Did you know I actually started writing this column more than 50 years ago?
When I was young, I accompanied my parents on a two-year Peace Corps term in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. They encouraged me to start keeping a journal, arranging with my teachers in Wisconsin for me to send articles for the school newspaper. I wrote of all the incredibly different sights, sounds and smells I was experiencing.
We had to learn a new language, and find out how frustrating it can be to communicate beyond the most basic level. My father would catch himself wondering why the native little kids were so fluent in this foreign language!
The culture and economy were totally different from what we were used to in the U.S. Some things seemed very odd and not to our liking, such as their sanitation practices, lack of reliable phone or electric service, and limited supplies available in the shops.
Other things we preferred compared to America – ask me about the Persian melons fresh and in season, the toasty flat bread, and cardamom tea.
I remember many walks across the Kabul River, where we saw the small but verdant irrigated fields, watered from the river by an ingenious and ancient system of hand-hewn waterways in the rocky terrain. Farming was done without engine power. We came upon a water-driven rice mill; an ox-driven sugar mill; a farmer proud of his steel-tipped ox-powered plow; and men winnowing grain by hand with a basket in the wind. The rocky hills were sparsely scattered with nomads’ herds of sheep and goats.
Camels, donkeys, bicycles and horse-drawn taxis were the common man’s transportation. There were a few cars and trucks, available for hire. Around town, freight was carried on wooden flatbeds the size of a pick-up truck bed, pulled or pushed by two strong men. The hard work that such people did for their meager livelihood made a deep impression on me as a child.
While the people there were poor, I saw strong loyal families who placed a beautifully high value on hospitality and respect for elders. Many of my friends expressed their creativity in beautiful needlework, some of which helped them earn some income. Most seemed to have enough food and could usually afford a new set of clothes once a year.
We met many very gracious, hospitable people. They generally understood we were there out of goodwill, and treated us well. They were super curious about us, of course, as we were about them. Especially the children didn’t think to hide their curiosity, but would stare openly at our different clothes and blue eyes.
They would ask us what things were like in our country. One friend even asked if the same sun and moon shone in our country as in theirs. I couldn’t blame her for not knowing, since she hadn’t had the opportunity for the education we take for granted.
But she had some skills she was learning from her mother that I found quite impressive, like running their entire “kitchen” over an open fire in the corner of their mud brick compound, with no utensils but a cooking pot, mixing bowl and deft hands.
We gradually became familiar with our new surroundings. When we came home, America seemed foreign to us in many ways.
For all the strange and different things and people I saw, I couldn’t help noticing that people everywhere share so much in common. They dote over their babies, hope the best for their children’s futures, seek some comfort and security, try to live by the values they have been taught, work hard, laugh, treasure a few special possessions, and want to be able to live in health and peace.
We found we’re not so different from each other after all.
Winifred Hoffman of Earlville is a farmer, breeder of dual-purpose cattle and a student of life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.