only a piece of art but a piece of history, capturing the horror of modern war in a modern style. 

The painting (which has been recreated, in this photograph, on a wall in the Basque market town of Guernica itself) depicts a specific event. On April 26, 1937, Guernica was the target of the world’s first saturation aerial-bombing raid on civilians. Spain was in the midst of the bitter Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), which pitted its democratically elected government against the fascist general Francisco Franco. To quell the defiant Basques, Franco gave permission to his fascist confederate Adolf Hitler to use the town as a guinea pig to try out Germany’s new air force. The raid leveled the town, causing destruction that was unheard of at the time (though by 1944, it would be commonplace). 

News of the bombing reached Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris. Horrified at what was happening back in his home country, Picasso immediately set to work sketching scenes of the destruction as he imagined it… 

The bombs are falling, shattering the quiet village. A woman howls up at the sky, horses scream, and a man falls to the ground and dies. A bull — a symbol of Spain — ponders it all, watching over a mother and her dead baby…a modern “pietà.” 

Picasso’s abstract, Cubist style reinforces the message. It’s like he’d picked up the bomb-shattered shards and pasted them onto a canvas. The black-and-white tones are as gritty as the newspaper photos that reported the bombing, creating a depressing, sickening mood. 

Picasso chose universal symbols, making the work a commentary on all wars. The horse with the spear in its back symbolizes humanity succumbing to brute force. The fallen rider’s arm is severed and his sword is broken, more symbols of defeat. The bull, normally a proud symbol of strength, is impotent and frightened. The scared dove of peace can do nothing but cry. The whole scene is lit from above by the stark light of a bare bulb. Picasso’s painting threw a light on the brutality of Hitler and Franco. And, suddenly, the whole world was watching. 

The painting debuted at the 1937 Paris exposition and caused an immediate sensation. For the first time, the world could see the destructive force of the rising fascist movement — a prelude to World War II. 

Eventually, Franco won Spain’s civil war and ended up ruling the country with an iron fist for the next 36 years. Picasso vowed never to return to Franco’s Spain. So “Guernica” was displayed in New York until Franco’s death (in 1975), when it ended its decades of exile. Picasso’s masterpiece now stands in Madrid as Spain’s national piece of art. 

With each passing year, the canvas seems more and more prophetic — honoring not just the thousands who died in Guernica, but the 500,000 victims of Spain’s bitter civil war, the 55 million of World War II, and the countless others of recent wars. Picasso put a human face on what we now call “collateral damage.” 

My 1978 “Hippie Trail” Journal: The fabled Khyber Pass from Kabul to Pakistan

With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating. 

In this final journal entry from 1978, stow away with me as I travel from Kabul over the fabled Khyber Pass to Pakistan.  

 

Friday, August 4, 1978: Kabul to Rawalpindi, Pakistan 

This was the morning I was psyched for. I don’t think I could have woken up feeling bad and I didn’t. Both Gene and I felt good. We had a last big Sina Hotel breakfast and caught our little 8:30 bus to Pakistan. 

This bus was the way I wanted to do Khyber Pass. I had dreamed of crossing this romantically wild and historically dangerous pass for years and it was very high on my life’s checklist of things to do — in the top five for sure. Now I was sitting on this kinky old brightly, but badly painted, bus next to a wonderful open window that let me lean half of my body out if I wanted to. Our seats were big and high yet crowded and the bus was full of Pakistanis and “Road to India” travelers. 

I was glad to get out of Kabul and almost immediately we were in a scenic mountain pass. From here to the border, while nothing by Pacific Northwest standards, was the closest thing to lush that we’ve seen in Afghanistan. We even passed a lake, but I saw no boats. I wondered how many, or how few, Afghans had ever been in a boat. 

Stopping in Jalalabad for a hurried lunch break, we were back on the road in 20 minutes. We were nearing the border and apprehension grew. We hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle but by now nothing surprised us. 

The Afghanistan border station, while time consuming, was easy. We just sat around eating a melon and wishing we had money for a Coke. Actually, we had planned our cash reserves very nicely and were leaving with no afghanis. We waited our turn to be searched, filled out the form, got our passports stamped — the usual process, and loaded back on only to stop 100 yards later for our introduction to Pakistan. 

This place was pretty unruly. We piled into a room and one by one we were called up to the desk. The customs official “hunt and pecked” our vital statistics into his register and stamped our passports. 

Passports in hand, we knew we were just halfway through the process, but we weren’t sure where to go next. We wandered into one ramshackle building, and in a dark room, two men jumped up from two cots and welcomed us to lay down. No thanks! We got out of there and were overrun by dope dealers and black-market money chargers. Everything was so open and blatant that it almost seemed legal. We bought $10 worth or Pakistan rupees and then tried to get our bags searched so we’d be done. Frustrated in the chaos, we just got on the bus and skipped the baggage check. At our window we were entertained by lots of hash sellers and a particularly persistent man with a small bottle of cocaine — 4 grams for $30. I took his picture and told him to get lost. 

Finally we were loaded and ready to do it — to cross the Khyber Pass. I was thrilled. Physically, it was just like any other rocky mountain pass, but when you’ve wondered, dreamed, and thought about something for many years, it becomes special. Up and up the bus climbed. Hanging out the window, I tried to take in everything — every wild turn in the road, every fortress-crowned hill, every stray goat, every gaily painted truck that passed us, and every mud hut. I looked at the rugged people who inhabited this treacherous pass and wondered who they were, how they lived, what stories could they tell. Dry, rocky graveyards with wind-tattered flags littered the hillsides. Clouds threatened. We were moving out of the arid Arab side of South Asia and into the wet Indian subcontinent. From now on we would feel muggy — but enjoy the green countryside. 

We crossed the Khyber Pass and passed through a tribal village to pay a toll for the privilege. I could see the men around with rifles ignoring the bus and gathered in circles trading both goods and stories. 

In a few minutes we were in Peshawar and found that a direct train to Lahore was leaving in an hour. We saw nothing to keep us in Peshawar and the magnetism of India was getting stronger and stronger as we got nearer and nearer. We hassled around trying to decide how, what, and where to buy our tickets. This was a new experience — learning how to handle the Pakistani train system. A little bewildered and not sure what was our best move, we bought $3.50 ticket (first class) for the 12-hour journey, wolfed down a quick 60 cents dinner, and found a spot on the not-so-classy first-class car. 

The only difference between first and second class was padded seats and $1.50. We figured for 12 hours it would be nice to have the pads. Our car was very crowded. I was happy to be near a window that blew in hot, muggy air. We pulled out at 5:50, almost on time, and I savored the breeze.  

The countryside was flat, lush, and interesting. After a while, I began reading Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was good and the time passed nicely. Then it got dark, and the bugs came. The lights worked like on my old bike — the faster you go, the brighter they shine. This was not a very bright train. The bugs got on me so to speak and I made a bloody declaration “Death by ruthless squashing to any bug that lands on me from now on”. I decided that I would just mash them with my thumb or fingers and roll them through my arm and leg hairs until they disappeared — either rubbing in or falling off. 

The ride dragged on. We decided to break up the ride to Lahore at Rawalpindi, the halfway spot, catch an early train in the morning to complete the trip. 

It was nearly midnight as we stepped into the muddy puddled streets of Rawalpindi. There was a 5:15 train to Lahore in the morning so we could catch a good four hours of sleep — if we could catch a hotel. It looked very bad — every one was full and other people looking for a place were also frustrated. Luckily, I found a guy with a single open and a shower next door (Gene didn’t tell me about the lizards until later). Otherwise, it was a hole barely worth the10 rupees ($1) we paid. But it did serve its purpose. I took a cooling shower and found a comfortable spot among the bumps and curves of my cot and soon I had worked myself to sleep. Today was a good day — lots of miles covered, a new country and I had crossed the Khyber Pass. 

 

(This is journal entry #5 of a five-part series. If you missed any along the way, scroll back to Tuesday, Aug. 17 on my Facebook page.) 

My 1978 “Hippie Trail” Journal: 500 Miles across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul

With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating. 

In this journal entry from 1978, stow away with me as I ride 500 miles across Afghanistan and explore the capital city of Kabul.

 

Tuesday, August 1, 1978: Herat to Kabul 

At 4:00, we were woken up and it was dead night. No one should be awake at that hour but there I sat on the edge of my bed. We had a melon and caught our 5:00 Qaderi bus to Kabul. 

The bus was organized, punctual, and we were moving. Dawn was cracking as those sleeping on the sidewalks began to stir. Our boisterous bus honked loudly as if it was psyching itself up for the 800-kilometer ride that lay ahead. The road was good and we kept a good speed, stopping only for a quick Coke all morning. The countryside was desolate, hot, and foreboding. A herd of camels, a stray nomad or cluster of quiet tents, a mud brick ruin melting like a sand castle after being hit by a wave, and the solitary electricity line accompanied the narrow, but well-paved, US and USSR-built road across the Afghanistan desert. It really was not a scenic ride, but I gained an appreciation for the vastness of this country of 10 million people by the time the 14-hour ride was over. 

We had one short lunch stop where Gene and I had a Fanta and some peanuts and I got some use out of my zoom lens and then we raced on. This was the greatest ride. Our driver actually wanted to keep a good tempo. The countryside didn’t change all day. The same lazy, goofy camels and sleepy gray-brown mud castle towns kept passing with the stark dirt mountains jaggy in the background. We had three stops to pray to Mecca during the afternoon and just as darkness fell, we entered Kabul. Gene wasn’t feeling well so we took a cab to touristy “Chicken Street” and found the nicest hotel we could — the not too nice, but OK, Sina Hotel. 

Gene went straight to sleep while I had a lousy dinner with a friendly student from Philadelphia who was here to study the language. I’m spoiled after our great Herat hotel. 

Oh well, I’m in Kabul. Imagine that — so close to my dream — the Khyber Pass and India. I do believe I’m more than halfway around the world from Seattle. I’ll have to check a globe. I hope Gene’s better — and I’m still good — in the morning. 

 

Wednesday, August 2, 1978: Kabul 

It’s a mistake to go to bed without a watch. I slept ok but got up too early. Gene was in pretty sad shape so he stayed in bed. For breakfast I had a melon, a big carrot, and two boiled eggs and tea in the Sina Hotel courtyard. I was laid back from the start today because I knew we had two days in Kabul and there wasn’t much to get excited about. I talked with a German girl who was just recovering from an eight-day bout with “Tehran tummy” and who wanted to go home. Home is a very nice thought when you’re travelling to India. It’s even more heavenly when you’re sick. 

Getting down to business, I walked to the Pakistan bus company and got tickets for over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan for Friday morning. Then, with several incredibly persistent shoeshine boys tailing me, I ducked into the Pakistani embassy and was happy to learn that Americans need no visas to travel through Pakistan. We were set. Wow — Khyber Pass, Pakistan, and then on to India!  

Back at the hotel, I checked on Gene. He was feeling very rugged still. I brought him special magic tea and two boiled eggs and hung around for a while. His tendency was to fast and sleep it off.  

It was quite hot now as I set out to cover Kabul, what an unenviable task. I had no map or information. I really couldn’t get oriented in this blobby, hodgepodge capital. The city is like a giant village sprawling out along several valleys that come together. It seems to love its sadly dried-up river, which is very little water with a wide and rocky bed. It was hot and dusty, shade was rare, and I felt very obvious being alone and wearing my shorts. Nevertheless, I walked and wandered covering a good part of Kabul. 

I walked through some very seedy parts, searched in vain for the tourist information place, and caught a taxi to the Kabul Museum. It was a long ride and he fiercely resisted the 40 afghanis I paid him. He wanted 60. I thought 40 was very fair and finally, just to lose him, I paid 50. Then I found out that the museum I came to see was closed. Feeling a bit frustrated and down on the people who heckled and gathered around me, I hopped onto a crowded bus and rode it to its end which was just where I wanted to be. This was a busy place. The only real city in Afghanistan and it had quite a number of large buildings and fancy institutes. But the tribal chaos permeates everything. Around a modern department store there’s old men with donkey loads of tomatoes, little girls selling small limes, piles of honeydew melons with a guy sitting on top sleepily smoking hash. 

I checked out a fancy hotel and sat in the cool bar sipping a Coke and eating a nice girl’s bread and then I walked up to the top of “Afghan store,” the closest thing to a Western department store, and found a nice restaurant with a beautiful view of ugly Kabul. 

An old man had me sit with him and he said, “I am professor so and so. What is your name and fame?” He was very excited to have a meal with an American but I’m afraid I wasn’t really in the proper mood and I wasn’t very talkative. He told me he would never forget his meal with “Mr. Rick”. I taught him the do-re-me scale and what a radish was. That was the only thing on my plate that stumped him. He left and I finished my meal under the silent stares of the other diners and then I headed home. 

The evidence of the recent revolution is everywhere. Our bus was checked (for guns I assume) upon entering Kabul, copies of the headlines on the day of the change are seen posted, there’s an 11:00 curfew and soldiers are everywhere with poised bayonets. On the street I saw what was left of a tank, blown to bits and left as a reminder that the old regime was dead. 

Later we ventured into our cozy little Sina Hotel courtyard for the mild dinner. I worked on a honeydew melon, we both had boiled eggs, and tea. Gene had some of Sina’s special sick man’s tea. The rest of the evening was lazy and dull. I wasn’t looking forward to another day in Kabul but there was no earlier bus and this would be better for Gene.

 

Thursday, August 3, 1978: Kabul 

Today was malaria pill day and the end of our third week on the road. We were at the doorstep of India, most of our work was behind, and most of the adventure was ahead. Our health was tenuous at best but both of us were determined that nothing would stop us now. I swallowed my super vitamin with zinc pills with black tea and had toast and eggs before going out for a walk. I had no big plans for today — just to pass the time and enjoy myself. 

I walked down “Chicken Street”, the touristic high-pressure point of Afghanistan, oblivious to the countless “Come into my shop mister, just look”s and realizing that out of all the junk everyone’s trying to see, there was nothing I really wanted. 

I dropped by the American center to do a little reading and escape the noon sun and later I got Gene to join me. That was about the first time he’d been out of the hotel in nearly two days. We just relaxed and read old news. The latest Time magazine was censored by the new government here. They censor any issue with articles about the USSR. That has left us with old news to read. It’s just not the same, but it’s better than nothing. Reading American magazines on the road is like going to an American movie on the road — it brings you home for as long as you’re immersed in it. 

After laying around the hotel for a while, I put on Gene’s baggy, white Afghan pants, grabbed my camera, and caught a bus to the edge of town. It’s kind of nice not knowing or caring where you’re going. I just got on any old bus, paid one afghani, and rode it for as long as I wanted — which was the end of the line. The bus driver invited me for tea, I accepted, and the gang gathered around to stare. Boy, I must really be a strange looking dude to these people — they can stare endlessly. Last night I wrote a poem called “Afghan Eyes” about a little girl who stared at me for five hours on our bus ride from Herat. 

I put on my zoom lens and wandered into a group of tents where an entire community was living. It’s really a pity they were camera-shy. I managed to find plenty of Afghans, however, who were dying to have their picture taken and I did my best to accommodate them. Hopping back on a bus, I was soon back in the touristy world of “Chicken Street.” 

Gene was tired of being cooped up and he finally had an appetite. I was having a little loose-bowel trouble myself and, after taking several alternate turns each on the toilet, we walked slowly down the street to find dinner. 

The “Steak House” caught my eye when we first came to Kabul, and now we would try it out. I wasn’t counting on anything fantastic — just hoping. Actually, I got a very good steak and vegetable dinner for less than a dollar, complete with soup and a pot of tea. That hit both of our spots wonderfully. After the meal, we did a little money changing — getting rid of our Iranian and Turkish money and getting 50 Pakistani rupees. 

We felt better after that good meal and went back home. I spent the evening in the courtyard catching up in this journal, repairing a strap on my pack, and enjoying tea and a Fleetwood Mac tape. It will be very good to be on the move again tomorrow.  

Being so rich (even as a lowly backpacker) and so white in this poor and struggling corner of our world puts me in a strange bind as a traveler that I wish I could change. It’s kind of sad, but I realized today that I tend to build a wall between me and any potential friends in this beyond-Europe part of the world. In Europe I love to talk with people and make friends. That’s even a primary reason for my travels there, but here there’s something in the way. I think a lot of it is suspicion, lack of understanding, and fatigue. Also, most of the people who I encounter around here who speak English, seem to speak it only to make money off the tourist. I wish I spoke the local language, but I don’t. 

 

(This is journal entry #4 of a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as 23-year-old me travels from Kabul over the fabled Khyber Pass to Pakistan.) 

My 1978 “Hippie Trail” Journal: A Second Dreamy Day in Herat

With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating. 

In this journal entry from 1978, stow away with me for another dreamy day in Herat, Afghanistan.

Monday, July 31, 1978: Herat

I didn’t stir for nine hours. After breakfast we picked up our rental bikes and began a little adventure. It felt good to have wheels. We could stop when we wanted and, if the people got too intense, we could make a clean escape. The breeze cooled us off and things happened at a much faster rate than when we traveled on foot.

Speeding through the part of town we already knew well, we headed for the old ruined minarets that we saw when we approached Herat two days ago. Checking out this historic site, an old man let us in the mosque for 10 afghanis and we saw the tomb of an old Afghan king.

Now we had seen the big historic site and we stopped to visit with some studious types in the shade. We had a nice chat and learned something about the culture and language. We also learned from our friend that we were spending too much money for just about everything. 

Coasting happily down the road, I took a string of fantastic photos. This is the photographer’s moment I’ve waited for so long. I got guys tossing melons, colorful girls sitting on curbs, lazy teenagers slouching on warm wagons, and lots of little tidbits of Afghan life. The people are genuinely friendly and proud, shaking my hand firmly and as equals. I did get one small fruit thrown at me but, all in all, this is one of the friendliest countries I’ve experienced. Any women who ventured onto the streets and who are post-pubescent are totally covered up seeing only through a tiny gridwork in the cloth that covers their faces.

We were determined to pedal in one direction until we reached the edge of town. After wetting our whistles with a Sprite, we made our way down the busy, dusty street until the city became more of a mud village like ones I’d seen in Egypt and Morocco. Taking side roads, we found ourselves enveloped in a new and different world. Quiet brown mud streets became high walls, long and narrow. The walls were broken occasionally by small shops and rustic wooden doors. Young and old sat around as if they were waiting for a stranger on a bike to happen by. I’m sure we were a very rare sight for them. I wonder if they enjoyed our presence or if we were violating their peace.

I experimented with different greetings from a salute to a child’s wave, to the solemn “kiss the hand and put it to the heart” that religious-looking types offer us. That one gets great results. I had a pocket full of candies for gifts and I feel better giving that than giving money.

You know, everyone in this happy society seems content and I’ve seen no hunger and very few hard case beggars. They have modest needs for their meager productivity and things seem to work out just fine and there’s more than enough tea, hashish, and melons for everyone.

We poked around until we had had our fill and realized that this was hot and hard work. Then, on the way back, we stopped off at a pile of hay being romantically thrashed by a couple of oxen pulling a wooden hay-chewing device. What a dreamy tourist and photographic opportunity! I pounced on the chance to drive the cart and had an unforgettable blast. I got to sit on the chewer, driving the oxen around and around and I think the peasants got as big of a kick out of me as I got out of them and their hay. That’s optimality. 

We got our bikes back after two hours and paid a buck each. We picked up a melon and retreated to our hotel. Feeling hot but happy, we stopped off at the pool, stripped to our underwear and took the chilly plunge. Instant refreshment! Wow! What a fantastic day we’re having! We frolicked around, took a few dives and some good photos and I thought “My goodness — this is what a vacation is supposed to be”. Dripping up to the room, we sacked out for a while and went down for lunch. Good sleep, good food, and my vitamin pills were my formula for the rest of this trip to be enjoyable and successful. I don’t think I can go wrong with that recipe, but we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?

After a rest and a few cold showers, the sun was a bit lower in the sky and we stepped back out. While I was deep into a bargaining match with a nice guy for the mink I had fallen in love with, Martin from the Istanbul-Tehran bus dropped by, and we chatted, and he highly recommended the endless bazaar. We said we were heading there. 

I had my zoom lens on and I got such a thrill out of zooming in on these lovely people. I can hardly wait to see my pictures. We morphed or melted from scene to scene soaking in all the bazaar images. What a sensual experience. We’d pass from water pipe making souks or neighborhoods, to tin pounders, weavers, beadmakers, bead stringers, people working billows, people sharpening knives on rickey foot-powered wheels, chain pounders, and nail benders. Everything was hand done. Old and young worked furiously at the same menial task all day long — all life long. I’ll never again complain about a long day of my work — teaching piano lessons. 

Each shop was about five yards across and every five yards was a new scene — a new glimpse of Afghan life. Some things we couldn’t even understand. At one point, little children wouldn’t give up asking for “baksheesh” (gifts of money) and we had to duck into a huge mosque where a policeman chased them away and we had to take off our shoes and pay him something to check this place out. It was impressive.

Now we were exhausted. Back at the hotel we went for a swim and a strange dog knocked my glasses off my bag and the lens fell out. I was worried but it popped back in — apparently good as new. I dread the thought of breaking my glasses and having to wear my high school hornrims that I brought for a spare.

Up in the room we tried out a little more hash and went out to mingle. Mingling was a bit intensified. Little things, like a man weighing tomatoes, tickled me special and I was more receptive to would-be pests and ready to poke around a little more freely. I didn’t know it was because of the hashish or because I was in a very good mood. 

We hopped in a funny little three wheeled taxi that looked like a souped-up ice cream truck for a ride to another part of town and I really got into some exciting photography. Existing light and lantern light subjects. I got men to pose precisely how I like them. I would even shove their chin up a tad or move the lantern closer. They could be exceptional, or they might not, but both my subject and I had a memorable time trying.

We goofed around some more and then hopped on a fancy two-wheeled horse-drawn buggy taxi. Charging all over town as if in a chariot, we sang songs really entertaining, or at least amusing, our driver. We surprised him with a confident 10 afghanis and he barely had time to gripe as we hopped off. These tourists weren’t taken for a ride except on a horse. I decided that if you try to agree to a price before boarding, they know you’re new at the game and they’ll rip you off. If you just get on and say “Home James” and pay them what you think is reasonable, you’ll do fine.

On our way home, I bought a lovely little five afghanis (1 cents) goody. Then we stopped by to check out my friend with the mink. I knew I’d find myself bargaining furiously again and that’s what happened. This was my third time in his shop and I knew if I went home without that mink, I’d kick myself. I love it just like I loved old “Ringworm” (a cat I befriended and took home back in 2nd grade — that gave me Ringworm). I finally went to 460 afghanis ($12) and came away with a great skin.

Now we were hungry and our hotel awaited. We are living so fantastically. Sitting down where the waiters know us, we ordered a hearty meaty meal with tea and a melon. We’ve been drinking the water and my stools are solid, so we had more of that. I feel so good. I’m in control and anything I desire, I can just get it. Wow.

Up in the room, I took a long shower, cleaned up my pack, enjoyed my little souvenirs, and hit the sack. I laid there with nothing on wondering how cockroaches got their name. (Maybe I am high, after all.)

People enjoy the same things all over the world. The old cleaning man ignored my plea for more toilet paper and said dreamily, “Look, isn’t it beautiful?” We both stood motionless on the roof of the hotel watching torch toting chariots gallop by as the sun sank behind the distant mountain.

We were sitting and talking with some studious Afghans in a park when one asked, “Aren’t you travelling with your women?” I said my girlfriend is at home and he replied, “Oh that’s very difficult — I could never do that.” I do feel like I’ve been “on the road” for a long time now. 

(This is journal entry #3 of a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as 23-year-old me rides 500 miles across Afghanistan and explores the capital city of Kabul.)