I’ve been doing a massive spring clean (yes, I know it’s November!) and have just found a very dusty and faded blue folder crammed with old letters.
These are my own letters that I wrote to my parents through the early ’70s as I worked my way around the world. Bogotà, back home, then to Durban, across Australia, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Delhi, Lahore, Peshawar, Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Tehran, Istanbul…
My mother gave me the folder when I moved to Canada. “In case you want to write a book,” she’d said.
The letter I pull out describes how my travel-buddies and I hardly spoke above a whisper as we drove through the recently opened Khyber Pass under the – to us – menacing gaze of clusters of men with rifles, how we pushed on without stopping in order to get through before sundown. Under no circumstances, we’d been told, were we to be there after dark.
The Khyber Gorge was both stark and spectacular with the setting sun against the mountains reflected in the lakes. We paused on a desert-like plain eerily empty and silent. Nothing moved except for a bus approaching from the distance. It stopped, a man hopped off and disappeared into the vast space.
On arriving at the hippie hotel in Kandahar, I threw myself on the bed only to discover it was bare boards and a blanket.
In the letter, I tell my parents how I waited in the shower, wet and hair lathered, for the water that had suddenly stopped to come on again. It didn’t. How appalled I was at the scruffy, unkempt western hippies in the city who spoke with plummy Oxford accents. And astounded to find myself at a tea-dance listening to a group called The Pink and Purple. Apparently they were really good!
I went on a shopping expedition for an Afghan coat with a friend. Not just because he was male, and I was (am) useless at bargaining, but because he worried I’d end up with a coat that hadn’t been properly cured.
I chose a gorgeously embroidered coat and then the bargaining began, “in a very civilized way” over many cups of tea.
The coat was made of goat skin, the fur on the inside, fluffing out around the edges (all the rage on trendy Kings Road in London at the time) with exquisite embroidery on the soft outer leather tracing the edges of cuffs and hem, down the back, around the collar and down each side at the front.
I got a very good deal and carried off my trophy with great glee.
Only a few hours out of Kabul on our way to Kandahar, we had to stop. My travel-buddies couldn’t bear the rank smell a moment longer.
“It’s new. It’ll probably take a day or two for the coat to lose the smell,” they reassured me. We strapped the coat to the top of the van, hoping the wind would blow away the last of the odor.
When I eventually got home to England, my mother said the coat would have to be thrown out, it simply smelled too disgusting.
“The smell will go in a few days,” I told her. “It’s just because it’s new.”
My younger sister retrieved the coat from the garbage.
“You’re not keeping that in the house,” said my mother.
So my sister hung it out of her bedroom window. Only a problem when it rained. Then the wet coat could be smelled at the pub down the road.
When she went off to university, the coat went with her.
Years later I asked her if the smell ever went away. She admitted that no, it never did. Everyone had remarked on it. But she hadn’t cared. If the Beatles could wear their Afghan coats, she could wear hers too.