I took the picture below at breakfast the morning we departed Mazar-i-Sharif for Herat (By the way, the breakfast you see the gentlemen below consuming is the classic Afghan meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner – naan bread, meat cooked on a skewer and green tea to drink).
Now these guys look mean and hard, but a microsecond before I snapped this picture, they were laughing and joking with me. You see, adult Afghans generally feel compelled to look grim and tough in their pictures for some reason. It is absolutely not a reflection of their true nature though. The reality is that they are among the most friendly and hospitable people I have ever met.
This is despite the fact that, out here, things are different. A depressing number of people seem to have accepted that they just might die a random, meaningless death; but far from letting this thought overpower their emotions and coping skills, it seems to have focused their attentions onto the most immediate concerns: will we eat tomorrow, can I increase my stature within the community, will my son get married and have enough children, and so on. Some Westerners complain that the adults, especially the spinghiri, or “white beards,” are unbelievably selfish because they only care about money and power. I hope it’s not condescending to disagree, and see that thought process as a rational response to severe deprivation.
This part of Afghanistan is very remote. And to say that something in Afghanistan is remote really means something. There is absolutely no Western presence out here and no commercial traffic. The dirt road you see below is literally the only road in existence in this part of the world. And even it frequently disappeared into a labyrinth of tracks that crisscrossed broad swaths of desert. We fishtailed and churned our way through a dense fog of dust, along tire ruts at least 2 feet deep, causing the four-wheel-drive to jerk and buck like a rodeo bull. There were no road signs, and no other vehicles.
In fact, this Bedouin was the only other human we saw on the entire day’s drive to Maimana.
And if that were not enough of a reminder that we were in the middle of nowhere, wild camels were the only wildlife we saw.
This camel sleeping in the road was so unaccustomed to vehicles that it couldn’t even be bothered to do more than lift its head to glare at us for disturbing his or her nap.
The inside of the car, like everything else, is coated in a fine film of dust. Our hair becomes matted in moments. Nothing escapes the talcum-powder mist of sand that hangs in the air, not even in airtight containers. And, of course, it is hot. Before breakfast, the climate is Mediterranean. By midday, the ground ripples with a furnace-like intensity. Even the Taliban set down their AK-47s between the hours of 1pm and 4pm.
We arrive in Maimana a little after 4 pm. One needs a permit to travel on the road past Maimana to Herat. So, we stop in to chat with the mayor of Maimana. He is surprised to see us, but is pleasant and provides us with tea. However, he is adamantly opposed to our continuing on to Herat. The mayor insists that the Taliban are in complete control of the area and says that we will be captured and beheaded if we attempt to get through. We thank him for his concern, but politely state that we still wish to continue to Herat. This time he gives us a flat “no”. To make his point, he picks up the radio on his desk and orders the soldiers manning the checkpoints on the route to Herat (still only one road to get there) to allow no Westerners through. OK, we’ve dealt with this before… This is Afghanistan after all. I gently inquire if there is perhaps a “small fee” or “tax” we can pay to simplify the process of obtaining permission to proceed. He politely (and surprisingly) declines my attempt to bribe him and explains that since the 21 South Koreans were abducted by the Taliban outside of Khandahar that the government is very concerned about bad publicity involving Westerners. So, no, we cannot proceed. No way.
Awww, fuck it… Time for a very long drive back. I somehow manage to pass out in the back of the four-wheel-drive for the duration of the return drive.