We left Kandahar, Afghanistan, as the first pale light of dawn defined the eastern horizon. Kabul was only 325 miles away, but we had been warned that the road was atrocious, and somewhere we had to find gas. Two towns along the route had gas pumps, but back then coupons were required to obtain the imported Russian gasoline. The coupons were obtained from the governor of Kandahar Province, but a phone call to his office informed us that he was away for a week.
Couldn't someone in the office sell us coupons? Sorry, they were celebrating Eid, their most important Muslim holiday. The office would be closed until Tuesday.
We had appointments in Kabul the next day. Bob assured me that we would somehow buy gas along the way, so we carefully packed our gear (including sheets, towels, soap, toilet paper - all the basics needed to travel in that part of the world), two-gallon bottles of water, a chest of ice and food, and two extra tires. Our USAID (United States Agency for International Development) colleagues filled our gas tank and an extra jerry can.
The advance description of the dirt road from Kandahar to Kabul had hardly prepared us for the reality. Southeastern Afghanistan is rugged, almost treeless, and very dry, but when it does rain, the water pours off the bare slopes in torrents, sweeping boulders along the wadis and smashing everything in the way. In the 1920s, the Germans had built bridges across the dry streambeds, but not a single span survived.
That morning, we crawled through more than two dozen chasms where you drove down one side of a 10- to 15-foot cliff, lurched around or over the boulders strewn across the gulch, and gunned the engine furiously to make it up the other side.
More than 100 minor culverts were also in ruin, where the drop was only two or three feet, but the bumping and lurching through those was worse than the deep gullies. Stretches of washboard made our teeth chatter. Worst of all, Afghan farmers had cut narrow ditches across the road to carry irrigation water from one side to the other. These joois were generally in flat stretches where the road surface was fairly decent. We would be speeding along at 30 miles an hour when we'd hit them.
The first gas pump stood forlornly in front of a deserted rest house in a small crossroads village - empty. The rest house chowkidar was friendly and took Bob down a side street to check the black market, but no gas was to be had there, either.
We drove on, averaging about 18 miles an hour. One tire was cut to ribbons and gave out. We were far out in the country, with no dwellings or people in sight, but we changed that tire in record time - aware that the Afghan nomads keep fierce watch dogs. These animals hurl themselves at automobiles and break windshields. Think what they might do to defenseless people changing tires!
We crept into Ghazni, the only other town on our route, at about 3 p.m. We still had 125 miles to go - impossible without another five gallons of gasoline. The single gas station was busy with trucks and buses, but when Bob stepped out to talk to the proprietor, I could see by the way the Afghan was shaking his head that he was adamant about coupons. The negotiations were immediately joined by at least three dozen bystanders, faces intent beneath their tightly wound pogris, drawn by the arrival of Americans in a sleek new Chevrolet.
Bob gave up more quickly than I expected and came over to lean into my window. "The owner insists on coupons. He can't back down in front of all these people. Let's wait a while to see if they won't drift off so I can talk to him alone."
It was a vain hope. Our arrival was apparently the most interesting event to occur in Ghazni for some time. Finally, we left the gas station and toured the town for an hour, hoping the spectators would disperse. But when we returned, an even larger crowd was waiting patiently for the next act in the drama.
The sun was dropping alarmingly low over the western hills when, to our astonishment, a short, stocky Afghan strode up to the car window and asked in unmistakably American-accented English, "What's the trouble?"
Bob, ever the diplomat, didn't mention gas. He just grinned with pleasure and asked, "Where did you learn English?"
"I graduated from the English-language high school in Kabul." His pride was obvious.
"Were you a student of Christy Wilson's?" Bob asked.
"Yes, of course! You know Christy Wilson?"
'Everyone knows Christy Wilson," my husband replied." (Actually, we didn't, although we met and thanked him later after he left Afghanistan. But every American in that part of the world knew that Wilson was a Presbyterian missionary who had been teaching English in Kabul for years.) "What do you do in Ghazni?" Bob asked.
"I run the bus service between Kabul, Ghazni, and Kandahar. What are you doing here?"
"Well, we're headed for Kabul, but we don't have enough gas to get there. I tried to buy coupons in Kandahar, but the governor's office was closed."
"Everyone is getting ready for Eid."
"How much gas do you need?"
"Five gallons would do it."
Our new acquaintance turned and snapped his fingers at one of his bus drivers. "Give the proprietor coupons from your bus for gas for the Americans."
He would take no money. Absolutely not. The unexpected appearance in Ghazni of Americans he could assist gave him great pleasure. (Cartons of American cigarettes were, however, welcome.) And as we traveled north, we gave thought to the hundreds of friends for America that one patient man had made by teaching English in that far distant land.
Thank you, Christy Wilson.
When the Afghan king was deposed in 1973, the Wilsons were no longer welcome in Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, English was replaced by Russian in all the schools. After the Taliban gained control in the 1990s, the Koran became the focus of all education.
From 1979 until the US invasion, few Afghans encountered an American. Now hundreds of Americans are in Afghanistan, trying to get the country back on its feet. Their every action will be noted and remembered in that society with which they are so unfamiliar.