While living on my meagre London income I had passed by the opportunity to buy a guidebook which sat tantalisingly in a book shop window. I was on one of my cheap Saturday night walks, passing time. I was busy in a dream, thinking about what I would wear to the Cannes Film Festival. That was when I saw the guidebook on Iran. As I was due to travel to that part of the world I thought it might become a useful companion in a couple of month’s time.
I entered the book store, to the chime of the bell on the door that signalled a new customer was on the premises. I flicked through the book for information on my future Iranian adventure. But then at the corner of my eye I saw Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland sitting in the cheap section and bought that book instead.
Now think forward three months. Here I was on my 800 kilometre bus journey from Ankara to the Turkey / Iran border. After a standard, uncomfortable night’s sleep I awoke. The bus was travelling through Turkey’s eastern Kurdish territories where spasmodic army bunkers lined the road. Beyond that there was minimal sign of any life.
Onwards towards the border and I guess my prevailing feeling at the time was one of regret. I flicked through my novel from Lewis Carroll and hoped, impossibly, that it might contain some minute information on Iran. Any knowledge I gained on my next destination would put me in a better position than my current predicament. I was desperate for information. Information such as the current exchange rate, bus travel itineraries or offences where sentencing might involve the penalty of death.
Onwards and onwards and very shortly I would be shot into the unknown as the bus was only a few kilometres away from its arrival at the Turkish border with Iran. Life outside my air conditioned world was sparse. All I had to rely upon was the hope there would be another bus, not necessarily air conditioned, waiting to whisk me to some sort of civilisation on the other side of the border.
The bus stopped at the border, an outpost in the middle of nowhere. As I departed my sanctuary a well-dressed elderly man, speaking fluent English, approached me offering assistance. I had noticed him and his daughter on the 800 kilometre bus journey from Ankara. I accepted his offer. Did I look vulnerable? As we went through customs I kept an eagle eye on my baggage as I was not above been suspicious of the intentions of people preying on vulnerable strangers.
Safely through customs we then went onto the rig amour of exchanging currency. My aged accomplice offered to exchange my United States dollars into Iranian rial for me. Another generous offer but still I was not above asking the current exchange rates from the border guards. They weren’t especially helpful. I therefore took my new found friend’s offer and exchanged a small amount of currency. I resigned myself to the fact that without adequate research and planning I had put myself into a least favourable bargaining position.
Having proceeded through customs and exchanged my currency the only thing left to do was to get the hell out of there. A bus with flashing lights, topless bus hostesses, free beer and passengers smoking refers was stationed next to the customs building. It was my ticket out of nowhere but my elderly Iranian companion convinced me to share a taxi with him and his daughter.
After all they had done to me I could not now leave them to fend for themselves. Against all my previous principles of riding in any taxi I was now about to board one for the 750 kilometres ride to the capital city of Iran, Tehran. Been a visitor to their country I was even allowed to sit in the front of the car besides the taxi driver.
Although I had not been in many taxis I knew their principal unwritten rule was the one who sits in the front usually pays. To make sure I wasn’t been taken for a ride I asked, many times in fact, whether I would have to pay for my share of the 750 kilometre taxi ride. I was assured by all in sundry that for me the taxi ride was free.
We moved towards Tehran in the midday hours. I sat back, looked out the window at the desolate scenery and thought what an incredibly bizarre experience. I would now probably spend more time in a taxi than the vast majority of people from the Western world. This from a guy who used to stumble home, inebriated, at 4 am every Sunday morning to save oneself a small taxi fare. Depending on how inebriated I was the stumble could take up to two hours. Now I would have a nine hour credit of taxi rides to my name.
So every hour of the next nine I asked how much I would have to pay for the 750 kilometres taxi ride. Every hour of the next nine I was assured by all and sundry that for me the taxi ride was free. I was an honoured guest from the much beloved western world. I was a friend of Islam.
The road was smooth, the taxi was only slightly battered and I must say it was much more comfortable than a bus. Along the way were road signs written in both Arabic and English. Perhaps westerners were welcome in Iran after all.
The uneventful journey continued until we arrived at the Tehran bus station, late at night, at about 9 pm. Thereby the expected event occurred where the hand of the taxi driver comes out, demanding payment. I exploded.
“How can I be expected to pay when you have turned the taxi charge metre off?”
“Did we not have a legally binding verbal contract stating I would not have to pay for the trip?”
The others in the taxi joined in, obviously on the side of the taxi driver and the argument flowed from the taxi, onto the middle of the busy thoroughfare. A crowd was gathering so I relented and handed over US$10, my first and final offer.
They accepted and I walked away to a barrage of curses in Arabic from the elderly passenger.
“You mangy dog, may Allah spray his urine on the face of your ten wives” I assume is what he said.
I replied in English “My god is not so malignant as to grant me ten wives”.
“You stray dog, may Allah curse your 50 children”.
“I’m catholic so I only plan on having one wife and 12 children but if any of them end up looking like you then that will be curse enough”.
“You flee infected dog…”
I made my way through the gathered crowd. Tehran had two bus stations. One was for buses coming into town and the other was for buses going the other way. I was at the station for buses coming into town. I had already decided I wanted to leave Tehran. I had to make my way to the other side of the city.
If it cost me US$10 for a 750 kilometre taxi ride in Iran then I thought it couldn’t cost me too much to get a taxi to take me to the outward bus station. A young man came up to me and offered to take me for another ride.
I had just discovered the United States dollar was a highly valued possession in Iran. The problem was, besides traveller’s cheques, I had only one of these left and it was of the lowest common denomination. After an hours bartering the young man and I agreed he would drive me to the outward bound bus station for US$1 and my surplus Turkish lira.
I hopped into the car which the young man had somehow managed to borrow. He had a sense of the crazy, dare devil madness about him. As we drove through the quiet suburban streets of Tehran I realised I was completely at his mercy. I fervently hoped he wasn’t a religious fanatic who had heard me cursing Allah only a few hours before. I started to think about my mother and how would she cope not seeing her son for the next couple of years as I was held captive in a cardboard box in a basement in some Middle Eastern religious outpost.
Was all the travel worth it? I knew my captives probably wouldn’t torture me. In fact over the next two years we might even share the occasional joke over a meal of maggot goat’s eyes stew. But I had my mother’s health and well being to consider. It wasn’t really fair on her that I should put my personal safety into a position of relative insecurity.
After what seemed like many near crashes and detours down dark, back street alleys we arrived at the outbound bus terminal. We were just in time for me to catch the next bus headed south-east to Esfahan. The young man shook my hand with a huge smile upon his face. I was glad my predicament was providing satisfaction somewhere within this world.
I thought about offering the spirited young man a tip. My driving skills were infinitely worse than his so I was in no position to offer him advice on driving. As to giving him a monetary tip, I had to keep any spare cash for the likely scenario of been faced with an unforeseen emergency in the near future.
I could offer him nothing but a part to play in one of the most bizarre experiences in my life. I boarded the bus and settled down for a belated nights sleep. Just as I was getting comfortable another young Iranian man sat down beside me and started to strike up a conversation. The conversation started along the lines of “Would you like to buy some hashish?”
If I had bought a guidebook I think it would have stated ‘carrying hashish in Iran is one of the offences for which the penalty is death’. Death by what means I am not sure.
I politely refused his offer. The conversation then moved onto the subject of passport photos. I had already put my passport inside my underpants, firmly against my groin, for safe keeping. I was not about to retrieve it to let him know where it was hidden.
As the bus moved out of the terminal, the lights inside were turned off bringing the Iranian’s conversation to a close. I shut my eyes and with sleep attempted to end a day which with it had bought turmoil, arguments and smiles. May the light of life shine upon us all!
I arrived at the Esfahan bus terminal early on a Saturday morning. It was the first time I had the opportunity to witness a gathering of the Iranian locals, wandering about doing whatever they do on a Saturday, in the broad light of day. There appeared to be a brisk purpose ness about their stride.
I wandered out of the bus terminal, indecisive as ever. Would I find accommodation and have a look around the historic town? After all I had been travelling non-stop since Ankara, a good 1,400 kilometres away. I deserved a rest, a shower and a decent sleep. But now that I was in the travelling grove perhaps it would be best to make the most of my routine and hop onto the next bus for Shiraz, a mere 500 kilometres away.
I must admit I felt a bit out of place in Esfahan. There was the clothing for one thing. Some of the men were clad in regal white robes which contrasted starkly with the dull morose black of their female counterparts. I was wearing my faded jeans, coloured in dust and dirt.
Let me now admit another thing. It is a truly weird feeling, knowing if someone asked me to point out the general vicinity of my current location on a world map I would struggle to suggest an adequate response. So, decisive as ever, the only thing to do was to head back inside the bus terminal and buy myself a map of Iran. Once I had freed the gorse from my pockets and passed over my spare Iranian currency I struck a snag. The names of the cities of Iran were in Arabic. I still did not know where in the world I was.
They say the world is a small place. Well at that point in time it felt like a very strange, lonely place.
I thought the best thing at the time was to exchange some currency and buy a ticket for the next departing bus for Shiraz. I read sometime later Shiraz is a very historic city, with many historic sites and well worth a visit for a couple of days. Well I visited for a couple of hours and saw the inside of a bus terminal. A very nice bus terminal it was too. Tidy and clean with a sense of dignified order.
After a good look around the Shiraz bus terminal I caught the next bus heading towards the Pakistan border, a mere 900 kilometres away. Onwards and onwards I travelled through the barren Iranian landscape. Oh how I longed for the rain and windswept landscape of New Zealand. Every eastward kilometre I travelled bought me closer and closer to home, land of the long white cloud.
Sometimes you lose sense of time. Days pass you by and then all of a sudden you arrive some ten kilometres from the Iran / Pakistan border. Why the bus couldn’t stop at the actual border was beyond me. But here I was dropped off, left standing by myself in the middle of the same barren, flat landscape I had witnessed from inside a bus window for the last 2,000 kilometres. The security of sitting in an air conditioned bus was gone. Now I was alone, barren, not a living soul within breathing sight. Someone would be along to pick me up shortly I had been assured.
I waited. Dust arose from the horizon. Four battered vehicles sped towards me. They appeared to be avoiding the chase. Stopping, I was told to pass over some money and quickly jump into the back of the Ute and be prepared to hide under the canopy. They were mad. Too much sun and / or too many drugs, they were not a group of well balanced individuals.
“If I decide the upholstery of the travel arrangements is not quite up to my usual standards can I get a lift in the next convoy and when is it due to arrive?” I asked.
“In ten days” came the reply.
“Can I walk the ten kilometres to the border?”
“The border is a shed. There are no roads for you to follow that lead to this shed. If you happen to mistakenly walk pass this shed you will get very lost and will not see a goat for at least another two weeks of walking”.
“I see. I won’t see any sheep either I suppose” and with that I lumbered into the back of his Ute as he pushed up the revs and sped into and through another cloud of dust.
I was dropped off within walking distance of the Iran / Pakistan shed. I shook hands with the driver, thanking him for his speedy service. The convoy of vehicles drove off, disappearing into the desert wilderness, trying to avoid any contact with the border authorities. To them life seemed a game, to be enjoyed, to be played with some sort of risk.
I made my way to the border and walked through customs. Well, Iran had been an experience, a game of sorts. Pakistan on first impressions appeared to be no less strange than Iran. But at least they played cricket. If things came to a head I knew I could always make light of the situation by making fun of the New Zealand team.
Easily through customs I then saw a pile of watermelons greeting me on the Pakistan side of the border. I had never bought a whole watermelon before. I therefore did not know how to choose one that was properly ripe. I inevitably chose one that was only half ripe and ripped into it with relish. Even though I had not eaten a proper meal since Turkey I still found it difficult to eat a whole, half ripe watermelon in the one sitting. I carried my prized possession onto the bus that was departing from the border on the south east corner of Pakistan towards Quetta, 700 kilometres north.
Before the bus left a large German woman boarded and sat down beside me.
“Do you want a piece of watermelon” I politely offered.
“Scheisse!” she replied. Scheisse is the German word for shit. I was to hear this word many more times over the next few days. She then rambled on about what a scheisse of a time she was having.
Quarter of an hour later she stopped for breath. Now was the opportunity to talk about me.
“Do you know how to choose a ripe watermelon?” I asked.
“Of course I do! But the watermelons here are scheisse”.
I must admit a bit of a time must elapse before I buy another whole watermelon. There is the risk of not selecting one which is ripe, the storage problems when you can not eat it in one sitting and the juices of which only half end up in your mouth.
The bus engine started and we made our move for Quetta. To celebrate I decided to make another attack on my watermelon and predictably sprayed its surplus juices over my new German companion.
“Scheisse” she screamed.
Onwards and upwards we travelled. While I rested my eardrums my German companion struck up a conversation with two of the locals on the bus. They were on a business trip smuggling large plastic water cooling containers from Iran to sell in central Pakistan.
In Quetta we were invited to have tea at their abode. Their accommodation was filled with water containers which were stacked up against the wall. We went to a park and while they talked I lay on my back looking up at the sky.
Strange world when we are all sheltered under the one setting sun.