Afghanistan has always been an exciting and mysterious place, but it was even more so in 1974 when my family and I learned the hard way about the difference between clearing immigration formalities at an international airport and at a ‘frontier’ outpost located on the far fringes of nowhere.

In July of that year the five of us — me, plus my wife Mary and three children aged 16, 15, and 12 — returned home to the United States from the Philippines following a three year stint with the Peace Corps there as country director.  As is often the case with Peace Corps folks we decided to take the long way home. That meant instead of taking the direct route east across the Pacific Ocean we headed west planning to go through central and southwestern Asia, Istanbul, Rome, Paris and London before flying the Atlantic to JFK.

Parenthetically, I might add that I have always thought volunteers having a borderline experience in the Peace Corps often stayed the course until COS in order to have the opportunity to ‘take the long way home.’  As some might remember, an early termination meant a ticket home by the shortest possible route.  Some volunteers, including my daughter, took as long as a year to finally make it back to the United States, and then only after parental pleas became too loud to ignore.

Anyway, back to the Searles family trip home.  Well into our itinerary, which by design was very flexible, I read about a local bus route that went from the exotic Pakistani city of Peshawar, along the same age-old route that had long been used by explorers, traders, and was now used by the ‘world travelers’ of the hippie age, to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. We quickly decided it was our kind of trip.

Early one morning we joined a busload of ordinary Pakistanis and Afghanis, their assorted children and packages for the seven hour trip through the Khyber Pass, the Kabul Gorge, and the desolate, arid wastes of the southwest Asian landscape. Our traveling companions were clearly curious about the strange family of five that shared their bus, but they were gracious and friendly. We had no doubt that this would be the high point of our extended trip back to the United States.

The supposed high point of our trip became the low point three hours later.  We had surrendered our Pakistani visas when we passed over the small river which marked the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not knowing that we would desperately need them again within minutes.  The officials at the small shed on the Afghani side of the river became very agitated when inspected our passports and saw no Afghani visas.  They did not seem to understand that they were to issue visas on the spot.

I reached for my trusty travel guide which was the source of my information.  Surely once they saw the printed word they would perform their duty and issue the visas.  It was then that I re-read the words “tourist visas are easily obtained at the international airport in Kabul.”  Suddenly, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I understood the obvious: “international airport” meant “international airport,” not some remote frontier post where American tourists were few and far between.

In the end I climbed atop the bus, retrieved our luggage, endured the puzzled looks of our erstwhile companions and with a distraught wife and three worried children began the long, lonely walk back across the bridge to Pakistan, a country we were no longer eligible to visit. We were stranded in what we thought was one of the most remote parts of the earth. We had no valid visas, no local money, no language capability, no friends who could help, and no prospects for deliverance other than a very long walk back to Peshawar.

Obviously, Dad, the great trip planner, had failed; and he and everyone else knew it.

My wife and I have very different recollections as to how we got out of this fix. I recall that after we walked back unchallenged into the small town on the Pakistani side of the river, I left the family in a secure place and went searching for assistance. When I saw a vehicle with a UNDP (United Nations Development Program) insignia on it I approached the occupants, who turned out to be Americans. Flashing my Peace Corps credentials and pointing to my forlorn family, I talked them into letting us accompany them when they drove back to Peshawar.

My wife remembers it differently. She says that I panicked after we crossed the bridge and was totally at a loss as to what to do. It was SHE who saw the UNDP vehicle, SHE who told me how to handle the situation, and SHE who saved the day. The children claim hardly to remember the incident and can not, or will not, help determine whose memory is correct.

Once back in Peshawar we called on the Afghani consulate, where my ‘Official’ passport received a very friendly reception from a ‘fellow’ civil servant and we quickly got proper visas and then booked a flight to Kabul.  (As government employees Peace Corps staff members are issued an ‘Official’ passport with its red cover - unlike the blue cover of regular passports or the black cover of ‘Diplomatic’ passports - and inevitably we were treated as kindred souls by civil servants from other countries whenever we encountered them.)

As things turned out we had a marvelous ten-day excursion through Afghanistan, one of the most ‘foreign,’ yet interesting, countries on earth. But that is another story.