What was that? Was someone calling my name?
General Bongo! Esos say come quick! Beeg truck under beeg rock! Esos say come General Bongo!
The kid was about 10 years old and his eyes were a couple of shiny black holes in the night at the bottom of the Mahi Par Pass. It had been about seven hours since we had arrived at the top of the pass at dusk to discover that the entire gorge was bumper-to-bumper door-handle-to-door-handle stacked up with the biggest traffic jam I had ever laid eyes on, and having lived in L.A. for about 12 years I had been smack in the middle a few rather large ones. We – Esos my translator; Daniel, my photographer; and my driver Faraj – were on our way from Kabul to Jalalabad, and we had been warned not to travel the Jalalabad road at night. But there we were with the sun almost down and what would turn out to be about five miles of backed-up traffic directly in front of us. By the time we looked for a place to turn around there were about 200 cars, buses, and trucks behind us. We were stuck.
Dark shadows began to form on the walls of the mountains high above us, and here and there, we could see boys climbing the sides of the gorge gathering sticks for firewood they would sell to truck drivers who were already out of their cabs and laying out their sleeping bags and starting cooking fires, ready for the night. Or nights, as it would turn out. Esos asked one of the taxi drivers if he’d ever been caught in a jam in the pass before and he smiled grimly: many times. How long does it usually take for the police to untangle the jams? What police, the taxi driver asked. You see any police? I’ve been in one of these jams for 24 hours, once for more than two days.
Esos, Daniel and I had a summit conference. From our vantage point at the lip of the very top of the gorge, we could see what seemed like miles of backed up traffic. The road to Jalalabad was little more than a potholed dirt path barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other safely, littered with rocks and small boulders that had crashed down from the mountains lining either side. And let us not ignore the fact that the edges of the road were lined with piles of three rocks – two on the bottom, one on top – warning that mines laid during wars over a period of about 30 years were still out there along the roadsides as deadly as ever. We had already passed taxis changing tires in the middle of the eastbound lane because it wasn’t safe to pull off the road. This was not good, we concluded. Especially not good was the fact that there were two Americans present in the pass as the sun went down – Daniel and me – and according to what Esos had been told by another taxi driver, it was not safe to be an American in the pass overnight.
What do you do when you’re confronted with your imminent demise not righteously, journalistically while “covering the war,” but instead Death By Traffic Jam? Well, you get your ass in gear and direct traffic, that’s what you do.
Now it was seven hours later and Esos was down the road ahead of me the way I had planned it out. Esos worked the downside of each switchback corner moving the big eastbound trucks back so I could direct enough westbound traffic through to relieve pressure on the corner, and on we went, one switchback after another, over and over and over again.
Not speaking even a syllable of Pasto, what I’d been doing was jumping up on huge boulders drawing the attention of truck drivers and taxi drivers and bus drivers by making as if I was riding a donkey – spreading my legs like I was straddling the beast and pretending to slap its hindquarters with a whip, all the while screaming DONKEY DONKEY in English, obviously, and HAAAGH HAAAGH which I had been assure by Esos meant Donkey in whatever dialect Afghans were speaking. So I was up there on these boulders…and we’re talking boulders the size of Volkswagens here…and I’m screaming DONKEY DONKEY…HAAAGH HAAGH and these people are actually paying attention to me, and moreover, they’re howling their heads off with laughter.
You’ve got to know something about what you might call the Culture of the Donkey in Afghan life to understand why a looned-out American pretending to ride a donkey got their attention and caused uncontrolled laughter. All Afghans from rural areas – and that’s most of the population – grow up around donkeys. They use them to carry firewood and hay and all manner of worldly goods. They ride them to and from school and from very early ages, they are tasked with driving their donkeys into the family’s walled compound at night to protect them from predators. They love donkeys because they are so useful, and they hate donkeys because they are so stubborn and impossible. In fact, Esos explained to me that one of the worst things you can call someone in Afghanistan is a donkey. And here was this loony American pretending to ride a donkey, and oh, by the way, directing traffic by waving his arms wildly and ordering these taxis and busses and trucks around in the universal language of loondom.
BONGO BONGO! I’m signaling two cars to move forward and off to the side of the road.
MONGO MONGO! Now I’m backing-up a tractor hauling a wagonload of straw. BONGO BONGO! Move forward!
MONGO MONGO! Back up!
When there was a lull in the action entire bus-loads of passengers made their way through the jammed-up traffic and gathered around my boulder and pointed at me and yelled:
GENERAL BONGO! DONKEY DONKEY! BONGO BONGO! MONGO MONGO!
And I dutifully did my donkey dance and screamed DONKEY DONKEY! HAAAGH HAAAGH! until the time came to move another couple of trucks or direct a flood of westbound traffic through towards Kabul and freedom. Of a sort.
Everything was going swimmingly until Esos informed me that we had an al Qaeda intelligence operative riding on the bumper of our Suzuki four wheel-drive mini-SUV. The way the al Qaeda guy, as we referred to him, came to be on our back bumper is yet another story of the Mahi Par Pass, and like the rest of them, it had its own Interior Logic, as they teach in the Big Time Writing Schools.
It turned out that this character had been bugging Esos and Faraj for a ride to Jalalabad since we arrived at the top of the gorge, yammering yammering, can I have a ride? Can I have a ride? Faraj didn’t like the way he looked, but to me, he appeared to be nice enough, trying his best of get into every photo either I or Daniel took. He looked like the kind of guy if you were an Afghan dad you’d want your daughter to marry. Or maybe not, given what we found out about him several hours into our labors. Or maybe he would appear especially wonderful to you as a prospective father in law. It all depends, doesn’t it?
Then a couple of hours into our struggle down the pass, a taxi driver about 20 vehicles in front of us approached Esos with the news that our bumper-passenger was an al Qaeda operative on his way from Iraq to Peshawar. He realized that after we had untangled the about three or four switchbacks that he was actually going to make it to Jalalabad that night and became friendly with Esos and warned him that the guy had been trying to cadge a ride since earlier that afternoon, offering to pay when he got to Jalalabad and made contact with his al Qaeda boss. He cited his mission for al Qaeda as evidence that he was obviously a trustworthy guy, and a patriot to boot. Esos told me the news and I didn’t give it much thought. I was too busy doing Donkey Donkey and Bongo Bongo to pay much attention to the guy in the brown plaid headdress on our bumper. Then about an hour later, a mini-bus driver who was about 10 vehicles behind us going east volunteered basically the same information to Faraj. The two drivers had no way to know about each other, and yet there they were telling us the same story: the guy had been asking for a ride all night, promising to pay as soon as he got to Jalalabad and met up with his al Qaeda contact. Esos passed this second report about our passenger along to me and I made a snap command decision: Leave him on the bumper at least until we get to the end of the jam. He won’t do us any harm if he figures he’s on his way to Jalalabad and he’s actually going to get there tonight.
The appearance of the guy was what confused me. I mean, have a look at the photo of me shaking hands with him. What? Me worry? It was the genius of al Qaeda to send an innocent looking kid on an important mission like carrying a message from Iraq to Peshawar. It makes sense, right? The guy was right for the job precisely because he didn’t look right for the job. That’s al Qaeda in a nutshell. They don’t come to America armed with submachine guns to kill us. They come with box cutters.
So seven hours into traffic directing and Donkey-Donkeying, I was stage-managing the last switchback before the bottom of the gorge and things were looking pretty good. Or so I thought until the kid appeared out of the dark beseeching me to follow him to help Esos with the beeg truck stuck under a beeg rock.
General Bongo! General Bongo! The kid was still yammering at me as we made our way through the tunnel to the bottom of the gorge where I found a slammed-up insane mess of multifarious vehicles that would have done the Lincoln Tunnel proud on a Friday rush hour. And there waiting for me was Esos with a very serious look on his face.
General Bongo, he said levelly, using the nom de guerre awarded me hours before by happy drivers as they passed me standing on my boulder, waving them westward toward Kabul and freedom. Of a Sort. General Bongo, we have a problem.
You mean the truck? What’s the story with the truck?
Yes, okay, the truck is stuck under a beeg rock hanging over the road and I need you to help me figure a way to move it. But we have another, beeger problem with those two buses. He pointed past a long jam of cars and trucks at two white busses idling in the dark with their headlights off. These buses are filled with Taliban fighters carrying AK’s and they are on their way to Kabul to make beeg trouble.
Really, I said. We’ve got an al Qaeda guy on our back bumper, and now we’ve got two bus loads of Talibans in front of us. I considered my options which appeared to be exactly zero.
Esos said, I have talked to the Taliban commander. He knows about you, General Bongo. The Taliban commander looks up the pass from where he is stuck and he sees the traffic moving freely to the west and he sees the rest of us creeping forward to the east, and he has been told that an American is the one who is doing this. I told him that in order for us to move this traffic jam in front of him, you must pass his busses. I told him if he does not allow you to walk past his buses, they will spend the rest of the night sitting right where they are. So he has agreed, General Bongo. You can walk past the Taliban buses, but I must ask that you do so quickly, so we can get this beeg truck out from under the beeg rock and go to Jalalabad.
You think this thing is going to work? I asked Esos. Can we trust him?
Insha’Allah, said Esos. If it is God’s will. But just in case, he said with a sly grin, I’ve got some guys on the hill above the buses, and they’ve got AK’s and they will stand guard as you pass. Where did you come up with these characters and their AK’s? I asked. There are many citizens with AK’s in the Mahi Par Pass tonight, said Esos. The ones who are traveling to the east along with us are on your side, General Bongo.
So there it was. In order for me to get our asses out of the gorge and onward to Jalalabad, in order for me to fulfill my contract with the Big Time Magazine in New York and write something even marginally publishable, we first had to make a deal with the Taliban.
I have to tell you that I didn’t even give it a second thought. Let’s do it, Esos, I said. So forward we marched past the Taliban buses. I glanced into the buses and sure enough, there they were, heavily bearded, every one of them with an AK across his lap or between his legs. It wasn’t until I got past them that I let it out. I mean, I was standing there behind those two buses full of Taliban fighters and I was thinking to myself, what in the hell is going on here? General Bongo? Donkey Donkey? Who are you kidding?
That’s when I let out my howl – When do I get paid? Where is my fucking check? And suddenly, it came to me. I knew exactly how I had transformed myself into General Bongo and maneuvered myself and my guys to safety through five miles of hell. I was doing the same thing Bill Graham did the night I watched him maneuver himself and his entire paying audience to safety when the Lower East Side Motherfuckers attacked the MC5 and wreaked havoc at the Fillmore East. But Bill Graham was no General Bongo. He didn’t need a nom de guerre. He was just Bill Graham, an ex-Marine sergeant and a veteran of the Korean war, just like my father. He was One of Us.