A few days ago, sitting back where it all began two months ago, in Babas for a croissant and a bowl of cafe au lait, I fell into a reflective mood. There is a line in a Grateful Dead song: what a long strange trip it’s been. That pretty much sums up my mood. I’ve been too busy living life to sit and write; I suppose that I am in the information gathering phase, experience being the currency of those who consider themselves writers. To return to the 60s music theme for a moment, I am experienced, as Hendrix once more or less said. My trip became something much greater than the one I had imagined, and broke through the self-imposed boundaries I had constructed. Things come full circle: a snake on a path, a missed train, a chance encounter – on such random isolated events life turns on its axis and leads you down a different path to the one you thought you were on. My two weeks in Goa turned into two months, and my life changed again. Now the one point of consistency that remains from the vague itinerary I drew up in London before leaving is finally happening. Afghanistan.
I’m in that strange state of mind that often happens to me prior to a journey. I become preoccupied, distant, a little tetchy. Nervousness is the flip side to excitement, they say. I am not exactly nervous, but I am excited as hell. Because it looks like it is finally happening. A place that I have wanted to visit since I was 12 years old is suddenly looking possible. I’ve been in Asia long enough to know that nothing is guaranteed, everything is always uncertain, but it’s looking good. I have a backup plan if it falls through – Varanasi, also known as Benares; another place I have wanted to visit since I was a child. I blame a lifetime subscription to National Geographic magazine. Most people are content to leaf through the pages of exotic pictures, perhaps idly muse about how wonderful it would be to one day finally go there, then sigh and dismiss the idea for a thousand and one practical objections. Well, as Lawrence of Arabia once said, “It is there. It is simply a matter of going”. For a long time all I did was look backward, to Africa, where I had been happy. At the age of 27, an exile again in my own country, I considered my life as good as over. All the weird and wonderful jobs I took: driving trucks to dismal industrial estates in rural England, selling vacuum cleaners door to door, working the night shift on a meat packing line (which gave me a lifelong aversion to turkey and earned me £100 a week after the agency took their cut) – all these were gloomy hallmarks of a wasted life, of the unintended consequences of decisions made or deferred. No wonder I spent most of the time pissed.
But that was a cop out. We all have our own fears which hold us back. Those thousand and one practical objections to actually doing something we want in case in the doing of it we find it is not all that we hoped. In my case my particular hobbyhorse is fear of a dull life. I take the train past endless miles of identical suburban homes, of nine-to-five drudgery, of the snakes and ladders of office politics, of prefab factories producing pointless yet essential widgets, and I say to myself, never, never, never. I am not afraid to lose my life – no more than anyone else. I am afraid of compromising and of not having the courage to actually live it to the full. I have no regrets. I have loved and been loved, and in the end that is all that matters.
Delhi was overwhelming after sleepy, tropical Goa – although sleep was in short supply for my last few days there. The Enfield, which has been utterly reliable for two months, finally started acting up on Saturday night on our way to the night market. It is impossible to describe the chaos of the traffic to get into the place, because it is total mayhem, but pushing an Enfield through the middle of it took the experience to new heights. I had run out of fuel, and inadvertently turned the tap to off rather than reserve. Well, I was very tired. So tired that after a 4am start on Monday I slept for most of the flight, which was a sort of shuttle bus round India, beginning in Goa, then heading for Mumbai, then Delhi, and finally Srinagar in Kashmir.
The Delhi Police run a taxi service, prebooked at the airport, and I got a tough-looking fifty something driver who had ex-cop written all over him. He used his horn as a reprimand, an auditory rap over the knuckles, for every incidence of bad driving we encountered, unlike many others who use it all the time. Literally all the time. One car passed us with horn blaring and the noise continued until it was out of sight. Perhaps it was stuck on. Hazard lights are also popular; if your car has indicators fitted, why not drive with them flashing the whole time? It makes you feel important. Wing mirrors only add to the width of your vehicle and ding other drivers in heavy traffic, so just fold them in – you don’t use them for anything. Nine out of ten drivers adopt such a fatalistic approach to motoring that they don’t bother to look right while joining a main road. They just pull out. Most important of all, ensure that you leave the sun visors in their original plastic cellophane wrappers that new cars have. This will give your car that fresh from the showroom look, even if the bodywork looks like it has been beaten repeatedly with hammers and then involved in a motorway pileup. Ferrari badges are popular, especially on knackered 125cc bikes, and I saw a lovely one yesterday: a skull and crossbones on the rear mudflaps. Warning: sleeping under the wheels may result in bodily injury. In fact a traffic sign on a police roadblock summed up the general attitude quite well: “True, we slow you down. But we try not to let criminal slip by.” Yeah, thanks guys. We know you are doing your best. I want to see a police pursuit with the cops in one of their Morris Oxford Hindustan Ambassadors complete with red flashing light and warning bell. I’d expect the culprits to be nabbed and hauled up before the judge for a slap on the wrist, and no mistake. It’s comical, except they carry machine guns.
Speaking of which, the Afghan embassy looked like a bunker. Sandbags and weird wooden planks surrounding a guardhouse, in which I made out two helmets peering down a machine gun at passers by. You go through a scanner and x ray machine, and then join a queue. I had an appointment with a Colonel and the queue was moving rather slowly. I went back to security and asked them to call him to say I was in the queue. Immediately I was issued with a new security pass and told to enter the main embassy. I wandered in and encountered three gentlemen in smart suits who gawped at me. I had made an attempt to look more presentable, wearing shoes for the first time in weeks and rolling down my sleeves, but there was no disguising the fact that I had been on the road for a while and looked a little travel stained. I was directed to the Colonel’s office which was vast, and he beckoned me over to a sofa. Green tea was brought, and a large plate of fruits and nuts. I nibbled on a sugared mulberry while we made polite conversation, and then he asked for my passport. This was given to a minion who crept away with it while I handed over my letters of reference. We discussed the security situation, the weather in Kabul and the importance of a good education. His mobile phone rang frequently and he would switch into Dari, then back to English again. After a while someone crept back in and more tea was brought. By this time I had been there for an hour, and was running out of small talk. At that moment my passport was returned together with a bill for fifty dollars. I had been issued a visa on the spot. I couldn’t believe it – I had thought it would take at least a week. Grinning like a fool I walked back through the embassy and out into the sunlight, past the queue of people for the consular section, past the machine gun post, so dizzy with relief that when a rickshaw pulled up and wanted 150rs to bring me back to the Parsi fire temple where I stay, I just said “ok”. I’m going to Afghanistan.