Ah, who’d be a traveller? The great adventures are all behind us now, and yet there are always some who set out to travel hopelessly and fail to arrive. The desire to boldly go, etc. is still strong in some. I was one such would-be adventurer, but my tale is not one of derring-do. It is the story of how high drama can so easily turn to high farce, and a salutary reminder that on the road things are rarely what they seem.
No longer greenhorn backpackers at the age of 22, and on our third overseas expedition, my partner Gayle and I were finding Europe tame and far too well trodden What we craved was a sense of adventure, danger even, and to get off the tourist track. I knew there were places that tourists didn’t go to, because I came from one. In the library we found what we needed – information that it was still possible to travel through Iran to Pakistan. The year was 1987, and the (First) Gulf War was still in full swing. Everyone we told about our plans en route said we were crazy, so we became convinced we were on the right track.
As we lacked all but the most basic travel information about the country we started to look out for travellers coming the other way, as you do, as we hung around Istanbul, but it soon became clear that no-one was doing it. We had all but given up when we bumped into Dave, a laconic Australian with an unfortunate stammer (“Got any oh – oh – oh – opium?” he would continually ask strangers, in a country where it’s dangerous enough to say it once) who filled us in on basic currency, hotel and transport details.
We encountered no other person who had come from Iran, despite spending over a month in Turkey, so it still seemed a relatively adventurous thing to attempt when we set off, the day the wind started to blow, the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days, the Loo. I once heard, in Australia, of an elderly lady from Southern Italy who wouldn’t accept that the hot wind was not the Sirocco, despite many attempts to explain to her that it was a North Westerly coming off the top end. Well it’s the same wind, only this one is a South Easter, and it’s coming off the deserts of Rajasthan, Baluchistan and Sind. Anyway, the wind began to blow and the sun came out, for the first time since our arrival in Dogubayazit almost a week before, and we were already perspiring by the time we reached the bus stop.
Once safely ensconced in the minibus which would take us to the border, we relaxed and contemplated the day ahead. We had wondered if we would be the only westerners crossing the border that day, and it looked as though we would be, until just as the bus was about to leave, a huge, shambolic figure rounded the corner at the end of the street. Derek, from Dublin, for it was he, had a skinhead haircut which made him look quite fearsome, but inside was a frightened eighteen year old boy desperate for approval. The haircut was the responsibility of a Turkish barber. Turkish barbers give excellent value for money.
Once the bus left, Derek from Dublin talked nineteen to the dozen all the way to the border, telling us how this crossing was going to be the highlight of his trip, how hard and easy it would be, how glad he was to have found us, as he couldn’t have done it alone, and how an Irish passport was the best in the world, as everybody loves the Irish, and the Ayatollah probably had an Irish grandmother anyway (doesn’t everyone?). I made the mistake of telling him, truthfully, that Bobby Sands was a bit of a cult hero (cult of the martyr that is) in Iran, and was unable to prevent him from dropping Bobby’s name with every Iranian he subsequently met.
We soon realised that his bravado was all bluster, and that he was in fact quite terrified. It was hard to imagine at first how someone occupying such a massive frame got to be so afraid, but so it was. We reached the border post, and after dispensing with a few brief formalities with the friendly Turkish border guards, passed into a large room, divided by two long, parallel, marble-topped tables of stone, and not much else, where illuminated portraits of Khomeini and Ataturk scowled at each other across the expanse between the doors on either side. The Ayatollah wore that paranoid, disapproving, ‘what are you up to?’ look he so often did, as he fixed Mustapha Kemal with his hostile, narrow-eyed gaze, and the Father of the Turks glared haughtily and scornfully back, as if to say, “How dare you presume to challenge me, you ignorant savage!” One senses that some great, silent ideological battle of the titans is taking place in this fly infested room, as the man who banned the veil, and the man who made it compulsory, attempt to stare each other down.
Just to one side of the Ayatollah was a small stand displaying a few handicrafts and some impressive posters of Iranian soldiers marching on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, “Imam” Khomeini (the use of the term is somewhat controversial in Islamic theological circles) breaking the chains of the oppressed masses by stepping on them (the chains that is, not the masses, although some of you may choose to see some irony here), etc. We waited in this room for about an hour, being regaled with more stories of his trip, and views on life in general from Derek, our passports having been spirited away somewhere behind the locked door on the Iranian side.
Suddenly, a man appeared holding aloft two Australian passports, and we dived for the door. “Great,” we thought, “we’ve lost Derek from Dublin!” His passport had not been returned with ours. Once through the door, we examined our passports which had already been stamped, a man said “Welcome!” and we were directed down a long dark corridor.
“OK,” we thought, “which one of these doors do we go through to have our five hour search like the book says?” Not this, not that… Eventually we passed all the doors, and could see light at the end of the passageway. We walked towards it, turned a corner and were out! We were out in the sunlight, people were milling around, taxis waiting. We couldn’t believe it. Our delight was short-lived, however, as Derek from Dublin soon emerged from another exit. There had only been a slight delay with his passport, and we were stuck with him again. Now his problems really started. He had no money. Nobody had told him that you have to use the black market in Iran, and that this required you to have cash dollars to exchange. We had heard this from Dave in Istanbul, and I raced around the city on the morning of our departure, trying to find the one branch of ‘Is Bankasi’ in the whole of the city that would give me a couple of hundred greenbacks. In Dogubayazit, we had exchanged some of them at a rate of 700:1. We later got 1000:1 in Teheran. The official rate at Iranian banks was 70! When Derek heard the bad news, he couldn’t bring himself to change a traveller’s cheque at the border post Bureau de Change, so we paid for the taxi to where we could catch a bus.
On arrival we found that this was in fact the Customs check point, a mile or two down the road. We found our way into a crowded and noisy room, with countless chador-clad women sitting on piles of baggage, and lots of people trying to push their way to the front of the scrum. Then, a very small man appeared, in a very large and ostentatious hexagonal peaked cap. He was a dead ringer for Colonel Gadaffi, both in appearance and bearing. Now we’ll get some action, I thought, but no, he strutted stiffly past us, hardly giving us a second glance. Eventually we were spotted by the customs officials, who had been there all along, but were in plain clothes, and ushered beyond the partition ahead of all the valiantly scrimmaging Iranians and Turks. One of the officials gave the bags a fairly cursory inspection. Derek from Dublin perspired profusely as they passed over his Turkish police baton, his big evil looking chain, etc., and returned them all without comment. Whilst all this was taking place, Gayle was accosted by a young man who wanted us to travel to Teheran on ‘his’ bus, which was right outside the door and about to leave. We assumed he must be the driver, and, on completion of the formalities, followed him to a Turkish bus which turned out to be full of returning Iranians. The man, and another young Iranian, who turned out not to be bus drivers as suspected, but merely passengers, employed some persuasive arguments, and we elected to travel with them. Derek from Dublin exchanged six dollars, the only cash he had, with a nice young Iranian woman returning to visit her family. In another life she was a bus driver in Stockholm.
It was about 1pm when we commenced our journey to Teheran, a journey which would last until the following morning. It was immediately apparent that there was a jovial, holiday atmosphere on the bus. The passengers had been together since Istanbul, and laughed and joked with each other in the easy manner of old friends. They were a very westernised bunch of Iranians, though such, contrary to our expectations, were not in short supply, at least in the cities. The two young men spoke good English, and kept us informed and entertained throughout the journey. In the first eight or so hours, there were numerous police checks, revolutionary guard checks and searches.
During one of these, when everyone had to leave the bus, the woman who had changed Derek’s money stood up to alight, only to see two cassettes of western music fall noisily to the floor from underneath her coat. The whole bus winced. They all knew about the tapes, which she had already managed to get through several searches. It would have been extremely comical were it not so tragic. Happily, however, these were the ‘People’s’ police, not the ‘Khomeini’ police, or Revolutionary Guards as they are known in the west, and the quick-witted young woman was able to come to an arrangement which enabled her to hang on to not only the subversive cassettes, but also the substantial collection of fashion and knitting magazines she had subsequently been forced to reveal. It would be absolutely scurrilous of me to suggest that money changed hands. Incidentally, knitting magazines are much more useful, to a fashion starved, middle class Iranian woman, than Vogue or Cosmo, because although the fashions contained therein may not be exactly haute couture, their practicality resides in the fact that they contain instructions to actually make the things!
By this time, the Iranians seemed to have Derek from Dublin down as something of a figure of fun. They teased him mercilessly about his weight, for instance, in a much less subtle way than a native English speaker might have done. One suggested that he would have to pay for two seats, “Because your bodee is veree fat!” Gayle could verify this, as she was obliged to sit in the ever decreasing space next to him. Throughout the journey he regaled us with sweeping statements like, “This is the highlight of my trip! This is the worst day of my life! This is heavy! This is terrible! This is great!” He spoke of how he would go to the Irish embassy the next morning, where he would be welcomed with open arms and served bacon and eggs. He reasoned that they would have so few visitors from the old country that they could not fail to be delighted to see him. I explained to him that bacon was out of the question in a strict Islamic country like Iran, but little suspected that Derek from Dublin’s prophecy of breakfast at the embassy would shortly be fulfilled.
Shortly after sunset the bus reached Tabriz, and Derek from Dublin took the opportunity to purchase a melon, something he had been talking about since he had first observed them at a roadside stop. It had taken him this long to nerve himself to attempt the transaction. It was a twelve kilogram korpus, a pale green, vegetable marrow shaped watermelon. It was about eighteen inches long. This monstrosity travelled for some time on the bus with us, and was the subject of much hilarity amongst the other passengers. By this time Gayle and I had managed to find a seat together and Derek from Dublin was now slotted in, quite naturally it seemed, beside the other crazy in the company. He seemed a most eccentric individual, and was known to the passengers only as “Haji,” because they knew he had come from the pilgrimage at Mecca and was now returning to his family wearing twenty two trilby hats from Istanbul.
By and by we stopped at a restaurant, and everyone went in to eat chicken kebab, one of the three dishes then available in Iran (don’t y’know there’s a war on old chap?), except for Derek from Dublin, who marched in clutching his korpus, produced a plastic tray, refused all cutlery apart from a carving knife, cut himself and several others large slices, and prepared to gorge. He ate his melon rather as you’d imagine a gorilla might, if gorillas ate melons, noisily and sloppily, with juice flying everywhere (he himself was covered in it), and with great gusto. We looked around, feeling extremely embarrassed. Then came a moment of sheer, unadulterated mortification – Derek from Dublin lowered his head to the table, grasped the tray with both hands and slurped the juice noisily from it. We ordered the chicken kebab and sidled away quietly.
By the time we reached Teheran things were coming to a head. Gayle and I were by this point completely exasperated with Derek from Dublin, and wished only to be rid of him, but he was in a state of panic, as he now faced decisions about money, accommodation, etc. which he was ill-equipped to make, although the quality of his decision making was a matter of mainly academic interest, as he was in a no-win situation. He decided to tag along with us, in the hope that we would look after him. As neither of us had the heart to cast him adrift, we were obliged to do so.
The young man who had invited us onto the bus lived in Teheran and now offered to guide us to a hotel we had identified in our somewhat outdated guidebook. It was one of the cheaper ones, for Derek’s benefit (we knew that the best hotel in Teheran was well within our budget due to the extreme profitability of black market foreign currency transactions in Iran), and used to be the overlanders’ hotel in the days of the hippie trail. After an incident where I was almost killed when Derek from Dublin just had to get a picture of something on the other side of the taxi in which we were travelling, we arrived at the address in the book. When we found the hotel, it appeared to have been comprehensively sacked. A once graceful art deco building, it was now derelict and deserted, with all its windows smashed.
By this time Derek from Dublin was in a state of near apoplexy. He decided he must return to Turkey immediately. This was going to be a bit of a problem, as the transit visa he had obtained in Ankara was a ten day, one way ticket, exit at Zahedan on the Pakistani border. Having been foiled at the Amir Kabir Hotel, for that had been its name, Gayle and I took stock of our situation and realised the following:
1. The hotel had been wrecked, quite possibly precisely because it had been much frequented by westerners, so there might be little point in seeking a similar alternative.
2. Money will protect you from just about anything, almost anywhere, if you have enough.
3. Due to the aforementioned black market, we were now technically rich.
We elected to go to the Royal Gardens five star hotel at which, we understood, double rooms were available for roughly five bucks US. We took Derek from Dublin along for want of something better to do with him. We paid once more for the short taxi ride there, less than a dollar, but it would have cost Derek ten. When we arrived, we organised a room whilst Derek made a lengthy and animated phone call to the Irish embassy. He returned proclaiming, “I’m history! They’re coming around for me in ten minutes.”
Whilst Gayle and I were being shown to our room, revelling in the fact that there was a porter to carry the bags, the first time we had encountered such a luxury, the Irish diplomats came and whisked Derek from Dublin away. That was the last we ever saw of him. He had turned the anticipated drama of our Iranian border crossing into a complete farce. I suspect that the Irish, having spoken to him, feared that he might become a huge diplomatic incident, and hastened to get him somewhere they could keep an eye on him before he did something really silly.
But, after all, he did get to have breakfast at the Irish embassy.