For five years, I traveled on the bumpy roads of Afghanistan discovering the underworld of the illicit narcotics trade. I had many close calls with death, mostly having to do with bad drivers and bombed out highways, but I survived to write my book Opium Nation, just released by HarperPerennial. My biggest fear was not being killed, but being kidnapped on Afghanistan’s opium trail. When you’ve embarked on a dangerous project, you take calculated risks, block out the danger factor from your mind, and throw yourself to the wind.
One of my first calls with peril occurred on a cross-country trip in 2002 from Kabul to Herat. It was me, a Spanish journalist, and a German photographer –all women–riding in a taxi with a driver from Kandahar who smoked hashish for half of the trip. As he blew smoke out the window, men in black turbans with Kalashnikovs stopped our taxi. They were not the police or foreign troops because they were not wearing a uniform so therefore, they were either Taliban or road bandits charging illegal road tolls, known for preying on foreign aid workers and journalists. My Spanish colleague took out her satellite phone ready to call an emergency number, while our stoned driver reassured us. My heart raced, but I also felt a rush of excitement. The driver and armed men exchanged some greetings in Pashto, then the driver handed one of them the equivalent of a dollar in Afghan currency and off we went.
“That was it?” I asked the driver. “They don’t want to kidnap us?”
“No. I told them you were poor writers,” he smirked. “They just wanted their toll.”
Wow, that was cheaper than the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate.
But that was right after the U.S. had ousted the Taliban. The risks became real in 2005 when the insurgency gained ground and I headed back south again, this time to Helmand province—the frontline. The British were fighting rebels, many who were opium traffickers, and I traveled in a burqa by taxi again to the district where mostly everyone was either Taliban or a Taliban sympathizer. This time, it was just me with a sober driver from Kandahar and a cagey guide from Helmand. I was in search of a young girl, an opium bride who was sold into marriage to a smuggler, who had brought her to Helmand. My guide showed residents a photo of her husband while I stayed in the taxi. We failed to find them during the day so we spent the night there at my guide’s relative’s house. The next day, the men in the house figured out that I was not just an Afghan woman visiting relatives, which is what I had told the townspeople. And that’s when the trouble started.