Episode 22: Autostop en Afganistán (Hitchhiking in Afghanistan)

After the September 11th attacks in 2001, Juan Pablo Villarino was dismayed to see how people were starting to lose trust in the ultimate good of humanity. So he figured the best way to prove he was still right to trust total strangers was to hitchhike through the epicenter of the war on terror.

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Transcript

Martina: In Argentina, it isn’t uncommon to hitchhike. They call it “autostop” and also “viajar a dedo”, which literally means to travel by finger. Juan Pablo Villarino knows all about it. “Autostop” is his way of life.

Juan Pablo: Mi primer viaje en autostop fue en febrero de 1998 a Villa Gesell. La ciudad está a unos 110 kilómetros al norte de Mar del Plata, donde yo vivía. Empecé a calcular la distancia total que iba a tener que caminar si nadie paraba.

Martina: Eventually someone did stop; they took him 30 kms, and then another family took him the rest of the way.

Juan Pablo: Era una bienvenida a un mundo nuevo.

Martina: Once he reached his destination, he spent the night on the beach and woke up to see a man sitting close to him, apparently meditating. They got to chatting, and Juan Pablo decided to tell him about his dream of quitting school and dedicating his life to traveling.

Juan Pablo: El hombre me dijo palabras que todavía recuerdo: “Es tan sencillo como que puedes hacerlo”.

Martina: Which means, it’s as simple as just doing it. That advice would kick off epic journeys for Juan Pablo, and eventually lead him to his most challenging hitchhike route yet.

Juan Pablo: Quería hacer autostop en Afganistán.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast —I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and to gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, don’t be afraid to skip back and listen again—and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Today’s story comes from Argentina. It’s called Autostop en Afganistán (or Hitchhiking in Afghanistan), and it’s told by Juan Pablo Villarino. Please note that you’ll be hearing Juan Pablo speak in an Argentine accent. They pronounce their double LLs and Ys with a SH sound, as in “aSHer” or “caSHe” instead of “ayer” or “calle”.

Juan Pablo was at home in Mar del Plata, a coastal town in Argentina, on the morning of September 11, 2001. He saw the news of what happened like most people around the world —on tv.

Juan Pablo: Cuando vi a las Torres Gemelas en Nueva York caerse, me quedé sin palabras, en shock.

Martina: Most of us know what happened next: the US invaded Afghanistan to go after Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the September 11 attacks. The “war on terror” officially began and it seemed to Juan Pablo like people were quick to divide the world into allies and enemies.

Juan Pablo: Sentí que era el momento de usar mis dos pasiones: viajar a dedo y escribir historias de viaje, para ofrecer otro punto de vista. Mi misión sería comprobar que la bondad y la hospitalidad son universales. Mi destino final sería Afganistán.

Martina: But Argentina was in the midst of an economic crisis, so it was going to be tough for Juan Pablo to save enough money to pay for a flight to Afghanistan. But in 2002, when Juan Pablo was working at a hotel, he met an Irish family that invited him to stay with them back in Ireland.

Juan Pablo: Decidí irme a Irlanda. Era mi oportunidad para ganar más dinero, hacer un gran viaje y convertirme en escritor de viajes.

Martina: Juan Pablo spent another year saving up money and in 2003, he quit his studies and used up all of his savings on a ticket to Ireland.

Juan Pablo: Llegué a Irlanda con solo 10 euros en mi bolsillo.

Martina: At first, Juan Pablo worked as a receptionist in a hotel and then as a machine operator at a cheese factory.

Juan Pablo: El tiempo que tenía libre lo pasaba investigando. Leía guías de viaje y me iba a la biblioteca pública a buscar información sobre los países que pensaba visitar. Hice, con cuidado, mi plan de viaje para Afganistán.

Martina: It took Juan Pablo two years to save up enough money to leave Ireland. The first few places he visited—Poland, Romania, Bulgaria—they felt familiar and similar to places he had visited before. But everything changed when he got to Istanbul.

Juan Pablo: Nunca había estado en un país musulmán.

Martina: Musulmán means Muslim.

Juan Pablo: Y todo era nuevo para mí: las comidas sobre la alfombra, los bazares, la ropa de hombres y mujeres.

Martina: Maybe it would be much harder than he had imagined to hitchhike in a place like Turkey.

Juan Pablo: Pero fue más fácil de lo que pensaba.

Martina: His usual hitchhiking tricks worked just the same there as everywhere else.

Juan Pablo: Iba a la salida de los pueblos o ciudades y elegía un sitio donde los vehículos paraban. Las intersecciones eran lugares ideales porque los vehículos iban más lento.

Martina: There is one hitchhiking rule in particular that Juan Pablo followed everywhere he went.

Juan Pablo: La regla universal, en cualquier lugar, era sonreír y hacer contacto visual. Los vehículos se paran con la sonrisa, no con el dedo.

Martina: From Turkey, he crossed into Syria, and then into Iraq and Iran… Everywhere, he felt very welcomed. In Iran, nobody would let him set up his tent. Instead, they’d invite him to stay in their homes.

Juan Pablo: Me hacían un lugar en sus casas y conversaban conmigo durante horas, curiosos de la cultura de mi país.

Martina: They would chat into the night, relying on Juan Pablo’s basic Farsi.

Juan Pablo: Cuando viajo, siempre hago una lista de 150 palabras importantes en el idioma local. La lista no cambia y tiene palabras como "baño," "comida," "agua," etcétera.

Martina: In Syria he was pleasantly surprised to see that many people drank a tea that’s typical in Argentina, called mate.

Juan Pablo: No necesitábamos hablar el mismo idioma. Solo con mirarnos a los ojos sabíamos si era tiempo de poner más yerba mate o si el agua estaba demasiado caliente.

Martina: In Iran he met intellectuals—writers, theater directors and magazine editors.

Juan Pablo: Una noche me invitaron a una reunión y fue una revelación. Las chicas se quitaron el hejab obligatorio que cubría su cabello.

Martina: A hijab, is a veil or head-scarf often worn by Muslim women in public.

Juan Pablo: Una de las mujeres tenía una botella de alcohol en su mochila que compró en la farmacia. Sirvió un poco en un vaso con bebida de cola. Como vender bebidas alcohólicas estaba prohibido, ellos bebían etanol puro.

Martina: Yes, they drank pure ethanol. That was the only alcohol they could access. It was a hot day in 2006 when Juan Pablo finally reached Afghanistan. The country was at war. The US invasion removed the Taliban from power but they had reorganized and launched an insurgency. It was a violent year.

Juan Pablo: Me sentía optimista por poder llegar a Afganistán y por la hospitalidad que recibí de la gente, pero el mismo día que llegué explotó una bomba en Kabul y mató a casi 50 personas. Miraba la noticia en una televisión en blanco y negro mientras esperaba para entrar al país.

Martina: As Juan Pablo passed through customs, many families were leaving, desperate to escape the violence in their country. The border police told Juan Pablo he was headed into very dangerous territory.

Juan Pablo: Sentí que no estaba listo para lo que me esperaba, que todo lo que leí sobre el país, los mapas que estudié, no me servían mucho. Sentía que ahora realmente entraba a un mundo que no conocía.

Martina: It was getting dark when Juan Pablo started walking along the road that would take him to Herat and from there to Kabul. The landscape was barren.

Juan Pablo: Casi no pasaban vehículos y empecé a tener miedo. Pero de pronto, un viejo automóvil se paró. El conductor se llamaba Karim. Tenía unos 40 años y vestía una túnica blanca. Vivía en un pueblo lleno de pequeñas casas de adobe, sin ventanas y del mismo color que el desierto.

Martina: Juan Pablo spent the night in Karim’s house, where he lived with his two young daughters and father, a man with a very long and white beard. In his limited Farsi, Juan Pablo told them of his plans to hitchhike along the central route to Kabul.

Juan Pablo: Me dijeron que era muy peligroso. Luego, vinieron los vecinos de Karim y jugamos a las cartas. Para la cena, comimos arroz, lentejas, ensalada de tomates, y pan afgano.

Martina: It all went well until everyone went to bed.

Juan Pablo: Me dieron algo para dormir en el suelo de la sala. Por primera vez, empecé a tener miedo de la situación. Pensé en la guerra y al final, decidí dormir con un cuchillo bajo la almohada.

Martina: Juan Pablo’s mind was racing as he laid with his hand wrapped tightly around the pocketknife below his pillow. “What if they decide to kidnap me? What if they sell me to the Taliban?”

Juan Pablo: A la mañana siguiente, el padre de Karim, con su túnica y su carácter tranquilo, vino con el desayuno. Me sentí mal por dudar de ellos.

Martina: After having tea and bread for breakfast, Juan Pablo expressed his gratitude and said goodbye.

Juan Pablo: La misma cosa pasó muchas veces durante el viaje: al principio, yo dudé de sus intenciones pero, al final, la gente siempre resultó ser buena conmigo.

Martina: Eleven months into his trip, Juan Pablo made it to Herat, one of the few cities in Afghanistan considered safe at the time. He arrived in a Land Cruiser driven by two wealthy merchants.

Juan Pablo: Este fue el primer lugar en el que vi mujeres en público.

Martina: Juan Pablo saw the women arrive in carts pulled by horses. They got off to buy groceries for their households.

Juan Pablo: Todas las mujeres vestían el mismo burka azul que les cubría desde la cabeza hasta los pies.

Martina: Unlike the hijab, the burka covers the entire face and body. Around the eyes, there are holes just large enough to allow the women to see.

Juan Pablo: Las mujeres caminaban como fantasmas por el bazar.

Martina: At the time, the road that connects Herat with Kabul was one of the most dangerous in the country, more than 800 kilometers with almost no security forces. Juan Pablo's plan was to hitchhike it.

Juan Pablo: El recepcionista de mi hostal en Herat se llamaba Hamid. Era un estudiante de química y hablaba buen inglés. Él me explicó: “Yo soy afgano, y yo no voy allí. Hay muchos bandidos y talibanes”.

Martina: The morning he was leaving, a group of Afghan military officers tried to convince him to turn around. This time, his resolve to continue faltered.

Juan Pablo: Fue el momento más difícil de mi vida. Me senté en el suelo y pensé en todo lo que hice para llegar a este lugar: dejé la universidad, me fui a Irlanda con solo diez euros. Tuve que trabajar muchísimo para ahorrar el dinero para este viaje. También estudié todo lo que pude sobre los lugares que iba a conocer.

Martina: Juan Pablo had invested too much to give up now.

Juan Pablo: Decidí continuar. Me puse de pie, agarré la mochila y volví a mirar al horizonte, hacia Kabul.

Martina: Juan Pablo continued his journey along the main road. He was mostly picked up by old trucks which moved along very slowly.

Juan Pablo: A veces yo caminaba junto a gente con camellos.

Martina: Camellos are camels. Juan Pablo wasn’t able to communicate with those men because they spoke Pashtun and he didn’t have a handy list of those words.

Juan Pablo: Pero viajar con esos camellos me hizo sentir más tranquilo y también más fuerte. El viaje era tan antiguo como la humanidad.

Martina: During those weeks he spent hitchhiking to Kabul, Juan Pablo faced challenges that he hadn’t anticipated.

Juan Pablo: En países con mucho tráfico lo más difícil es ganarse la confianza de los conductores haciendo contacto visual con ellos. En Afganistán, el problema era que no había tráfico.

Martina: Most cars would pick him up, but sometimes he had to wait up to 10 hours for a car to even pass by.

Juan Pablo: Tuve que tener mucha paciencia.

Martina: Along the route he met members of a non-profit who were building a school. He also met teachers who held their classes in buildings without roofs.

Juan Pablo: Muchas veces los talibanes atacaban las escuelas. Pero los maestros seguían enseñando. Gracias a ellos entendí que la gente local tenía miedo a los talibanes.

Martina: When he got to Chaghcharan, Juan Pablo was halfway to Kabul. As he approached the town he heard a helicopter overhead and saw a military convoy. He had arrived at a NATO base, a stark reminder that all this time, he had been walking through a war zone.

Juan Pablo: Vi tanques de guerra y vehículos con mucha protección. Eso me hizo recordar que mi vida estaba en peligro cada kilómetro que viajaba.

Martina: A few US soldiers invited Juan Pablo to visit the base. They drank beers together and Juan Pablo told them about the people he had met along the road.

Juan Pablo: Los soldados, que no tenían casi contacto con la gente local, me preguntaban a mí cómo eran los afganos. Escucharon sorprendidos mis historias sobre los maestros, los constructores y los nómadas. Parecía que ellos no estaban en el mismo país que yo.

Martina: Juan Pablo continued his course. As he crossed through small villages, children would run up to him, curious about this foreigner who wasn’t in military clothing. But not everyone was kind.

Juan Pablo: En un pueblo, a la gente no le gustó mucho mi presencia. Tenían miedo de mí y pensaban que yo era un espía.

Martina: They thought he was a spy. Juan Pablo went on to Bamiyan, a city known for having the largest Buddha statues in the world before they were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. There Juan Pablo was offered a ride by the Afghan army.

Juan Pablo: El comandante me preguntó si estaba loco. Me dijo que los talibanes, habían atacado los pueblos en esa ruta la semana anterior. Atacaron a un grupo de soldados afganos y todos murieron. Él me dijo: “Puedes venir con nosotros a Kabul, pero tienes que saber que somos el objetivo".

Martina: “We are the target,” they told him. Juan Pablo accepted the ride anyway. Inside the military jeep, the atmosphere was extremely tense. The soldiers had their machine guns out and ready to shoot, as they scanned nearby mountains and rooftops for snipers.

Juan Pablo: Yo estaba muerto de miedo. Pensé en los maestros. Esos héroes desconocidos nunca aparecían en las noticias pero sentían este miedo todos los días. Esa imagen me ayudó a ser fuerte.

Martina: Three weeks later, Juan Pablo finally arrived to Kabul safely. The Afghan capital was slowly recovering from the worst moments of the war. He got in touch with an Argentine couple, Fabian and Betty, who were living there with their children.

Juan Pablo: Fabián y Bety eran enfermeros y trabajaban para una organización religiosa. Su misión de ayudar a los afganos les permitía vivir en este tipo de lugares, donde los ataques y las bombas eran frecuentes.

Martina: This couple was willing to face the same dangers Juan Pablo had faced, except they did that every day… all in order to help others and prove their faith in humanity. All of a sudden, Juan Pablo felt like his trip paled in comparison.

Juan Pablo: Las personas como ellos son las que cambian el mundo. Yo simplemente estaba allí para poder contar la historia.

Martina: The end of Juan Pablo’s trip to Afghanistan marked the beginning of his nomadic life. Now writes about his travels for a living. Juan Pablo often thinks back to that man he met on the beach, when this was all just a dream.

Juan Pablo: Recuerdo sus palabras: “Es tan sencillo como que puedes hacerlo”. Fue así como pude vivir mi sueño y comprobar que la bondad y la hospitalidad son universales.

Martina: Juan Pablo Villarino is a professional hitchhiker and author. In the more than a year that it took him to make his way back to Argentina from Afghanistan, he wrote the first edition of his book "Vagabundeando en el Eje del Mal," or “Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil.” It’s about his travels through Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is now in its fifth edition.

If you liked this story, we’d love for you to share it with others. At podcast.duolingo.com you can find a transcript of this story and all of the other episodes. Subscribe at Apple podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss one. With over 300 million users, Duolingo is the world's largest online language learning platform and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from InspectorJ, volivieri, tagirov, xserra, laurent, BrN, susoooo, caquet, Benboncan, Angel_Perez_Grandi and deleted_user_4401185 under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author: Juan Pablo Villarino
Script Editor: Teresa Bouza / Martina Castro
Sound Designer: Claire Mullen
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro