Monday, March 31, 2008

Gainful employment

There are lots of wealthy Tehranis staying in the hotel - most of them very friendly and pleasant - an oft-repeated description, but it cannot be understated. Usually they are travelling in a tour group and stay for two or three nights. They are surprised to find two English serving them tea. Reza encourages us to sit down and chat - but we don't need encouragement and we while away a few hours with some of the guests. One young man tells us he is off to England in two weeks' time. "Where too?" "Southend-on-Sea. Is it nice?" "Mmm, possibly."* We encourage him to visit London while he's there and recommend the British Museum. He wants to visit Madame Tussaud's, we can't imagine why. "Look out for your President", we joke. We warn him that the English are not as openly friendly as the Iranian people, they need to melt a little first.
Once in a while the local police call in to check up on things at the hotel. Reza agrees with the staff the code word is "Cheese" should they appear whilst we are "helping out" in the kitchen - this is the signal for us to act like guests and not workers. One night, the code word is employed, and Gayle dutifully goes to the fridge and fetches the cheese! "What do the police look like?" we ask. We had seen a big bloke hanging around and got a little nervous. "They have beards" we are told. It seems they are Morality Police - checking hotel registrations (Iranian couples must be married) , and that the hijab is being worn, and that the hubble-bubble is not being smoked - it was banned last year. Whilst we are there, all these rules are broken.
Working in the kitchen has given us an unwanted insight into food hygiene. Standards are not that bad, but any food that looks untouched when brought back from the tables is recycled. One night as I was tipping a plate of rice and onion into the dustbin, Mr. Mehdi saw me and shouted "Mr. John! Stop!" I looked in horror as he reached down to retrieve half an onion. But it turned out I had chucked away a fork. But we are not put off - and are eating the best food we have had for probably the whole journey. We thought we might put on weight, but we appear to be sweating it off.
In the back patio each evening, an oasis of cool and greenery, Khouroosh invites foreign travellers to have a drink, listen to music, smoke a joint and play backgammon. Sometimes he even sells a carpet. He is a sociable young man who once left Iran illegally in an attempt to reach Austria. He got to Greece, where the police gave him a hard time and sent him back. One of his friends, whom he never got a chance to say goodbye to, took a boat heading to the Netherlands but ended up in England, where he lives in secret, working illegally, unhappy. He actually wanted to get to Japan, and now can't go anywhere, for fear of deportation back to Iran. Khouroosh confesses his new strategy to escape is to meet and marry a foreigner - "but there has to be love", he tells us.
There are several English who pass through - and Danny detects different accents. He likes the English spoken by the two Oxford students, Tom and Miriam. We call it BBC English. Another visitor had given Danny a Roberts shortwave radio so that he can listen to BBC World Service. Then there is Chris, from Essex, who turns up wanting to watch the Iran - Kuwait game (a two-all draw, with Iran lucky to get the point by all accounts). We talk football for five minutes and we are incoherent to all around us. Then there is Julian, the funkiest overlander we have met so far, driving a battered Mercedes van. The man has real soul - I know this for a fact because he kindly downloaded some of it to our i-Pod. Saman stays with Khouroosh for several days. He is an old friend from their carpet-selling youth. "Use my real name in your blog" he quips. "With any luck they'll deport me."
As the days progress and the holidays wear on, everyone gets more tired and as the holidaymakers start to return home we find the restaurant works less efficiently. Sometimes when food is ordered, none of the ingredients are to hand. People are sent out on emergency errands. Dishes are forgotten, meals are mixed up. It feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Danny continues the language questions. We hear him in the kitchen one evening talking to Madame Kermani, who speaks no English, "Don't beat about the bush, come to the point" He's been learning idioms. Reza says one day "Mr. John, I hope you and Madame Gayle always remember to take a painkiller before you come to help here."

The holidays are coming to an end for Iranians, but there is a steady trickle of travellers passing through, giving us ideas and tips. We know we will have to leave here soon, but we know it will be quite difficult, and we keep putting off our planning for the onward journey into the Stans..........

*This reminded us of the Englishman we met in Turkey. When we asked where he was from, he replied "Readingunfortunately".

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Happy New Year!

The Spring Equinox marks No Ruz, the Iranian New Year. Government offices, banks, schools and universities close. Everyone goes visiting family, or takes a holiday in Iran, or for some, abroad. Train tickets are sold out, hotels booked up, sights overrun with tourists. On the 13th day of the New Year it's unlucky to be at home, so everyone goes for a picnic. Our guidebook recommends not to come to Iran for the two weeks of the No Ruz holidays because of the sheer volume of national holidaymakers, but we are already here, and we want to see a bit more of the country.

So here we are in the city of Magi*, helping out at the Persian Hotel* at the invitation of Reza*, the owner, in return for board and lodging (*real names have been changed). The hotel is in a traditional courtyard style, with a roof terrace and restaurant, and Reza wants us to help wait on tables and clear up, make tea, wash-up, whatever. He suggested this to us when we had asked about travel options during No Ruz, and he seemed such a relaxed and generous guy that we said yes, almost straight away. We arrive on our nightbus from Tehran and his first instruction to us is to take some breakfast and then catch up on our sleep. We are assigned the little room halfway up the stairs, barrel-vaulted, with room for a three-quarter mattress on the floor and a few ill-fed mozzies. Critically, it is cool. And, in estate agent's parlance, cosy. A happy home for a fortnight.

We only have one or two doubts - Reza would like one of us to be in the kitchen at 7am, and the other to stay until midnight. Only he and Danny speak English. Our visa does not permit work. What do we say to people who ask?? We needn't worry - Reza is very relaxed about everything and all the staff are very kind and friendly. Immediately we are treated like "one of them" by everyone we work with. The hotel is booked up for the two week holiday, mostly with Iranian groups, nearly all from Tehran. It occurs to us after two days that Reza might see us as a novelty attraction to these wealthy Tehranis, who often speak good English and who are always eager to meet and talk to foreigners. But we are keen to pull our weight in the kitchen and earn our food. There is Mohsen, the manager, a skinny young man who can't do anything right. We nickname him The Ghost because he is never there when you need him, floats about in the shadows, and reappears silently when there's no-one around. At first we cannot comprehend how he has got this job, but Reza explains a lot later that his father and uncle both suffered from mental illness, and that Mohsen may have inherited something that means he thinks one thing and does another. His father is now dead, and as eldest son, he now earns for the whole family.
Then there is Danny. A 19 year-old Afghan born in Iran, he works the longest hours for no pay simply so that he can practice and improve his English. He is our favourite, keeps the whole thing together, and bombards us relentlessly with questions about words, idioms, grammar and pronunciation. ("Can you give me an example of an unemphatic negative imperative?" " You probably shouldn't ask me that, Danny.") He serves most of the punters single-handedly, from 7am 'til midnight and often doesn't go home. He's always polite and smiling, even in zombie-mode, but mutters in the kitchen "effing iranians", when someo
ne turns up for food at 11.30pm. Afghans are looked down on in Iran, despite having the reputation of being the hardest working, and the rest of the staff always say Danny's crazy. His desire to learn English is obsessive compulsive. He cannot continue his education at university and is desperate to leave Iran, and sometimes seems very depressed, but most of the time he is applying new vocabulary and practising new phrases and we have lots of fun with him. "Absolutely Fabulous!" and "You're Fired!" emerge from the kitchen, alongside "Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezy."

When Reza is around there is a hustle and bustle, but without him chaos and lassitude.
Constantly the staff use an Iranian phrase with us - "Take it easy". We feel like we have found the Iranian answer to Fawlty Towers. On our first night, feeding kebabs and rice to a group of 35 (Reza says Iranians eat only the same old dishes) I take out a tray laden with food. There are steps everywhere. Gayle offers little support: "Don't do a Manuel!" The kitchen is in two parts, separated by three steps from the roof terrace which commands a great view overlooking the wonderful tiled domes of the city, lit up at night. Although it is baking hot most of the day, it's a great spot after sunset, and catches the cool evening breeze. Inside the kitchen is always hot - a big samovar kept constantly on the boil for tea, which is drunk by the gallon. On our first night there appear numerous "helpers" - Mr. Mehdi, the accountant, Mr. Vahid, the manager from the partner hotel around the corner, and Mr. Kebab. We don't know what Mr. Kebab does during the day, but he appears like clockwork every night to stand in the kitchen, tell people what to do, and then consume several kebabs. He looks a bit like Willie Thorne, the snooker player. The cook, Mr. Hussein, is a young law-student earning some cash in the holidays, and his brother, Reza Chi (Little Reza) appears magically whenever it is busy. Throughout the day there is assistance from Madame Kermani, who calls me Mr.Jack, Madame Tabrizi who is heavily pregnant, married to an opium-addict and has one tooth missing, and Azadeh, a younger woman who sometimes brings her cheeky and smiling little girl to work. Amongst the steam, the shouting, the sweat and the chaos, these women go about their business, chopping vegetables, cooking, cleaning and washing-up completely unfazed by anything. At one point we count 11 people in the kitchen. It is not a big kitchen.
Our daily routine begins with us alternately rising at 7am to layout the buffet breakfast (the best we've seen in Iran, with fresh coffee!), make endless pots of tea and clear and wash-up. There is then a long interlude until the evening, unless weary sightseers brave the heat and turn up for a late lunch. Early evening there are foreign tourists, wh
om we chat to about routes and travel plans. And then around 10pm there is a final wave, sometimes an assault, it seems, of Iranians. We are usually done and dusted by midnight, only once running on until 1am. Even the busy times are great fun - and always chaotic. Our lack of Farsi means that only Reza and Danny can actually give us clear instructions, although both are guilty of doing everything themselves instead of giving orders. There have been times when I have found myself saying "I know nothing" and wandering around lost with a tray of food like Manuel. There is never any preparation for an evening and we often lack the same items: bread, yoghurt, tomatoes. Khouroosh runs a little carpet shop out the back, and often helps out. He too speaks English and he laughs at my attempt to organise things. After two nights I give up. Khouroosh has made helpful suggestions in the past which seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
This hotel is virtually empty most of the year. The partn
er hotel is where most foreign tourists stay - it is a stalwart on the backpacker trail. It seems that No Ruz is the only time most Iranians take a holiday. The town has gone from a sleepy quiet place, to a thriving bustling city. The narrow old streets are filled with large groups of tourists, and the covered bazaar teems with shoppers. The main mosque is busy all day long. On New Year's Day I take a stroll and end up playing footie with three small lads - two on two - on a small tarmac pitch. Me and Zinedine Zidane, take on Steven Gerrard and Ronaldinho in the midday sun. I am nutmegged and tricked by Ronaldinho mercilessly, but a few mistimed tackles takes care of him and we scrape a 10-9 victory. I collapse with heat exhaustion and bear a bruised toe for several days afterwards. Ahhh, just like Tuesday nights in Manchester. Apart from the heat, that is. Gayle ventures out occasionally for ice-cream, but the hotel remains a peaceful oasis for us to catch up on reading and writing postcards............

Ronaldinho and Steven Gerrard

Friday, March 21, 2008

Return to the scene of the crime

Our night train back to Tehran is comfortable after so many night buses, despite arriving at 4am, again. The conversation in our carriage the evening before stalled after we mentioned Israel to the young people with us. "Did the Holocaust really happen?" "Yes, of course." "But did one million really get killed?" Hmm. We unroll our mats in an upstairs concourse at the station and join the other sleeping families laid out on the floor. At daybreak we are on the metro, jammed onto a train with our backpack and thousands of commutingTehranis, faces pressed to the windows. We return to the Mashhad Hostel, a.k.a. The Bed Bug Hostel. We had left baggage here, so feel obliged to stay. Then it's straight back to the metro and to the north of Tehran to visit Mr. Lovecat at the Uzbekistan Embassy to collect our visa. The process is quick and painless. We zoom over to the Turkmenistan Embassy to apply for our Transit visa. The process is slow and tortuous. After a conversation with an English-speaker on a phone thrust through the window we leave our forms and photos with the staff and walk off, our fingers crossed. We must wait a week to find out if the Man From Asghabat says "Yes".

Tehran is a relatively new city - so there are not too many sights. We visit the Golestan Palace which was the Shah's residence in the 1800's, a mish-mash of European and Persian architecture set around gardens. It is an oasis of peace and greenery in the traffic-choked city. We meet a very friendly woman, Homeira, who works here. She had spoken to us in a restaurant the day before and invited us to call on her, but we had been unsure whether to because we have so much to do on this day. The question becomes redundant because she insists on giving us tea and fruit in her office. We are glad - she is so friendly and we talk for ages and look at each other's photos. At work she and her colleagues wear a black hijab, but she shows us photos of her friends at a house-warming and they are all in civvies - jeans, hair, plenty of make-up. There are times on the street when I think all the women look the same when they wear the black hijab. Ironically, as we flick through these party photos, I get the same feeling. But it drives home to us the difference between public life and private life here in Iran.After one night at the Mashhad Hostel Gayle once again gets a bad reaction to the bed bugs, but she is now armed with anti-histamines. On leaving we take everything with us this time - no reservation for when we return in April. We arrive at the Southern Bus Station which is jammed with buses and heaving with overloaded passengers all heading off for their holidays. We had bought our ticket through a hotel, because we needed to book in advance and we weren't in Tehran to do it. We check with the bus company that the ticket is right for the 9pm bus, and we get an affirmative. However, when we load our bags and get on board, someone is in our seats. The ticket is studied and the driver shakes his head. We have been directed to the wrong bus station. Our bus is about to leave from the Eastern Bus Station. After some toing and froing and translation by one of the passengers, the driver agrees to takes us to the first checkpoint on the main highway. They have rung the driver of our bus and asked him to wait for us. Afterwards we are told this would never have happened for an Iranian........we are very lucky foreigners.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"Excuse me, do you mind if..."

Some days in Esfahan it feels like everyone wants to practice their English. You hardly sit down before a student or schoolkid has approached and asked, usually very politely, if they can talk for a moment. Most of the time it's good fun - once we have been asked the usual questions we get a chance to ask ours. In some countries it can be hard to meet locals and talk about their country, but in Iran it is easy. At times you even have to fend them off, or we end up having separate conversations at the same time. Esfahan seems especially demanding of us. It's the greenest city we have visited, with plenty of parks and a large river with landscaped banks to wander up and down, sit and read and talk.
This city was Iran's capital in the 1600's and the Shah who made it so built some great monuments that have lasted the test of time. The centrepiece is Imam Square - the second-largest square in the world, it is a large rectangle with four decorative portals that connect the main bazaar, the royal palaces, and probably the most beautiful mosque we have seen. It is surrounded by a two-storey arcade of shops and the gardens in the middle are a great place to eat an ice-cream and watch the colours change at sunset. And of course, help people improve their English.

We meet Mehrdad, a 19 year-old student, here. He is good company and we meet up again a couple of times. His family are traditional working-class - moved to the city when he was young. His mother was married at 13 and gave birth to him a year later. As he explains, the mullah encouraged the marriage and having a large family - nowadays, not so many children are expected. One fascinating statistic is that in the ten years after the Revolution, the population of Iran doubled. It now stands around 70 million and the country is still trying to catch up. There is high unemployment in the under-30s. Mehrdad is studying electrical engineering, but there is no guarantee of getting a job when he finishes his degree. "It's not what you know, but who you know" is a commonly-expressed feeling. He is religious - makes regular pilgimages to the holy shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. One day he asks us if we'd like to go to his cousin's wedding. We are delighted. Mehrdad himself complains how hard it is to meet a girl. He was close to his cousin, in love, but a marriage was out of the question - her mother wanted somebody with more money. But, like Iran, he is full of contradictions - speaks critically of the young girls who meet boys in the parks, whilst lamenting the fact that he does not know how to meet anyone. We are reading War and Peace, where male suitors who wish to court young ladies are obliged to commit themselves early to marriage, and seek consent from the parents. The parents always seek a good match - i.e. a wealthy partner. It seems the tradition is alive and well here, for some.

The river scene in Esfahan is very popular. There are several original old bridges that attract hundreds of people - the best has 33 arches spanning a bend in the river. The bridges serve as damns and were used to irrigate the surrounding countryside. Esfahan has grown enormously since then and disappears over the hillside in the distance. We spend a day walking the riverbank and meeting people. Fathers push their young children to talk to us. A family picnicking invite us to join them on their blanket for tea and fruit. It is election day - they all sport blue thumbs. They support Ahmadinejad - see him as a good President trying to do his best for the Iranian people. On balance we hear more critical comments than complimentary. Some are embarrassed by their President's image abroad, some fed up with rising prices, petrol rationing. The election won't change anything radically - only conservative candidates are allowed to stand, putting many people off voting. The presidential elections are next year - these might be more interesting. At night the streets are packed tight with crowds all shopping for No Ruz - the Iranian New Year festivities that begin with the Spring Equinox. It is just like Christmas shopping at home. The traditional celebrations are pre-Islamic, and people prepare by spring-cleaning their houses and buying new clothes. Our shopping is limited to buying a souvenir killim, produced by one of Iran's dwindling nomadic tribes. Goldfish are being sold on the streets everywhere. This is one of the items that every family should have on their table at No Ruz, along with the Haft Sin - the Seven S's: seven things beginning with the letter 's', including garlic, apple, seeds, vinegar, grass.

While we are here we visit a catherdral in the Armenian quarter. The neighbourhood is full of designer shops and trendy coffee shops. The women's headscarves are more colourful. The church's interior is covered in painted scenes from the Old and New Testament, with a particularly vivid picture of what hell could be like, which fascinates the Iranian tourists. There are also some gory images of a saint being tortured in most bizarre and gruesome ways. The bells ring and the Iranians smile with delight at the novelty, as we did when we first heard the call to prayer way back in Marrakesh. We also see the Martyrs' cemetery - row upon row of photographs above the graves of young men who died during the long war with Iraq.

Our time in Esfahan passes quickly, and before we get too fat on the ice cream we head back to Tehran.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Terrorism and Benny Hill

"Why do you come here - don't you think we are all terrorists??" We keep getting asked this question. It does surprise me - although I am not sure how to answer this. Why do Iranians think this? What does The Sun say about Iranians? We laugh it off and say that we have watched many Iranian films, and name a few. ('Marmulak' [The Lizard] always raises a smile because it was a comedy taking the mickey out of the mullahs. The film was eventually banned - the mullahs obviously have no sense of humour.) We also say that the news in Britain is only about Ahmedinijad, not much about the Iranian people. We've not mentioned public executions - though I have read that these have been recently stopped. It is terrible that the Iranians feel they are misunderstood - as a nation they are the most hospitable and friendliest we have come across, and possibly the best-educated. "Do you know Islam? Are you muslim? Have you read the Quran?" are other more common questions which have led to some interesting conversations. It is hard to explain that we live in a country where many faiths are practised and where agnosticism and atheism are common.

Iran is a safe country to travel, except when trying to cross the roads. Iran has a shocking road-fatality record, and the only police we ever see are on the main roads setting speed traps and checking tachographs of buses and trucks. There is no such thing as a pedestrian crossing here and the traffic in the cities is bad - crossing the road is our greatest hazard. A secondary danger is the number of hamburgers we are consuming. None of that fancy Persian cuisine for us. Sometimes the only cheap food we can find is the dreaded burger, but at least it's not McDonald's..........Thankfully, there are juice stalls everywhere.

It is parliamentary election day tomorrow, so it has given us a chance to ask people about the politics of Iran. Some like their president, but most think they are being misruled - that the whole system is undemocratic and unrepresentative. Many have said there is no point in voting. Someone said they would like the US and the UK to invade, like in Iraq - desperate stuff. This may show how helpless and impotent the people feel. We keep meeting young people who tell us they want to leave Iran as soon as they can. Iran suffers from a terrible brain drain - smart young kids keep telling us they want to go abroad to study, to live. These are inevitably the better-educated and wealthier youngsters we meet. Men have to serve two years' national service before they can get a passport, so for some it's a long-term goal.

We also have learnt that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot gets aired on Iranian TV. Benny Hill is much missed - his show somehow never met with official Islamic Republic approval. Good call in my opinion. "Is he still alive?" someone asked us, "I hope not" came the reply. Satellite dishes are illegal but there are lots of them around, so they must be tolerated. Goodness knows what people watch. The young guys really get to look pretty here, as the women are all having to shlepp about in dour headscarves and coats, if not chadors. There's a mix of styles from mid-seventies to ultra-trendy. Notably it's their haircuts that stand out - probably because you never see a woman's hair...........

We got invited to a wedding the other day - a real honour for us. The ceremony took place in a building with function rooms, the groom, mullah and men on one floor and the bride and women on another. Despite our lack of Farsi we both had an interesting time, separately! Gayle finally got to see women without their headscarves and chadors "They're just like me! Except for the make-up!" Whilst the men sat around talking and eating, the women had music and danced. If a man walked in, an alarm cry of ululating women would signal the reappearance of all the chadors. A real cultural experience.

John answers enquiries as to why he supports Manchester City.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Shiraz, Shiraz .......and not a drop to drink

There are five buses going from Bandar-e Abbas to Shiraz and we arrive all at the same time: 4 am. Four in the morning! Fortunately the bus station is clean and modern and there are plenty of seats in the waiting room. Gayle quickly gets into her sleeping bag and drops off to sleep again. I get stuck into War and Peace in the hope that it will send me off. It doesn't. I am awake to hear the pre-dawn call to prayer. The muezzin sounds strangely like Johnny Weismuller in full cry. Me muezzin. You pray.

Eventually the sun casts its big smile in clear skies, and we emerge out onto the street. Shiraz gets poor reviews from some of the travellers we have met here, so we are pleasantly surprised to find it quite nice. Mind, we have just come from Bandar-e Abbas (after Bandar, even Rochdale would look nice) and it is Friday and the roads are deserted, so that improves any Iranian city. We are also relieved to get back to a fresher climate. One thing that has struck us is how many trees there are in the cities, lining the main roads and also the number of parks, of which Shiraz is particularly blessed. It really makes a difference, and the Iranians love them. On sunny days you can spot people having picnics or sleeping in the shade, couples talking quietly together and holding hands, everyone eating ice cream or drinking tea...

We visit a mausoleum with a wonderful tiled dome. Inside the courtyard there are people coming and going, and from inside we can hear the plaintive singing of a man. It turns out a family is holding a memorial service. Zeinab, the grand-daughter of the deceased speaks English and welcomes us inside - although there are separate entrances for men and women, so we sit in different parts. The inside of the building is covered floor to ceiling in mirrors. There are a few green lights and the effect is quite wild. The man who is singing continues for quite a while and the effect is hypnotic. We say farewell and depart with food boxes that have been prepared for the mourners.

Shiraz sits on the slopes of very dry hills and its climate and location proved ideal for grape cultivation and wine production. Sadly this is no more. A glass of red wine would have gone down well after a long walk around the city. Instead we make do with banana milkshakes and a roast chicken (ahhh, good ol' roast chicken) - it is wonderful.

Nearby are the ruins of Persepolis,one of ancient Persia's finest cities, which was sacked and burnt down by Alexander the Great. The city was then lost for centuries until excavations in the 1930's revealed it again. We visit on a holiday so there are plenty of nationals visiting too. Inevitably there is not much of the buildings still standing, but you still get a sense of the grandeur of the place. The palaces and halls were accessed by ceremonial staircases, the best of which have detailed bas-reliefs showing the might of the Persian kings over their subject states. As we wander around we are approached for photos by some young English teachers. It's all in the day of a minor celeb. How strange it will be to go somewhere and be completely ignored.

Whilst we are in Shiraz we extend our visa - a fairly straightforward process of finding the right building - the Aliens Office (with lots of help from local shopkeepers), finding the right man (The Colonel), and then Gayle getting some photos of herself in headscarf whilst I trolley off to the bank to make the payment. We then return to The Colonel who makes sure our forms are processed quickly and signs us in for a further 30 days. We are privileged customers - there is a scrum of Afghans and Pakistanis also going through the process who get no extra help from the officials. Our plan now is to visit Esfahan, go back to Tehran to collect our Uzbekistan visa and apply for a Turkmenistan transit visa, before returning to Yazd for the two weeks of the No Ruz (New Year) holidays.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Thursday Market

Not to be put off by our disappointment of the day before we decide to make tracks down the coast to Minab. Our speedboat back to the mainland is overloaded with shopping, and I start to wonder if I can swim with my boots on. Gayle points to the lifejackets in a bag in the prow of the boat. She's a mind-reader. We make a quick trip to change money at the bank. "From Manchester, Mr. John? How I would like to visit Old Trafford and watch Manchester United!" I smile and nod, because I've just handed over two torn Euro notes and everyone is very fussy about this. Why doesn't anyone ever want to watch City play? Same reason as me, I guess. The euros are exchanged without question. Then we hop into a shared taxi for the hour long drive to Minab. There's a soldier in the front seat and he keeps turning round to talk to us. The driver sometimes joins in. We speak no Farsi, they speak no English, but no matter. We now know all the questions, we are just not sure of the order. So the answers we give go something like this: "England. English. Near Manchester. 40. Wife. No children. No, Manchester City. Tabriz to Tehran to Yazd to Kerman to Bandar-e Abbas to Minab to Shiraz to Esfahan. Good."
It is hot and sweaty in the taxi, and it is hotter and sweatier in Minab. We are recovering in our hotel room, sat in our underwear, when there is a knock on the door. We quickly dress and I open the door. A man is smiling and saying something I don't understand and I am not sure who he is but he keeps pointing inside the room until I eventually let him in. He goes straight to the fridge and removes a frozen chicken, says thank you and leaves............
Our purpose here is to visit the Thursday Market. It is held on a bit of open ground next to a wide bone-dry riverbed. The market is very popular with people from miles around and gives us an opportunity to people-watch. The locals are a mix of Iranian, Arab, Baluchi and African, and most of the women here not only wear chadors but a particular kind of burqa, or veil, over their faces. They look like carnival masks - bright red embroidered eye masks that have a kind of beak - quite unusual. The mask possibly originates from when the Portuguese settled around Bandar-e Abbas to trade. Minab itself is the dustiest and dirtiest town we have visited in Iran, and on Thursday a wind whips up the dust and blows over the market. The market is a bustle of traders and shoppers with goods and food laid out on cloths on the ground - lots of fish, rolls of cloth, plastic tupperware, "Chinese" bric a brac, shoes and clothes. We wander around with Sjef and Sasskia, a Dutch couple who we first met in the Turkish border town of Dogubeyazit. Apart from the grit in our eyes, the hurly-burly of the market is fascinating. On the edges sit a crowd of men on motorbikes chewing the fat whilst mostly women go round to do their shopping. After all the covered bazaars we have wandered through, the scene makes quite a change.
There is nothing else to keep us here, so we return to Bandar's crowded bus station and manage to get the last seats on the last night bus to Shiraz. It's another long hot ride...........

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Laft? I nearly cried

We arrive in Bandar-e Abbas just before sunrise. Prayers are being said by the faithful in the carpark and the mens' toilets are full of blokes scrubbing up before joining them. It's six o'clock in the morning, we've just stepped off a nightbus, I'm desperate for a piss, and it's rush hour in the toilet block. I hop about a bit. It is muggy warm, and a couple of large rats dance across the grass. There are men in shalwar-khameez, the bus station is being rebuilt while it is still being used, litter overflowing from the bins. Are we still in Iran? We get to the pier in the town centre and join a group of people in what looks like a home-made fibre-glass speedboat. The boatman, with African features, climbs in last, starts the motor, lights a cigarette and guns the boat out into the hazy fug of the Persian Gulf. Actually, our journey takes us across the opening of the gulf, past moored tankers sitting high in the fairly still waters. Now and again the boat slams against the wake of another speedboat - there is a lot of traffic to and from Qeshm island, our destination. We climb out onto a landing and walk into the small town, which is a tax-free zone. We try a couple of cheap hotels which are full, and then an expensive hotel which is also full. We ring another one. Full. At the point of giving up we spot a man with a suitcase coming out of an alleyway. We go down it and up an open staircase where we find a receptionist. We struggle with our phrasebook. We can ask for a room but have no idea of the reply. A guest appears, and she kindly translates for us. There is a room, with four beds, we'd have to pay for all of them. It is a shoebox with bunk beds. We say yes. The shared bathroom is clean, there's a kitchen and the cleaner brings us a flask of tea. We collapse. It is only 7.30am and we're knackered.
Our guidebook says " the village of Laft is the highlight of any trip to the island". This may be true. It also says that Laft is a "charming Persian Gulf village". I beg to differ. To get there we have taken a shared taxi to one town and then were feasted on by the taxi sharks, some of whom almost came to blows over the fresh kill, before negotiating a fare to get to Laft and back with a two hour wait. The driver gave us a hard time over the fare we agreed and the waiting time after we had set off, but eventually settled down. Laft is a sad little fishing village of mainly breeze-block houses with wind towers. Maybe we are too tired, maybe the taxi driver has worn us down, but we are disappointed. Very disappointed. Oh well. The landscape of Qeshm island is barren - sloping land rises up out of the desert, pushed upwards by pressure from below - the whole island looks like it emerged out of the sea - and there is not a hint of life. The most amazing thing about Laft is that it exists at all.
Back in the main town we are surrounded by Tehranis doing their duty-free shopping in the bazaar. It is busiest at night, when it is cooler, and the shops look very busy for such a remote place. There's a buzz in the air, and it's not just the flies. There are people selling fruit and spices and cigarettes on the pavements, greasy meaty smells wafting out of the sandwich shops, people weighed down with enormous bags of shopping, crowds pushing through the doorway of an ice-cream and juice shop. This is definitely a different side to Iran. We feel enlivened and energised again.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

South by South-East

The mud brick of Yazd has a strange soothing and apathetic effect on us. We find we cannot move on. We are unsure what to do for the Iranian holiday of No Ruz (New Year) which lasts for ten to fourteen days from the 18th March. We ask Reza, the owner of our hotel, and he suggests that we stay and help out in return for accomodation. It seems like such a good offer, and he seems like a very relaxed guy, that we say yes. So, knowing that we will be back soon, we head off for a circuit through the south of Iran, beginning with Kerman.

When we asked another traveller what Kerman was like they told us it was nothing more than two roundabouts. This seems a little unfair. There are three roundabouts. It is another desert city - the last big town before the border with Pakistan. It is here we say goodbye to James again, who is making the border crossing with Marthein, a seemingly sane Dutchman. The crossing has a small risk of kidnap - this is drug-smuggling country and when the government has made a big seizure in the past, tourists have sometimes been kidnapped in return for a ransom. The famous city of Bam is not far away, but since the big earthquake 4 years ago there seems little point in visiting. It had a huge adobe citadel, which has all but collapsed to rubble. We opt instead to visit Rayen, where there is a similar smaller citadel. The castle walls have been extensively restored with fresh mud and inside some of the larger buildings are almost nice enough to live in, but for the main part it is a jumble of ruined houses and broken archways. In the distance, across the desert, are mountains still with snow.
Another day takes us to Mahan to visit a mausoleum of a sufi mystic. We might be in danger of overloading on tiled domes and minarets, but in this sand dun-coloured region, the decorated buildings look really impressive. Again, lots of people say hello, and some even want to take our photo, bless 'em. We take photos of each other. It feels like we are minor celebs, and it can be quite tiring if you walk down a busy street at night - you never get a chance to finish your sentence (although this is a trait I may have had for some...........

Back in Kerman an old man catches us on the street who speaks good English. He doesn't let us get a word in and asks us back to his house for tea. We hesitate and look at each other and then say yes. This is the first time we get an invitation back to someone's house and I am eager. This is a mistake. Ali turns out to be a taxi driver (alarm bells) who introduces us to his wife and son, neither of whom bother to look at us (alarm bells) and then persists in asking a lot of unanswerable questions in a relentless monotone. It is quite clear he is mad. He produces a translation of the Quran and asks for clarification on certain words (e.g. submit). We sit in their lounge and drink tea and the conversation turns to age. We are invited to guess his and his wife's age. He has two teeth and white cropped hair. She has a face like cold tripe. We guess incorrectly by about 15 years. The wife does not look best pleased, and even less so when we are asked about our religion and reply that we have none. Their daughter joins in the conversation. We are asked for gifts for their children which we don't have and when, eventually and thankfully, it is suggested we leave we are asked to pay for the lift back to where we met. We decline and Ali takes us back to town. We are dazed and relieved and angry. A young man says hello etc. and a bit later we see him again. His English is not very good but he says he would like us to come to his house. We don't even look at each other. Naaa, mamnun! No thank you!!!