Category Archives: Afghanistan
(Dancing in India: Verdara, Rajasthan)
Lesson #1- You are the Only You: Be Yourself
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Writer
—-> Of all the messages I learned around the world, I believe this is the most important one of all. Just be yourself. Out in the wild reaches of our Earth I was forced to come to terms with who I was. On those long days, the bicycle allowed me to come face-to-face with my own shortcomings, failures and things I would like to improve. It taught me about who I was as a person and who I would like to be in the future.
When things went wrong during my trip, I had no one to blame but myself. If I didn’t pack enough food or water, took a horrible road or forgot to buy extra bike parts. In those moments, I got to experience myself just as I was. Things went wrong quite often. In the beginning, I would get stressed out about the little things. Soon I came to realize that it was all part of the puzzle that was this adventure. A new personality began to take shape. When I was alone, if something went terribly wrong there was no one to complain to. I usually said nothing and got on with fixing the problem or finding a solution. There was no one there to keep me motivated. I had to figure things out myself.
I believe that knowing ourselves is the most important thing we can have in life. However, in the modern age with all of the distractions and busy lives it is hard to cut through the noise. Past the advertisements, Facebook pages and familial influences, there is a person that is just you. Getting past all of the outside influences can be tough, but there is a great deal we can learn from ourselves.
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” ~ Dr. Seuss, Writer
For two years I was stuck with myself. On that type of trip, you have to know who you are before setting out. I had already done a great deal of group and solo travel beforehand. I always found that I do better on my own. Sometimes it is hard to like yourself all of the time. But, if you always need other people around, you never get down to the true spirit of your personal being.
Remember you are an individual. You are your own person. You have the power to control your future and be whomever you would like to be. Don’t forget to be you.
My 10 Lessons From Cycling the World:
Lesson #10 ~ Everything Will Never Be Perfect: So Start Today
Lesson #9 ~ You Don’t Need All That Stuff: Cherish What You Have
Lesson #8 ~ The World is NOT Scary: Travel
Lesson #7 ~ Exercise is the Best Medicine: Get Outside & Explore
Lesson #6 ~ Times Will Change: So Will You
Lesson #5 ~ The World is Full of Delicious Food: Have a Taste
Lesson #4 ~ We Can Make a Difference: Give Back
Lesson #3 ~ Never Give Up: It’s Not That Bad
Lesson #2 ~ People Are Friendly: Say Hello
Lesson #1 ~ You are the Only You: Be Yourself
Thank you for reading all the way to the end. I believe all ten of these lessons do not just pertain to a bicycle ride, but are part of a much larger picture of how we can live. Take care of yourself, explore and be the best person you can be.
*Two days ago we reached the final goal for the fifth school in El Trapiche and the ultimate goal of $50,000. I am overwhelmed with the support over the course of the last two years. Additions are always welcome and will be put towards work in developing the community of El Trapiche. Updates on all of five of our schools to come soon! CLICK DONATE.
** Stay tuned for future posts and thank you for continuing to read!
Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?
(Spice Markets: Kabul, Afghanistan)
Lesson #5- The World is Full of Delicious Food: Have a Taste
“Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.” ~ Doug Larson, Columnist
—-> With transportation, trade and communication bridging the gap between countries around the world, we are privileged to a wider array of ingredients, flavours and information than ever before in history. People used to sacrifice their lives bringing spices from China and India, now they are available in almost every town. We eat the foods that were once only available to the richest and most powerful people. We have the opportunity to eat, healthy fresh and delicious food from around the world.
However, many of us fill our stomachs, baskets and fridges, with subsidized junk. Food that lacks energy, takes zero effort to make, expands your waistline and does nothing more than fill that empty hole. In return, we get the sluggish people, slow minds and self-inflicted sickness. Taking a bit of extra time to prepare something healthy will repay you in the long run. With the food selection today, healthy does not just mean salad anymore.
When I was on my cycling trip and actually had the opportunity to visit a ‘real’ grocery store, I would often go in and spend hours just gawking at the excess. Coming from the mountains, desert or countryside into a big city and visiting one of these stores, I felt like an alien. Typically I would shop at local markets and tiny shops on my route. Almost every grocery store in Canada is packed to the brim with foods that can make us feel awesome, but we oftentimes choose items packed with salt, sugar and fat. If you don’t know how to cook, buy a beginner cookbook, take a class or ask a friend to help you. It’s never to late to learn.
“If we’re not willing to settle for junk living, we certainly shouldn’t settle for junk food.” ~ Sally Edwards, Author
On my website, I almost always made a point of sharing at least one recipe from all of the countries I made my way through. I believe to understand and experience the food of a culture is half the battle. It is the gateway into people’s homes and lives. Whenever I passed through new lands I always ate what the local people ate. Often times, it was the cheapest and most delicious thing to be had. Chow Fan in China, Kabuli in Afghanistan, Biryani in India, Kushari in Egypt, Shawarma in Turkey, Pizza in Italy, Chips Mai in Tanzania, Braai in South Africa, Encebollado in Ecuador, Ceviche in Panama, Tacos in Mexico and Barbecue in the United States. The list goes on. My stomach growls just thinking about it all.
In any big city you can experience food from all over the world. A quick Google search will allow you to step into new culinary adventure in any big city. You’ll find hidden gems that will keep you coming back. Remember, in Canada we are able to eat bananas in December and mangos in February. We are a lucky people. Take a chance and have a bite of someone else’s culture. You might just be surprised.
(You can expect a post on my top ten favourite dishes from around the world in the future.)
*Less than $320 to go to the final goal of $50,000 and the last schoolhouse in El Trapiche Nicaragua. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**Tomorrow you can expect Lesson #4 from the road. Thank you for reading! 🙂
Kabul Pulao – Afghan Cooking
A 12 minute read
“Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done while jostling in the street.” ~ William Blake, Painter/Poet
Hiding behind a woollen cover I look out onto another day. Breathing in the cool mountain morning I put the last piece of my daily bicycle puzzle together. Every piece a place. Jumping up I kick my slow horse into gear. Everyday similarly individual. The raw world can shake us to the bone. Revealing our weaknesses. Bringing out characters we never knew were there. I’ve played many men on this journey. A revolving drama of many actors. Men of confidence and utter fear. Contempt and pain. Overjoy and peace. Reality and fiction. I live in all of these moments. When I wake in the mountains on a cool morning sunrise, I play the man of hope and light. If only for a few hours.
I moved out of Thessaloniki with careful reluctance. The cobblestone roads bounced me down through a maze of hilly city. Beautiful does not describe these types of places. Where you move from grainy black and white into modern colour. I prefer the black and white. The unknown and obscurely solitary. On coloured highway I shot under threateningly full clouds across the ancient landscape of Greek Macedonia. Pulling into a service station after a mornings ride to fill my water bottles I plopped down to have a break. Over a cheesy breakfast pastry I discussed the road ahead with a jovial man. The station seemed to have seen better days, but he was more than excited to welcome me in. He explained that less than ten kilometres down the road was the birthplace of the famed conqueror Alexander the Great. Palla was the village. I had to visit. Surveying the area with low-lying ruins, I was transported to a different age.
Thousands of kilometres back in Afghanistan I visited Balkh. Here was the ancient capital where Alexander spread his empire and married Roxana of Bactria. (Read about my experiences in Afghanistan HERE & HERE) How amazing our lives can be. The road under my tires easy and free. His road one of historic conquest and tyranny. Different lives, centuries removed. Rolling along I could feel the history in the low hills. One of the most iconic figures in ancient history lumbering on horseback to the unknown horizon. My ride is easy for me in a sense. I can find out about the road ahead, the weather, countries and people. Most things have been discovered. There is generally an opinion, article or document on almost all of it. Generally, I have no idea, time or regard for these things, but they are there. Alexander expanded, explore and conquered almost as far as India on his campaign. What a journey it must have been.
Today, adventures are much different. They are more about personal development, education and exploration. Though most of the discoveries I make each day have already been made and documented by others, they are all new to me. The name of the game is to experience these new moments in my life and take it in stride. We only have one shot at life and I intend on making the most of it. Each of us has our own paths. This is mine. Someone else may think it ludicrous to ride a bike through many countries, I find it exhilarating. Our journey through life is all our own. Choose your adventure.
“I am inclined to measure a tramp by the time taken rather than by the miles. If a hundred miles is covered in a week it is a longer tramp than if it is rushed in three days.” ~ Stephen Graham, Author/Visionary
While I was riding along I met a fellow adventurer on an early morning ride. He was tramping along and I just had to stop. He shouted across the road and asked if I had a minute for a chat. Of course I did. We discussed travels ahead and behind while I devoured some bread and jam. He offered me fresh honey and pomegranate juice. His name was David. He is currently walking from Italy to India. Meeting him in Greece, he had already been on the road for a year. Stopping in some places for longer periods than others. David has an awesome outlook on life and a fantastic road ahead of him. Making my bicycle look like a rocket ship, I give him special credit for tackling such a monster. Step-by-step he’ll make it. To follow along on his epic journey check out his website HERE.
My final day in Greece was one of my most memorable rides of the entire trip. The views from Edessa to where I finished my day in Bitola, Macedonia were astounding. I began the day with a rather large climb out of Edessa and the cool morning shone all the way into a warm afternoon. Through slow valleys I shot, with snowcapped mountains looming and quiet monasteries resting. A sign proclaiming the ‘Wine Roads of Macedonia’ emerged on the highway. Riding along I watched the beautiful green hills being prepared for the following year of growth amidst blowing mustard seed. Grape trees being trimmed broke the silence on that open road. Words cannot describe the magic or beauty.
About ten kilometres from the border of Macedonia I made a quick stop to get some water. I saw an inviting shop in a tiny town, on a thin road. I rolled over and was greeted by some of the most friendly people on my journey. They served a full meal and we talked of my travels and their history. They were a Greek family who had lived in Toronto for over seventeen years before moving back in the nineties. The wife claiming they were, “The best years of my life.” Feeling insanely proud of my home, I began to prepare my bike to leave when they handed me a packed bag full of delicious baguette sandwiches, feta, fruits and chocolate. I was lost for words again. Hopping back on my bike I flew to the border and crossed into my eighth country, Macedonia. Wild peacocks roamed around freely at the border and a curious border guard welcomed me in. Strange and wonderful was the first feeling. The afternoon silence descended upon my bike and eerie bails of hay in the distance.
Macedonia was outstanding. The ride from Bitola to the Lake Ohrid was fantastic and a journey not to be missed. Easily doable in a day and one of breathtaking views. However, in the last downhill I got caught in some painful hail on the top of a mountain climb with nowhere to hide as huge trucks splashed me with freezing water. The hail turned into ice cold rain as I made my plunge down the hill. Thankfully there was a warm place to dry out at the bottom of the hill in touristic Ohrid. I aired out and explored the picturesque city before making the journey to Albania on the other side of the lake. The border of the two countries cutting the Lake Ohrid almost in two.
Huffing up a very steep climb of 15km’s I rolled over into Albania. Exchanging a few Euros I grabbed a cup of tea and sat in a smokey cafe with a load of long distance truckers. Though stretches between countries are very small in this part of the world, they are all very different. Upon entering Albania I noticed that it was immediately less wealthy, but no less beautiful. The landscape took me up and down a dangerous road with heart stopping views. I think I had been alone too long in obscure countries because I distinctly remember screaming for no other reason than to scream. Screaming for joy. Singing terribly off key songs up steep hills with all wrong lyrics. My legs strong enough to carry my heavily loaded bicycle over long mountain climbs with relative ease. Powerful is the word.
One thing I did notice about Albania was the complete excitement of the children to see me rolling by as they walked home from school. Giving them a thumbs up I raced on. I also noticed the mountain landscape covered by hundreds of military bunkers. History lesson: Over 700,000 bunkers were commissioned by Enver Hoxha during a paranoid period of dictatorial rule. For years Albania was closed to the world and has only recently begun to recover and prosper. Stopping to recharge at little shops I was greeted by excited people wearing quizzical looks. I felt fantastic as I made my way through the capital of Tirana and eventually onto the coastal city of Durres. The mixture of mosques and churches was very interesting to explore as I sorted my bike for departure.
Getting soaked in a huge downpour I made a quick escape and boarded an overnight fast ferry headed for Bari, Italy. Drying off inside, I curled up on the floor of the ferry in my sleeping bag for the night. Listening to the hum of the engines as the boat rocked back and forth in the stormy weather, I reflected on the whirlwind last few days. Did it really even happen? Here I was headed to Italy. It seemed almost as if another chapter was opening. One of new roads and panoramic exploration. History and culture were mixing for me on the other side of the ferry doors. I say yes to the next chapter. Making my way through Italy and onto Africa I jump at the chance. Here’s to not knowing what will happen next!
*I would like to thank all of the school kids in Canada for continuing to support my journey. I hope everyone had an amazing, relaxing and safe March Break vacation. Work hard and dream with full minds. I have also taken this opportunity to have a short hiatus while some people very close to me have come to visit in beautiful Italy. Back on the bike next week and headed towards Africa. We all need and should remember to take a break somtimes. To continue supporting the children in Verdara, India and the road to a new school CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**Also, for those of you that missed it at home or online, here is the link to the wonderful story on my ride done by the amazing people at Global News. Thank you to everyone who liked, shared and spread the word about my journey. I would especially like to thank Jennifer Tryon for making it all come together in the end as well as Mark Blanchard for being a hero in getting the video files sent from India. CLICK HERE TO WATCH.
***Here is an exert from an amazing e-mail I got from a close friend after my interview aired. It captures what I sometimes find hard to say.
“You are a tramp, you are a vagabond. You are welcome everywhere but you belong nowhere. Not now. You see that this is no one’s land, even though we seem to think it is. We seem to think we own it, and that it owes us something. The land owes us nothing, but we can use it, temporarily. We build and we build and we forget what was there before we built. We forget about rivers, we forget about trees, about mountains, and deserts and rocks and dirt. We forget to watch the sun set, and to watch it rise. While the rest of the world worries about about a recession, terrorism, vaccinations, and playoffs, Mark is going day by day. Mark is awake, and then he isn’t.”
“What is poverty like in your country? Is it the same as here in Afghanistan?.. More chai?” ~ Local Shopkeeper, Kabul
News reports flash on a grainy television in a busy cafe around noon. Everyone stops what they are doing. The daily update. The newscaster reads from a piece of paper. A man driving a motorcycle had rammed a British convoy car with an explosive device strapped to him, killing 5 people and injuring many others. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack. People in the cafe go back to their work or food shaking their heads. This is nothing new. Wondering at the news, I asked where it happened. Turns out not more than a few kilometres away. Later that night a guesthouse was the target of another attack, resulting in a gunfight. Helicopters whirled all night long in the sky. In the last ten days, eight attacks in the capital.
I went back to eating my kabuli palao, thinking to myself. Should I be worried about this? I know I am not invincible, but everyone has been so nice. This is a beautiful country, how can such horrible things be happening on a daily basis? I feel relatively safe, or maybe that is just the man in sunglasses guarding my guest house with an AK-47. The food is so good. The markets are bursting with colours and sights. Mountain peaks loom in the distance. There is more fascinating history and local customs than I can even begin to understand. The people are proud. They are strong. They all simply want peace. To not have to look blankly at TV screens giving more bad news. These people need good news. Something to hold onto. Hope for a better future.
I was only in Afghanistan for a short time. When I left the situation seemed to be declining in the capital, with the US declaring they would leave more troops in Afghanistan than expected to train police and the army on how to combat the Taliban insurgency. However, during my time there I asked more questions, had more memorable conversations and felt a stronger sense of pride for having come than anywhere else I have been. The people were passionate about their home and hopes for the future. It was inspiring, an education and a harsh reality check.
To begin to understand the present state of Afghanistan, you have to look at the events of last thirty-five years. In essence, they have been at a state of war since then. For some people, this is all they have ever known. If they were born in the seventies, they came along at the end of the heyday for tourism. It was once very popular to go to Afghanistan for travel. It was off the main road, but still safe, exciting and full of history. For those that saw it, they would remember a very different Afghanistan. That all changed with the Russian invasion and the ensuing years of civil war. This followed by the Taliban take over, along with their fundamentalist Islamic government and policies. (All men were to grow beards, no music, no education for women and compulsory burqas in public, to name a few.) Onwards to the US led ‘War on Terror’, the ousting of the Taliban and the creeping unrest that still plagues the country today with regular suicide bombings and rebel attacks.
“The Taliban are not a force to be considered invincible. They are distanced from the people now. They are weaker than in the past. There is only the assistance given by Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden and other extremist groups that keep the Taliban on their feet. With a halt to that assistance, it is extremely difficult to survive.” ~ Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan Political Leader, Assassinated September 9th, 2001
But who exactly are the Taliban? Are they Afghanis? Where do these people reside? Where do these extremist values stem from? Are suicide bombings and oppression of rights in the Koran? How do the local people feel?
The Taliban literally means, ‘students’, and that is what they are. They are typically young Afghan refugees or Pakistani boys with bleak opportunities for the future. These boys go to religious schools called Madrassas found in many parts of Pakistan, funded by Saudi Arabian money. Osama Bin Laden, was not an Afghan and neither are a lot of the leading members. The Taliban preys on the desperation of young boys to build an army groomed for extremist hatred. They give them guns, fill them with corrupt ideals and offer them money, which their families need. Usually, they have few other options. When you hear about attacks on the news it can be very confusing to understand which group is aligned with whom. Some governments and organizations playing both sides of the fence. There are two factions of Taliban, one defined group based in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. They both bear the same name, but are not always on the same side.
These are not opinions expressed and presented in the Holy Koran or the Muslim people. After reading parts of it, I can see the many commonalities between texts like the Bible and Torah. The message, the goal and ideals. In the Koran it even repeatedly mentions people like Jesus and Moses. However, it has been used by Madrassas in Pakistan as a tool to teach boys how to think, based solely on the interpretation of Taliban values. Seeing Islam practiced in Afghanistan in its purity, I can attest to that. The main teachings of the Muslim faith are based upon kindness, helping others, giving away wealth and giving thanks to the one God, Allah. These are kind people that opened up their homes, shops and lives to me, with no expectation in return. The Muslim people have been the most welcoming of anywhere I have traveled in the world. Fact!
I arrived in Kabul, the capital, after a few days of touring around Mazar-I-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan. I elected not to cycle due to safety and local advice. With my bicycle stowed, we headed over the famed Salang Pass along switchbacks of snowcapped mountains on the edge of the Hindu Kush. The road was in a word, destroyed. Built by the Soviets in the 70’s, it is in desperate need of repair. However, that would involve shutting down the main line of transportation in an already struggling country. Dust billows so thick that even in the bus I couldn’t breath. Cycling would have been a nightmare. On the descent we passed through the beautiful Panjshir Valley, where the dust settled along river and leaves are still changing colour.
I arrived in Kabul, disoriented and on the edge of town. I packed up my bike and moved towards the city centre to the cheapest guest house I could find. The cheaper the better. High-end hotels have recently been prime targets for attacks. I did my best to keep a low profile, by blending in with the new modern Afghani look, sporting a leather jacket and headscarf. Quite often I was mistaken for an Afghan while I was out walking around. One man I talked with named Fardid said, “I thought you were from Afghanistan, until I saw the way you eat rice with your hands.” Guess I need more practice.
During my time in Kabul, I was met with amazing admiration once people found out I was a tourist. If they spoke English, most people began by asking me where I worked. Once they saw I was there for my own curiosity, the people were always excited. Tourists are a thing of the past at the moment. I was also decidedly in Afghanistan during the ‘off season’, whenever that peaks I’m not quite sure. One shop owner regaled me of the glorious past on the famous Chicken Street. Over chai he discussed what things were like back in the seventies. You could see the twinkle in his eye, longing for the past. Foreigners coming from all over to collect antiques and experience a culture worlds away. There are still parts of Afghanistan where you can literally step right back into a century ago.
The following day I bought a carpet from a man who was 86 years old. Even before discussing the possibility of purchasing one of Afghanistan’s beloved handmade carpets, we drank chai sabz (green tea) and talked about our families, his journey through life and my own. He had owned a carpet store in Kabul for 65 years. He said that, “Now my time here is finished, this is your time”. What he must have seen through the years as Kabul was changed and shaped through Kings, war, prosperity and decline, is beyond me. My brief revelations and experiences are nothing. He invited me back for lunch at his shop the following day at 11:30. “Don’t break your promise,” he said. I was right on time.
I walked in the ruins of the King Amanullah Khan’s, Darul Aman Palace. I strode in the peaceful oasis of King Babur’s Gardens. I explored the ancient Ka Faroshi Bird Market, dated back over 300 years. I struggled through crowded markets. I watched quietly with wondering eyes at the hard realities of war in the faces of the people. In the most heavily mined country on the planet, people struggling along in the street missing limbs still trying to get by was a common sight. There were many people begging, mostly women and children, due to the lack of jobs and availability of education. It was too much at times, as I retreated to my little guest house, reeling on overload from the outside world.
One message I heard again and again as I traveled about talking to people was, “Our neighbours (countries) don’t want Afghanistan to be a good country, like we were before”.
Afghanistan is amazing. The things I learned there cannot be taught or understood from brief clips on the evening news. The problems plaguing this country are deeply rooted, complex and will require years of recovery, positive initiatives and a whole lot of work. But there is hope. Maybe I will even be able to help. I will return here one day. I will come back looking for that better tomorrow. To see tourists walking in rows down Chicken Street and jostling each other in the markets. To see the long lost twinkle in the shopkeepers eye. I look forward to it. But for now it is simply hidden. Don’t forget Afghanistan.
***I now fly to Chennai, India from Kabul. With the road blocked to Iran by annoying Travel Visa restrictions, denial of a Pakistan Tourist Visa and a strong desire not to cycle in Kazakhstan or Russia in the winter, I head to India. It is somewhere I have always wanted to go and where I will build the next school with Free the Children in Rajasthan Province. Though my straight line around the world is broken, I see it as a perfect opportunitiy to cycle one of the most exciting, beautiful and historic countries in the world. Better to experience this world with a positive attitude, then riding for the sake of riding, through snow covered Kazak Steppe. I will be cycling a loop from Chennai down south near the tip of India, up the west coast through Rajasthan and eventually heading inland to New Delhi. Click the link to donate to the next school in India.*** CLICK TO DONATE
“I have not told half of what I saw” ~ Marco Polo, Explorer
I rode out of Samarkand, westwards towards Bukhara. I moved at an indifferent pace, as if something was calling me. My mind had been preoccupied for days with one thing. Afghanistan. It kept ringing in my head. I knew I had to go there. With the route to Iran blocked by visa restrictions, Afghanistan had become my new destiny. A slice of Silk Road obscurity like no other. Thoughts of it ate up most of my waking moments. Like a skipping record in the back of my mind the word rang on repeating cycles. I couldn’t shake it anymore as I read news reports and practiced speaking Dari in poorly lit rooms at night. Going to Bukhara would just prolong the inevitable. My curiosity peaked. I stopped my bike and consulted my map. Turning around, I headed Southeast towards Afghanistan.
First impressions of Afghanistan are ones of fascination and total confusion. It is decidedly the most unique country I have been to, for a myriad of reasons. After naviagting my way through questioning and searches by heavily armed Uzbeki customs agents, I made it to the other side. Upon crossing the ‘Friendship Bridge’ across the Amu-Darya River to Afghanistan, the view immediately changed. I was let into Afghanistan with barely a look by a joyful guard who just wondered at my bicycle with admiring eyes. All the advice I had been given and my general preconceptions were out the window. I was alone again. Alone in Afghanistan.
As my bicycle strode along the mud brick barbed wired walls, I felt a sense of adventure, fear, excitement and joy, like nowhere else I have felt in the world. I pedalled along trying to wipe the adrenaline enduced smile from my face. Though I was excited to finally have arrived, I was not taking the situation and my surroundings lightly. There is still a war being waged here, as the country fights back insurgency. Doing the proper research beforehand is essential and there are some places you just don’t go. It is no walk in the park. Infrastructure is limited and things can change quite quickly.
However, upon entering the country, the feelings I had were quite different than what I was made to believe. The demeanour of the men was of playful curiosity and resilience. Unveiled women walked by talking with friends, while some blustered along towards markets in the typical blue or white burqas (chaderis); the purposes of which are greatly misunderstood back home in the west. While some children played a game with an old battery and a crack in the road. This was not a backpacker trail to Southeast Asia or a gap year ‘adventure’ in Europe. This was the real thing.
After a few kilometres of riding I entered the nearest border town called Hairatan. I had an idea what I planned to do next, but thought I’d ask for some help. Stopping my bike I got off and in less than a minute I had drawn a gathering crowd of curious onlookers and gawkers. We both gawked. It was deemed unsafe for me to ride alone for the next 70km to the centre of my first destination, Mazar-I-Sharif. After a short haggle, my bike was strapped to the top of an old station wagon and gear tossed in the back. Climbing in with two men, two teenagers, the driver, a women in the back with a baby and all my stuff, it felt like any old road trip. We flitted quickly across flat scrubby desert landscape passing a tank going full speed in the afternoon sun. The people were curious about me and we laughed at the old man beside me who snorted snuff all the way to his stop and attempted to convince me to trade sweaters or lend him my glasses because of his bad eyesight. He held his snuff container like a jewel no one else could lay eyes upon.
Between enjoying the old man’s theatrics, a baby played with my toque in the back, I was asked by the teenagers for my Facebook and talked serious business with the guy beside me named Aziz. He appeared to be a hardworking man and complained of the lack of jobs in Afghanistan. He told me of the turmoil the Taliban and war has caused his country over the last thirteen years. Quoting, “Forty-eight countries have come to help Afghanistan, but it is no better, Canada too.” I could say nothing. What could I say? I immediately felt very small. The situation was no longer something I had seen on TV. This was a real person expressing a deep longing for peace and stability in lives of his family of eight. I got out in Mazar-I-Sharif, dizzied by the chaotic traffic bustling in all directions, loaded up my bike and threw myself into it, searching for a place to sleep.
I checked into the Aria Hotel. A quaint little hole in the wall on the edge of the beautifully famed pilgrimage Shrine of Hazrat Ali. It is the burial place of the Islamic prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law. While I peered up the stairs an old man shouted at a boy to get away from my bike as I went inside to find someone working there. I desperately wanted to be away from the street with my big bicycle. I met the manager of the hotel, quickly negotiated a price and we lifted my bike inside. At that moment, I met another man whom I hoped was not staying or working at the hotel. He was beady-eyed, unwashed, short and plainly unnerving man. Maybe this was all in my head. I later found out he was the caretaker nicknamed ‘Mr. Kung-Fu’ and would watch over me during my stay. Apparently, he takes his job very seriously and I actually felt nothing but safe under his care as he brought me a knife to cut open my pomegranates that afternoon. He would later take joy in hiding my shoes or knock at my door and run away. My room reeked of hashish and I could smell the communal washroom in wafts.
That first day I explored the bazaars, exchanged money on the street, purchased some suitable clothes and ate delicious Kabuli with a new companion I met at the hotel named Fawad. Kabuli is basically rice palao, with carrots and raisins served with grilled meat, accompanied by fresh veggies, brown beans, bread and obligatory chai. In Afghanistan eating with your hands is the norm and I quickly revived some of the sloppy techniques I had learned while traveling in Bangladesh. As night fell on the city and police trucks with machine gun instalments on the roof crawled by, I drank a fresh carrot juice from a vendor in the street. I watched as shopkeepers closed up with the scratch of metal doors. The evening call to prayer echoed like a falling siren washing across the city to the faithful. I took a final sip from my juice and returned to my hashish soaked sheets. I knew everything was going to be alright.
Also, check out this amazing video on the faces and beauty of Afghanistan. It really is like nowhere else. If you are having trouble viewing the video click here: Afghanistan – Touchdown in Flight
(See pictures from my first day below)