A Night on the Afghani Border


I traveled by Ford Econoline van from Athens to Kabul in 1976.  In total I spent 7 weeks in Afghanistan after arriving in the capital city, traveling by public bus, hitchhiking, and by arranging rides with truckers.  I did some trekking and travel by horseback, too.

When my travel companions and I checked out of Iran on the road from Mashhad to Herat, we were thankful to escape the Shah’s hospitality.  On the Iranian side of the frontier a small museum displayed items and techniques used in drug smuggling.  Dirty underwear told of bodypackers stashing dope in their briefs, while scuba tanks and backpack frames showed how more sophisticated travelers tried to hide their wares.  Inside the museum a guard told us about the Iranian method for determining if a traveler required further scrutiny.  An official would approach the unwary subject from behind, reach around to the front of the person, and with a great thump land the palm of his hand on the suspect’s heart.  An unusual increase in the heart-beat indicated possible suspicious activity.  The theory here was that an innocent border crosser would not react with fear to what the Iranians felt was routine treatment.

With the lesson duly assimilated we crossed no-man’s-land to the Afghani border post. Surprise!  The offices had closed for the night.  So we were stranded, like strange soldiers in a bad World War I movie, on a desolate expanse of rock and dirt perhaps 200 meters wide.  No food or beverage vendors plied their trades and we looked to an uncomfortable night spent either in sleeping bags on the ground or crammed into the van.

As I stood near the Ford, wondering if pit vipers or other local reptiles would try to get cozy in my warm sleeping bag when the desert air cooled,  a man introduced himself.  He was an Afghani Customs official, he said, and he wanted to know if we were interested in food, drink, and most of all, a few spirited games of chess.  We were cordially invited to accompany him to his barracks.

Four of us accepted the kind offer.  A few of my peers thought immediately that the cop was setting us up for a drug sting or worse, but I thought reasonably that Muslim hospitality was an undeniable cultural trait in the Middle East, at least in most places.  So I said, sure, why not.

We entered a room and were enveloped in wonderful cooking smells and home-style warmth.   Carpets covered the floors and walls.  Several men sat, drinking tea and smoking hubble-bubbles.  Hmm.  What could that mean?

We were invited to sit, given cups of tea, and then our new friend brought a commercial but nice chess set to our little gathering.  He moved one of the water pipes beside the chess set and asked if we wanted a puff or three of strong hashish to enhance our chess skills.

One of my friends freaked out and rudely left the building, now positive he was about to be arrested Iranian-style and heaved into a dungeon.  But I had left home to find adventure and exploration, not to pander to fear, so I said, again, sure, why not.

We played chess for many hours, we ate well of mutton stew and smoked our share of the Customs Man’s stash.  I am a poor chess player at the best of times, and the hash only worsened my logical judgment and skills.  I probably lost every game.  At the end of the night another of my friends became paranoid from the drugs and ran into the night, shouting inanities about impending police round-ups, but two of us remained and slept deeply in blankets near a wood-burning brazier.  We woke in the morning refreshed and crossed officially into Afghanistan.  Our official friend held a post in the Customs shed, working alertly to monitor the passage of contraband.  After all, every citizen’s patriotic duty must be done.

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