Entering Iran with the Ayatollahs watching over me
Trip Start Apr 21, 2008
225Trip End Apr 20, 2009
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We were still traveling through Turkey as it is a huge country. We were expected to get to the border sometime during the late afternoon. Most of the morning was spent talking with my new friends from the back of the bus. Most of the questions they had for me had to do with Canada and the US. You would think that the people here might be anti-US but they are not. In fact, most of them said they wish they could live there. They envy the lifestyle people have, the opportunities for a good career and a comfortable life, and of course, their freedom. They felt the same way about Canada. I echoed their feelings and said that Americans are very nice people and it is too bad so many people judge them by the actions of their government. The Iranians could understand this. Many Iranians I met on the bus think that the international community perceives them to be a bunch of religious fanatics because of their government but they are nothing like that.
One topic the guys were really excited to talk about but were a bit shy to bring up was sex in our country. I laughed. They asked me if I could talk about it and I asked them what did they want to know. They all huddled around me like little kids around Santa Claus when they saw that I was open to talking about it. Basically, these guys think that is all we do back home. They think it is so easy to meet a girl and have sex with them on the spot. I ask them how did they ever got this idea and they said from American movies, American TV shows and of course music videos. I told them that we weren't animals and that we respected our women. We didn't treat them like trash. When I was traveling through the west coast of Turkey, I could sense that a lot of men there thought that western women were easy and it really bothered me. They treat their women with much respect but when you go to the bars or the beach you could see them hounding the western women thinking that they were easy pickings and treat them like dogs. Anyhow, I explained that 90% of the time a lot of effort went into impressing a woman before you could even think about jumping into bed with them. I wanted to kill this stereotype that western women were easy. I have heard of so many stories of western girls being harassed by men in some parts of the Middle East thinking that they are easy and they can't stand it. I can't blame them. It bothered me.
They also asked questions like what we would do on a typical date back home. This was interesting to them as men and women can't be seen together in public in Iran if they are not married. A lot of times their dates are limited to seeing each other in their homes which isn't ideal as most of the time the young adults in Iran still live at home with their parents.
Another thing that I noticed was how people would always refuse the first time they were offered something from somebody. All of us would share the food we would buy at the rest stops. I noticed that if someone offered another person peanuts or fruit, the person being offered the food would always refuse the offer. I never saw someone accept the first time they were offered something. Only when they were offered the food on the second or third time would they accept. I remembered reading about this form of politeness (officially referred to as Ta'arof) in my travel book. Going forward, I made sure I always offered something to someone at least 3 times to show them I was genuine about sharing my food. And I always refused the first time I was offered something. I understood the game.
Another thing that I have to mention is how touchy Iranian men are. It was a regular occurrence for Ramin, GQ Ali and especially Nice Guy Ali to put their hand on my knee and keep it there for what seemed like an eternity. They would every once in a while continuously rub their hands against my knee. Some of the guys would tell me what a 'lovely' face I had. The first time I heard this, all the guys would nod in agreement and this made it seem even stranger. I wouldn't know how to answer to that kind of compliment so believe it or not I would tell them that they were beautiful too. I don't think I looked directly into anyone's eyes though while saying this. It was too much for me. I would have died laughing. But I could see that they appreciated my 'compliments' as well. Overall, I knew all of this knee-rubbing and complimenting was a cultural thing but it still made me a bit uncomfortable. The worst was when they would move their hand through my hair while talking directly at me. It was something that took getting used to over the course of the bus ride. I never got completely used to it.
At one of our routine rest stops, Nick asked if he could talk to me in private. As I said before, I didn't trust this guy when I first met him but eventually he gave me some reasons to think he was an OK guy. I think all the time he spent talking to me about music and teaching me some Persian led me to put my guard down. He also was always buying me food and would even offer to pay the fee one would have to pay for using a public washroom. So he came across as a very generous guy. Anyhow, Nick was the most vocal about his government and absolutely hated them. He hated living in Iran and really wanted to move to Canada. Nick basically led me to an area in the parking lot away from everyone and asked if I could help him get a visa. This was like being in Africa all over again when dozens of people I just met would ask me to help them get into Canada. I don't know why they think it would be any easier if they know someone from Canada they just me. I told Nick that the best I could do was go to the Canadian Embassy in Tehran with him and look over any documents he needed to fill out. I said he didn't really need me to do this as I am sure all of the documents were in English and Persian. He was adamant that I go with him which made me uncomfortable with him. I never like people pressuring me to do something I know is unnecessary. I always think there is another motive. He also made me promise that I didn't tell anyone else on the bus about our conversation as this could get him in trouble. I wasn't sure if he didn't want me to say something because he had something up his sleeve or if he was genuinely afraid of people finding out he wanted to seriously leave Iran. He eventually asked me to give him the phone number of the hotel I would be staying at and I did so knowing that I would stay somewhere else if I didn't want to see or hear from him again. I then asked him to give me his cell phone number and that I would call him tomorrow to get together. He said he didn't have a cell phone which I thought was strange. It seemed like everyone had a cell phone. I asked why he didn't and he explained that he had to sell it to buy his return bus ticket to Turkey. This sounded pretty sketchy. I felt like he didn't want me to have his cell phone number. If he was telling the truth, then the guy must of peen pretty poor and I didn't like the fact that I would be alone with him later on during the week with all this cash on me as I am pretty sure the locals know that tourists can only use cash (and not ATM or credit cards) while in Iran. So once again, the wall between us was up. I didn't want to help him after thinking about all of this.
We eventually hit the Turkish side of the border at 3 pm. The Iranian side would be a 5 minute walk from there. What was fascinating was that 30 minutes before we arrived at the border, the bus driver stopped the bus on some random road. All of a sudden, each woman on the bus took out their head scarves and put it on. It was unbelievable. Some were wearing tank tops and put long sleeved shirts on top to cover their shoulders and arms. GQ Ali, who was sitting next to me put on a polo shirt on top of the muscle shirt he was wearing throughout the trip and then put on a pair of pants to replace the shorts he was wearing. It was only at this moment that their lack of freedom hit me. It was obvious that these people didn't want to wear headscarves or have to be forced to wear pants. If they felt some religious obligation to do so, they wouldn't have been wearing tank tops or shorts in Turkey. This whole transformation of covering themselves up prior to reaching the border is something I will never forget. It was truly amazing to witness. I looked around and I couldn't recognize the women anymore. It was as if I jumped on a new bus.
I passed through the Turkish side with no issues. Then it was off to my exciting walk to the Iranian side. I felt like I was going somewhere I shouldn't be. When I reached the security post, I was greeted by 2 massive boards - one of Ayatollah Khomeini and another of the current grand master, Ayatollah Khamenei. As a foreigner, you couldn't help but feel a bit nervous after seeing their mean faces on these boards. I knew it was just ignorance that made me slightly nervous.
We all waited in single file while the border official checked each person's credentials. Nice Guy Ali never left my side since we boarded off the bus. It was as if he was protecting me from something. I don't know if this made me feel more or less comfortable, the fact that he felt he needed to be by my side the whole time. Because the line was so long, Nick suggested that Nice Guy Ali and I sit down next to him in a nearby waiting room. We sat their for about 5 minutes until some security guard barked at us and told us to get back in line.
I handed over my passport once it was my turn to speak with the border official. He was in this little box they called an office while I was on the other side staring at him through a window. The official seemed surprised when he realized I was a foreigner. I am sure he has come across quite a few foreigners at the border but something told me it was always surprising for him to see them. He asked me a few basic questions and then told me to leave the line and go into his office. I didn't notice him ask anyone else to do this so I was a bit rattled. Everyone else in line was from my bus and they were curious as well as to why I had to go to the office. I went to the door and the official turned towards me using his chair and said two things
-Never give your passport to someone who says they are police but are not wearing a police uniform.
-Never change your money on the streets. Always go to a bank.
It seemed like he was giving me advice and not an order. He looked at me and asked if I understood. I smiled and said yes. And that's when he smiled back, returned my passport and said 'Welcome to Iran. I hope you enjoy your stay.' With those words, any lingering fear I may have had inside me was gone. There was no turning back. I was now in Iran and it felt awesome. It was a moment I was looking forward to ever since I decided that I would visit this country on my trip.
One funny thing that happened to me once I left the immigration office was that a man approached me and asked if I wanted to change money. Just 2 minutes earlier I was told not to buy or exchange money on the streets and now I was confronted with a decision to make. Do I take the advice or ignore the advice? I really needed Iranian currency and was a bit tempted but I was right outside the immigration office and I didn't think it would be a good idea to break any rules at this point (or any other point while in Iran). So I refused. Besides, I was thinking that this could have been a test set up by the border officials. I am sure it wasn't but why risk it?
While I was waiting for everyone else from my bus to go through immigration, Ramin asked Nice Guy Ali to translate something for him that was meant for me. Nice Guy Ali came over to me and said that Ramin does not want me to trust Nick. He wouldn't give me a reason why but he just said that once I got to Tehran, I should stick with him or Nice Guy Ali. I should never meet up with Nick at any time while I was in Tehran. I guess Ramin had the same suspicions of Nick that I had. I know that Ramin noticed that Nick took me aside earlier in the day and this probably raised his suspicions. So from then on, I decided to keep my distance from Nick. Both Ramin's radar and mine said that this guy was bad news. That was enough confirmation for me.
We still had 19 more hours on the bus. We were only halfway to Tehran. Along the way, Nick would continue to offer me food or buy me things. I always refused. I sensed that he knew I was keeping my distance from him and I could see that this frustrated him. Once he even yelled at me and insisted that I take the potato chips he was offering. He kept yelling 'WHY DON'T YOU WANT? WHY NOT?' I just yelled back 'I AM NOT HUNGRY. WHY CANT YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?' I would eventually take some chips to calm him down.
When the bus stopped for supper, Ramin insisted I sit with him. There was an issue as I didn't have any Iranian money to pay for anything, not even to use the washroom . I only had US dollars and Turkish lira. It wasn't an issue for too long as Ramin insisted he pay for my dinner. I offered to give Ramin Turkish lira or US dollars but he wouldn't have any of it. I ended up having dinner with Ramin, Nice Guy Ali and GQ Ali with Nick sitting on the outside. I knew Nick wasn't happy as he suggested earlier that we eat together but I did not answer him.
After dinner the bus headed for Tabriz. Once we got there, about a quarter of the passengers got off the bus. This meant that there were a few more empty seats and that I didn't have to sleep with people on each side of me. By the time I got up from my seat to search for 2 empty seats next to each other, they were all gone. So I returned to the back. Nick had already grabbed an empty 2 seater and insisted that I sit with him. I said it wouldn't make sense as I had more room in the back. He insisted over and over again and I refused each time and then went to the back.
At our next rest stop, I got off the bus to stretch my legs. I needed to use the washroom but I didn't have any Iranian money. I didn't know if it was appropriate for me to pee against some wall so I just held it in. Nick was outside having a smoke and eating some food. He offered and I accepted this time just because I didn't want to deal with any drama. He then went back on the bus to his seat. I knew he was going to insist I sit next to him again once I boarded the bus and of course he did. He wouldn't take no for an answer. I said I would sit next to him but if I couldn't sleep I would return to the back. My intention was to stay there for 10 minutes and then return but I actually fell asleep.