Figuring out what to do in Mazar
Staying or moving around the country ?
Mornings in Mazar
I’ve spent my first week in Aamo Hotel, and after the first night, I realised that the restaurant below my windows started to fry and roast before the sun came up. The smell was forcing me out of bed quite early, and I was roaming the streets in search of breakfast. On a street corner, a man had a stall where he was serving cardamom milk with round breads. That was not really helping me to wake up from my morning joints, but the alternative was the roasted chicken.
I like waking up early. Being in the streets for sunrise, I could see different scenes and different people than in the day. I am used to drinking Indian chay in the morning and without it, I have a hard time waking up. So I have a foggy memory from these early walks in Mazar, but two things are still very clear.
The first is the sight of a big deer tied to a butcher shop. It was in a foggy, deserted street. He had big horns, vapours blowing from his nostrils, almost as tall as a horse. He was waiting patiently for his fate, and the scene seemed so surreal to me as I just jumped out of bed. I can’t tell what species it was, but I know that Afghanistan has a population of endangered “bactrian deers”.
The second scene that puzzled me, but also gave me much more to think about, was seeing a young street kid picking up garbage. It was very early in the morning, and he looked so exhausted, collecting things on the floor like a machine in slow motion. He was all grey, his face, his hair, his clothes, fading in the surroundings. If I stopped the description here, this scene could take place anywhere in the world, but what deeply disturbed me was that the kid, in this sad grey scene, was wearing neon orange adult soccer shoes with cleats. They were not tied, and it looked like a real pain to walk with them on the asphalt. I felt there was something really wrong with what I was seeing, and I wondered how these shoes ended up on his feet. Was it the kind of supply the West was sending to Afghanistan ? I later realised that most clothes sold on the market were actually second-hand clothes from the west. I will get to that in more detail.
When the sun was up, I would go to the public showers. It was a busy place, with individual showers and plenty of hot water. With all the steam, it really looked like a hammam.
Asking around where it is safe to go
I had so many questions on my mind, but very few answers. Everyone I talked to told me to be careful with my phone. In the streets, some were selling chains to leash your phone to your wrist. I tried one, and I thought it was a bit extreme to hold my phone this way.
I also started to ask around where I could eventually travel to. I had in mind to go, if possible, to Shebaghan or Herat to the west and maybe Bamyan in the centre of the country. Asking around about those destinations and how to get there, people did not have much information to give me. Many told me to get a plane to go to Herat, but for that I needed to first fly to Kabul. I could meet people going to or coming from Kabul, and it seemed to be the safest place to go by road. By “safest” I mean that around half the people I asked said it was safe to go. I would ask “Do you think I can go to Kabul by bus?” and some would answer “No, it is not safe, and it can take several days depending on the weather.” Others would say “Yes, no problem, I did the journey yesterday, it was fine, but you never know.”
So it was hard to make a decision about travelling. Despite all the things people warned me about, I didn’t feel it was such a dangerous place to be, even for my phone. I freaked out a bit the first evening and made sure to avoid going out during the rush hour afterwards.
The first chillum
One evening, the English-speaking guy from the hotel brought me to his family home. They had a few cannabis plants growing in the garden, a horse and chickens, just outside the city centre.
We went into a room where men would get together and smoke chillum. I smoked on the chillum with the elders of the family, father, grandfather and uncles, but not the son who had brought me there. I started to take pictures that you can see in the book “Afghanistan, Fortress of Cannabis” and they were all so surprised that I smoked, that I liked it, and that I even wanted to take pictures of them!
As we came back to the hotel, the sun was going down, and people were starting to rush home. The hotel guy turned to me and asked, “You are not scared to go out at this time?” I told him, “It is OK, but later I would probably feel incomfortable. For now, look around us. Everybody looks nice, the sunlight is beautiful, I walk with you, it is 6PM, I am high, I don’t see anything that would scare me right now.” He told me that his cousins from Kandahar would never dare go out at this time when they come to visit. I understood we had to shorten the chillum session because he still had to go back home after dropping me at the hotel.
After a week, I realised that travelling around the country would be either costly or dangerous. Staying in Mazar seemed to be the safest and cheapest option. There were already so many things in Mazar I wanted to find out about, including the cannabis fields and the hash makers. Maybe I could get a better hotel if I bargained for a longer duration. Maybe I could extend my visa. After a week, I felt that I wanted to see more and that it was safe enough to stay if I was cautious.
UP NEXT: Settling down in Mazar