I suddenly realize I have to leave Iran today and not tomorrow. I got a 30-day extension to my visa and I had previously miscalculated how many days I’d been in the country: this is the 60th day I’m here, not the 59th. But with the help of a a local guy I get a seat in a shared taxi to Afghanistan. I sit wedged between the door and a fat lady totally oblivious to any discomfort as I closely watch every detail of the landscape rolling by. After an uneventful border crossing we set out to Herat. We don’t pass that many villages, and most of the ones we do pass are abandoned. Or maybe it just looks that way.
When we stop at the driver’s office in Herat I borrow his phone to call my couchsurfing host. As I wait outside on the street I notice I don’t really know how to act. No differently to in Iran I guess, but it’s just that the reputation of the country leads me to second guess myself more. To be sure I just go into the waiting room until my host shows up on a scooter and we drive back to his place. Later in the evening we walk to a restaurant and sit down in a side room, the family section where men and women can sit together freely. My host advises me to wear a longer shirt and I realize that even though there are no government-enforced dresscodes in the country it’s better to dress more conservatively than I did in Iran.
Next morning I walk alone to the center of town. I’m pretty sure I stand out, even though I’m wearing a long shirt and a headscarf. The latter is an unusual shade of turquoise, and I still haven’t managed to be able to wear it without having to constantly readjust it. But nobody seems to pay any attention to me. The first thing I visit is the Friday Mosque. It’s quiet, some people are hanging out under the shade of the arched entryways, but the central court is empty. It gives off a very serene impression. Next I try and fail to find a place that accepts my ATM card – not a real problem as I still have some Iranian money left. I exchange it with a guy who had lived in Enschede in the east of the Netherlands while waiting for his eventually unsuccessful asylum application to go through.
The next day I walk around the old center. First I stick to the main roads, then I decide to wander through the alleyways of a neighborhood. It looks mundane enough, the names of famous football players are graffitied on high sand-colored walls, and the narrow alleyways turn left and right at random points every several dozen meters. I quickly decide it’s too much of a maze and I turn to go back. As I walk towards the main road, a man shouts a few words at me. The only thing I understand is ‘Taleban’. I don’t know if he’s threatening or warning me. Afterwards I pay a visit to a famous collection of minarets and the old citadel which now houses a museum with brightly lit displays. My day is finally starting to feel more and more like a normal tourist’s day out.
The next day a local guy I’ve contacted through couchsurfing takes me to see some more out-of-the-way sights. We visit a Sufi shrine. After being mobbed by a crowd of young boys offering incense and a watchful eye over the car in exchange for a bit of money in the parking lot, the shrine itself does seem like a sanctuary for contemplation and quietness. Afterwards we head out to the Jihad museum, build by a local warlord to commemorate the fight against the Soviets. It features a collection of guns, including some ancient Enfield and Winchester rifles, and an incredibly detailed diorama.
I’d love to take the backroads to Kabul, past the Jam minaret, but several people tell me that road is now in the hands of the Taleban. Even the main road past Kandahar is too risky and I decide to fly. After a taxi to the airport I have to go through three security checkpoints before I board a plane. It kind of feels like cheating, and I regret missing out on the beautiful landscapes that I will undoubtedly be flying over, but I guess my stubbornness has finally reached the limit of the risks I’m willing to take.