My Money’s No Good Here

Sep
17th
2010

QAZVIN, IRAN — On my first morning in Iran, I woke up confused as to where I was. I glanced around the room. There were 1970s furnishings, rubber sandals strewn across the floor, and an arrow near the door pointing to Mecca. Eventually I remembered that I’d ridden my Vespa to Iran and I was in a cheap hotel in a town near the Turkish and Armenian borders.

I packed up my things, fired up the Hamburglar, and headed southeast out of Marand, but not before another hotel patron demanded that I take his picture:

Along the way, I had to fill up with some of this cheap Iranian gas I’d heard so much about. I’d also heard about Iranian taarof, a bewilderingly complex system of etiquette that governs Iranian hospitality. I thought I’d managed to negotiate my way through my first half-day in the country without offending anybody, but what came next proved tricky. I pulled into a station and it wasn’t clear how I was to get my hands on a state-issued fuel-rationing card required to operate the pump, so I just crossed my fingers and asked the gas jockey for benzine, as they call it in this part of the world.

He smiled. “Where you from?” he said, producing a rationing card of his own and sticking it in the pump. I tried three different pronounciations of “Canada” and he smiled again. “Ah. Very nice country. Very cold,” he said, still grinning as he filled the Vespa’s tank. Six litres came to 22,000 rials, or two bucks. I produced the cash and he waved it away like it was a bee. Aha, I thought, here’s that taarof in action. I’d read the guidebook, and knew to be insistent. “Please, take it,” I said, thrusting it back at him. He again made it clear that he had no interest in exchanging his gasoline for my filthy lucre. I looked him in the eyes and held the money out at him, refusing to budge, and eventually he took it while putting his hand on his heart. That was a bit surreal: the Lonely Planet called the whole interaction exactly as it happened, down to the guy relenting on my third attempt at paying.

The next major town about 200km down the road was Tabriz, the cultural heart of the ethnic Azeri, mostly Turkish-speaking portion of northwest Iran. The stark mountainscape of the dusty border region had given way to a broad, semi-agricultural valley before the road widened to eight lanes and I found myself in the industrial sprawl of Tabriz’s outskirts. Along the way I spotted the most polite road sign I’d ever seen, helpfully posted at the end of a 30km/h construction zone that was all of a hundred metres long:

Tabriz is home to just over a million people, and I’d managed to hit rush hour just after the end of Ramadan. The mayhem on the roads was more intense than I’d expected, and occasionally I had to pull over onto the sidewalk to consult my GPS. Getting onto the sidewalk in Tabriz usually involves creeping over rickety iron grates that periodically bridge the road and the sidewalk, and under said grates runs a raging torrent of runoff water in a concrete ditch three feet deep and wide. I made a mental note to never forget those ditches are there. Once I came to grips with the treacherous drainage system, I had a chance to take in these grid-aligned main boulevards and avenues I’d been riding down. Everything, apart from the bazaars and the mosques and the walled parks tucked away almost out of sight, seemed to have been built sometime between 1945 and 1979, a sort of mixed bag of short brick commercial buildings and 8- and 9-storey office towers in the international modern style. The sidewalks were wide and tree-lined, and among the barber shops and jewellery emporiums there were many fast-food joints selling mostly hamburgers and pizza. No joke — apart from the noise and the thick rivers of road traffic, and of course the fact that all women were wearing some form of hejab, this very urbanized slice of Iran, in a purely superficial sense, could’ve been Main Street in Des Moines.

The first hotel I found was full, and the second, while cheap, was basically unlivable, as the one free room had a bed with only two legs. A few heart-stopping laps of Tabriz’s main drag yielded no other options. I went back to my sidewalk perch and began accosting strangers for advice — or rather, they accosted me. I quickly learned that if you need some advice or help while in Tabriz, and presumably all of Iran by extension, all you have to do is stand there in public looking lost, confused, foreign, or some combination of the three. Guaranteed, within a minute somebody will amble up to you and start the problem-solving process. In my case, I was adopted by a gang of teenagers who were obviously brimming with advice about hotels, but the near-total lack of English skills among them presented a problem. One of them knew a guy, though, and he ran off to fetch him. Minutes later, a sort of Iranian Moose figure ran up, out of breath. I was a long way from Riverdale, and yet this big galoot had a blonde buzzcut and collegiate letter jacket. He was proud of the fact that he’d recently won a scholarship to go to university in Ohio.

I ran my hotel budget past him and he rattled off a list of nearby options while drawing me a painstakingly detailed map. Then, apropos of nothing, he asked a question: “When I go to America, will people understand me?” The concern in his voice was palpable.

I said that I understood him perfectly well, so it’d be safe to assume everybody else over there in North America would too. He appeared unconvinced. “My English is not good,” he said (it was in fact excellent), “And I don’t understand all American English.”

“Your English is fine,” I said.

“No, it is not. What about Black English? Do you understand it?”

What a question. I had to think for a second. Who was he talking about — Barack Obama? Jay-Z? Nell Carter? Instead of complicating things, I replied that I could communicate with black people just fine, and with some practice, so, too, could he.

He appeared skeptical. “I find them very difficult to understand. Would they understand me?”

I tried not to laugh. I reassured him that he had nothing to worry about, thanked him for all his help, and headed off to follow his map to a hotel.

Down at the reception desk at the Hotel Tabriz, two immaculately turned-out young ladies in hejab were absolute rays of sunshine. One had a bandage on her nose from what I assumed was a recent nosejob — Iranians are apparently world leaders in cosmetic surgery — and she rattled off the usual questions: citizenship, passport number, how many nights, etc. The last official question came out of left field: “Are you married?”

“Nope!” I said, smiling. She gave me a wan smile back, and there was a note of pity in her eyes.

“Maybe you’ll find a wife in Iran. I’m married,” she said, nodding towards her colleague, “but she isn’t!” The other girl blushed and punched the recent nosejob recipient in the shoulder, which was followed by giggles all around. Sweet, I thought, these Persian birds are digging my chili. They were curious about what I thought of Iran so far, and whether or not I was afraid of being there, because surely everybody, themselves included, were fanatical terrorists hellbent on murdering me. Ho, ho!

I spent the next two days getting lost in the massive covered bazaar in Tabriz, and going toe-to-toe with yet more Iranian taarof. More often than not, I’d lose. I dropped in to a barber shop for another shave and a haircut, and no matter how much I protested, it came free of charge. More spectacularly, later I asked the hotel concierge where I might find a garage where somebody could weld a broken metal peg to the rear engine cowl of my Vespa, and instead of giving me directions to a garage, he insisted on taking both cowls there by himself. He returned two hours later with the part perfectly welded back on, and absolutely refused any form of payment. He was a total mensch about it, too. And on my last day, I stopped by a car wash right before closing time, and they wouldn’t take my money either. I tried, though. I really did.

Friendly curiosity is a common theme here in Iran, and that car wash was no different. I chewed the fat with the employees and customers for a while, and our roundtable grew bigger and bigger until the big boss decided it was time to close up shop. I fielded questions such as how much the Hamburglar cost, where it came from (Germany — the mention of which prompted nods and murmurs of approval from all assembled), how far I’d ridden it, how far I was going to ride it, and where on earth I planned to find spare parts in Iran. This last question led them to explain how just the previous day, South Korea had slapped yet more sanctions on Iran, and this meant that they expected the supply of parts for Hyundai Kia cars to dry up in a matter of weeks. There are many Kias plying Iran’s roads, and they, along with compact Peugeots, appear to outnumber the domestically produced Paykans and Khodros nowadays. The two Kia drivers hanging out in the car wash, though, weren’t visibly resentful about this colossal pain in the ass they had to deal with now. They just shrugged and seemed to accept it as a fact of life in Iran.

Another fact of life in Iran is that the streets are strictly business. The shop windows are misleadingly festooned with red neon, because about the most decadent thing you’ll see is folks strolling down the sidewalk eating ice cream, usually in single-sex groups, or poking around the candy shops that seem to be on every street corner. Aside from that, there are no cafes spilling out onto the streets, even the hookah bars are thin on the ground, and the city definitely doesn’t reward stochastic searches for a decent place to sit down and eat. You have to know exactly where you’re going for that, and go during specific dining hours; otherwise, you’re bound to end up in yet another cavernous, empty, blindingly over-lit restaurant eating your third meal of a kebab and rice that day. That’s not to say the streets are dead — far from it. The focus is on retail, and lots of it. Actual socializing, it seems, goes on someplace else, hidden from view.

I’d wanted to stick around in Tabriz and see more of it — there are ancient, priceless things to see aplenty — but my limited 30-day Iranian tourist visa hung over my head like a ticking clock. I had to get to Tehran according to my schedule, so I loaded up the Hamburglar the next day and continued my trek eastward.


56 Responses to “My Money’s No Good Here”

  • Eric T Says:

    Awesome

  • Peter Says:

    Sean, I love your blog.
    Such a fantastic trip.
    It has been many years since I was in Iran but I am glad to hear that unrivalled hospitality was not changed. Some of the friendliest and generous people in the world.

  • Awneesh chauhan Says:

    Sean, i am impreased with you. I am an indian and nowdays you are in my country. I like to travel new places, as you are getting amazing experiance, i want to feel it myself, so i want to contact you throug any other social networking. My E-mail id-chauhan.awneesh@gmail.com contact no.:- +91-9015229427.
    pleas guide me.

  • apoorv toppo Says:

    hi sean!!
    Wat u r doing is just wonderful…
    To me, wat u r doing is like living life to its fullest..
    and i think that there’s no better way to spend a year than this…
    and yar!! Welcome to India!!
    I hope u know ‘yar’ means best buddy…
    Have a nice journey…
    I’m looking forward for ur experience abt India…
    And d main thing….yar..don’t ever camp at night..
    plz avoid it…atleast till u r in India…

  • nikhil Says:

    hey i really like ur idea to see the world…in such a fantastic way even i am influenced by you and want to travel like this !!!!!!!!