Bottom of Page



The going up was worth the coming down

Kris Kristofferson, "The Pilgrim – Chapter 33," The Silver Tongued Devil and I, 1971; also featured in the movie Cisco Pike, 1972


Now this is a little more like it," pronounced Blackie, grandiloquently gesturing towards the square in front.

They had scored on the border, after clearing Immigration and while waiting in line for Customs. The presumption was that under those circumstances one would get ripped off. They probably had been ripped off. Given the quantity, quality and price, however, it was hard to complain. Indeed, after sampling, it was virtually impossible. It was presumably no coincidence that the Customs officials were also moving in something of a slow-motion haze that one might suspect was not entirely unconnected to the same kind of self-imposed handicap against the speedy processing of applications that was slowing down some of their clientele.

Some obnoxious straight arrow from München-Gladbach had the effrontery to complain about the hanging around, so his baggage was taken apart and his toiletries subjected to ridicule. He wouldn't take the hint and pull out his wallet so after about half an hour the game got old and he was waved through. He had difficulty repacking and got a hard time from the driver for holding up the bus. This confused him and he spent about half an hour trying to find someone who would listen to his sad tale but no one was that dumb and finally he shut up.

When the going gets weird, the weird get into it. Finally Blackie and Whitey had reached one of the legendary places where you could kick back and get high and no one gave a shit. It had been a hard week, damn it, they deserved the rest. They hung out, drank tea, rolled 'em and smoked 'em and shared 'em, and passed the time soaking up the psychic landscape. It was a great movie with an authentic location, starring an imported cast of dozens and featuring a nameless mob of colorful local men and a faceless crowd of black-veiled beings thought to be women. The outside reality was just too much to handle at first; the foreground by-play presented plenty to chew on. Conversation waxed and waned but there were always ripples of interaction to read. Traditional village entertainment: Stare at the neighbors. All the more fun when they're moving on and won't be around to complain.

The German time and motion expert had a plan that got him to Agra in time for the next full moon and took the next available overnight to Kabul. Unfortunately, he picked up a nasty case of amœbic dysentery, perhaps from brushing his teeth too often, and spent an agonizing week in and out of the hotel toilet before trying to escape by eating opium to seal himself up and freewheeling down the Khyber in an ancient jalopy; he gave up and flew home from Karachi, married a drop-out from ballet school and eventually became the first vice-president in his company to vote Green, although he kept it quiet, but that's another story.

Two Aussie boy scouts from Brisbane blinked a bit, circled the wagons and also decided to push on, waiting just long enough to lose the Kraut. They'd done the Official Grand Tour of the Mother Country, complete with dutiful round of European ruins and museums and the standard love/hate relationship to Earl's Court, where the plethora of familiar accents attracted and repelled them in alternating and roughly equal degrees. They believed in sport and sunshine and the promise of a prosperous Queensland and thought these Asians were pretty decent sorts to visit, really, as long as you kept your eye on them.

Every day new pilgrims appeared at the caravanserai, a polyglot potpourri of miscellaneous misfits, as the men who were then trying to make Nixon and Agnew seem intelligent, or at least fit for polite company, might have put it.* Heading west were the hollow cheeks, some of them sick and most of them in a hurry. Herat was a 22-hour ride from Kabul but if you timed it right you could catch a border bus without a break and pour yourself onto an overnight to Teheran, which in theory arrived early enough for you to head north-west to Turkey that same day, fueled by nan and greasy goat stew, numbed by fatigue and cultural overload into accepting the mystery of almighty movement and collapsing into transcendence. Saving on hotels, too.

The eastbound gang were less goal-oriented and tended to stick around longer. In one view, they had reached their mark – if India was the Grail, the symbolic destination of the trip, the endorsed Afghan visa was the badge of the serious traveler – while at the same time they knew they had just been limbering up and this was where the serious adventure started. This was unfair to the major potential for weirdness, danger, dope and stimulation of the last couple of thousand miles of their journey, not to mention such frightening potential side-trips as jaunts to Damascus or Baghdad, but it pointed to part of the game that people didn't always want to cop to. They wanted strange and they wanted safe, they wanted weird and they wanted to invent their own familiarity. They wanted their own playground, and the western grown-ups, who had wrestled for centuries with the unconquerable uniqueness of India, had never taken over Nepal or Afghanistan. Thailand, the other notably uncolonized nation, was already pandering to pricks on R 'n' R from Vietnam (not from Cambodia, no sir, not from Laos neither) and well on the way to its ugly reputation as the world's red light district. In later years, Nepal would rent its mountains and risk its soul, and the Khyber would again be filled with ambushes and firefights as its people were dragged once more into the ancient games surrounding Russia's desire for a warm-weather port and access to the Persian Gulf, but as the first hopeful bloom of the seventies spread over the east, there was innocence abroad in the starkness of the desert and the mountains.

It was a beautiful canvas.

For the really neat visuals, you had to look at the French. They wanted an audience, that was obvious, and the least you could do was to oblige. Vogue is not merely a magazine, it is a national obsession, but sociologists disagree as to whether this is a cause or an effect. Proponents of the view that the French breed the world's extremists cite the global acceptance of the derisive term 'bourgeois' and the reactionary phrase 'épater la bourgeoisie' – as translation, 'to shock the middle class' misses that je ne sais quoi, that nuance, the subtle shading of sensitivity that sets the French apart, at least in their own estimation – as evidence that the Gallic temperament, when not more phlegmatic than really necessary, evinced a predisposition to shock that stretched back to Rousseau and beyond. Perhaps this is why so many of them turned to smack. The sins of theft and social ugliness in the traveling community were generally ascribed to 'French junkies' of any nationality or addictive tendency.

Surely this couldn't have been Anglophone prejudice? The youth of France tended to follow their elders in their exaggerated insistence on maintaining their native language instead of speaking English like normal people. It was quite strange. After all, if you weren't lucky enough to be taught English at home, there were always schools. The ex-colonial Asians did very well, the Dutch were usually spot on, the Scandinavians not far behind, even the Germans, with their tendency the verb at the end to gutturally put, could make themselves understood. Why on earth the snail-eating dandies from the wrong side of the Channel wouldn't buckle down and learn to talk properly was quite incomprehensible to most of the Brits, Yanks and Australasians to be found wandering the highway in South Asia, where the lingua franca (an Italian expression, be it noted in passing) was English. Pure snobbery was the only explanation. It was past time the Frogs got with the modern world.

Probably no one mouthed this nonsense consciously, but to an extraordinary extent the sins of the parents, on both sides, continued to visit my-my-my-generation. Why don't they all f-f-fade away?

Whether the French freaks were into fashion statements or in-your-face agitprop, they weren't dumb. They toned it down through Turkey and Iran and blossomed into their finest glory in Quetta, if they went the southern route, or else in Herat. The winter was hard, a time for keeping warm and heading south as soon as the passes were clear, and the summer was too hot for comfort, but the spring and autumn were exactly right for clothes as adornment, jewelry as costume, bodies for painting and all the world a stage.

Afghanistan, for obscure reasons that may have had something to do with cheap and ineffective foreign aid of the sort that makes it more blessed to give than to receive, if only because of the tax deductions, was the used clothing store of the world. What the Salvation Army couldn't get rid of at home, it seemed, they shipped off to Kabul, where wily merchants palmed it off on their country cousins. Feminine frocks and polyester pantsuits may or may not have been a hit in the harem – one assumes that the little basic black with pearls would have been considered de trop behind the veil but who knows – but mix-and-match masculine clobber was a great success on the street, where the combinations were interesting even to denizens of the King's Road and Carnaby Street.

The army-surplus greatcoat was a practical and popular item, in Chelsea as in Qandahar, and the Londoners would have loved to accessorize it with the bandoleer, loaded with live ammo, and even possibly the calf-tight, crotch-comfortable cotton pants; they would generally, however, have drawn the line at sandals in the snow, and certainly at shapeless suits rejected even by Witnesses on their Watchtower rounds. Button flys were still common but buttons apparently scarce, or considered of questionable utility, so where suit trousers were worn (mostly on formal occasions for the benefit of foreigners) it was not unusual to see the tail of a traditional vast shirt flying proudly forward beneath the belt. Ties, if they ever accompanied the glad rags, tended to the conceptual, in sketchy approximation of the ideal of the Champs Elysée. The variations on western costume looked satirical and often ridiculous. The people wearing them did not. The gear was cheap and practical and available and of little consequence. A man was a man because that was what he was and what of it?

Should a man, then, choose to invent a wardrobe, why look askance? Every culture has its absurdities, from high heels to starched collars, or from nose-rings to pre-faded jeans. Try explaining to an inescapably poor person why funky is chic; if they catch on to the style of it, try explaining why destroying something in order to sell it as new is good business; if they get that, try putting your rap to some socially useful purpose that needs it, like advocating an end to the weapons industry, for surely you are blessed with the gift that selleth snake-oil in the reptile cage.

In the bazaars of Herat and Kabul, anything you could imagine could be found or fabricated. Besides the pre-owned (and soon-to-be-stonewashed in the river) clothes, there were bolts of cloth, wonderful examples of embroidery, wools and leathers dyed by hand (dubious when wet, for lack of curing) or imported in bulk (perhaps without strict attention to the technical requirements of customs), and plenty of cross-legged tailors with ancient foot-powered Singer sewing machines to assemble the outfit. If you came, they would build it.

Following the French down the road of self-expression through costume, but on the whole much more accessible as individuals, were the Italians. They tended to display their elegant nipples, through curly black chest hair in the case of the males or insouciant shifts for the females (who may have been hardened by the lechers of Rome but soon learned the value of shawls and such for exploring outside of the hotel walls in Muslim countries), and show off silver on their wrists and necks and ears, but laughed at their own pretensions. They were having a high old time and didn't they know it.

A little proof for the capitalist universe: Practically none of the freaks headed home with a penny in their pockets, except for the seriously sick (most of whom tried to hit up the embassy for repatriation). Herat and east wasn't a picnic, to be sure, and it wasn't a vacation either, it was a trip and the only way to take it was all the way out. The cheaper the living, the longer the ride. There were boring conversations aplenty to be had about cheaper rooms and cheaper meals and cheaper ways to hustle back from Z to A, and most people succumbed to that dreary temptation. No one wanted the trip to be over.

Were they having fun yet?

Betcha bottom dollar they were.

*William Safire, who wrote "the nattering nabobs of negativism" for the only Veep ever to be forced to quit, moved on to a New York Times column that actually influenced foreign policy in the eighties, while Pat Buchanan, his contemporary as a running dog jackal of the only Pres ever to be forced to quit, ran for President in '92 complaining that the century's most vicious American practitioner of class warfare had betrayed their cause. Then he did it twice more! And some people wonder at the consistency of the U.S. moral collapse over the three decades after My Lai.