Further Into Iran

Sep
21st
2010

QAZVIN, IRAN – Heading southeast out of Tabriz, I made the mistake of getting on the highway. God, it was boring. By the time I hit the tollbooth at a town called Bostan Abad, I was nearly asleep, so I pulled over to an adjacent rank of food stalls for some grub and caffeinated drinks. The only cooked food on offer appeared to be potatoes — that’s right, potatoes, boiled in a big vat. I said salaam to the guy slinging the spuds and pointed at one especially starchy-looking number bobbing in the water. He fished it out with a fork, wrapped it up in yesterday’s newspaper, and proudly handed it to me.

Now, I’d heard of a trend towards minimalism in cooking, but this was something else entirely. Mr. Potato Man saw the dismay in my face, and rustled up some other items that I’m guessing normally go with roadside boiled potatoes: a slab of bread, a pat of butter, and a hard-boiled egg. I then repaired to a nearby table, where I tried to fashion an egg-and-potato burrito out of what limited ingredients I had. It wasn’t that bad, actually. The key, I find, lies in mashing the living hell out of the potato, and using all the butter you’ve got.

I gots myself a MEAL

I had two options to continue southeast: the four-lane highway, or a smaller road through the hills. I rolled the dice and went with the latter. The road snaked through a scenic valley without going up or down too much, the Vespa was running great, there was little traffic, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable ride. As usual, though, I had had a very late start that day, and the sun was going down by the time I’d gone all of 150km. I pulled over in a mid-sized ‘burg called Miyaneh, rolled downtown, and asked some guys in front of a carpet shop if there was a hotel nearby — if one existed at all. Lucky for me, there was a budget-conscious motel at the edge of town. I settled in and then set about addressing my hunger problem.

Back in Tabriz I’d struggled to find a decent place to eat, and Miyaneh was no different. There were some attractive looking restaurants downtown, to be sure, but all of them were booked for weddings. In front of one such eatery, the wedding party had just pulled up, at the head of which was a white Mitsubishi Pajero festooned with ribbons and bows. With much fanfare, supplicants opened the rear passenger door, flashbulbs went off, and the white-clad bride gingerly alighted from the truck. Obscuring her entire head was a pointy white hood, embroidered with gold trim, and she looked like a particularly stylish kidnapping victim: there were no eye-holes. The husband and who I’m presuming was his brother then led the sightless bride into the recesses of the restaurant. I wanted to follow them inside, but alas, I wasn’t invited.

All those weddings in town had put the kibosh on my dreams of sitting down for a proper meal, so I found a fast food joint and ate an utterly wretched Iranian pizza. (Much to my horror, the custom of putting ketchup on pizza isn’t confined to just Hungary and Sweden.) As I wiped the grease from my mouth, a young guy entered the restaurant and approached my table, speaking excellent English with all the charm and ease of a car salesman.

“Hi, my name is Yusef!” he said, extending his hand. His friend owned the place, he explained, and word on the street was that some foreign dude was in there eating pizza all by himself. He was on hand to investigate.

I was unfair in judging Yusef so quickly. He wasn’t selling me anything; he was just a nice guy and seemed genuinely eager to meet foreigners. Early on in our little chat, he clobbered me with a tsunami of Iranian hospitality: I simply had to come stay at his house that night. Unfortunately, I’d already paid for my motel room. He seemed gutted by this, like I’d just kicked his dog, but he kept trying. At least I could come and spend some time with his friends, he said. I couldn’t say no.

Yusef on the Hamburglar

We then walked down a series of alleyways until we came to a sort of mixed-use school-slash-guesthouse complex called Mahdiye Miyaneh, with Persian carpets covering the floor and an enormous flatscreen television on the wall. A lone figure in traditional Persian attire sat by the wall, working on a Sony Vaio X-series just like mine, and Yusef introduced him as Mr. Behroz, a teacher of his from Qom who was visiting Miyaneh with his family. Yusef then fetched an enormous throne-like chair and plunked it down in the middle of the room, and the two of them sat Indian-style on the carpet around it.

“Sit, please!” Yusef said, gesturing towards my throne. I duly sat down, towering above them. Somewhere along the line they’d got it in their heads that Westerners can’t, or won’t, sit on the floor, but eventually I migrated to the floor, which felt much better. We spoke about the various different customs of our two countries, and somehow the subject of alcohol came up. Neither Yusef nor Mr. Behroz were in the pro-booze camp and presumably didn’t suffer under Iran’s regime of total prohibition, but I delicately challenged them about all the ancient Iranian poetry that exalted wine, plus the fact that their Shiraz grape is so popular nowadays in Australia and elsewhere. Their argument was that all their sensuous poetry used wine and its effects only in a metaphorical sense. I countered that for the metaphor to work, people had to be at least somewhat familiar with the subject, and that somehow, sometime, somewhere in Iran, folks must’ve been hitting the vino pretty hard. We eventually talked about other things, and I came to realize it was probably more than a little rude of me to be invited into somebody’s home and question something that was proscribed by their religion.

And then came a parade of friends and family. The local imam, Mr. Garedaghi, sauntered in wearing a toothy grin that never disappeared. Some other dudes named Sina, Saeid, and Vahid came by, and then hejab-clad women sailed in bearing all kinds of food and drink. First I was presented with a sugary dessert-like concoction, which was followed by tea, and then coffee, and then, just for good measure, a delicious, three-course, home-cooked Iranian meal. After what I’d eaten earlier, it was too much to take, but I made an honest effort. They talked amongst themselves when they weren’t plying me with questions. Meanwhile, the ladies sat off to the side, smiling demurely and observing the proceedings through painted eyes.

After a few hours of this I made my excuses and they gave me a lift back to the motel, and I wished I’d met Yusef sooner. Sitting down with those folks, I saw how much they took pleasure in simply being around others. There was a feigned humility, too, in the way they showered me with hospitality, and beneath it I could see how they delighted in it. It was great.

The next day I set out early for Qazvin, and unfortunately the route was along a boring 4-lane main road teeming with traffic. The ride was enlivened by a new challenge to this casual scooterist, one that I hadn’t noticed before: debris flung from the windows of cars and trucks. Banana peels, 2-litre plastic bottles, empty cans of Zam-Zam Cola — you name it, it all ended up bouncing across the road in front of me, and I had to be on my toes. One battered old Paykan sedan I followed for a while had so much garbage flying out the windows it brought to mind a stricken WWII bomber desperately jettisoning extra weight in hopes of making it back to base.

Follow closely at your own risk

Truck traffic along this perfectly straight road to Qazvin tended to form into big, lumbering, 80km/h clusters two lanes wide, and initially it seemed like they were impassable. I then tried an experiment. Drivers in this country tend to use their horns not in the way I’m used to — where I come from, the horn means “OHMYGODWATCHOUT!” or “You unbelievable asshole.” Here in Iran, the horn means, “Hey.” When stuck behind a pair of trucks travelling side-by-side, I’d give them a few toots from the Hamburglar’s horn, and without fail they’d part like the Red Sea, giving me a good 10 feet to sneak through. Once I’d passed them, they’d merge back together, I’d raise my hand in the universal thank-you wave, and they’d both give me a big fat HONK. I tried this routine many, many times, and it always worked.

Eventually I made it to Qazvin and tried to find the Iran Hotel, but as usual my GPS map was way, way off. The first pedestrian I approached for directions, an elderly gentleman in a fedora, spoke perfect American English. Sure enough, he’d lived in California for twenty years and actually served in the U.S. Navy. I appreciated his directions, spoken in a language I could understand: “Ok, so, hang a right, here, yeah? And go straight ahead three or four blocks, but if you’re past the big square with the clock, you’ve gone too far. The Iran’s on the third side street to the right, two or three doors down on the right. You can’t miss it. Have a good one.” You too, sir. You too.

Armed with good directions, I found the Iran hotel and parked and checked in with no problems. The next two days passed in a languid haze of wandering around, seeing the handful of sights, and tending to various administrative hassles. One of them was exchanging money. To any of my readers who’re thinking of visiting Iran, don’t forget to bring all the cash you think you’ll need, in U.S. dollars or euros. Your bank and credit cards simply will not work at any of the thousands of ATMs that line the streets, because the country is so heavily embargoed and sanctioned that international currency flows simply aren’t in the cards for mere mortals. Also try and budget sufficient time for periodic attempts at exchanging your cash: not all banks will exchange money, and those that do often have old-school banking hours that feature long lunch breaks. The actual process of changing money resembles taking out a small home or business loan, with many pieces of paper to be signed, and every banknote you submit being subject to intense scrutiny.

Visitors to Iran also need to brace themselves for a pretty dicey internet situation. WiFi is all but nonexistent, and usually you’ll find yourself traipsing all over town looking for an internet cafe, called coffeenets by the Iranians. I found myself doing some serious traipsing on my last day in Qazvin, and none of the coffenets in that presumably student-y neighbourhood were making themselves visible. I saw a sign above a door entirely in Persian, apart from the English word “INTERNET”, and climbed several sets of stairs only to find myself in what was definitely not an internet cafe. It was the office of a small company, presumably one that did something involving the internet.

“چیزی به زبان فارسی?” said the receptionist. I apologized for barging in and explained that I was just looking for a coffeenet.

“Sorry, this is not a coffeenet,” she said, smiling at my cluelessness. Then one of her colleagues invited me to sit down in the reception area. His name was Majid, and once we’d gotten my name, nationality, age, and general opinion of Iran all out in the open, he said, “Come with me!” and guided me to his corner office. “Sit!” he said, pointing to a leather chair at an enormous oak desk. He fiddled with the tower under the desk for a bit and produced an ethernet cable. I plugged it in to my laptop, and it came alive with internetty goodness.

“I’m all done work for the day and don’t need my desk,” he said, “so feel free to stay until 8 o’clock, when we close.”

That was a whole five hours away. I said that this was all just way too much, and made noises about how really, no, I couldn’t take him up on the offer, but he insisted and I thanked him profusely. (I think I’m getting the hang of this taarof business.) We shook hands, and he went home for the day.

IT Manager Majid of Qazvin: all-round stand-up dude

And so I sat there at his big desk and made a few blog posts and made trip arrangements for the next few weeks. Meanwhile, despite my protests, Majid’s colleagues periodically knocked on the door and brought me tea, coffee, water, and to top it all off, a plate piled high with Iranian doughnuts. And somehow, they did it in a way that wasn’t embarrassing, or over-the-top; it was all very gracious and cool and at no point did I feel like a burden. That was an afternoon well-spent, and I got all my stuff done. Thanks very much, everybody.

Next stop for me was the Iranian capital of Tehran. I’d read a lot about the traffic situation there, with many people on the internet claiming it was possibly the most harrowing city in the world in which to drive. I went to bed early and got a good night’s sleep in preparation.


7 Responses to “Further Into Iran”

  • Robby Cole Says:

    Salam Walekum! I really want to hear about the traffic. Preferably in person, but I’ll take a little descriptive post sometime down the road.

  • Shivani ( Splanet on CS) Says:

    Love, love , love you’re spirit :) . I read you’re message to me on CS but cannot check that website now . So if you happen to read this at all let me know when you’re in Delhi through email – dogra.shivani@gmail.com! Hope to see you.
    Happy Vespaing .
    Shivani

  • Milos Says:

    I took a late start on following your tales and in no time they’ve become part of my daily routine, while having a midday coffee break. Now I no longer “eat” one page at the time, instead I’m neglecting all of my work and reading 3 or 4 sessions in a row. What I fear the most is what will happen by the time I catch up with your current status. You’ve made me addicted to this stuff.
    Take care,
    Milos (the guy from the traffic light in Belgrade)

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