Sitting on a bus bound for Kandahar did not put me in the best of moods. I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping on an overcrowded floor in Kandahar and I wasn’t done with Herat yet. Had I been healthy and strong there I would have seen and done more , but I wasn’t. Time was running out on my visa and I had no real guide book to help me locate the immigration office. Jacques and I had found an old Lonely Planet Central Asia guide book at a guest house in Pakistan and copied some pages, but everything in it was old, out dated and inaccurate, so I had no idea whether or not I could extend my visa in Herat. I accepted the situation though and put my “shield up.” That’s what I call it when I kind of flip a switch in my head and become numb and separated from everything going on around me, even on an overcrowded bus or in a tightly packed train or bus station. My way of dealing with an uncomfortable situation.
After a few hours I saw the first American soldiers yet. A small convoy of Humvees patrolling the middle of a hill, with one parked at the top and another parked at the bottom. Up until now, I had only seen Italians and met a few Kiwi soldiers. I guess it makes sense since I spent all of my time in the middle of the country and it was relatively safe there. I took this to mean that we were getting into the war zone. I found the roads to be half way decent too, not good, but they were roads at least. Luckily as you do on a long bus ride, I became hypnotized by the passing scenery. I was tempted to listen to some music, but I would have stuck out too much. I didn’t know who was on the bus with me, but I did know I was leaving the “safe zone” within Afghanistan. No more Taliban hating Hazaras around as a built in safety net. I was heading into an area that shows strong support for the Taliban and as great as all the Afghans had treated me, now I needed to be careful about looking like a tourist.
We got into Kandahar around sunset. From the window seat on the bus, I had been soaking up as much of Kandahar as I could and for a minute I wished I could stay and check it out. I wasn’t able to notice any land marks though. With dusty streets and beat up buildings it just seemed to be a sloppy city and not one that sticks out in any particular way, in this region of the world anyway. When we got off the bus, they started handing everyone their luggage, since we would be sleeping there. But, I didn’t want my backpack at all. It’s an alien thing there and it had a few patches of flags sewn onto it… Lebanon, Nepal and Dengue. Pretty much telling everyone that I’m not from there! I carried it inside as quickly as possible and threw it under a window, since it would be a hot night.
No one seemed to notice anything though, in the general madness, everyone was taking care of themselves. Between pushing to find their luggage, securing a place to put it where they would also sleep that night and swarming to wash up with hoses, in the hot parking lot, I seemed to blend right in. I laid down with my head resting on my backpack exhausted from sickness, until the sun went down, then I discreetly went out and washed up too. When I came back in dinner was being served. What an operation! At least 100 people (more than one bus had stopped for the night) were packed into that small Chai Khana and everyone was being served at the same time. I sat down just in time to get my food which I tried hard to eat, but I had no appetite at all. I was still very sick and had forced myself to swallow a few mouthfuls.
After we finished our small pots of green tea and rolled up the eating mats I was ready for bed. It seemed that I was the only one tired though and I struggled to clear enough floor space to lay my turban (which was my bed) out. By the time I finally had laid it out and sat down on it, weak and ready for sleep, two bearded men sat directly across from me. I wasn’t very comfortable anyway, there were a lot of people around me talking and very close by, but the two men sitting across from me were unsettling. It was obvious that they were staring at me and all of their attention was focused on me. While that’s not uncommon, these two people didn’t look friendly or happy at all. I noticed big daggers, seemingly deliberately visible, under each of their shalwar kameez. It wasn’t instant, but it didn’t take me long to suspect that they may both be Taliban.
I had met a few Taliban in Pakistan, but luckily they were getting off of a bus and I was getting onto it. They were angrily questioning me, but they knew I really had to get on the bus that was leaving and didn’t bother me much. Beside that short encounter, I knew a few things about the Taliban. First, the word Talib means student and Taliban means students. When they took control of Afghanistan (with the exception of the northern part of the country, thanks to the Northern Alliance) one of their first laws was that men had to grow a beard. They wanted every man to have at least a fist full of beard hair, measured from their chin out. Secondly, they were easily identifiable by their long black turbans (together with their beards), sometimes kind of shiny. I hear they are changing their turbans now to avoid easy detection, but the two sitting in the room with me fit that exact description and I was in Kandahar. That realization got my adrenalin going and my heart thumping, suddenly I wasn’t very tired!
Their puzzled, slightly unfriendly expressions quickly turned to blatant dislike! I made eye contact and nodded my head upwards questioningly and they quickly fired a few questions at me. Over the past 19 months of continuous travel I had been in many positions that in a round about way, had prepared me for this, but never with angry Taliban. It’s a fairly common routine and basically consists of non-English speaking people asking loads of questions, which over time I had come to understand simply from the amount of times I’d been asked the same questions. They were usually curious, friendly and harmless people, that was the huge difference here. Still I was good at playing dumb when I wanted to. So, as they rattled off question after question, I stayed outwardly calm and kept saying I don’t understand. They seemed to be loosing patience and one got up, presumably, to look for someone who knew some English. Strangely, by the time the Talib came back with someone else, I was no longer nervous. The man they had found walked up to me and I stood to greet him with a hand over my heart and an “Asalam a lakem”.
Interpreter number 1 stood still in front of me for a minute, then searching for words, asked “how”, “hello” and “where” and that was all he could spit out. I wasn’t about to connect any dots for them! As long as I felt safe and they didn’t find a better interpreter than that, I would be completely clueless. With a serious, friendly expression I told them I don’t understand. Frustrated, the same Talib walked the man away only to return a couple of minutes later with someone else. I repeated the same greeting with interpreter number two, but this time he spoke much better English and it would have been understandable to anyone who spoke English. He started off by asking what religion I was. In the west it’s easy to say none, or that you’re an atheist, but with the exception of Judaism, that’s the worst answer you could give. I knew that already and didn’t hesitate to tell them I’m Christian. Evening prayers came and went and I didn’t participate, so they knew I wasn’t Muslim.
With that admission, I confirmed what the the Taliban had suspected all along. I was a Christian, a foreigner, I was dressed in their clothes, had dark skin and a beard twice as long as theirs, but was not a Muslim. I was a believer in the book, but not in Allah, or the Prophet Muhammad and now they wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing here. They looked at each other with a mixture of excitement and disgust. It was obvious once they realized I couldn’t understand their language, and they probably spoke more than one, that I wasn’t from Afghanistan, but now they would find out what country I was from and why I was there. If they found out I was American, or even from a NATO country, it would be bad, I wasn’t about to let that happen. The same way traveling for a year and a half straight had prepared me for their opening questions, it had also prepared me for my next line of questioning. After getting grilled in Nepal almost a year before this (on my Lang Tang trek) about the country I claimed to be from, I felt prepared and ready for the onslaught of questions that were sure to come.
As I tried to control my breathing and look outwardly calm, I was trembling. In a way I think the fact that I was so sick, helped me. I was too tired and sick to be as afraid as I should have, or would have been, when fully healthy. I smiled and complimented my interrogator on his English, no matter what was to happen, he was not my enemy. He thanked me and continued translating their questions – ” What country are you from?” “Why are you in Kandahar?” “Where did your bus come from?”. I already knew what I was going to say, that was an easy decision, but knowing how they would react was nerve wracking. I had no time to second guess myself, without hesitation I said “I’m from Dengue. I took this bus from Herot and it is continuing to Kabul tomorrow. I am only in Kandahar for one night.” They seemed not to hear anything after Dengue. “What is Dengue they said through their interpreter?” It’s my country, my home, I said. “What is Dengue? Where is it?” In between Swaziland and Lesotho, in South Africa, I answered and slowly reached around to uncover my backpack for proof. “There” I pointed. In between the other two patches was a flag of Dengue, the patch I designed and had made and sewn onto my backpack in Kathmandu, about a year before.
“Africa!” They all said and curiously they all seemed a little relieved. Although it answered their initial question, this confused them as well, they had never heard of Dengue, but could see right in front of them that the country existed, I had a flag. A small discussion began and the interpreter seemed to have no answers for them. Cleverly they asked me for my passport and I took a page from my encounter in Nepal. “It’s in the Pakistani embassy in Kabul. I’m getting a visa for Pakistan.” They all seemed to nod their heads in approval, then warmly and with both hands gripped their interpreters outstretched arm, the way they shake hands and sent him back to his family on the other side of the Chai Khana. The interpreter then wished me a safe journey and disappeared into the warm, heaving mass of people that overflowed from the from the undersized building.
I put my hand over my heart and smiled at the two Taliban. As the Adrenaline left my body, I laid back and was thankful that I was suddenly exhausted. I hoped for sleep, but was kept awake by the need to keep an eye on those two men who slept at my feet. That night I would get no sleep until they disappeared in early hours of the morning. Instead I would think about how lucky I was to get out of that sittuation. How blessed I was to still be on that floor, in that Chai Khana, sick and dehydrated and on my own, but safe… how happy I was that Dengue saved my life…