Short piece I wrote for funsies/World Nomads recently.
When I told people I was going to Afghanistan, they looked at me like I’d gone mad. I was twenty-one, 5’2”, and grinning while I said it.
Our Afghan driver took a small group of us outside Kabul one day, to the valleys around Istalif. Freed of the city, our dust and dung coated lungs began to work again.
“Are you sure we should do this?” my sister asked in harried Pashto when the paved road became a dirt path became a rocky riverside became an actual river.
“Yes, yes!” he said. “It’s worth it!”
We emerged at the base of a canyon and tumbled out of the car. On our right stretched a town carved into the mountainside. On our left and high above stood an old man with a gathering of boys. The students wore bright blue shirts and embroidered caps. They leaned over the cliff edge to stare at us.
The next moment, they came rushing down the hills, about five or so altogether. They ran, arms outstretched, their sandaled feet barely grazing the ground.
“Can you direct us to the path?” our driver asked, once they finished showing us their textbooks.
The boys took off, jumping from boulder to boulder down a dry streambed. I clamped a hand over my chadar and followed, leaping with them. The air was clean and the sky blue and I didn’t fall, for all my mother worried.
We scrambled up the bank and into the forest, vibrant as any in England or Virginia. The boys raced ahead to a waterfall and waited, hands on hips, chests puffed out. Their meaning could not have been clearer: this was their land, and it was beautiful, and they knew it. They knew it, and they wanted me to see.
As we continued down the trail, the boys plucked seeds from branches and showed me a game of blowing, to send the seed spiraling like a top. I tried, failed, and they whooped glee. The air filled with spinning and green.
We parted ways eventually, with waves that lasted until a turn of the stream took me out of sight. I found a guesthouse, had a rest, and started the trek back, led by the driver.
Suddenly I saw something long and black slither over a rock and disappear. My fears returned, and I cried, “Was that a snake?” I looked from the rock to the driver and back. “Was that a snake?”
He understood me, for all I wasn’t speaking his language. He tilted back his head and laughed, because the sun was warm, and it was spring in Afghanistan, and I had willingly come to a war zone only to squeal about a snake. I tipped my head to the sky and laughed, too.
I breathed, and knew peace.