Friday, December 08, 2006

The Places in Between, part II

So I've been meaning to write about Rory Stewart's The Places in Between. I thought this was a fantastic book for a lot of reasons -- the writing is wonderful, the story of his walk is enthralling, and the information he gives about Afghanistan is of the type you won't find in most other books about the country.

As I was reading I had a tendency to focus on the adventure parts of it, but I don't want to neglect the political and historical aspects: I learned a lot about the history of Afghanistan, as Stewart gives descriptions of the towns and villages he passes through and tells a bit of their past. He talks a lot about the complex religious heritage of the place, including the Buddhism practiced in ancient times and the more contemporary Islamic history; he explores the remains of the Bamiyan Buddha sculptures destroyed by the Taliban only 9 months before he arrived there. He also criticizes westerners who lament the lost Buddhas but know very little of what's happening to the people alive there today.

I was fascinated by the conversations with villagers Stewart recounts, and the very vague and hazy picture of the west many of the people have -- not so different from the hazy picture of Afghanistan many westerners have, although it's easy, particularly for Americans, to think that the whole world knows everything about us. Many of the people he talked to had never traveled farther than a few miles from their villages. There are very few women in the book, as for the most part they keep themselves separate from the groups of men Stewart moves among, although, interestingly, in the remote mountainous area the Hazara people inhabit, women are allowed a little more freedom. Stewart stays away from overt political statements, but he does criticize western politicians for saying ill-informed things about Islam and westerners in general for not understanding or caring much about the region.

And then there's the adventure:

Daulatyar was only fifteen kilometers away and there were probably two hours of daylight left, but I had forgotten how much deep mud and wet snow slowed my pace. I felt muffled in the snow-fog and imprisoned by the rain hood I was wearing. I threw back the hood. I could hear and see again. The day was very silent and the plain seemed very large. The snow driving into my eyes at a forty-five-degree angle made me feel much freer, but my left foot seemed frozen to a cold iron plate.

Exhaustion and repetition created within the pain a space of exhilaration and control. And at this point, I saw two jeeps, their headlights on, weaving slowly toward us through the fog. They were the first vehicles I'd seen since Chaghcharan. When they reached me, an electric window went down. It was the Special Forces team from the airstrip.

"You," said the driver, "are a fucking nutter." Then he smiled and drove on, leaving me in the snow. I had seen these men at work when I was in the army and in the Foreign Office and I couldn't imagine a better compliment. I walked on in a good mood.
Stewart insists on walking every inch of the way, even though he must walk in freezing temperatures over mountains, making his way through snow drifts, often in wet clothes. He's sick much of the way, probably having caught a virus in the water and because he doesn't eat very well. He depends on local hospitality traditions, often very reluctantly kept, for his food and shelter every night. At one point he lay down in the snow exhausted and in despair, and even though I knew he made it out of Afghanistan alive, I was afraid he wouldn't get up again. His dog Babur rescues him, barking and whining until he gets up and starts walking again.

Babur turns out to be an important part of the story; Stewart picks him up in an Afghan village when a family, who had been mistreating the dog, offers to give him away. He is a huge mastiff of one type or another, and Stewart spends much of the book dragging him reluctantly along. Poor Babur causes a lot of trouble; at every village they pass, a pack of dogs comes chasing after him looking for a fight. Stewart is constantly beating back these wild dogs with his walking stick. But Babur is an excellent companion and his life with Stewart is much better although more physically demanding than his previous one.

And, finally, here is an example of the kind of writing you'll find in this book:

Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune -- often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead I became aware of the landscape as I once had in the Indian Himalayas. Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continued to develop in reality and presence. I was suddenly afraid, uncertain I could sustain this vision.

This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in the place, and that I had known it before. This was the last day of my walk. To feel in these final hours, after months of frustration, an unexplained completion seemed too neat. But the recognition was immediate and incontrovertible. I had no words for it. Now, writing, I am tempted to say that I felt the world had been given as a gift uniquely to me and also equally to each person alone. I had completed walking and could go home.