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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Berthold Engelmann

Afghanistan/Tajikistan: Leaving Kunduz   
By Barukh Shalev

Kunduz is an Uzbek place. It is a small, dusty town in northern Afghanistan.
I have arrived without a place to sleep and all the hotels in town lack the proper licensing to accommodate foreigners.
With no local clientele, the darkened rooms remain unoccupied while the staff sit in the lobby, eating and watching television. I wonder how these places are able to sustain themselves, how they pay their bills.
I wander the town aimlessly, hoping to find a hotel.
Heading West I walk alongside carriage-pulling horses wearing thick garlands of bright red flowers. The trees lining the paved road hang far over the sidewalk, casting spider web shadows along the broken concrete. When the evening breeze kicks up, the trees shake noisily.
Walking through the edge of town, I slowly meander through a leafy, crowded pathway hoping to happen upon a main road. I want to rest and eat and wash. This part of Kunduz is made of mud. The homes sit close together and people sit outside and watch children play in the canal.
The long bus ride has left me drained of energy. My bag feels heavy. I take it off, put it on the ground and sit on a tree stump. Thin beams of sunlight penetrate the cool shade. 
In front of me in the canal, naked little boys chase little girls in dirty flesh-colored underwear. The children run by and soon are out of sight. The only evidence of them are the echoing shrieks of small voices and tiny footprints left embedded in the soft, rippled mud.
I find a hotel on accident, trying to take a short-cut back toward town. The steps leading up to the lobby are wide and flat. The front of the hotel has thick white pillars.

I am the only guest in Hotel Kunduz. Overpriced and grand, it is a palatial white building in large tree-filled courtyard. 

I take a dorm bed at the end of a long, wide hallway on the first floor.
Nothing in the room works: the lights in the bathroom are broken, the toilet is dysfunctional and the clock is broken, constantly displaying the time 5:54.
I look out my window. A circular driveway hosts a motionless traffic jam of vehicles from international aid organizations.

I take off my clothes and go to shower. In darkness, I fumble through the room and find the crystal shaped knob. I turn it and stand blindly naked, waiting for the water to warm.

I have been dreaming of a hot shower. I haven't bathed in weeks and am filthy with a layer of sweat and dust caked on my skin. When I scratch my arm, black soot collects under my fingernails.

There is no hot water.

I grab a towel and walk down the hall to find the staff sitting on leather couches, watching an award ceremony for Bollywood films. The television has a transfixing glow to it.
The lobby is dark and a polished brown floor reflects the bright florescent lights above. I look up and see neat lines of glowing white glass in rows along the smoke stained ceiling.

"The shower is broken," I tell them. I am dripping wet and half-naked. The lobby is enormous and my voice echoes against the cold floor.
One boy shrugs through a hypnotic gaze. He is watching a bare bellied, green-eyed Indian actress present an award. She is wearing a light green sari. Her hair is unnaturally straight and hangs halfway down her naked back. I stand for a minute and watch the television with them. This must be like pornography to Afghans, I think. 
The camera pans out into the audience and displays seemingly endless rows of spoiled, rich Indians sitting, looking bored. Their clothes glitter and sparkle in between the flashes of camera bulbs.
The program breaks for a commercial. The boy reluctantly tears himself from his seat and gravely vows to fix the shower.
"One hour. Hot. Yes," he says, touching an invisible burning surface, squinting and contorting his mouth into a tight O. His friends convulse into fits of laughter.

I go back to my room to lie down and wait. The cement floor is covered by bright blue carpet. Six beds sit unoccupied around me, covers and sheets pulled tight, unused. I sit down on my bed and closed my eyes.
Lying back I watch the room begin to slowly melt around me. Consciousness begins to slip and I quickly fall into a deep sleep.
I arise early the next morning and rent a car to the Afghan border, several hours away.
My driver is a young Tajik with slicked back hair named Vadim. His car is new and black, with tinted windows and a large, silver decal that says It's My Style on the back window.
There are four of us in the car, two turbaned Afghan peasants, the driver and me. I sit in the front seat. We drive in silence.
Twenty minutes out of Kunduz the land transforms into a vast, golden desert. The road stretches out before us in a perfect black line, which cuts a sharp ribbon of asphalt through the sand. I like the road for its straightness and simplicity.
I look out into the distance. Far-away nomads appear as small black dots on the horizon. I want to get out of the car and walk with them, follow them and see where they live, what they eat and where they sleep. The nomads appear as if trapped within a mirage, their bottom half enveloped by the misty haze emanating from the heat and the sand.
As we drive on I see more of them, women and men slowly walking in a line, gravely leading long necked camels with match-stick legs.
Vadim points at the cassette player.
"Music?" he asks, hopefully.
"No," I said.
"Why no?"
"Because I like quiet now."
The landscape is blank and silent. The two Afghans pass a small pouch of tobacco between them.
"As you wish," Vadim says, putting his hand back onto the steering wheel, sighing.
We arrived at the border. Which is a nothing town on a brown river. Several sleepy wooden shacks sell overpriced food and drinks.

It is noon. I see a small contingent of German soldiers leaning casually against armored vehicles. The small village goes about its business quietly
The soldiers stand and joke around with a trio of mustachioed, potbellied taxi drivers.
Passport control is a two-room shack with dark green chalkboards on peeling walls. I put my bag on a rickety table and they make me open, then close it, then write my name into a large book.
The border guard takes my passport, holds it upside down, pretends to read it, pretends to write something, and then waves me toward Tajikistan. From the window I can see rusted, abandoned boats sitting upon the river bank. They are turned upon their sides like dying whales.

The border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan straddles a small, slow moving brown river.
On one side of the river people have long wiry beards and wear Moslem clothing. On the other side people have shiny gold teeth, speak Russian and wear Western clothing.  

I scan the small, sparse crowd and notice another foreigner. He is wearing mirrored sunglasses, a beige safari jacket, matching cargo pants and a badge that says RONCO Mine Clearance. Standing next to him, almost comically, in an identical outfit, is his Afghan interpreter.
We nod at each other and he takes off his sunglasses and squints looking at the river.
"That's the one we want," he says to me with an American accent, unmistakably Midwestern.

"We gotta get our car over, there is the car-ferry," he said, pointing with his chin to the other side of the river. "I'm not sure if it runs today. Shit. Another day in Kunduz."

"You got a car?" I ask pointedly.


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