Port of entry

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) .

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 were 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 with high 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 been 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 of 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 find 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.

“Salaam Aleikum”

“Aleikum Salaam,” he said without the least look of surprise on his face. “Please have a seat. How can I help you?”

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 cautiously.

“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)

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