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Journey to the Caspian
Part 3

Rick Misterly
February 22, 2005

Third installment of stories about my travels in Iran in 1973, read on Shahrohk Nikfar's weekly program "Persian Hour" on KYRS radio in Spokane, Washington. See parts (1) (2) (3) (4).

We left the madness of the city behind and soon found ourselves moving along a quiet highway under a large moon. What always struck me in countries like Iran was how the drastic line between city and country was drawn. One moment you could be risking your life in bright neon traffic and the next be in a serene country setting with no light pollution and a timeless landscape all around.

About an hour's drive out of Tehran, steadily gaining in elevation into the mountains we pulled off to sleep for the night. I walked off in the moonlight to unwind after our wild exit from the city and just to have a look around. There were more trees dotting the hillsides and the contrast between the open slopes and the shadowed canyons made a palette of blues in positive and negative that were truly unique. Even the sight of the truck perched on a narrow turn-out above a gaping chasm seemed like a timeless work of art caught in the moment. I think we all slept very well that night.

The new day began with a bright blue sky that matched the tiles in the mosques and the billowy clouds flew around the high peaks and raced down the draws to be eaten by the warm air of the valley. We were heading over the mountains to the Caspian Sea for no other reason than that it was there. There wasn't one of us who knew a thing about where we were going other than that it was a big blue blob on the map surrounded by, from what we had seen so far, high mountains and vast deserts.

By looking at the map the Alborz range that we were crossing seemed to be a narrow spine rising from the desert plateau to the south and then quickly down to the sea. But from our experiences so far, it was hard to tell if it would take a few hours or the better part of the day to reach the Caspian. The villages in this region made more use of lumber in their building than I had yet to see in Iran and the terraced farms were green and lush making good use of the melting snows.

The beauty of approaching any subject with very little knowledge has the effect of putting one in a constant state of awe. You never cease at being surprised, seeing everything as new for simply what it is. My previous knowledge of Iran was that it was run by a guy who looked a lot like my dad and that it was a desert. But here I was in a totally different land, Mazanderan, with a different climate and people as well as the setting for many of the stories from the Shahnameh.

On our descent to the sea we followed the rushing streams past more fields and prosperous yet still very traditional villages. When we came in view of the Caspian stretching there before us we still had a way to go to reach the shore and once again I saw the brown and tan colors of the desert. By the looks of things, the water that was gushing so fully down the mountains hadn't made it to the bottom. Somewhere along the way it had either been used up or diverted. The air became hot once again as when before we crossed the Elburz but now there was a heaviness to the heat, a humidity that wasn't a part of the desert to the south.

Coming out of a sharp turn between dry scrub covered hills, though, the scenery changed. There on our right was the incredible blue-green of the sea and to our left seeming to come nearly to the sea were a checkered quilt of rice paddies, flooded and green , extending in low terraces up toward the rugged north slope of the mountains. I was overcome by the beauty as well as the shock of seeing rice growing where I had no idea that it grew. Everyone knew what a basic role rice played in the diet of the Iranian people, but I for one thought it must be imported from India or Southeast Asia. I don't know if Iran grows all the rice that it consumes but it at least made sense that such a large part of their cuisine could be grown and eaten locally. We had come to swim in the Caspian Sea but what interested me more were the lives of the people living and working in these rice fields.

Babol Sar was the name on the map where we were but I don't remember seeing a town, there was the beach, the highway, then the flooded green fields of rice began. We attracted some of the usual attention on our arrival but the area wasn't exactly what I would call densely populated. Everyone on the truck headed for the water for the first bath in what had been a very long time. Washing the dust and grime of the road off while immersing yourself in these exotic waters had to have been the high point so far, of our stay in Iran. Everything was perfect, the water temperature and the slight breeze in the warm air when I lay on the sand was as close as I had come to paradise since leaving the Aegean islands over a month before.

I went back up to the truck to get something and saw a guy, maybe a little younger than myself, standing near the truck. He was dressed in what looked like traditional clothes for a farmer from that area, loose fitting and cool, and as I approached I could see his smile and inquisitive look. Of course he had the same questions of where I was from, where had I been and where was I going. He seemed most excited to meet an American that was bound for Afghanistan and Hindustan. He pointed back up through the rice paddies quite a ways to a small group of houses and motioned that he wanted to take me to his home. Taking me by the hand he led me to the edge of the flooded patch where a foot path began and I followed behind.

Close up the fields became even more interesting than from a distance, birds sang in the trees fluttering and diving to the water. Snakes moved across our path and through the rice where they scared up huge water beetles that swam just below the surface. We saw turtles as well, which really caught my attention. I stopped to watch a beautiful multicolored turtle and my guide reached out and caught it, then handed it to me. I had always been very fond of reptiles and amphibians having had pet snakes, iguanas and a desert tortoise when I was growing up. This one though, a turtle from a rice paddy in Mazanderan was, by far, the most exotic amphibian I had ever held. I carried the turtle with me as we continued on to his home.

As we arrived at his house his little brother was playing out in front in the dirt and immediately zeroed in on the turtle. I gave it to him to play with as my friend, whose name was Ali, showed me around. He introduced me to his mother who wasn't veiled and yet didn't act uncomfortable by my presence. Their house was a simple mud-brick rectangle that was very neat and tidy and didn't give the slightest hint of an impoverished life. I liked it there squatting on our haunches under a tree looking out at the rice fields and the sea beyond.

The truck was out of view and the only sound was the breeze in the tree above us and a few hens clucking about looking for food. Ali's brother was still playing with the turtle when I got up to leave and I watched him for awhile before coming toward him to pick it up. I really wanted to take the turtle back to the water and convinced the boy it was for the best. I picked the turtle up and walked back with Ali and his brother and released it back into the water and the rice. I felt like I had saved its life, but knew that they could probably catch it as soon as I left and cook it for dinner. To be continued
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