Travel writing is the description of a different reality. For this reason, I have always found it almost impossible to write anything interesting about my travels, mainly because I become so instantly absorbed within this new reality that I fail to write down unusual impressions – once you’ve been in Delhi for a few hours, you stop thinking about the cows crossing the road, or the heat, saris, rickshaws and grand old colonial building, and don’t even think to describe any of it. It would be like describing the fact you walked past Starbucks on your way home from work.
The exception to this was my trip to Iran in December 1997. Given the level of bureaucracy involved in getting the visa, I was very aware of how special it was, and wrote down every single impression. I probably wrote about 20 pages in the two weeks I was there – while hedging around the descriptions of alcohol and parties in case they searched my things at the airport. The slight snag is that being a very disorganised student at the time, I managed to lose the folder, so I just have snapshots in my head:
My parents put me on a flight from Frankfurt to Tehran with Austrian Airlines – they thought Iranair might be too immediately frightening, since women apparently have to cover their heads as soon as they board. It was still one of the most daunting flights I’ve been on, because I had absolutely no idea what awaited me. For the whole of the five hours from Vienna, I watched the dot on the map edging closer and closer to Tehran, and wishing more than anything that it would suddenly turn around and land in Turkey with engine failure. Even a plane crash seemed preferable to being alone in this terrifying country. I spoke maybe 100 words of Farsi, and in the days before mobile phones, there seemed to be nothing to fall back on if the people who were supposed to be meeting me at the airport weren’t there.
We landed, and the stewardesses waved us goodbye without ever stepping out of the plane doors. It was very cold, so the long coat and scarf wrapped around my head didn’t seem too strange to me. The first shock was the queues separated by gender at customs. The second was the rather extensive luggage searches, which I seem to remember explicitly asked everyone whether they were carrying any pornography or alcohol. I imagined the irony of someone absent-mindedly taking Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a bit of light reading on the plane, and wondered whether that would count – it probably would.
The third shock was the really vast number of police armed with machine guns that patrolled the exit of the airport. They didn’t hold their guns the way that police here do, carefully held upward and not moving; these were AK47s that were held straight in front of them, in a firing position. My hosts were there to greet me, and although they had never met me, seemed to instantly recognise me – I suspect I may have been the only 19-year old blonde girl getting off the plane. The woman was very warm and welcoming, and shook my hand. Her husband stood behind her, and having shaken her hand, I naturally extended my hand towards him. The police all murmured and moved a step towards us. I rather quickly put my hand down, stupid mistake trying to shake a man’s hand.
When we got back to their house, they told me many stories of the police, of friends that had been beaten, friends that had disappeared. They were so welcoming, and their children wanted to know all about life in Germany, which naturally they seemed to view as paradise. Their questions mainly revolved around the internet, and the concept of being able to write, read and say whatever I liked.
It makes me so sad, that country. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, with some of the most hospitable people, the most delicious food, stunning landscapes and good weather certainly in the North. They are so desperate for freedom and all the little things we take for granted, like not being arrested for looking a policeman in the eye. I saw the Shah’s crown jewels – unlike other “crown jewels”, we were talking piles and piles of emeralds, rubies and diamonds, so many that it seemed inconceivable they were real. People showed me English tourist brochures from 1977, with texts like “Tehran – the Cote D’Azur of the Middle East”, and “Nightclub right by the beach, drink until dawn”…
I travelled through the Alborz mountain range around Damavand to the south shore of the Caspian sea. The trip there was a little nerve-wrecking, travelling in a pickup truck along tiny pot-holed roads etched into the side of the mountain, with a very chatty driver who mostly waved his arms around to point out individual mountains, or slopes with the burnt-out wreckage of a bus crash. He occasionally put both hands back on the steering wheel while he tore around the tight corners.
I drank very strong home-made vodka, and saw the sparkly cocktail dresses the women wear indoors. All the people I met were so lively and enthusiastic, so desperate to be part of the world again, and considerably more cultured and knowledgeable than most of my friends. They seemed to have read more Shakespeare than I have, and were well acquainted with Western art and music. I got some charming marriage proposals (“you have beauty and breeding, that is perfect”), interesting views on Germany (“we like Germans because of the Jews”), and entertaining ideas about Western customs (guy whose favourite show was Baywatch: “you must find it strange not wearing bikini in the street”).
My favourite part was the little truckstops by the side of the road in the mountains, serving mutton stew, and yoghurt in single-use clay bowls, and the breathtaking snow-capped peaks. My least favourite part was when I lost the customs exit form, and was taken out of the boarding queue to a separate room, and quizzed extensively about my business in Iran. I cried a lot and explained in my very broken Farsi that I was a language student, waved my German passport around and generally looked stupid, which seemed to work. The huge relief at getting back on the plane to freedom, and away from the fear that pervades each individual’s daily life, was memorable.