For a long time now, I’ve been making expeditions to the general staff to secure a pass for the southern front. Moving around the country without a pass is impossible because checkpoints for the inspection of travel documents stand guard along the roads. There is usually a checkpoint on the way into each town and another one on the way out, but as you drive through villages you may also run across checkpoints thrown up by wary and vigilant peasants; at times a checkpoint spontaneously established by nomads grazing their herds nearby will appear in the middle of an open field or in the most untenanted bush.

On important routes where major checkpoints are found, the road is blocked by colourful barriers that can be seen from a distance. But since materials are scarce and improvisation is the rule, others do the best they can. Some stretch a cable at the height of a car’s windshield, and if they don’t have cable, they use a length of sisal rope. They stand empty gasoline drums in the road or erect obstacles of stones and volcanic boulders. They scatter glass and nails on the tarmac. They lay down dry thorn branches. They barricade the way with wreaths of stapelia or with cycad trunks. The most inventive people, it turns out, are the ones from the checkpoint at Mulando. From a roadside inn abandoned by the Portuguese, they dragged into the middle of the road a ceiling-high wardrobe built in the form of a huge triptych with a movable crystal-glass mirror mounted on the central section. By manipulating this mirror so that it reflected the rays of the sun, they blinded drivers who, unable to proceed, stopped a good distance off and walked to the checkpoint to explain who they were and where they were going.

You have to learn how to live with the checkpoints and to respect their customs, if you want to travel without hindrance and reach your destination alive. You must bear in mind that the fate of your expedition, and even your lives, are in the hands of the sentries. These are people of diverse professions and ages. Rearguard soldiers, home-grown militia, boys caught up in the passion of war, and often simply children. The most varied armament: sub-machine guns, old carbines, machetes, knives and clubs. Optional dress, because uniforms are hard to come by. Sometimes a military blouse, but usually a resplendent shirt; sometimes a helmet, but often a woman’s hat; sometimes massive boots, but as a rule sneakers or bare feet. This is an indigent war, attired in cheap calico.

The Shaman of Chichicastenango
A Journey into Afghanistan