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The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart is an excellent book as it takes the reader on a journey few would undertake themselves and along the way it fills us all in on how far away the world still is from being just one globalized homogenous culture.

The Places in Between

by Rory Stewart

There are three types of travel writers. First there are the ones who know important people worth including in their books, authors like Paul Theroux or V. S. Naipaul. Then there are the poor saps who know absolutely no one and entertain us with street level observations and characters whom they meet along the way, like Kerouac. Finally, there are the ones that enjoy a special kind of social status, like war correspondents – see Michael Herr, who bring you tales from places you’d be foolhardy to visit yourself.

Rory Stewart, in The Places in Between , is a combination of all three. As he makes his way across war torn Afghanistan only a few months after the coalition bombings in 2002, one can’t help but thinking Rory is a complete oddity. He travels spending nothing and carrying only a rucksack and a walking stick. He wanders through local villages in the dead of winter, across chilling mountain passes buried in frozen snows, as if he had nothing going for himself. A man with nothing to lose, who perhaps then who has gained everything – the freedom to complete a walk across Asia by following roughly the path Babur took in the 16th century. And yet amazingly, Stewart is the equivalent of a modern day Scottish laird – a fellow from Harvard with government connections to get him papers to authorize his travel, a decorated British citizen and a writer for the New York Times.

At the time of his walk in early 2002 there were no tourists in Afghanistan. The Taliban were freshly routed, and one wonders throughout the book whether Stewart really is just walking for the pleasure of it, or is actually a covert operative. When confronted alone on mountain paths, by groups of men sympathetic to the Taliban who declare their hatred from Britain and America, it seems a pure miracle he wasn’t killed on this walk. The land mines, invisible under the fresh snow Stewart trudged through, would be reason enough not to take this journey.

And yet he did, and not only that, Rory Stewart wrote a striking travel book filled with history, cultural perspective, and a combination of desperation and zenlike freedom. His walk feels like a thousand moments like this one he describes:

 

I stopped, sat down, got up, walked ten minutes, and then, because I felt exhausted, sat down again half buried in deep powder… I could not remember why I was walking.

 

 

I was sick, my muscles stiff… I closed my eyes and smiled. I had done enough. It occurred to me that no one would criticize me for staying here. I half opened my eyes and sun seemed particularly brilliant; the unbroken powder stretched without end. It was a very private place and here, buried in the snow with only my head in the sun, my body would not be disturbed for days. I knew villages lay ahead, but there seemed no point in trying to reach them.

 

The modus operandi of the journey, and the book, was to walk all day, arrive at a village, stay with the headman, sometimes receive food. Repeat. Women are rarely encountered, as per the strict Muslim law against their appearance in public. At one point a Ghor village gives Stewart a dog, who he lovingly names Babur. The dog is a tired giant with clipped ears and tail that Stewart practically has to drag over the mountains. While Babur may not have been much protection against wolves, the sense of companionship he provides may have been the only thing that keeps Stewart in his right mind. Men along the road berate him, insult his dog (a dirty animal to most Muslims), try to rob him, and beat him.

Stewart chooses the path least taken on his walk from Herat to Kabul. He is initially reluctantly escorted by hard, killing men from the KGB-like Security Service whom he manages to pay off so as to leave him walking solo. Before Chaghcharan, he reaches the rare, lonely minaret of Jam, which marks the one-time greatness of a lost mountain people, and is shocked to find hordes of tomb raiders looting the recently uncovered city of the Turquoise Mountain.

He is bewildered by the harsh extremes of hospitality and brutality people display to him along the way. Passing from village to village he recites a litany of parochially important men he has met in order to gain trust and passage: ‘Maududi in Badgah, Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar, Bushire Khan in Sang-i-zard, and so on…’. The bloodlines, feuds and tribalism run deep, and in fact are everything that matters. Stewart finally reaches Kabul, tattered, bruised and emaciated from diarrhea. He is confused for an Arab (and warned to stay away from the coalition troops).

The political ideals of the masses of international aid workers in Kabul, with notions of gender equality, ethnic fairness and democracy, are at stark contrast to the people Stewart has encountered. People for whom Islam, and its strict interpretation, are everything, and people who have spent 25 years fighting each the Russians and each other.

The Places in Between is an excellent book as it takes the reader on a journey few would undertake themselves and along the way it fills us all in on how far away the world still is from being just one globalized homogenous culture.