BY: Australian travel writer Nate Robert
There were four or five pretty young ladies, touching me, stroking my forehead, grabbing my arm, all doe-eyed and fawning, soft-lighting, holding my legs high, cruising at 40000 feet, and well, in that moment I completely forgot about reality. After I’d passed-out and came-to laying down in the aisle of a plane, despite the loveliness of the situation, the ridiculous world I naively wander through had just became very real.
At least three unplanned events had occurred in the lead-up to this moment. Thirty-six sleepless hours. Rapid onset of a killer flu. A crooked Tajikistan police officer attempting to extract a bribe from me, holding my passport hostage in a dark room at the end of a dark corridor (another story, another time). I only had one “official” travel plan – beguilingly simple – reach Iran, today. After the bribes and blackouts, despite my failing health, I was more determined than ever to complete the plan. Because, I know what most of the world doesn’t know – in Iran, I would be safe, comfortable, relaxed, and taken care of.
But, this flu was no joke. Leaving the first plane in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, I faced up to my choices. Stop in modern and tourist friendly UAE, recover, rest, and head to Iran another day. Or, catch a cab cross town, jump on another flight, and fly straight into the mysterious ancient city of Shiraz, Iran – with no visa, no bookings for accommodation, nor any proof of onwards travel. I needed to make a decision.
I did what any sane traveller would do. Spent the last of my UAE Dirams on an Egg McMuffin, smoked a cigarette, drank two black coffees to stay awake a few more hours, coughed a lung up outside the terminal entrance, sat down and caught a few well-needed rays (after spending four months in a bleak post-Soviet winter), and made up for all of those Central Asian Lada-taxis by riding a pimped-out black-on-black Lexus from Dubai to Sharjah. It was time to visit Iran – the sanest travel choice, in an increasingly insane world.
To many people, visiting Iran seems to be a really big deal.
My friends, family, and every person I’ve ever met, has said the same things about Iran. The comments range between “be careful” and “you’re fucking crazy”. This week, I had one reader contact me, explaining that due to the events in Paris, I should be extra careful in Iran. Fortunately, Iran is much safer than Paris.
It’s an insight to the extent of the almost global brainwashing – Iran, a peaceful country who has not been involved in a war since the US backed war with Iraq in the 1980’s, is still considered a key member of the “Axis of Evil”. Unlike nearby nuclear armed Israel and India, Iran has signed a nuclear weapons non-proliferation agreement. They don’t even have any nuclear weapons. For thirty-six years, Iran has undergone crippling economic sanctions from most of the world, for a never ending roster of non-nonsensical non-reasons. And now, Paris. But, there’s always something – the irrational Western fear of Muslim nations knows no bounds. These are the preconceptions that Iranians have to deal with – a French citizen in Paris goes crazy, therefore, Iran is more dangerous this week. And this is why visiting Iran remains a big deal – just because a few exceptionally influential governments and media organisations insist that visiting Iran, really is a big deal.
“Oh, you’re visiting Iran…. hmmm… where is your Visa? And… you don’t seem to have any further flights booked… hmmmm…”
This had happened before. In Malaysia in 2012, they would’t allow me board the flight to Tehran, visa-less, until several layers of managers had discussed my “situation”. The conversation ended with “we’ll let you board, but if it doesn’t work out, you must understand you’re on your own”. Of course, it all worked out. Because Iran is a normal country. With exceptionally welcoming people. And they love tourists.
At Sharjah airport, I’d anticipated this same moment. I knew exactly what to say. However, due to the flu and lack of sleep, I couldn’t I think straight. I just explained myself in the most persuasive way possible.
“Don’t worry about me. It’s all cool. We’ll be fine. I will get an Iranian visa on arrival.”
Seriously, I waved my hand across the desk, just like Ben Kenobe.
“OK. It is all cool. You will be fine. They will give you a visa on arrival. Enjoy Iran.”
My luggage was checked, and a boarding-card issued.
Further along, at the Sharjah customs, the veiled girl with the badge and the pretty eyes gave me the same pause, once she realised I was heading to Iran.
“Oh…. you’re visiting Iran… there is some paperwork you need to complete, especially for you, I’ll just have to get it.”
I waved my hand over the desk.
“There is no paper work for me to complete.”
I looked into her eyes.
“Um, OK, just wait here, I’ll be back with the paperwork.”
The force was strong with this one.
Visiting Iran, is kind of a big deal for the Sharjah authorities. I completed the “special” form, in duplicate. Ticking boxes that indicated I was aware of the “security situation” in Iran. I wondered, what exactly was the security situation in Iran. They wanted contact details, preferences for funeral proceedings, and a complete list of the other fifty-eight countries I had previously visited. A lot of questions later, I was cleared through customs. The flu was catching up again, so I headed to the departure lounge to rest, and await the inevitable next-step.
Over the airport intercom, a “special” announcement was made. Just for travellers bound for Iran. We were to report to a different gate than previously advised, for “advanced security processing”. To Sharjah airport security, travelling to Iran was a big deal. Around an hour earlier than the usual time, we were checked and processed by multiple staff and multiple scanning machines. Then we had to wait in a closed-off section with no option to return to the “normal” part of the airport.
A man was walking around. He was exclusively chatting to tourists bound for Iran. There were four other tourists on this flight. Compared to 2012, an increase of four. That’s a statistically significant 200% increase in tourist numbers to Iran.
“So… you’re going to Shiraz. Do you have a visa? Hmmm. No? Show me your passports……”
I handed them over.
“Oh, so you’re going to get a visa on arrival? Cool. Enjoy Iran.”
Yes, he said “cool”, smiled, and returned our passports. Then he walked away, muffled something into his collar about “affirmative, target has been contacted, returning to ghost-surveillance mode and awaiting further instructions for… ”
Reality was returning. The shackles of Iranian preconceptions were dissolving. The globally constructed media meme of “terrible naughty Iran” was slipping away, I knew everything would be fine from this point, so I passed out for a few minutes rest.
Arriving in Shiraz, the airport bus from plane to terminal confirmed that yes, I was really on the ground in Iran, and so obviously surrounded by Iranians. To understand Iranians, you need to understand “Tarof”. A specifically Iranian social construct that’s far beyond politeness, chivalry, and civility. Tarof permeates Iranian society. The rules are unfathomable to a foreigner. In general, you are obliged to offer whatever you have, to all guests. As a guest, you’re equally obliged to politely refuse. This will go back and forth. On a bus that only has eight seats, with about fifty passengers, this was a glorious game of Iranian musical chairs, both fascinating and heart-warming to be a part of.
With Tarof, does a young lady struggling with a small baby trump a middle-aged lady with a walking stick? Who gets the seat? What about a man who looks kind of young for his age, clearly very fit, but is probably, I guess, sixty or so… does he get the chair, or, as a guest in Iran, do I trump everyone? It was a maelstrom of “please, take the seat”, “no, I insist, you take the seat”, “no, no, please, you take the seat”. When you mix Tarof with the Iranian respect for the elderly, as well as the chivalrous nature of the men, things could get complicated. I decided the best thing to do was just smile wildly, which really, is impossible not to do in this situation, and continue to offer the last remaining seat to every other person on the bus. I knew it would sort itself out, and everyone would be happy no matter what, because Iranians, are just so fucking nice.
I’ll just expand on Tarof, because it really is fascinating. We don’t have Tarof in the “West”. The closest we have is the “who is paying the restaurant bill” – the dance where everyone reaches for their wallet, awkwardly insists on paying, simultaneously hoping that the richest guy at the table will pay for everyone. In Iran, Tarof is that bill-paying moment, several times a day, every day, for the rest of your life. Catching a taxi, a driver told me “no no, your presence as a guest here in Iran is enough. I cannot accept your money”. At the market, I’ve been told at the checkout not to pay, and “may your footsteps fall onto my eye balls”. I’m not joking. Maybe, it seems like it would be annoying, but it’s not. It’s a game, and who doesn’t love games.
Entering the Shiraz terminal, I would soon find out if visiting Iran was a big deal to the authorities – who most definitely do not engage in Tarof with visa-less foreigners.
“Hello Sir. I would like a visa.”
“What is your purpose for visiting Iran?”
He smiled, and walked away with our passports. The next I would see of him, the passports would contain Iranian tourist visa’s. No further questions. One small form. A payment of 100 Euro per person, which came with a receipt and a packet of Banana flavoured gum. No checking, or even asking, about my accommodation or onward travel plans.
By extension, even the Iranian government understands what most of the world doesn’t – these days, visiting Iran really is no big deal. But, it remains a nation full of unparalleled experiences – thanks to the Iranian people.
When I was waiting for the visa, a small girl approached. She sat next to me. Her mother sat a few seats away, veil covering her face. The little girl looked at me, and smiled.
“What does that say?”
I was surprised at her English. She was pointing up, at a sign that said “Welcome to Shiraz”.
“It says Welcome to Shiraz”.
She giggled. And looked at her mother, who smiled.
I pointed up at the Arabic script on the other end of the same wall. Same colour letters, same positioning.
“I guess that says Welcome to Shiraz as well… maybe in your language.”
She giggled again. Eyes so wide.
“So, anyway, I really need to get some rest now, I’m not feeling great”.
“No seriously, I feel pretty shit.”
“Phillipa, I’m going to pass out. This little girl next to me won’t stop giggling. I don’t know what her fucking problem is.”
I didn’t really say that last bit. Well actually I did, but purely for comedic value. I winked at the little girl.
She giggled. Her smile absolutely beamed.
I placed my jacket on the bench, used it as a pillow, and instantly passed out. When I awoke to collect our visa’s, Phillipa told me that the young girl slept next to me the whole time, her head next to mine. And, her father would come over every now and then – he could tell I was sick, and was making sure I was OK. This, is Iran.
Outside, I caught a taxi straight to the hotel I stayed at here in Shiraz, back in 2012. The man at the front desk recognised me.
“Oh my… you have returned! How are you! Have you come straight from Australia?”
I explained that since staying here 2012, I had continued to travel around the world.
“Mr Nate, can I say, you are not a normal tourist. Don’t you get tired of so much travel?”
I explained that no, normally, I don’t get tired. But today, I was absolutely exhausted. He giggled. Must be an Iranian thing, laughing at sickness.
“Do you remember what room you were in last time?”
I had kept the receipt from 2012, and checked the room number. Within a few minutes, I was laying down in a familiar bed.
Oh, one last thing. The Iran tourist visa-on-arrival – it’s for 15 days. I asked if I could extend it, and was told yes, for an additional 15 days. So, I asked if I could extend it a third time.
“ohhhh no. No no. Only one extension.”
He must have seen the look of disappointment on my face, because he winked, and added…
“unless, say, you were sick…”
PS, if you’re a citizen of the United States, Canada, or England, you are unable to get a visa-on-arrival for Iran. The only way you can obtain a tourist visa, is by taking part in an “official” tour of Iran. This is exactly the reason why I have partnered with a local agency in Iran, to offer the most unique “untour” of Iran to my American, Canadian, and British readers. In my opinion, it’s the best travel opportunity of 2015.