by Stephan Morrow
Prologue - some thoughts on traveling. looking back:
They say that Lawrence Tierney (who played the original ‘Dillinger’) had T-Rex in his genes but he was always surprising me with the things that he knew. Like quoting from yes, Emily Dickenson poems. Or like the fact that he knew about ‘The Saragossa Manuscript’ — probably the only thing which he shared with Jerry Garcia who also claimed it as his favorite film. So when it screened one night at one of these resurrected movie palaces on Hollywood Blvd. and was thronged with cineastes whose lives revolved around film, high points or trivia it didn’t matter, Larry was spotted immediately and basked in the adulation of male and female film aficionados as only Dillinger in the flesh could. Until he had to relieve himself. And did so in a soda cup. Without leaving his seat. Like one of those scenes in a movie where the denizens of Gotham flock to their idol, proximity to their hero is all, until someone takes out a fish that’s been dead a week. And of course, someone had more or less. The fans who just a few minutes before had rushed up to him when they recognized the great man, turned tail and scuttled away in horror when they realized he was relieving himself in front of them or at least in the row of seats they were sitting in. Tierney’s body functions were not part of the autograph seekers agenda. But as I said, he was enthralled by the film and we spread out and made ourselves comfortable, since now we were surrounded by a swath of empty seats. It was as if we were on our own life raft surrounded by a band of shark repellent. But I digress.
You may be wondering why I wasn’t revolted by Larry’s indulging his body functions. Part of it may have been the fact that at the end of my teenage years I had spent twenty three months traveling around the world on a self-proclaimed pilgrimage of peace, looking for some kind of Valhalla after it became clear that a revolution of the Utopian Socialism of Woodstock Nation and The Whole Earth Catalog was not about to happen in the U.S. And in the course of my travels overland through Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of the first things you notice is the perfumed walls. Perfume D’Urine. And the men in their grimy white pantaloons squatting along the brown mud walls. They were relieving themselves at the public urinal. (I have no idea what the women did. ) It was the squatting that struck me as peculiar, but you just accepted that as you did so many local customs. No standing and leaning against a wall and letting your body fluids pour out and down in a stream as surreptitiously as you could or finding the pleasure of freedom a deadened alley gave you like in the States. No you would turn a corner and see white turbans at hip level along a wall and realize you had stumbled onto a flock of Afghanis pissing. Ce’st la Guerre. No transplanted American loo like the ones found in a Hilton or an embassy or something. It should be noted that it wasn’t too long before you would have seen a young Western head added to the turbans along the walls taking care of business as well. (By the time I reached India and I went to the American Embassy to have my passport expanded (( they put a foot long accordion fold out into it to fit more stamps when the original became stamped out of room)) and I went into its bathroom, it was as modern as you would expect. It had been so long, I marveled at the sinks with their turning knobs and voila! - hot and cold water - but the toilet didn’t feel comfortable — too high — after squatting over so many latrines or holes in the ground for so long).
So, I was determined to get a heft of the man in the street around the whole wide world and this was all part of that mission, as off putting as it might have been to the North American nose, blocked by deodorants and perfumes as it had become. Camels, donkeys, cows, dogs, cats, goats, and anything else that wandered around on four legs, of course gave their benedictions to any and all thoroughfares which made for the aromas of the night to be filled with a variety of piss, cow flop, dog shit — the perfume of the life cycle — from birth to dying — and as far from the orange scented halls of the American Embassy’s bathroom as you could get. I might add that the disinfectant unleashed in the Embassy loo reeked of toxic chemical to my nose by that time. Out in the street you were plugged into life with no filter — the raw experience of early man. Though after a while, it didn’t even raise an eyebrow and it might have been this that gave me a thick skin when it came to body functions. So it may have been a collection of moments like the ones taken from my traveling adventures, denizen of the global street that I was determined to be and not insulated from it, that gave me a certain casual acceptance of things most Americans would flee from. Like the episode with Larry. After the places I had been, it didn’t merit even a mention. Maybe that’s another reason why we got along. Even at seventy eight Larry was still at war with the world, so claiming him as a good buddy was saying a lot…
I would be hard pressed to explain the story of The Saragossa Manuscript, except to say its frightening, exotic and tends to put one in a kind of hypnotic trance. Maybe that’s what appealed to Jerry Garcia - the hallucinogenic quality of Don Juan’s Yaqui witches that it had. Or as a cousin to the tales of ‘One Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ Of which I knew something about, having arrived in the middle of the night in Herat, Afghanistan….
I stepped off the bus and walked into the middle ages, it was as simple as that. The flamingo colored bus emblazoned with tigers, elephants and with silver buckles on the doors was our time machine. Because when I stepped down onto the sand the desert darkness that blanketed us was a scene out of the Arabian nights. Medieval. The air had changed. Or the molecules of the atmosphere - this was now desert but with mountains hovering in the background. Lots of thick vapors hitting you one at a time depending on which way you turned, like charcoal smoke, dried dung, and piss. Nothing remotely romantic, this was not the Emerald City of Oz. But what was profoundly clear was the tube channel that had been tuned to the universe you had been living in had been flicked and brought you back eons of time to camels and donkeys and denizens of the midnight desert. You had arrived into the back of beyond for real. There was no electricity and the first thing you saw getting off the bus was the rosy glow of kerosene lanterns showing off the fruit of the local vendors in the brown, one-story buildings they occupied down the main dried-mud thoroughfare - you wouldn’t call it a street. Small piles of oranges carefully arranged like a pyramid of precious gems sat in the shops. The lanterns put out the thinnest beams of shaky light so if you were walking down the street into the darkness and you would hear a clip clopping sound coming closer to you - and a small flickering pin prick of light approached - you knew that you would have to jump out of its way: it was a donkey cart headed right at you, and the driver sitting on top of its small bucket with its kerosene lamp certainly couldn’t see you in the thick, pitch-black air. You might be able to smell them, donkey and driver, if the breeze was right, dung laced wind blowing up your nose, but that was about all.
The other thing that exists where there is no electricity is the sound of the night. You hear it as a single palpable force. The wind as a tapestry of rushing sound but interwoven with a couple of voices fading and then coming in stronger. The hushed quality of the world of the darkness, was unlike say, the prairies of Wyoming. Or the Rockies. It was more than just the sand, the mountains and the blackness of the skies misted with the galaxies. Unearthly quiet - until it would be broken by a solitary human cry, or two voices answering each other across the divide of night. The difference was profound and was what ushered us back into the middle ages. Because people, culture, had vibrated here for eons. This was no wilderness. Ancient civilization had its spirit breathing here all the time. The breath of the night was tinged with distant voices whose tones had the same sounds as the men who had inhabited these desolate reaches of desert and mountain as far back as their first appearance in the Fertile Crescent. So for the first time in my life time became palpable. Time warps as old as Mesopotamia spun around us like little cyclones. And when the smells of the barnyard layered all your senses you were inexorably sucked into this world of the Afghani village: Herat. Oh Herat. My Herat. My Heart…. You left me in the darkness. How could I have known? None of us could have possibly guessed how the beak of modernity would cut through the Gordian knot that held this medieval world together and shred its delicate fabric forever. Oblivion : RPG’s, artillery and tanks blasting it into a thousand smithereens as a war victim. Pulverizing it, grinding it back into the sand from whence it barely had risen along the edge of the desert, destroying it utterly, and that my own heart would be one of those tiny shards as well…
I had spent weeks gazing at the light blue map of Marco Polo’s journey in the 11th century tacked to my cabin wall on Kibbutz Kisufim in the Negev desert six months before and I painstakingly traced his overland route. Studied it for weeks. Just the sounds of the names of the towns on the route were enough to get you high as they rolled off your tongue they were so exotic. Istanbul, Ismir, Meshed, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul, Islamabad, The Khyber pass, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Amritsar, Simla. And it was all just that way - East. As a young vagabond from North America, the continent so cut off from Europe and further east Asia, having the entire canvas of the world to make your mark on, that it was just that way, and accessible by land, was just a little short of miraculous. The short hairs of the groin tickled with anticipation. To go there and work out the self-proclaimed goal of ‘comprehending reality’. To create an inner landscape that would melt into the outer one you were traveling through, so that in the end, you got an authentic heft of the whole world. So that the pieces of inner and outer landscape would make one complete and comprehensible canvas and you would know where your spot on it was exactly. That hallowed sense of finding one’s place so that the whole thing, life - and your place in it - would make sense. In a way this was an instinctual attempt at composing one’s own personal cosmology of the world.
After being refused entry into Jordan over the Allenby bridge because I had an Israeli stamp in my passport, I had to fly into Istanbul to get started, but it was a well known fact, that if you traveled overland from Istanbul, it would cost you $16 U.S. by bus, rail, hitchhiking or maybe a short ride from the airport in a bullock cart, to get to the Golden Temple in the border town of Amritsar, India. That alone sounded miraculous - not the price of travel- but a temple of Gold. How do they keep the gold from being stolen? Was it solid gold? Maybe it was just a metaphor, like New York had streets paved with gold. (Well, it was well known what that actually meant. Work hard, be as clever as you think you are, and make your fortune in business. Not many actually did strike it rich, but that was the myth.) But no, veterans of the Golden temple demurred. No. This was actually a golden domed temple. And you could stay there for free: Sikh tradition had it that pilgrims were welcomed whether you were a believer or not.
With opportunities like this, an overland journey was well within the purse of possibility for even a young monk, vagabond, traveler, leaving the world of western civilization behind and journeying further back in time with each train or bus trip eastward. That’s what it seemed like, a crawling caterpillar that started in the nineteenth century in Istanbul and with each stop crawling ahead easterly was another notch back into the history of earlier times. An authentic time machine.
Another level of this journey would be, if nothing else, to bear witness to the world. Wouldn’t that illuminate? To see for oneself - direct experience - as an anti-dote to the deluge of programming one was washed with. So much of the knowledge we lived by was dished up by others. Third person sources. Pundits. Interpreters of the universe. So few experiences were unmediated it was frightening how much of your life could be lived solely on information handed down from other human beings rather than the knowledge that comes from standing at the prow of a ship and looking out into the ocean. In my case, it would be from the tops of hills, out into deserts, or the mud buildings of desert culture. And then going down into the villages and living with citizens of those places.
And out of this journey, for want of something better, an ability to fight the disillusion that had crept into one’s psyche after the utopian visions of the period from the late Sixties and into the Seventies had faded. If the grail had been shattered the fragments might be lying somewhere - out there. Some shards of true knowledge might be waiting to be picked up as pieces of the puzzle of how to lead a good life, an examined one. And before anything else was able to be done, ‘do this’, a voice said to me. So it seemed like a good idea at the time: To test the religious visions received from experiments in altered states, see how they applied to the real world, or at least how those principles would operate in a world that was still living in substantially, the old ways. It was an opportunity to let those utopian visions and insights stand against experience in the world of old that still hung on and survived, in small villages, up in unknown mountain passes (these places were the furthest things from tourist destinations), and in hidden valleys that one constantly came across. There were so many unknown outposts, settlements on the edges of plateaus, hills, plains and valleys - which had still not been branded by man even though he had plodded through these backlands for thousands of years. So unlike the coasts of more civilized lands where you would be hard pressed to find miles of wasteland, we would call it - I just marveled at the expanse of it all and how pure the earth’s skin lay on it. No the earth was large and there were still undeveloped stretches we found out.
Occasionally, an excursion demanded to be made (Shortly after arriving in Herat, I had heard about a one eyed horse or was it a donkey - one eye - that was certain - the horn was a matter of some debate - in a village in the north from some fellow travelers who had trekked that way searching for a possible version of the unicorn - Magic and myth figured large in the air at that time and were taken very seriously, possibly as an antidote to the over-technologized, dry explanations of the plastic modern world. ( Reject the acrylic yellow arches of Mac world! Wear hand made shoes! Build a dome! ) But you could rent pack horses and a couple of bodyguards for a dozen dollars and make a foray into the hinterland that way and spend several weeks up in the northern mountains. The idea of a unicorn was more tempting than even I could bear so I had started reconnoitering for a trip like that until fate stepped in and put the kibosh on those plans.
But let me be clear. We few who were driven or invited by the fates to journey overland to the East went not to teach or help, this wasn’t a humanitarian aid mission from the west. Far from it, if anything, we went to learn what the ancient things had to teach, or at least what could be gleaned from the remnants of those old ways. Like the worn slats of the oldest door in the world, hanging in the entrance of an Afghani mud compound. The sands of time had slowly ground the bottom edge into a sawtooth history book. There was no pillar or building or street as ancient as this where I was coming from, the concrete canyons of Manhatta, that’s for sure.
Write it off to the altered state we existed in so much of the time, but I could read incidences in the grooves, like a genie’s bottle that had been flattened, or tea leaves in reverse : Eons ago, a school teacher had fallen in love with the village elder’s wife and the sad end of such a forbidden love. Or the young boy who followed his flocks of sheep far away in the mountains and dreamed of entering the magnificent capital with its glittering domes, until his stomach cramped one day and he slowly ebbed away in a meadow surrounded by his bleating flock. Stories just leapt from the tiny wooden shards. And on closer inspection, even the hinges had been redone, so it must have been transported from yet another entrance of another clay building that was even older. And that led to the understanding that tendrils of history swallow one another the way one epoch ends and another begins. Alexander went through here with his armies. Those warriors carrying their round shields and long spears. This door had withstood a million blips of sunlight and had been witness to them and they to it. It was a reliquary of history and it massaged parts of my brain that had lain dormant until that moment. History was brought to life by it for me the way fireworks light up the sky on the Fourth of July. Those people had been as alive as I was that day and had touched this same piece of wood. I sat by that spot for most of an afternoon and I felt myself getting emptier and emptier as I experienced the gyres of time. My body was quivering with this new found knowledge of time and as I floated away with the stories I found myself growing more and more elated. In order to save myself from losing my soul altogether, I started pouring sand from one hand into the other - an activity that anchored one to the earth. Otherwise I might have gotten sucked into this warp of felt time and ended up as one of those pathetic wretches one encountered sitting by the side of a road with eyes like blown out fuses and the dead look on their faces of having been being run over by a few Mack Trucks. They didn’t even meet your eye, just sat there with a begging cup. These were young Westerners we’re talking about not some sapphron- robed Saddhus under a Banyan tree. The human detritus of the traveling circuit who had gone somewhere in their substance altered brains and were not returning to the planet in this lifetime. So I was lucky, I swear to you.
And when turban-wrapped men would pass along it was as if it was a parade out of the bible. Their faces were not Asian, not quite European, and ancient is all I could call the look of them. The physiognomy they had harkened back to an earlier time, it was as simple as that : The dark beards, the hollow cheeks, the burning eyes, some stunningly blue - a harkening back to the Greek adventurers under Alexander - and the quiet that emanated from them. These were not passive Asians with an inscrutable face, no, these were observers with the strategic understanding of warriors buried somewhere underneath. They would settle onto their leathery haunches and breathe. Gazing into space like statues until they would throw a piece of conversation out into the air. Sometimes it was picked up, one brethren to another, sometimes not, and sometimes there would be a passionate back and forth between two of them. Fiercely. They were arguing about the smell of water in the air. There was an important truth to be hammered out. Rain or no rain, that was the question. There had been a drought and now it smelled like there might be rain. One was right and one was not, so there was a debt that would have to be collected on later. And sure enough, that night there was a deluge. Flattening all the dry brush, the water was so heavy that you had to keep your mouth open in order to breathe, your nose was plugged by rivulets streaming down your face. Suddenly there were streams gushing around the village on streets that had been as dry as the desert and filled with whirling dust devils just that afternoon. The lower streets became canals on some other planet. This deluge had to be as big as the one that floated the Ark. Which made sense because Mt. Ararat was not that far away….
But more than just preoccupations with psychic journeys of time, the thesis to be tested was how some vague principles of peace, brotherliness and comradeship would stand up out there against unknown destinations and encounters - approaching each stranger with an open heart rather than to kill, pillage and control, which so much of the adult world and the status quo of authority seemed to represent. Basic scientific method. Let the mud stick to the wall where it would. To observe how man had lived centuries ago, those same ways surviving into the present, essentially to create oneself as a living, wandering eye, not to impact on one’s surroundings but to observe and to try to take something from each moment, a connection that wasn’t there before. And to continue along with no specific destination, only further onward and Eastward. For as long as it took. This was no vacation and there might not be a return to the familiar world at all. All to find out if there was a clue in the remnant lifestyle of the ancient traditions? Might be. Or to just see where we had come from, to experience history rather than just consult tattered dusty pages of books. Who knows if in the myriad encounters with local people through which this column of pilgrims filed and of which I was one, the kernel of a new brotherliness was created, or irony of irony, the worm turned and we helped birth the proto-Taliban, unquestionably the dark side of the old ways? What if those people saw that the best progeny of the West had all turned into traveling monks? That the West no longer had the spine of warriors, that it had grown weak and lost the strength of its convictions and these young, wandering, lost souls were the spawn of its decline. Heaven forbid that that was true. I prefer to think that we spread a little good cheer on the most grass roots level of living and brought a positive message to the folks we stayed with.
I was determined to work out these things while the shadows of the Vietnam war still loomed large in the backfields of my brain and filtered through the curtain of denial I had erected against those murderous shadows. I would instead embrace this pilgrimage as my war to fight, but it would be waged as psychic mortal combat against the mysteries of the soul. Could I use the external world of exotic places and ancient lifestyles to find some inner Valhalla. Traveling through the world as a self proclaimed ’soldier of peace’, a monk without a monastery, observing the world without impacting on it with the viciousness of the desire to dominate. Carrying within one’s breast the awareness of how we moderns had somehow lost the way, the way of making the world a better place, and that the ascent of man had become so dubious, that it could be a useful thing to sit back, take stock of it, see where we had come from and look back in time. Something might be learned from this. There might be some transformative value to a journey such as this…
And on a more mundane level it would be an exercise of testing my own mettle as a hardy soul, a rite of passage if you will, to see if I was indeed as clever as I thought one should be if one was to take on the status of the world. As a child, there was a phrase ‘he was in the service’ that I used to hear referring to just about every able-bodied man. That was then. Now it was different. To be tested by surviving a pilgrimage, not knowing where I would place my head each night, with no easy way out from any dire circumstances that might befall me, and with the most minimal of funds. This was before plastic was ubiquitous and the only safety net at all, was to plead mercy at the doorstep of a U.S. embassy for a plane ticket back to your world: for dire health reasons or just because you had absolutely run out of funds and had not eaten for a week. The grass roots information trail had it that they would put you on a plane and you would end up owing the government for the ticket. That was my nightmare. To be whisked back to the world that I knew. Defeat. Tempting on occasion, but the darkest of whimsies.
For me, the plan was to stay the course no matter what until I had completed the circle of the planet. Shape was as important as Black Elk said: A square was weak and a circle was strong. That was the target to strike. The bullseye. Could you maintain a state of grace hiking over every hill and dale as you drove ever Eastward? No golden parachutes would be available from your sponsors. This was the most personal of missions and your surviving it depended completely on your own wits, certainly it wasn’t your pocketbook that would buy you out of a jam. (I wasn’t about to hoof it and Marco Polo had, albeit on horse and camel, but even moving by bus, train, ferry, and hitchhiking, you could make your way with nothing less than a boatload of mishaps, trials and tribulations and near disasters packed into every one of those segments of the journey, and on a daily basis.)
In fact, in the Negev, out there in the middle of the desert wadis, I had pondered which direction to go, south - through the wilds Africa which held a strong fascination for me as well, or East. When you wander through the dried creek beds with cratered walls of sand on either side of you, there’s something about the frame of mind that it puts you in - it could be the chaos of the crust of the earth that you feel so fully, immersed in it as you are, to the level of your head, or how it makes your psychic antennae vibrate with a sense of time as it surrounds you with a thousand walls of sand - they weren’t walls really, that suggests straight surfaces - which they were not. More like some mad god of a sculptor had troweled along their rims in some kind of ecstatic abandon and jubilated in what design sand could stand up for. Or the peculiar sense of the sand surrounding you in a protective way - a snake shaped womb. One nook of sand after another as the wadi turned and twisted, just pure sand, clay, grass, and an occasional gnarled bush, and most importantly, no sign of man. Maybe the lack of shade from the dizzying sun is also part of it, but what’s most powerful is the dry breeze that courses through those miniature valleys as you’re hiking through - the high wailing voices on the wind that you hear non stop. Their organ sounds stopped me in my tracks, I couldn’t believe I was hearing them so clearly and they bring you somewhere. It’s not hard to imagine how someone who
lived off the land and fasted there for forty days or so would have had some pretty incredible conversations with his father. So that’s what happened I thought! Now it was all so clear to me. And I had my own version of that and what it came out to was that in the end I went toward the rising Sun, East…..
The aforementioned travelers hotline had it that you needed at least $2,000 squirreled away in your kit to go through Africa in case you got into a tight spot and had to buy your way out - there was some serious baksheesh to be handed over. They didn’t fool around down there and if you got caught in a bad place, say, at an outpost in the middle of the Kalahari and couldn’t meet the bill, your fate could be sealed. Well, I didn’t have a bank roll the size of the price of a car, not even large enough to buy a good bicycle for that matter, so it was just as well I decided to go to India….
As I sat in the vastness of The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the embalmed perfume of millions of bare feet over the centuries, wafted up from the carpet and drilled through my nostrils. But I sat there knowing that if you just went over the next hill and kept going over a few thousand more, you could reach your destination in the East and that was enough to make one tremble with the possibility of actually doing it. The doing of the thing was real. As I said before, it was around this time that Columbus started filtering into my thoughts. That you could do even more than Marco Polo. You could go full circle. Instead of reaching India which was the turnaround point for many travelers, the chosen few could really drop off the edge of the western world and go all the way through the East. The earliest astronauts - the navigators - had done this and it separated them from their fellow men, going fully around the planet. Magellan and his comrades. Didn’t this in some way tie in to those lucky few who had tread on the moon? And following the crust of the planet all the way around made travelers, members of the same brotherhood, I think, in some weird way. Of course, the only privilege it gave was a point of view and what that meant remained to be seen. No special dispensation given here. Just seeing the planet and the people on it in a different way….
No bands, flags and confetti marked my departure. No, by just stepping off a bus in the middle of a dark night I had cut the rope and was free. Herat was the seminal moment for feeling like I had truly embarked on a great adventure, or at least gone over the hill. So you leave your erstwhile savior, the bus, beast of burden painted to look like a giant alligator and trudge off looking for the name of a hovel someone might have given you in a previous town, the barest of lodgings that travelers - not tourists - would gravitate toward. In Herat, it was The House of the Rising Sun that I had notes on. Rock and Roll had traveled far, even to the sands of Afghanistan. Or there would be someone hawking beds - an older lady was always the best - in her house which also fit the bill. Yes, there was an entire grapevine of information being swapped among travelers. And it was reliable. You would catch some traveler’s eye, a mutual identification check would occur and more often than not after a hail fellow well met, drop your knapsack to the ground, take out a chillum if that’s what you were into, share a smoke, comprehend the clouds together, and chat with these new found friends, fellow travelers from the west who had already been there, folks that were coming from where you were headed. You’d hear about where you could stay for free or for almost nothing, where cheap food could be had, and what might be truly interesting about the local folk. And in return you would swap the information that you had about the place that you had just come from.
At this time my traveling partner was John, a young Canadian, sweet-natured but if you scratched very lightly you would see the red neck of a rough rider from the plains of Alberta, Canada. Reminded me of Robbie Robertson of ‘The Band’. Instead of following my own advice about looking for a little old lady, this time, we ended up following a young personable Afghani named Hadji and were quite happy for a room with a Persian rug for furnishings for about $.50/night for both of us. Anything for less than a dollar was what our budget called for. And with our sleeping bags on the Persian style rug, this was no hardship. Even though it turned out that the hotel was only half built, it fit our needs and our host Hadji turned out to be a fountain of resources for other things. We hung out for a couple of days getting our sea legs in this new world of the middle ages, a couple of Connecticut Yanks in Saladin’s Court as it were. One day we chatted up a couple of fellow Canadian girls who were staying down the hall. John had really warmed up to his fellow citizens and invited them to our room for a casual pow wow. But Canada really is the North American outback and these two husky dairymaids looked like they had just come in from the milking. They were wearing red and blue, wool sweaters because it was evening and vaguely chilly, but wearing those garish sweaters was more a statement of who they were than any kind of apparel for the weather. I remember this distinctly, their vibe of a couple of female lumberjacks, but on the trail, such things were not important, a little smoke, a little gab, trading info and a bond was forged. A pleasant evening among fellow travelers. The name of a familiar town brought up, a school, a city, these were something to be cherished by that time, we were so far from the West, that anything familiar was welcome.
John, who was pretty enterprising, had tracked down the bargains of the Chicken Street Bazaar and procured a hookah and its commensurate stash, something which he pulled out of his day pack with a flourish. There in his hand was what looked like a large, thick, dark brown shoe sole, and which was in fact some very pure Red Afghani. Even in England where it was commonly sprinkled on tobacco, the only thing one would come across were small pebbles of hash and were considered as valuable as nuggets of gold. To see a piece of that size - its enormity was mind boggling. If I was the Ahab of Kif, this would have been my Moby Dick. I don’t mean to mis-represent myself, I was no ace of hallucinogenic flights as so many on the trail were, or of any other kind of mind-altering substances - more of a partaker of opportunity - a survival budget from doing theater made sure of that - so I was no expert in these things - but holding it on the palm of my hand it had the feel of hard putty but with the tendrils of its aromas carrying a mixture of dung and the history of the desert - that’s how it struck me.
John had also come back wearing a full kit of local garb - hand tailored brown baggy pantaloons and a white silky shirt that had a diagonal draw across the chest. And the classic Afghani bowl shaped cap, the chitrali and some kind of pointy leather slippers. He had gone native. Oddly, out of some inner contrariness to this habit of travelers, I continued to wear my Kibbutz blues - the equivalent of a gas station uniform, and my Greek perdoules, the rough leathered shoes with tire treads for a sole and tear drops over the toes and were hand made to last for a minimum of one hundred years. I think I wore my Kibbutz uniform as a flag to show that I was one of those who had volunteered to work on a Kibbutz and that I was proud of that. I wore them overland all the way to India, down to Bangkok and six months later when I hit the road again, all the way to Japan when they started shredding and when I needed warmer clothing anyway
But there we were in Hadji’s half-built hotel in Herat, sitting there with these fellow travelers and passing the large hookah around, polite and innocent as you like, as I said, swapping traveling info - the grass roots grapevine worked this way - a lot of the conversation centered around where you were coming from and where they were going so much useful info could be swapped back and forth. This was de rigeur on the trail. The people’s living newspaper that doubled as a travel guide. I had whole pages in a notebook of places to stay and route connections from Istanbul to Calcutta. Even friends of friends to look up. To track down total strangers in a strange town seemed natural and not as bizarre as it does as I write this. And often worked.
That was what we were up to and just around the time I was thinking that there weren’t any particular sparks flying around in the room between us and the Canadian girls, even if that’s what we had been hoping for, when there was a knock on the door. When John opened it, standing there was a man in an unkempt purple uniform, gold braid on one shoulder, hat on his head skewed to one side. His uniform jacket was unbuttoned and his tie was undone to such an extent that it hung around the folds of his belly. He barged past John and said ‘ Ah hah. Hookah! ‘. He turned and looked at Hadji who was standing in the doorway and who was also expressing profound shock and self righteous indignation at those who broke the law. ‘Are you smoking hasheesh?’ And before you could say, ‘Hey Jude ‘, the guy in the uniform snatched it up and smashed it against the wall where it splattered : water, glass and the snakes of its pipes all over that half of the room. John was sweet natured under normal circumstances but this just triggered him like he had been slugged. Grabbing the policeman, and struggling with him, yelling ‘You can’t do that. That was mine. You sonofabitch. You got no right.’
What happened next is a little hazy in my mind, but we were eventually grabbed and taken off to the local hoosegow for possession of hash. It should be noted that the shoe sole’s worth of hash went for about $.90 U.S. and was a casual way folks had for helping support the Afghani orphans who peddled it. Not to mention that being busted for dope in Afghanistan was like getting a ticket for speeding in the Indy 500. What we hadn’t known was that the aforementioned young Canadian wenches were the guests of Hadji the young hotelier and were staying there as his guests - for free. And so lumberjacks or no, he had plans of his own and we had presented the possibility of interfering with those plans. All I remember in our altered state was sitting in the cell and watching the cop in purple through a beaded curtain that was waving back and forth and which really added to that mode of consciousness where everything had the quality of being in the middle of a film and not altogether real. Welcome to the Casbah or something like that. I saw him leaning on the phone cradle to address his boss in his pidgin English. As I was marveling at how peculiar it was that even in Afghanistan one spoke in English on official channels. But that made sense. English, the universal language. Hadn’t the Brits been in control here at one time? Yes, but they were defeated miserably at the pass, a massacre. But it didn’t matter, they still learned the language. And so on with ruminations of this sort. Then I noticed something even more peculiar. Apparently in Afghanistan one leaned on the phone cradle to use a phone, mouthpiece in one hand with the other arm extended down resting on the top of the body of the phone. But it had become very grim as the depth of our situation began to sink in. It wasn’t like someone was reading us our Miranda rights. Did they even have laws - that were written - or were we going to be at the mercy of some tribal lynch mob? Even John had turned down the rage knob by now as we each silently considered things: months if not years in an Afghani prison, whatever hell that might be like. We had come down enough to be completely paranoid about our prospects. Herat was a dry barren dusty town and the prospect of staying behind bars there conjured some pretty brutal images. Lots of mountainous rock in the distance and not a tree in sight. You don’t know what powerlessness is until you’re nose to nose with pockmarked, iron bars in a desert jail, very, very far from home and with the ambience of Torquada and the inquisition of the 13th century. Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court comes to mind. Trapped, that far from home.
Just then the purple cop turned to us and said ‘Boss…(points into the phone), You leave tomorrow. OK. No trouble. OK…Tomorrow…’ Needless to say, we jumped at this reprieve and assured him we’d be off to the East ‘Pronto, yes. Yes Sir.’ And ‘Thank you very much. You’re a wonderful soldier and you have a wonderful future in this wonderful place. Goodbye.’ Did I mention that it was this Hadji dude who had led John to the Bazaar to the vendor who sold him the hookahs? And then to the young boys who peddled excellent primo ‘number one hot hot red afghani’? Later as we talked it over, a very real possibility slowly dawned on me and I mentioned that “You know, that guy the cop? ”
‘Yeah?’ John was with me.
” Well, he was leaning on the button on the phone cradle and you know what?”.
“Yuh, whudda you mean?” John asked.
‘I don’t think he was really on the phone.’
‘What? How can that be?’
‘It was all a phony riff. He wasn’t on the phone to anybody. Just scaring the shit out of us. It’s that guy our friend, Hadji. They were cousins and he wanted us gone…’cause a the girls.”
” Huh. Piece of shit he was anyway.” Well, to show just how foolhardy one can be on the overland trail we moved into a hotel at the other end of the town and stayed in Herat for another week….
And that would be when I ran across Nick. She would introduce herself as Nikki but add ‘most of my friends call me Nick. I guess its ’cause of my voice. You look French. Hey, Frenchie this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship…Har Har…’ Was she just simple or was she being sarcastic? I couldn’t tell.
It was true that she had a noticeably deep husky voice as well as strong shoulders from her swimming days on her public school’s team in London, as she later told me, so it all made sense. Started innocently enough, with a group of travelers sharing a meal in a local eatery. The low ceilinged white washed room which was lit by the omnipresent smoky kerosene lamps was held up by beams made up out of whole tree trunks, unfinished, and with some shards of bark still on them. As people kept coming through the door, the village elder who was in charge decided at a certain point that the house was full, and food would start appearing. That’s how it was done. When enough people showed up everybody just sat down along a long table on the ground and took food from the center platters. No forks of course, just slurping up everything with pieces of Puri, Afghani flat bread. And there she was, sitting across from me with a mammoth shock of frizzy wild honey-colored hair looking for all the world like the Greek Gorgon snake goddess, maybe without the malice. From the core of this halo blazed a pair of wide-set blue eyes. Was she Pallas Athena or the Gorgon? Hard to tell. Puzzling really. She looked up and with her deep voice that seemed to be edged with a kind of feline growl that matched her aura asked, ” Cheers mates. Welcome to the House of Trees, best damned meal in a week. Cheers to Herat. Fuck Yorkshire pudding, Yeah? …These are my mates. The good the bad and the ugly. Ho Ho. Where you from?…”
Her aromas of Chanel, patchouli, and sweat, snaking through the air grabbed me and opened my nostrils and suddenly I was as helpless as a calf bellowing for its mother. That’s how bad I caught it. Maybe the Afghani red that we were living on put us all on a plane that made people seem slightly enlarged than they might otherwise have been, like archetypes. Plus living, as we were, in the middle of The Arabian Nights of Herat, all holds were off. Moreover John and I were keyed up from our visit to the dungeons of Herat, like being back from the dead, so I was primed, shall we say, for some kind of life affirming intimacy. They say that that’s why G.I.s come home from war and near-death and procreate. I knew what they meant.
I wasn’t exactly stunned, more taken aback when I found myself running an instant movie in my head that had the old parrot sitting on Long John Silver’s shoulder and that gave out his anthem ‘pieces of eight, pieces of eight’ and the occasional blasphemy that only a sailor wouldn’t blush from hearing. So that was it. She had a quality that made what she said sound like someone doing lines in a movie - and sometimes they were just that. Because there were about five signals coming from her at a time, mixing into a psychic banner that she was waving and that had a hieroglyph on it that I was instantly desperate to decode. Was she flirting with me particularly, or just reciting lines from characters in old movies because that’s how she made her way through the world and was what she always did, or was she indeed a gorgon (read witch)? Or maybe she was just a young, twisted old-hand on the overland trail. Plenty of those abounded. Or just a true eccentric? And on and on? Which slice of persona was really her? So though I kept a casual countenance joining in with the rest in reaching over and scarfing up morsels of lamb pilaf and rice and curried vegetables from the piles of food in front of us, my psychic body had been stopped in its tracks. I tried to stay agreeable and good naturedly said “Thanks… American. Stephan. He’s Canadian. John.
John chimed in, “We just got in from Meshed. Believe it or not we got busted the other day.” “Jeez, Fuckin’ bloody hell, where’d that happen?” Rod burst out. John answered simply with no arrogance “The other side of town. But it turned out OK…”
The conversation trailed off while the weight of that statement sank in. I wondered if they were thinking if we were two guys who were on the lam. I swear the way everyone started ripping up pieces of Puri bread to eat with was as if they were tearing apart a cops uniform bit by bit. A weird riff on ‘this is my body’. Or maybe it was the state I was in where even the thinnest shred of synchronicity was celebrated as if one of the secrets of the universe was being revealed. Everything was a metaphor for something else. Until you wigged out. Luckily this was early enough in the journey so that I still had a lot of juice in the batteries. But such was the era of magical thinking. Fragments of conversation accepted as complete. Sudden and long silences between sentences being the natural rhythm of exchange. Or the opposite: spoken snatches would build into a rant, a whirlwind of a monologue, like the fits and starts of a bull pawing the ground and then charging. ‘You know, the Iranians ain’t Arabs, didja know that, mate? No they were conquered by Alexander the Great but not by the Arabs. You just have ta look at them, they look different. Oily kind of. But they don’t have that semitic nose right? You ever seen Anthony Quinn as the Arab chief? Like that. No, the Iranians are more like the gypsys. Can’t trust ‘em but they been around a long time. Mesopotamia you know. Fuckin A. Birthplace of civilization you know, Tigris, Euphrates all that. But Alexander showed ‘em. He could have had ‘is way with Cyrus’ wife and harem when he beat ‘im in the field. But no, he sent ‘em back untouched. Can you imagine that? The Persians would’ve had a field day after a bovver. Kill your enemy and fuck his wife was a good day to ‘em. See democracy started in Greece because of that. Civilized beings. Not barbarians. Bar Bar is what they sounded like to the Greeks, see…’ And so it went with Rod’s rant. But it was all part of the same thing. The upshot of it all was that people especially travelers had the license to be more authentic, to come from an inner emotional core directly outward in an unbroken line with much less self-censorship. The social niceties of home culture slowly dropped away and were replaced by a rubato kind of rhythm. A Buddhist kind of ethos evolved somehow and a grunt of ‘Ah. Hah’, kind of a sound of acknowledgement was a common response. This was after all a journey to the east. No pressure to chatter like birds on a limb, which the conversations between people back home so often seemed to be, a songfest of generational clumping more than anything else, certainly not the communication of anything heavy like God forbid, a real idea. Partly because in an altered state, societal bonds of convention loosened, but also because there was unspoken permission amongst travelers that inane chit chat was not welcome, and people tended to say only what they felt like saying. And it turned out, as if to confirm that we were like-minded souls, they were also heading for the same place we were.
Nick again, “So where are you and your mate headed?”
“Golden Temple”, I answered.
They all looked at one another until Nick said, “Heard anything about it?”
” Not too much. First place to stop off at in India. Pretty heavy there”, I answered.
She quickly added, “You got that right, Slim…. What’d you say your name was - Frenchie?”
“Right you are if you think you are. What’s that you’re wearing? You a plumber or something?
” Israeli. Kibbutz uniform.” I answered.
“Oh. ” she said, “Well, we’re goin’ that way as well, what do you think of that? “
“Ah Hah”, I answered.
She added sarcastically, ” You wouldn’t be carryin’ a white feather by any chance, lookin for your buds, wouldja? “.
“No. Just seeing what we can see…”
“No Falcons from Malta worth a fortune, eh?” I couldn’t believe it. This striking woman either knew more movie lines than anyone I had ever met or was channeling Hollywood actors like they were her relatives.
The Golden Temple of course, was the mecca and fountainhead for Sikhs. It was also the center of a separatist movement led by Bhindrawale Singh and was headed for an imminent blood bath - which I could not know and would not have guessed in a thousand years, heaven on earth as it seemed to me when we finally reached it.
In any case, I was disposed to keep my cards close to the vest and watch what would happen next as she carried on with the others for awhile. Nevertheless, youngbloods that we were in spite of our monkhood - male and female - occasionally, looks leapt across the table between her and I. For my part, I couldn’t help myself, mesmerized as I was by her aura but I was more than a little thrilled as she in turn, kept looking over my Kibbutz blues. This, as we all fell into the ritual of scooping and eating. Until Rod, her cohort of the recent rant, zeroed in on John and said
“Yeh. We din’t have an easy time of it either. How much did it cost us, Nick ?…Bloody bastards….Thirty dollars U.S. I think, wasn’t it? ”
She answered ” Well, that’s what happens when you’re stuck in a little hut in the middle of the bloody desert. Sun fries your brains. Not just your brains, but your heart as well, in’t it the truth, Yank?”
Again, almost as if she was reciting lines in a movie. Or was it me?
John, bantered back at her across the divide of the table: “Nah, it’s just the Iranians, they’re pure scum. And some of the Afghanis ain’t much better.” Because of his Canadian status, the tone of the dialogue was a little like long lost cousins meeting on a foreign shore.
“See, I told you, ” Rod said to Nick. He felt vindicated. Travelers backing one another’s experience up. Proof of the pudding. There was one of those long pauses as people dove into the plate and sponged off the gravy. It seemed as if the debate had ended until Nick broke in and picked right up where she had left off minutes before, and said to Rod, “People are people. You’re always looking to put everyone down who’s not like yourself.”
Rod retorted, “Oh. Right, And that’s why they try to fleece all the people traveling through.”
“Well, if man is evil it’s all man. ” She said.
” Oh come on let’s not get onto that again….” he trailed off. Apparently this was an ongoing conversation. Then she turned to me and with some insouciance said, “So you’re a jailbird huh? What’d you do bust out? Your name Butch? Who’s he, Cassidy?” Turning to her mate she continued ‘Who are these guys?” But I bypassed this hedgehog and just said ‘We got lucky is all. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.” ‘And you’re still here?’ I guess since we were sitting there the answer was self-evident and she had to relent a little. That might have been the key moment between she and I. I just looked at her for a long moment without saying anything. Until she said, ‘Well, you must have a lotta brass, comrades. You’re awright in my book.’ More movie lines but the point was well taken and I had achieved a small by significant point in the duel, which is what it was, going on between us. The night looked promising suddenly.
And with the generosity that comes from victory, it was in that moment that I felt moved to add: ” That’s funny…hitching down to Bari… I said… same thing to an Italian truck driver…’Man is man’… “Italians not like the French. More hospitality”, he insisted. Took us to his tiny attic apartment and put us up for the night. Put his own mattress down on the floor for us. Also got lambchops from the butchers. Had a wife and a baby. No money. You could tell from the wife’s face… they hadn’t seen lamb chops in a long time. Just because I mentioned that a TV antenna looked the same to me in Paris as it did in Rome and that modernization was steamrolling everything….” As I was laying out this whole riff, Nick stayed with me using those blue eyes to buoy me and when I finished she congratulated me with: ” Abso fuckin’ lutely, the man said.” gesturing downward with her fist. We were comrades in arms now. And then again, more silence except for the sounds of bread scraping and lips smacking.
After this I zoned out a little beyond our group into the white washed walls on which a face with craggy features had been sketched with the demeanor of Frankenstein more than anything else. After a long while I realized I was looking at an effort to portray none other than The Lizard King, Jim Morrison. I blurted out, “Wow, Jim Morrison was here.” Nick caught on instantly. “Bloody Hell, ’s Morrison awright”. Her mate Rod added, “Like the wanker said, the Beatles were more popular than Christ”. That inspired her to quickly chime in and sing,
” This is the end. My only friend the end. ”
Desperately in need of
some strangers hand
In a desperate land
The blue bus is calling us
Driver, where you taking us?”
Every now and then she would open her eyes as she sang this and looked in my direction. For my part I felt as if the Buddha had taken pity on a poor wretched soul and smiled down on him with this female blessing. So she kept looking at me as she sang this and I basked in beam of her steady blue gaze .
” It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me”…
That was the capper and being in the middle of my own movie, I couldn’t help but feel there was something she knew that I didn’t. Not to mention that her husky voice singing wasn’t half bad. Moments like this happened on the trail. Psychic shortcuts. Little leaps of understanding between people.
But now song was in the air and it didn’t stop there. Nick’s mate Rod was moved to tag on his own rendition of a song. It was ‘God Save the Queen’ or ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’, something like that, but as a wired stadium anthem, hoarse and only occasionally hitting anything like the melody - a beer hall version - though there was no booze involved in any of this. But to which all of our Brits, including Nick, instantly joined. At least that’s how it started - we were transported back to Manchester United hearing ditties sung for the football crowds’ amusement, except because we were in fact in the middle of the desert far, far from home, the atavistic chords of the anthem really came through and it ended in kind of haunted tones with a good bit of nostalgia thrown in for home such as it was. Like a tribal howl of wolves proclaiming themselves and their nation, albeit decaying, to the moon gods. At the end, Nick added ‘Bah. Humbug. On all of it….”
By now her eyes had become blue marbles of lapis lazuli and I kept seeing the Lady of the Lake in them. And the blue coming from them was spreading across the room and I was wallowing in its blue lethe. By now I had been piqued enough so that I had to do something to make it real. A gesture, something. I asked if anyone had psychic powers? Everybody thought that they had or at least an affinity for that. So I challenged them. Leading them in a psychic exercise, I asked everyone to close their eyes separate their hands far apart, and see if they could touch their forefingers together at the tips. The thing was to bring them together perfectly. I was showing off shamelessly and couldn’t remember for the life of me, from which atavistic well this came from, but the Gods smiled on me and I did it. Nobody else could do it and everyone giggled themselves silly at their own ineptness in this simple little task, that was not so simple after all.
So Nick had brightened a little after this - she was a lot of things, but no psychic and became a little softer around the gills I thought. She even gave me a smile of acknowledgement that unhinged me a little more. Being in an altered state for days at a time on the local shit - that’s what it was universally referred to as - and who knows, camel dung could easily have been the binder for all I knew, made me very sensitive to the psychic bolts that were shooting back and forth across that low table between us by now. In any case, she and her two mates continued to finish up their meal, and when a little boy who showed up at the table asked what his name was. “Mansur,” he answered with no shyness at all, and added “People say, Man. Call me Man.”
Nick said “Oh, Man. You are a big man. And cute.”
He couldn’t have been more than eleven years old but carried himself like an adult. Just then his father came over and introduced himself. As was the custom and if we were interested in staying, the owner offered some music. He brought out a santuri and another man, a set of tabla drums.
And so music started spreading through the room and some other travelers appeared, drawn by the music which must have reached down the street into the neighborhood. Suddenly Nick and another woman were up and dancing, nodding and swaying as if Grace Slick had moved into the room with them and was boogeying to the Jefferson Airplane, except as I said, this time it was to Middle Eastern santuris and tablas. Or maybe that’s who Nikki reminded me of, since she was clearly taken by your basic belly dancing music throbbing through the room. But this was a room of mostly young Westerners so before you could say ‘Sticky Fingers’ the rest of us were up dancing away in our impromptu Afghani disco.
Nick took over a corner of the room with her belly jiggling and pelvic thrusts - a mating ritual if there ever was one that left each man in the room, especially the Afghanis, breathless with superheated visions. A combination of rock and roll dance mixed with eerie leg extensions, unheard of arm strokes, I had never seen the human body ever stretch and vibrate like that before - to these men of the desert it was like nothing they had ever imagined, much less seen. She was doing things that were filthy, angelic, pure Appolonian and writhing in the mud, all in the same measure - ballet, Middle Eastern belly dancing, African stomping. This was free-style kickin’ out the jams bogeying to the max. Both women unleashed a gale of erotic energy that washed over the room letting the music and the drums carry them through different symphonies of movement. The Afghani studs were besides themselves, clapping over and over with the ecstasy of seeing these crazy Western women giving themselves with such wild abandon to the evening.
At a certain point, as I was standing there, I started waving my arms over my head in response to Nick’s moves and she swayed her way over and lo ended up in front of me. Then I started shaking my shoulders at her standing in front of me. She matched that and built on it with a hip swaying move. So I started swaying in place using just my hips, trying to find a groove, sampling this movement then that one, letting the right one move into me. By now I was a goner and we were really getting into sync now, speaking to one another with the movement of our bodies. Slowly we started to move together, mirroring each other, with her taking in whatever movement I came up with and daring me to follow her from there. One move after another, we were like magicians throwing spells at each other. Can you match this? Eh, Wot? Well, wot about this luv? With the loud driving beats of the cowhide drums driving us on we made bold, humping thrusts, then let that spin into more interpretative moves that had samples of everything from 20’s flapper kicks to down and dirty hip circling rhumba back-stepping. Finally we started to climb to a climax of movement where we were vibrating as if we were plugged into a three hundred volt circuit, with arms or legs twitching to each drum beat, and after we finally hit a peak, we burst with the effort and collapsed onto the floor, mingling our sweat and musk and feeling a very deep intimacy indeed, while the man-group who had been caught up in watching us applauded and hooted. We had traveled into some primal space where our movement had put us in touch with the rocking of nothing less than the firmament of the great Mother. Somewhere out there anyway, beyond the pale. The yodels of approval sounded like camel drivers gone wild, and they brought us back to the reality of the room, such as it was, and we sheepishly grinned at one another, embarrassed by ourselves. Nothing profane about it, I took her hand and kissed it saying ‘Namaste’ an Indian blessing that I already knew, and we wandered out into the cooler night outside….
I took off for Amritsar a few days later and Nick and I made solemn plans to meet up there. She had to stay in Herat waiting for some reason that she didn’t go into - something about a visa. As I said, the country was in some political kind of turmoil and people were hibernating but there we were walking down a wide open dusty road to a pick up point. Finally, she put her arm around my shoulder and couldn’t resist ‘Eh, mate, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, right? ‘. I laughed ruefully. Then she grabbed both of my shoulders and looked deeply into my eyes and said ‘If you meet someone who looks familiar, like you had known her before, you know, maybe a little like me eh, give her a chance, right mate?’ I don’t know if it was the impossibility of us ever seeing each other again, but by now I had tears streaming down my cheeks as I desperately scribbled down the details of where the hotel she knew about was, just to prove my sincerity. This was one of the bitter truths discovered by travelers or anyone who knew how the world could come between people. Like passing each other on a train that they had no control over.
I did go on while John stayed behind and headed back to Istanbul and I teamed up with another traveling mate, Matti Alou, from Finland who had worked in a post office there to scrape together his traveling funds. A thin, bespectacled young guy, a Wally Cox look-alike, he was non-threatening in the extreme. As we rolled on toward Rawalpindi the screeching loudspeakers blaring out pop Pakistani or Afghani music, taki tak tak tak - syrupy banshee wail of a violated virgin - bump bump bump of the bus - all this was clearly going to go on through the duration of the all night trip. As a reprieve from the stench of the goat urine running down the aisle and the brain torture of the music, I thought we might try and see what the top of the bus was like. Maybe it wasn’t my idea and other people had gone up there already, I don’t know. But at one of the quick stops when they tossed up luggage to the roof, we followed. And God was it grand. No noise, the hot wind whipping past our faces, there was a moment in the darkness that I felt we were on a flying carpet. Or at least as close as we would get to one in this lifetime. But look where we were: Turbans, desert, and wind as we ploughed into the darkness, opening our mouths to scoop up more of the hot desert wind, dusty as it was. For a while we forgot everything else except for this movement and I became a dog leaning out over the top and further into the wind. Then Matti and I were joined by a local at a stop. I don’t know if he saw us first and decided to climb up or if it was just a local custom we had tapped into. He was a bit of a dandy, his white cotton outfit was clean though his turban was unraveling in the wind and he had a wristwatch on - always the sign of a forward-looking modern. After awhile the wind picked up and we all lay down amongst the pieces of cloth bundles. We could have been sitting amongst a collection of wrapped severed heads, for all we knew of what this collection of cloth bags held. But we didn’t care, we had been liberated from the iron maiden on wheels below and were free. I leaned my head against something soft and shut my eyes but awoke when Matti grabbed my shoulder and said I should sit up. There was trouble.
Our fellow passenger had made unwanted advances to Matti who was understandably upset. He had touched his leg from what I gathered, under the guise of needing more room to lay down next to us on the bus roof. I gestured for him to move away. He didn’t and was defiant. Then I barked at him and pushed him a little. He was even more obstinate and raised his hands to grab me. My philosophy of brotherliness had its limits and molesting my comrade was beyond the pale, even for me although afterward I wondered why Matti had chosen me to be his protector. Anyway, almost involuntarily, as much as to protect myself as anything else, I kicked at him and pushed him away. We were all in a prone position really since the bus was at the very least jarring itself apart going over every rut in the world. Standing up was out of the question, it would have been like standing straight up in a roller coaster. But I was shocked at his determination, it was as if I were invisible and he was clawing his way past me and trying to get at Matti. Bizzare behavior that was hard to figure. Did I seem as ineffective as all that as Matti’s protector? Or in letting him know our attitude toward his behavior? Did we look that much like two pathetic milk sops? Did I? And so on. All I knew was that it was late night, on top of a bus in the middle of the Arabian desert, careening into the pitch black void that had the fetid breath of camel dung. My equilibrium snapped. Who knows if the Spartan genes I possessed and that had crossed these hills twenty two hundred years ago with Alexander were vibrating and had flicked a switch in my medulla so that the warrior in me so deeply repressed until now exploded into action. The skin of the soldier of peace had split like a serpent’s egg and now revealed the horse hair of a Spartan war helmet. My foot hooked onto his tunic and I was able to thrust him to the side. The bus jerked as the driver shifted down around a curve. Our demon of the night was now yelling. Because he must have felt the bags shift underneath him and as he rolled, the luggage rolled and toppled off the bus and then he was in the air. Tumbling off, arms waving frantically in different directions, legs looking for something solid, screeching like a panicked rooster being cornered by a fox, he was a cartoon of Jerry the Tomcat on his way to being impaled on a cactus. All to no avail, he hit the side of the road like a sack of potatoes with a whomp. End of screech. But he had been heard, that was for sure, and the bus slowed to a crawl, brakes squealing with the grind of iron against iron from the stress. I can’t honestly say that I felt badly about what happened. The dude had acted terribly and deserved what he got. Frontier justice. Or karma. Or both. But from then on we were in the middle of a movie. That is, everything seemed like it was predictable and obvious, like a script was being followed. A crowd frantically piled out of the bus started gathering up the bundles that had become airborne and two of his brethren went to him and patted him down to see if he had anything broken. He sat up and this is where it felt like a bad movie I had already seen. He slowly raised his arm and with great deliberation, stretching it straight out like a weather vane, pointed directly at us. Then there were many clenched fists pointing up at us. To them, no explanation was needed. We were the fiendish enemy from the West, waving the banner of Western decadence and imperialism over them and had brutally exploited a local citizen. Roars started emanating from the bunch and turbans unrolled with the vehemence of their jiggling heads. So in answer, now we were up on our feet and yelling back and pointing at the miscreant. It was getting ugly. One or two tried to climb up and I stomped on their hands. These were mostly Rawalpindi bound Pakistanis, and not the tough leathery warriors of old Afghanistan, thank god, because at the first sign of resistance they dropped back to the ground. But by now, the mob was howling, screaming, like Satan had stolen their only child. In the middle of this mayhem, it was clear to me, even as the chorus of howls rose and fell like waves breaking over one another, that whatever inner river of scalding oil was coursing through these people, it had nothing to do with us or what had just happened. Some tribal chord of rage had been unleashed, some atavistic flame had been fanned and a river of molten lead, a potion of hysteria and rage, was rising from it. It went as far back as the first campfires in the rocky desert or to man-wolves howling at the moon Goddess. Then, a tall thin individual in Arab robes, unusual for Pakistan, a traveling emissary from who knew what Kingdom, gestured to some of them to come closer to him and he muttered something into the faces of the gathered mob. It looked like a football huddle with turbans for helmets. They all suddenly got quiet and following his instructions, started filing past him back into the bus with a forced insouciance, which was apparent even to us. Could have been funny if it had been a movie because of the bad acting, but this was not a movie, clearly something was up and it was not funny. As he stood by the door looking in our direction, the Arab had a sad smile on his lips and his eyes held mine with a flat stare. I felt like I was in the beam of a cobra who was sympathetic to the mouse of his next meal. A couple of his new comrades even took a quick peek up at us as they climbed the steps into the bus. The last to go in, he held us in his gaze until the last second and then bounded up the steps into the bus so brusquely that his robes looked like a flag following him. The whole scene smelled bad to me and I said so to Matti. Ever the optimist he flashed a triumphant grin and said ‘Oh no. I think you showed them what’s what.’
I said, “Sure. That’s what I’m worried about.” He still refused to worry about anything. But then, he hadn’t spent a night and a day in an Afghani jail like I had. The bus slowly, very slowly started to move off and knocked us back to the cloth bundles. If my sojourn in the jail in Herat had done anything, it had sharpened my wits and I had developed pretty good antennae for bad vibes and what was going on with that mob smelled really rotten. The blood was pulsing at my temples and Danger was flashing in my mind like a neon sign. Something was definitely screwy with this picture and there was nothing about the crowd that breathed forgiveness.
But we settled back onto the cloth bundles again for awhile when the bus moved forward and the breeze picked up again. For a brief spell we were back on our flying carpet ride again. But it was no good. The blackness no longer had the soothing quality it had had earlier. Where its infinity beckoned into a deathless universe, now our destination in the black hills of Pakistan was something to be feared. My skin prickled with apprehension and I was learning fast what street smarts were. My one scuffle with local authorities was enough for me. If I was committed to surviving and at nineteen I definitely was, I knew that we were on a transport headed to our own personal Dachau. Something had to be done. They would be coming for us. I knew it, by now Matti knew it, and the bad movie we had been in had spiraled into a nightmare. It was time for a plan. Luckily, the hills answered my plea in the shape of a rock slide that sprawled across part of the road. The bus driver jammed the brakes again, sending stabs of radio waves from the squealing iron of the brakes into my brain, skidding the bus to a stop before we ploughed into a boulder. “SOS SOS. Mayday. Mayday” was coming through loud and clear on those high pitched squeals of tortured metal that must have made every dog within a mile around start to howl with apprehension and the dog in me was ready to bite. The driver gingerly pushed ahead in first gear, slowly grinding the gears faster and then slower in the uneven RPMs that first gear afforded. It was in one of these hesitations that I tapped Matti on the shoulder. Motioned for him to grab his gear. We waited for the right instant before leaping off the cliff. As the bus was still going very slowly, in the darkness, I was sure I could hear the conferring down below. The music was off now and there was a tamped down hub bub of Paki conversation. It was as if a town meeting was being held. That was it. A hair trigger inside my skull had been pulled and without a moment’s hesitation more I threw my pack into the darkness, and half slid, half fell down the back of the bus. Matti pulled himself over the top and then just fell, but he hit the ground rolling and got himself going with a surprising adroitness - even he knew this was not time for stalling and we both began jogging down the road into the refuge of the night. Sure enough the bus stopped a little further up the road with its dozen red lights blaring like a Christmas tree and we froze. Hunkering down on the ground we watched to see what would happen. It idled for awhile and we watched to see if anyone with a weapon or a spear whatever was going to charge out of it. I had seen too many ancient carbines that may have looked like ornaments you would hang over a fireplace but that I knew could be extremely accurate and dangerous despite their age, to not be very tense at the possibilities of someone shooting at us with one. In the Khyber Pass region every male carried what looked like an old flintlock and I knew there could be one aboard the bus ( This was before Comrade Kalashnikov’s became ubiquitous in the region).
If before it had been the traveling day-glo leviathan, now it was the death star and its flashing red lights had the ominous sheen of blood lust. It stood there idling for what seemed several minutes. Would they come after us to preserve the honor of Islamic warriorhood and new found nationalist fervor? Thank god this was before the age of cell phones or who knows what arm of the Taliban might have shown up. The bus took off again so slowly I was thinking that maybe I had been struck by the snakes of my own paranoia and that the driver was just having a problem with the idle on his carburetor. I guess they had figured out we had jumped ship and were not waiting on top like a couple of fattened pigeons on the way to receive our comeuppance whatever it might have been and which I felt very certain we would have gotten. We found stumbling off the road into the darkness difficult - there were many small rocks scattered randomly and we couldn’t see them, but it was better that way, I knew. About 100 yards into the hilly terrain off the road we came upon some boulders the size of small houses and sat down behind one of them. The funny thing was that I wasn’t quite sure if we were hiding, or if the whole thing was just paranoia, but I definitely felt it was better to be safe than sorry. Leaning back against one of these huge rocks we took out some heavier gear from our knapsacks and covered up, waiting for the dawn and daylight. We kept our ears open even after we had heard the bus depart, but it was a long night and we kept getting spooked by an occasional sound like the tinkle of what must have been a goat bell. As so often happens, after wallowing in the depths of the night and its bogeyman fears, the daylight gives new courage. So we went back to the side of the road as if nothing had happened and just waved down another bus. Gave the driver some coin and grabbed a couple of seats. No problem. To this day, I shudder to think what would have awaited us if we had stayed on top of that bus. A Pak jail or summary justice at the next town where there would have been no escape from the mob….
This episode feels like its forever branded on the front of my brain and I think its because every time I read in the papers of some allusion to a nuclear arsenal these people have I shudder from the knowledge that such a delicate sheet of thin ice separates the rational atmosphere from a river of hysterical rage roiling just underneath. And if my provocation was enough to create a lynch mob, well, one of those people has a locked attaché case with the nuclear codes in it….