The taxi bounces along, speeding over roads just paved enough to allow us to drive quickly but full of enough potholes to make a morning ride to the airport feel like an amusement park ride. I have a water bottle in my hand, but taking a sip seems a risk on par with crossing the street in Kabul or swallowing water from the outdoor pool back home.
The streets are essentially deserted at this hour; the sky hasn't yet given birth to the sun, but the faint light emerging on the Eastern skyline indicates that the hour is approaching. The rest of the world is still in their beds and I'd rather be with them. And yet, there's something beautiful about our early-morning drive through Herat, something that makes me feel as though I'm intruding on a world in which I don't belong. It is the time of birds and shepherds, the hour of sleepy guards who drew the short straw and mothers whose wailing infants demand they rise. This is their world, not mine; they have allowed me but a glimpse into this alternate existence, and as we fly through the streets, I discover a side of Afghanistan I rarely see.
We pass the park, where yesterday there were food carts and print shops, children playing on a tiny ferris wheel, street kids shining shoes and trying to sell packs of tasteless gum. It was a park bursting with life, from the games of street soccer to the businessmen passing through to the women in burkas or long hijabs who sat at the tables to share a cold drink and a friendly conversation. Now, though, the park is empty, the food carts shut and their shades locked down as though winter has come and they are bears hibernating until the snow melts. The concrete soccer fields are abandoned, the one functioning swing on the playground creaking back and forth in the wind with mournful aloneness. At this hour, the park's only inhabitants are the packs of dogs who frequent it, trotting through as though they own the place. Which, right now, they do.
We leave the park behind and pull onto a busier street, with other cars and motorbikes and bicycles taking ambitious workers to the office or teenagers to their early classes. Some have their headlights on, but the bikers don't have that option. We almost hit one, a youth with a scarf around his head, but he swerves, looking more cold than angry.
As we leave the city proper behind us, the number of cars diminishes, leaving us on a once again solitary drive. We drive past compounds of dirt houses, built into one another, each with thick mud walls and sprouts of grass at the base to announce that spring is here at last. A lone guard stands outside a security gate; he yawns and inspects his fingernails, lured into sleepiness by the peaceful world around him. A shepherd chivvies his flock through another gate and down the path- not a hard task, since his flock includes only three grown sheep and two lambs who skip and cavort after their mothers. The shepherd follows, no skip in his step, leaning on his stick, his weathered face weary but patient.
Trees line the side of the road, funny trees with long, smooth trunks and then a bird's nest of leaves forming a head at the very top. The larger trees rise above the buildings and look proportional, if not exactly majestic. The smaller ones have yet to grow much of a trunk, and they just look like gawky, awkward teenagers who have Afros too big for their bodies.
We pass a motorbike with a man and a woman, the first female I've seen all morning. She leans into his back, gripping his shirt with one hand while desperately trying to control her hijab with the other. It is big, as all hijabs are, and its black and white patterned lengths flap in the wind, eager to escape. Another motorbike slows down beside a fruit stand, only to find the stand closed, the watermelons and oranges locked away until day dawns and there's enough business to warrant the fruit seller starting his workday.
We pass decorated roundabouts, with a giant fruit bowl adorning the center and the graceful curves of Dari lettering lining one side. I manage to read the first word- چَوىي (roundabout or square)- but my reading is too slow to absorb the second word. We pass compounds with walls short enough to see over, allowing us a glimpse into a young girl's morning routine, the way she stands from the pump with a full water jug in her hand and pauses to survey the sky, perhaps feeling God's majesty as much as I do right now, despite the fact that we worship different gods. We pass a series of buildings that appear to have the shape of a grenade- spherical base, the size of a large water tank, with little square tops that stick up above the rest of the buildings. I wonder what they are, but my quiet query in the taxi is met with no answer, either because no one knows or because no one wants to disturb the silence with a reply. We pass a field of grass, and the first rays of the sun tip over the horizon just in time to angle across the tops of the grass stems, as though reassuring them that the light that gives them life will soon be back.
All too soon, the barricades that signal an airport's gates appear through the front windshield. It is time to go back to the world of security scanners and ticket counters and airplanes with loud jets. But this morning's taxi ride has given me the tranquility to survive, the calm heart to step back into real life and all its hustle and bustle. The break from reality, the glimpse of the beauty of Herat's pre-dawn world, have reminded me yet again what a wonderful world we live in.