Slept through the 5am call to prayer, woke up at 6 and enjoyed lazy dozing until 7. Since its my birthday and we are headed to the Panjshir, we decide to go via motorbike rather than drive. Yippee! Only problem is Hamid doesn’t have a bike and we need him with to translate in Dashty Rewat. His is broken, ironically it happened when I was here in the spring on a group ride to Panjshir, and its yet to be fixed. I call up my previous fixer to see if he can find us a driver. He calls back to say that a driver who had driven me around in Kabul last year is available.
Shah Mohammed is thrilled to to see me…big smile. Unfortuantely, its soon very apparently that he should not be driving outside the city, in fact, probably shouldn’t be driving as a profession AT ALL. Hamid sits next to him in the front and it was soon apparent that he couldn’t see the numerous speed bumps. The ancient Toyota Corolla is not meant to take on these things at high speed, yet Shah Mohommad couldn’t see them till it was too late. It came to a head, so to speak, just around the corner from Massoud’s Tomb in the Panjshir – rounded a bend, the car was suddenly careening towards the cliff and the cement/rock barriers that border the road. Luckily these barriers are solid, we broke a huge chunk away and thus slowed the car down enough to stop before following the rocks tumbling down the cliff side. In typical Afghan style, Shah Mohommad quickly reverses to drive off. We shout for him to stop and check the car, the barrier, and collect ourselves. It was truly inches from death and it was interesting to have that near death experience and realize that your life doesn’t flash before your eyes…you just internally think, “fuck”.
The ironic part is that Toyota Corollas are resilient as hell. Proof in point, take out a concrete barrier, get a crowbar out to pull the fender and the wheel panel back into place and we’re off. No harm no foul. Other than the kid that came running down the street to tell us we needed to pay for the barrier.
Just an hour or so before that fateful accident, was the highlight of my birthday. I became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan. We saw some goat trails and a truck path across the river, we kept our eyes out for a bridge (few and far between) and directed our near sighted driver through the village to cross the river and give it a go. We pulled the car over and unloaded. Travis went up the road and perched himself up on a small hill. I assembled the bike and gave Hamid my camera so we could get some decent stills. Now the question – bike helmet over headscarf? No headscarf? How to do this with the least amount of offensiveness. It fit over the headscarf, which I pulls down and wrapped around my neck and tied behind my neck – checking the length of drape behind me so it didn’t kill me Isadora Duncan style by getting caught in the wheel behind me. All good. Glasses on. Bike gloves on. A healthy crowd of men that stopped work so they could better watch the proceedings with curiosity.
The light was perfect, a stormy gray sky rolling in, but with the sun staying clear. I got the signal from Travis to give it a go and off I went. And, viola. I’m riding my bike. In Afghanistan. On my birthday. HUGE grin! Even though we started out on a relatively easy double track path that trucks can take, it was rocky as hell – it was essentially a river bed… rolling path that crossed the river run-offs a few times. We played around while the light was still good, just playing and seeing what the terrain was like, how it felt to ride it, and what sort of reaction were we getting. We were pretty remote, but there were men working throughout the area, some shouted, “Salaam” but mostly watched with curiosity. We did a couple shots back and forth along one section and I noticed a mother and young girl sitting under a tree watching us. As I rode back I waved and they both smiled and waved back…I couldn’t help but think of me and Devon.
I arrived back at the car, muddy, wet feet from the river crossings, and hot under the layers of clothing but pretty damn pleased with life. We packed up the bike and talked to a few of the locals that had gathered around.
Clouds were rolling in hard and we headed to our village destination. We drive unknowing that we’d be colliding with a concrete cliff barrier in less than an hour, and then continue a couple more hours down a pretty dodgy dirt road. It was around this time that Mohammad starts bitching. He wasn’t happy he had to drive so far, on such bad roads, etc. etc. Hamid took the brunt of it. About 15 minutes from the village, Mohammad actually tells Hamid he wouldn’t go any further. It turned into a bit of kerfuffle and I said I wasn’t paying if he turned around. We said we had hired him for the day to go to Panjshir, if he had a problem with how far, or the roads, etc. he should have said and we would have hired another driver. He continues to complain but keeps driving.
Travis and Hamid found this village on their two attempts of the Anjuman Pass by motorbike with their mate Jeremy. They had randomly stopped to ask if they knew of somewhere they could stay and Idi Mohammad immediately offered his home. Turns out he is the principal of the village school and Travis told him about me and the work I was looking to do with Mountain to Mountain. They returned a second time a few weeks later to complete the ride and again stayed with Idi Mohammad’s family.
As we pull up, the village looks the same as any of the other villages we’ve driven through. The only distinguishing feature is its remoteness and the new building of mud being built on the left side of the road. A two story building with two men on the roof. One is Idi Mohammad, in a Panshiri hat (the type favored by Massoud). Turns out that this is to be a guesthouse, and his family’s home is directly behind. He was all smiles when he saw Travis and Hamid. He comes down from the roof while we walk around back, gathering a crowd of children and men behind us. I am introduced and find myself, once again, mesmerized by the handsome features of Panjshiri men. Idi Mohammad is genuinely happy to see the guys and asks how their motorbike trip went, he was worried about them.
Hamid explains that we wanted to stop by so that they could introduce me, but that we have to go back tonight, especially as our driver is being such a pain in the ass. Idi Mohammad looks concerned and unhappy that we cannot stay the night. He offers a second time, and we explain that our driver is the main issue, but that we will be back next week and will stay longer. We take a seat on a stone wall overlooking the road and the valley. It turns out that he was a teacher, and spent many years as a Pakastani refugee. When he returned to his village he started up a school with a couple other teachers to teach the children. It expanded and they now have a school that services all the way through high school. He is the principal and while they have a school, and teachers, they are lacking in supplies. This is something I can help with this trip. We discussed the need for stationary (paper and pens) is the biggest need. Ironically it’s the reason many children do not attend school. Their families are simply too poor to afford the 20 cents for a notebook. The school houses 600 students on average. Amazingly, the other need is computers. I was surprised, and asked why they felt computers would be a necessary component of their school. Idi Mohammad explained that it connects them to the rest of the world and allows their remote village to provide better education for their children. They already have a teacher qualified in computer sciences so its simply a matter of machines.
I also ask Idi Mohammad about neighboring villages that don’t have schools. Would he be able to direct me to others that are lacking schools entirely. He agrees to come up with a list before my next visit. He also mentions that up on the mountain behind the village is a small community of fifty families. Their children make the long walk to attend the school at the village, but that the young ones (grade 1-5) are unable to attend school during the winter due to the snow. They are simply too young to make that walk. We discussed building a primary school there so that they can attend their classes year round and stay with the same coursework as the larger school and when they are old enough they will graduate into the village school to finish through high school. It would be a simple project , a few classrooms only. We talk briefly about construction and logistics and Idi Mohammad looks at me with all seriousness and says that if necessary he will oversee the construction himself. We have ourselves a school, a computer lab, and a project manager. As well as a solid contact for reaching out and making first steps in other villages.
During the last few minutes of the talk, a loud repetitive banging is heard, I look behind us to the street to see Shah Mohammed banging away at the front fender with a crowbar. Passive aggressive behavior or does he really think it will fix the wheel?
Back in the car I’m positively giddy. This has been the best birthday ever, bar none, even better as no one here knows. This wouldn’t have been possible without the previous visits and cups of tea drank by Travis and Hamid – opening the door for me to step in with solid connections already in place. I thank them both and sigh with contentment as we begin the long drive home, dusk already settling in and Shah Mohammad bitching to an uninterested Hamid, who continues to play his role as seeing eye dog, and pointed out the speedbumps, upcoming curves in the road, and reminds SM to slow down. Strangely enough, Shah Mohammed is now wearing a pair of glasses….perhaps they could have been of use a few hours ago when we nearly died? Just a thought.