Port of entry
Finding the upright position and emerging from
the truck, the first sight that struck me was that we were in another
January 25, 2005
First installment of stories about
my travels in Iran in 1973. I will be reading this on Shahrohk
Nikfar's KYRS radio program "Persian
Hour" in Spokane, Washington, on February 5th from 12
to 1pm. See parts (1) (2) (3) (4).
The experience of traveling in an open truck is not
what the average tourist gets out of a trip to anywhere. There
is not a
planned route, no itinerary of sites to see along the way and no
hotel reservations with hot showers and meals waiting at the end
of the day. Not much money is required either. But what is necessary
is a sense of adventure, an open mind and a lack of urgency in
getting anywhere but down the road.
This particular truck took the form of a 1953 Mercedes Benz with
a 16-foot bed with about 2/3's of it covered in an olive green
canvas tarp that pretty much matched the color of the truck. There
were seven of us, plus the owner/driver, Bernard, a Frenchman on
his way to India. We were an international convoy of one, transporting
a small army of goodwill ambassadors armed with musical instruments
and an intense interest in everything that came our way.
Most travelers at this time -- 1973 -- were on the fabled "Road
to Katmandu", bound for India with visions of flower bedecked
gurus in Himalayan temples or lush tropical ashrams. They seemed
to have little or no interest in what lay between the Aegean shores
and the River Ganges, just what would magically take place when
they crossed the frontier into India.
The inhabitants of Turkey
and Iran were best avoided and a transit coach from Istanbul
to Tehran was the most popular choice, then on to Afghanistan where
they might spend a week or so. After that a ride over the Khyber
Pass to Peshawar where they would catch a train across Pakistan
to the promised land of India.
To give you an idea of the difference of pace, a luxury coach
from Istanbul to Tehran would take about 24 hours, maybe a little
longer depending on road conditions. In our case it took more like
24 days with 2 breakdowns and a route that if followed on a map
would look like a very irregular heartbeat.
So with no guides and interpreter it is up to the traveler to
make his own way. Even with set prices marked, say, on produce,
in the bazaar everything is still open to bargaining. One must
learn the basic language of the marketplace, certain expressions
and body language and be able to count. It becomes a game as well
as a way to truly interact with the locals. Being the obvious outsider
in the bazaar one immediately becomes the center of attention.
So with a smile and some basic words, a simple excursion for breakfast
could easily become a half-day visit drinking tea and being shown
everything from antiquities to spices.
After nearly a month in Turkey I felt as if I had become fairly
well accomplished with this interaction. I was, without fail, the
one taken into the homes, given the donkey to ride around the village,
taken into the mountains for a pic-nic and given the most generous
rate when changing money on the black market. I saw the inside
of a candy factory on the Black Sea, showed villagers in Central
Turkey that a white boy could milk a cow and taken up to the boss's
air conditioned office to smoke hashish while my fellow travelers
lay around the disabled truck in the heat of the day.
Port of Entry; Bazargan
The back of the truck was filled with
our sleeping bags, packs and numerous pillows and it was a good
thing to have all that padding
as the last stretch of the road before the Iranian border was the
worst we had experienced on our entire trip across Anatolia. The
seven of us in the back were thrown around, up and down and side
to side. All the books and maps on the shelf someone had built
strewn about and when we finally pulled up to the border the contents
and occupants of the truck were a jumbled mess.
Finding the upright position and emerging from the truck, the
first sight that struck me was that we were in another country
where they spoke another language and used a totally different
script than Turkey, which had adopted the Latin script after the
fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was a landscape of jagged stone
high up on a treeless plateau whose heights reached to Ararat and
beyond to the high Caucasus.
The large Custom's House was a solid,
well made building of the same stone as the mountains surrounding
us, and all who entered into Iran were obliged to go through
passport control inside the building. The interior was cavernous
ceilings and long hallways with doors opening off of them. Everywhere
the signs were written in this undecipherable script of Farsi
that offered no clue as to what was being said. In Greece I had
able to make some sense of the Cyrillic alphabet, but this Farsi
offered no known points of reference.
All passport and visa business was transacted in the first large
room that you entered and simple entrance and exiting was provided.
The paper work took no time at all and everyone was filing out
to reboard the truck and head off on the much-improved Iranian
roads. But I remained standing there feeling as if I had left something
behind in Turkey and a large empty space was left in my brain where
my most basic skills of social interaction and survival once were.
I realized that I could no longer count or ask for something
as simple as a drink of water. Why this seemed not to bother any
my other fellow travelers I didn't know, but I felt that I had
to do something about my lack of ability to communicate. I tried
to picture where we were going and thought that a Custom's House
would be about the best place to talk to someone who might be
able to help me. So I set off down one of those long hallways to
my first Persian instructor.
Looking in the first open door I came to I saw a man at a desk
doing what looked like could not be nearly as important as my present
needs. I entered the office and stood before his desk.
"Aleikum Salaam," he said without the least look of
surprise on his face. "Please have a seat. How can I help
Not only was he kind and willing to help, but he spoke my language.
I explained that I was traveling with the intention of living
close to the people and thought it would be helpful to know how
to count, be able to read numbers and learn some of the basic phrases
that got me by in Turkey along with the names of my favorite foods.
He took my journal and wrote the numbers 0 through 9 and said
them to me as I wrote down their pronunciation. Then I transliterated
phrases like, where is, what is it, and how much is it. I filled
out my little Persian dictionary with words for, water, bread,
tomato, potato, apple and raisin just to name a few. I felt as
if I had the beginnings of all the knowledge that I would ever
need. In just a few minutes this man had taken me from being just
another westerner to be preyed upon in the bazaar to someone who
at least had a bit of a clue as to what was going on and could
build upon it.
With much gratitude I bid him farewell.
"Khuda hafez," [Good-bye] I tried out my new words
"Ba aman-I-Khuda," [May god protect you] he replied
with his hand over his heart.
I knew it was just a small beginning, but with my new language
I was good to go out the door and into the vast land of Iran. >>>
See parts(1) (2) (3) (4)
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