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 explore Herat, the leading city in western Afghanistan.
Sunday, July 30, 1978: Herat
A dream woke me at 7:30 and by 8:15 I gave up trying to fall back to sleep. Down at the restaurant I enjoyed two fried eggs, yogurt, and a pot of black chai. After cleaning my camera lenses, Gene and I set out to see Herat.
First, we had two pieces of business — change money and get bus tickets. The bank was really something. It took nearly an hour to change my $100, but just sitting there watching the Afghani banking process was interesting. I saw suitcases of tattered afghanis, tribesmen coming in with five or six $100 bills (I’m afraid to imagine where they got them), a uniformed guard with a bayonet long enough for five or six bank robbers, and a rag-tag building and atmosphere. I had 3,858 afghanis coming to me. First the guy gave me 3,000. I said “more,” and he gave me 800. “More,” and I got 50 more afghanis, and then I asked for and got the last 8 afghanis.
Next, Gene and I booked a bus ride to Kabul on the highly recommended Qaderi bus company. The 800-kilometer ride cost only $5 or 200 afghanis. Hopefully, we will get our seats and there will be no hanky-panky.
We were free to ramble. I had a Fanta, put on the zoom lens, and went into action on a dreamy side street full of colorful flowery horse-drawn taxis, busy craftsmen, fruit stands, and dust. Each man who passed looked like something straight out of a travel poster. Strong powerful eyes behind leathery weather-beaten faces. Poetic wind-blown beards, long and scraggily, and turbans like snakes wrapping protectively around their heads. Old women totally covered by bag-like outfits carried children and called out, strangely enough, for pictures. I shot off nearly a whole roll and, with any luck, I should have some wonderful shots.
We wandered away from the main center coming to a dusty residential area churning with activity. The people are so proud and there’s no one not very worthy to have their picture taken. Everyone was motioning us to come over, except for those who were too proud to acknowledge us. I didn’t really know how people accepted us strange, short-panted, pale-skinned, weak-stomached, finnicky people who came into their world to gawk, take pictures, and buy junk to bring home and tell everyone how cheap it was. I couldn’t help but feel like us curious tourists got old to these hardy, proud people who work so hard and live so simply.
There were countless moments and scenes that blazed forever in my mind, a picture of Afghanistan. We worked up a mean thirst and we shared a watermelon in the shade before moving on.
A bit tired, we headed back to our lovely hotel, had a plate of potatoes, a bowl of soup, and some chai (tea) and went up for a shower and a short snooze. We are really living well now for a change. I cashed that $100 and it feels so good to just spend money when you want to and not worry.
Now we went back into the sun. The afternoon temperature was still cooking and every once in a while we’d soak our heads under a faucet. After mailing our postcards, we checked out a row of the cloth weavers. Hard-working men ran these ingeniously primitive looms tirelessly. Quite interesting to witness. Then, making a wide circle, we came to the big mosque, checked it out, and found ourselves in a neighborhood of very hard-sell shops.
One pseudo-friendly guy took me by the hand and walked me into his shop, and before I knew it, I was wearing the wonderful white baggy pants and shirt and turban of the local people and bargaining madly. I was determined to work him down from 500 to my ceiling of 152 afghanis. I almost made it, but I was surprised when he let me walk away empty handed, a bit sad too. I want those cool, baggy, low-profile clothes and maybe, if I can swallow my pride, I’ll go back tomorrow and get them.
Like running the gauntlet, we made our way in and out of shops back to our hotel. I tried and failed to get a lovely mink skin cheap. I did offer 200 afghanis for an exciting Afghan fox hat and ended up buying it and I proudly worked a guy down from 600 afghanis to 40 each for three little nicely embroidered pouches. I haven’t bought any souvenirs to speak of in two months of travel — now I’m afraid I’ve opened the floodgates.
Back at the hotel, Gene pulled out the hunk of hashish that he bought and this, I decided, would be the time and place that’s I’d lose my “marijuana virginity.” I’ve never even smoked a cigarette and smoking pot has always turned me off, so to speak, because it’s always an object of social pressure and I would never feel comfortable doing it because everyone at a party was doing it and I was the only “square” one. That kind of pressure and the usual scene surrounding pot smoking reinforced my determination to stay away from the evil weed. But this was different.
In Afghanistan, hashish is an integral part of the culture. It’s as innocent as wine with dinner is in America. If ever I was to experience this high, it wouldn’t be in a dark dorm room at the UW with a bunch of people I didn’t respect. I could never feel good about that.
Gene and I talked about marijuana and hash for about three hours on the bus after we left Istanbul. I decided that, if I felt good about the whole situation, I’d like to smoke some hash in Afghanistan. Well, here I am in Herat, I feel great, and I love this town. We got about half a domino worth of pure hashish for 40 afghanis ($1). It was so smooth it had to be sliced with a knife.
Up in the room, Gene mixed it with some tobacco and piled the product into a funny old straight wood pipe we picked up. He took a drag — immediately remarking, “Good stuff”. I sucked in not knowing what to expect and hoping not to get a mouth full of ashes. I don’t like smoke, but besides that, there was nothing repulsive about it. It didn’t even smell bad like marijuana. The only problem was nothing happened. I had smoked enough, but virgin runs are generally unproductive. It felt good anyways — I had done it.
We went out for a walk. Going from shop to shop very casually. Mixing with people, nosing into shops, and just poking around. This place is small, but it really doesn’t matter because no street is ever the same if you walk through it a second or third time.
For dinner we sat outside of our restaurant since there was a special wedding tonight in the big room. We had a plate of lots of different vegetables with lots of meat washed down by tea for $1.50 each.
Upstairs we smoked a bit more and took a cold shower. This time I sensed a bit of a change. Certain colors and objects were more tangy. Things had a vibrant edge that I didn’t realize was an option. I was very relaxed and the light fixture on our ceiling looked like a big candle breathing in and out. But I still wasn’t really high.
Downstairs the big wedding had begun, and the bride’s father proudly shook my hand welcoming Gene and me and we sat next to the little Afghan band listening to the exciting music and watching the women dance. Everyone was quite formal, the men were in one room, the women in the other, and the decorated car waited parked outside.
Now we took a nighttime walk. Chariots with torches charged through the darkness, men carried lanterns, shopkeepers and the work boys squatted around soup and bread, many Afghans were high or getting there, it was cool, and, like always, the wind howled. The night was a great experience and we wandered.
After a small melon, checking out the wedding once more, a cold shower with our sheets and making a nice wet bed, we commented on what a good day today was and, looking forward to tomorrow and wrapped in wet sheets, we went to sleep.
(This is journal entry #2 of a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as 23-year-old me ventures deeper into Herat.)