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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Waiting for the Suicide Bomber

Wais, the bartender and part owner of the Hotel, waves his Glock in the air like a blessing. On cue, four beefy men, two on each side of the bar, pull their weapons out, check their magazines, compare. The men, all in their mid-thirties, all wearing jeans, are contractors, probably. Wais’ dum-dum bullets impress, carry the day.

I grab my draft beer and pretend to sneer at the Yankees’ fan beside me. Mid fifties I’d say, quieter than the others, except when pontificating on his favorite sports team. He heads security at the airbase, or so he says.

Can I get through the Salang tunnel? I ask out loud. Wais thinks so. All four of the contractors agree. Opium trucks queue up all day long, at about ten thousand feet. They let them through at night, after the construction workers leave. Concoct some story and stick with it; they’ll let you through too.

Last week I drove up there, says Wais. Didn’t get through, but I had a woman with me—a reporter.  Tried to impress her; it wasn’t my day. The warlord Fahim runs things up there.

I hold up the palm of my gunless hand to interrupt and tell Wais I had dinner with the UN people last night, mostly Irish and Aussie. They tell me they can’t go overland, it’s too dangerous. They fly up to Mazar or over to Herat.

Jack, the drunk on my left, calls for another beer and tells me some bullshit story of his heroics in Bosnia. Then he says, let me ask you something. When you drive around a bend in the mountains and three AKs are pointing at your windshield, what are you going to do? Maybe you better ask your driver. I don’t like this guy, but he has a point.

A German in his late twenties sits across from me. A motorcyclist, reckless and robbed twice, he tells us his story. His government, he says, pulled strings to get him across the Friendship Bridge up north, after he had camped out there for a week, embarrassing the Uzbeks. He whines: they stole everything. He orders a beer and pays in cash.

I’m not leaving, says a defiant Wais to no one.

Past a gaggle of heavily armed, turbaned guards in the lobby—not one under fifty, I walk outside for some air. A line of black SUVs are parked in front of the hotel, bumper to bumper. The guards had just come. I hadn’t noticed the SUVs earlier.

Evening grays gather, soften storefront shapes in moonlight. Dust tamped down below the mountain tops and usual stars. The air better now, breathable.

Tomorrow I’ll walk away from this, down Chicken Street, past the antique shops, while men are pushed against mud walls and packages are pawed open and gun turrets turn accusingly in green armored vehicles.

I walk back in. My place held by a near-empty beer mug.

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