Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Afghan Affair – The Fantastic Four

Our battered Toyota Landcruiser’s rear wheel went into a ditch and the front left one got stuck atop a massive boulder—how our driver managed this seemingly impossible manoeuvre is still a mystery to me—but right at that moment we all knew that this perhaps is the first major mishap to befall our expedition; and in every possibility there seemed no way out of the fix.

Our vehicle contained our entire expedition load and five robust people: three climbers, one interpreter and one driver and it was bursting from its rivets (according to Pat, popping the rivets) and welded joints. We had been hurtling and hammering ourselves relentless over the last 9 hours or so over some of the worst dirt roads of my entire life (and that says a lot); we had forded swollen rivers, sand dunes, had changed one burst tyre, and had just crossed to the south bank of Wakhan River over the bridge past Shergez and were hoping our masochistic journey would soon come to an end.

Precisely when I had begun to breathe easy (wondering at Toyota’s wonder car that it could still function after so much battering as it was already severely battered when it was purchased), our vehicle got stuck in one of the remotest and hostile and unlikely spots on the entire planet in a position that is impossible to imagine if I hadn’t seen it myself. This is what really happened.

After crossing the bridge after Shergez, we went down through green fields towards a vast delta where few mountain streams had carved a huge reverse ‘V’ shaped area, galloping and guzzling through rocks and stones before joining up with Wakhan River further down. We were a km short of the village of Baba Tengi and we could see its few houses perched like doll huts atop the mountain at a distance. We were barely 5 km away from our destination village of Kheret.

The mountain streams had brought in massive boulders and plenty of alluvial debris across the field and it was nearly impossible to recognize a path through them and being late afternoon the waters had risen high and flowing like a dam burst. Our driver was not so familiar with this patch of ground. I learned later that due to these streams at this point, the jeep track is altered almost every day, meandering and changing according to the flow and strength of the water. So our driver drove on through the confusing dumps of boulders, mud slides and channels of water over a trail that we all thought was indeed the correct path. But shortly we came to a dead end where the entire landmass had been washed away by the colossal amount of water.

The place was far too narrow for us to turn around, and we all alighted. While I and the interpreter went to look for an alternate path, the ladies guided the driver to reverse on the tricky tiny trail. At one particular narrow corner, the driver reversed off the trail and managed to climb up on a boulder nearly half my size in length. He tried to use brute strength to dislodge the boulder and in doing so, crushed it and got embedded further. The air was soon redolent with stench of unburnt fuel and burnt rubber. Finally the driver switched off the engine and got down. When we returned, after having found another tortuous path; highly roundabout through the streams to the other side, we found the two ladies and the driver with their faces pressed into the ground trying to decipher how to get the boulder out and the vehicle free.

Mountaineers by nature, learn to be patient and carefree, so the three of us simply whistled, I took pictures, while the two locals grumbled and fretted. Then we got out all our stuff to make it lighter and then out came the driver’s tool box, which had enough gadgets to dismantle a space shuttle or assemble a nuclear warhead, depending on your preferred occupation.

Over the next hour we tried every trick in books and out of syllabus, pushing and pulling, hammering and hitting, kicking with kickass attitudes, swearing and praying and even after Allah willing when nothing happened, I started looking for a camping sight for the night. The situation seemed hopeless for the time being and I was hopeful of finding at least one dry spot amidst the streams for our tent.

Suddenly out of literal nowhere; since we had never seen them approaching us and we did have a clear field of vision for several km all around, appeared four individuals: one elderly with a colourful cap, one young adult bareheaded and two boys of mid-teens. One moment we were only five fatigued individuals and then suddenly we were nine. They could have been air dropped by a UFO or conjured out of thin air. They were utterly poor, scrawny and thin but happy and smiling like only Afghans can be under such dire straits. They took a look at us (we all were collapsed on the ground by then) and then at the Toyota. Then they spoke rapidly to our driver and within a blink of the eye, these four newcomers had taken charge of the vehicle from us, as if it was their destined duty to get us out of our misery. A jimmy, shovel, chisel and a hammer and a piece of rope appeared mysteriously and they got down to work. Soon our driver and the interpreter joined them, and so did I, now enthused to get few extra pair of hands.

The youngest lad had two plastic bottles, which he kept filling and pouring into the engine coolant as smoke belched intermittently. Within half an hour our vehicle returned to terra firma. Then the four walked ahead of our vehicle and asked us to follow them. They led us across the deep stream taking us through the shallowest and the gentlest parts (even at these places they had to struggle in order to survive and prevent getting washed away; they were risking their lives for us to get over) and led us in a large loop and several cocks-crew manoeuvres and finally our vehicle (with all its animate and non-animate occupants still breathing) climbed up on to the other side, wet but none the worse for wear. And our four rescuers grinned from ear to ear. We shook hands and smiled with and at them. They stared at us and smiled back.

We wanted to offer them some money but they refused. They were shivering in the cold breeze, they were soaking from waist below and the sun was nearly out. Our interpreter said that these four were working in their fields up on the yonder mountains and had seen us going the wrong way and knew that we might get into trouble, so they had come down in anticipation to help us if needed—completely unbidden or without any ulterior motives, having walked through the torturous terrain for over an hour or so.

We could speak or say nothing to them to make them understand our heartfelt gratitude; and perhaps they didn’t want any of it either. They were selfless simple folks, happy and content within their own world and they would help anyone passing through their land. We took few shots, showed them the pictures (which lit up their faces again) and took leave.

As we receded, I looked back out of the window and found the four with their backs towards us, slowly reducing and disappearing into the growing dusk and walking away and I wondered what they might be talking right now, of us, or of their field and donkeys, would they remember us after tonight and what did the whole thing mean to them after all. I shall never know, I shall never meet any of them again and I shall never be able to do anything for them ever even though they literally rescued us from a very serious situation.

What do we say, what can we give, what can we do for such individuals that could reciprocate their kindness and generosity in some measure; actually nothing. Such people, as I meet all over the world in the most unlikely of places, who help me, feed me and save me without seeking anything in return, only teach me humility and a reaffirmation to the goodness of humanity.But above all they teach me that there's no price for kindness and humanity.

They teach me to be grateful for what I have and to share all that I can, they teach me never to lose faith in god and perhaps through their smiles they tell me that the only way I can do anything for them is to help someone in trouble in return and let this chain of selfless attitude towards each other continue till it encompasses the globe without the manmade boundaries of nation, race and prejudices. To me these four would always be the Marvel Comic books superheroes Fantastic Four.

Perhaps some of you would argue that they don’t look like superheroes, neither do they wear any special suit and body armour. But what we must never forget is that there’s a hero in each one of us and within these four as well and to me they would always be an inspiration. Toshe Khor (Thank you in Dari).


  1. what a beautiful rendering of the heart, S... you are right i loved the post and what an apt name given too.


  2. Sir,I just completed the trek to TALANG PASS in DHAULADHAR RANGESir,I just completed the trek to TALANG PASS in DHAULADHAR RANGE