With that as the send-off, we were beyond the Tajik border in no-mans-land on the way to Afghanistan.
I honestly don’t think I’d ever felt true anxiety until that moment. So many thoughts, so quickly. Is this a terrible idea? Are we making a mistake? Should I tell people I’m American? By doing so am I endangering myself and the two other foreigners I’m traveling with?
And then we met Zeki. To be fair, he didn’t even do a whole lot. Gave us a ride in the back of his company Jeep, walked with us through the market and surrounding village, and did a little translating since we walked in with no Dari. What he did, though, was to act as a sort of foundation for getting acquainted with the area. Some sort of touchstone to go back to when we wondered about the looks from market salesmen or the best way to interact with this unfamiliar new place.
And then, just that easily, it clicked. There were still some moments of small discomfort. The local police demanding passport copies and photos chief amongst them. But, for the most part, the people we met were just people.
They wanted, mostly, to see the pictures you took after that had agreed through that universal traveler sign language that it was ok to take in the first place. So much of our anxiety about the rest of the world is just perception. Things we think we know because we’ve been told so often, but that turn out so differently when we confront them.
Kids followed us around the village market, like they’ve done in countries I’ve been to from Indonesia all the way across to Azerbaijan.
Even after parting ways with Zeki, we managed to walk around for about 15 minutes before meeting the only other English-speaking person we’d see from the village of Redoge. From that point on, any worries were assuaged.
From then on we were just foreign people who stood out, interacting with people who happened to belong. We did normal things. We ate amazing food.
Took a ton more pictures.
(I think Durmohammed, our new friend, was actually growing tired of us stopping for photos. Towards the end of the walk to his house where we would spend out first night, Maki/J/or I would stop and he would slow down a bit but keep walking.)
It was actually surprisingly, amazingly, thankfully normal.
Perhaps the single most exciting moment was a particularly intense 1 v 9 game of hilltop volleyball Jeroen played on our second night in Afghanistan.
By the end of the trip, Maki was walking along the street having a little “girl time” with some junior-high students we happened to pass on the road back to the border.
When we asked Maki later she said they’d talked about studies, boys, and age. And really, could the answer have been any more stereotypically normal than that?
The honest appendix to this post, of course, is that a month after we left fighting flared up just across the Tajik border in Khorog. According to the Tajik government, a number of the civilians who have died in the fighting are Afghan nationals, which raises the question of whether everything was really so rosy while we were there?