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Secret treasure
Don Bosco boys camp, Noshahr, 1972

November 8, 2003
The Iranian

I've tried to write this story on several occasions. But each time I've stopped after a paragraph or two. I was either bored or distracted, or just too tired. Or I would start doing something else; publish something by someone else.

I'm going to give it another try. I've been thinking about it all night. And I've done a little research on the net too. Let's see how far I get this time.

***

I remember sitting in the plane, by the window, flying from Abadan to Tehran. It was around 1972, when I was ten or so. I was on my way to a boys-only summer camp on the outskirts of Noshahr, on the Caspian coast.

My parents had told me that I needed a rest; doctors had recommended a change of climate. "It would be good for you," they said. Good for me? What does that mean? That's absurd. I was never a sick child. I was always active, riding my bike, playing sports or climbing trees. I had no allergies then I have no allergies now. There was nothing wrong with me.

It's possible that my parents told me no such thing. I probably heard that line in a film I saw at the movies or on TV. Let's just assume I'm imagining that's what they said.

***

I had never traveled on by own before. I was excited.

***

Sometime during the hour-long flight, I threw up. Back then, airplane cabins had a sharp nasty smell not unlike the air in a hospital ward or pharmacy. It was bad enough to make a lot of passengers sick. That's way back then all planes had disposable bags in front of each seat.

But the stink and altitude changes were just part of the story: I always had a full stomach, ready to explode in either direction.

***

I was picked up at Mehrabad Airport by one of my aunts. (I wish I could remember which one. Then I could have told you some stories about them.) A couple of days later she dropped me off to catch the bus to camp. I had a suitcase and a foam mattress which my mother had bought a few days earlier in the bazaar in Abadan. I picked the one I liked. It looked quite funky. It had angled parallel lines of orange, purple and white.

***

The ride to Noshahr was visually amazing. My co-campers, and the landscape we were passing through, were all strange to me. I divided my time observing the Tehrani boys -- arrogant brats, but a lot of fun nevertheless -- and staring at the hills outside, which were getting greener and greener by the minute. My goodness it was beautiful, breathtaking.

***

The camp was named after Don Bosco. Until half an hour ago, I didn't know who Don Bosco was, exactly. In fact, before the Internet, I didn't even know he was a person, let alone a saint. I found his bio online. Here's a taste:

... a dream-vision revealed God's plans to [Don Bosco, 1815-1888]. He found himself looking down upon a screaming horde of savages who were massacring a band of white men. From the distance approached a few missionaries, wearing the garb of their orders. The natives turned upon them with wild satisfaction.

Terrified by their blood-curdling yells and inhuman cruelty, Don Bosco gasped to see another group of missionaries coming through the jungles, surrounded by children. They were his own Salesians! Certainly they would fare no better than the others. But the yelling ceased. The wild faces became human again. The natives dropped their weapons and sheepishly looked up into the missionaries' faces. Then they bowed their heads in prayer!

The dream began to become a reality in 1875; at the request of Argentina and the Holy See, Don Bosco sent ten missionaries to Buenos Aires to care for Italian immigrants.

Catholic missionaries also set up shop in Iran. Their activities were concentrated on running the reputable Andisheh school in Tehran. Don Bosco camp in Noshahr was mainly designed as a summer retreat for boys from Andisheh and elsewhere.

But we weren't exactly the "savages" in Don Bosco's dream. And the priests who ran the camp weren't feeding us any religion. Our only religious exercise was a prayer before diving into the food at the cafeteria, whose walls were covered with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and other Disney characters. I do not recall seeing Jesus.

The priests were kind and spoke fluent Persian, with an Italian accent of course. One of them I remember distinctly because he told us a pretty sad story: as a child he had been left-handed, but his father thought it was either evil or socially unacceptanble to be a lefty. So he had beat his son into becoming right-handed.

***

The camp offices, dorms, orchards and soccer field were connected by narrow roads paved with white gravel and lined with short green bushes. Forest-covered mountains stood in the south and the Caspian was a five-minute walk north. For a boy from Abadan where greenery was a luxury, the natural beauty of Noshahr was more like a dream. I felt I was on a tropical island, like the ones in Hollywood pirate movies.

And it was ALL fun and games. Every day an activity had been planned for us. There was the sand castle competition, which we took very seriously. We were divided into groups of three and given plastic shovels and buckets. We first argued about what to build and then argued about how to built it. Then high tide would rush in and there was nothing left to argue about.

The treasure hunts were by far the most exciting game throughout the two-weeks we were there. Each group would scour every corner of the camp for clues under rocks, between tall grass, inside false fruits, up water faucets and between the pages of books, on the way to the "treasure", a piece of paper which marked the end of the long trail.

On few occasions we were taken on excursions to parks inside the forest. The huge trees, massive white mushroom slabs, and strange animal sounds made us feel like the tiny characters in Land of the Giants, a popular TV show of the time. It was not as scary as it was mind-blowing.

***

Yes, it was all fun and games. But there was one incident which dampened my mood, so to speak.

Our dorm was a hollow building with a high ceiling. There were four rows of 15 or so single beds. On the first day of camp each boy would roll open his mattress on an assignend bed and cover it with a white sheet and a gray blanket supplied at the camp.

A few days after my arrival, I woke up one morning and wished I was dead. I had wet my bed.

In Abadan, this would have been a minor incident.Our maid Zeynab would scold me with something like, "Ah! Not AGAIN! Kherseh gondeh! Shame on you!" I would make a gesture like, yeah whatever, and go off to school. When I got back in the afternoon, my bed would be dry and clean.

But I was not at home. I was in a dorm with dozens of Tehrani boys. If the incident "leaked", I would have been ridiculed for the duration of the camp. To save myself from embarrassment, I pretended I was asleep until all the boys had left the dorm. Then I quickly changed, hid my stained pajama in a corner of my suitcase and covered the mattress with the blanket. It all looked normal. I just prayed and prayed no one would notice the odor.

Every night I would sleep over the blanket in order to hide the stain and prevent the smell from escaping. When counselors asked why I wasn't under the blanket, I would insist the weather was too hot. I froze for many nights, but it was well worth it. No one ever found out, or if they did, they kept quiet.

***

One of our counselors was a burly Armenian in his early twenties. Everything about him said "gorilla". He was constantly showing off his strength. From the middle of the soccer field he would kick the ball straight into the goal -- an awesome feat which could only be carried out by a superhuman, us puny 10-year-olds thought. His reputation as a primate was further enhanced by the raw leg of lamb hanging in his room. He would slice off a piece from the dried reddish-purple meat, put it in his mouth as if it was milk chocolate and lecture on the health benefits of eating "naturally" like animals.

***

A few days before the end of camp, this Armenian hulk gathered us for an important announcement: Prime Minister Hoveyda was coming for an official visit. No way! we thought. How cool was that? We formed a welcoming committee, made banners, swept bags of dried leaves and trash from the camp, scrubbed the bathrooms and mopped the dorm floor, hung colored lights on trees, and made handicrafts especially for the occasion.

Everything was set for the high-level visit. Shortly after sunset, we stood in line along the camp's main road. We tucked in our shirts, straightened our pants, combed our hair and waited anxiously. Then someone shouted, "The Prime Minister!" We tapped our heals and puffed up our chest like soldiers. A car slowly rolled down the road. All we could see were the headlights until the car got closer and closer.

The large man inside the beat-up Paykan had a pipe in his mouth and waved with his cane, just like we imagined Hoveyda would. But it wasn't Hoveyda. It was the Armenian primate pretending to be the Prime Minister. We were fooled, and fooled good! For hours we couldn't stop laughings -- and cursing.

***

For years colorful Don Bosco honor certificates stood beside trophies on top of the drawer in my bedroom in Abadan. I went back to the camp the following summer and again had a great time. But after that I lost touch and never heard about Don Bosco. After the 1979 Revolution, Andisheh became a public school and Don Bosco camp was turned over to the government. If any of you attended the camp and have stories to tell, or have pictures, please share. It was an institution whose legacy is worth preserving.

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