I’ve always thought that my Dad is one of the unlikeliest of world travelers. A farm boy from rural Western Canada, he loves peace and quiet, the countryside, tractors, good coffee and meals that involve potatoes. And yet, like a hobbit leaving the comforts of the Shire, he has spent much of his adult life in parts of the world that would scare even many seasoned explorers.
One day, when I was 16 years old, my Dad was driving me in an old Russian Jeep from Kabul to the town of Torkham on the border with Pakistan. My wisdom teeth had made an early appearance and needed to come out. I had a dental appointment in Islamabad, Pakistan the following day.
As I looked out at the barren, dusty mountains and rocky gorges, I prayed for an adventure. I didn’t tell Dad this of course, and I imagined that he was probably praying for a smooth and uneventful journey. As fascinating as I found this part of the world, I had made this journey many times before and was hoping for something out-of-the ordinary.
We arrived in Torkham in the late afternoon. A border town between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Torkham sits in the opening of the famed Khyber Pass if you are entering it from the Afghan side. As the jeep was registered in Afghanistan only, we had to park it before crossing the border and catch public transport on the Pakistani side.
When we arrived Dad found a place to park the jeep with permission from the Afghan border police. As it had a canvas top, he set about securing it as best he could with a tarpaulin, locks and chains. With lingering doubts, he sent me down to the bazaar to buy some extra padlocks while he attached another chain.
Securing the jeep took a little bit longer than we thought, and when we finally trudged to the border crossing carrying nothing but our small backpacks, we were dismayed to see the gates had just been slammed shut. Crowds of people on the Afghan side were still arguing with the Pakistani border guards, trying to get through.
Dad and I pushed our way to the front to try to speak to the Pakistani officer and explain our situation. He was unsympathetic. “You are too late. We closed 5 minutes ago. Come back tomorrow. I have my orders: no one can now cross.” And just to make sure that we understood that our foreign passports did not give us extra privileges, he stood up as straight as he could and bellowed: “Not ANYBODY!!”
The crowds continued to push and shove, with one or two men squeezing past and making a run into Pakistan, dodging the Pakistani police who beat them with sticks as they ran past. Somehow in the midst of this melee someone stealthily slit the bottom of my backpack with a razor blade. I didn’t notice it at the time, and thankfully the incision wasn’t big enough to get anything out of my bag.
Discouraged, we turned back to the Afghan side, unsure of what to do. A shifty looking man approached us and offered to guide us into Pakistan on an “alternative route” for a small fee. As much as I loved the thought of taking the smuggler’s route, Dad sensibly shook his head.
We found a local chai khana (teahouse) and ordered kebabs for dinner. After eating we drank cups of cardamom-spiced green tea and chatted with colourful local travelers who were all trying to go to Pakistan. One man told us that he had a career in making “antique” carpets. Apparently they fetched more money if they had been battered and worn by having cars drive over them for a few days before being sold on the other side of the border.
The chai khana had a small room out the back where, for a small handful of Afghanis we were put up for the night. While Dad doesn’t sleep well at the best of times, I can sleep almost anywhere. But the thin toshak provided almost no cushioning of the lumpy, hard floor beneath, the thin blankets provided little relief against the cold mountain air, and the fleas in the bedding persisted in biting despite the most furious of scratching. I slept little; Dad did not sleep at all.
And yet, as uncomfortable as it all was, I secretly loved the experience. Discomfort and adventure go hand-in-hand. Spending a night in the Khyber Pass – which has witnessed countless invaders and characters from the pages of the history books I loved – was the adventure I had dreamed of. I quietly breathed a prayer of gratitude for the experience.
The next morning we crossed the border, caught a ride to Peshawar, and re-booked my dental appointment. The remainder of the journey went smoothly. Little did I know then that Dad and I would share a very similar adventure in the wilds of Central Afghanistan over ten years later…