Herat, in Afghanistan
I loved Herat! It was a sleepy kind of place with plain buildings, wide streets and horse-drawn vehicles. The only strange thing was you couldn’t see any women because they were all covered from head to foot in the typical burkas. But from the body language you could see that the women were curious about us and I tried to see through the embroidered lattice-like opening in front of their eyes and convey some kind of greeting. I sensed a response to me although they shied away from Pieter and Simon.
There was colour everywhere. And soft subtle colours, not the bright glaring colours we were later to see in Pakistan and India. The Afghanis favoured shades of olive green, subtle hues of blue and rich dark maroons. Everywhere you looked there were market stalls selling colourful bags and garments many of which, I later found out, were made by the wandering nomadic tribes which criss-crossed the country on camels.
Within a few hours we were approached by a very good-looking young man who spoke surprisingly good English. He asked if he could practice his English on us and we quickly agreed because this gave us a chance to know what was going on with these intriguing people. His name was something that sounded like Ahman. He was seventeen years old and wanted to be an engineer. Being with him was amazing because wherever we went – and he was an adept tour guide – we were quickly surrounded by people who wanted to know all about us and took the chance to use his translating skills. Before leaving us he invited us to tea the next afternoon in the grounds of a mosque on the outskirts of the town.
This meeting proved to be another of the most unforgettable experiences in all my many years of travelling around the planet.
In the mid-afternoon Pieter, Simon and I found our way to the mosque, guided by its four pillars which could be seen above the low buildings of the town. A deep blue cloudless sky and the yellow-brown desert formed the backdrop to the white and blue decorated minarets and domed structure of the mosque. The square inner courtyard was filled with curiously contorted palm trees which made us feel we were in a surreal fantasy garden, with an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of quality. The place was dead silent and there was no-one there.
We waited awhile for our young friend to materialise but finally decided we must have misunderstood or something and turned to leave. But we were stopped by a shout and turned to see Ahman appear from behind the mosque, gesturing us to come and join him. We followed him round the back of the building and were faced with an extraordinary scene.
On the yellow sand, amongst the misshapen palm trees and some bushes covered in dark pink flowers, he had laid a gorgeous, thick, richly-coloured silk carpet scattered with coloured silk cushions. At one end of the carpet there was a big gleaming copper samovar for boiling water and in front of it was a tray of beautiful glasses for the tea and some plates of food. Two men, dressed in subtly coloured traditional garb, stood to greet us. We all sat down on the cushions and one of the men, our young friend’s uncle, I think, brewed the strong sweet tea and offered us little cakes to eat.
For an hour we sat there chatting, drinking tea and just absorbing the extraordinary scene.
We weren’t sure of Afghani protocol but decided that we had better indicate it was time to go as we didn’t want to take up too much of their time. But it seemed we had made a good impression because, after a quick conference, Ahman turned to us and said he and his family would like to invite us to their evening meal a few hours hence. We were very touched and of course agreed. After Ahman arranged to pick us up at our guest house, we expressed our profound thanks for this beautiful experience and slowly walked back into town.