The Unwanted Tour
On the trip south there seemed to be police checkpoints every hour or so. I wouldn’t have thought much about them except my driver, Moghadam, would turned the tape player down and sat up a little straighter. We were always waved through except at one as we neared Bam in the southern desert.
Here Moghadam scrambled to get his documents together and got out to talk to the soldiers. I toyed with the idea of walking around and taking a few photos, but thought better of it after looking at the rifles and pistols these guys were carrying. After a few minutes Moghadam came back and asked for my papers. These were the ones I had been given when I first arrived in Iran; the ones I had been told very clearly to always have with me; the very same ones that I had for some unknown reason decided to leave at the hotel that day.
Moghadam, already worked up in a nervous sweat, looked crestfallen and headed back to explain to the police. As he disappeared into a building I figured were the headquarters, a solider came and started searching the car: first the trunk and then the back seat. He looked in my daypack and he even opened my bottle of mineral water.
As I sat there waiting, I tried to calculate the worse case scenario. I naively figured that at worse I wouldn’t be allowed to proceed and would be sent back. Now, on further reflection, I realize that if I hadn’t had proper identification they probably would have detained me. To make matters worse I didn’t have my passport with me: the hotels always insist on keeping it for their security.
Anyway, this drama has a happy ending. After a few minutes Moghadam reappeared, got in the car and we took off. I could see he was quite flustered. As soon as the checkpoint was out of sight he explained, using his limited English and pantomime, that he had a copy of my papers, but soldiers wanted the original – the one’s I was supposed to be carrying.
He had used his mobile phone, a device I had been making fun of in my mind because he was talking on it so much, to save the day: he called my travel agent in Tehran who cleared the matter up. Moghadam also made it clear I should never leave my papers behind – that time I got the message.
Yazd, Tuesday, April 13
We headed out into the morning rush hour and quickly passed through some ugly industrial suburbs. Within minutes we were in the open desert – flat, sandy with only a hint of vegetation. Whenever we came to a little rise I could see the road shimmering miles and miles straight ahead – wow, this was going to be an exciting ride.
At first I was disappointed my driver, Moghadam, didn’t speak any English – I had specifically asked for one who did – but after an hour of quiet, I realized what a blessing it would be. Now I could just sit and think about my trip: what I had seen so far and what lay ahead. I’m used to traveling alone and enjoy my own company.
After a few hours we stopped in the town of Nain to look at an old mosque. There was also an old house nearby, called Pirnia House. It had been converted into a museum and I got a tour of it too. It looked like a place that someone pretty important would have lived in. It was built around a huge garden courtyard.
Before we took to the road again we stood by the trunk and had a cup of chay – tea. It became our routine over the next four days to stop every few hours and have some chay. Every morning I saw Moghadam having his thermos refilled.
Back on the road I started nodding off and it was only the excitement (or fear) of passing huge smoke-belching trucks that kept me awake. To amuse myself I translated the license number of the trucks, which were in Arabic numbers – it was good practice, but I soon tired of that too. Moghadam had a few tapes of Iranian music that he played real loud – they helped keep me awake.
Around 11:30 we arrived in Yazd. I had learned in Isfahan that just about everything closes from about 1:00 to 4:30. As we had an hour or so left, I asked Moghadam to go to the main mosque. I did this by simply saying, over and over, “Jame, Jame.” Jame is the standard name for what I was accustomed to calling the Friday mosque – the main mosque of the town. I could see that Moghadam wasn’t happy about this, but I just didn’t want to waste the whole afternoon sitting at the hotel, so I insisted.
The mosque had a huge entrance that was decorated with Islamic calligraphy, scripture for the Holy Koran, and was flanked by two tall, slender minarets. Inside there was a large central courtyard and an ornate prayer hall. It was during this quick visit that I realized I had a problem. When we arrived I suggested that Moghadam just wait in the car but he insisted on coming along – and worse, he wanted to be my guide. I am much happier just wandering and making my own discoveries, even if I miss a few things – that’s why I travel alone.
Actually Moghadam’s wanting to be my guide caught me off guard. I guess I should have anticipated it, but really all I wanted was a driver, someone to take me from place to place. Anyway, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful so I followed him around. We also took a short walk around the immediate neighborhood. If it had been up to me I would have headed to the bazaar.
At the hotel, the Engherlab, there was some kind of confusion about my reservation. I stood around for more than half an hour while Moghadam and the desk clerk argued. After several phone calls things were finally cleared up and I was asked to fill out the registration card. When I finished the clerk asked for my passport and I kind of tossed it to him: I was a little weary of the whole thing. I’m afraid I threw it a little harder that I should have and it hit him on the arm.
I immediately realized I had offended him. I tried to apologize, but how could I? He didn’t speak any English, nor did Moghadam. Anyway, he got even by giving me what I’m sure was the worst room in the hotel. It was tiny and smelt of insecticide, but I figured it was for just one night so I didn’t argue.
Not long after I got to my room Moghadam showed up and made a little pantomime with his hand that we should go eat. That was fine with me. We drove to a restaurant quite near the hotel – it was back on the main road. As we were getting out of the car I noticed three men in suits going into the restaurant. Each of them was backing up and trying to get the others to go first. It was quite comical as they stepped farther and farther from the door.
Moghadam caught me laughing and commented with a grin, “Iranians”. Then he made me go though the door first: he did so at every door – Iranians! Anyway the food was great, the best I had had yet. It was the standard Iranian fare: soup, rice and some kind grilled meat, all washed down with a Zam-Zam cola.
After lunch Moghadam took a nap and I sat in the lobby hoping to write. I had hardly gotten my journal out when another guest, an Iranian, stopped to talk to me. Soon a little crowd of his buddies surrounded me and started asking all sorts of questions about America. They were apparently a camera crew making some kind of film or video – their English wasn’t real good, so I couldn’t tell for sure. Anyway, after they left I sat and wrote until Moghadam came back to continue our tour.
At this point I had resigned myself, at least for today, to follow him. First we headed out of town and stopped in the desert by a couple of hills. I could see there was a round building on the top each. They were the Towers of Silence, places members of the Zoroastrian religion used to leave their dead for the vultures, much like the Parsi in India do today. We climbed up but there wasn’t much to see except the view back toward the city. Next we stopped at a Zoroastrian temple where a sacred flame has been burning for 1500 years.
Then we headed into town. We took a longer walk in the area around the Jame Mosque in the old part of the city. The buildings were all covered with a mixture of straw and mud. It gave the beige walls a soft hand-formed look. We visited a few more mosques and then walked around the bazaar for a while before head back to the hotel. There was no one in the lobby so I decided to head to bed.