04.07.2007 - 13.07.2007 50 °C
The cabin door slid open and a slick dark haired Georgian stuck his head out and grunted at me to come to him. I looked up and down the train corridor, no one was about. I wandered over to the cabin and stuck my head in the door, there were five of them in there altogether and when I saw what was in his hand, I froze and uttered the words "oh crap!"
The Train was stifling as I fought my way into the small 4 person sleeper, an older couple followed me in so I threw my pack on the top bunk and sat in the corner and sweated while they fluffed about. As we pulled out of the station they turned to me and asked "where are you from?" Then burst into big smiles and laughter at my reply. This was followed buy the seemingly more frequent question of "what on earth is someone from New Zealand doing in the former USSR?"
"Ah" was all I had managed when Slovene answered his own question on my behalf "you're on an adventure" he boomed slapping his thigh with his hand and beaming at his wife. With that I was adopted by my new Georgian parents who then helped me negotiate the rather slow and all in Russian Georgian/Azeri border and of course showed me the usual local hospitality of feeding me up to my eye balls on bread, cheese, egg and cucumber. "This is for you, here eat some more" fussed Slovene's wife in true mother hen style till I could hardly move.
As I stood outside waiting for the others to make their beds I was giving thanks that they did not follow the other local custom of Chacha (the local Vodka ) which, to be honest, could double as varnish remover. I rubbed my poor stomach and shuddered at the other night that had seen me passed out on the tiles in my guest house in close proximity to the toilet. I thought the battle was won when the 500ml bottle was drunk over dinner only to be horrified when Gaylar, the baker from across the road, produced a two litre coke bottle filled with the stuff and re-filled the more decadent glass bottle he had on the table. Try telling someone that was probably bottled fed on Vodka from birth, that, no, you really can't drink any more. You get a look that says they think you want to stop breathing oxygen.
I recognized one of the five from my own cabin, the other man thrusted the bottle at me and bellowed "you come drink Chacha" while pointing at me with his index finger from his paw like hands.
"Ah crap!" I shuddered and then shrugged, well a Kiwi's got to do what a Kiwi's got to do, and in the name of international relations I took up the last seat in the cabin and knocked back the shot that was placed into my hand in one go, as per local drinking law. After asking my name and where I was from it was like I had arrived at Auckland and was drinking Battery acid and eating strong sausage and bread with my 5 oldest friends. One of these guys with a beaming smile managed to name three major cities back home, came out with "James Cook" the stumbled out into the corridor and did a cracking rendition of the Haka. The ransom was pretty light, as this time when the bottle finished, that was it and I was made to swap skype address so that they could call me. I sure that the conversation at the time seemed like it was flowing quite nicely and with that I was freed and allowed to wobble my way back to my bunk.
Driving through the desert of Azerbaijan watching the oil pumps rock back and forwards like hammers, I was fuming. I had been ripped off by the money changer big time, the first taxi driver wanted $20 for the ride and when told where to go he decide to keep my back pack hostage in the boot. However, tip to future taxi drivers, when you have someone's stuff locked in your car don't point at that person swearing at them with the keys to the said car in the same hand, because said Kiwi will grab your keys, unlock the boot, retrieve the back pack, throw the keys in the boot, smile, and say "later sucker!" and of course waves as the Kiwi drives by in a cab for quarter of the price while the former cab driver is still dicking around trying to get the keys out of his locked car. The bus station had been a mass of people, fumes and noise but I managed to get a ride to the Iran border. Now as we drove through the desert that stretched as far as the eye could see to my right and to the glittering blue Caspian Sea on my left, on a bus without air conditioning, all I wanted was a bottle of water. But all I could do was sit there fuming and roll the dry lump of meat I had for a tongue around my mouth. I couldn't not use any of my small notes because they were ripped. I thought US dollars would be king but whenever I pulled these ripped bills out of my pocket they screwed their noses up like I was offering them used toilet paper.
As the third police officer checked my passport within 100m of where it had just been stamped more out of curiosity than a matter of security I thought that their actions summed up my very short experience of Azerbaijan. Walking down the road with the bored policemen at my back , supervising the holes that were being dug in the road that joined Azerbaijan with Iran, I began to get a twinge of excitement that I have not felt in a long time. Normally when I cross a boarder I am slightly nervous or sometimes indifferent but this time I was smiling to myself as the metal plates, on the bridge across the bread filled river that forms the countries divide, banged and shifted under my weight. The day was perfect, warm and cloudless. Birds were singing and I even caught my last glimpse of the Caspian glittering light blue diamonds.
The first Persian I met was the berka clad immigration official who, as per my preconceived perception, looked at my passport, then at me and yelled "where is your pass port?"
"That is my passport" was my bemused reply
"This is not passport! Where is your pass port?" she scowled giving me that look that only a woman can
"Well princess I don't know what to tell you!" I chuckled abusing the language barrier.
Finally someone came and translated asking where I was from and what my name was with that information I was stamped in and on my merry way to the customs hall.
I was met again by another black clad young lady who looked at my name and asked me giggling, why I have three names in regard to my two middle names my parents blessed me with.
"Well my Mum got a little carried away when I was born" I smiled a little embarrassed. She then went on to read out my name and explained where I was from to everyone in the hall and after the commotion settled she turned to me and gave me the warmest smile I have ever seen and said "Welcome to Iran David."
Hamid caught my eye as I walked into the bus station mainly because he look so out of place with his very western style of clothing topped of by a pair of aviators. He hung back watching me buy my ticket, like a four year old would from behind a mother's legs. Later he appeared while I was eating my first Kebab which consisted of mince meat and had a few uncooked onions thrown for good measure. He helped me change some money after a fun session of him trying to use his few words of English and me my few words in Farsi. Hamid was then leafing through my guide book and saw a picture of a water pipe, he pointed and I nodded and before I knew, I had been thrown in the back of a taxi and brought to a tea house. A mint flavoured pipe was produced and he soon had me drinking Cay in the Persian way of holding a sugar cube between my teeth and sipping at the hot brown tea that comes in a small tulip shaped glass. With the use of photos, sign language and the phrase book we managed to communicate rather well and the only cost to me (because he refused to let me pay a cent) was that I was paraded down the main street to be shown off to his friends. Hamid then carried my back pack to the bus and put me in the front seat behind the driver. This turned out to be far from ideal for an overnighter as the bus was equipped with a fog horn from the USS Abraham that was used far too often. He then shook my hand and waved me off like a mate from London at the start of this trip.
I had just endured the horror of another squat toilet and was washing my hands when the old timer next to me started up in Farsi making a gesture of flipping something over in his hands and using my confused smile as consent. He abducted me, he almost frog marched me to a restaurant across the road. I was met by the wide and confused eyes of his three sons. These young men were the pride and joy of their Father who enthusiastically mimed what his boys did with a beaming smile while looking very chuffed. From his actions and the fact that all their hands and forearms were filthy, I guessed that these guys were wielders. The food soon appeared and it was the world famous Kebab again which I was then shown how to eat with my hands, after shyly starting with a fork. I was sitting there, when suddenly all eyes were on me, it took a while to twig but they were all waiting for me to finish my drink before they got up to leave. Such manners and hospitality, I could not force the 10 000 riel note into anyone's hands to cover the cost of my meal.
I could write many paragraphs about random abductions that turn into free guided tours, meals in people's homes or just tea and a chat, about amazing politeness and humbling hospitality along with an incredible sense of welcome that I have received from this, the axis of evil! In fact since I have been typing this blog the taxi driver that gave me a lift has come back over half an hour later and given me the post cards that I left in his car. He had a joke that the heat must be getting to me as he found out that I gave the exchange guy 60 dollars instead of 50 which he then gave back to me with the Rials I had asked for. Another man persisted with me when I smiled and said sorry I'm not sure what you are saying, ignoring him by keeping on typing, he then reappeared a few minutes later with a delicious meal of chicken and rice and a cold drink from the birthday that is going on, gave this to me, smiled and went and sat down again. I had a blood nose while sitting here and when I went and got a tissue you would have though I had been shot the fuss that was made over me. Check out these kids in the video I was reading my book and they come over and just chilled out asking heaps of question and the now and then would break into song and dance.
So yes Iran has a crap government and if that is a reason to invade a country then, certain so called "super powers" should have been attacked a longtime ago. The people here are truly amazing and if anyone should be shot it is the tools in the CNN and BBC that lead the so called free people of the West, including myself , to believe Iran is a country of AK47 toting Islamic extremist who want to destroy the US at all cost.
Right I have had my rant so I am going to get of my high horse have some tea and hope that I get kidnapped again, its fun! I seriously hope anyone that reads this seriously puts their preconceptions aside and considers Iran as a travel destination. As put by one back packer, if there was a "back packing scale of difficulty" then Iran would be at the bottom.