(16) Western Iran: Hospitality and heroin

I had bought a ticket earlier in the day, both to guarantee I would get one, and to make sure I knew where I was going. I’m glad I did because it’s a bit station and the entrance is not where I expected it to be. Amir Hossein had got me in a shared taxi heading there, and I was on my way before 8.

I didn’t see my bus where I expected it to be at the time I expected it to be there. I tried asking a few people, but didn’t receive any good information. Eventually I approached a trio of people that were going on the same bus, could speak basic English, and assured me that they would make sure I got on. They introduced themselves as Kurdish, and I felt immediately relieved. Ah, Kurds again. I had such great experiences with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, so I felt at ease knowing they had my back. We chatted a bit and they let me know if I needed anything, or had any questions once we were on the bus, that they were there for me.

On the bus I was seated beside a young, overly stylish woman. Big sunglasses, a bit too skinny, probably had long fake nails if I had looked. I must say I’m a huge fan of the Iranian bus system, where females travelling alone are paired with other females. No worries of creepy men/ large men/ snoring men ending up beside you on the long distance buses.

It soon became obvious that the woman was keen to talk to me, but she spoke about 100 words of English. We established ages, marital status, that Iran was beautiful. The usual. If ever I completely did not understand what she was saying, she would laugh and grab my arm. At one point she blurts out the few English words she hasn’t had a chance to use yet: “I love you, too.” We were best buddies.

Before we went/tried to sleep, she made house gestures, and from what I understood from the hand motions and words, she wanted me to come to her home when we arrived in Sanandaj. There she had a Farsi – English dictionary. We would eat there, I could rest some more, and then head to Paveh later in the day. Agreed.

Sleep was off and on, as it usually is on a night bus, and we arrived in Sanandaj early in the morning, but it was already light. At this point I’m expecting my new best friend and I to get off the bus together, where she would lead me to a taxi to her home, we would eat, rest and I would be on my way to Paveh later in the afternoon.

So I was a bit surprised when the bus reached its destination and she stood up, waved and said, “Good bye!” with a huge smile.

What happened to being best buddies? I thought we had something. You told me you loved me, too!

I waved back with a smile, and pretended like I wasn’t confused. Ah well.

Although I wanted to get to Paveh, I hadn’t decided on a route. I definitely wanted to complete a circuit of a mountain route near the Iraq border, but didn’t know if I would start or end at the Paveh side.

I sat down with my Lonely Planet, pondering my options, when I hear a shared taxi driver yell “Marivan”, and my decision was made. Counter-clockwise it would be.

I shared the taxi with a young man and a couple, and we made great time to Marivan. The couple was headed to the same hotel I was interested in, so I was happy to know I would be able to get to my destination without too much trouble. I was a bit let down when we arrived though. The best option in town was actually a bit out of town. Near a lake, but not near enough to make it worthwhile to be near the lake. And finally, it was full, so that was probably the main reason it wasn’t a good place for me. I caught a taxi ride back to the centre of the town, bought a toothbrush to stand in for the toiletries bag I forgot in Tehran (I forgot my watch too – oops!), checked email, and tried to figure out a plan of action.

I decided to try to get to where I was originally going to spend my second night, Howraman. It doesn’t have any official accommodation, but that generally hadn’t posed too much of a problem in the past for me. My first bus to the junction I needed to get off at had me sharing some fruit and nuts (what a great way to break ice!), getting my fare paid for by a local teacher (Kurdish people are so generous!), and relearning some Kurdish I picked up in Iraq and Turkey. It’s amazing how a quick “spas” (thank you) lights up faces.

At the junction I found a shared taxi to Howraman, and we were quickly on our way. Except for the flat tire, that is. But it was fixed in just enough time for me to find the back side of a bush for use as a toilet.

We climbed over increasingly higher and steeper hills. I could see where the road forked ahead, and where the right fork’s road was cut jaggedly like a zigzag into the mountain’s side and up and over onto the other. We took the other fork, and descended into the valley below where Howraman lay. The three other men in the taxi got dropped off, and the driver stopped at a few places for me to take photos. At one point, we were wandering around a shrine when I heard from above “Paveh!” – a bus was leaving (or at least this is what I swear I heard). I knew I wasn’t going to have time to run back to the taxi, grab my bags, and get to the bus. I watched it drive away.

At this point I was planning to just get dropped of in Howraman and let the rest sort itself out. But I succumbed to the persuasion of the driver. There are no buses to Paveh on this road he says. The road is a bad road he says. I need to take the other route he says. I should go back to Marivan he says. I should wait at the fork for a bus on the other road he says.

Eventually I ride with him back to the fork, and some confusion results when I want to get out, and not go with him back to Marivan, and not go with him on the other route to Paveh. I just want out. I want my bags. I finally get them, and the driver, as nice as he truly is once the confusion subsides, arranges a ride for me with a Kurdish family travelling in three cars. We chat a bit over ice cream with a few soldiers and the man with the ice cream cooler on the back of his motorbike. I finally have a way to get to Paveh. Considering Paveh is where I planned to spend my third night on this side trip, I’m way ahead of schedule and need to find some more destinations before heading back to Tehran.

I had a great ride with the family. They were on a holiday picnic drive from Marivan, and stopped like regular tourists at all the places I was happy to stop at. Snowball fights at the pass. Photos at the viewpoint of the valley floor reaching over to Iraq. Have I said recently that I love mountains?

We stopped for a picnic. Iranians do picnics well. Picnics do not just consist of sandwiches on a blanket. We had rice, barbecued fish, bread, drinks, tea, and more. And dancing. They wanted to show me a traditional Kurdish dance, which involves stepping forward and back, arms linked with the person beside you, the lead and end each waving handkerchiefs. It’s a political dance I’m told. The steps symbolize land, and the willingness to fight for it. The linked arms symbolize solidarity. The waving handkerchiefs symbolize a flag for an independent Kurdistan. They ask me if I have a website where I describe my travels, and they ask me not to post photos of the dance.

After lunch they have decided not to go to Paveh, as the day is getting too long, but even with my insistence that yes, I can take a taxi, they still drive me all the way to Paveh, and drive all the way through the town to make sure I have a good place to sleep, and finally we say goodbye.

That night in Paveh I try to sort out the route I will take from here, considering I’ve only had one long day and I still have at least two more before I need to get back to the assortment of various embassies in Tehran for visa duty. I finally decide on another long day of travel to get to Andimeshk, from where I can see some interesting sights and take a scenic train through canyons and mountains.

First is a bus to Kermanshah, from where I catch a shared taxi to Khorammabad. Four college guys sit across the back. It takes me a while to let my guard down, as when people (men) are laughing in obvious reference to me when travelling, I always assume that some sort of sexual jokes are being told. I know this is overreacting, but honestly, it’s not nice to laugh when someone that doesn’t speak your language is in your company – you feel you’re being laughed at, not with. They also ask innocent, but to my suspicious ear, creepy, questions. Do you have a cell phone? Does your cell phone have GPS? I jump to the obvious conclusion that they are going to drive me somewhere remote where I can’t call for help or find my way back to civilization. Of course, they are just curious about the technology I’m carrying, but in my hopped-up hyper-paranoid state, I think the extreme. I keep an eye out for road signs.

But of course, they end up being very friendly young Kurdish guys. I get treated to lunch and when we get to Khorammabad they bypass their destination and pay for my taxi to the next shared taxi stand and ensure that I get a car to my next destination at the right price.

The final ride was the neatest. The landscape changed dramatically to an odd mountainous dessert. This is actually what I imagine much of Iraq looks like, and it probably does. Baghdad is about 300km away.

It’s kind of like the Monument Valley in Arizona (where Forrest Gump stopped running), but a few hundred million years before. Erosion hasn’t happened to its fullest yet. Even still, I could make out amazing sedimentary layers in the walls of the hills around me, many of them worn away slightly. The topography itself looks like a topographic map.

I noticed the temperature gauge in the car was 44. Then 46. At it’s highest it reached 49. I figured it must be a mistake, though it was pretty damn hot.

The driver was probably the craziest I’ve had yet. He was a huge fan of weaving in and out of traffic, which in and of itself isn’t so unusual, but he even liked to test out passing on blind corners, which isn’t that common even in this area of the world. Whenever there was a big line of trucks or cars in front of us, he would flash his lights repeatedly at oncoming traffic and make question gestures with his arms, as if to ask, “What’s going on up ahead? Radar?” I was, however, able to confirm that tailgating is the international sign for, “Speed up or move over,” and flashing one’s headlights once means “Cops up ahead.” I was also able to confirm that the middle finger is, in fact, NOT the international symbol for “You drive like a ninny.” In Iran, a thumbs up is used instead. I’m not joking. It’s really amusing to see a pissed off driver give someone a glare, a few choice words, and a thumbs up.

In Andimeshk, I settled into my hotel and cranked the air con. Maybe it was 49. I waited a while before heading out to explore the town, but I eventually ended up buying some vegetables for the train ride the next morning (at this point I had completely forgotten about visiting nearby ruins. A day trip in the dessert at 50 degrees was NOT going to happen), confirming the train’s departure time, checking my email, and browsing a fine selection of camouflage gear, which appears to be all the rage in Andimeshk.

I grabbed dinner at a restaurant off one of the town’s squares (or really it was more like a circle). I was soon joined by a few men who were keen to try to chat. Again I read too far into innocent questions, like “Where is your hotel?” I’m passed a cell phone by an older gentleman – it’s his wife, and she speaks English. She asks if she can help me. “Nope, I’m just enjoying my dinner, and I was passed the phone to talk to you.” I take the opportunity to find out what the temperature was today. “49,” she tells me. We chat briefly, and she apologizes for for interrupting my dinner. I pass the phone back to the man. He chats to her briefly and passes the phone back to me. She invites me to stay at their home. I thank her, but let her know that I already have a room, and I have to wake up at 3:30am the next morning for the train. The man offers to take me back to my hotel, but my guard is still up, and I’m fine with the 100m walk.

Back at the hotel, I try to sort out a way to wake up at 3:30am. There’s about 6 other men in the hotel lobby/cafeteria dressed in Kurdish attire and I test out my Kurdish again. It falls flat. I know that there are many different languages spoken in the multi-country Kurdistan, but this is the first time my offers of “thank you” and “what is your name” are not understood.

In the end I think I have at least two men plus the hotel attendent waking me up in the morning. For backup, I use what I  call my water bottle alarm. I drink a litre of water before I go to bed. If nothing else, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night having to pee.

The water bottle alarm worked too well. I had only slept just over an hour before I woke up. And then after that I woke up every half hour to check the clock on my camera. I was wide awake and getting ready when the men knocked quietly at my door in succession. They were way too quiet to have woken me up if I had really needed them.

At 4am, the town is quiet, but incredibly warm. It really hasn’t cooled down much, and must still be close to 40. I expect the train station to be dead at this time in the morning, but it’s buzzing with hundreds of people all planning to take this train. I stand in line for about 2 minutes before an attendent leads me around back to the ticket sellers and I get a ticket in 1 minute instead of 30. It costs about 40 cents for a seven hour ride. I feel like a celebrity, and have to admit I don’t mind the service. I wait, sitting on my bag, briefly, before being led into a special, spacious, waiting room. Soon enough, I am led out to the train before the masses. It’s soon evident that I am on the “women and children” car. I had heard that this train was incredibly packed, but this is obviously only true for the co-ed passengers. My car at first only had one other set of seats taken – a woman and her three children. Soon enough she has claimed me for her own, and one of her older boys is relegated to my former seat.

She shares water and food with me. I’m thankful. She speaks no English, and I at this point only speak limited Farsi. When she tries to get something across to me, she seems to think it would be effective to repeat the same phrase over and over again. When I laugh sheepishly and shrug my shoulders, she pinches my cheeks and slips her fingers away as if a clothespin was being tugged from my face. Her intentions are playful, but it hurts a bit each time she does it.

The scenery on the train ride was well worth the early morning. At first we sidled through broad dessert valleys, but soon moved into increasingly narrower canyons. The morning light was golden, and cast a warm orange glow on the rocks around us. Soon enough though, it was hot. Too hot. We nodded in and out of sleep most of the rest of the journey. The best part of the ride was in the early morning anyway.

As the train continued, our car filled more and more, but was still not cramped. It was entertaining to watch men board at the various stations, thinking they had come across some undiscovered empty seats, only to be quickly thereafter ushered out by train attendants.

Throughout the journey, I got an increasingly, I don’t know, negative? feeling about this woman and her children. Her young daughter seemed sweet, but the older boys were a bit corrupted or something. At one point, a toddler in the next berth over was standing in the corridor just past us. I was engaging the young boy, making funny faces. On of the sons turned around with a sour face and shooed him away like a pest. I can’t quite describe the vibe I got from this family, but it wasn’t entirely positive.

By this point in my journey, I had made the decision to head back to Tehran on a night train. I had been throwing around the idea of heading to Esfahan, but I had a feeling that unless I had a clear and firm plan, I was going to be hijacked by this woman.

Which is what happened. At the station, she pulled me along with her. I was obviously coming to her house. I convinced her to at least allow me to get my ticket to Tehran. Overnight train. Leaving at 6:30pm. It was about 11am. 7 hours to kill with her.

We walked to a quiet area of town, and it became clear we weren’t heading to her home, but to someone’s she was visiting. We entered the modest home of her brother and his wife and children.

No one spoke English. We went as far as we could with the very basics – family structure, names, marital status, ages. Soon they invited a family friend over, an intellectual type who spoke a bit better English. It made things run a lot more smoothly, except sometimes he would ask questions that made no sense to me whatsoever.

“Mother, father, love, expensive?”

???

He tries to explain the sort of answer he’s expecting.

“1, 2, 3, 4, Tehran,” he continues, moving his head back and forth and waving his arms around in front of him as if he must have made himself understood.

???

The older boys and their male cousins are little shits. They yell at me in Farsi to get my attention while I’m talking to the family friend, or shout out basic English phrases like “Mother Penis” to get me to look. I do my best to ignore, or shake my head disapprovingly. The father takes a stick once and a while and smacks the annoying boys. He also has some dental issues and soaks small pieces of tissue in ethanol ever few minutes to dab a tooth or two with. He’s a bit of a rough character. If I understand correctly, he was a soldier (or police officer?) in the Iran-Iraq war.

The adults take out a water pipe. I decline, though I’m not really ever offered. Whenever the dad leaves the room, the oldest son rushes over and sneak a few puffs.

We enjoy lunch. Probably the highlight of my stay here. Really good.

After lunch I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to pass the next few hours as quickly as possible. A nap is suggested – yes! I sleep (or really, I lie awake) way longer than necessary in the afternoon, but it takes me that much closer to when I have to depart.

When I come out of the room in which I have been napping, I hear and see a small propane stove and know that I’m going to see the dad smoking drugs. He is. Now, everything I’ve learned about hard drugs I’ve learned from the movies, so I’m not sure exactly what it is he’s smoking. He’s got two metal wires, and he intermittently touches them together and inhales the resulting smoke through a small pipe – perhaps it’s the shell of an old pen. When I describe the scenario to others later I’m told that he was smoking opium. Whatever it was, doing it in front of the whole family (or at all) was not cool to me.

While the father is getting high, the older boys continue with their rude comments and gestures. They make like they’re injecting drugs, and slap their inner elbows and mime a needle breaking the surface of their skin. The mothers don’t even bat an eye. While the dad’s sister seems to be used to this, I suspect the wife, although used to this, probably doesn’t have any power in the household to say anything without risk.

At the point the father has two lengths of sticks in front of him. He uses them to hit the children with, so that he doesn’t have to move to beat them. The kids seem used to this. It’s clear that the older boys are too far gone, and are likely to grow up into nothing good without intervention. The young girl is not too far behind. It’s a sad scene.

At this point, I’m really looking forward to leaving. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger, but it’s just a really messed up situation. The family and family friend try to convince me that I need to change my train ticket. That 6:30pm is a bad train, and that a better one leaves at 10pm. They tell me there are bad people on the 6:30pm train. Worse or better than this family?, I question to myself. They tell me that the train will arrive in the middle of the night. I explain I have a friend to pick me up. I tell them I have a meeting in the morning at an embassy. All of a sudden, the train might not arrive until 9 or 10.

I try to compromise. That we will go to the station, and I will ask about the other train. I will MAYBE change ticket, I try to explain. I don’t know if the family friend understands the word maybe, so I follow up with “Maybe yes, maybe no.” “Yes! Yes! Change ticket!” he exclaims. This is not going to be easy.

Before I leave, they would like to take me to a park for photos, and to bring me to a viewpoint over the city. I make to take my bags with me, but they try to force them back down, since I’m changing tickets, right?

At this point I’m quite forceful and insist. We head into town, but not to the train station. Instead, we stop at an English school, so they can get a better English-speaking person to convince me to change tickets. I explain to the very friendly owner that I appreciate their concern for me, but that it’s important for me to arrive in Tehran early. The original arguments of late trains and bad people are repeated over and over again, this time in better English. I repeat my position, and am firm. I wonder if the owner realizes the man in front of me is an addict and understands my reasoning.

Finally, I say my position one final time, ask the man to please express my gratitude for their help and concern, and I use a hand wiping gesture to indicate that this is final. The family finally retreats, and we head to the park for photos. Thankfully it’s just the adults that I travel with, and not the rude boys. We take it seems like 100 photos, and walk to the riverside. I try to express how beautiful I think the nearly-dry riverbed littered with garbage and weeds is.

Next we drive up to the city view point. It really is lovely. The family friend points out the cement factory and explains, for the 20th, 21st and 22nd times, that his father worked at the factory, but not any more, and that that over there is where they get the rock for the cement from, and that those big trucks carry the rocks to the cement factory, and that the dust is very bad.

And then finally, we head to the train station for my 6:30pm train. The family has obviously given up on me changing a ticket, but still wants the visit to end positively. They drive me along a back route to get right up close to the train. They talk to an attendent to make sure I’m in a nice berth, and arrange a move. They give me their mobile phone numbers and addresses so that if I have problems to call them, and to make sure I call them when I arrive. They are genuinely worried about me on this train. But how warped is it that the original woman though that inviting me to her brother’s home where he gets high and whacks his children and nephews is normal? The train is bad but their home is fine?

I am quietly hoping they leave before the train does so that I can sneak off the train and wait for the 1st class sleeper train at 10. But they don’t. They wave me off.

My original berth is with 6 young girls, but I am soon moved to another berth with a single woman and a young family. But then I am moved back to the berth with the young girls. They range in age from about 12 to 30, and we have a good evening. We share food and basic information. We lock the door and take off our head scarves. And finally we let the seats slide down and meet in the middle so that we can stagger ourselves head to toe and get some sleep. I don’t get much, but I feel safe, secure, and surprisingly comfortable.

In the morning, I wake up groggy, and share the food that I have with the girls. Cucumbers, date cookies. Their breakfast so far was just processed cookies, so they seem thankful. Near the end of the trip they invite me to stay with them. I thank them profusely, and explain that I am meeting a friend, and that my luggage is at her house. Before we part ways at the Tehran station, they give me a  simple aluminum ring as a gift.

I decide to use it as my fake wedding ring. I’ve never followed this suggestion before, but seeing as I now have a ring, I might as well try it.

After I arrive back at Somayeh’s, it takes all of 5 minutes for each of them to separately notice the ring and exclaim jokingly at my apparently new marital status.

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