It was on the 22 September 1991 that I sat aboard an Ariana Afghan plane with the intent of spending a month solo backpacking in India. I can remember the date so clearly because around about twenty minutes ago, my wife found my twenty year-old boarding pass. Just smelling the musty board has brought back so many memories, I was just about trembling trying to get them onto this post.
It was on this trip that I first saw the business end of an AK-47 rifle. And it was directing my skinny frame to a building I had no intention of visiting.
The rifle was held effortlessly by a boy of even skinnier frame. A gun transcends all language barriers, and I immediately understood that the breeze block building ahead of me was at the absolute top of my sightseeing itinerary. In spite of all the frightening possibilities, it proved to be one of the more peaceful episodes of that trip.
Here is the photo of my boarding pass. I can’t show you a photo of the Ak-47 wielding teenaged Afghan soldier – he confiscated my camera.
I guess I should rewind. We arrived in Prague airport so late at night that they had turned off the airport. We gathered like lint around a stationary baggage reclaim, which was duty bound to convey only disappointment. Disappointment, at airports, tends to weigh in around 25 kilos.
The next day a connecting flight was found for us, and we got on with the job of going directly to Delhi via some other places.
Many hours later we landed in a snow-filled airfield. I had been expecting an Indian summer, but not snow. Through the blustery sleet I could make out some tail fins in the dark. Wings, Hammer. Sickle. Sickly feeling setting in.
With no English speaking people near me I was still confused, but then two serious looking Russian military chaps, complete with overcoats, and super-furry-animal hats boarded the already-full plane.
Some re-arranging of seating began, and I found myself sitting next to a new face. Skinny chap, older. Just a nod. It seemed rude to ask him what was going on– no-one else seemed annoyed at the massive lack of Delhi-fication.
A quick U-turn on the runway and we were off. The next time I woke we were rumbling across some spectacularly bald mountains, and heading towards what appeared to be a junkyard.
It seemed a little early in the year for fireworks, but presumably our pilot couldn’t bear the tension of waiting. Flares seemed to be coming out of the arse of our plane.
Sensing my fuckwittery, my new seat buddy said quietly “Don’t worry, happens all the time”.
I asked him if he was a regular on this route. Sure he was. Out to India maybe twice a year on the cheapest possible flight. And when his money ran out, back to the UK with his arse stuffed with drugs enough to fund the next trip.
I asked if that was a bit of a risky holiday fund? Not really, the return trip is a lot quicker, and the condoms are good for a couple of days either way.
A few minutes later the junkyard came into sharp focus. It was, or had been an airport. There a burnt out tank. Cool. Here, a wrecked jeep. Amazing. Over there a burned out passenger plane. Mum.
I was happy to lose my cavernous neighbour as we were motioned to exit this latest theatre stage left. And into a new theatre we stepped.
Cue boy with rifle. Cheerio camera. Walk a long way to a concrete shed. Sit in shed. Stare back at plane. Watch soldiers board plane. See soldiers leave plane with all the seats. Empty plane leaves. Notice all exits covered by soldiers with rifles. Make out in distance a big truck with lots and lots of luggage getting smaller. And smaller.
“Happens all the time”, said a familiar voice behind me. “There’ll be another plane along soon”.
A few hours later, I noticed a vending machine, quietly accepting only local currency at the back of the shed. It had tins of cola. I motioned clumsily to the most relaxed of the hash-smoking soldiers that I was rather interested in getting a can out of it and I had funds.
US dollars appeared from a secret pouch – and after some chat with other rifled fellows, he agreed that a coke was indeed worth whatever US dollars I was offering.
I had hours to worry what might happen. But you don’t actually really think you are going to die. You tend to think it’s anything but your last moments … These things happen all the time. There will be a plane along any minute. These are nice soldiers. We are not of interest. There are too many of us to bury. They let me have a tin of coke for fuck sake.
I wonder if that’s what people reasoned on trains bound for concentration camps. If that’s what everyone reasons, right up until the light go out?
And then the next plane came along. And I put down one tin can, and got into another one.
A few quick steps and then WTF! I heard some panicked flapping and looked down the length of the plane to see what was disturbing my new calm.
Who the fuck brings chickens on as hand luggage?! Who the fuck felt the urgent need to fly a few chickens from Kabul to Delhi?!
Little lady. Row 8. Seats B and C.
Do you mind if I sit here? I think I might be a chicken too.