G-string Journey

One Wild Journey, One Crazy Couple, One Life to Live

Tea and the camera man

I decide to take a walk around Sarhad to familiarize myself with the area and to take some photos. Just next to my tent, which is now sitting at an altitude of  over 3,o00 m, is the Wakhan River. This is actually the Sarhad branch of the Panj River.  I watch as a few camels lazily wander along the shorelines and think that may be a good direction to head. I walk through the neighbour’s fields and jump down to the pebbly ledge. From this vantage point I can see everyone busy at work in the fields. The men, plowing the fields, wear the traditional shalwar kameez common throughout Afghanistan, but the Wakhi women are wrapped in brightly coloured dresses with long braids tied down their backs. I watch as several women herd their animals and collect water while trying to peek a glance in my direction.

I walk along the river taking in the rush of being close to water again after so many months living in dry and dusty Kabul. As I near one of the last houses before the road to the Pamirs begin, I come across a young girl and two young boys washing in the river. I say hello in Dari, as I don’t know anything in Wakhi. She beams at me and launches into a monologue with full arm gestures and giggles. I watch her with an equally large smile of amusement on my face. When she is finished she stands staring at me expectantly. I laugh and try to explain, in English, that I have absolutely no clue what she has just said. She laughs and takes my arm as she drags me up the hill away from the river. I hear her chanting ‘chi’ as we go. This I understand. Off I go to have another cup of tea.

We reach her house and go inside. To my surprise, there is no one inside. Usually, houses are full of babies, small children, grandmothers and mothers. This house is empty. She immediately puts the kettle on the stove and tells me to sit down in the place of honour in a Wakhi house. Shortly thereafter an older woman enters carrying a baby who obviously belongs to the young woman. The older woman sits down in front of me and stares with a toothless grin. She talks gibberish to me and I talk back in what would be complete nonsense to her. This continues while to kettle boils. The boy from the river, Fazel, is now looking after the kettle, so both women are sitting with me, touching my hair and clothes. I am running out of smiles and things to do to keep myself and my hosts entertained, so I pull out my camera to show them a movie I took of the busker fest in Toronto. That usually helps to bring about some oohs and ahhs. Immediately the boys yell ‘axe, axe!’ Apparently this is Wakhi for photo. They would like me to take their photo. I do and they immediately run to the camera to see the results. Digital is not lost on this village!

I have come on this trip with both my little point and shoot as well as my DSLR camera for the zoom and closeup shots. I pull out the small camera and show them some of the photos before the hand gestures indicate that they want to take some photos themselves. Everyone takes a turn and I end up with a card full of photos of rugs, kettles, babies, me, instruments, and a variety of nooks and crannies of a traditional Wakhi house. I think these are some of the best photos on my camera.

Unfortunately, however, I am just finishing my second cup of tea and circle of bread when I notice Fazel running out the door. I take a quick glance around the room and know in the pit of my stomach that my camera is gone. I immediately alert my hosts who only take a moment to realize what I am saying in broken Dari. Everyone, including grandma starts to look for the camera. I am waving frantically, saying “Fazel, Fazel”, to no avail. Finally someone says to me “Fazel?” I sigh. During the search, a father or grandfather enters and is listening to the story. He looks at me and makes a ‘taking a photo’ gesture. I nod. He starts looking around the house as well. I say “Fazel”. He looks somewhat surprised but raises his voice to the other boy from the river who runs out of the house. I decide to follow him. Sure enough, he heads to a house down the hill. Everyone is following me, causing quite a stir in the neighbourhood. Now I have men, women, and kids all asking me about my camera. Fazel appears looking frazzled. He denies anything, taking his coat off to prove there is nothing inside. I decide to pull out the Islamic wild card and ask to speak with the Imam of the village. Someone takes me by the hand and leads me to the mosque. Before long I am talking to the Imam and what seems like a group of elders. Someone leaves the group and returns within moments with Fazel, his posse, and my camera. I breathe a sigh of relief  and wag my finger at Fazel before putting it safely in its case. The Imam asks to see the camera and we realize it is completely full of sand and probably beyond repair. It seems Fazel panicked at the idea of the full arm of the mosque and buried the camera behind his house.

One of the elders is Chakam Boy, the owner of the guesthouse where I have pitched my tent. He decides it is time to take me home. I follow him back to the village with the girls from my tea party waving goodbye. I wave back. The girl from the river comes and gives me a hug to let me know she is sorry about the incident with my camera. I squeeze her hand so she knows it’s not her fault. She kisses my cheek. I head back to the house where Chakam Boy’s wife, in her bright red traditional dress, is preparing a wonderful dinner of rice, yoghurt, and beans by the light of the smokey skylight. Its my first try of the yoghurt and I so hope it sits well with my stomach because it is just about the tastiest yoghurt I have ever had. I am probably pushing it, but I throw in a black tea with yak milk and some local bread with yak butter as well.

I settle in to spend the rest of the evening with Chakam Boy, who is sitting in a dark corner close to the kettle where his tea bowl can be easily refilled. He chats animatedly with several other men who are also drinking tea. The women, of course, sit back on the upper level of the house by the fire oven, slightly out of the way. I enjoy the easy atmosphere, even if I can’t understand a word of the conversation, until the night air chills and my sweater is no longer warm enough. I make my way to my tent where I can already feel the warmth of my -22 sleeping bag and unzip the flap so I can watch the millions of stars lighting up one of the darkest skies I have ever seen.

Although my camera will most likely never take another photo, I was able to salvage the memory card. I leave you with some of the stellar photos taken by Fazel and friends:

3 comments on “Tea and the camera man

  1. Maureen McGarrity
    August 3, 2012

    So sory about your camera. However it can be replaced but the pictures and the memories are yours to keep–and share

  2. Mary
    August 3, 2012

    Your post confirms that language is not the only means of communication. Tea is an international link of sharing. The delay in tracking the boy who stole your camera makes me wonder if the family was complicit. Did they think it disappeared in thin air? Did they hope you’d leave without it? Why did the boy think he could get away with the theft unless his family “turned a blind eye?”

    So the Imam is the conscience of the people. His wisdom to find the camera serves a broader purpose. But I wonder if the boy was reprimanded for his slight of hand.

    I can’t imagine how frustrated you must be a times when you cannot speak their language. You’d have so many questions to ask. But I suspect that the deeper questions of economics, politics, education, women’s roles, patriarchy and religion would be greeted with suspicion.

    You’ve shown yourself to be an open-minded traveller. Were you never afraid for your safety?

    • gstringjourney
      August 5, 2012

      Hi Mary,
      Your comment went to spam for some reason. Will have to figure that out!
      Tea is definitely an amazing form of communication throughout Afghanistan. There is an old Pashtu saying that without morning tea, the war cannot begin. Refusing a cup of tea can be quite an insult.

      I also thought the family may have been complicit in the theft of my camera, but in the end want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that the boy was acting without authority so that I can continue to be positive about the rest of the family. I so enjoyed their company up to that point. The Imam will, I am sure, reprimand the boy. Theft is considered an unforgivable crime in Islam; it is Haraam and forbidden by the Quran. The prescribed punishment is to cut off the perpetrator’s hand. Although this will not be his punishment (thank goodness) I do not think he will steal anything else any time soon.

      It would be great to speak the language and to ask all the pertinent questions, but with the amount of traveling I do, that would be a lot of languages! Half the fun can be trying to figure out a mutual language, like tea or photos. It is an experience in its own. You’ll be able to read about the only time I became nervous about my safety later on…

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2012 by in The Wakhan Corridor and tagged , , , , , , .

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