Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A journey to Waaweilah - Part two

Bladder control, an agony.



Stalled car.



Weeping windscreen.



Road to Bamiyaan



Rain, rain



Mud, mud


For a change, there is a line with only about 10 people in front of me waiting for their turn at the immigration counter at Kabul airport. My turn, I step up and hand my passport open to the page where Afghan Consulate in Dubai has pasted the visa; with 14 other prior stamps, it takes time to find the correct one. The immigration officer, a rare clean shaved man with an immaculately trimmed mustache looks at the visa and asks: Where are you coming from? New Delhi, I reply. Your visa is issued in Dubai. I am not sure if this is a question or a statement. Yes, I agree and nod, it was issued in Dubai indeed. Then why are you coming from New Delhi? Eh, is this a trick question? Well, I say, I was in Dubai last week, got my visa from there and then I flew to Mumbai, then Delhi and then I flew to Kabul. I see, he says. He goes through the passport carefully then looks at me; removes his smart cap, scratches vigorously through abundant hair and blows out his cheeks, wafting stale cigarette breath towards my face; I wrinkle my nose. He stares at me for a few seconds that feel like time without end, then suddenly stamps the visa page and slaps the passport on the counter; I am free to go.

Wasi Mohammedan, our engineer and everything else in Afghanistan, greets me beyond the security cordon and we drive to a depilated and shabby house in a neighborhood Wasi feels would be a safe place for me in Kabul. This place is Wasi and Basheer’s office cum residence. After prayers and a quick meal of naan, macaroni and green chai, I spread a quilt on the carpet and try sleeping; tomorrow will be a hard day as we have to drive to Bamiyaan, YawKawland and Sacheck starting 3AM. Morning azaan is called at 3 on the dot but I have been awake for a while, packed and ready for certain exhaustion that lies ahead. We move immediately after namaaz, through empty, eerie Kabul streets. It’s an ancient hired Toyota Ace, 4 wheel drive which rattles, coughs and farts dark clouds of noxious diesel smoke every time the driver hits the gas pedal. The driver, Yakoob, a short fellow with rather feminine features; kajal laden eyes look at me suspiciously and asks Wasi who I am. Ferangi, Indian, replies Wasi; stating I carry an American passport would be asking for trouble, I suppose.

Yakoob and Wasi chat away in Dari, some of it I grasp with my so-so comprehension of the sweet sounding language; I try to sleep at the back seat which becomes impossible after I notice Yakoob’s daring moves. He is either insane or drunk, or both, for he accelerates towards oncoming headlights head on, only to swerve at the last second, inviting protest blasts of honking from oncoming motorists. Wasi and I stare at each other, wide eyed and aghast. When Yakoob repeats this dare devil madness a few more times, I lose my cool and order Yakoob to stop the car. Now, you must try and understand the mentality of taxi drivers in Afghanistan, they are most notorious for rash driving, rude, insolent behavior and they fear no consequences, even from the law, some of who they even finance through bribery. Still, I’d rather Yakoob drop us right there in the middle of the highway than have us killed in a head on collision. I ask Wasi to inform Yakoob that he, Wasi, will take over the driving until we reach the dirt road leading towards Bamiyaan, else, we cancel our contract. Yakoob flutters his eyelids at me, acting hurt but then shrugs his shoulders and relents. I relax and fall asleep until we stop for breakfast of naan and green chai at a hole in the mud restaurant after we leave the tar-top road and begin the grinding dirt road accent towards Bamiyaan.

If you look at the map of Afghanistan carefully, you will learn that it is a relatively large country, with countless peaks and valleys. During summer, valleys can become unbearably dry and hot, while the peaks remain cold and dry, with snow at elevations even in June and July. These valleys posse a deadly torture weapon – very fine sand. This sand billows up when wind blows and when it is disturbed by vehicles. With our windows tightly shut to keep the dust out, it soon becomes hot -hot, so we strip away sweaters and roll up our sleeves. The dirt road becomes increasingly nasty and torturous, with boulders along the way Yakoob maneuvers, keeping in mind there might a car or truck bearing down at us around the next mountain bend. There are times when it feels the steering wheel has a mind of its own, turning to one side while Yakoob wants it on another.

And so it is, a mammoth struggle; not a moment when I can relax, sit still or even engage in easy, coherent conversation. The fine dust is what torments me most; it gets into my nose, my ears, my eyes, and in every nook and cranny of my body. Why, if I can, I will not be surprised to find it deposited in some unholy crevices of my body as well. It takes us 10 hours to reach Bamiyaan, a distance of about 90 miles. When I alight from the car, my knees are so wobbly, I have to hug her for a moment and regain my motor skills. I am uncomfortably pressed at the bladder and I must relieve myself now; I run towards the mosque bathrooms in the courtyard but Wasi restrains me, reminding me to take a can of water with me. Well, there is a line of men waiting to do exactly that at the water-well so I have to wait my turn, alternating between my feet in a dance for bladder control the people around me can only deem loony.

When it is finally my turn, one step inside the toilet and I gag violently at the stench; I struggle for air that is bent on suffocating me. Evil, evil, evil! This is the only description I have for the toilets at that mosque. There are about 10 toilets there, in a line, all just a simple hole with about a 10 foot drop. I very, very carefully squat at this hole to let go. The problem is the sight and smell, both impossible to avoid. If not careful where I put my foot, I am liable to fall through the hole so my eyes are wide open to take in the sight of heaps of feces below; and I must breath in short bursts. When I am almost done, I cannot hold it anymore and finally vomit and then run out gasping for air. Unfortunately, in rural Afghanistan, this situation is not an exception but rather common, as I am to discover in the following days.

After a lunch of delicious kabobs with nan and chai - my stomach is empty from all the barfing - we are on our way to YawKawlang, a village I have been to before, some 5 hours of agony away. Along the way, the skies open up and it begins to rain, lightly at first and then torrents of water. The sand turns to red mud, splatters on the windscreen, reducing visibility severely; the tires lose their grip and we begin slip sliding away, Yakoob curses the heavens. There is a preexisting crack in the windscreen that I have not before noticed and this now begins weeping profoundly, tears that make patterns on his cap and shirt. When we are very near to YawKawlang, Yakoob navigates an acute corner and exclaims Waawailah! He brakes hard and the car comes to a sliding stop; he shakes his damp head, muttering. A rather steep, formidable hill confronts us. Yakoob leaps out, locks the tires, hops back in, engages 4 wheel drive and we lurch forward. The rain has let up, but not the slimy mud; the car slides this way and that but does not find traction. I am very worried, any wrong move either way and we would drop at least 3,000 feet; we are in between two high mountains with drops on either side. Yakoob floors the gas pedal and we leap forward and stall, then begin sliding, sliding, sliding to one side. Wasi makes a move, as if he wants to open the door and escape, I am right behind him, clutching my black bag with the most valuable document in it – my passport. But the vehicle straightens; stalls.

Wasi’s cell phone comes alive, it is Abdullah, the driver who drove Basheer to the mass marriage in Sulej; he is looking for us, wants to drive us to Sacheck. He drives over without much effort; his vehicle is newer with fresh tires with good threads; Wasi pays Yakoob off and we transfer over. Once in the village, I know a hammam with hot water that I insist I must go. We have to travel to Belkhaab day after tomorrow and I am not sure when and if I’ll be able to bathe next; I simply must get rid of the clinging dirt on me. Wasi is doubtful it’ll be open by the time we get there, but it is, it is! I am delirious with delight. I strip off my clothing and give myself a rough scrub, blowing my nose so hard and long, the next stall person yells at me in Dari to cut it out, so I switch to poking my fingers inside instead; I am that frantic to get all that dirt out of me. After the shower I feel a lot better and another cup of chai warms me up nicely, for it has suddenly become quite cold. If green tea is really the de-toxicant it is touted to be, Afghans must be the most toxic free people in this planet with the amount of this liquid they consume; it is a passion to drink green tea here. We depart for Sacheck shortly afterwards and make it safe and in one piece in Abdallah’s nice comfortable Toyota Cruiser, having covered approximately 140 miles in just over 18 hours.

To be continued…