Afghan Memories

Afghanistan is one hell of a tough country. I remember my father talking about his experiences there a couple of years or so after World War II, when he was cruising around the hinterland looking for bones and stones. (He was an anthropologist and a student of human origins). Afghan sheepdogs, he said, were in a class by themselves for toughness and ferocity. He used to keep a heavy plumber’s pipe wrench handy because they’d attack him while he was being driven around in an open jeep, and that was what it took to beat them off.

A few years later, in 1956, my wife and I drove from Damascus to New Delhi, across Afghanistan, in a Ford station wagon. It was quite an adventure. We ran through thirteen tires and I learned a great deal about the innards of Ford engines. I’m still amazed we made it through at all, as there were few paved roads, rivers to ford, border posts manned by bored and incompetent louts, and all sorts of other hazards. Afghanistan was by far the worst part of the trip. Not only were there no paved roads (except at Kandahar), there were usually no roads at all, just desert track. But this isn’t the place for a complete trip report. I’ll just mention my initial impressions, as we crossed the border driving down from Meshed in Iran, on our way to Herat.

I was thinking about the old man’s pipe wrench tale as we crossed the border into Afghanistan. We were driving along a dusty dirt track along a desolate plain. Suddenly a big, ugly sheepdog sprang out from behind a bush and went for the Ford. I was going along at a fair clip, so even though I put on the brakes I ran right over the brute. The left front wheel went over his body, then the left rear wheel went over him and the bumper dragged him twenty feet before I could stop. “Great,” I thought, “I only crossed the border five minutes ago and I’ve already killed a dog.” Not at all. The mangy brute stood up, looked me in the eye, and started for the car again. He was limping, though, and decide to call it quits when I gunned the motor and took off, badly shaken.

I’d been swatting flies all through Iran, and had gotten pretty good at it. When I hit them solidly, that was it. They died. So help me, as soon as I crossed into Afghanistan, the flies didn’t die any more. I’d hit them a good hard smack and they’d come right back at me. This shook me up almost as badly as the dog incident.

The people looked like Old Testament prophets but they were great. Whenever my car broke down, the first truck to come along would always stop and help me. Officials and other Afghans who I met off the road invariably plied me with gallons of green tea. I finally, after about two weeks, made it all the way across to Torkham, at the Khyber Pass, and crossed the frontier into Pakistan. I recall wondering what was wrong with my car this time, it was so quiet, and realizing I was on a paved road. I swatted a fly and it died. Back to civilization.

Carl Coon 9/19/01

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