Richard's Afghanistan Experience... Chapter 3

3 The Long Good Saturday...
AFTER our palace adventure, it was back on the long and unwinding road to Mazar. A short rest then a Foreign Office reception. Our minibus was late and we walked red-faced past the silent diners to our table. There were many foreign diplomats at the very formal affair. We had only been there a few minutes when they left. We had to stand up and form an aisle as they moved majestically away. That was the end of the dinner so we had to leave too - hungry! The reason for the reception dinner was as a prelude to the parade next day - the fourth anniversary of the foundation of the Islamic State of North Afghanistan. We had to be out of the villa at 7.20 to be at our brightly decorated grandstand - right next to General Dostumís. First there was Dostumís speech that lasted more than half an hour. He followed this by medal presentations to various generals. The crowds on the pavements were kept in check by soldiers occasionally beating them on the heads with large sticks. Nobody seemed to mind - including the recipients.

People were sitting anywhere they could find - balconies, halfway up lamp posts and precariously perched on the edges of rooftops. Then the parade started. We were sitting in strong sunlight for six hours! Cold juices appeared now and again but it was still pretty gruelling.

Maybe a hundred tanks trundled by, each group with a giant colour portrait of Dostum mounted on the lead tank. Many of them were blowing clouds of oily smoke into the crowd and the band. Sounding like a second rate village Boys Brigade, the band played and played and played. When they paused for a breather the big, fat base drummer carried on non stop. He kept up a beat for five hours solid and only broke off for a minute when he was drowned out by a passing marching band. Then it was straight into the booming base beat for the rest of the show.

After the tanks came armoured cars, lorry loads of troops, anti aircraft gun carriages and finally two enormous launchers with rocket missiles. Then it was endless marching troops. We thought these were coming to an end but they were followed by the cavalry. Spectacular bearded Afghans with guns and cartridge belts wrapped round them, they looked much more impressive than any spaghetti Western film produced. Once again we thought it was nearing the end. Wrong. The civil procession started! Every form of industry and commerce was represented with floats or handcarts. We began to think that the people were passing the Dostum rostrum, making a quick change of clothing and joining the back of the procession again! It didnít seem possible that there could be so many people in one city. At random intervals during the march, a string of MIGs would roar over at extremely low level, then a whole fleet of helicopter gunships - some of them dropping leaflets. Then it was time for the civil leaders, University and medical college students, sports club members and schoolchildren to march by. Each sports group stopped in front of the main stand and demonstrated their skills. There was a pathetic float for Balkh Airlines with a wobbly polystyrene version of the 1-11; very embarrassing. There appeared to be a great number of karate, boxing and bodybuilding clubs. Each group gave a spirited display. One boxer took on two others and they were doing it for real. He took a blow to the jaw and I heard his teeth rattle - from 30 yards! He swayed to his feet, bowed to the General, got into line and they marched on. Finally it was all over; even though it was such a long day, it had been a fascinating spectacle.

"I'll raise you 20,000..."

Straight back to the villa and a meeting for Sheila and I with General Razm. Sheila was pushing for the security aspect of searching passengers and baggage. He was willing to follow American aviation law. He promised me a four wheel drive air conditioned crew bus with a key for Tom and I, full use of his airline presidentís office in his absence and full assistance from staff at the airline office in anything related to the operation. None of this actually happened...

A couple of quiet days gave a chance to study each otherís skills at cards - it felt like Vegas big time with comments like: "Iíll go with your ten thousand and raise you 20,000." Playing in Afghanis meant we were raising by about 80p! I still managed to lose a lot... The women bought bleach, scrubbed every inch of the pool and helped the servants repaint it. We had chlorine and acid brought from Malta and waited impatiently for the four days to pass while it filled. To me the result was bliss; a little sunbathing, a relaxing swim and a long, cool drink with a vodka kick was perfect. One very long day livened up with a volley ball party at the IAM (International Aid Mission) then a crazy game of spoof in which Tom won a suitcase full of Afghanis - $180. The picture shows the mood, winner, Tom, is on the left, then Sheila, Carmin and James.

May day. I went shopping with Clare and Jill. We bought coffee mugs, earrings (not for me) suit material, came back to spaghetti Bolognaise and drank and laughed until 6.30 in the morning. At this stage, the crew were starting to get bored and edgy. The aircraft was grounded while waiting for an APU to arrive from England. This is a gas turbine engine that starts the main jet engines. Most airports have ground start facilities but Mazar doesnít have a telephone, radio or even a screwdriver, so there was zero chance of us getting moving without an English replacement. Tom and Ray did their best to trace the faults and gradually found so many things wrong they had to give up. All this delay caused the airline to be something of a laughing stock.

Aviation people are not normally happy unless they're flying. They were unable to accept the fact they were having a highly paid holiday. In a place where there was little to spend their money, savings were even greater. Only four of us really adapted. Tom was happy looking after the pool interspersed with aircraft maintenance at the airport, Jill made friends all over town plus clandestine meetings with Solih, while Clare and I swam, talked and made each other frozen fruit juice drinks. Sometimes Sheila would sunbathe but her conversation was usually about how great it was in Siberia!

Carmin and James were an item. We saw little of them except at meal times. James is a good chef and with Carmin as his helper he used the primitive kitchen and showed the cook that joints could be roasted whole instead of being chopped up and mixed with rice. The Afghans had never seen roast potatoes before.
One day, Clare, a guard and I went to the bazaar and had lots of fun trying on Cossack hats, fancy waistcoats and other crazy (for England) clothing. Clare had a shock. Happily trying on the various hats, she suddenly realised that she was the centre of attraction for about twenty Afghans of all ages. Red faced she fled with me following on laughing.

On the way back we stopped to see why there was a large throng of chortling Afghans. It was a magic act. In the dust and dirt, with very few props, a ragged Afghan was producing streamers, razor blades and ping pong balls from his mouth, cracking jokes, I think, and using shy members of the crowd as Ďvolunteersí. His grand finale was getting a little boy to squat and strain like a chicken. The magician produced an egg from the surprised boyís trousers! The simplicity of the unabashed pleasure from the Afghan audience was something to behold and remember.

Back at the villa we were told by the cook that he was going to produce something special. Nobody went to the UN guest house and we trooped into the dining room. He had faithfully copied everything James and Carmin had shown him. The only flaw was heíd done all the things in one go! We were treated to shepherds pie, spaghetti bolognaise, roast lamb, vegetables, roast, boiled and chipped potatoes plus the usual Afghan goat and rice. It was certainly special...

Our villa was an oasis of bygone luxury. Thousands of pounds worth of carpets were draped over the sofas as casual throwover covers. Apple and sour cherry trees nestle in the rose garden, dilapidated but still pretty, a conservatory gathering years of dust, a huge old generator that hadnít worked for ten years and our pool - no circulation pump so we overflowed it and watered the roses at the same time. Water was used so freely it seemed like sacrilege that right outside the villa, children with yokes were queuing to get buckets of water from a stand pipe.

Our large television was fed from two satellite dishes We were able to pick up a strong reception from BBC World and Star Plus channels. It felt quite odd watching the San Merino Grand Prix live, while sitting on a carpet in a lounge in the middle of a desert town 4000 miles from home.

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