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January 21, 2003

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You enter a new reality when you go from Iran into Afghanistan. At noon, approaching the border we passed a mile long stretch of trucks waiting to enter Afghanistan. They snarled the road and forced cars off-road into the mud. Permanent buildings crowd border post on the Iranian side. Within this post, an Iranian colonel picked us out, helped us through customs, and escorted us to the last step of Iranian territory. He brought us to a concrete wall and pointed down a muddy road. Five hundred meters away we saw a low barbed wire fence. A hundred men swathed in turbans and knee length frocks were digging a trench. With a nod the colonel indicated that we should go. We walked down the road. Pavement ended and mud began. The men stopped digging and stared. A hundred pair of eyes, over dark beards, watched us splash through the mud. One armed guard stood at the fence but he didn't ask us for our passports. Normally at a border crossing the guards take over and lead you to where you should go. In this case everyone, guard included, gaped at us as if we were aliens. A few huts, marked with Arabic or Farsi, lined the muddy morass on the other side of the barbed wire. The scene reminded us of an old Western movie except the unshaven men wore turbans instead of cowboy hats. We picked out the immigration hut and went inside. An old officer stamped our passport and welcomed us; that was it for formalities. We walked outside into the world of staring men, two small boys begged money and then fought with each other over begging rights. We walked into customs but they turned us away without checking our bags. A crowd formed around us. We needed money so we asked about a bank (bank is an international word). The crowd motioned us into another shack. We tried changing Iranian rials for Afghanis but the bank wouldn't accept Iranian money. One of the crowd offered to change the money at 100 rials to 1 Afghan (from Internet research we had learned the rate should have been 180 rials to 1 Afghan). The bank manager helped us by negotiating the correct rate, much to the money changers chagrin, and then he told us the price for a taxi to Herat, the nearest city. We walked back into the street and the murmuring crowd followed us to the minibuses. We negotiated a price and sat down. The minibus pulled away with a few other passengers, all friendly, and we hit the road - or it hit us. The road was like a 4wheel drive test track. Snow had turned to slushy mud and our minibus struggled. Herat lies 120 km from the border and since we started our bus ride at 2 o'clock we hoped to reach Herat before nightfall. Unfortunately, the road kept our progress slow and we had to stop several times for the passenger's evening and then nighttime prayers. Fog framed the landscape in an eerie glow. We passed an old caravanserai that had been converted into a military outpost - a machine gun sat on the old watchtower. We were bypassed by convoys of other cars that traveled together for protection (our bus was too slow to keep up so we traveled alone). Night fell and so we broke our first rule - no traveling at night. The UN ceases all operations at 5:30 and we wanted to do the same. No such luck tonight - the bus crawled along at 20 km per hour. Around 9 pm we entered Herat's shantytown outskirts. We stopped at a few hotels that looked like refugee hangouts. Each room was like a jail cell: 8 ft by 8 ft concrete block, no furniture, a dirty rug for a door, a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling that shorted out power to the building when we screwed it in. We managed to settle in before the city's curfew shut out the lights at 10:00 pm.
Surprised to see us?
Our bus stops in every village from the border to Herat.
Welcome to Herat and please don't pick up any of these things up while you're here.
After shorting out power by screwing in a light bulb, we upgraded to the 'presidential suite' that cost $2 instead of $1. For this money the room had a wood frame bed and a door. We propped the bed against the door (no lock) and used our Persian carpet as a blanket.