Here’s the first of three excerpts from Letters to Zerky, an account of Bill Raney and his wife JoAnne’s travels along with their 18-month old son Zerky (and their miniature dachshund Tarzan) across Europe and through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Assam, Thailand, and Hong Kong in 1967 and 1968 in a VW van. Because Zerky was too young to remember his adventure, his father wrote him a series of letters along the way, while his mother kept a diary. The book, released in November, comes recommended by Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson.
Letter From Ghazni, Afghanistan, November 29, 1967
Your mom has a lot of class. This morning as we were getting ready to leave Kandahar for Kabul, we remembered that we didn’t have any Afghan money. Unable to find a bank in Kandahar, your mother decided to try to change money at the hotel where we were camped. “But they just won’t let us do that,” I told her. “We haven’t even rented a room, and we look like a busload of hippies.” “I’ll take care of it,” she replied.
She spent the next hour getting all dolled up. Both of us have brought along one set of good clothes, “just in case.” Prior to arriving in the wilds of Afghanistan, neither of us has worn them. Your mom put on her white blouse and her brown suit.
“Why not wear that cute little Tyrolean costume instead,” I badgered, “the one that makes your boobs look like they’re hanging out.” “Sure, that would be perfect for a Moslem country,” she countered. Next came the nylons, then the high heels, then half an hour of doing her hair, nails and makeup. “You look like a million bucks,” I told her, begrudgingly. “That’s the idea,” she replied, as she marched off to battle.
Fifteen minutes later she was back with a big wad of weird-looking bills. “How did you talk them into it?” I asked.
Your mother then explained to me, as if to a child, that she hadn’t talked them into anything—she just didn’t give them the opportunity to say no. She had come to Afghanistan on business, she told the hotel manager. She explained that she was in the motion picture business in San Francisco. “San Francisco is near Hollywood, California. You’ve heard of Hollywood, California, haven’t you?” Indeed he had. Then she explained that the price of making movies in Hollywood, California is exorbitant. “The cost of making movies in Afghanistan must be very reasonable in comparison, “don’t you think?” He did.
“And what with all your colorful tribesmen, beautiful deserts, and spectacular mountains,” she larded it on, “I’m sure American audiences would love to see your faraway beautiful land.”
Had he read the recent best-seller, James Michener’s Caravans? she asked innocently. “It’s all about Afghanistan.” He didn’t read English, of course. “Everybody’s reading it in America,” she went on. Finally she explained how she had arrived in Afghanistan only yesterday, and had not yet had the opportunity to exchange her American dollars. “Are there many such grand hotels as this in Afghanistan?” she flattered.
“Did you offer him the starring role?” I interjected.
“How much would you like to exchange?” he asked her.
There’s no business like show business. —Bill and JoAnne Walker Raney