Catching a bus from Kabul to Herat was no problem. Then to Iran to get a Carnot license, and back to Kabul, where I left my car, so I could legally cross the Kyber Pass into Pakistan. Going backward in a backward country is like being sucked into a worm hole, and spit out like owl pellets, into some Timbuktu time warp.
Just kidding. Afghanistan is my favorite country. Call me a glutton for punishment, but It is all things we are not. Which is why, I suppose, we fully embrace it, no matter who we have to kill, until it fits our Ronald McDonald image. Not so many blown up bodies under the wheels in those days. Heck, it was before the Russians tried to Balkanize the place, and beat the locals into borscht soup; not to mention get the buses running on rubles, and expand their vodka empire. In the end, with our Stinger missile loan program, the Russians ended up with beet juice on their face, and bloody chassis that still litter the desert.
As Kesey did not say, "you are either on the bus, or under it." Magic bus is what you think when you see the Afghan version of working Winnebago. Their mind-blowing, candy-striped Jingle trucks are so ornamentally-overdriven as to shove American graffiti artists back a thousand years, into the dark ages. The buses almost explode with expression. With all the land mines that Russia left, even Afghan children, with millions of Soviet butterfly bombs, contribute to the dubious honor of being number one country for land-based explosive mines. Keeping ones eyes on the ground is unnerving enough. Having to worry about mines in the sky, or US Predator Hellfire missiles, is even worse.
Back then, however, Afghanistan, although poor, seemed a peaceful place, where bumpy roads rarely erupted. Even pedestrian passenger buses could be fascinating. Enveloped in a metal shell, with streaming desert playing on the windows, and turbaned Afghans all around, chatting in Dari dialects, leaves one disoriented, like riding in the rarified tail of a comet, although the driver takes curves harder, and steers more erratic than most celestial bodies.
I remember one steep descent, barreling down a snowy incline, and the dubious odds of staying on the road became evident to every passenger. In unison, the Afghans began chanting "Allah Akbar." For a westerner, watching passengers praying not to be killed, was not reassuring. From the back of the bus, it looked like an airplane coming in for a landing. Not to bring up images of 911, which was premature in those days, although in hindsight, one might conclude that Afghans should be kept from getting behind the wheel or the wing.
The Saudis being solely responsible for Nine-Eleven, however, offers a legitimate alibi, and counteracts this sentiment. Yet few US citizens lose sleep, as dead men return in Stealth-Caskets, silent and invisible to the naked eye. Such subliminal revenge is so sedating, that while we slumber, 9-Elevens will likely metastasize into 7-Elevens that blanket the Hindu Kush, while Predator Drones deliver Papa Murphy Pizzas.
Back then, however, as we hurtled down the hill, probably to a horrific death, there was no such luxury; the bearded driver exuded bombastic authority, glancing around cheerfully, although carelessly, and offered bits of incomprehensible colloquial advice, but seemed oblivious to the pedal, and not focused on the icy road, as if the bus steered by some predestined power of Allah. I waited for the landing gears to come down. It felt like Indiana Jones going over the falls--but there was no water. Just ravines on both sides. Somehow, we made it.
The A in Afghan does not stand for AAA approved. I heard one woebegone tale of a bus trip--a bearded blond Dutch guy I met told me of standing in the aisle, near the front door, when a car collided. A fellow westerner was injured, his foot almost severed, just hanging by skin. Other than the door, the bus was ok.
Yet the route was far from a doctor. They were in the boonies. The amputated passenger would have to get out, and find his own way. If he survived, he survived. If he perished, it was the will of Allah; there would be no lawsuit. Life was hard enough in the desert, without adopting a western adventurer. Afghanistan, in more ways than one, really is the Middle of Nowhere, an existential resort with none of the whistles and bells. Well, camel bells.
The Dutch guy shrugged.
When you think you have a clue about Afghan habits, however, mirages arise. Stopping by a dusty road in an empty Kandahar desert, a woman with two children got on. She was striking--long red hair, tight skirt, jewelry, lipstick, revealing silk blouse, and red high heels. Red heels in the desert? There being no seats, she stood in the aisle, near where I sat by a window. The boy and girl, probably three and four, clung silently behind her. Their hair was dark, and eyes bright. They were dressed in embroidered Afghan jackets.
Elsewhere, they might have been a family going to Safeway; here, they seemed to materialize out of nowhere, beamed down by a teleportation device, into the sand.
I could hear her talking. I do not know her nationality. By her attire, she seemed Greek, but could have been a lost American housewife, for all I know. A silk scarf barely covered her hair. The Afghans paid not a whit of attention. Some moved about the bus, in small groups, and chatted in guttural cadences. She stood like a scarlet turtledove in a sea of white turbans.
She was complaining to no one in particular, maybe in an offhand way to me. She spoke in a low voice. English. Something like:
I don't know what the problem is. I told them my children are Muslim. I changed my faith.