February 5, 2007

B2B with K: Kabul in the hippy, happier days

Kini, Wonder if you have seen Kabir Khan’s Kabul Express. It’s a film about two TV journalists on assignment in Afghanistan following the fall of Taliban. Our Kabul visits, yours and mine (in May 1967) made three years apart,predates that of John Abraham and Arshad Warsi by four decades. In the 2006 movie the two actors were featured as media men exposed to life-threatening situation while driving through Afghan countryside.

We did Kabul during the good old, carefree days when travel was safer and even regular guys took to back-packing. We had with us a middle-aged wife of a businessman from Norfolk who was bored with golf and country life. She traveled overland with us to get a feel of the world, and send picture postcards home from exotic-sounding places.

There was this Indian couple with a school-going girl. They were going to Bombay for a long vacation. A British student nurse planning to join her boyfriend in Sydney joined in for ‘some fun and a bumpy ride’ to Bombay, from where she was to take a boat to Australia. And then we had Brian who had bought 12-seater with our contribution for the trip and set himself in business as an overland tour operator. He was our driver, and it was his first trip, which made us all equally inexperienced.

Pak refusal to grant visa held me back in Kabul, while the British in the group, made it through Khyber Pass into Pakistan, and then on to India via Wagha border. Had to hang around four days in Kabul for a plane connection to Amritsar. Ariana Afghan Airlines flew to India only twice weekly.

Kabul in the 60s was a staging post for hippies, hitch-hikers and flower children looking for poppy-sourced bliss. ‘Make Love, Not War’ was their mantra. They sustained a host of Afghan youth as tour guides, an euphemism for drug peddlers and pimps. Lodges, cheap and smelly, were full. Cafes in town were packed with those who stayed in cheap lodges, but spent their days at a cafe lingering over coffee for rest & recreation, and to use the rest-rooms (toilets).

Outside were parked vehicles, mostly vans and land-rovers carrying number plates of almost every European country. Some of the vehicles displayed placard advertising seats to London for 50 pounds. I visualized Brian putting up a seat-for-sale signboard on our van, on his way back after offloading us in Bombay.

Kabul those days had a thriving Indian community. They owned petty businesses and shops dealing in all conceivable items – dry fruit, saris, hardware. Many of them had a back office for unlicensed trade such as money-changing and bootleg liquor. I didn’t know if it was illegal to deal in currency, for we paid for most the stuff we bought with dollars. But when I wanted to en-cash a traveler’s cheque a shop-keeper, adopting a hush-hush tone, sent me with a middleman to a house some distance away to receive cash in dollars.

But then money changing on the sly was a standard operating procedure shopkeepers adopted in many places. I had similar experience on reaching Bombay. Everyone I knew usually went to a shopkeeper rather than a bank to have our dollar or traveler cheque encashed. Shopkeepers paid a higher exchange rate. Those were days of severe forex restrictions. Those who emigrated to the UK, as I did, were given a foreign exchange allowance of three pounds.

Meanwhile in Kabul I had a spot of bother when I reached the airport to catch the Amritsar flight. I wasn’t aware you needed an exit visa to leave the country. An immigration official directed me to a designated police station in the city to get he visa. When I mentioned my anxiety about missing the plane the official assured me that the plane would not take off that soon and that I had time enough to make the round trip to the city police station. Irony was my tourist visa was to expire before the next scheduled flight to India, three days later.

I needn’t have worried. For the plane was still there on my return to the airport with exit visa. How was I to know that the published schedule for flights out of Kabul were notional and they were routinely delayed. I would like to presume, this time they held up the flight for me on the say-so of the immigration officer. Even after boarding I found my plane, a Dakota, wouldn’t leave Kabul so easily. The plane on runway made two false starts before take-off .Maybe the pilot was being put through flying training at our expense.

Over to you Kini, for your take at Gateway to India.

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