Zulekha is an Indian native. She's an extreme traveler, writer and has been to over 80 countries. She has lived in Oman, India and Dubai.
“We are not terrorists. I hope you can let the world know once you return to your countries,” the father of the bride took over the microphone. He spoke to our group in his native northern Pashto dialect. The Afghan wedding in that remote village of Shughnon, Afghanistan was about to bring a whirlwind of change to my perception of war-torn nations and their communities.
Just as swiftly as we had polished off the rich aromatic Afghani pulao (rice dish) and dried mulberries off the aluminum plate in front of us, the bride’s father had made his plea for recognition and passed on a responsibility of sorts to our small group of unsuspecting wedding guests.
How it all began
A few weeks ago, a group of friends showed me their pictures from Afghanistan. Their stories on the road along the Pamir Highway seemed adventurous and unusual. I was instantly fascinated. I signed up for a 3-day experiential trip organized by a local travel agency to visit one of the most remote parts of north-eastern Afghanistan. I made my way to the Afghani Consulate where, to my dismay, the Consular refused to grant me a visa.
“Holidays are meant to be fun, not risky”, the Consular said. He tried hard to convince me of the dangers of traveling to that part of the country. Recent insurgencies in the region had raised an alarm. But I was determined to make the most of the upcoming public holiday. I was going to try my luck at getting a tourist visa from the Afghan Consulate in Tajikistan with my friends.
We flew into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. An Mi8 helicopter waited to take us to the border town of Khorog. This terrifyingly beautiful flight is scheduled to operate every day, but largely depends on clear skies and wind speeds. We got lucky and the helicopter took to the skies minutes after boarding.
Following a scurried visa application process and a 2-hour wait at the Afghani consulate there, we finally received our visas to cross over my first river border, into Afghanistan. Our anxiousness and excitement was met in equal proportions with a rigorous baggage check by the Afghan border police, armed with AK47’s and sinister smiles. Almost as though they were enjoying the routine at our expense.
Afghanistan Border: To Cross or Not to Cross
A voice in my head screamed, “It’s not too late. You don’t have to do this. You can still turn around and run back to safety.” Right then, our Tajik guide waved goodbye. He asked us to look out for Masad, our Afghan host on the other side of the bridge. “You’ll be safe. Have fun,” he said, sensing the tension in the group.
Masad, a silhouette in a black pathani (traditional outfit), stood tall behind a cloud of dust and apprehension. He greeted us with a warm handshake and an affectionate smile, putting our doubts to rest. We hopped aboard his rickety minibus that meandered through the village, crossing a wedding procession at first, followed by a herd of sheep making its way to the grazing field.
Best. Decision. Ever.
We stopped by a serene outhouse built on the banks of the river that formed a natural border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. “Many have attempted to swim to the other side, but the currents are too strong,” chirped Maria, Masad’s sister and co-host. Wrapped in warm blankets, we soaked in the serenity of the open fields and rolling hills in front of us. We got comfortable with our surroundings.
Delicious home-cooked meals and freshly picked apricots over the course of our stay at Masad’s family home filled our bellies and hearts with fondness and affection. The women of the house conversed with us in broken English. The spirited young Maria, on the other hand, spoke flawlessly and flaunted it just the same. This was her last week at home. She was leaving for Dushanbe for a year to pursue her Masters degree in psychology.
The first night was spent dancing away to the tunes of local musicians who Masad invited over to entertain the crowds. Neighbours flocked in. Young boys and girls chatted away, throwing glances in our direction and giggling as our eyes caught theirs. We were exhausted but happy. Content but sad that this would all be over too soon.
The following day, after a sumptuous breakfast and a bumpy bus ride, we arrived at the wedding. The bride’s father poured his heart out to us. Masad continued translating, “We are a peace loving community and we respect our women, educate our girls and work hard to make an honest living. We can’t be grateful enough that you decided to visit us”. Tears welled up in my eyes. An overwhelming sense of gratitude and hopelessness engulfed me.
Life is precious
I was thankful for the experiences we had had over the past two days. An entire village had come together to extend their love, warmth and hospitality, walking us through fields, taking us around the colourful bazaars and entertaining us with their tales.
In a day or so, our lives would run its normal course, as we’d get busy responding to emails, picking up laundry on our way back from work and making a list of household chores to run over the weekend.
The media would continue to paint a dreadful and gloomy picture of Afghanistan. The world would continue watching it with disdain and apathy from the outside.
The happy and progressive folk at Shughnon would continue to herd their sheep, harvest their crop and send their children abroad for higher studies, as fundamentalist forces continue their insurgencies not too far from the village, posing a looming threat every day.
Visa and Flight Matters
Rarely does an Indian passport feel privileged among its red and maroon counterparts. While a tourist visa can cost anywhere between USD 150–200 for most nationalities, Indians get a free entry visa to Afghanistan.
I flew into Tajikistan on Somon Air from Dubai to Dushanbe. The group took a “chartered” helicopter ride from Dushanbe to Khorog that operates based on weather conditions. There’s a good chance that this internal flight is cancelled due to high wind speeds on a particular day. The only option then would be to wait it out till the weather clears. Local guides in Dushanbe can book the charter, however, the airline is likely to fly double its capacity to make the extra buck.
© 2020 Zulekha Huseni