Amir Shah pulls me out of Katie's earshot and explains in a hurried whisper the sudden change of plans.
“Mr. Jason, I was thinking it's safer to stay here than Ghorband. This is Hazara area-100 percent safe,”says Amir, my colleague, trusted guide, and an ethnic Hazara. “The district chief said don't even drive through Ghorband at night. It's Pashtun area, somebody could plant a mine.”
“This area 100 percent safe,”he says again, underscoring with deep emphasis the numerical portion of his prediction.
One hundred percent safe is a forecast few would ascribe to this Afghanistan adventure, a canoe trip on two remote waterways 10 bone-jarring hours northwest of Kabul. I work in Afghanistan as a writer for the Associated Press, but Katie, my fianc and longtime paddling partner, has just arrived. Her strangest piece of luggage is a suitcase-sized bundle of telescoping poles and red canvas that, with an hour's effort, will become a 15-foot Pakboat canoe.
Our paddling plan was hatched at a Halloween party in the Afghan capital a few months before. I masked myself in a Patagonia PFD, and, much to my surprise, I wasn't the party's only paddler. Aid worker and avid kayaker Will Van De Berg arrived in a PFD too, and he spent the evening extolling the virtues of Afghanistan's rivers. I bought his pitch and began investigating where Katie and I might safely paddle. I settled on two remote rivers that likely hadn't been canoed in years–if ever.
Amir Shah agreed to be our guide, and it's no exaggeration to say that our lives are in his hands. The first region we visited, Bamiyan, is home to the Hazara people–an ethnic minority that suffered cruelly from Taliban massacres—and is therefore insulated from violence. But we also plan to paddle near Ghorband, an area populated by Pashtun, the ethnic group from which the Taliban draws its fighters. And camping anywhere in Afghanistan is beyond dangerous. In fall 2006, two German journalists were murdered while sleeping in a tent just north of Bamiyan. Their mistake: not securing permission from local powerbrokers, a capital offense we were determined not to repeat.
Children everywhere are drawn to spectacle. Standing beside a bubbly stream in Afghanistan's arid central highlands, Katie and I clearly qualify as one: two Westerners snapping together long aluminum poles, the skeleton of our collapsible canoe. Quietly but steadily, pairs of muddy sneakers gather 'round.We are in Bamiyan, the central mountain town known for two massive Buddhas carved into the valley's sandstone cliffs sometime around the sixth century. The monuments still inspire awe, even after the Taliban dynamited them six months prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion. Three weeks of blasting rendered the Buddhas almost unrecognizable, satisfying the Taliban's slavish devotion to the most radical reading of Islamic law and symbolizing the regime's stubborn defiance.
Soon our canoe is ready. I grab the bow and step into the stream, a latte-colored mix of snowmelt. “Uh-oh,”I say aloud, as it hits me that the narrow waterway may be too shallow to paddle.
But in a remarkable display of mind-reading and English prowess, one of the 12-year-old boys milling about points downstream and says, “It's deep, the water is deep.”The beta is reassuring; the fact he even knows that word floors me. As a reward for his guidance, we put him in the canoe and I gently ferry upstream. His death grip on the gunwales betrays his apprehension over this newfound adventure; his wide smile expresses his joy.
Katie and I take off down the narrow ribbon of water accompanied by a dozen of our new friends jogging on river right. Men in the fields, some behind ox-powered plows, greet us with stares of astonishment. But it's neither the men nor the kids who seize my attention.
Every time we pull up to the bank, five pairs of tiny hands grab the gunwale until I shout “Nay!”—”no”in Dari–as loud as I can. With help from Amir Shah we get the “only two at a time”message across, whereupon I immediately yell “Bishi! Bishi!”or “Sit! Sit!”It's the closest we come to tipping.
Our stream is a back alleyway through the hidden lives of Afghan women. With dishes and clothes at their side, they huddle in twos and threes along both banks the entire length of our route, scrubbing and talking. We see more women in our hour-long paddle than we have in two days in the streets of Bamiyan.
Ruled by a culture that doesn't allow any interaction with males outside the family, the women, scarves covering their heads, stare at us shyly. Few say anything, and even when we get a short hello it is directed at Katie. After a year in Afghanistan, I know better than to wave or speak to an Afghan woman, especially in the conservative countryside. One of Will's Halloween tales pops into my head: After he solo-kayaked a river to our south, Afghan men complained to U.S. troops that an American in a boat had been spying on their women.
Our stream bends in such a way that people hundreds of yards downriver see us coming. At one sharp corner a man in his 30s asks to get in, and we paddle him downstream 200 yards. The tight turns call for active bow work from Katie. The more cautious of us, she frequently scouts ahead. On one of those short missions a 60-year-old man with no teeth approaches with a big smile, shakes my hands and tells me, using some of the only words in Dari I know, that the “river is good.”I take this to mean it's safe.
The Buddhas loom to our left, 180- and 121-foot ghosts from a time now past. Earlier in the day Katie, Amir Shah, and I toured the Buddhas with Ramin, a smiling 28-year-old with Afghanistan's Ministry of Culture. While walking along the base of the cliffside carvings, we came upon a gully lined with red and white painted rocks–the international symbol for a minefield. Ramin crossed first and warned us to be careful, saying that mines may have migrated downhill. I told Katie to plant her feet exactly where he's already stepped.
“They're going to have to get rid of more of these mines before this becomes a tourist attraction,”Katie said with only a hint of irony in her voice.
We climbed the circular staircase that spirals up beside what's left of the female Buddha. From the height of the Buddha's head we took in the whole of Bamiyan's wide valley–the yellow grasses covering its mud floor, the deep red clay streaks through the cliff-side walls, and the 14,000-foot snow-covered peaks that tower in the distance. Zigzagging through the middle of that serene portrait was the muddy waterway Katie and I would later paddle–our first canoe trip through a war zone.
Canoeing has been our bond from day one. Katie and I met at Camp Manito-wish, a northern Wisconsin summer camp whose traditions are rooted in long-distance canoe travel. I led campers on two-week trips through Canada's Quetico Provincial Park. Katie solo-led the camp's signature trip–35 days paddling through northern Saskatchewan with six high school girls. She spent 12 years at Manito-wish, and I'm not afraid to admit she's the superior paddler.
Our first date was a daytrip down Wisconsin's Wolf River; last summer I slipped a diamond ring on her left hand while on bended knee in an Old Town Tripper on Maine's St. Croix. In between we paddled the Youghiogheny in Pennsylvania and the New River in West Virginia, but our trip through Bamiyan is our first whitewater run since an hour's outing down Maine's Sheepscot, a swift Class III that underscored our differences. With me in the stern–our usual arrangement–I aimed for every pillow and spray of water for maximum adrenaline. She preferred we execute pinpoint turns through the boulder fields to showcase our skill and leave our bottom scuff-free.
In Bamiyan, by contrast, we're completely in sync. Katie crossbow draws on cue, or even without cue, to help us twist through the tributary's tight turns. Our adrenaline is high, paddling in a foreign land on a pushy stream, and we're extra cautious as we feel out our Pakcanoe, which, while a capable craft, doesn't respond as quickly as a Royalex with a bit of rocker might.
It's almost dinnertime, and we've hit the golden hour–a fading sun that bathes the surrounding cliffs in deep amber, the time of day that gives people a last burst of energy before nightfall. The Buddhas, on our left, add to the magic. To our right, the high peaks glow bright white, a sign of deep snow cover.
Though the scenery is amazing, gritty realities of Afghan life are ever-present. Milk containers, soda cans, and plastic bags decorate the branches of stream-side trees. And the smell—like that of a freshly fertilized field—reminds me that the human waste from the mud-home compounds we pass likely trickles into our tributary. On top of that, the farmers are spreading fertilizer of the human variety on their fields. We have plenty of incentive not to capsize.
Near the end of our hour-long run, two boys no older than six call us to river left where they eagerly climb in. We are directly in front of the female Buddha, and we've gathered a crowd. After 100 yards we deposit the boys on shore where we find a horde of others eager to climb in. We point the bow upstream and paddle in place to give some of our fans a short ride. The switch-outs are chaotic. Every time we pull up to the bank, five pairs of tiny hands grab the gunwale until I shout “Nay!”—”no”in Dari–as loud as I can. With help from Amir Shah we get the “only two at a time”message across, whereupon I immediately yell “Bishi! Bishi!”or “Sit! Sit!”It's the closest we come to tipping.
The kids swarm around as we pack up. Amir Shah, who has been taking photos, continues to snap away, and he later shows me one of my favorite images of the trip: an Afghan boy of perhaps eight years sitting in our canoe on land, stroking a paddle through the air and smiling deliriously.