The road well-travelled (but not by me): a freelance reporter in Afghanistan

Naheed Mustafa

April 1, 2009

I left Kabul bright and early on Monday to go to Mazar-e-Sharif. My friend Bashir kindly agreed to take me and brought a big ol’ green SUV for the road trip. Mazar is about eight hours from Kabul and the drive is an absolute stunner – snow-capped mountains, the Salang Pass, the climbing up and the winding down.

It was gorgeous.

We did, however, lose our brakes part way through the trip. I credit Bashir’s driving skills and his ability to use both first and second gear in a most creative way and his ability to swerve. Bravo! It actually wasn’t as scary as it sounds. We could almost stop, just not completely.

Anyway, made it to Mazar. Before the brakes fiasco we were able to stop to have some lovely and interesting things to eat from roadside stands. There was rawash, which is a wild vegetable that looks kind of like artichokes on celery stalks. It grows wild and little kids pick it and sell it on the side of the road.You just peel it and dip it in this powdery salt they give you and it tastes superb – a lot like rhubarb. The other thing we ate was nok (sp?). Nok is basically a tiny pear but it’s about the sweetest, juiciest pear you’ll ever find. And then we had goat milk yogurt that we bought from some kid selling it off the back of a donkey. Soon thereafter I began having some odd rumblings in my stomach. And then the brakes gave out. My life quickly became complicated.

Along for the ride was Bashir’s friend, so Bashir wouldn’t have to make the drive back to Kabul alone. The friend has only one leg. He’s a cool guy. He learned to speak Urdu by watching Indian movies, but he likes the shoot ‘em up gangster style films so all our conversations were in mafia-speak. So there I was: no brakes, a stomach ready to give way, and talking like a thug to a one-legged Afghan. A most interesting several hours.

We got to Mazar and stayed at a dive of a guest house overnight. The next morning I drove to Maimana which is about four hours away. I went in a UN convoy so that was nice because their brakes always work. I think it’s a rule or something.

This part of Afghanistan is the most gorgeous place I’ve ever seen. Green mountains, lush fields, herds of long-haired goats everywhere, camels grazing in the fields, and the people are so beautiful. But it’s bloody cold! I spent the day going from village to village…recording in the rain is a real bummer.

The driving ’round was quite interesting and at one point we were a couple thousand feet up in the mountains standing on a mud road talking to a group of villagers about the lack of food in the area. The harvest isn’t ready and there’s been drought for five years. This year the rains came but the food isn’t ready to be picked so the villagers rely on distributions from the UN. A lot of the men have also left the villages and gone to Iran to work and send money home.

It was quite surreal, standing on that mountain top with these turbaned villagers (who just had thin shawls to keep them warm and I was layered up five times over and still shivering), donkeys loaded up with jerry cans passing by every once in a while (donkeys are the main mode of transport in this area), the rain coming down — and then someone’s cell phone went off. It belonged to the village head and I swear it was playing “Staying Alive”. The village leader was a giant of a man in a light blue shalwar kameez and plaid turban. He spent the whole time talking and taking pictures of me and the World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson with his cell phone.

Later we had lunch in another village. The local elders, me, the WFP spokeswoman (who’s British, former BBC), the local WFP manager (a lovely Afghan man named Abdul Hamid Khanzadeh), the drivers and our police escorts, who kindly left their guns in the truck. About halfway through lunch one of the old men asked our names. Abdul Hamid introduced the spokeswoman saying she’s British then he introduced me by name saying I’m Canadian. Then he turned to me and said, “but I think you have to really be Afghan.” No, no, I said. My family’s Pakistani. The old guys all lit up. “Pakistan? Does she speak Pashto?” I replied in the negative and said I speak Urdu. I swear the old guys, en masse, got a look of utter disappointment on their faces: “Oh. Urdu.”

Naheed Mustafa is a Toronto-based freelance broadcaster and writer. She’s currently in Afghanistan working on several stories about ordinary people — women in particular — and the challenges they face.

Mustafa was interviewed on the April 2 edition of CBC’s Metro Morning with Andy Barrie from Maimana, northern Afghanistan.

Listen to Mustafa’s radio documentary about water issues in Pakiston for CBC’s The Current (Part 2).