Last week I wrote variously about warmth, watermelon, Proust, Afghanistan. With all that floating about, I thought today about my own experiences of Afghanistan.
They are extremely limited. Haven’t even been there. I only came close once, in the early 80s, on a bus that had an overland route from Delhi to London (the “Magic Bus”). I got on in Istanbul, and was seriously tempted to head East. But, aside from the fact that I had already overstayed my trip, there was a Brit continuing on from the Delhi/Pakistan/Afghan side who warned strenuously against it. He was a tousled (and tired) young lad who, after getting very drunk in London after breaking up with his girlfriend, woke on a plane to Bombay. With no return plane ticket, he’d ended up on the bus home, which, he shuddered, had gotten through Afghanistan only by chance. Theyhad been pulled over—by Freedom Fighters? The Taliban?–somehow he’d managed to hide the fact that he was British and get through.
I got on the bus for London, but my interest/passion for Asia was further inflamed. Turkey had ignited it. Some people just love the exotic, I suppose, and patterns –that wonderful conglomeration of patterns that I always associate with Central Asia had already captivated me – the layers of geometry – rugs, mosaics, scarfs, tunics, pants, arches.
Soon after, I was able to go to India myself. And all those things I’d thought to find fascinating were, in fact, fascinating. Also overwhelming. A few months into my stay, I took a break in Goa.
Goa, back then, was not India. Yes, it was legally part of the country, but well–women greeted my boat at dawn with gathered skirts and baskets of freshly-baked yeasted bread. They even had sausages! Sausages! It was mindblowing (and I don’t even eat meat!)
The beachtowns were largely taken over by Westerners, if I can include Australians and Israelis in that category. Sun-beached, sun-tanned people that seemed like stragglers from Haight-Ashbury, refugees from the 60s. Everybody was beautiful, welcoming, (at the beach) nude.
I soon discovered one important difference from Goa of the 80s and my sense of the hippified 60’s. There was lots and lots of of heroin. People, stupid people, had the idea that it would not be addictive if smoked, so they were constantly rolling it up into tobacco.
I’ve never been very interested in drugs, any drugs. I suppose I was just too (a) unconsciously maternal (had to preserve the good old bod); and (b) concerned about my own inherent manic-d-daily tendencies, to want to take anything that could hurt me, or induce feelings I couldn’t just stop. So trying to steer clear of the drug scene, I quickly took a room outside of town, and focused on yoga.
Easier said than done. My room turned out to be in a house, that yes, had a very nice Goan family in one half, but also had a group of young Himalayans in the back (they sold Hashish); a very helpful older British man in the front (he turned out to be financing his trip by being a mule), and, in the house next store, a group of Afghanis. They were apparently the center of the heroin trade.
My Afghani was not one of the guys next door; he lived, he always told me, at the edge of the beach. He was wonderful– tall, broad-shouldered, handsome in a non-movie star, real person kind of way, with a slightly hawkish nose, very thoughtful eyes, a sweet smile. He was quite pale – well, pink–you couldn’t completely escape the sun in Goa even if you only came out late afternoons.
I met him in the late afternoons at a little straw hut that served tea and fruit (watermelon!) and little omeletty things.
He, like all the Afghanis, always kept his clothes on – those long tunic-like shirts that have a western style collar and sleeves but drape almost to the knees over billowing pants, always pastels. I too always had my clothes on in that little hut.
Usually, we’d just sit and talk about literature and look at the sun setting over the Indian Ocean. He loved Jack London. “The Call of the Wild,” he’d smile, shaking his head. The sun went down incredibly quickly when it got to the lip of the horizon, so slow so low so slow, and then, blip, disappearing in less than a glance.
He said he’d been a chemist in Afghanistan, but had to leave because of the war. (This one with the Russians.) He seemed to have fought, to have been particularly targeted, to have to leave.
He laughed a lot, gently. Sometimes we watched a bunch of Germans, in the distance, who did nude calisthenics in the evening cool. They were red, some wiry, some not–luckily a bit too far to see clearly.
It was an odd scene, Goa.
Because my Afghani did not live with the rest of the Afghanis, I never connected him with the heroin trade, but, now it’s difficult to imagine how or why he could have been there if he was not part of it.
My housemate, the drug mule, was furious with the Afghanis by the end of his stay, complaining how they followed people out to the beaches. These were always people who were making a point of trying to quit heroin; who were avoiding the towns, the late night cafes, but, my housemate fumed, the dealers themselves would track them.
I used to think, as my housemate raged, that if these friends of his really wanted to quit, they should probably not stay in Goa. But they didn’t seem able to leave.
This is reposted for Imperfect Prose.