A bitter wind whips into Herat from the Northern Steppe in winter, burning the leather cheeks of Afghan hunters as they travel the gravel streets on wiry mountain ponies. Warlords swallow bowls of hot mutton broth, sitting cross-legged on carpeted platforms in drafty cafes. My fellow wanderers on the hippie trail have all gone to Goa for Christmas, and I am here alone. Herat is a bleak town in the winter.
My hotel is tall and stone cold with a three-story cellar with thin wooden doors. My room overlooks the main street. Kneeling on the pile of carpets I use for a bed, I can peer across to the square on market day and watch the hawk-nosed men gamble at the partridge fights. Horse taxis clatter past beneath my window, heavy leaden hooves springing sparks at a trot.
The cold is intense. A squat iron stove devours precious wood and cakes of camel dung with alarming greed. Each evening the veiled wives of the two brothers who own the hotel scavenge these fragments of fuel from the frozen alleys and streets, gliding, silent and black, against the ice. I have to pay for every gram I burn. Each afternoon I walk along the corridor from my room to a shed perched on the roof of the hotel, and Abdul, the brother who speaks some English, weighs handfuls of sticks and chunks of dried dung on a shallow scale, using broken cobblestones as weights.
I lounge on the carpets with my back against a furled blanket, leaving the one chair vacant for a visitor who never comes. A low wooden table crouches in one corner, its surface lumped with the soft remains of a dozen guttered candle-stumps. There is no electricity.
The window is barred, but I don’t mind the bars. The shadows of afternoon paint stripes across my few belongings.
Coarse lumps of sugar dissolve in my tea as I watch my eagle eat. I found him in the mountains a month ago, silent with a shattered right wing. I thought I might help him. I buy meat for him everyday, freshly killed lamb wrapped in faded newspapers I cannot decipher. He clutches the arm of the chair with milk-white talons and glares at me as he feeds. He has a brilliant unwavering eye, and I’m afraid of him. The wing will never function normally again, but his appetite remains unimpaired. He’s growing plump from lack of exercise. I take him with me sometimes when I stroll through the town, settling him in my shoulder-bag with just his head and neck protruding, and he stares at the staring Afghans until they look away.
I usually rise before the sun; the cold awakens me, and the street sounds. Vendors howl up and down the narrow alleys, horse taxis rattle along ringing their bells, beggars begin their incessant drone, and the muezzin bellows robustly up in his white minaret.
The eagle is invariably awake before me. He hops to the window sill to watch me emerge from my sleeping-bag, depositing his chalky waste on whatever book I may have been reading by candle-light the night before.
Downstairs Mustafa and Abdul yell impatiently for their youngest wives to hurry with the morning tea. With my stove stoked and drawing well, I add my shout for ‘chai’ to those of the men below, and eventually one of the children taps timidly on the door, opens it, and places the pastel tea-pot on the floor, never once looking into the room.
That first pot of tea is magnificent, pale green with shreds of tea leaves floating in it to give it added strength. With the curtain pulled aside and the day unfolding outside my window, I sit and sip from a delicate bowl, letting the warmth seep through me. I drink endless cups of ‘chai saps’, or green tea, each day, most often in the market. Whenever I buy anything at all, even a box of matches, the stall owner invites me to share a fresh pot with him, and occasionally we smoke a pipe of the local resinous hashish with the tea. But the very best is a hot pot of early morning tea with the stove beginning to glow red and the winter sun rising distant and pale from behind the wrinkled mountains.
I always watch for the arrival of the border bus on Tuesdays, and the bus from Kandahar on Fridays. In the cold, clear air they can be heard struggling up the last steep grade to the edge of town. The busses are excellent for watching because they have space on the roof for travellers with little money, and the poorer Afghans sit up there sharing circular silver snuffboxes filled with ‘naswah’, a dull green powder that looks like crushed fungus and delivers a stimulating buzz. They laugh and talk in the wind with their turbans unraveling behind them as the ancient busses hurtle recklessly along the pitted road from the border.
I’m in no hurry to leave Herat. I just turned 17.
Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to explore the world and have adventures.