By Allen Parsley
“We’ve got to do it here in Kabul, man. It’s a quart with every fill-up, and it’s only going to get worse.” Kent knew more about cars than I did, so I just listened. “Once a gasket starts to go, it’s just a matter of time before you blow all the oil out onto the road, and of course you know where that will be. In the middle of the desert. Bye-bye Volkswagen, flag down the next camel.”
We had arrived just two days before, limping in from Ghazni and Kandahar. The blue and white Volkswagen hatchback had cost us all of $300 in Athens back in early September, and other than shocks and tires and an oil change in Istanbul, it had been a maintenance-free ride. But not for much longer. We had wanted to hold off until Lahore, or even Delhi, in hopes of finding an English-speaking mechanic, or even a Volkswagen dealership. But we knew now that we couldn’t risk any more miles in Afghanistan, not even the short drop down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan. And besides, we had plenty of time to get the car fixed. Christmas 1972 was a week away, and we had heard on the hippy traveler’s grapevine that some of the tourist restaurants in Kabul would be putting on something of a bash, rumors of roast goose and stuffing and freshly-baked pies had been heard as far back as Herat.
“It’s going to be a big job, the whole engine has to be removed, and taken completely apart, just to get at the damn gasket. And it will probably need a valve job, and new belts, and all. It may turn out to be more than the car is worth.” Kent drained the last of a glass of sweet tea, our staple and nearly sole source of hydration since entering Asia in October.
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to find out. I wonder if the hotel guy would know an English-speaking mechanic. What is his name, anyway, Ahmed or something? We’ve got to trust somebody I suppose.” I turned to look toward the back of the hotel tea-shop. “Speak of the devil, here he comes with another round.”
“Ah, my friends. You are needing fresh tea? Something to eat perhaps? Some sweets?” He was a few years older than us, clean-shaven, as we had noticed so many Kabul men to be, dressed in the ubiquitous well-worn dark suit coat over a flowing white shirt and billowing brown trousers. “You will be needing any guide for sight-seeing?”
“Well, yes, some more tea would be great.” I decided to just jump in. “You know, we need some work on our car. I wonder if you know any good English-speaking mechanics? Someone who works on Volkswagens? Somebody cheap?”
“Of course,” he exclaimed, setting down the tray. “Achmed. The best mechanic in Kabul. He can fix any car. And very cheap. And no waiting.”
“Huh,” from Kent. He gave me a sideways glance. “How do you know him? Has he worked on your car?”
“Oh, many times. And of course I know him. He is my brother. Achmed.”
“I thought you were Achmed?” I interjected.
“No, that is my brother. I am Abed. His brother. I will take you to him in the morning, after your breakfast. He does not speak English, as I do. Your car, it is running at all?”
“Umm, well, yeah,” we muttered in unison.
The streets of Kabul were mostly of half-frozen mud, with soggy patches of dirty snow hiding the worst of the pot-holes. We knew a hard winter was coming, and we knew that we had to get past the Hindu Kush and onto the warm plain of South Asia as soon as possible, and this meant that we had to trust this Achmed guy with our car. Abed, directing from the back seat, took us through a maze of low brown buildings, each looking more like the last, with enough turns and direction changes to leave the two of us totally disoriented. At last he lunged forward between the seats and pointed to a break in the low mud wall running along on the left. “That is the entry, just there,” he gestured.
We pulled into an empty unpaved courtyard. There was no sign to identify this as a place of business of any kind, and there certainly was no flashing neon VW logo over the portal. Kent stopped the car in the center of the yard, and reluctantly cut the engine. A door on our right side opened and three people emerged. Achmed, we presumed, suit-coated like his brother, but with a black beard and white turban, and two young men, or–more accurately–two boys.
“Achmed and Sons,” Kent muttered, “Midnight Auto Repair. What have we gotten ourselves into?”
A rickety table and four chairs were brought out from a shed on the far side of the courtyard. From somewhere else a tray and four glasses of tea appeared. Achmed and Abed sat and sipped and talked animatedly in Pashto, or whatever language was theirs, while we sat speechless, and sipped and stared as the two boys attacked our car.
First they raised the hatch back and removed the engine cover. Then they furiously applied a set of socket wrenches down inside the motor well, all this while the engine was still ticking away its accumulated heat. Then they rolled a jack under the rear axle, and while the one boy foot-pumped the jack to raise the back of the car a foot or so, the other spread a moldy tarp onto the muddy ground under the rear end. Again they attacked with their socket wrenches, until, with a heavy slap and a hiss of steam, the engine dropped straight down onto the sodden tarp. The boys each grabbed an edge and slipping and sliding in the mud, pulled the engine into the open shed, as they might have dragged a freshly road-killed sheep off a busy highway.
Kent and I remained speechless. Abed rose from the table and turned to us, and with a broad smile announced that we had simply to walk east a few hundred meters, and we would find a taxi to take us back to his hotel.
Abed approached us at breakfast two days later. “Your car, it is ready for you. I will summon a taxi, and we will go, as soon as you wish,” and off he went to attend the Australian couple who had come in late the night before.
“How much do you think Abed’s cut is gonna be?” Kent muttered, “and the taxi guy too, right? All on top of whatever the hell that brother is going to want for the repair?”
“I don’t want to guess, but I know we better bring enough cash if we ever want to see that car again. I’ve got Afghanis, and two-hundred U.S. in my belt. You?”
The taxi dropped the three of us at the open gate to the courtyard. The driver seemed happy with the few Afghanis that Abed had us pay. Stepping around a huge mud puddle blocking the portal, we were struck full-on by a dazzling vision of gleaming chrome and blue and white paint: Our little old Volkswagen hatchback, cleaner than it had ever been during our ownership, new-car clean, right down to the black of the tires. Achmed and the two boys silently appeared from some unnoticed side-door, all three smiling broadly.
“And we get to pay for a wash job,” Kent muttered.
Abed greeted his brother loudly, who responded with a long-winded speech in their language. He sent the boys into the shed to get the table and chairs.
“My brother says the key is in its place,” Abed told us. “You can turn on the motor. My brother says don’t enter the car with mud on your feet, just reach in.”
As the table and chairs were set up, and glasses of tea appeared from somewhere, Kent and I edged around the car. The hatch back was closed, but we could see that the engine cover was in place, and that there was no iridescent sheen of spilled oil on the muddy water under the car. Kent opened the passenger side door, reached in and shook the gear-shift into neutral, and with a pinched look of concentration, turned the key. The engine caught and ran smoothly. Kent straightened up and looked at me across the low roof.
“First turn of the key. And no need to pump on the gas. Just like that. Huh.”
We both stepped around to the back and stared at the exhaust pipe. No smoke. And we both crouched and looked up at the underside of the engine. No oil. And we looked at each other, and we shrugged.
Halfway through the second glass of tea, all the while watching and listening as the blue car quietly ran itself in the center of the courtyard, Kent could hold off no longer. “So, Abed, everything seems great with the car. Just great. What do you think your brother wants for the repair work?”
Abed spoke at length with his brother, who then pulled a tattered note-pad from his suit-coat pocket. A stub of pencil appeared. He bent over the pad and very deliberately wrote out a number. He slowly turned the pad and slid it forward and across the table.
Our hearts sank. It was a large number. Four digits, three numbers and a zero. Just what we feared. But wait. This was in Afghanis, right? And you got a lot of Afghanis for the U.S. dollar, right? It took a few moments to calculate. Not possible.
“I get eighteen dollars,” Kent whispered, not looking up from the pad.
“Yeah, me too,” I whisper. “Gotta’ be a mistake.” I reached to take the pad, intending to look more closely, to look for maybe another zero, or some other explanation, but Achmed snatched the pad back, and looking sheepishly at Abed and then back at us, crossed off the number and wrote another. Again he turned the pad and pushed it forward.
“He lowered the price,” Kent whispered. “I get just over seventeen dollars. You?”
“Yeah, me too,” I whispered.
“You know what?” Kent said, and he wacked his palm on the note-pad. “Let’s go ahead and pay him the full eighteen dollars. After all, they did wash the car.”
The author, Allen Parsley has been practicing emergency medicine in the San Francisco Bay Area for thirty-three years. He is an avid cyclist, fly-fisherman, skier, and story-teller. He lives in Berkeley with his wife Janet, their two dogs, and often one or more of his five adult children. He has published two novels, Doc Be Nimble and Doc Be Quick.