I’ve been writing a few short stories recently, most of which have been gleaned from experiences I had back in the early 70’s as a young long-haired traveller. I’ve enjoyed the process – thus far – feeding these stories to my website and friends on social media for general consumption. For some reason, as I tackle this story about my time in Afghanistan, in December, 1973, I’ve been hit with one of those occasional moments of self-doubt about my motivations for writing…at all…or the value or purpose of what I’m doing. Seeds of creative doubt and purposelessness creep in. To spare you my current angst I’m going to forge ahead with this story, and save my pathos for a subsequent article, tentatively titled, “The Anecdotard”.
It’s Wednesday December 12, 1973 and we are trying to get into Afghanistan. We had picked up our Afghan Visas in Mashhad, Iran, the day before and boarded the bus for the 3 hour trip to the border, blissfully unaware of the hassles we were soon to face as we negotiated entry at the crossing…from my journal:
“Super cold, some guys are just in rags. Desert. They have a “So Long” sign (at the border) in Iran. Crazy system at the two border posts. The Afghani one is insane. The bus stopped because we were being ripped off. Driver refused to pay. Then we had to go through 6 people to see our passports….a real hassle, it took us 5 hours to get across. Men are always praying to Mecca”
The drive to Herat should have been a breeze but was punctuated with potholes and Toll-roads, which took an additional 2 or 3 hours to navigate the remaining 100 km. Once in Herat we found a Hotel for 20 Afghanis (the unit of currency…about 40 cents) and dinner for about 30 cents…
“…and we got about 10 – 14 grams (of Hash) for $1. I was elated but it turned out to be bad – paranoia inducing – shit…we heard of a jam session (of Afghani musicians) so we walked to it. All was well until the manager asked for 200 Afghanis for the show, we started to leave and he was going to kill himself. He was begging and getting really ugly so we paid 10 Afghanis each and got tea and music and dope. The vibe was edgy and we all got super paranoid so we left. Insane”
Thursday 13th – Day two in the land known as “The Graveyard of Empires”…”a notoriously difficult country to govern. Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan”…1973 was a time of relative peace, a window through which we travellers could pass unscathed. Allah willing…
“Woke up and everybody has a bad cold. Steve and Brad the worst, they will probably sleep today. Omelette, bread, yogurt & tea for 40 cents. Prices here are quite appealing…got stoned, no good, worse cold and paranoia.”
We are all young. The oldest of our travelling companions is likely 25 and I was clocking in as the youngest at 18. None of us are well-versed in moderation or proper self-care. The rigors of the road are demanding, eating is sporadic and getting high is chronic. We are in the legendary land of Black Afghani Hashish. Some hippies on the road have travelled specifically here for this latter reason – inexpensive, accessible, and powerful dope.
“Friday 14th – Very cold here, and I feel pretty sick. I vowed “no dope” but I did and regretted it. The manager taught us to say “Chulta Bukharum” as a way to say thank you but it really means “lick my ass”. Smoked more dope…no good”
We discovered fairly quickly what Chulta Bukharum meant by the uproarious laughs of the manager and staff when he encouraged us to say it to anyone who came in. To this day, I still use it as a form a greeting with Brad, the last of my fellow travellers that I am still in contact with on a regular basis.
“Saturday 15th – Went to the Bazaar, really strange, hard to believe you are really there”
Was this culture shock? Delirium from my nasty cold? Or, the combined effects of the aforementioned and chronic hash smoking?
“Donkeys, garbage, everyone in rags. My cold is worse – sore throat. No dope tonight. Went and listened to music and danced. The old man with one tooth looks like he is out of an insane asylum – but he sure could dance”
Sunday 16th – We catch the 9 hour bus for Kandahar, getting in around 6 at night. My cold persists as we acclimatize to our new surroundings…
“nice looking spot. Found a cheap hotel (30 cents). I felt rotten so I went to bed while the others smoked…wild dreams about Jesus, revenge, lightning and death”
Monday 17th – Arose and had tea on the mud veranda overlooking town. Our party of eight is now seven as our British friend Jackie decides to leave.
“Moved to another Hotel – Bamiyan – nice place, good menu. Lazed around & walked to the bazaar where Steve & Knute bought shirts. Great brownies and apple turnovers. The people sell their dope just like a market, anything you like is in their shops. Went back and got high and ate a great vegetable stew.”
Tuesday 18th – “1 week til Xmas and we are all fairly sick. Graham is in bed and I walked the streets in a stupor – really weird, the two girls are fine. No dope til I’m better.”
Wednesday 19th – The imminent arrival of the comet Kohoutek was a much-hyped celestial display that we were all anticipating. It was billed as the “comet of the century” on its “once in 150,000 years” flyby, and was scheduled to reach perihelion on December 28th while we were in Afghanistan. Every night in this clear, pollution-free country, with its arid but cold December evenings we would go out and scan the skies for its presence.
“David Berg, founder of the religious cult, Children of God, predicted that Comet Kohoutek foretold a colossal doomsday event in January 1974. Children of God members fled in anticipation to existing communes, or formed new ones, around the world. Because Comet Kohoutek fell far short of expectations, its name became synonymous with spectacular disappointment.” …Wikipedia
“The girls and Steve leave for Kabul tomorrow. Graham had the shits and I’m about the same…walked over to the Indian and Pakistani consulates. Lazed around. Looked for the comet – only small”
Thursday 20th –Life on the road – even in Afghanistan – develops its own routines. Unless something remarkable occurs, Journal entries can be a little repetitive “got up, ate, walked around” or mundane “Brad broke the tape player and fixed it”…”played poker, won 100 Afghanis”, “traded my Asimov book for another Asimov”, or bizarre & lacking explanation, “most people have some disfiguration.” Some of my entries – such as this one – leave me mystified as I don’t recall, now, people being disfigured. Maybe this was the day I bought oranges from a young boy with leprosy who was selling them from a donkey, also with some facial disfiguration. A mystery…maybe Brad will know.
Friday 21st – We’re off to Kabul – we must’ve left quite early because it’s a 10 hour drive and my Journal notes a 3 o’clock arrival, with only one stop at “a crazy café with green-looking meat”.
“Got into Kabul about 3, swarmed over with hotel men (hawkers), each one competing for our business. I stood in the mud to escape. Got a ride into town with me holding the door not to fall out. Our first impressions of Kabul are lousy…dead rat in the road…meat hanging off carts onto the ground. Getting sick of chai. Have to stay a couple of days, at least, to get our visas for Pakistan. Met a guy named René who told us of his times in jail for hash busts”
Saturday 22nd – Moved closer to the Embassy section of town, into the “Friends Hotel”. We met up with our other friends Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and Steve (…“a real hypochondriac, always on pills”…). We are being accosted by an armada of beggars “Baksheesh mister…please!”, and another reference to disfiguration, “one with a really diseased puffo face”.
Rumours of a “really great restaurant called Sigi’s” has piqued our curiosity, as we haven’t encountered anything but basic food – flatbread, rice, yoghurt, meat, eggs, occasional fruit – for quite some time. Sigi’s, as it turned out, was to Kabul, as the Pudding Shop was to Istanbul…
“another legendary place among travelers in the early seventies… one of those western traveler-oriented places (with) great ambiance. …It was all very surreal. Taking off our shoes at the door, we entered one of the large, carpeted rooms, sat down on cushions and ordered our meal. We were briefly greeted by the owner, Siegfreid, a tall German in his forties with blue eyes and short blonde hair. Psychedelic music was playing and people were sitting in small groups swapping road stories …There were two house rules, no dope smoking and no sleeping. You would be asked to leave if found doing either”……from “On the Hippie Trail” by Tony Walton…( I highly recommend this fellow’s blog if you are interested in stories about the overland trip from Istanbul to Nepal/India in the early 70’ – great photos and writing (either a great memory or a detailed Journal) – I read his site to see what I did….and then pretend that I did it. 🙂 )
“…had Weiner Schnitzel with potato salad, green salad and bread. Banana shakes! All the free mint tea you could drink and beautiful music. A really great place, easily the best in months.”
Sunday 23rd – Spent a good part of the day at the Indian and Pakistani Embassy getting permits (No visas necessary according to my Journal) and planning our Christmas Eve party for the 24th. Taking advantage of Sigi’s food & ambience oasis, again, was a unanimous decision. (I was so taken with Sigi’s use of Afghani style carpet & cushion seating that I would adopt this style – on several occasions – when I returned to Canada.)
Monday 24th – Party planning involved tracking down alcohol, which is always problematic in a Muslim country. There are no liquor stores so one has to ask around, and make furtive under-the-counter purchases. My efforts produced a bottle of brandy for the nights festivities, while the others went out on similar hunting and gathering excursions. We all enjoyed another fabulous meal at Sigi’s. “We” at this point in the journey includes my six travelling companions: Knute, Steve, Graham & Brad (young American guys), Jill & Sally (sisters from Australia) and myself – the token Canadian.
After Sigi’s we returned to one of our Hotel rooms for a little party – which, in fact, was not unlike parties anywhere that young western kids congregate…
“Started drinking and smoking, took a pic of us all. Got pretty destroyed, had to work to keep straight. Lots of fun was had. Bought flowers and a tree branch (for decoration) and lots of goodies. Passed out about 12:30 along with all the others. The people next door have been here 1 year because of a death, so they were all decked out for Xmas. Knute scored with Sally, so that’s good”
Tuesday, December 25th – Merry Christmas! I have no idea why I thought Knute “scoring with Sally” was good. Perhaps, as a young red-blooded male I was glad to know that – at the very least –someone was getting lucky.
“…the girls (Jill & Sally) treated us all to a new pair of socks for Xmas. Steve, Graham, Brad & I walked to the top of a local mountain – fantastic scenery. Everyone was hungover.”
It was a low-key day of recovery. Cleaning up our room from last night’s party. Another meal at Sigi’s, fattening up on inexpensive delicious food after weeks of lack, and not knowing what lay in store for us further down the road in Pakistan, India & beyond.
Wednesday 26th – “Not much happening. Went to the American Library, no big news, just bad – 20-30 million predicted to die in India. Girls across the hall have scabies”
I find some of young George’s entries hilarious – so matter of fact & devoid of explanatory information…”20-30 million expected to die in India (where I am headed). Girls across the hall have scabies.” Apocalypse juxtaposed with an irritating rash. In fact, I was probably more alarmed by the scabies.
Thursday 27th – We are slowly preparing our exit from Afghanistan. Steve, who had borrowed money from several of us, received $$ from home and paid us all back. I wrote a few letters, and, from the Journal:
“Knute has no passport and we all have tickets. Steve leaves Tuesday, Graham, Brad & I leave Saturday. It’s very cold. René is having bad problems, Mike is accused of spying. Our poor Afghan, “Good Morning Mister” friend says passports are too much for his 40 cent job to handle.”
Friday 28th – It seems that, from my journal, I take some issue with Steve, “he lives off his parents but hates the system”…in fact, most of our group is soon to split up. Steve will head for parts unknown, Graham will go to Nepal, we’ll part with Jill and Sally in northern India and only Brad & Knute and I would make it all the way to Goa. For our last evening in Kabul though, we go to the Star Café which had decent cuisine and a fabulous musical group playing traditional Afghani music on Tablas and the 21-stringed Rabaab. A beautiful way to wrap up our unforgettable (thank God for Journal-keeping) time in Afghanistan.
“The comet is supposed to come out now…I think I’ll paint a picture of the beautiful scenery – planets, star, moon, comet, dark blue sky & mountain…beautiful…Got up at 7 and headed for the bus”