(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.

(15) Tehran, Iran: Visas and family

I’m spending a lot of time in Tehran, arranging visas for upcoming countries. Central Asia has carried over much of the inane bureaucracy from its days as part of the Soviet Union, and trying to get approval to visit their countries and add to their economies is no exception.

When all is said and done, I will have spent 12 days in Tehran, with only 4 of them actually successful in achieving anything with the Central Asian embassies. But now I only have Kyrgyzstan left, which is apparently reasonable to get in Uzbekistan.

Frustrations have included incorrect maps in the Lonely Planet, unexpected required documents, inept taxi drivers, and too many early mornings. I’m also USD243 poorer for just three visas. I have spent more on visas than I have on the rest of my stay in Iran so far, including a new harddrive and my hejab clothing.

But enough complaining.

I first got to Iran on an overnight train from Van. I was made to join a sleeping compartment with a young married couple, and was thankful to feel safe on the journey after my creepy overnight border crossing from Greece to Turkey.

They were in their late 20s, married for 3 years, and it was easy to see they were in complete love with each other. They had been in Van saying goodbye to one of the husband’s childhood friends. He was moving to Canada. The husband was quite upset about saying goodbye, and wasn’t above shedding tears and using his wife’s shoulder for support.

The husband has converted to Christianity a week previous. This is interesting in the sense that it could result in his death in Iran. I asked why he had converted. His wife, Vajihe, explained that his heart was never settled with Islam. I asked her what his parents think. Turns out his parents won’t be told. I asked her if she has plans to convert as well. She was considering it, but wanted to read up more first.

God willing, the couple wanted to move to Canada as well. They asked if it was difficult to find work in Canada. Vajihe had a biology degree. I imagined them struggling in Canada, competing with other new university graduates for work, but with poor English and a foreign degree. Canada is not the utopia it sometimes appears from afar.

I was reminded of the Cuban artist I ended up staying with near Holguin when I was in Cuba in 2006 (in a rush to the see the country before Fidel died. Apparently I needn’t have rushed). The artist had had her work shown in international exhibitions, but she herself had never left the country. She earned her living selling her prints to tourists outside the nearby all-inclusives. She had recently, just two months previous, received an invitation from the Office of US Interests out of the Swiss Embassy to immigrate to the US. Apparently the US government cherry picks the best and the brightest of Cuba. She asked me if she should go. She was able to bring her husband and her son, who both are also artists (paper maker and print artist respectively). She would have to leave the rest of her family in Cuba. She wouldn’t be able to visit for at least 3 years. Her mother is old.

Her life in Cuba was decently middle class. What would her life in the US be? Sure, freedom to travel, but that’s not the only freedom I believe is necessary to be ‘free’.

I don’t know what she ended up deciding.

But back to Iran. I asked Vajihe if she would continue to dress in hijab if she moved to Canada.

“It depends if I become a Christian,” was her response.

I had been in Iran only a few hours, and I knew already the headscarf thing was not going to be my favourite memory of the country. But when you grow up with the headscarf, it becomes a part of you, your identity, your outfit I suppose. Later on in this trip, I spoke to a woman that left Iran just before the revolution. She compared the situation to someone in Canada telling a woman, “Go ahead, you don’t have to wear your shirt anymore. It’s OK. Why would you wear your shirt if you didn’t have to?” Sure, some women would be happy, but most would feel exposed.

We arrived 5 hours late to Tehran. 11pm. Unfamiliar city. Thankfully I was brought from one comfortable space to another. Vajihe and her husband were picked up at the station by friends, and they drove me through the city to my hosts in Tehran.

As we wound through the expressways, I felt like I was in an underground European movie. No dialogue, just fastforwarding through a neon city with techno music pumping.

I arrived at my destination a little after midnight.

Tehran is where I tried my second CouchSurfing experience, and it has been wonderful. I arranged a “couch” with Somayeh, a 28 year old Iranian woman who lives with her parents, older sister Nasi, and younger brother Amir Hossein. All three siblings are engineers (industrial, computer, and civil respectively) and they have possibly the sweetest family in Iran.

They are like any happy, loving family from Canada. Lots of laughs together.

The Family

Amir, the father, looks like a Persian Cheech Marin. Once in a while he’ll spout a series of English words – my daughter, my water, bread, jam, very good. He likes a good laugh, and music and movies from before the revolution. When he was a kid he would skip school with a friend and sneak into watch the movies. From what I gather, he is an accountant/owns a store which he leases out/owns a small tissue box factory. He wants to know why Canada isn’t good at any important sports, like volleyball.

Nasi, the mother, is the ultimate Iranian wife and mother. If I wake up early to get to an embassy, she gets up as soon as she hears me stir to put on the tea and put out the breakfast stuff. I try as often as I can to wave her back to bed. She loves socializing with her friends (I got to tag along with her twice) and doting on her son. She cooks, mmm she cooks, and attempts to refuse any offer of doing the dishes. I got to do them eventually. She also is a devout Muslim, so she prays faithfully and listens to religious channels and CDs. I feel lucky to be a woman and get to see her without her chador on. Dressed with it she appears dowdy and sullen. Dressed without it she glows, she smiles, her skin young and smooth for a mother of three adult children.

Amir Hossein is the beloved son. Flirty, 22, civil engineering, lover of music, constant singer, great motorcycle driver. Skilled at pouting and whining to his mother, who loves to give in to his requests, unless he is caught with cigarette smoke on his breath. I have since taught his mother the phrase “upside the head”, which she enjoys repeating with a smile as she cuffs him one against the back of his skull.

Nasi, Somayeh’s older sister, seems like a mother-in-waiting. Responsible, loves children, hard worker. Great at scolding her brother in a high-pitched whine that she gets from her mom. Fantastic laugh. Now she just needs a husband and she can get working on her own kids to love and shake her finger at.

I’ve been adopted as a big sister to Hediye, the nine year old cousin from downstairs. She looks about twelve, so sometimes I think she’s immature for her age, the way she hangs onto me and moves around awkwardly in her maturing body. But she’s only nine. She likes to practice English words for fruits and vegetables and give me massages. I french braid her hair in a crown. We get along great. Hediye’s brother has a little toddler, who apparently rarely smiles. Well, I’m proud to say that I was able to fly him around the room like Superman right up to Hediye’s face, and make him not only smile, but laugh.

And finally, my host Somayeh. Likes dancing, friends, talking on the phone. Interested in completing her masters overseas. She is the only female employee at a cement factory with a payroll of 600. On my first evening together, we had full conversations about expectations of women in Iran, about sex and relationships, etc etc. While she believes in Allah, she does not believe in Islam. And though her mother would love it if she was more religious, her and her husband are open-minded and let their children believe as they please.

Harddrive

My harddrive crashed somewhere on my journey into Iran. I’m on the train, I’m listening to audio books, and then I try to turn the thing on in Tehran, and it’s dead. Amir Hossein has a friend who has a friend, and we meet him in a car on a side street in the centre of Tehran. I laugh because it seems like we’re sneaking around, doing something illegal. In the end, I get a new harddrive and operating system. I was thankful for about 10 minutes when I imagined sending the thing home and not having to carry it anymore. But only for 10 minutes.

Socializing #1

I went with Somayeh’s mom and sister to join about 15 of their female friends and head up into the mountains north of Tehran. A van is rented. We head first to the villa of a friend, where tea is shared and food is prepared for our next stop. Once inside, the headscarves come off, shirts get changed, and voices rise in volume. Man, these women can talk. Loudly. Lots of laughter. We attempt to leave to our next destination, but the van can’t get up the hill. It’s smoking white and black smoke. Half of us get out, and it still can’t move in first gear. The driver gives us the excuse that the engine is from India. We end up sending the van away and getting taxis for the remainder of the trip.

At the mountain, we head into a sort of cabin. Something that you might see at a ski resort – rows of adjoined two story lofts with a balcony overlooking the valley beyond. Again, the headscarves come off and the voices go up. Nasi explains to me once and a while what they are talking about. Sex and husbands are a common topic.

Before lunch, we snack on chips and dip. Or more like dip with chips. I’m told if I don’t have a spoon, I can use chips to eat the dip. Literally, the woman take a bowl of dip – yogurt with garlic, yogurt with dill, yogurt with some sort of flower – and use their fingers to suck down every last bit. Chips are only used sparsely.

The rest of the afternoon we enjoy a huge lunch at the resort restaurant and Nasi and I take a walk afterwards. A nap ensues in the fading warmth, and we head back to the city late in the evening. I actually get a bit chilly. It’s been a while.

Socializing #2

I head with Somayeh, her mom, sister, cousin, and aunt to Karaj, which aparently is also known as Little Iran. Everyone from the country side that wants to move to Tehran but can’t afford it moves here. This get together is something that happens about once a month. Lots of food. Money draws. Sparkly t-shirts and high heels. Lots of talking. Before we left Tehran I had braided Hediye’s hair into a crown, which drew a lot of attention. I ended up doing 3 other heads – two women in their twenties, and a shy little girl. It was a hit.

At the party, one new mother forgot to bring a soother, so a few of the women head out to buy one. The come back and the soother they bought turns out to for a newborn. It’s too small. “Suck on it, it will get bigger!”, one of the women jokes. This is the kinds of stuff you’ll find in private in Iran. Not exactly the perspective you get on North American television.

Swimming in Iran

Somayeh took me swimming on one of my nights in Tehran. Since women’s bathing suits are definitely not hijab, swimming pools are men-only or women-only at any one time. They will either alternate mornings and afternoons, or more commonly odd and even days. Once again, Iran behind closed doors looks remarkably like  North America. Women in spandex working out in the gym. Lifeguards in tight suits. Women of all shapes and sizes in bathing suits of all shapes and sizes. It’s nice to get out of the heat and enjoy a cool swim.

I ask Somayeh if there are any good Iranian swimmers, and how they compete internationally. Turns out there are Islamic Games, in which all the officials, staff, spectators are women so that the women can compete in the usual sporting garb. Some of the few sports that Iranian women compete in non-Islamic competitions (if I remember correctly) are ping-pong, fencing, judo, and weightlifting.

Sightseeing

I really didn’t do all that much sightseeing in Tehran, which is not unexpected as Tehran isn’t really known for its sights. On my second day in Iran I went with Somayeh to a palace complex, where the old Shah used to live, and various dignitaries from around the world visited. It was oppulent and excessive, but interesting. We also walked uphill to Darband, where locals head to escape the heat. The tight valley heading up the mountains north of Tehran is lined on both sides with traditional restaurants. We meet up with Amir Hossein and his girlfriend, I enjoy a dish called dizi (which involves a small metal plunger), and we smoke qaylan (water pipe with flavoured tobacco).

In the rest of my time in Tehran, I checked out the multiple narrow covered lanes of the main bazaar, visited the jewel museum, the carpet museum, and attempted to visit a few other museums which turned out to be closed. I had lunch on my own at a traditional cafe, and when the bill was added up, the cashier asked me “Ti?” I run through my head…what does ti mean? It takes me about 30 seconds before I respond. “Ah, tea! No, I didn’t have any tea.”

The highlight was probably the ridiculous jewel museum. Held within a vault in the basement of a bank, it basically is a low-lit room with glass cabinets and roped off areas featuring jewels, and things with jewels on them. I caught up with an Engligh-speaking museum guide. I found his tour to be hilarious, as the tour he took us on was so fast, it was like what he was showing us was not all that impressive. “This globe is covered with one thousand rubies and four thousand sapphires and five hundred diamonds. OK next this is the largest pink diamond in the world. OK next.” It went on like this for 20 minutes. His shpiel was only interrupted by one or two questions. He described nonstop, and we moved nonstop around the vault.

Saying goodbye

I said goodbye to Somayeh and family three times. The first I headed west into the mountainous Kurdish region near the Iraq border. Amir Hossein got me into a shared taxi to get to the bus station, while his mother threw a cup of water after me down the street, which apparently is intended to bring me back again safe. The next time we rushed back from the monthly party and they drove me right to the train station, though turning the wrong way down a one way street and getting stopped by the police. They waived me on to the station as I was already cutting it close. The final time I was heading to Mashhad and onto Turkmenistan, and again Nasi threw water after me, this time more like a litre. What a family. Whereas so many other tourists try to get out as quickly as possible, they made Tehran a wonderful experience. I hope I can reciprocate in Canada.

(14) Bahçesaray, Turkey: Hospitality to the power of infinity

I debated many possible titles for this post.

  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: I’m an honorary man
  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: Sleeping is hard to do when you’re pretty sure there’s a mouse in your bag on the other side of the room
  • Bahçesaray, Turkey: Holy f**k I love mountains

Wow, where do I start. At the beginning I suppose. After saying goodbye to Peter, I put my backpack in storage at the hotel and took off with a small overnight bag in search of a minibus to Bahçesaray. Lonely Planet gives one location, which I tried to scope out a few days ago with no luck. The hotel front desk man gave another location, which is where I started today. I ended doing almost a complete circle of the town centre, both on foot and in a van of a guy offering to help. After an hour of searching, I ended up at the right minibus, just two blocks from my hotel. I was told we would be leaving in 10 minutes.

After 30 minutes, we were off.

But not really. First we stopped at the main produce distribution centre of Van, where we circled around for 45 minutes and loaded potatoes into the van.

And then we were off.

But not really. Second, we headed back to where we originally took off from, and loaded a bit more. A bag of fruit was offered around. Small green things, kind of like really, really unripe plums. I was actively encouraged (pushed?) to eat four.

And then we were off.

But not really. Third we pulled a U-turn and back tracked to a small hospital, where we stopped and people got out to do who knows what. I went to a little store in the compound and got some juice and snacks. I offered some sesame crackers around.

And then we were off.

But not really. We made it a bit further along the highway and then pulled into a residential area, dropped two guys off, went a bit further, stopped for a bit, picked some things up, started up again, stopped again and picked up the guys dropped off earlier. I’m given a cup of Coke from a 2L bottle.

And then we were off.

But not really. 20TL of gas first.

And then we were off.

Kind of. We made it about 30km, where we stopped for more gas, and tea. I was plied with tea, cookies, and a small cake.

And then, about 4 hours after our original departure, we were off.

For a while. After about an hour, we stopped for lunch and prayer. A small cement pad, pointed towards Mecca, was a base for us to eat bread, cheese, and drink more pop.

And then we were off again. Scenery-oh-my-god. I love mountains. I love love love mountains. I was not disappointed. The road winds gradually ascends through lush valleys and, eventually, icefields, to a 3000m pass and then descends steeply into the interior of the mountain range that hosts my destination. The passengers get a good laugh at me when I freak out upon discovery of small, slightly fuzzy pink beetle on my hand.

We made two further stops along our descent. At one, four men got out and proceeded to walk down the mountain (to where? I thought) and then later, four switchbacks down, we waited as the four men caught up to us. They had picked some wild rhubarb-like plants (again, which they shared with me) and some wild mountain tulips, of which I was the recipient of four.

We finally get to Bahçesaray, and the town is larger than I had expected. Straddling a quick moving river, the main street is paved with bricks and men drink tea on the sidewalks.

And here’s where it gets interesting. The guidebook says there’s a small guesthouse in town, and to inquire at the restaurant on the river. However, the driver and passengers, with their nonexistent English and my incredibly limited Turkish and Kurdish, share with me that there is no hotel or pension. And that there is no transportation back to Van until tomorrow.  So the driver (from what I think I understood) offered to host me at his village (his home?).  All the passengers are nodding at me.

I’ve learned to savour ambiguity here. While I keep my guard up a bit, I find that overall, people look out for you, and genuinely want to help. Especially in this Kurdish region, I have experienced the most wonderful hospitality and generosity, without any expectations of reciprocity (to which I am humbled and often embarrassed).

So I go along with the driver. He’s young, friendly in a quiet way, and (I’ll admit) a tad dark and handsome. At first we walk through the street of Bahçesaray. It doesn’t take long to reach the ends of the town, and we turn around as I snap photos. We end up back at the van, where the passengers, plus a few more are waiting, and I get back inside, and we continuing up a valley along a rough road at about 10km an hour.

As the road winds up over a steep edge, the old woman beside me starts making faces. I have no idea what she means, but I guess that she is trying to share, “Isn’t this road scary?” I put my arm around her and squeeze her shoulders. We laugh.

On this part of the journey, one of the new passengers is a school teacher. He speaks a bit of English, and all of a sudden questions are flying back and forth through the van. Apparently, I am very interesting. “Why?” I ask. “Because you are a woman alone,” the obvious response.

I get another offer from the older woman to come to her house, but in the end I follow the teacher, Yasin, to his village. He is not from here, but was assigned here (by the computer he says) when he finished teacher training. He spoke no Kurdish when he came her four years ago, and the children he teaches speak no Turkish when they start.

In the village (Çatbayır – Turkish; Arıncik – Kurdish; turns out you can actually find it on Google Maps!) he tells me we will visit here, and then we will walk down the valley to the next village where I will stay with a female teacher. Again, I’m fine with ambiguity. I’ll carry my small bag with me and be happy wherever I end up.

The village is perched on the slope of a valley, the second to last before the road ends. All of the homes are constructed of stone walls, wood beam ceilings, and sod roofs. First stop is his small home, where, lo and behold, he has Facebook. Even in village of 150, satellite TV and phone modems are still accessible.

We explore the village, and children slowly start to accumulate behind us. At one pause I am given a gift of knitted socks and a head scarf. We stop at the mosque, where Yasin demonstrates the prayer process, from the call to prayer over the PA system, to the cleansing, to the actual prayer. The boys who have followed me in are now quiet, but stare intently.

We stop on a plaza/balcony/roof (an open flat area) where tea materializes. At this point I haven’t used the toilet in about 10 hours, but I can hold off a while longer, though I hold off after one cup. We visit the Kazim Cudi family home in their sitting room, and I become the honorary man – getting to eat and drink with the other men, while the women serve but otherwise remain outside. More tea, but also raisins and walnuts. Yasin tells me that this is a very good family, and the children are very clever.  The brother of the girl that serves us is the first from the village to go to university, studying finance I gather (“for working in bank”). Yasin believes intelligence is genetic, as all the children in this family are clever. We philosophize on nature vs. nurture. I finally get to use a toilet.

We continue our walk around the village, and I learn we will go back to the Kazim Cudi house for dinner. We stop again in the flat area, and I learn some Turkish and Kurdish, though what I think means “How old are you?” actually means “12” in Kurdish, so it turns out I subsequently keep asking children “12?” the rest of the evening, and am suitably confused that they don’t understand my question.

We head back to the Kazim Cudi home, and I play the guessing game that has come to be my staple way to connect with kids. After a few round of getting them to guess which hand the coin is in, and pretending to swallow it and knock it out of my ear, it’s the daughter’s turn. I shake the young girls fists, sniff them, hover my fingers over them as I make beeping noises, all under the pretense of investigating the coin’s location. I read the girl’s facial expression and probably end up guessing about 80%.

Dinner with the Kazim Cudi father, son, and Yasin teacher was fantastic. It’s always a pleasure to deviate from shish and donar, though I still am only eating with the men. Rice, bread, some sort of tomato omlette, bean and potato soup, and a tasty yogurt and cucumber combo. The electricity flickers off and on and a fuel lamp is brought out.

The evening closes with a laugh as I am told to try on the socks given to me earlier. I can’t even get them over my arch. The mother brings out a bag of these knitted socks and we all laugh as we find my size 9 feet are too big for all of them. I am given another gift of the largest pair of sock in the bag, along with another head scarf. The daughter that served us tea earlier returns to show me how to put on a head scarf.

It turns out I will stay in this family’s home for the night. Bedrolls are pulled out for me and one of the oldest daughters, and our sleeping area is arranged. I have a feeling that I am displacing some of the other family members to other rooms in the home. I feel embarrassed by all of the generosity. I didn’t bring anything to share or to offer as a gift.

I would have slept soundly in the dark and quiet of this small village, had it not been for the small sounds of plastic rustling. I’m aware of the crackers I’ve left in a small bag on the side of the room beside my backpack. I hear small sounds above my head at the top of my bed roll. I lapse in and out of sleep.

In the morning I realize the sounds were actually small bits of dirt falling from the ceiling and hitting the floor. My crackers are in tact, but a small pink fuzzy beetle has made its way inside the bag.

Breakfast is eggs, sheep cheese, sheep yogurt, bread, and honeycomb. Everything is from the village except the tea and sugar. Yasin has returned and joins me for breakfast before the van back to Bahçesaray and Van.

A group is present to see me off, but most of the children have already gone to school. One of the men heading down in the van is also continuing on to Van, so has been designated to look after me. I reluctantly leave the village, but wonder how easy it would be (or not?) to spend some more time up here in the future. Can houses be rented? How did the teacher get his place?

I have tea two separate times and am offered a third while waiting in Bahçesaray for a van to Van. The driver from yesterday makes an appearance and four eager men take me on a quick tour to a nearby town to show me an old bridge. Apparently it was built in 816, but what caught my attention were some bright blue butterflies fluttering by down near the river.

As we almost depart for the 3 hour trip back to Van, I wonder about Turkish land ownership laws for foreigners. I often consider running a guesthouse later in life, and have added this to my list of potential locations.

The ride back was more of the same beauty, but with way fewer stops along the way.

Back in Van at my favourite hotel, I am here one more night before an overnight train to Tehran, Iran. This morning I went back to the Bahçesaray minibus stop to confirm it was heading all the way to Çatbayır village. I bought selection of fruit and asked the driver to get the bag to the Kazim Cudi family and Yasin – my small attempt at reciprocity. He refuses my offer to pay, and as I walk away down the street, I find myself starting to cry.

(11) Van, Turkey: Did he say Castle of Fun?

Well, what a few days it has turned out to be in Van (pronounced almost like ‘Juan’). After hanging around the Diyarbakir bus station for 7 hours and taking the night bus (and, surprise, not sleeping) to Van, I arrived in the city centre at about 7:30am. Thankfully, the hotel I wanted to stay at was happy to check me in that early.

This hotel I have been looking forward to. Lonely Planet lists it as a mid-range option, stating that even if you are on a budget to consider spending a bit more for this hotel. While it’s not a Westin, it has immaculate sheets, lovely hot clean showers, wifi, sit down toilets (yes!), and deep-sleep-worthy beds. All for about $35 a night.

At first the guy said the price was 60 TL (~$45) at which I paused. I was too tired to bargain, but I didn’t respond at all – I just stared at the number he had written down. What seemed like minutes later, he asked with a smirk, “May I help you?” and wrote down 50TL. I thanked him, both for the reduced price, and for awaking me from my daze.

I checked in, did some sink laundry, napped, and then walked around the city to get the lay of the land. Not a large city, but surprisingly metropolitan for southeast Turkey, and still in the Kurdish region. Van sits on the southeast corner of the large Lake Van, though not on the shore. I don’t think locals have discovered the potential value of placing amenities near the lovely turquoise water.

There were two main things I wanted to see around Van. One was to rent a car and drive a loop around Lake Van, stopping at the caldera of Nemrut Dagi, an old volcano. The other was to head up to a small village called Bahcesaray, which has only two access roads that wind tightly around mountain passes, one of which is blocked by snow over half the year, the other new in the past 5 years. The snow road opened up in the past few weeks.

The first night in Van I met Peter, also staying at this hotel, a fellow traveler from Burnaby of all places, and he was interested in my lake loop trip. Unfortunately, a car wasn’t available on the first full day in Van, so instead we hopped on mini bus and ferry to Akdamar Island, which features a 10th century church with well-preserved carvings of biblical characters on the outside, and a lovely hike to the island top with great view over the lake and surrounding snowcapped mountain ranges. We had a great time – not just the sights and company, but also the temperature. We had both come out of 30-35°+ weather, so 22° with a breeze was heavenly.

On the way back, instead of retracing our steps, we managed (just in time) to take up a local teacher on an offer made earlier on the island to join his group of teachers and university faculty on a private boat all the way back to Van. We enjoyed sunflower seeds, cola, dancing, music, fresh air, conversation and sun. I wanted to capture the moment and share it with the many many Canadians (and Americans, and… and… and…) who have such warped views of Muslim people. Islam does not equal repression and extremism (though surely this exists in each and every religion and culture). Spending a fun afternoon on a boat with your colleagues and family – surely we can all identify with such an experience?

We caught a ride back to our hotel with a friend of the teacher.  The man kept telling us that if we wanted to go to the Castle of Fun, he would come with us, or he would take us. “Is he saying ‘Castle of Fun’?” I asked Peter. This sounded like an interesting evening. Peter eventually figured out he was referring to Castle of Van, our original plan for the evening that we decided to hold off until Saturday.

We capped off the evening with dinner, and the realization that I now have a tan line across my forehead resulting from a combination of sun hat and sun reflecting off the water for 2.5 hours on a boat.