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A Berry, Good Trip

100th Post!

(*not including all the photo ones)


The road to Kunduz, the last city stronghold of the Taliban, before they fell in 2001.

Afghanistan: Epilogue

After four hours on our way back from Bamiyan, we took a detour at a car wash/berry stand for a detour into the heavenly Panjshir valley. We had just passed a convoy of military trucks and emerged from the dirty, windy roads of Taliban territory onto smooth highway. Gull, my guide and the founder of the new Rah-e-Abrisham tour agency, looked infinitely happier. We waited while two boys meticulously sprayed and scrubbed the car back to white, and looked out at the road ahead: the road to Panjshir was safe, controlled only in parts by mafias — those who dealt in drugs, not people — and most of them could be bribed.

The berries were outside the town of Charikar, and we ordered them from the mechanic by claiming a woven dish of many thousands of white, pink, and purple fruits that resembled mini raspberries, and popping them into our mouths with scientific precision. The darker berries were the sweetest, sometimes too much so. The whitest were tart, and the pink and multi-colored could be anywhere in the middle. Gull and Ali Akbar, our fearless driver, were experts. Flitting across the surface with their fingertips, they avoided the mushiest and would put together a cocktail of two or three berries of different colors to toss back in the cup of their palm. Only I ever put four together or had one alone. After half an hour, in the pile wider than a large New York pizza, we had made respectable damage and returned the basket to its roadside table, where it waited under the shade for the next hungry travelers.

There is a checkpoint somewhere along the silver Panjshir river. The jagged walls of the gorge shoot up almost vertically, and a guard waved from a booth chiseled into the rock face for me to display my passport. There are small towns along the road, or by the wrong turns we took, but most of this detour is uneventful. For brief moments, with early afternoon light just right, wide open fields are golden with grain. But the big pay-off comes suddenly, right around one final turn…


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Azerbaijan Six: Flight

Previously, in Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan One: The City — أذربيجان واحد: المدينة
Azerbaijan Two: The Escape — أذربيجان اثنان: الهرب
Azerbaijan Three: The Trick — أذربيجان ثلاثة: الخدعة
Azerbaijan Four: Rest (and a little paranoia)
Azerbaijan Five: Lost and Found — أاذربيجان خمس: مفقود وموجود

Baku was 360 kilometers away, and we had only a few hours before the flight. I drove fast. Another sign boasted “radar” on their new M2 highway. No worries, radar tickets show up delayed under the car’s registration — not my problem . Not the case.

The police flagged us down at the next checkpoint. Uh-oh. The man made no effort to speak slowly or with simply words — I made it clear I understood nothing (I understood some), but still he pressed on, repeating the same phrases, demanding that I comprehend. Yes, we are all guilty of wanting to grab and shake people onto our wavelength, but movements of complete unwillingness to try another approach, to rephrase, to use hand gestures, anything — are moments of plain, dumb ignorance. I needed to fight dumb with dumber.

Something about maschina which I knew meant car. “Maschina?” I frowned, and made a hammer-and-nail gesture. Let’s play the Confusion card.

He held on to my passport and license and motioned me out of the car; I stashed most of my money, and another policeman read me a list of typed English phrases and pointed to numbers he had penciled in a notebook. One was our license plate. One was the speed limit, 100 kph — a complete waste on one of the only 4-lane roads in Azerbaijan. Another was the speed I’d been going. We argued.

“Airport,” I kept saying. “Flight. Baku airport.” I’d make a plane taking-off hand gesture and point to my watch. I sharaded “running”. We’ve gotta move fast..

“You pay 100 manat,” said a cop.
“Baku airport.”
“100 manat.”
“Airport Baku. Flight.”

Finally, I let on that I understood. “We don’t have 100 manat,” I showed him. Look. I had 12 manat in my wallet. He took them and leaned in. Omani rial, Qatari rial, Nicaraguan cordoba, Emirati dirham… and twenty greenback USA original dollars. Shit. He took those too.

I eyed my passport. We’ve got nothing else. “NO more manat!” They looked indifferent. Three cops. I needed my passport. Time slowed. They talked — now I really didn’t understand.

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