Media Stories and Interview Ideas

The Story Behind the Kabul to Kandahar Road
In 1967, the year the Raney family drove through Afghanistan in their VW bus, the road between Kandahar and Kabul had just been completed. The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers had built it as part of one of our foreign aid Projects, in order to curry favor in Afghanistan, then under control of its king. At this point in post-World War II history, Great Britain had lost most of its empire, the Cold War was in full bloom, and the Soviet Union was also attempting to curry favor in Afghanistan in what the British characterized as The Great Game. Since the British Empire was in the process of dissolution at that time, it fell to the U.S. to contain the Russians. Thus, when the Russians embarked on a road building project in Afghanistan, so did the U. S.

In 1967, Afghanistan barely qualified as a country. It had been essentially a tribal society throughout its history, a conglomeration of multiple tribal alliances and constantly shifting loyalties going back at least as far as when Genghis Kahn’s Golden Horde ransacked the country in 1220 AD. The Russians, forever in search of a coveted warm water port, were attracted by the newly freed India, and since the road to India led through Afghanistan, currying favor among the Afghan people and their king provided the Russians with an opportunity to drive a final stake through the heart of the British Empire. Afghanistan was virtually a land-locked country, one with very few roads, nearly all of which were dirt tracks.

If you look at today’s map, you will see that most of Afghanistan is encircled by a more or less ovular road, often referred to as “the ring road.” It basically consists of two different East-West routes across Afghanistan, the northern one running from the Khyber Pass on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, to Kabul, from where it runs northwesterly to Mazar-e-Sharif, and then on to Herat in the far western part of the country (and then on to Mashad, Iran). The southern route also ties Kabul and Herat together, but Kandahar in the southeastern part of the country.

In the 1960s, when the Russians were expanding their influence in Afghanistan, they quickly realized that Afghanistan needed more roads.  More roads would hook Afghanistan more tightly to the Soviet Union.  A better road link between Tashkent (then in the Soviet Union), to Mazar-e-Sharif, and then on to Kabul, would give the Russians access to the Indian subcontinent.  Thus began another check and checkmate in The Great Game.

When the Russians started building another of their roads through southern Afghanistan, this one from Kandahar in the southeast, to Herat in the west, the U.S. picked up the baton from the British and proceeded to connect Kabul to Kandahar, by building a continuation of the existing Russian-built road from Tashkent to Kabul. On a testosterone high, we decided to show them Russians how Americans can really build a road!

Zerky, Tarzan, JoAnne and I became the beneficiaries of this brand new Kandahar to Kabul super-highway, back in 1967, just a few months after it had been completed. The story of what we saw along the way is told in “Letters to Zerky, a Father’s Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World”. Briefly, what we saw on that new superhighway were virtually no cars at all, but lots of pedestrians, donkeys, carts, horses, camels, cattle, and sheep, munching their way along as they traveled their new freeway at about two or three miles per hour.

We also encountered another of these silly foreign aid projects gone awry, just outside Kandahar, a city of mud huts where we had recently constructed a modern new airport—which was dark and deserted when we drove by it.  Dark, that is, but for a brilliant generator-lighted electric sign heralding the construction of this modern new airport as America’s gift to the people of Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, we had neglected to give the Afghans any airplanes to land on it, just as we had neglected to give them any cars to drive on their modern new freeway to Kabul.

Now here’s where all this story starts to get really interesting and relevant to what’s going on today.  Charlie Wilson’s War was another Afghanistan war the U.S. got into, back in the 1980s, when we were backing the mujahadeen against the Russians.  Much of the fighting was along this then new superhighway from Kandahar to Kabul, a highway which gave the Russians a great deal of pleasure when they decided to drive their tanks all over it during Charlie’s war.   Now–a decade later–the U.S. is back again, proudly heralding the construction of the same road we built three decades ago. Thus it goes in Afghanistan.

See Pages 219-227 of Letters to Zerky for more information about the highway between Kandahar and Kabul, and pages 215-217 for more information about Kandahar itself. This includes what the Raney’s observed when they stopped at Kandahar’s then-modern new airport. Also see JoAnne’s January 2, 1967 diary entry on Page 298, and the second-from-last paragraph on Page 322. For additional information, Google “Kabul to Kandahar Highway to Hell. Also see http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/JJ24Df03.html.

Guns and Pakistan
In December 1967, the Raneys arrived in West Pakistan via the Khyber Pass.
Bill writes on page 242:
“We knew we were in Pakistan because of all the guns. Guns are everywhere and are the defining image of Pakistan.  This is no accident. . .

India’s Caste System
Pages 279-283:

“The European conquerors had an interesting problem on their hands. Because of their pasty white skins, there was a certain logic behind putting the British at the top ofthe caste system. Caste is a very complicated thing; your mother and I don’t pretend to understand it. It has become apparent to us, however, that caste tends to fall along skin-color lines. Along with the benefits that usually accrue to lighter skinned Indians, who tend to be further up on the social and economic scales, there are also attendant obligations and restrictions. Certain actions are forbidden to higher caste Indians because some things are viewed as being “unclean.” Having a relationships with lower caste people is one of these unclean things. So if you were a British administrator back in the good old days, traveling around this vast country in order to let people know who’s in charge, you had a problem on your hands. Where were you going to stay at night when you were showing the flag in some place with no hotels? Going native with lower caste villagers was not an option, because making yourself dependent on people below you would undermine your authority.  This Public Works  Department-Inspection Bungalow-Circuit House-Rest House network was the answer.  It allowed the British—and later on their high-caste Indian cohorts—to travel the Indian countryside without losing face.

It’s only wealthy, educated Indians that one finds touring India by private car and staying in PWD Bungalows.  Lately, we have been seeing quite a bit of a second Indian family, the Patels. They lived most of their lives in Kenya, but were recently forced to return to India due to the new Kenyan government’s “Africa for Africans” policy. You, Zerky, have taken a liking to the Patels’ twelve-year-old son; you want to follow him everywhere. He in turn has taken it upon himself to act as your protector, and the two of you are becoming inseparable. I think he derives status from running around with you. Almost everyone here has servants, except for the very poor. Labor is unbelievably cheap. Not only do servants make one’s life easier, they also contribute to one’s status. It appears not to be acceptable for upper-caste people to perform menial tasks for themselves. That sort of prohibition works out very oddly sometimes.

Both of our upper-class dinner-host families have taken a shine to us, and all of them, especially the men, are fascinated by our camper. They keep asking us questions about it. Yesterday I was on my back underneath the car, changing the oil, when Mr. Patel came over to chat, and to see what I was doing. When I crawled out from underneath the bus, he started peppering me with questions about car maintenance. Since he seemed very interested in such stuff, when I opened up the engine cowling to put the new oil in, I motioned him to come over and take a look at the engine. Getting the cap off the oil can and positioning the spout just right for the pouring never seems to work out very well for me, and by the time I was finished I had oil all over my shirt. Mr. Patel sat there watching me get oilier and dirtier, all the while asking silly questions I was sure he knew the answers to. I figured he was testing me. Then he started asking me statistical questions about the car’s performance. It could do what to what in how many seconds? That sort of thing. I had no idea. Then he started asking me how it handled. How did it corner in tight turns? I told him it was not a Ferrari, just a tin box on wheels, but that it did a good job of getting us from there to here. I was about to offer to let him take the van out for a spin, when he said something that hauled me up short. I suddenly realized I was talking to a man who could not drive. He had a driver to do that. A man of his status is not allowed to drive his car, in India—that’s what chauffeurs are for. Driving would be crossing a caste line. Here was a rich and powerful man, with a passion for cars, who was envious of some dirty guy in a VW hippie-bus. He wanted to crawl under his car, too, and get all down and dirty like me. Then he would have liked to take his car out by himself, and push it to the limit. But he would never be able to do that; his caste and culture had him in its ugly grip. It’s not only the poor and the untouchable who suffer from this archaic custom, I suddenly realized.

I was no longer mad at him for how he had raised his son. I felt sorry for them both. I think I now have Mr. Patel very confused. Every morning your mother and I go through our household-chore routine. While she takes care of you and gets you squared away for the day, I do just about everything else. This includes sweeping out the car and doing the dishes. Mr. Patel is having trouble handling this. He just can’t seem to accept the idea that a person of obvious wealth—and a man at that—could demean himself—in public—by performing such menial tasks. Twice he has offered to lend me one of his servants. Both times I tried to explain why I prefer doing things myself. But I don’t think he understands what I am trying to tell him: that in America we take pride in independence and being able to take care of ourselves. Your mother and I are an affront to Indian social standards. Even though I like Mr. Patel, I must admit that I considerably enjoy his consternation.”

Car Troubles
Pages 245-248:

Dear Zerky,

“Before getting to Rawalpindi yesterday we saw a tire sign when we were passing through a village. The shop had a thatched roof and hundreds of worn-out tires piled around it; if they took all of them off and put new ones back on, they must really know their stuff, I figured. So we stopped, and within seconds a crowd began to gather. I dragged our flat tire out from behind the front seat, and rolled it to a man who appeared to be in charge of the shop. “Can you fix?” I inquired in my best pidgin English. “Is tubeless—T-U-B-E-L-E-S-S,” my finger tracing the English letters on the side of the casing. “No tube!” I added emphatically. Tubeless tires are uncommon in this part of the world.

As the man began to examine our tire, carefully rotating it slowly through his fingers, the crowd started to multiply at an alarming rate. Our predicament seemed to be turning into a major event. They were all men, laughing and chatting amongst themselves. Soon, suggestions started flowing in Urdu, but I had not received a single word of English in response to my question, “Can you fix?” So I tried again and he smiled. I suppose a smile is better than a shrug? The tire examination continued. When the man I believed to be the owner finally finished looking at it, he passed it on to one of the older men in the crowd, who examined it further and, in turn, passed it on to the guy next to him, who examined it further. And further and further. In an atmosphere of somber intent sprinkled with joviality, my deflated tire slowly made the rounds. Each of the men examined it thoroughly in  turn, and then discussed it thoroughly with the man next to him, before passing it on to the man next to him.

“If they can’t fix it, why the hell don’t they just say so, so we can get the hell out of here,” I said to myself very quietly. A rapt, unintelligible discussion engaged the crowd. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I was reluctant to grab my tire and run; I didn’t want to play spoilsport and pick up my ball and go home. Our reading about India stresses that patience is the key to traveling in this part of the world. It was time to start cultivating my attitude.

Eventually, after everyone in the crowd had had his opportunity to examine my tire, it finally found its way back to the man I had originally shown it to. More spirited discussion with the men around him. There seemed to be some difference of opinion, but gradually a consensus seemed to emerge. Finally, the man returned it to me and pronounced the well-considered judgment of the crowd: “No fix! Is tubeless.” There was triumph in his voice. Greatly enlightened about this new land we are getting into, I was glad to be on my way. Throwing the flat tire into the back of the bus, I waved goodbye to the happy crowd. Somehow I was happy too.”

What Was I thinking?
November 22, 1967:

The Raneys are in Iran’s Great Sand Desert. They are camped near the road at the bottom of a rocky ridge four or five hundred feet above them. Bill is outside the bus, washing the dishes when an exotic tribesman rides up on a jet-black Arabian horse.  He is a Persian in flowing white robes and a wild floppy turban, straight out of National Geographic magazine, and is as interested in Zerky and the VW bus as is Zerky interested in him and his beautiful horse. Bill trustingly hoists his son up and into the arms of this tribesman on horseback, and…
See Pages 186-188.

Itty-Bitty Andorra Then and Now
Pages 62-67:

In April 1967, Bill, JoAnne, Zerky and Tarzan arrived in Andorra, on their way from France to Spain. In Letters to Zerky”, Bill relates the history of this scenic paradise and social utopia where Andorrans paid nothing for telephone service, electricity, car registration, mail, etc., etc.  When Bill and his new wife, Nancy, returned to Andorra in 1992, they found a very different itty-bitty place.

To contact Bill Raney to discuss any of these story ideas in more detail, or for an interview on any of these or related topics, you can contact Bill by using the CONTACT form on this website, or by calling him at Nickelodeon Press, (831) 429-4234.