Numerous journalists in Afghanistan, in reports dating from long before the current unpleasantness, have remarked on Afghans' yak-like ability to scamper over mountains and leave foreign companions breathless behind them. A group of Pathans reduced me to a wheezing mess in 2001 on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and shouldered my backpack in hopes that I would quit lagging. Life in the mountains, and at high altitude, has prepared them for hikes like this. I asked them how they all came to be such good hikers, and they rolled their eyes as if to say that to them, the question phrased itself differently: Why are you foreigners all so out of shape?
I am surprised, then, on this trip to be at least as spry and caprine as the Afghan soldiers -- despite being flabbier than eight years ago, and now laden with a bulky rifle vest and a helmet that looks and feels like a bowling ball with its center scooped out to make room for my cranium. The Afghans sweat, just as I do, and they take regular breaks, lounging on mountainside rocks in full view of the village below, as well as any Taliban up the mountainside who might be watching. They take off boots and rub their feet, and they grouse a little when told to keep walking.