Friday, June 30, 2006


An innocent white line painted across the pavement divides, in the famed Wagha border, Pakistan from India. It is possible to speak about these countries as different entities only from 1948 onwards, when the former British India split up in three independent states, when the former British India split up in three independent states including the mentioned ones and Bangladesh. In the case of Pakistan and India, the “Partition” had a religious background, and the newborn countries found themselves edging battle almost from the beginning over the bordering northern region of Kashmir, whose valleys are populated by Muslims in a ratio of 92%. Even if the Wagha border is way far from the red zone, one would expect to find the parsimony of two nations that guard each other as wounded snakes. Instead, the two wedding clad officials stuck at each side of the white stripe chit chat fluently and are even happy of having their pictures taken. More significantly, both border corps merge each afternoon in a border closing ceremony where the choreography comes to symbolize them. Ironically, the Pakistani secret services continue to fund a petty terrorist attack scheme in Srinagar and Jammu.

Some meters on the other side, with a new stamp on the passport, a boar welcomes me into the “largest democracy on Earth”, undoubtedly referring to the figures rather than to the magnitude of such representation. Personally, when crossing the magic line I realized that I wasn’t arriving to Real India, the physic substrate of statistics, but to the concept India, to the remote lands where the first books –the Vedic scriptures- were written, to the mist that threaded Sanskrit – mother of almost European languages. Through millennia India has worked as hidden sender of wisdom, as a supernova whose energy reaches us well after its conception. Knowledge was for some time an endemic creature of India: while Europeans were sharpening their axes someone near the Ganges was designing the intricacies of chess. Moreover, the idea that the universe is a mere illusion to our minds unfolded from local sages centuries before Descartes and Schopenhauer started to crawl. The umbilical cord may seem invisible today, but quite a few people suspect that Jesus himself studied Yoga and meditation in India during his uncharted days. On the demon’s side, and racist as they were, the Nazis ended up excavating their origins in the Himalayans, as attested by several SS led political archeological expeditions poorly portrayed in the film “Seven years in Tibet”.

Having listed these attractive connections, I must say my first steps in Amritsar drove me back from the Concept India to Real India, where slow, obese, elder cows block for minutes the fishy stream of rickshaws that no traffic lights could punctuate, and where unworried men and women find comfortable sleep in walk paths and roadsides. Temporarily, attributing the excessive spontaneity with which life occurs in India to an unconsciously professed nihilism seems pushing things too hard. Overpopulation may explain the issue, if less charmingly, more accurately.

Busy with these thoughts I made it to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab’s premier cty. All travelers on East to West traffic had informed me of the possibility of lodging for free in the fabulous temple of the Sikhs. Introducing the Sikhs: opposed to the ever calm Hindu, Sikhs considered violence necessary to defend themselves from invading Muslims. Sikhism spiritual life centers on the Golden Temple, an extensive complex of temples and ashrams aligned at the shores of an artificial marbled edged square lake in the center of which, and linked by a catwalk, lies the bright, golden laminated, main shrine. With the rhythm of religious music (gunbali) as a pass maker, thousands of pilgrims, some arrived from as far a field as the US or England (where rich Sikh communities reside) walk around the lake day and night. Telling an Hindu from a Sikh is really easy. The later are reluctant to cut any of the capillary emanations of the body, which results in Afghan like beards, and cover their hair with a unique turban called padgi. Theoretically, they all should carry a curved knife by the side, thank God just for decoration these days. One of the temple guards, for example, parades himself proudly dressed in neon orange turban and deep blue one piece garment, as he discretely dispenses stick beats to those falling asleep during prayers. Coming from the chromatic sobriety of the Muslim world I have the impression of having swallowed a hallucinogen

Seated cross legged by the lake I was approached by a young guy dressed in a brown shaggy gown. “Excuse me… are you a saint?” “Negative. Why do you think so?” – I replied. “Because of your dreadlocks!” Rajan was a graduated from a Philosophy College in the South of India wandering in search of enlightenment. He had been crossing India by train in all conceivable directions for over three months. Before getting the point that I was hitch hiking for pleasure, Rajan suggested that, looking like a saint, I could use the trains for free. For I moment I overlooked the possibility, and smiled at the idea of adding a saint ID to the passport and the fake student card. We spent many hours discussing about Hinduism (he, speaking; me, learning) and the veil of Maya… “Today people believe too much in the propaganda of reality” – commented Rajan as we looked for our place in the temple where 40,000 portions of food are served daily, attesting to the Sikhs vocation for hospitality. There were around 300 people in the room, aligned at both sides of a carpeted way where colorful servants passed by, refilling each plate aerially and almost without breaking the march. As food is served all day round, also teams of men and women can be seen ringing tones of onions at any time while, in a similar premise, a similar bunch wash and pile hundreds of metallic dishes. After each banquet, another party, armed with buckets and brushes, storms in. With an un Asian degree of precision the room is ready to welcome new hundreds of anxious dinners a few minutes later.

After feeding ourselves we continued our conversation lying n the garden’s grass. Reality was unsubstantial; we had reached agreement on that point. I tried to remember what I had done on a random date, say July 16th, 2005. Impossible. Even if it didn’t evidently transcended, chances are that day I woke up with a feeling of urgency, hopes and programs. No track however of July 16th, 2005. Vanished from the wheel of cosmos. My wise friend prescribes local Hindu medicine (seldom used by Hindus tough): “Mindfulness of each second, grain of rice or smile. Avoid chains of actions with long term sense. But enough philosophy, let’s go for a good plate of water” And his exclamation was correct and literal, amid such frugality it was possible to talk about a good plate of water, as reposed over a desk by a pious Sikh. Rajan had successfully rescued me from Real India. I was floating in th Concept India again.

I knew that hitch hiking out of a large Indian city meant exposure to unwanted offers from rickshaws drivers. The first ten who opted to park their hellish machines by my side (thus blocking the sight corridor between me and the coming cars) benefited by an early and unfruitful attempt of cultivating patience. Number eleven, instead, saw his rickshaw stolen by the hitch hiker. With a puzzled passenger in the backseat, I pedaled 500 meters to a much quieter location, much to the driver’s surprise, now half a mile distant and shouting. Excluding this initial stressful scenario in Amritsar, the rest of the trip to Dharamsala, en the Himalayan foothills, was a swift concatenation of private air conditioned cars and local “Tata” trucks, which come with Shiva altar as factory feature in the center of the windscreen. Fleeing the tyrannical heat of the plains I bypassed Dharamsala and made it to McLoed Ganj, formerly a hill station for the India residing British aristocracy, who quickly discovered that no fan was enough to cool down Delhi n the summer months. Being McLoed Ganj synonym with Tibetan exiled government (which includes the Dalai Lama) the character of the town is no less defined by the presence of hundreds of hippies from 5 to 80 years of age, embarked altogether in a different sort of exile. When I arrived, the sundown was already limiting my curiosity. Only the following morning would I start to navigate the labyrinthic network of searches which is McLoed Ganj and the Kangra Valley.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Five years ago, excited by the success of my first hitch hiking trip around Europe, I had written an email to my best friend in Argentina describing the adventure briefly. He had replied: “…and I am really happy that our beloved “thumb method” works also in the old continent, where in 1941 you could get a lift in a Panzer, and in 900 with a caravan of enraged camels. The epic episode of hitchhiking to a passing convoy of German tanks had remained ever since in the vault of dreams, until Afghanistan proposed a valid substitution. I was hitching out the outskirts of Kabul towards Jalalabad, in the Pakistani border. Initially, the front sun and the ever present dust allowed seeing only the hexagonal contours emerging ghostly. A second later, the German flag became visible, along with the white riveted black cross that stands for the Bundeswehr: it was a column of German armored vehicles on patrol. I pulled out my thumb, more as an acknowledgment than as a serious attempt to stop them. A bit confused –in shock- the driver waved at me. If the strong foreign military presence in the area did not intimidate me, I started to pay more attention as the local kids welcomed me replicating with the index finger the triggering of a gun. And this meant: “Welcome to Pashtunistan!” the tribal Pashtun are that extends on both sides of the relatively new Afghani-Pakistani border raw by the British a century ago, today a porous border permeable to smugglers and terrorists of varying lineage.

At the sight of this scenario I felt nothing but relax when I came across a camp of the road police, and the officer in charge of the road block, who spoke English and Russian, address to me with a “My dear! Come in the office please” It was the first of a series of charity actions by the police that week. As snooker balls that shoot each other, I was going to be passed on until Peshawar, my final destination in Pakistan. Of course, the office meant the tent, where another officer, of higher rank, seated behind a desk, cashed in a mysterious road tax from truck drivers who left the place mumbling references to Allah. Corrupt policemen are a classic grief for all travelers, but in this case I exited the tent with my stomach full, Pakistani pocket money, and a free ride to Jalalabad, where I arrived in the Hi Ace van the boarded me in. Jalalabad marked the entrance in a new climatic zone, technically known as “damned hot”, without stepping out of the Taliban risk zone, it also encompasses the risk of malaria. A great junction.

In Jalalabad I slept in the police station. The commander and his secretary, anxious to practice their English, honored me with a dinner at their fan ventilated room. Next morning they boarded me to the border in a typically Pakistani truck, excessively decorated with its wooden panels featuring landscapes, houses, women’s faces and prosperity amulets of various kinds among which, significantly, a Pepsi logo had found its way. At the end of the ride I was in the mythical Khyber Pass, a land of bandits even in the local’s regard. The pass itself is disappointingly low (only 1080 m), deservedly unnoticed behind an amorphous bazaar that sprawls under mediocre peaks. To spice up the peak was enough to remember that the road to Peshawar is considered by some to be the most dangerous in the world. When the Pakistani official heard I had come by foot, he twisted his mouth. When he heard I was ready to continue on foot, he almost literally fell from his chair. With a veritable shout he called in a young soldier with a machine gun. It was my personal escort! I explained that the soldier looked very elegant but I had no budget for Rambo, since I was expected to pay for my protection. In any case, I said, the soldier was welcome to hitchhike with me to Peshawar. As no officer wants to be responsible for the death of a foreigner in his jurisdiction (and no soldier wants to hitch hike) I also exited the customs room with a free van ride to Peshawar. And seated next to me, Rambo!

From the pass, the road zigzags down for 53 km before reaching Peshawar. After each bend, it became warmer. Parallel to the road, occasionally, the rail line could be seen. To install railways in this eternally lawless region, the British had to seduce local Pashtun chieftains by promising them that the train would roll slow enough to be assaulted. The sign that says: “Khyber Rifles welcomes you” suggests that the mood in the neighborhood has changed little. I had to meet Dustin, a North American aid worker, in Peshawar’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. Despite Pakistanis, as any ex British colony, speak reasonable English, the instructions of the first person led me to a dark alley full of live, caged chicken…

I stayed two days in Peshawar, before hitting the road again aiming to cross the country towards India. I will zoom in Pakistan later in the summer, as I expect to enter China through Pakistan’s Karakorum Highway. So for the first time in a while I was moving through grounds where there was no reward for my head, and that was something to appreciate. As was the heavenly sent three lanes motorway, a real bless after the always off road Afghanistan. Moreover, a steady flow of cars (yes, private cars!) not only UN vehicles, trucks and taxis, dashed by. With 40ºC, I didn’t complain when this air conditioned cars started to pull by gently, their drivers stopping now and then to invite a cold drink by the road side. In spite of independence, high class Pakistanis display, in their politeness, standards, and self image, the stigma of the British Empire. When I asked one of my drivers, a textile businessman who was taking me to Faisalabad, if that city was big, he replied: “It’s is the Manchester of Pakistan, the heart of textile industry” So he still looks in an old mirror. The driver of a spotless Corolla, instead, when asked about his profession, he surprised for his originality and sincerity, and replied: “I don’t work. My father dedicates to money laundry in Saudi Arabia”. From the air conditiones Corolla the back of a truck with two oxen, and on in another truck –in the cabin this time- to Lahore, where I arrived at dusk, having completed 450 km since the morning. Being at shouting distance from the Indian border I called it a day, and phoned Riaz, a local member of Hospitality Club there.

“No problem –said Riaz unworried- I am dinning with a friend at the Holidays Inn’s restaurant. You are invited” In this way, straight out from the road, considerably filthy, I flagged down a rickshaw, announced my destination proudly, and 20 minutes later I was arriving, heralded by the explosions of rickshaw’s exhaust, to the all marble and golden foyer of the luxury hotel. With no ferry to turn my proletarian tricycle in a chariot or Lexus 4x4, the confused steward barely let me in. Fully equipped as a moonwalker I made it to the table where Riaz was serenely chatting with his friend, a politician who had just landed from the UK, where he had interviewed Pakistan’s former prime minister. In such a celestial setting I couldn’t do less than apologizing for my spontaneity, and sited own. Averaging half dinner, Riaz asked me where I was planning to stay overnight. “Well, in your house”. Misunderstanding, misunderstanding! The good man had omitted that his sister and nephews were visiting so he had no free beds at home. “But no problem – he anticipated- There is a YMCA hostel near by. We boarded his friend’s Land Cruiser (“Pakistan’s most expensive car! –he said proudly) towards the hostel, which was closed. Then, my “host” hided his sight stretched my hand, said sorry, and protected himself behind the dark windows of Pakistan’s most expensive car’s.

The park seemed to be waiting for me, with a show of Sufi music. A bearded man in white tunic makes place for me in his bench. “Why are you here?” –he goes. I explained him. In the curious English of the subcontinent, he replied: “Oh, so you are here for sleeping purpose! Don’t mention it, come to my house!” Sajid lived in a student’s residence, because even if he looked older than me he was actually four years younger, and studied Laws in Lahore. The common room of the residence lacked all furniture. At its center there was a PC, and some hundred books scattered around as if intending to eat it. There was everything among these, from Chomsky to an anachronic book about the “rational spirit of socialism” in which pages you could see a picture of two blond guys repairing some radio equipment, and the legend “Kaunas Technical University”. Sajid and Kaswar, his friend, were two men at the edge of their society. “Which is the meaning of life?” –he repeated once and again. I declared that I didn’t know, but I knew many things that were not. “Shall we be materially productive?” – Kaswar essayed. Somehow, submerged in a society where one has to buy a Corolla and a wife (yes, buy) before becoming thirty, these guys had managed to realize that happiness and material progress are two different wheels. Curiously, Pakistan’s high class, who would always claim to be moralist, suggests their children a path in which family seems a mere added value, an effervescence of time, a fermentation of money. OK, also in Europe I have met guys who, running after the Porsche, have lost their wives, children and got an ulcer. While we talked, two lizards on the wall were acrobatically trapping the insects which happened to be in the wrong place on the wrong time. Sajid improvised a joke: “One day Moses, disturbed, came to God and demanded: God! What is the meaning of the lizard? Why did you create it? God replied: “Curious! The lizard was here yesterday, and asked for the meaning of Moses!” Meaning. Sense. Perspective. I diluted in sleep happy to have met two alert minds in a country of automats.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Notice: to read the full story, have a look at my book "Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan". Clic here to learn more. Order a book and keep me on the road!

As if life wasn’t hard enough in Chaghcharan, the precarious capital of Ghor province in Central Afghanistan, a sandstorm sweeps across town every day at dusk with the commitment of a comet. At those hours its unpaved streets are all exodus: Land Cruisers, turbaned men, and bony dogs all head for their garages, houses or shelters, among the metallic drums of doors slammed by the wind.

Also at those hours, Morgan, Jeffrey and John, the North American volunteers in whose place I stayed for four days, do the thanksgiving prayer for their dinner. In Northern Ireland I had already learnt that protestant people talk to God as if they were talking to Axel Rose¨¨…and thanks men for this great food, I mean, your are really a great dude…¨ And so on. The same God that had created molasses (a terribly tasting spread from the Southern States, derived from sugar cane and masochism) had booked place for them in contemporary Afghanistan.

´Do you know that the Taliban are carrying on attacks near Ghazni? ¨ - I asked Morgan trying to find out what their strength was made of. He didn’t know anything. ¨Since we got here we haven’t been in touch with the news, we don’t want to live in panic¨

To the eyes of the North American troops deployed in Afghanistan, Morgan and his fellows are kind of weird. While the soldiers get paid 3,000dollars a month to come here, these guys are here out of their plain own will, they get just a volunteer’s allowance, and parade their Caucasic features round the local bazaar everyday without bullet proof jacket. All the political conflict is clearly for them a background issue, second to the more important question of: ¨Are we producing a difference here? ¨‘asks himself in loud voice Morgan while we walk up and down the bazaar looking for someone selling unrotten tomatoes. And the situation can work as metaphor.

It is extremely difficult to help the Afghan people. After 30 years of fighting invaders and each other, these people has developed a ¨for my own sake ethic. Afghans, against al of my expectations, are ostensibly ungrateful to the crusade of international assistance organized solely in their favor. This has nothing to do with any resentment for the military foreign intervention in 2001 (the Taliban were indeed as foreigners in much of Afghanistan as the made in USA). Neither we are talking about some reflex proud triggered by the presence of hordes of civilizing white men. It’s more basic.

Generally speaking, Afghans seem dedicated to manipulate the international community, to squeeze it and extract from it as much economic profit as possible before they live or some new fundamentalism starts to sharpen their swords. The difference between what UN technicians and what Afghan workers get in salaries also led some locals to think, in the best case, that these individuals should be financially responsible for local problems. In other cases they even think that Afghan problems derive from this difference of wealth, as if the Afghan government would be paying their expenses.

In a neighboring village, a foreign technician designed a scheme according to which each family should pay a dollar a month to buy a generator that would ever since be collectively owned by the village. To which the chief of the village laughed and said: ¨You have more money than us, you should buy the generator¨. In different cases, village chieftains and warlords have required bribes to NGOs to have the right to improve the life of the people under their influences. Of course, this warlords are noble Muslim that pray loudly in public and are worthy of every vow. This is the main battle that the non-soldiers have to fight daily in nowadays Afghanistan. Who point out that there is no national identity in this country is right. I would go as far as saying that Afghanistan is an illusion plotted by cartographers. People here feel Heratis or Kandaharis, Tajik or Pashto, from this valley or from the next one, loyal to mujahedeen Massoud or to Dostam, but never Afghans.

Friday was big day in Chaghcharan, the anniversary of the victory of the local mujahedeen over the Russians in 1989. From each valley a steady flow of anxious men had flowed to attend the centerpiece of the celebration, the bushkashi, deservedly national sport of Afghanistan, 40 riders fighting to grab and hurl decapitated goat and don’t stay on their way! From Marco Polo onwards, it has been said that the game is a portrait of the Afghan soul. The plain next to the river had become something of a circus. The people, crowded as a polymer, was demanding the end of the less than coordinated side shows, which were by the way overlapping each other. The female crowd, up in the hill, was distinguishable from a far afield: their burkas turned them into a blue spot in the landscape. The riders were, in the interlude, trotting up and down the streets of the town.

In the center of it all, in a postcard that would have kept context 300 years ago, Gintaras Azubalis, the commander of the Lithuanian led PRT base (Provincial Reconstruction Team) was sitting Indian style next to Shah Abdul Afzali, the Governor of the province. There seemed to be little or none conversation among the two men, and the Lithuanian looked particularly bored. I wonder how he was feeling surrounded by 5,000 Afghans and, more worryingly, 40 bushkashi riders.

A hundred meters away two armed-to-teeth Lithuanian soldiers emerge from the roof of their vehicles. They provide logistic support as they chew gum and complain about the abrasive heat. Until 1989 Lithuania and Afghanistan shared their status of Soviet occupied territory. Now Lithuanian troops, in a funny twist of history, patrol Central Afghanistan. With some perspective it can be said that, by peacekeeping in Afghanistan, Lithuania is paying its historical debt with such country. What debt? Events are too fresh, but an increasing number of people attribute the fall of the Soviet Block partly to the catastrophic 9 years long Russian intervention in Afghanistan. In other words, more than a ¨Singing Revolution¨ it would have taken hadn’t it been for so much Afghan spilt blood.

When the commander withdrew from the game we crossed words, and I got my authorization to visit the base. I got there by foot, just in the same moment a cargo C-140 was taking off. Judging by the comfort you can also take Chagcharan for the transitory camp around the PRT base, and not, as it is, vice versa. Once inside, the first thing to call my attention is a board signposting distances to some Lithuanian cities: “Vilnius 3800 km”, catering more for the lads’ nostalgia than to the occasional lost driver.

I am accompanied into a large tent where there are six people typing in their laptops. One of them is the representative of the US government, a man with an apostolic beard that looks more like a retired writer. Next to him, the chief-in-exile of the Lithuanian Police, in his coiffed-and-manicured presence, seems straight out of the gym, with his muscles pumped as if he had just lifted the whole base. There are also representatives of the Danish and Icelandic troops. Two men stand up and show me the way to a second tent, where the commander is waiting us with his smoking coffee.

The commander is a man from Alitus, a city I had noticed on my map as I was thumbing my way down the E-67 from Lithuania to Poland, but where I hadn’t happen to visit. The other two men, Danius and Aleks, were going to speak more than the commander, who would basically limit himself to observe how inappropriate the term “Provincial Reconstruction Team” was. “We are here to rebuild the institutions of the country, not its bridges”. Nevertheless, Aleks, who is in charge of the humanitarian aid department, almost sheds a tear while he relates with a musical and soft voice the donation of toys collected in Lithuania to a local orphanage. Confusingly as an orchestra with two directors, Danius, chief of political affairs, interrupts him and says, in a simultaneously serious and playful tone: “that’s a side show to gain some hearts, we are here to provide security”.

The commander finished his coffee and, smiling, showed off the badge on his shoulder: “Welcome to the moon” it read. I understand him, Lithuania’s everlasting imprint were not the arid deserts separating Kaunas from Vilnius but... the moon? That’s a bit too much. I am sure he wouldn’t show the badge to the governor of the province, I mean, to the governor of the moon. Especially because some Afghans believe that the moon is a woman and as such no man has ever, or will ever, touch her, let alone land there.

On the way out, I was guided to the canteen, where a table displayed a whole choice of cereal bars, snickers, Gatorade, ice creams. There were enough snacks there to spoil Buda himself. ‘Everything is paid for, take the chance!” –said my guide. So I found myself kind of shoplifting in the NATO base, not a bad way of breaking the monotone and proteinless road biscuit diet.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Another moment I will not forget easily was walking by a Kuchi nomads and their camels. I was leaving the town of Dowlat Yar on foot, waiting for some truck to roar by when I saw a confusing shape growing in the horizon. I could barely see, for the sun was still low. The amorphous stain rapidly changed into a more meaningful configuration: two nomads and their camels. When they get close I could see their camels were decorated with red pompoms and mirrors hanging from their heads. The rustic leather chairs they use for mounting the beasts make me think things shouldn’t have been that different 200 years before. I had left my backpack on the floor, but I soon lift and fit it, and walk by them. I feel the spiritual need to share a piece of road with some of the lasts nomads on Earth.

We exchange more smiles than words, since I don’t speak Pashto and they don’t speak Farsi or English. For the nomad, the fabulous creature was me, astonishment crew his smiles. His forehead wrinkled under his whitewashed turban. My feet, his, and the camel’s ones, beat on the dusty Afghan road the drum of a very peculiar caravan: that of a nomad towing his camel, and a modern globetrotter with a backpack and a blog… With such different lives, certain settings make me feel closer to him than to any of my non traveller friends: we both spend a huge amount of time in our lives watching the horizon, that slim line always pregnant of surprises… I regard that moment one of the most meaningful and peaceful ones.


Notice!: to read the full story, have a look at my book “Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan”. Clic here to learn more. Order a book and keep me on the road!

So I hit the road towards Bamian, town that became sadly famous in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the biggest Buda statues in the world. Morgan had given me Justin’s telephone number. Justin was another North American who worked as volunteer in agriculture related projects. I was carrying two letters for him, which had arrived five months before from Taiwan and U.S to Herat but in the absence of a credible post service to Bamian had got stacked there.

While my parents and uncles expected me to become a successful lawyer, I had dreamt of becoming a postman. Now, in Afghanistan, I was not going to let the chance go. I designed my own stamps though. They showed a white thumbing hand framed by a yellow square and said: “By Thumb mail”.

Having a mission also attenuated the fact that I was 4 days away from Bamian. The start was slow. I walked to Pozelek village and sat by the road side to smoke my pipe. I started singing alone to a Fito Paez song: ” I like to be by the roadside, smoking as everything passes by...” And three black cows and their shepherd boy marched into scene. Then a man in a motorcycle carrying a rifle. Then I remembered that the commander had warned me of some warring tribes between Chagcharan and Lal. So I skipped lines and sang “...the breeze of Death dwells around as an assassin angel.” But something that day made me tremble with happiness. Or I was sitting in a bad position.

The Kamaz truck that finally put me in motion crossed the rivers by just driving in and sticking the wheels to a diagonal direction so as to correct the pulling force of the stream. The lights of the truck, barely over the water level as the eyes of a hippopotamus. I made it to Dowlat Yar by dusk. Somebody interrupted the village’s teacher in mid-prayer to tell him there was an American in town. Azis was an educated man from Kabul who not only hosted me but also gave me a history class in good English.

I had asked why half of the houses were destroyed. It followed that, during the Russian occupation, people in the Southern riverside were educated and received support from the Russian authorities. People on the “other side” received, instead, support and bribes from US and Pakistan. The deal: they should destroy their southern neighbors. The schools were special targets –regrets Azis- since somehow the people from the other side –and millions across Afghanistan- had been brainwashed to believe that studying implied abandoning Islam. This shows in a microcosmic level, how irresponsible Western intervention in Afghan affairs let a fertile ground for the upcoming Taliban.

Another interesting point about Dowlat Yar is its bazaar. ¨Why are there so many closed shops? ¨ I asked. ¨Well, opium harvest time hasn’t arrived yet. In a couple of months all those closed shops will be open, full of opium, and smugglers from Helmand and Kandahar will come here to buy, beginning the slow smuggling chain towards Europe, where the street price for a kilo of heroin can reach U$S 50,000..¨ With such figures there is simply no way Police officials couldn’t be involved. I instantly thought of Bolivia, but as a South American I know that coca growing has been a part Andean culture for centuries, while opium was introduced by the English from British India in the 19th century.

History lesson almost made me forget that I had started my trip exactly a year ago, when I hitched a sailboat from Ireland to Scotland. There was no point to celebrate: the closest to lust that could be found in the bazaar would have been a pack of strawberry biscuits. Better to keep accepting Azis ever flowing tea. ¨When do you think you will go back? - He asks me. Sometimes I think of home. But then I open my world map, the same that has always hanged from my room’s wall, the same where I had started to plan all this trip, and I realize that Greenland, Kirgizstan or he Falkland Islands are there waiting to be explored, and I feel that kind of tickle in the stomach that only recedes when I knock off kilometers.

Another truck, slow and big as a Galapagos turtle, forwards me to Kirmun village. There I was told by locals that the Shatu Pass was blocked by snow, and that the only way to cross the mountains on to Yakawlang was a secondary pass trough Sadbarg village, a road that didn’t even came up in my map.

I soon found myself crossing bridgeless rivers in a valley that got increasingly landlocked by snowcapped granite towers. In the first village a swarm of kids splashed out their houses to receive me so violently that a man started to keep them at distance using his extended lunghi (turban) as a lash. There is something strange in the kid’s faces: their eyes are too fine. Maybe I hit shortcut and ended up in Mongolia? No. Welcome to Hazarajat, the territory of the Hazara people, descendents of the destructive legions of Genghis Khan, and therefore regarded the last element in the Afghan ethnic ranking. When the Taliban rose to power, in a delayed and senseless revenge, they took a thousand Hazaras to Kabul, slaughtered them and piled their corpse in the parks.

I crossed that valley of the Hazarajat almost on foot, carrying both of Justin’s letters, and sharing some of the way with two teachers whose motorcycle had run short of gasoline. No vehicle used the road in the whole day. When in 1954 British explorer Wilfred Thesiger did his trip to the Hazarajat, he found them rather inhospitable. Even if in no way I can complain about their hospitality, I don’t want to thoughtlessly follow the stream of travelers that in any developing country, no matter what they find, they say the people there is just gorgeous. In one or two guesthouses I entered, people just started to pronounce the word “dollar” every five seconds. I understand the first time they meet somebody from the “other world” that is slowly trying to set their standard. For a while I had the impression that the loudspeakers in the minarets could start screaming ¨Dollar Akbar¨ (The dollar is great) instead of ¨Allah Akbar¨ (God is great) and nobody would have noticed.

That said, in Nodros and Denikoch I was hosted and fed by locals, but they lacked the joyful tone of their Tajik or Pashto neighbors’ hospitality. Their features were strong and proud, and any im promptu group of villagers in a tea house appealed to me as a chieftains meeting. My memory clings to the image of those orphans of history.

After a short visit to Bande Amir, Afghanistan’s only lake, I finally arrived to Bamian. It was after 9 pm, time when every Afghan city becomes deserted. At the question of ¨where can I find a telephone? ¨ (I needed to phone Justin) the local police whisper to each other in the dark. ¨Maybe the Neo Zealanders have one¨. They board me in their jeep and speed towards the New Zealand led PRT base. The light rays of the jeep made the sign visible: ¨Kiwi Base¨ It looks like the sign of a beach, not a military base. Let me say in the first place that I found the idea of knocking the door of the PRT to ask for a telephone absolutely ridiculous. But how charming can the consequences of ridiculous acts be! So I let them do. The bearded policeman bumped vainly the plastic disc in the center of the wheel: the horn didn’t work. So he started screaming in Dari. The young kiwi soldier that was in the nightshift clearly didn’t have a clue of Dari, and was growing dangerously nervous. He advanced toward the Afghan police finger-in-trigger. So I stepped in scene and talked in English to the guy. The kiwi soldier was that happy that he congratulated me on speaking English! But, of course, no public phone available in the base.

On the way back the Afghan policemen started to sing enthusiastically inside the jeep. In the climax of the chorus, the jeep ended up against some trees. The wheels, traction less in a water channel. I thanked them for their professional help and walked away. Not that they noticed my departure: they were too busy kicking each other. I would call Justin the following morning. Though neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night would keep this postman from the swift completion of his appointed rounds, he could use some rest .


Fourty horsemen competing to hurl a beheaded goat into a goal. That’s bushkashi, the Afghan national sport. Some say it is a portray of the Afghan soul and I agree, not because of its brutality, what because players don’t form teams, but play each for themselves….

The game field doesn’t have specific limits and action can happen anywhere...

…even fearfully near the photographer….!!

Saturday, June 10, 2006


"Welcome to Benz. Good your journey. Kabul to all city of Afghanistan"

While local women receive bad looks of they don’t wear their burkas, pictures with unveiled foreign famous singers charm up local buses.

Transport consists of all European buses bought second hand. Some still bear inscriptions in German or English. And if they don’t, locals will improvise a faked, grammatically incorrect, foreign aesthetic…


A vendor sells coconuts next to a flashy UN four wheeled drive….


Entrance to Kabul’s zoo is not particularly enticing. Most of the animals escaped during the war. But the on in the picture was loyal…

Friday, June 09, 2006


Notice: to read the full story have a look at my book "Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan". Clic here to learn more. Order a book and keep me on the road!

Justin and I had reached Kabul in an Afghan Police jeep. My North American friend was anxious enough to hitch hike for the first time as to vaguely reckon the danger of cruising through Taliban positive areas. Once in the Afghan capital we had split, and I had ended up in the Leiva’s house, an Argentinean family who has carried on social aid work in Afghanistan for over 9 years.

“Afghanistan was safer during the Taliban time” – had said Fabian. I had –and everybody would have- requested an explanation: “The Taliban were so brutal in their interpretation of Islamic law, that few people were willing to risk their arms or heads and commit a crime. Before people could understand that the Taliban really meant what they preached the prisons were full of inmates waiting for amputations. In that time, travelling in the southern Taliban strongholds of Helmand, Oruzgan and Qandahar was perfectly safe. A lot of people were indeed happy: in contrast with the prevailing anarchy the Taliban, who were originally a group of Theology students from Qandahar, proposed a return to the Qoran, as the source of both moral and politic systems. In the beginning they even avoided corruption…”
-But… what happened next?

“They were not ready to govern a country, so they sought support in Al Qaeda. It was the moment of the “Black Turbans”, merciless mercenaries from all over the Islamic world from Chechnya to Morocco. It was normal to see a Taliban in each corner, but if he was a black turban, it was mandatory to run away” Betty silences Fabian with a mate and goes on. “Once black turban grabbed me from the hair and lifted me in the air for not wearing a burka. As we Latin blend in with the local stock someone had to point that I was a foreigner…”

-So he apologized…
Apologize? –Betty laughs- No, he dropped me by the ground, did a deep throat sound and spit over me with accuracy. Besides, it was a dark age. The country stayed cut off from the rest of the world. Commerce was virtually non existent and everything on the shelves had been smuggled in. While renting a house coasted U$S25, a Toblerone set you back U$S50. I once received a Toblerone for my birthday. And I don’t like chocolate! I would have preferred the money. Also, the Taliban condemned technology: TVs, taper recorders and computers were confiscated and crashed by tanks. Radio Kabul was renamed Radio Sharia and only broadcasted the Holy Qoran. Even universities were shut!

As Betty spoke, I couldn’t avoid remembering Foucault’s “knowledge is power”. It evidently didn’t integrate the Taliban’s ethics. As the Church in the Middle Ages, the Taliban had decided to thrust against just everything that didn’t fit in the Qoranic verses. As they thought the entire new generation that hadn’t received any religious education during the Russian occupation was lost, they sent children to madrasas (Islamic schools). The most sophisticated thing they learnt there was how to wash their feet according to the way prescribed by Mohammed. Islam and the art of feet washing. Tempting title for an essay.

To compensate further, they denied girls the access to education, and women couldn’t work in anything but the health sector. This comeback of pastoralism was soon causing troubles to the regime itself: when in 1998 a multinational gas company called Bridas initiated talks with the Taliban over the construction of a gas duct, all contracts should be translated to Dari, since no one among the Taliban spoke decent English. Moreover, a graduated from Engineering without working experience was all they had to revise the technical aspects of the master plan. Until what extent, in a country where a particular exegesis of religion has encouraged ignorance, is cultural relativism an excuse to step aside? Fabian thinks that the Afghans suffer their own culture.

The transition to (or the sudden encounter with) knowledge can be somehow funny. Someone has still to explain some Afghans that Alexander the Great –who marched through their country- was not Muslim, and certainly did not introduce Islam in the region. When the movie “Alexander the Great” hit the cinemas, many complained and argued that the movie was a defamatory distortion of reality plotted no doubt by the CIA. In another occasion, a man got angry when Fabian, pointing a plated full moon, exclaimed: “And just think that there was once someone up there!” That was not possible! Not because of technical difficulties, but because the moon is, in the collective imagination, a woman, which a man cannot touch. Let alone the possibility of landing. I personally witness a third example, when a woman who was watching a TV displayed in a shop covered her face and ran away when the news presenters claimed the screen’s 28 inches.

Exploring Kabul is impossible to find a building that doesn’t resemble a piece of gruyere cheese. Bullet pockets ornate each house. The ruined theatre, built by the Russian, represents efficiently the anger of the tribal, provincial Taliban towards the more urban minded Russian. Those who have been here during the occupation time remember women in short skirts strolling around Kabul. This explains why the Taliban aimed to shell the city rather than conquer it.

In the present date, the centre of the city, Wazir Akbar Khan, where embassies and the UN compound are, is slowly recovering from 30 years of civil war. There is even an all-glass shopping mall (which mirrors the surrounding chaos tenfold). Taxis and 4WDs of UN and other foreign agencies share the roads. A lot of the last ones, since foreign aid workers deployed in Kabul are normally forbidden to walk the streets. Symmetrically, if an Afghan befriends –or works for- a foreigner, he will be nicked “kafir” (disloyal) by friends and family. Thus, foreigners in Kabul carry on an entropic life, a forced seclusion that dangerously reminds the situation of the foreign elite living in China by the time of the Boxer Rebellion.
During my stay in Kabul I had the chance to attend one of these all foreigner events, a BBQ celebrating the new born baby of a North American couple. Between sausages and salads someone introduced me to Georg, a 56 years old German who has an executive position in an NGO called Shelter Now. To my random question of “When did you first arrive to Afghanistan?” the answer caught me unaware: “For the first time? In 1965, in a double Decker we had bought among 20” Not far from there another man whose beard was white washed by the calendar, joined the conversation: “Really? I arrived in ’67 in a VW van. We were in our way to India, but we couldn’t drive the VW further than Lahore, in the Pakistani–Indian border… some papers were missing.”

They were old timers, hippies from the Old Guard. I should take my hat off, look to the ground and listen. On their way to India, both travellers had got acquainted with the already tough Afghan reality, and had decided to settle there to work to the refugees. In Georg’s case, dedicating his life to the Afghan people almost resulted in loosing his life, paradoxically, in hands of those he pretended to help. Two months before S-11, Georg and other 5 member of Shelter Now team were imprisoned by the Taliban under charges of Christian proselytism. As he strolled around the prison premises the guards nicked him “George Bush”, which is, let’s say, a nickname you don’t want to have in Kabul on September 2001. He miraculously saved his life.

In my last afternoon in Kabul I met, while walking up Chicken Street, two French travellers who had also arrived overland. Gerome and Adrien told me of another kind of parties, organized by the French ex-pat community, in which bowls of condoms shared the table with wine and good food. Self affirmation of Western society in minority conditions or flat and plain Dionysian celebration, who doesn’t feel a bit French in a suburb of the heart? Next morning I left Kabul bound for Jalalabad and the Pakistani border.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


These tiny girls asked to have their pictures taken. In a few years they would be considered whores if they dared to.


Attempts to reconstruct the social tissue are the day’s menu in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the lack the most basic premises… This Women Development Center carries on its activities by the roadside.


This official makes his best to call the attention and order traffic in the bazaar’s roundabout. Locals told me he used to sell guns at the bazaar during the Taliban era.


Since Bamian area is home to a sizeable population of Hazaras, so you can often see images of their devoted leaders.


Less famously, hundreds of small monastic caves ooze around the Giant Buddhas.

Only the void remains of the once might figures that had witnessed the Silk Road caravans pass by..

A new hitch-hiking monk pays homage to the site…

Sight of Bamian Valley from one of the caves.

A less romantic view of the Buddha.


Notice: to read the full story, have a look at my book "Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan". Clic here to learn more. Order a book and keep me on the road!

Sited on the floor at Justin’s place in Bamian, Afghanistan, and observing with some attention the shelves on the opposite wall, it was possible to read the basements of my host’s personality. On the left, food and spices: rice, oats, basil, pepper, cinnamon. On the right, books. Food for the body and for the soul. I still ignored whether my new friend was sensible to the metaphor or not, since by the moment he limited himself to read the longed for letters I had brought him from Chaghcharan. When he was done with the task, he emptied two cups of rice in the pan and expressed his anthem: good short grain rice from Japan, decent pipe tobacco and a thought provoking book. I can be happy with that”. That was the spark of a strong empathy that grew even deeper when he confessed having turned away the chance of studying art photography in a U$S25,000 a year Art School to come, instead, to do reforestation in Afghanistan for U$S650 a month. Deserters like each other…

As I related how I had got there from Europe overland I noticed Justin was making more questions than would arise from plain curiosity. He was suddenly hypnotized by how little money I had needed to travel round the world for a year. When the rice was already served in tiny bowls, he went to the point: for months he had been bearing a neat impulse to go cycling round the world. Four days before Quentin had phoned from Chaghcharan announcing my visit, Justin had been praying for a signal. Now, the signal had arrived, with enough dust to nurture a new world and two letters in hand.

We would lit our pipes to witness the evenings roll down the spiral of time in what turned to be, for both of us, highly therapeutic meetings. As Justin started to take his dreams seriously I tuned more finely my own pulse of continuous motion. Not different from an exorcism, as if the mouthfuls of smoke of Captain Black would incense away the demons of bicephaly (consequence of reducing your self to a mere guest), fears became words, unveiled their inner layering of prejudice and social commandment and conveyed their magnitude converted into confidence. The fear of becoming a bum without credit card, a present day Diogenes requesting Bill Gates to move from the sun. On the contrary, a sustainable nomadic lifestyle was postulated with the help of mathematics.

With five dollars a day, and poetry books or photographs to sell any trip’s deadline is anything but financial. Confronted with such viable perspectives, social threads already cut, Justin spoke out another ghost: “how to continue to be yourself in spite of the constant exposure to novelty?” Having noticed that half of the books were Christian literature I tried to be as diplomatic as possible: “but how do you know that you are yourself if you’ve never faced change?” Travelling implies testing daily our own identity. And that’s a desirable point…Challenge. Maybe the word is exceeded by the circumstance of an American hitch-hiking to Kabul in the first decade of the 21st century. Untouched by what I would call the worst case scenario, Justin had decided to get road-borne and hitch it with me to the capital of the Transitional Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. “If you can do it here you can do it everywhere” – it was my duty to point. The morning of the departure –as usual- Justin wore the local one piece neck-to-knee gray garment. From the distance one could even have said he was Afghan. However, a white supermarket style nylon bag bebrothered him, Afghan or American, with the universal bum.

Challenge. Maybe the word is exceeded by the circumstance of an American hitch-hiking to Kabul in the first decade of the 21st century. Untouched by what I would call the worst case scenario, Justin had decided to get road-borne and hitch it with me to the capital of the Transitional Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. “If you can do it here you can do it everywhere” – it was my duty to point. The morning of the departure –as usual- Justin wore the local one piece neck-to-knee gray garment. From the distance one could even have said he was Afghan. However, a white supermarket style nylon bag bebrothered him, Afghan or American, with the universal bum.

On the way to the road we halted for a minute to digest our share of the sadness radiated by the empty niches of the destroyed Buddhas, once the biggest on Earth. When rockets and tank fire were not enough the Taliban whistled in an expert in explosives from Middle East to complete the task and, in a scaleless display of non sense hate, erase forever the formidable images. Eventually we reached a reasonable place to hitch hike. That was us, a man from the Great Prairies and one from the Pampas. Cowboy and Gaucho, on the way to Kabul.

The idea of Justin dressing as an Afghan found base in the assumption that most of the traffic would consist of local trucks. Instead, we started to be passed by UN pick ups, New Zealand Army convoys and other NGO cars. Hence, we should change strategy, since the “gringos” were stopping to see what the problem was but then, confused by the weird conjunction of Justin’s American accent and Afghan frugality, preferred to speed away. So Justin went behind some rocks and made a comeback with a pair of Lewis and a striped T-shirt. Now he was an honourable ambassador of the American Way of Life… We decided to walk to the checkpoint where the road split in two. Looking at the map it was clear at first glance that the South fork was shorter, so we started marching without paying too much attention to the fact that all NGO’s vehicles were taking the other road…The first vehicle we came across was an old Russian jeep of the Afghan Police. And it stopped, among a galaxy sized cloud of dust. Cowboy, who spoke fluent Dari, introduced us as two globetrotters. When asked about nationality, he managed to hide his being American without having to lie: ‘my grandparents were born in Czechoslovakia” – he said. From American aid worker to Czechoslovakian globetrotter… how truth it finally was! Travelling is really a constant challenge to one’s identity.

The man making questions was the Commander of Bamian Province Police, who was going all the way to Kabul along with his driver and armed escort. The commander, a ginger bearded blue eyed tall man, concluded right away that we were out of our minds for taking that road. “Taliban perpetrate hit-and-go attacks weekly. What are you doing here? – He said, still laughing at our unconsciousness. “A week ago – he went on- a police vehicle like this one was blown up with a rocket from atop a hill. Too late we had understood why NGO vehicles were taking the North road, and why the almost teenage cadet was holding his machine gun all the time and kept his eyes surfing the landscape.

No longer were we simple passengers, we should also be alert. But despite the underlying pressure there was hardly a second fit for solemnity, as the commander – a liked to compare the mountain pass that was coming ahead with a woman’s breasts. The driver, at his turn, insisted that the commander could only bring security to barren unpopulated regions, as that mountain pass. At the pass itself, the jeep’s engine overheated, impasse that the crew conveniently used to load in some snow to refrigerate a Cola drink for the picnic.

Yeah, you read well… a picnic! Already downhill Justin and I had the most bizarre picnic ever, with the unusual party of three Afghan policemen, over a blossomed prairie next to the river, their machine guns resting their steel death over soft cushioned grass and purple flowers. And Cola. All the way to Kabul fear was dispersed by the intriguing stories of our commander, who since the age of 19 had fought on the side of mujahidin Massoud (Afghan national hero), and had killed more Taliban that his fingers allowed him to count.

Reaching the grey, polluted city, Kabul, capital of the Aftermath, Cowboy and I split. “See you some day in Oklahoma or Buenos Aires”. I can only look back with satisfaction to those evenings in Bamian, smoking our pipes and fear-chasing, under the candlelight. The perspective of the Central Afghan Road behind, 800 km of unpaved, dusty, carless road, with its nomads, Hazaras, aid workers, NATO soldiers, mine fields, shepherds and even hilltop Taliban, also gave me food for thought. Now pavement had reappeared, I was supposed to be safer. Or so say the people who believe in safety. For me, it had been a matter of faith in Human Being.

I wonder if the same kind of faith could help me to live in a country like Afghanistan. As Leiva family does. Fabian and Betty are Argentinean, and long before being a family they had felt a calling to go to Afghanistan to help others. They currently live here, with their four noisy, bilingual, and lovely daughters. I stayed five days in their place in Kabul. As every foreigner’s house, there is a big wall around. You may think some mafia leader lives inside…

What about Afghanistan? – I ask Betty as we drink mate, a tea-like beverage that no Argentinean would dare to lack. Even in Afghanistan. “Kabul is a bomb!”- says Betty with an enviable sense of humour. Nine years. No need to ask, they were here even during the Taliban’s regime. “Do you want milk or tea with milk?” – asks Betty in perfect Spanish to her daughter Abigail. Her answer leaves me astonished: “I want leche (milk) only mommy….!” Her daughters, who attend an international school, not only speak two languages, but also speak them simultaneously….

When Fabian arrives from work and sees the guest in post-road conditions, he tells him: “you are too late to be a hippie…” Then he hugs me and adds: “You are crazy! They could have chopped off your head in the road you took.” So you live with your four tiny daughters in Kabul and I am the crazy one! He had to concede the point: we were both crazy. A month ago two bombs exploded in the girl’s school. One at each side, but nobody was injured. “Back in the Taliban time it was safer – surprisingly assures Fabian- until the Black Turbans arrived”. “Who were the Black Turbans? – I felt as if had arrived to the theatre in mid-play. “The Black Turbans? –replied Fabian- Well, I guess the CNN made the story too simple, but you are running short of space Juan… I will tell you the story on the next article…”