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Turtle on the airplane
A brief perspective of a Young Iranian-American's journey from Tehran to Amsterdam


Farhaneh Sharghi-Dolatabai
August 21, 2006

Tehran, Iran (August 8, 2006) - Wearing my light teal manteau and pink with gold and black scarf draped upon my head I stood in Mehrabad's Airport parking lot at 3:30 am wondering where my uncle had gone to get a cart for our luggage. I was still a bit dazed by the fervent pace at which we were leaving Tehran. Just a few hours earlier we were dining with most of my mothers' family members, as we had done the night before. Now we were heading back, back to the US, back home to Dallas.

Many of the questions my family had asked of my brother and I were if there was any chance of us coming back to live in Iran, permanently. "No" I responded "it would just be impossible." "Why?" they lamented "We've missed watching you grow up. Don't you miss us? Don't you want to be closer to your family?" I replied "Yes, of course I do." My roots will always be there with them. I had, have, and will always love them. Regardless, tonight I was about to rediscover why I just cannot live in Iran.

"Terminal 1, we have to go to terminal 1!" my mother exclaimed as we sprinted towards the crowd ahead. My mother's brother and sister, along with their spouses, came to see help us and say goodbye. After 15 minutes of pushing and shoving we managed to make it through the X-ray machine before one of the ladies behind us accidentally hit the emergency shut-off button. The enraged crowd became exceedingly disgruntled, but we didn't care. We had to get to our terminal. After looking around we realized that the large terminal 1 was not where our KLM flight was departing and we had to go through terminal 2. Unbeknownst to me this confusion was only the beginning.

So off we went outside and back around through towards terminal 2. This tamed crowd was clearly calmer than the passengers at terminal 1. I've never understood why Iranians cannot simply stand in a line and wait for their turn. Their driving is equally atrocious. If Iranian crowds were a football match we would all get red cards and permanently banned.

As we said our quick and teary goodbyes my mother, brother, and I finally stood in 'line'. KLM flight KL0434 departing Tehran for Amsterdam at gate 7. "Fantastic", I thought, "now if we can only make it through this crowd... " My mother went off to pay our exit fee while I stooped over my baggage cart. Surveying the room I noticed that they only thing that has changed in Mehrabad since the 70's were the new plasma screen TVs.

Twelve total, six on either side of the escalator. On our side of the escalator four of them were for Amsterdam while two were for Paris. As is turned out the Paris TVs were not supposed to say Paris at all. Rather than turn them off or change the screens a KLM employee stood on atop his ticket counter and yelled "All Paris passengers must go to the other side of the escalator!" whose TVs stated "Kuala Lumpur". Oh the insanity. Not only did this cause quite a bit of confusion, but cost us time since this delayed our flight by at least 45 min. "Why do Iranians make everything difficult" I thought "... why can't they just change the signs?"

As I blew apart the fringe off of my glasses I looked down at my watch "... 4:33 am... "About an hour had passed when a young gentleman wearing a grey t-shirt, glasses, and jeans caught my eye. "He is very cute." Perhaps if I were not wearing the unflattering teal manteau, which I had planned on leaving on the airplane, I might have had the fortitude to strike a conversation with him. Alas no such luck; I was stuck in a jam that had no signs of budging. Oh there is no place like home...

By chance it turned out that the lady in front of us and here daughters were from Houston and had planned on staying in Amsterdam for a few days before their school started. Despite our situation we had a pleasant conversation. Lucky for us she ended up being more help to us that we realized.

Because by the time we reached the ticket counter another KLM employee informed us that we needed our ticket receipts verified and stamped. What? Not again. Why are there no signs letting people know where to go and what to do? It's a sick joke to play on people. Confusion and chaos loomed large at this point when my normally calm mother and brother scrambled about to get our receipts stamped. One employee told us that our tickets had been cancelled; the lady downstairs had gone to our gate and the guy at the immigration office told us that our plane, whose bright blue paint stared blankly back at him, had departed and to go back downstairs and talk to the lady that just left. Why it is that no one can give us a straight answer is beyond me. Iranians are known for their intelligence. So why is there this blatant disregard for humans and empathic incapacity?

Finally a lovely elderly gentleman in a blue shirt told me who we needed to speak with, and everything was straightened out. As we went back to our luggage a rude passenger began to place his bags ahead of ours, despite the fact that he was in a different line. "Sir! Excuse me! No way are you doing this. Get your bags off of here." my frustrated mother firmly proclaimed as she removed his luggage. He merely gaped as he could say nothing. Probably out of fear that my mother would gouge out his eyes if he tried anything like that again. This was one of those moments that I was profoundly scared and yet very proud of my mother. Bravo.

I peered down at my ticket "seat 35B" then at my watch "5:55 am!" We are late! After we ran up the escalators, had a conversation with passport control, through another X-ray machine and manual frisking we managed to make it outside. My head became warmly drunk by the sunshine that pelted my face. "Finally... " it was an odd sense of relief. That is until I saw the line of people waiting to get onto the bus.

My brother tried to comfort me "We are almost there." He was visibly more frustrated than I was. All I wanted to do was get home, plop my bags in the living room, and crash into my own bed. Nothing in the world sounded better to me at that moment than the thought of my head falling onto my feather pillows and curling into my 1000 thread count sheets.

By the time my daydream was over I was rushing with my carryon up the stairs and onto the plane. "35B... " Once I made it to my seat I noticed that the man in the grey t-shirt was sitting in 36A. "You can move my bag." He said in Farsi "You can put it anywhere, or even toss it off of the plane." With a smile I placed my bag next to his and proceeded to remove my manteau and scarf. Looking down at my black t-shirt and Levis jeans I breathed a sigh of relief. The biggest hurdle was behind us now. All we had to do was make it back home.

Our Houston acquaintances were in the row cornerwise behind us. Finally a group of people I was glad to travel with. Reaching into my bag I popped a piece of gum into my mouth as we began our takeoff. With no more congestion or traffic and no more barbarians shoving to get ahead of us I was able to relax. Looking down at Tehran I began to long for my family, especially my cousins. Their precocious ways grew on me the five weeks we were there.

"Oh!" exclaimed the mother from Houston. "What is this?" As I turned to see what was the matter I noticed that she had picked something off of the ground and was carrying it to the back of the plane. In her palm was a small turtle. "A turtle" I thought "now how did he get on the plane?" After announcements in Dutch and English asking for the owner of the turtle the man in the grey t-shirt went back to inspect our little stowaway. While he was there he made an announcement in Farsi asking for the turtles previous whereabouts. After many giggles no one went to claim him. Perhaps he came from Amsterdam looking to take in the sights of Tehran and forgot to hop off the plane.

"If no one claims him I want to give the turtle to my son" our male flight attendant stated. I hope so, after all, how many turtles do you know of that have stowed away on an airplane?

Lao Tzu once said "A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving." Call me a bad traveler, because after many fixed plans I had every intention of arriving at my final destination. And I finally did.

To Farhaneh Sharghi-Dolatabai
letters section

Farhaneh Sharghi-Dolatabai



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