Mostaqim!

Stephen Shaffer, a 24-year-old New Yorker, visited Iran in July. This is his second article for The Iranian.

Usually mostaqim will do the trick.

In order to hail a taxi anywhere in Iran, one must stand by the roadside and as taxis slow down and roll by, you must yell out the direction in which you wish to travel. If the driver is going in that direction he will stop. If not, he will continue rolling on his way looking for other passengers.

For the foreigner unaccustomed to the Iranian procedures of hailing a cab, one might consider practicing by shouting out places that almost no taxi will go, just to get the hang of talking to moving vehicles.

Most of the taxis only travel along the main routes throughout the city and are not willing to stray from the beaten path. It just isn't worth it for them to do so — unless you are willing to pay for what it would cost five passengers going in your direction. If you are unable to find a taxi willing to go to your destination, much like metro systems around the world and similar to changing subway trains, you will have to change taxis at every major meydan and each time you will need to hail another taxi in a similar fashion.

Upon hailing a taxi, if you are the only passenger, or one of two, the driver will crawl along the road honking at potential passengers standing by the roadside. If he does spot some passengers, you quickly find your already tight space becoming even tighter. For a New Yorker, the first time this happens, one is a bit shocked and befuddled that complete strangers are jumping into your taxi. But after a few times and after you yourself jump into near-capacity taxis, it ceases to be a problem.

The experience of riding in a taxi in Iran is not to be missed. The cars most often used as taxis are the Iranian made Paykan, which are no larger than the Japanese econoboxes of the 1970s and no more powerful than your average John Deer lawn mower.

It may be argued that the taxis, which I suspect present the most opportunities for people to find second or third jobs, make a significant contribution to Tehran's pollution problems. However, until the much talked about and not nearly finished Tehran subway system becomes a reality, these taxis effectively take the place of an elaborate metro system; they go along all main roads and routes.

Three passengers in the back and two in the front passenger seat is the rule, not the exception; well, actually one in the front passenger seat and the second person performing a balancing act of sitting half-on the seat and half-on the gearbox.

With all of the weight, it is amazing that these Paykans have survived for so many years. They move like molasses and often I feared that adding another 600 pounds of dead weight in the form of five fare-paying passengers might drive the cars into a long past-due retirement in car heaven. No such fate has befallen them. For all the complaints one might have about the Paykan, the most important thing for its owners and for that matter the nation, the majority of which drive these just slightly less than limousinesque wheels, is that it runs.

Coming from New York and accustomed to paying $1.50 just to sit in a behemoth and odor-enhanced yellow Chevrolet taxi, even when traveling with an Iranian friend, rare was the occasion that our combined fare was more than the basic New York rate. When taking a taxi from the ancient ruins of Persepolis back to Shiraz, a 60 kilometer ride, the fare for two people was 800 tomans ($2.60 at the official exchange rate).

Of course, I was cognizant of the fact that for the average Iranian, the amount I spent on taxis was not a mere drop in the bucket, and had I not been traveling without an Iranian, I'm certain that the fares might have inflated as soon as I squeezed myself into the car. But as their normal rates stand, they are reasonable and occasionally negotiable. Even if the fare is reasonable, many passengers still feign objections to the quoted rate and it seems that almost no ride would be complete without a good deal of haggling.

The insides of most taxis are as basic as can be, complete with nonexistent window handles. On few occasions I was requested to close the featherweight door more gently, because my arm is accustomed to heaving closed the heavier doors of American land yachts, cars the size of which would have difficulty passing through the narrow kucheh's of Tehran without snagging the hood ornament or a chrome bumper.

While entering the other lanes, most drivers appear not to pay attention to whether they cut off on-coming traffic and expect others to look out for them. If anything, Iranian drivers must be extremely attentive when at the wheel, especially at night when many drivers operate without headlights or only use their tiny fog lights. Some of those who do use their headlights have tinted them with either a shade of purple or green.

However, with all of these dangers a driver must face on any given day, I saw only one or two accidents. I suspect that because most cars in Iran have a top speed of 60 mph, and because drivers must be especially attentive, fewer serious accidents occur. And for all the times in a day when a driver may be cut off by an inattentive driver, rarely do drivers become agitated or come to blows with one another.

They take it all in stride.

Related links

* Also by Stephen Shaffer:
Shomal; The pleasant reality — Seeing only green in Iran's Caspian region.
An American in Iran — Observations on post-revolutionary Iran.
Passing Seasons — Reflecting on Iranian hospitality and Iran-U.S. relations.

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