This Sort of Thing...


A Fistful of Rials



Part 2 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia. 

Stepping through the aircraft door into the night, a hot dusty wind burnt my face and I wished that I had taken the trouble to learn how to say hello in Farsi so that I could make an immediate impression on the people who were to be my hosts for the next ten days. I could remember how to say goodbye in Cockney, so my parting words to the stewardess came without difficulty, apart from the fact that she wasn’t listening to me. This, I imagined, was because her mind was elsewhere as she brooded over her misfortune at having to do a stopover in a city where she wouldn’t be able to indulge in cocktails whilst sunning herself half-naked beside a hotel pool, unlike her workmates who had probably been sending her boastful and sarcastic text messages from places like Singapore and Bangkok.

With my feet finally and firmly on Persian soil, I joined the queue for passport control where I met a second member of our group, Andy from Kidderminster. But I lost American Connie with whom I had become acquainted during the long-haul flight from London. With dozens of stamps and visas in her passport it was as thick as a Hong Kong telephone directory and the immigration officer examining it complained of being overworked. So she was taken away by serious but polite men in uniforms to a nearby office to be dealt with behind a closed door by someone more senior. Meanwhile, all other passengers from the Boeing 777 on which we had arrived, having met all the requirements for entering the country, nervously looked over their shoulders for her as we reclaimed our belongings from a serpentine luggage carousel.

Despite bearing an uncanny resemblance to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the lady who was cashier number three in Chippenham Post Office had, a month earlier, been unable to provide me with a supply of Iranian money. So while I was waiting for the reappearance of Connie and/or something else to happen, I went to a currency exchange window to change some cash. I got six million rials, just to be on the safe side. It seemed to me that Iranian people really got the most out of their money as the banknotes I was given had been used so many times that many of them in my bulging wallet (I wished I’d remembered to pack a Tesco bag for life) were almost black. Even those that were in a better condition bore denominations in Persian numerals which I didn’t recognise. So when the man behind the counter took a heavy bundle from an old cardboard box on the floor and began to count them out, I could only stand and watch in amazement. He said he had given me six million but I couldn’t be certain. ‘What’s a million or two between friends?’ I thought. My involvement in the transaction had been to hand over to him one hundred crisp English pounds, and it was worth every penny of those for the experience alone.

Struggling to walk under the weight of my holiday money, I waddled back over to where a dozen or so people had congregated beneath a piece of card on a stick bearing the X Travels logo. Here we met our tour guide for the first time. I think we were all surprised to find that a woman had been given the responsibility of looking after us and educating us for the duration of the trip. In any other country it wouldn’t have seemed unusual at all but in Iran things were a bit different. Here I’m going to call her Mahtab, though that wasn’t her real name. I don’t want to reveal her true identity as there’s a strong possibility that I’ll go on to write something that doesn’t go down well with Sharia law. We can never be sure about Sharia or who might read what we write on a computer, and I don’t want her to get into serious trouble as a result of my words. I have known a real-life Iranian woman by the name of Mahtab (which is the Farsi word for moonlight). Both women were incredibly brave and strong in the difficult circumstances in which they lived and worked so, in my mind, switching the names was an easy and sensible thing to do. 

At three o’clock in the morning the members of our newly formed travel group were all too tired for proper introductions so there were just a few half-hearted smiles and nods at each other. There was no great need to impress and forge immediate friendships as we didn’t need to worry about not being included in rounds for drinks because there wasn’t going to be any alcohol on the trip. Connie, having caught up with us and looking a little flustered, was the only one who spoke. She was disgusted with the way she had been kept waiting by the immigration people. It hadn’t been like that when she was there in 1956. She was surprised that they didn’t have special treatment for American citizens, and she had told them so. The rest of us thought that they probably did have, as we’d all sailed through the border control business in a matter of just a few minutes. The staff at the Imam Khomeini International Airport had turned out to be much more welcoming than most of us had expected, but maybe they took objection to Connie’s passport in the past having been stamped with Israeli or Iraqi visas, or her foot having been stamped that night with an air of superiority and arrogance.

For an hour on a cold, air-conditioned bus I peered out through tinted glass windows at deserted Tehrani streets lit by flashing neon signs sufficient in number to make Las Vegas look like Burnley. Everyone else slept except the driver and Mahtab, who sat at the front clutching her X Travels clipboard and smiling. I wanted to talk to her. I had a million questions to ask about her and her country and what the indecipherable writing on the neon signs might have said, but I was concerned about gender etiquette and I didn’t want to wake the others up. Tentatively, I smiled back at five minute intervals until the bus pulled up outside Hotel Mashad in the city’s fashionable and exotically named District 6.

The list of group members on the X Travels clipboard was scrutinised and ticked as room keys were handed out by a young woman with stunning Persian features. Then young men dressed like the bellhops in 1930s Hollywood films appeared from nowhere to whisk luggage away to hotel rooms. From previous adventure trips I had learned that the likelihood of having spare time to spend alone was quite slim, so single travellers usually skipped paying the supplement to have a room to themselves. This meant sharing with a stranger and the stranger that I had been allocated for this trip was the aforementioned Andy from Kidderminster. He seemed like a nice enough fella, though it was difficult to understand his peculiar lingo when he spoke.

Feeling as worn out as an imam’s prayer mat, I spent thirty seconds in the shower and then what seemed like another thirty seconds, but which was actually as long as three whole hours, sleeping. Before going up to the room I’d had the forethought to ask the receptionist for an early morning call, though it seemed a little strange that when I was requesting it we had already reached an hour that could be considered to be early morning. The phone on the table at the other side of the large room rang precisely at the time I had suggested and by the time I had walked across to answer it I was wide awake and fully aware that I had a big adventure to be getting on with.

We breakfasted in the eighth-floor rooftop restaurant with windows and doors open wide so we could wander out onto a sunny terrace to look down on the busy streets below. Tehran was a great sprawling city. Its thoroughfares forming a vast grid of almost stationary traffic with a cacophony of early morning noises and innumerable people casually going about what they needed to do to start their day. On almost every corner I could see somebody selling something, mostly fruit or nuts or freshly squeezed juice. In the distance the Alborz Mountains rose steeply from the plain and immediately behind them, although not visible, was the Caspian Sea. Mahtab said she could arrange for us to go skiing in the mountains but it was very expensive and it wouldn’t be possible until we’d done all the mosques on our list. Oh, and we’d probably have to wait a month or two for some snow to fall.

Unlimited quantities of fried eggs, brown fava beans (baghali pokhte) and slightly charred pita bread, all washed down with sweet black tea and finished off with sweet yellow cake (yazdi) seemed a perfect way to start the day whilst simultaneously engaging in the embryonic stage of group bonding. The main conversation starter seemed to be the question of how well each of us had slept. I told everyone who asked me that I had slept very well but, at the risk of sounding a little negative, I added ‘though not for very long.’

After taking our much needed nourishment, Mahtab gave us the mandatory trip talk about rules and regulations and plans and possibilities. At the top of the list was a reminder about dress code and respect, both needing to be strictly adhered to throughout the country. Women had to have the tops of their heads covered whenever they left their rooms and both sexes had to keep arms and legs covered. I took consolation from the fact that the wearing of socks wasn’t compulsory. Even the Ayatollah recognised that socks with sandals wasn’t a cool look.

Then she told us to look sharp, and tell our bellhops to look sharp, as we were expected to get our kit together and meet downstairs in the foyer in half an hour. I was already packed up and raring to go so I spent my time on the terrace with my trusty camera, taking in the splendour of the amazing sights around me but which were not yet in reach. Kicking off with a new batch of travel photographs that I knew I would treasure forever was almost as exciting as the realisation that I was in Western Asia at the beginning of a massive dose of full-on culture shock.

My first full Persian breakfast had been delicious but I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into my first mosque.


 A Fistful of Rials.


PhotographCashier number three at the currency exchange bureau at Tehran International Airport.


Link to Part 3: 

Lovely Palace, Must Fly



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