I stuck my thumb out. I was headed toward one of the lawless areas--maybe the west border between Herat and Iran, or the east where the Kyber Pass cuts Kabul from Pakistan, or the little outpost of Spin Boldak, where the Taliban first took root, south of Kandahar, below the Hindu Kush, between the Brahul and Toba Kakar ranges, on the mountain pass to Quetta, Pakistan; and thereby Karachi--I can't remember--They all seemed lawless--and I was headed in the opposite direction I wanted to go, my car was six hundred miles away, and the Dutch guy I left back at the bus was passing out opium so he would not get busted at the border. Welcome to Afghanistan.
How can that be? There is only one real road in Afghanistan, meaning not completely rutted with medieval holes that could crack a camel hump, or break a tank's motor mount--so let's get real, there are three cities--west to east--Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul, on the same belly-of-the-beast road. All these towns were designed by some existential engineer pondering the dark side of the moon, if you get my drift, and there is plenty of that, in the sifting sands of the Ridgestan desert. Other than a rock landscape that rivals the strewed demolition afterbirth of 911, the country is laid out pretty straightforward: sand, sand, and sand.
That was years ago, 1975, but Afghans have a different outlook on time; they like the way things are, meaning same as the last couple thousand years; they enjoy tradition, tempered with the hard-hewn satisfaction of a sundial sentimentality; they prefer wool instead of synthetics, and do not like quartz crystal crusaders who want to change things. The mountain borders keep a lot of shallow western flotsam from flooding in. If Afghanistan was a weather system, it would be a country ringed by cumulous clouds, that might have the density of concrete.
"Your car is stolen"--were the first words spoken, when I drove up to the customs station, on the desert road to Herat. It was a faded grey building, like a closed-in carwash with windows. The guard wore a white shirt, too big for his thin frame. "We have to take your car"--he held one hand, palm up, in typical Afghan fashion.
It took a second to absorb the conversational conundrum of my first Afghan encounter. I had not said a word. What kind of welcome to Afghanistan was this? Some kind of twisted Zen joke?
"Stolen?" I stared at the skinny guard, and tried to pinpoint some rationalization in his glittering black eyes. "I bought the car in Germany," I said, and held my passport, with its multiple visas, and stamped car, images.
The guard shook his head, eyes opaque as tar.
My slumbering passengers--two from Liverpool, one from Kansas--petrol-contributing buddies--began to stir. "We are tourists"--Peter, the more mod-looking Brit leaned out the rear window, giving his best Cockney assurance, in spite of being a hitchhiker I met in Istanbul's Pudding Shop. In the shop, I watched him buy some smack for five bucks from a long-haired German junkie, that turned out to be a piece of gravel wrapped in tinfoil, when they opened it, in the car. "Psst!" the junkie had hissed in the shop, when Peter attempted to examine the ill-gotten gains--because, you know, eyes are everywhere. A good ploy. But that is a different story. This is the Herat border, with a different type of pirate.
Not impressed, the guard pointed to a nearby Volkswagen bus. Several intellectual-looking European travelers, in tie-dye garb, and spectacles, were opening their packs. A couple of other cars were lined up behind.
"Volkswagen"--the agent pointed a skinny hand at the VW--"Tourist"--he confirmed with a nod, then gestured with a frown at my car. "Mercedes"--he shook his head--"Not tourist."
The syllogism, while simple, seemed savagely unfounded, and devoid of a binding premise, although there was no mistaking the surety in his tone. He was the authority. We were tired. The drive from Istanbul, through Iran, was grueling. Six hundred miles from Tehran alone, my Mercedes a comet trailing dust, all the way.
Not tourist? I started to get steamed. Then what? What kind of criminal profiling did a preeminent German car portend? And who gave this supposed civil servant, who commandeered a glorified fruit stand, in the middle of nowhere, any authority? My American dander began to rise. What did he think?--this marooned halcyon?--that he was a saintly Sufi, sitting on some magic carpet?--washed by nostalgic waves of wind-blown glory, and bounded by Bedouin spice trails, woebegone paths long since vanished? A glorified strip mine was more like it.
Perhaps, in this mustachioed mandarin's eyes, we could only be drug smugglers. Maybe Afghans saw the world in pure black and white--like some sort of Pavlovian reflex, a white Mercedes equating black tar heroin, and nothing else. Mercedes meant rich; rich meant drugs. Rulers rode Mercedes; the King in Jordan, and the Shah back in Iran, traveled in Mercedes, bigger ones than my 1965 240 SE, that I paid $1850 for in Munich. But did that make me a criminal? Ok, I had been approached along the road, by powerful personalities, of the suit-and-tie variety, particularly in Turkey, and offered solicitous positions, to transport heroin, to Europe, under the hood of my Mercedes. Somehow, they could hide junk in the engine, and I would get rich. The opiate was malleable in the heat.
"We put it on our bread," he explained, "like sugar." He swept one hand like spreading butter.
Sorry, I had seen enough border crossings, and heard enough Sisyphus stories, and sipped enough Lazarus tea to know better. Besides, I was headed in the opposite direction, possibly to tropical temples of nirvanic bliss, if not Dionysus degeneration, or who knows, maybe a cup of chai with some expatriate Czechoslovakian cheerleader?
But for my first visit to Afghanistan, this was the last straw. The official emissary for the Royal Afghan Kingdom--guardian of the status quo--a frigging customs man, for god sakes--Islamic, or otherwise--was trying to steal my car? Blatant corruption in front of the world, such as it existed--mainly us--on the gravel road from Constantinople--and thence Europe--the main east-west arterial to the riches of India that Alexander the Great coveted--now a glorified litter box of licentious larceny--as if there could be any other kind!--in broad, although fading, daylight? "I'm calling the American Embassy!" I shouted with my best Yankee indignation, although I was pretty stressed by the Kafkaesque situation.