Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, "The Middle", Afghanistan)

...We had broken down in the middle of Afghanistan....

There was only one antidote to such a situation. Occupational therapy; the first move was to set up camp. I glanced around at the hostile landscape. About fifty yards to the left of the track was a skeletal, heat-twisted tree in the centre of a miniature rock amphitheatre, and, as all men instinctively search for some sort of enclosure at nightfall, we made a bee-line for it. With the sleeping-bags laid out on the still-warm scree, and a cheery blaze which was achieved by decimating the stunted tree, our position appeared a little better.

But, for all that, the outlook was exceedingly black: the scooter wheel had now seized completely and was locked solid. The whole unit was in a pitiful mess, accentuated by the escaped grease and thick dust which coated the entire rear of the machine. Only a new bearing would effect a complete repair. One hundred miles from the Afghan capital, our scooter had finally succumbed. It was understandable.

We had water, a small piece of the meat given by our tribesman that morning, and one water-melon. We reinforced the meat morsel with innumerable cups of tea, and sat by the dying embers of the fire to watch the moonlit track for any signs of something that might conceivably carry us and our broken-down vehicle into the capital. There must be a truck of some kind sooner or later. With some foreboding I hoped fervently it would be soon.
Most Afghan drivers prefer to cover their mileage at night but, of course, when we most needed it there was an uncanny dearth of transport. It is unusual, even in Afghanistan, for a whole night to pass on the main track between two major cities without some vehicle groaning past, with straining engine and turbaned driver bouncing fatalistically from rock to rock. But by eight o'clock the following morning what remained of our confidence had almost evaporated along with our water supply.

As another silent, blazing day began, I looked around at the wilderness and the bare hills and punctuated my chain-smoking with worried oaths at our misfortune. Nita seemed quite calm, spending hours trying to pin-point our exact position on the map. The day dragged on with infinite slowness and we felt ourselves to be the only living creatures in the world.

Late in the afternoon I climbed a nearby bluff to gaze at the deserted ribbon of track, willing something to disturb the empty, shimmering horizon. The situation was rapidly deteriorating. We could not sit beside the track indefinitely and remain alive.

At dusk, our anxious vigil was suddenly and mercifully brought to a close. A faint hum grew gradually louder and presently a vehicle, enveloped in its own dust cloud, drew slowly nearer. The smiles of delight on our faces froze, however, when the thing was close enough to be seen in detail. An ancient, crumbling relic, well-nigh impossible to describe, it wheezed along-miraculously under its own power-a truck which had to be seen to be believed.

Despite the disappointing appearance of this contraption, the thing was still mobile and our excitement at the thought of rescue was not dimmed. We blessed the Samaritan who slowed up and stopped at my frantic waving, and marvelled that this travelling junk-heap could traverse the savage country between Kandahar and Kabul.

The driver was a cheerful little Mongol, with a yellow, smiling face beneath a woolly astrakhan hat. His mechanic was a more villainous-looking individual, possibly having acquired his ferocious expression through dealing with a very sick piece of machinery. But, once again, appearance was deceptive. He took command of the situation in a trice; after he had shouted orders to half a dozen tribesmen who magically appeared from odd comers of the top-heavy shapeless mass, the whole lot disembarked to see the queer little machine which had to be hoisted on to the already groaning roof.

Somehow, with only a couple of crushed fingers here and there, the scooter was lifted on to the mountain of assorted luggage and lashed securely into position. Then, after the whole assembly had taken the opportunity to say prayers, Nita and I were jammed in beside the driver, the mechanic spat deliberately on his gnarled hands and swung the crank handle ferociously.

After several minutes' cranking, during which time we all watched with fascinated gaze as the mechanic's face turned various hues and his eyes began to bulge with the exertion, the engine lazily and teasingly caught on one cylinder, which was the signal for the driver to become galvanized into action. He hammered the accelerator pedal at a furious rate until all cylinders were more or less firing, engaged first gear with a herculean effort, and we were off.

The mechanic whipped out the starting-handle and flung himself frantically at the side of the truck, the driver being quite unperturbed at the man's plight, and about half a minute after we were under way the dust-smeared, monkey-like face with its shock of black hair appeared fleetingly, upside down, at the driver's window. All was well, and we settled down as best we could in the very cramped space.

As the incongruous home-made wreck trundled along I wondered whether we should not have waved our rescuers on and waited for something a little more roadworthy; but we were mobile at least and in spite of the awful pitching motion, which increased alarmingly as we hit consecutive pot-holes, we were now moving forward. With this much comfort I fell into a deep sleep, drugged with the combination of petrol fumes and vibrations.

For Nita, however, the luxury of sleep was denied. I awoke some three hours and sixty miles later, to find my wide-awake wife staring intently at the track ahead, throwing an occasional terrified glance at the swinging roof above. The impish Mongol driver was enjoying the situation enormously. On some of the more treacherous ravines and crevasses (which he bull-dozed with a display of nonchalance), he could not resist taking his eyes from the track to watch the reaction on Nita's face as we swooped down the acute gradients at a speed more suited to a Grand Prix racer than an archaic rattletrap. Aware of the driver's amusement, she endeavoured to maintain a bored gaze at the far horizon, but her worried expression reappeared with every hazard and was emphasized when we made our own road round washed-out bridges. Some of the river banks were horribly steep. The more Nita registered concern, the more the grinning driver was amused, until, on one frightful chasm, when he pulled out all the stops for a maximum effect, we hit the rocks at the bottom of the pit and promptly shattered the back-axle.

Then it was our turn to laugh-or would have been had the surroundings been more amenable. As it was we could only look daggers at the crestfallen driver and at the rear wheel, which now lay parallel with the rusty chassis. The rest of the passengers, dust-coated and muttering, disembarked again and wandered off to do a spot of praying.