Hitchhiking Through Afghanistan, 1963

By Sandy Wiener

Starting Off

Mid-summer of 1963 I finished a year of a post graduate school fellowship working in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Then I set off on a nine-month journey through Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

That fall, I arrived by train and bus from Iran, in Herat, Afghanistan. I inquired around, and found I could likely hitch a ride if I wanted. Someone suggested I wait in a small roadside place that was selling lamb on the spit, (which years later in NYC I learned was souvlaki). Utterly welcome and delicious in that setting.

Soon a short, stocky person with the thickest fingers I had ever seen came into the cafe. The man heard I was looking for a ride, and he smiled and nodded Yes. No spoken words were possible. We communicated just by hand gestures and facial expressions.

He was from Syria, and his truck had broken down in Herat. He had traveled to Iran to get the spare part for the truck. We had more lamb, some vodka shots, and then took a hotel room for the night.

In the morning we walked to his truck. (My guess is a 16 wheeler, but really I have no idea.) He began to repair the truck, while I wandered about the city for a few hours. When I returned, he had finished the repair.

But where was my small traveling suitcase? He had put it under the tarp covering whatever goods he was carrying. Nope! No chance of getting it down. I was stuck with the clothes on my back, which included seersucker pants and jacket in a kind of greenish shade.

So off we went, I think for seven days, to Kabul, where he would deliver his cargo.

What happened on this trip? Some adventures.

Where’s the Road?

At the beginning of the trip, often I could discern no visible road through the dirt. My friend would drive one direction, while I would have guessed a different way. Of course, he was right.

The scenery one day was mostly the same as the previous day: monotonous in color and shape, unless you looked closely. We did see camels on occasion.


This was Caravan season, when tribes migrate from the north to the south. Small kids were strapped onto small horses and ponies. As a joke, my driver friend crept behind several small kids and honked his horn. The horses bolted away, kids screaming; my friend laughed. Three of the tribal leaders galloped to us on their horses and leveled their rifles. Gulp! I don’t remember if any words were exchanged. They motioned for us to get out of there. We did, fast.

Where Would We Sleep?

Mostly in round hutches by the road, sloping ceilings with a hole in the top where the smoke from the fire escaped. A few other truck drivers were there, and me. We ate rice, sometimes with lamb. We sipped sweet tea, through a hard piece of sugar wedged between our teeth.

We each had a rug where we would eat and sleep. One night was colder and gradually the fire died out, and my suitcase with something warmer for me was still unavailable.

So I lifted up my rug and lay down on the dirt floor, the rug over me as a blanket – despite the truckers previously making big honking spits on the floor between the rugs. A fitful sleep.

Woman Walking Barefoot

In the morning, I got up at dawn to go outside, where the rising sun could warm me. It had snowed that night. I looked down the road and saw a figure slowly coming towards our hut. It turned out to be a woman, older I think, but it was hard to tell. She was carrying a big load of sticks on her head. She did not look over to me or the hut, but continued her journey down the road.

And her feet were barefoot in the snow.

Over the Mountain Top

The last day, snow became heavier. The cab got colder. The path of the road got steeper. The truck did slips and slides trying to struggle forward and up.

The window wipers broke. Every few minutes I stuck my head out the window to brush snow away so the driver could sort of see.

No sightings of any other trucks, or people, during the several hours of our making sporadic progress in the snow. (Precarious? I don’t know.)

Suddenly, the mountain top. Before us were the lights of Kabul. We could coast in! A huge relief.

Final Night

I asked someone, Where is a good hotel in Kabul? We parked in front. My friend got the strap off the top of the truck, and I had my suitcase back. I went in and got us a room. A grand shower, one of my best ever (plus a change of clothes finally).

We went downstairs to the dining room. Virtually empty, with proper napkins, silver, and glassware. I ordered food for us, and when it came my friend looked baffled. I understood. He had never used a fork and knife before. So I picked up food in my hands and ate from there. With relief he did too.

I was glad to treat, since he had paid for all my food and lodging before then.

Next morning my friend went back to his truck and drove away.

I spent another day in Kabul, before catching a bus through the Khyber Pass. I was now headed to Pakistan. And beyond…

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