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As I related how I had got there from Europe overland I noticed Justin was making more questions than would arise from plain curiosity. He was suddenly hypnotized by how little money I had needed to travel round the world for a year. When the rice was already served in tiny bowls, he went to the point: for months he had been bearing a neat impulse to go cycling round the world. Four days before Quentin had phoned from Chaghcharan announcing my visit, Justin had been praying for a signal. Now, the signal had arrived, with enough dust to nurture a new world and two letters in hand.
We would lit our pipes to witness the evenings roll down the spiral of time in what turned to be, for both of us, highly therapeutic meetings. As Justin started to take his dreams seriously I tuned more finely my own pulse of continuous motion. Not different from an exorcism, as if the mouthfuls of smoke of Captain Black would incense away the demons of bicephaly (consequence of reducing your self to a mere guest), fears became words, unveiled their inner layering of prejudice and social commandment and conveyed their magnitude converted into confidence. The fear of becoming a bum without credit card, a present day Diogenes requesting Bill Gates to move from the sun. On the contrary, a sustainable nomadic lifestyle was postulated with the help of mathematics.
With five dollars a day, and poetry books or photographs to sell any trip’s deadline is anything but financial. Confronted with such viable perspectives, social threads already cut, Justin spoke out another ghost: “how to continue to be yourself in spite of the constant exposure to novelty?” Having noticed that half of the books were Christian literature I tried to be as diplomatic as possible: “but how do you know that you are yourself if you’ve never faced change?” Travelling implies testing daily our own identity. And that’s a desirable point…Challenge. Maybe the word is exceeded by the circumstance of an American hitch-hiking to Kabul in the first decade of the 21st century. Untouched by what I would call the worst case scenario, Justin had decided to get road-borne and hitch it with me to the capital of the Transitional Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. “If you can do it here you can do it everywhere” – it was my duty to point. The morning of the departure –as usual- Justin wore the local one piece neck-to-knee gray garment. From the distance one could even have said he was Afghan. However, a white supermarket style nylon bag bebrothered him, Afghan or American, with the universal bum.
The idea of Justin dressing as an Afghan found base in the assumption that most of the traffic would consist of local trucks. Instead, we started to be passed by UN pick ups, New Zealand Army convoys and other NGO cars. Hence, we should change strategy, since the “gringos” were stopping to see what the problem was but then, confused by the weird conjunction of Justin’s American accent and Afghan frugality, preferred to speed away. So Justin went behind some rocks and made a comeback with a pair of Lewis and a striped T-shirt. Now he was an honourable ambassador of the American Way of Life… We decided to walk to the checkpoint where the road split in two. Looking at the map it was clear at first glance that the South fork was shorter, so we started marching without paying too much attention to the fact that all NGO’s vehicles were taking the other road…The first vehicle we came across was an old Russian jeep of the Afghan Police. And it stopped, among a galaxy sized cloud of dust. Cowboy, who spoke fluent Dari, introduced us as two globetrotters. When asked about nationality, he managed to hide his being American without having to lie: ‘my grandparents were born in Czechoslovakia” – he said. From American aid worker to Czechoslovakian globetrotter… how truth it finally was! Travelling is really a constant challenge to one’s identity.
The man making questions was the Commander of Bamian Province Police, who was going all the way to Kabul along with his driver and armed escort. The commander, a ginger bearded blue eyed tall man, concluded right away that we were out of our minds for taking that road. “Taliban perpetrate hit-and-go attacks weekly. What are you doing here? – He said, still laughing at our unconsciousness. “A week ago – he went on- a police vehicle like this one was blown up with a rocket from atop a hill. Too late we had understood why NGO vehicles were taking the North road, and why the almost teenage cadet was holding his machine gun all the time and kept his eyes surfing the landscape.
No longer were we simple passengers, we should also be alert. But despite the underlying pressure there was hardly a second fit for solemnity, as the commander – a liked to compare the mountain pass that was coming ahead with a woman’s breasts. The driver, at his turn, insisted that the commander could only bring security to barren unpopulated regions, as that mountain pass. At the pass itself, the jeep’s engine overheated, impasse that the crew conveniently used to load in some snow to refrigerate a Cola drink for the picnic.
Yeah, you read well… a picnic! Already downhill Justin and I had the most bizarre picnic ever, with the unusual party of three Afghan policemen, over a blossomed prairie next to the river, their machine guns resting their steel death over soft cushioned grass and purple flowers. And Cola. All the way to Kabul fear was dispersed by the intriguing stories of our commander, who since the age of 19 had fought on the side of mujahidin Massoud (Afghan national hero), and had killed more Taliban that his fingers allowed him to count.
Reaching the grey, polluted city, Kabul, capital of the Aftermath, Cowboy and I split. “See you some day in Oklahoma or Buenos Aires”. I can only look back with satisfaction to those evenings in Bamian, smoking our pipes and fear-chasing, under the candlelight. The perspective of the Central Afghan Road behind, 800 km of unpaved, dusty, carless road, with its nomads, Hazaras, aid workers, NATO soldiers, mine fields, shepherds and even hilltop Taliban, also gave me food for thought. Now pavement had reappeared, I was supposed to be safer. Or so say the people who believe in safety. For me, it had been a matter of faith in Human Being.
I wonder if the same kind of faith could help me to live in a country like Afghanistan. As Leiva family does. Fabian and Betty are Argentinean, and long before being a family they had felt a calling to go to Afghanistan to help others. They currently live here, with their four noisy, bilingual, and lovely daughters. I stayed five days in their place in Kabul. As every foreigner’s house, there is a big wall around. You may think some mafia leader lives inside…
What about Afghanistan? – I ask Betty as we drink mate, a tea-like beverage that no Argentinean would dare to lack. Even in Afghanistan. “Kabul is a bomb!”- says Betty with an enviable sense of humour. Nine years. No need to ask, they were here even during the Taliban’s regime. “Do you want milk or tea with milk?” – asks Betty in perfect Spanish to her daughter Abigail. Her answer leaves me astonished: “I want leche (milk) only mommy….!” Her daughters, who attend an international school, not only speak two languages, but also speak them simultaneously….