Journey to the Caspian
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)
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
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
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
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.
of approaching any subject with very little knowledge has the
effect of putting one in a constant state of awe. You never cease
surprised, seeing everything as new for simply what it is.
My previous knowledge of Iran was that it was run by a guy who
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.
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
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
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
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
moved across our path and through the rice where they scared
up huge water beetles that swam just below the surface. We saw
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
and amphibians having had pet snakes, iguanas and a desert
tortoise when I was growing up. This one though, a turtle from
in Mazanderan was, by far, the most exotic amphibian I had
ever held. I carried the turtle with me as we continued on
As we arrived at his house his little brother was playing out
in front in the dirt and immediately zeroed in on the turtle.
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
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
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.
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
saved its life, but knew that they could probably catch it as
soon as I left and cook it for dinner. To be continued
(1) (2) (3) (4)
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