14 things you didn’t know you didn’t know about Iran

Thumbs Up = Middle Finger

While some leeway is given for tourists as many Iranians understand that thumbs up means “good” elsewhere, giving a thumbs up in Iran actually is equivalent to giving a middle finger. Very entertaining to see in action (overly aggressive taxi drivers are your best bet).

Beautiful “Yes”

There are two main ways to say yes in Persian. “Are”, pronounced like “R.A.” means “yeah”, and the more formal “bale” means “yes”. The latter one is pronounced remarkably like “ballet”. So whenever I hear someone say yes, I get an image of stunning dancers in pointe shoes and tutus. It’s beautiful every time.

Tea for Two

Tea is made in two parts, and it’s ingenious. Since tea is served a bajillion times a day, rather than having a pot of tea sitting around, a sort of double boiler system is used. A larger kettle of water with a spout for easy pouring sits on the stove, and a small tea kettle with a super strong blend sits on top. To make tea, a small amount of the strong blend is added to a cup and filled up with the boiling water from below to the desired strength.

Sour Power

Plums, apricots and cherries are snacks of choice – the sourer the better. Plums are small, green, and hard. Apricots likewise. Two types of cherries are available – the ones I know from home, and small, sour ones. Sour fruit is often eaten with salt. I don’t think it’s even possible to buy ripened plums or apricots.

International TV

Satellite TV is the norm (though technically illegal), and programs from all over the world are dubbed in Farsi. The most common American series are 24, Prison Break, Dharma and Greg, How I Met Your Mother, and Reba. Other favourite shows include ones from Korea and Columbia. I’m currently hooked on a soap from Columbia in which a rich old man dies but he lives on in another (young and attractive) body and as he finds out who wronged him or truly respected him in his former life, he seeks revenge or protects them respectively. Opening credits involve him hosing down a horse with his shirt off and his Fabio-length hair blowing in some mysterious wind. Captivating.

The Many Faces of No

Rather than shaking ones head back and forth, a more common head gesture for no here is the single upward nod. The gesture in Canada, might mean “up there, ahead”, or when paired with a small grin and an eyebrow raise “hey, how you doin’?”, or with a snarl “what are you looking at, huh?” Here, however, it means no, and is my gesture of choice when communicating with taxis.

Ta’arof

Ta’arof is kind of a artificial and often confusing form of nicety here. Like when you try to pay for your taxi or meal, you money will often be refused (the first time). Or when you comment on someone’s lovely new _____, Ta’arof indicates they should offer to give it to you, which you should then obviously refuse. Or when someone comes to your door to drop something off, you should invite them in for a meal, which they should naturally turn down. It’s hard to tell the difference between genuine generosity and Ta’arof sometimes, and more than once I have asked my host in Tehran, “Is this Ta’arof? What do you honestly think?” The Lonely Planet gives the funny rationale that it would be rude for a taxi driver not to offer your ride for free, but it would be even ruder for you to accept his offer.

Iran Exists Outside Iran

Many Farsi TV programs, movies, and most modern music is created and broadcast from outside of Iran. Since women in booty shorts in music videos doesn’t fly here, musicians and actors often live and work in the US, Germany, Turkey, etc. You may be living next to a Persian superstar and not even know it.

Noodle Ice Cream All the Rage

It may sound nasty at first, but my favourite cold treat in Iran soon became a lime ice bar containing vermicelli-like noodles. I admit it was weird the first time, but I’ve had dozens since. They are cool, refreshing and only cost 15 cents.

Iran is Economically Developed

The fact that you can drink the tap water almost everywhere should be an indication. Tehran (especially as you head further north in the city, which is also higher in altitude, cooler, and where people get wealthier and wealthier) is quite cosmopolitan. While there is poverty like any other country, overall, the infrastructure is remarkably great. A traveller I met compared Iran to a very well run prison. It’s clean, well built, the other prisoners are great, but there are a lot of rules.

Very Good Bad Drivers

By North American standards, you might think that drivers here are bad. They swerve in and out of traffic, go the wrong way down one way streets, back up on freeways, etc. etc. However, they can also squeeze through spaces barely a few inches wider than their vehicles, have quick reflexes to avoid other swerving traffic, and are generally incredibly aware of their surroundings. I guess you could say that they have good driving skills, but they obey traffic rules poorly.

Persians are not Arabs

If you believed everything you saw on TV, you might think that all Muslims are Arabs. However, there are Arab Muslims, Persian Muslims, Kurdish Muslims, Turkish Muslims, Bosnia Muslims, etc. etc. It’s like saying all Catholics are Italian. Or confusing Germans with French – what’s the big deal? They all look the same! Well, they don’t actually, and are proud of their ethic heritage.

And not all Iranians are Muslim. There are populations of Armenian Christians, where are generally left alone. And small clusters of Zoroastrians. However, newly converted Christians risk their lives.

Iran is Not Dangerous for Law-Abiding Tourists

As Iran is smack dab in the middle of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, you might think it’s a bit of a hot spot and forget that Iran is not at war. The main concern for tourists (as I learned from a chat at the Canadian embassy) is that if something happens to you here, it’s hard for the Embassy to intervene on your behalf. So, as I plan to avoid drug trafficking, spying, wearing slutty clothes or instigating any uprisings against the government, I figure I’m OK. I’ll take care as I do in any country I travel to.

Dress code

So what exactly is the dress code in Iran you ask? At a minimum, heads and butts are covered. I wore a pashmina-like scarf, and a long shirt called a manteau that went to my upper thigh. Because I’m a tourist I can get away with a bit of a shorter manteau, but it still covered the area where my legs met my body. When you go to government buildings, universities, and some workplaces, a special one-piece black headscarf similar to a nun’s headdress must be worn.

Women that are more devout will wear what’s called a chador. It means that they first put on a headscarf and clamp it underneath their chin with a pin, and then drape themselves in what’s little more than a thin sheet (usually black). It’s held in place closed in front with hands, or sometimes the mouth if the hands are busy. I tried it twice – once at a shrine in northern Tehran, and once trying to get into the main complex in Mashhad. It sucked. Niqabs, the full face covering “veils” that have recently been banned in France, are rare. They generally are only spotted in the more orthodox cities like Qom and Mashhad, and still rarely.

What I didn’t understand though, was the popular styles of manteaus. Most of them are almost like short, tight trench coats. Why aren’t more free-flowing, lighter fabrics used? It’s so freaking hot here!

Your Turn?

I hope I shed some light for you on what Iran is really like. I wish more people would travel here. One nice thing about travelling in Iran, compared to other controlled states like Burma and North Korea, is that you can travel around the country without directly financially supporting the government. So explore, couchsurf, sightseeing, eat, and experience Iran.

(21) Mashhad, Iran: Saying goodbye

Three goodbyes in four days. After Tom and I parted ways in Kashan, it was time for a final visit and goodbye with Somayeh and her family in Tehran, and soon for goodbye to Iran in general. The goodbyes in this case were kind of tough. There’s something to be said for the comfort and certainty of good people around you. It’s easy to stay a bit longer than you originally intended because you know you will enjoy yourself.

I felt bad only staying one more night in Tehran. Like I wasn’t paying proper respect to the family that had made my stay in Iran a remarkable one. Our evening was a quiet one, mirroring the many evenings spent here before. An early nap, some South American soap operas, and a lovely dinner (bademjan, my favourite!) before packing and bed. Big hugs to Hediye. I told her to come to Canada when she’s 19. She said we should stay up all night talking.

I got up early to catch the 7am train. Amir Hossein had asked to be woken up to say goodbye, but (like I would have) changed his mind when it actually came to waking up at 6:30am. Rani brought a pitcher of water to throw out after me, and I was off in a taxi with a few tears.

The train ride was nice, but I kind of wasn’t in the mood for much. I slept when the aircon was on, fanned myself when it stopped working, and ate the most disgusting transit meal ever. In order of what I ate the most of to the least for lunch:

  • Lukewarm Zam Zam cola
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Packet of mayonnaise
  • Cold star-shaped breaded chicken pieces
  • Cold pickled cauliflower
  • Lukewarm Honeydew jello
  • Dry white bun
  • Cold pickled other vegetables (carrots, onion, celery)
  • Cold crescent shaped breaded shrimp (? maybe actually deli meat ?) pieces

The train ride I guess wasn’t all that bad. Perhaps I’m just grumpy while writing this entry.

Mashhad, my final major destination, gets a bad rap from me not because the city itself sucks, but at this point in Iran, I just want to get to Turkmenistan. Any extra hours in Mashhad were hours I could have spent continuing in Kashan or Tehran. Plus my accommodation had cockroaches, which I don’t do well with. The other people that have been staying here are all cyclists. With most of them started in Europe and are heading though Central Asia towards China; I feel like a chump next to them on my buses, trains and taxis.

Here I sent a package home ($12 for 2.5kg), exchanged some Iranian Rials back into Euros, and attempted to see the holy shrine, which is the main raison d’etre of Mashhad. However, seeing as the best areas of the shrine are only available to Muslims, and I had failed to plan for three of the requirements of entry (no water, no camera, covered feet required), even with my borrowed chador, I couldn’t get into the outside area. Meh. I’m apathetic at this point. I just want to get to Turkmenistan. At least the accommodation has (spotty) wifi, and I can catch up with home via Skype.

Earlier in this trip, I thought I had come to the realization that this would be my last extended backpacking trip. Instead, I realize now that I’m done with super budget travelling. I now browse the mid-range accommodation options in the guidebooks, and don’t flinch at double digit dollar ranges. I value clean sheets, security and hot water. I know I won’t get that everyday throughout the rest of this trip, but I’ll have no qualms splurging when I need it.

I have had the privilege of well paying jobs, and also the will to lead a reasonably simple life in Canada, each which afford me the ability, the luxury of taking extended periods of time to see the world. And if I want a hot shower, I’m gonna fork out for it. No matter what look that prissy but dirty budget traveller is giving me.

So my last few hours in Iran will consist of getting to the border. I have $15 in Iranian money left for 4 hours of bus and taxi starting at 6am tomorrow. I’m looking forward to Turkmenistan. It’s costing me more per day than any other country or tour I’ve ever done, but I’m OK with that. I have to have a guide with me the whole time as I’m doing more than just transiting across the country (as per Turkmenistan rules), but as I figure I’ll probably never be back, in the grand scheme of things this money will be well spent. I don’t want to regret cheaping out on the 2nd most media-controlled state in the world.

(20) Garmeh, Iran: Desert storm

Tom and I had a late start in Yazd, but eventually made it to the bus station (curious: Iran’s bus stations are always way outside of town – why?) and onto a bus to Na’in on our way to Garmeh. I had bought a watermelon the day before with the intention to eat it all for lunch, but was still lugging it around and ate a quarter of it before we left. The extra weight now seems like a bit of a mistake…carrying around 3/4 of a watermelon is a pain.

The ride to Na’in was uneventful, passing through fairly desolate landscape, until we didn’t seem to stop in Na’in. Tom and I gave each other questioning looks before he brought our ticket up to the driver’s assistant. Some frantic and annoyed Farsi ensued (a la “oh shit we forgot about the tourists”) between him and the driver before the bus pulled over, backed up about 100m, pulled a u-ey, drove two roundabouts back and dropped us at the side of the road. (Aside: how do you spell u-ey? I’ve only said it, never had to write it before.)

We were expecting a bus to come through to where we were going at about 4pm. It was just after 3pm. For all we knew the schedule had changed, or no buses were coming through – it was Friday afterall (the equivalent of Canadian Sunday). But, as luck would have it, we were only there for about 10 minutes before a car pulled over, asked if we were tourists, where we were going, and offered a ride. Well, the car itself didn’t ask, the two men inside did. And we accepted.

The two men were professors at a university in Tabas, the next city after our destination. The passenger was a professor of geology, and he was keen to share the geological history of the area with us (which I actually quite enjoyed). Overall a very enthusiastic talkative guy.

He translated one of his favourite Arabic songs for us, and then played it again. He asks us for our opinion. I leave this one to Tom. “It’s quite catchy,” he shares noncommittally.

At one point they decided to pull over to allow us to take a photo, of what I can’t remember now. Because when we stopped, I pointed out a huge billowing sand cloud in the distance, maybe 5km away. A sand storm. Definitely a new experience for me. We took tonnes of photos, the geology professor took some video,  and I gained appreciation for storm chasers. I watched the sand cloud pass down the side of a mountain, and could tell it was moving at quite a speed, in our direction.

“Is it dangerous?” I ask.

“No, no, not dangerous,” says the geology professor.

So we continued to take pictures – with the professors, of the sand storm, of the camel signs on the highway, of a combination of the above. And then, when the cloud seemed to be about 1km away, the geology professor seems to chang his mind.

“OK, we go. Maybe dangerous.”

So we hopped back in the car and within a few minutes we reached our destination, but were overcome by the sandstorm. At first it was just very windy with a bit of dust. The geology professor was concerned for us and tried to convince us to continue on to Tabas, their destination. Tom and I tried to explain that we had a reservation, someone picking us up, someone waiting for us, a friend was meeting us, anything for them to stop the car.

But soon enough, luck would have it that the sand storm became so bad the sky was dark, headlights were useless, and driving any further was even more dangerous than staying. We found refuge in a mosque and waited out the storm.

The worst of it was short, only 10 minutes or so before it was safe to drive again, but was it ever fun.

Our final destination, a traditional house in the oasis village of Garmeh, was a short taxi ride away. The driver had a husky, cackly voice and unknowingly entertained us by his enthusiastic mobile phone conversations. Tom and I both had never seen landscapes like this before, and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery both on this final leg and all the way from Na’in in general. It turns out that desert oases really do look like they do in the movies and cartoons. A blob of palm trees in the middle of nowhere.

Our home for the next two nights was a restored old mud brick home called Ishetoni. Its village, Garmeh, is home to a few hundred people, is backed by some high rocky outcrops, is full of palm trees, sunflowers, pomegranate bushes, birds and butterflies, and is surrounded otherwise by flat, dry nothingness.

While the scenery is unique, the food is lovely and the home is welcoming, the temperature is a bit of an issue at this time of year. Our full day here it got to about 46 degrees, and at night it only went down to 32, which apparently I have trouble sleeping in. The first morning I felt I had already been awake for a few hours when I gave up all hope for sleep at 5 am and took a walk in behind the village and sat up on the rocks for a while as the sun rose. Not my usual daytime routine, but probably the best option considering the temperature as the sun gets higher; I was back for breakfast at 8am and was able to nap on and off until 11am. Watermelon was offered as a late morning snack, and lunch shortly followed. Other than short walks, we (including a young couple from Portugal staying here) each spent the rest of the morning just reading and generally laying around the living area in the path of the cooling fan. I compare it to a modern day version of being fed grapes and being fanned by servant boys.

In the afternoon, the four of us shared a taxi tour to a “salt lake” which turned out to be more of a salt trench. While still beautiful, it was a bit disappointing considering the images the word “lake” conjures up. We should have been more realistic considering the temperature and the season, but seeing as we were sightseeing in the heat of the late afternoon, we were really hoping for something good.

When we got back to the village, Tom and I got some nonalcoholic beers and went for a walk around the village and surrounding palm-treed plots, taking advantage of the (moderately) non-hot wind that had picked up. It was so quiet. I do well with silence.

The next morning, ideas of an early walk were replaced by welcome sleep. We had planned to leave before noon, but ended up staying for lunch, and leaving in the early afternoon with hopes of catching a random ride back to Na’in and then a bus to our separate destinations (Tom to Kashan, I back to Tehran).

As luck would have it, Tom only had time to buy a drink while I successfully flagged down a transport truck to Na’in. Our host in Garmeh had said that trucks travel fast on the road, but we calculated (both by timing the road signs and the markers on the road) that we were only travelling about 80 km/h. For 3 hours. Cramped. In the front of a hot, old, Mercedes transport truck. If nothing else it was an experience. I kept track of the beats playing on the iPod and found that the driver was looking at me at least half of the time. I was glad to be travelling with a male partner. Definitely would not have attempted this alone.

By the time we got to Na’in, it was clear that I wasn’t going to make it to Tehran in good time, so I joined Tom in Kashan for one more time as unmarried twin room sharing opposite sex travel partners, and let Somayeh know I would be back in Tehran in the early afternoon.

But the next morning, for real this time, was the end for Tom and me as travel partners. After breakfast I caught a taxi to the bus station, and Tom wandered off to explore Kashan. I’m jealous of the time he still has to spend in Iran, and his potential plans to come back in February.

Thanks for all the comfortable silences.

(19) Yazd, Iran: Water wells and bathhouse dinners

Tom and I travelled during the hottest part of the day to Yazd, enjoying a bit of air conditioning, some naps, and intermittent views of dramatic mountain ranges from the flatness of a dry desert valley. Upon arriving, we met a taxi driver who took out a brochure for the guesthouse we were planning on staying at anyways – it’s a well touristed spot.

When we walked through the doors into the courtyard of the guesthouse, we each saw something we hadn’t yet seen in Iran. Tourists. It was odd to have spent the last five days in a quiet hum, and all of a sudden hear English spoken, people gathered around a table, Euro Cup on TV. We wondered – should we talk to them? How does one go about approaching tourists.

We put our bags in our room, and went out to the tables. We met a young Iranian couple there celebrating the girls birthday. I wasn’t sure if they were staying there, or just there to meet and talk to tourists. We tried to work it out, but I think it was a bit illicit for them to be there alone, so they weren’t too keen on specifics. She was visiting from Tehran, he was from Yazd. They hoped to get married after they were done university. He had brought a cake, which they shared with the other guests, and he also had sparklers which he spread around and we sang Happy Birthday.

And then, a Canadian and a Dutch guy sat across from us. It took about 10 seconds before I regretted the whole talking to tourists thing. The Canadian was of the “I-have-had-so-many-experiences-with-the-locals-I-almost-am-one-of-them-which-is-why-I-am-cool-and-like-to-talk-a-lot-and-not-find-out-anything-about-you” variety. The Dutch guy was of the “I-think-that-I-have-a-sense-of-humour-so-why-aren’t-people-laughing” variety.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Tom and I were both trying to figure out ways to extricate ourselves. I asked, “Do you know anywhere good for dinner around here?” at which point the Canadian exclaimed how hungry he was. I think if Tom had known me better he would have kicked me under the table. As it was I was kicking myself hard enough.

Instead I made some sort of comment about getting sorted in our room before we go to eat, at which point Tom and I get ourselves the hell out of there and fall into laughter behind closed doors. We decided not to mingle with the tourists anymore.

Instead we ventured through town, hoping to eventually find a restaurant that sits in a former bathhouse. It was a maze of streets, no signs, and a bit of luck, but we made it. It was seriously like an underground shallow swimming pool. Blue tiles. Humid. Some water, but lots of tables. Great food. Possibly the best non-homecooked meal in Iran. Mainly because it wasn’t kabab. But it was also just good. I introduced Tom to dizi and the small metal plunger. I had rice with a sauce of pomegranates, walnuts and chicken. Mm!

Yazd is known for having a picturesque old town, in which our guesthouse was located, and for adapting well to the desert. The buildings have towers that are designed to somehow circulate air around them. And the water sources are nothing short of amazing. Outside of town, you will find piles of dirt everywhere. It looks like abandoned construction. Or just a mess really. But these actually hide large networks of underground water tunnels. Within the town you will randomly find stairways that seem to go down darkly to the reaches of hell, but instead take you to the water sources. People go down with buckets to fetch. It’s actually the opposite of hell. Cool air and lots of water.

A lot of places actually have deep down caverns, even if water isn’t drawn from them. Going down one level probably drops the temperature at least 10 degrees. Two levels, 20 degrees. Which takes you to standard North American room temperature. It’s so hot here. I’m really getting tired of my inner elbows sweating.

The next morning we went on a walk of the old city. There were a few things we wanted to find, but other than trying to find a way up to get a view of the city from above, the narrow lanes were the main draw. We found an old school that was referred to as a prison which was actually just a series of shops so basically you were just paying to get into a place to be sold stuff but there was a second level down below which sold drinks and things so we were able to cool down for a little while. <end run on sentence>. We also enjoyed a helpful tourist information centre, some lovely old Islamic buildings, and yes, we even found (with the help of some construction workers) a stairway behind a closed door which took us up to open air views of the old city from above. At one point a lovely young woman stops to talk to us, asking what our “idea of Iran” is. She is hoping to study to be a tour guide, and she asks if she speaks English well enough to be understood. She is great. I’ve noticed this over and over again in Iran. People that speak English, however basic, do it with very little accent at all. Just as Farsi is lovely to listen to, so is Iranians speaking English.

We also found a water museum, which is where we learned all about the construction of the water system (it involves lots of small men moving through lots of small tunnels) and where we once again enjoyed a deep, cool, cavern.

After an afternoon siesta, our search turned to food. We walked a long way, finding nothing, barely even kebabs. For some masochistic reason, Tom always waited until I was too hungry to go any further to turn around, even if he was starving. Something to do with army experience, he said. If he was ever tired, or sore, or hungry in the army, he always found relief in knowing that someone had it worse. Which is why he never gave up looking for a restaurant. And considering I’m pretty stubborn, this often led to two hungry people wandering the streets. This night, however, Tom gave up first. We skulked to the guesthouse for dinner, back where we started our search. The food was another hit like the night before. I’m hungry just thinking about it. We never should have bothered going out, though I suppose we got to see Yazd by night.

And that was Yazd.

(18) Shiraz, Iran: Plans out the window

Tom decided to join me on a route to Shiraz through the mountains. Rather than going directly by bus, we were going to try to make in through a little used mountain route by a series of buses and taxis. I found out later that Tom didn’t think we’d actually make it in a day.

The first bus was easy, taking us to main town north of the route we hoped to take. It left pretty much right after we arrived. No time wasted.

When we got to Shahr-e-Kord, it got a bit complicated, especially with all the help people wanted to give us. People were convinced it was not possible to go where we wanted, or there was no bus, or did we want to speak to his mobile to his brother that speaks English?, or we should go back to Esfahan and catch a bus from there, or there was a bus in the late afternoon. We opted for a bus to the next town along the way.

The next bus had friendly and inquisitive people. As we didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers, Tom and I pretended we were married, but no, unfortunately we didn’t have any children. They wanted to know where we were going, but because of all the hassle at the last town, we told them that we were just heading up for the day for a picnic. This satisfied them. They kept repeating a word over and over again, and we had no idea what it meant. Turns out there’s a fort that’s a popular picnic spot, on the other side of town. Which meant it got a bit awkward when we asked to get dropped off in the town, instead of staying on with everyone else on the way to the fort. We found the easiest way to muddle through things is to pretend we didn’t understand them, but act very certain in what we were doing, even in we weren’t.

And then, the search for a way though the mountains began. We started approaching random taxi-looking cars on our path through town. They weren’t interested, or didn’t understand. Once again, we were told to go back to Esfahan if we wanted to get to Shiraz.

As we wandered down the street, looking for a bus/taxi area, a young boy with some sort of rifle inadvertently kept pace with us. He kept aiming up at trees around us. We tried to steer clear – crossing the street, pausing, speeding up – but he always managed to be metres from us. Eventually he dropped away. He never did actually shoot anything, let alone us.

Eventually, we make it to some sort of taxi office, where one driver finally appears to understand what we mean. We say words like “mountains”, make roller-coaster motions with our hands to indicate a rough road, and list towns that should be along the way (though our map in Lonely Planet is horribly inadequate). Our soon to be driver nods, and repeats our words and motions back to us. We think we’ve hit the jackpot, even though he’s asking a lot of money. We bargain down $5, and agree to get on our way.

We stop for lunch early on, and we act all generous by getting a Coke for our driver. When he pays for his lunch later, we keep an eye on the cash he hands over so we can assess what we should be paying. Tom and I develop the same game that Peter and I played in Turkey – the “how-much-is-this-going-to-cost” game. When we get up to pay, the driver waves us on. He has paid for our meal in the end. Generous, or so we think (read on).

Now, according to the guidebook, the first two hours of this drive are supposed to be phenomenal. We’re not sure where this mountain road is, but we most certainly didn’t end up on it. When the turn off to the first town we are expecting to head through comes and goes, we ask to stop. We had agreed on this town, had we not? Ah, but the road is bad/blocked/doesn’t continue south. Our respective English/Farsi language abilities are crap, so we can’t do much other than look really frustrated. We have no idea if he’s ripping us off, or saving us some trouble. We think the former.

The road is fine, but nothing dramatic as we had anticipated. We pass a picturesque lake, wander along broad valleys, finally make it onto some more scenic winding and ascending routes. We take stops for photos, but know overall this was not our originally hoped for route. Ah well. We stop at one point for a toilet and water break. Again, our generous (or so with think, read on) driver treats us to some bottles of water.

When we arrive in Yasuj, we make it clear we want to get to Shiraz. He tells us he’ll drive us for another outrageous sum, and we insist on getting to the bus station instead. We have no idea where it is in this town, and we don’t know if he knows either. Eventually we get to the far end of this spread out city, and it appears we have found some sort of bus station, or at least a bus stopping area.

When we get out of the vehicle, we are accosted by taxi drivers, but we try to push on, after tipping our driver – he bought us lunch and water, afterall. And then, our driver tells us we have to pay him more for lunch, and the water he bought us. The taxi drivers all get on his side – “He paid for your water and lunch, you owe him.” They tell us what apparently the lunch and water cost, though we know from earlier cash spotting that it’s an outrageous lie. We should have just walked away from the beginning, but we try to reason with them. We’re surrounded, and it’s going no where. Eventually, we push through, and get away to the ticket booth. Tom realizes that a pouch on his camera bag was open and some small change may have been stolen. My first experience with a real asshole in Iran. I would have expected it more in the main tourist centres, but we were totally off the main path. He wasn’t a scheming businessman. He was just an asshole.

Tom and I make it onto a bus to Shiraz leaving soon, and after getting some snacks and lemon beer, we’re set. We arrive in Shiraz in the dark, at some bus station that’s not in the Lonely Planet. We have no idea where we are, or how far to the city centre, or what a taxi should cost. We’re tired of getting ripped off, so ask at an electronics shop on the corner. They’re a great help and get us on our way for a good price.

Arriving in the main centre of Shiraz, Tom and I both comment on how we miss Esfahan. Shiraz is a city. Noisy, busy, city. Lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of lights. We make it to a hotel, pause when asked what our relationship is (“Uhhh….friends?”) and are happy to be able to share a room not being married. I’m glad to be here only one night – the plan for me is to see Persepolis the next day and then take a night bus to Tehran so I can meet Somayeh and her sister for our little road trip to the north. We find a great spot for dinner, and enjoy something other than kebab.

The morning sees us trying to find some information about getting to Persepolis. After the rip off the day before, we were hoping to get an idea of what the cost should be. The tourist information stand was a bit of a dud, but we make it to a travel agency and get ourselves sorted. The price is reasonable, and although we missed the scheduled tour bus earlier in the day, it only costs a Euro extra between us to just share a car and driver instead.

Now for some stupid reason, we end up at Persepolis at the hottest part of the day. The spot is wide open, in direct light, without any wind. It’s scorching, and bright. Approaching Persepolis was a bit strange. Like it should have been more built up, or busier, or something. I feel like if we come across a 2500 year old archeological site, trumpets should sound, or something. But instead we are 2 of about 20 people across the whole ancient city. And it only costs about 50 cents to get in.

The remains of Persepolis are spread out over hectares – pillars from old buildings, majestic staircases intricately etched with royalty and horses, tombs carved into the hillside – but two parts in particular formed my highlights. The first was the sculptured entrance to Persepolis. In and of itself it was decent, but what I loved about it was the centuries-old graffiti. Carvings that read something like “Sir William Billington and Expedition, 1809”. Even back in the day people liked to leave their mark. Somehow this graffiti was more romantic than what you might find at a modern day sight – “Carl and Sue were here, 2007” or something like that – but I can’t explain why.

My other favourite part was a rock overhang near one of the tombs. It was shady, what can I say.

On our way out we stop for some food, and all that’s available is hotdogs. We’re already later than expected to meet our driver, but we’re starving. It takes over 30 minutes (was he making the wieners from scratch or something?) and now we are way late for our taxi. The hotdogs are enormous and taste aweful, but we also scored some lemon beer, so it’s all OK.

On our way back to Shiraz, we stop at one other ancient site – a series of about 7 tombs carved high high into a sheer mountains side. Not sure how it was done, or who they are for, but they were pretty. An old Zoroastrian ossuary was nearby, where bones get picked clean by birds before burial. Apparently after death, the flesh belongs to the devil, bones to heaven.

Back in Shiraz I float the idea of going to a movie. Who cares if we don’t understand it. I just want airconditioning. Nothing’s playing quite yet, so we opt for a siesta instead. I call Somayeh to find out about our road trip, and it turns out her mother has had surgery on her hand, and so needs help around the home. Road trip is off. Another great dinner spot is found instead.

The next day I sleep in. Tom heads out early to get his visa extended, and we meet later to explore the limited sights of Shiraz. Which basically means walking from place to place until we find some shade. After picking up Tom’s visa extension, we find a sandwich shop and get some stuff for a picnic. We find a spot in the nearby park and make guesses as to how many people will bother us, or Tom more likely.

We get approached by one guy, someone working in the park, who chats to us briefly as he passes. Doesn’t count for intrusive. And then, Tom hits the jackpot. An albino man, covered in grass (I think he worked in the park), and seemingly a diminished mental capacity kneels down beside us. The first time he’s by he only remains for a few minutes before the first man shoos him away. The second time was much more interesting. He was not at all interested in me, and instead looked into Tom’s eyes, telling him that “In the name of God, I love you.” Except he said “God” like “guide” and we thought he was trying to get us to be his guide. We do a lot of smiling and nodding, until he takes Tom’s head in his hands, and kisses him on the forehead. It was a tender moment.

At this point after lunch, we are lying in the grass reading, and police officers come along. We are asked to leave. Apparently lying 2 feet apart in the grass is too much for them to handle. We are told to go to another park. As if the other park is where are the heathens go. We pack up and move along.

Next stop, bus tickets for the next day. Check.

Next stop, getting stopped by fake (we think) police officers. They pull over on the side of the road, flash a dodgy badge, and ask to see in our bags. We show them at a distance. They keep asking “No marijuana?” Sorry man, we’re not carrying. They leave. Shortly after, a man starts walking with us. We can’t decide if he genuinely just wants to practice English, or if he is going to ask that he becomes our guide. He speaks good enough English that Tom and I can’t conspire to drop him, but eventually he leaves us at the gates of our next destination without any hassle. Rare.

Next stop, the tomb of some famous Iranian poet. Not too remarkable, but we stop for water, then for shade. We pick up some burnt photo DVDs, check email, and head for an afternoon siesta.

Our search for a good dinner place on our final night was not as fruitful as the first two. We walk, and walk, and walk. Eventually we settle for a kebab place. English is not commonly spoken here, so we hesitantly approach the man at the counter and ask “Uhh…kebab?”. He replies fluently, “Would you like chicken or beef?” It was the nicest looking meal I’ve had in a long time, but the flavour didn’t match.

The next morning we have a slow start before catching our bus to Yazd. We have planned our ride to coincide with the hottest part of the day, and pray for a reasonable level of air-conditioning.

(17) Esfahan, Iran: An Officer and a Gentlewoman

I left Tehran with plans to spend just 5 days in the south, so as to join up with Somayeh and Nasi to do a northern road trip. The overnight train was the first in Iran which didn’t end in an invitation to a home. I had been spoiled with so much hospitality previously, that I was almost disappointed on this ride – no food shared, and in the morning when I was keen to get off my 3rd level bunk, no effort to make room on the seats down below.

The train arrived at about 6:30am, and as I was arranging a taxi into town in my half-asleep stupor, I met Tom from New Zealand, who had heard me say something in English and figured correctly that we were headed in the same direction, even to the same hotel. Our first choice was full, and the second attempt resulted in confusion with our desire to share a room. Once we viewed the room and checked in, an attendant tried to take away my pack from my bed to bring to another room. “Mostarak” we tried to explain (shared). He went downstairs, back up again, and then tried to take Tom’s pack away from his bed. Eventually we realized that as an obviously unmarried couple, sharing a room was not going to be possible here.

Finally, we had success. A beautiful traditional house outside of the main area of town, with rooms around a green courtyard. I find it funny how quickly one can come to trusting a fellow traveller. I had known Tom for a bit over an hour by the time we settled in, and already we were sharing a double bed.

Tom, as Peter had been, was another great travel partner. We both are comfortable with long silences, enjoy eclectic music genres on iPods, and can handwash in sinks like nobody’s business . Tom, however, is even better at sleeping anyplace-anytime than I am. (Those close to me will find this hard to believe, but really, it’s true).

We found breakfast after our extended hotel search at a little spot offering “Olden Food” (which thankfully was made fresh) and headed for a walk around town. It was Friday, meaning most holy places and many others would be closed for the day. Lonely Planet really should have a section for each town that lists “What to Do Here on a Friday”. It seemed that everything was closing up as we arrived, even in the Christian quarter of town.

Esfahan is where we established our daily routine, which generally involved exploring sights in the morning, practicing the Iranian art of picnicking in the park for lunch, napping in the heat of the afternoon, and heading back out for sights and dinner in the evening.

Our first picnic in Esfahan we were joined by an “actor” from Tehran. I’m not sure if he was actually an actor, but he was definitely a character. Soon into the conversation he establishes that Tom and I are friends and not married.

“I am single”, he shares.

Wow, this guy is forward.

And then he breaks out into song, asking “Good?” before he even takes a breath.

Ah, he means he is a singer. (Like the actor bit, still questionable).

He breaks out into song again.

“Good, or very good?” he asks.

I let Tom have this one.

“Is Iran better than other countries?”

I let Tom have this one too. I actually let Tom have a lot of the questions. It’s usually men that approach us; typically they are quite forward, often have something to sell, and are pretty hard to shake off.

Another example. On our way back to our room for a siesta, an older man approaches us, apologizes for interrupting, and asks if he can speak English with us.

“In other countries, men and women can know each other before marriage. In Iran this is not possible, they do not know each other.”

I can see this is probably going to go nowhere good.

“In other countries, men and women can live together, have sexual relations. I think all the problems of marriage are solved by sex.”

It was like bargaining. He started off at 100% but we got him down to 70%. Still, he wasn’t going to concede.

The conversation went on like this for about 10 minutes, the three of us walking down the main street.

When he finally left, two young men that had been following us since our last conversation started move in. This conversation lasted just as long, but was focused more so on Enrique Iglesias. I’m pretty sure they were disappointed Tom wasn’t more of a fan.

In addition to the personal conversations, we’ll get entertaining and less time-consuming gestures of welcome by people riding by at about 50km/h on motorbikes.

“HELLO WELCOme to Esfah…”

The women that approach, however, are much more pleasant. They usually approach quite shyly and are genuinely apologetic for taking my time. School girls like to get pictures taken with me, whereas women like to ask “What is your idea about Iran?” or if I’m married or what my religion is. And then they’re off before I really get a chance to engage them further, and I rack up another point in the “unobtrusive conversation” competition Tom and I soon start.

Day two in Esfahan is spent wandering the (now open on a Saturday) sights. Tree-lined streets, exquisite mosaics, impressive mosques, dinosaur statues. You know, the usual. The region of Esfahan that hosts the main attractions is very scenic. I’m sure there’s a downtown somewhere that is not all that appealing, but the area we saw was lovely. I think our impression was also helped by staying at such a lovely guesthouse – even our afternoon naps and clotheswashing were in green, quiet settings.

Probably my two favourite sights of Esfahan were the artisan areas of the market and the inner dome of the main mosque off Imam Square. The artisan area was off the main market rows. Initially unassuming, each little square box off the narrow lanes held one or more people working away hard preparing the precursors for the lovely items displayed in the main market area. Shaping copper vases, hammering designs onto tar-backed metals, painting and etching plates. Hammers, blowtorches, brushes all working away.

The mosque’s inner dome was literally breathtaking. I’m neither a religious nor spiritual person, but every once in a while I come across a sight that gives me a feeling of something, I don’t know, more or bigger or powerful, and I tear up. The last time this happened I was in Peru overlooking concentric stone circles near Urubamba. This time I walked into the inner dome, and it was a sight I can’t really explain. Pictures don’t do justice, but I’ll use them to remind me of the feeling that I had.

In the evening we met up with Erika and some of her friends for a great dinner at a traditional restaurant (raised platform, seated on carpet with pillows). I met Erika in Tehran at the Tajikistan embassy; she’s in Esfahan for 9 months studying Farsi. It’s probably the loveliest place in Tehran to do it. Between us and her friends, Farsi, Italian, French, English and New Zealandish were floating around over dinner. I say New Zealandish because whenever Tom talked to Erika’s Italian friend, Erika would have to repeat in English or French for the meaning to sink in.

In order to meet up with Somayeh and her sister for the northern road trip, I couldn’t stay in Esfahan longer than two days, and had plans to try to get to my next destination, Shiraz, via a longer, less easily navigated, mountain route. Tom was also interested so our travels together will continue.

Overall, I highly recommend Esfahan. Lovely sights, great accommodation options, and while the tourists are aplenty, only about 10 of them are from outside Iran, so the crowds of picnickers in the parks make for interesting photographs. Lonely Planet gives a recommended route for tourists on a transit visa in Iran for 5 days, and even they recommend to spend two of them in Esfahan. You just might want to avoid Fridays though.

(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.