Rocking atop burlap sacks in the open-backed truck, I watched as Peshawar faded into the morning’s mirage. Knowing I’d never return in this lifetime, I felt history being made beneath my feet as upturned dust exposed ancient stories. With a mandatory armed-escort riding in the front, I knew I better play by the rules. At 50C, halfway to the boiling point, I’d routinely crawled beneath cloaked layers of fabric, out of respect. It seemed ages, six months twenty-eight days to be exact, since my bare back had last been brushed by a cooling breeze. Oh, how I ached for that long-forgotten contact on my skin, but this was no game or school fieldtrip.
Confined in this pioneer-like, canvas-covered truck, I couldn’t escape the feeling of vulnerability. Surely, if found in harm’s way, we’d be shot dead before our guard could even shuffle from the truck with his trusted AK-47. I fought with my blowing scarf tucking it behind my ear, my hundredth attempt to make it stay. My eyes, like cats in a cave, peered from the light material, making contact with Mom and two siblings. “If anyone could protect us”, my thoughts continued, motioning them to glance upward, “it was the men on the hills.” Strategically positioned, with weapons at their sides, their uniforms melted into the layers of jagged rock. Shadowy figures standing like statues on sentinel duty… this was the famous Khyber Pass. It was all too far from any reality I’d ever known.
Like criminals being smuggled in a wagon, it was mandatory for everyone to stand on arrival for photos before being stamped into Afghanistan. Wheelbarrow loads of children hustled along, pushed by sweating men. Kids tried to make a few pennies by pulling cargo on wooden sledges. It was all so natural, not staged or rehearsed; that was just the way things were.
Fully laden with backpacks, weighted down like a slip-sinker on a fishing line, we drowned downwards into the depths of the crowds. It didn’t take long before we’d drift into a stagnant pool, losing the flow. Men hovered trying to get a glimpse, enticing us to ride their bus, throwing questions or simply staring. Though not unfriendly it was overwhelming. So it came as a relief when nearby police arrived, personally clearing a path for us to avoid anymore blockage in the road.
By dawn, the sun was beating down. Already I was tugging at the folds of my full-length skirt, desperate to let some air in. My buried skin wished to resurrect a long lost tan, but this was not yet the time.
As I sat in the bus I noticed that while clambering in my headscarf had slipped back, partially revealing my hair. I reflexively yanked it forward, barely escaping a cultural disaster in a bus full of men. Taking us in as if we were one of their own, locals didn’t hesitate to share drinks and snacks. I thankfully accepted, reminded of the more realistic danger of dehydration. Enjoying the cold slip down the back of my arid throat, my ears were nothing more than question marks and blanks between the mutters of Pashtu and Dari.
A shadow of fine dust blew in the cracked window, pinching the sensitive tissue around my eyes. Catching the frustrated, worn ends of cotton which slipped from the knot I’d just fixed in my headscarf, I demanded, “How do they DO this?!” exasperated at it coming loose again. No one else was struggling the way I was. “Hunny, they’ve had these since childhood.” Mom said, as she draped the material over me, covering my scowl. “It’s like when you first learn to braid your hair, it’s all over the place.”
I pressed my nose against the splotched window, looking down from a peak, to the myriad of earth waves stretched below. Scattered carnage of upturned trucks littered the hillsides. The fear of also becoming one, defeated by the challenges of the steep narrow roads, taunted me. In a brief glance, I was provided with answers as to why this country remained historically unattainable. The sheer vastness of our surroundings was intimidating. The landscape was barren, parched for half a lifetime, like a silver mine neglected by light despite its fortunes.
“How is that possible?? How can it look so dead out there if it rains?” I asked bewildered as small splats blurred my view through the window. The murmurs in the bus blended into a unified awe, in immediate awareness. Excited locals hung from their seats, trying to catch just a drop. This wet sensation falling from the skies came as a blessing in the land like a lit candlestick thrust into the depths of a cavern. A long journey through mountainous terrain opened up into a flat valley, where Kabul revealed itself in a flickering of lights. Like a lonely rain drop myself, I’d fallen into a lake, joining a part of something much more significant.
High decibels from throbbing traffic and heated haggling in the markets became a cacophony in my ears, swallowing my other senses. Wayward toes attached to bare or sandaled feet; cracked and dry, like the discarded remnants of shell-riddled buildings from past wars, waded cautiously. Feeling like one insignificant piece of a giant puzzle about to be misplaced, I relentlessly glued my eyes on my tall, lanky brother, Ammon. Without him, I’d be lost forever. Three women to a man, veiled and cloaked in light blues and midnight blacks, we made a quartet of our own. Swallowed by the swarm, I desired nothing more than to feel that intimate sensation of air on my naked body. Insecurity and self-consciousness overpowering me, I dragged my scarf entirely over my pale face to disappear. I felt comfortable, it was safe under there.
If it weren’t for the black holes of doors and windows in the basic mud block homes, Kabul would be invisible, masked and cowering into the backdrop. We walked the streets, lined with cross-legged moneychangers and their bags of cash bulging out before them. Kebabs, hot and fresh, sizzled on the curb; mouthwatering aromas steamed the already hot air. Pulling out my camera to capture any one of the unique sights, kids would appear from every direction. They would beg, not for money but for the novelty of having their picture taken. Groups of wide-eyed youngsters huddled closely to see a single image. Meanwhile I’d look in the sky to see my own novelty; pods of helicopters and fighter jets rumbled overhead, completely unfaltering the children. It went on for days like this, exploring and interacting but it wasn’t until we reached the town of Kunduz that we would embraced the legendary hospitality of the people.
On the bus, Ahmed, was returning home from studies in Iran. He was intelligent and communicated with us in English. Culturally unable to sit next to a woman, he sat happily next to Ammon; leaving me to strain my neck over the bus seat and above Ammon’s shoulder to hear them speak. “Yes that is an old battle field,” I was able to catch. Glancing out the window where he pointed, it was clear to see. The burned-out tanks, like many we’d seen before along the roadside were present but the plain gravestones whispered their grizzly tales.
The third stop of the day, required for Islamic prayers, was high atop another mountain pass. There at the heights of heaven, I cherished the cold draft that swept over the tops of my bare feet peeking out from beneath my skirt.
After a stuffy ten hours on local transport, Ahmed took us under his wing and personally guided us to a hotel. Upon finding the prices outrageously high, he didn’t hesitate to offer, “You come with me, to my sister’s home. Very close, not far. Only ten minute walk. Very nice with my family.”
“Are you sure that’s ok? I mean, it’s a lot to ask,” Mom voiced, not entirely sure how his family would react receiving us unexpectedly on their doorstep.
“No, no. Is okay. We love to have you. They love to have you as guest. It is honor,” Ahmed insisted.
Aware of current events and conscious of the area’s dangerous reputation, we were wary and cautious. Not wanting to let possible misinterpretations ruin a good experience connecting with people around the world, we had to trust. And we realized, at this point it was all or nothing. Our lives were in their hands, for at least the next few days.
Ahmed’s family were no less than shocked when they opened their door to a few scraggly looking Canadians. Famished and perishing away, we, never-the-less, were welcomed enthusiastically. A variety of liquids ranging from hot to cold were hastily prepared, attending to our most vital need. We stepped into an open courtyard centered in the wide one-story home. It was exceptionally large in comparison to the typical housing we’d seen.
We three girls were led to what could only be assumed to be the women’s quarters, where all of the young children horse-played. Boys only younger than eight were allowed in this area. Beyond this age it is mandatory to be separated from female siblings. In the excitement of the household, Ammon had disappeared with the men into town to be entertained, having been naturally forbidden to enter the women’s area.
Curtains were drawn back to reveal the big cushioned lounge. My eyes grazed over the area; a TV, stereo, fridge and an expensive cabinet of china. Pillows, laced and finely detailed made it a home; exquisite Persian carpets completed the room. This was more than an average home and struck our curiosity. Who was this guy, the husband and sole provider for this remarkably large family? What a typical North American would call a family reunion was the ordinary day for them.
People repeatedly came in and out. Heads popped from the curtain, exposing cheery smiles and wide eyes. Introduced to sisters, children, brothers, sister-in-laws, cousins, nieces, nephews- the whole shebang; we were on display for the whole family to see.
The third and youngest wife, Ahmed’s sister, was merely eighteen, pregnant with her first contribution to the family of twenty-two. She was gorgeous; absolutely stunning when she removed her headscarf, out of the presence of any men. Unable to photograph her, the image lingered mystically in my mind. Fifteen at the time, as grown up as I felt, I couldn’t fathom marriage, let alone becoming a mother within the next few years.
When he returned from his excursion through town, Ammon warned, “You’re about to see the full extent of Afghan hospitality.” He explained, when a bearded man walked in the room, “He’s the boss”. With the sturdy manner in which he presented himself, unloading handfuls of money from his baggy pockets; I didn’t need to be told. His grey peppered beard, as distinguished as the mane of a lion, stood out from the rest. His wavy black shag hung out from under his traditional hat which was slipped to the side. He remained nameless for our entire stay but it was clear to me, he was “Mr. Big”.
Dinner was prepared and served to us on the floor in big communal bowls and plates; pop, tea, water, juice, flat chapatti bread with mutton, chicken and beef skewers, oranges, peaches and cherries on top. It was more food than most families ate in a week. Hosting an unexpected party for unexpected guests, live music was brought into their home and gifts were given. Although it was essentially sheep and bread served on the floor; we truly felt we were royalty.
As men continued to play their fascinating musical instruments, I caught myself tapping away to the mythical beat. I saw the children outside trying to get a peek of the festivities, their button noses snug against the mesh wired windows. Smiles beaming evenly throughout the room, I reflected back on my initial reservations. My hidden fears of torture and beheading made me afraid of everyone. I felt ashamed of myself for such quick judgment of people who were nothing but open to us. Having tried in previous cities and upon different occasions, we knew better than to offer money to show our gratitude. It would be considered an insult to them because “a guest is the most honored thing”.
Before our stay was over, and before being dropped by the river where we would cross the border into Tajikistan, they got us up early for a day of touring. By 4:30 a.m. the sun rose over wheat fields and everyone was busy going about their daily rituals. The landscape was much more fruitful than it had been, with green fields and grass. “Mr. Big” knew everyone in town, smacking police guards on the head and stealing soda cans right out of their hands. We visited and sat for chai with families of families of friends of cousins. “Mr. Big” seemed proud to be showing us off in his town. Because our cultures had bonded, he would have a story to tell for ages to come, as would we. We were the running circus of the town with Ahmed overworked as our English translator. After a wonderful stay, it was time to move onward… and quickly before “Mr. Big” proposed and took my sister as his fourth and last wife!
Crossing the river into Tajikistan, a new era seemed to unfold before me. Within minutes, an age including donkey-dawn carts evolved into the time of modern-day automobiles. It was as if one stepped out from behind a curtain or turned the key to an unlocked chest. After months of embracing the Islamic culture from the inside, we removed our headscarves. I smiled up into the sky, kissed by the sun at last. “There you are!” I said aloud, bracing myself for the next great unknown.
With their colorful presence in every street, tank tops and short skirts danced in the summer breeze. Having dreamed of this, tasted it in so many longing moments, now was the time! I skipped ahead, stopped and turned toward my family with open arms preparing them for my latest act. With a raised brow and pointed finger, I signaled them to witness this notable moment. I reached down, rumpled up my skirt and proclaimed, “Look what I can do!” Only a fraction above my exposed knee, I immediately released the grip on my skirt, utterly shocked by the flood of overwhelming shyness that followed. I could feel the heat of my now flushed face, almost reflecting in the whites of their eyes. Perhaps I wasn’t yet quite ready.