Cue the Violins, it’s Over

Never have I been so sad to leave a country. Each time i leave Australia, I’m slightly devastated, and it was very difficult leaving England, but to feel such a deep sense of melancholy after a 30 day trip is without precedent. Without precedent I tell you! At the airport I had a wifi connection, and as if on cue, I read the the news that the US and Iran might be close to a deal, a deal that would surely avert an unnecessary war. I tearfully embraced those around me. They were confused by my show of affection, some were scared. I forcefully hugged them anyway. It created great tension in the departure lounge and caused everyone to gravitate to one side of the room.

Good to see Obama finally doing something that begins to justify his Nobel Peace Prize. Obviously, Congress and Israel are still foaming at the mouth for war, however – as with any childcare centre, the children will scream and the adults will talk. Sometimes it’s just best to let the children scream, because to pamper to their every need is to just encourage them to keep screaming. Eventually, they stop screaming and move onto something else.

My distrust of large chunks of our media has now reached critical levels, we have irreconcilable differences and as such have agreed to part ways. If someone asks if i want to watch the news, I’m going to say, ‘I’m sorry, watch what?’. They’ll clarify, ‘The news you dick’. ‘Oh, i’m sorry, I don’t recognise the news. It’s illegitimate’. ‘Ok, wanker’. ‘Gullible fool’.

As my plane left Iran, I burst open the door for one final act of passion by waving my fist triumphantly to the people below, ‘There’s always hope!’. They all shooed me away, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re going on a bit too much about it now, go off and see your girlfriend, we’ll be fine’. Security came and asked me to sit down. I hugged them. They pulled their guns out and said, ‘This is the last time, sit the fuck down or we’ll nuke you!’. ‘You mean you really are building a bomb?’. ‘Yep. Now sit!’. As the plane took off, i listened to The Beatles track ‘Imagine’, bopping my head and singing loudly to the chorus. Staff asked me to switch off my phone, I said, ‘Hold on, hold on… this is the best bit of the song…IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE…’. She nodded to security who immediately stood up. I complied, ‘Ok, ok, it’s off’. I looked out the window and mused, ‘Everything’s gonna be alright. Yeah, everything’s gonna be alright’.

For the past 30 days I have been in Iran. These are my stories:

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Forced Participation

I’m a staunch critic of forced participation. At one of my guesthouses, I was forced to leave a comment in the book. Well, I wasn’t forced, but my host kept mentioning the book, asking me to flick through it, and went as far as telling me to take it with me into the room one night. ‘You can leave a comment if you want’. ‘Oh can i? Gee, thanks. That’s really great’. It felt like a Larry David moment from Curb Your Enthusiasm. I could imagine larry awkwardly holding the book and turning to Cheryl, ‘what, I have to leave a comment in this thing? I don’t want to, I don’t know what to write’. ‘He’ll be offended if you don’t, just write something. Give it some thought tonight and write something special tomorrow.’ ‘Something special? i barely know the guy. I’m not happy about this’. I ended up writing ‘A little less of the unannounced entries into my room would have been nice. 10pm is not really an appropriate time to just casually stroll into my room, unannounced, and ask how I am. What if I was having a wank? Ever think of that?’

That was the last ever entry into the guest book, the guest book has now been retired.

*Obviously, as an obedient young catholic boy, I’d never be so dirty as to masturbate (I’d have a priest do it for me).

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Iran & Tea: A Love Story

Iranians are obsessed with tea, the amount of times I was force fed the stuff. The obsession reached crisis point one afternoon when I was being driven to a bus terminal. We were running late for the bus, so naturally I was a little on edge, mainly because I’d seen enough of the desert and desperately wanted to get out. ‘This sand is really starting to get on my nerves. Look at it, it’s everywhere. In my shoes, my pockets, my camera… this is ridiculous. I want nothing to interfere with me getting the hell away from this desert, 10 days is enough’. Because we’re running late, naturally my driver decides to stop and have some tea. Wtf? Not only do I not want yet another bloody tea, I don’t want to have one at the cost of me getting out of the desert. No chance – into the tea shed we stroll, and a massive glass of tea is handed to me. ‘For fucks sake’ I think, ‘this is ridiculous’. I really, really don’t want it. My stomach is already filled with the stuff, every time I move I feel it slushing around.

Iranians have an extremely high tolerance to boiling water. The tea will be poured, piping hot, straight from the kettle, and they’ll neck it like an Anglo necks beer. I don’t have a high tolerance to boiling water, so I need to wait til mine settles. They all look at me shaking their heads, ‘Why doesn’t he just drink it?’. One small sip. Ouch, too hot. Just give me a minute. Another small sip. Ouch, still too hot. And so on. It is a humiliating experience. They’re all swallowing balls of fire, eating cubes of raw sugar straight from the jar, and I can’t even manage a cup of tea. My driver is ready to go, now he’s getting edgy about time. ‘See, if you’d listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this mess’. So for the next 5 minutes I take baby sips of the tea, burning myself each time, while everyone looks at me in disgust. I’d have loved to have just left it there, but you can’t knock back a tea in Iran, it’d be like a woman showing her hair, ‘How dare you!’. You don’t get a say, just drink the damn thing. Then when you’ve finished, drink another. I’d generally be ok with the first few, after the third I’d start getting worried. After the fifth I’m starting to panic. Then I’d hear the woman rustling around in the kitchen, ‘Oh no, I think they’re having another round. No thank you’. They just laugh and hand it to me anyway. I struggle through another. And another. And another. ‘Please, no more’, as tea starts leaking out of my eyes. I get up and smile, ‘Ok I’m leaving now’. They insist I stay for another…’Tea? Tea?’ ‘We’ve already had 7 glasses, are you people insane?! It’s a 5 minute walk to the loo from my room, i need to control my liquid intake, I’m going to be up all night’. That’s true, a devastating side effect from the excessive consumption of tea, means ill be weeing 12 times a day for the next 5 years. I’d be wandering through the yard at 3am, crashing into goats and chickens while looking for the toilet. ‘He’s at it again, that’s the fourth time tonight’.

Afterthought
Isn’t the point of tea, as in England and Australia, to accompany something you’re doing, I.e talking to a friend, watching tv, reading, relaxing, getting you through a day at work? We don’t say as we’re speeding along the highway, ‘hold on, just going to pull in here and neck a boiling hot cup of tea. I don’t get it.’ To be honest I don’t get tea in general. To me, it’s just flavoured water. If I never have another tea, forced down my throat or otherwise, I’ll be a happy man.

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Wow, it’s…

There’s two types of wows, there’s ‘Wow, it’s incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it. I could die tomorrow and I’d feel like I did enough. In fact, kill me now, I’ve peaked, from here I can really only regress’. Then there’s ‘Wow, it’s really average. Kill me’. After the initial exhilarating fortnight in Iran, I went through a few days where there seemed to be quite a few of the latter ‘wows’. Stuff just seemed average. Thankfully no-one killed me, though quite a few of my drivers tried. Rational fear is fear based on facts and evidence. For this reason, my deep fear each time I stepped into an Iranian car was quite rational. Iran is the car fatality capital of the world. There’s no mystery why, they drive like lunatics, and don’t wear seatbelts. I’d almost be sniggered at for putting my seatbelt on, and testing it out each time I stepped into a suicide machine, sorry… car, ‘The tough men die in the crash, only the pussys survive… with their seatbelts’. ‘Ah, If we should happen to brake suddenly while moving at this speed, there’s only one place we’re all headed – heaven, and there’s only one way to get there – by smashing out heads through the front window’. I thought about buying a helmet and padding for each journey.

Back to wow factors. I went through a period of extreme apathy, as i began to learn how to figure out when Lonely Planet writers were talking balls, and when they were talking sense. My theory is, being travel writers, they’ve probably read a lot of travel writing – Hemingway, Twain, Polo etc. And sometimes they just can’t resist exaggerating their writing so they can make it sound more poetic, and put it in their folio. Some of the stuff they wrote was just plain nonsense. I’d look at the attraction, then re-read their description, ‘wait a minute, you think this is the most exquisite thing in the world?’ If i was editor, I’d say, ‘Ok, put the joint away, sober up, and rewrite your piece. This time, make it non-fiction’.

As with life, behind every grey sky is a burst of sunlight (unless you’re talking about London in winter), the tide of apathy promptly turned, and it turned in the oasis city of Garmeh. My guesthouse host had been talking down Garmeh the entire time I was with him. Lonely Planet said it was a must-see. Mohammad said I should avoid it – I was confused. And no internet meant I had no way of finding the truth. I went to Garmeh by virtue of circumstance, rather than choice. I’d decided to head further north to a more remote oasis, but they were was no accommodation available. So I decided to stop in at Garmeh for a night. It would be one of the more memorable nights of the trip.

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The Burning Spirit of Iran

Sometimes, the best stuff appears right out of nowhere and is completely unexpected. 31.10.13 is one such example. I’d made it to Garmeh, late, with few expectations. The dining area of the home stay  was full of young Iranians, (without hijabs) many of whom were keen to talk to me. We spoke for a while, before they told me about their plan to head out to the desert and sit around a fire, and I’m welcome to join. Ok. I didn’t bring my camera, partly because I wanted a rare night where i didn’t play the role of an annoying paparazzi prick, and partly because I had no idea how great the night would be. We walked and walked, before finding a couple of guys with instruments by a fire. For the next 2 hours there was music, laughter and tears. 3 guys played a set with instruments I’d never seen or heard of. The type of musicians who look like they have a deep affinity with the music they make. This wasn’t a garage band, it was something you’d happily pay good money to see. There would be moments where one person would lead the singing, then, everyone would sing. What amazed me was the quality of their singing voices. If a bunch of everyday Australians or English were sitting around a fire singing, I’d pay to leave. These were well honed singing voices, made more exotic because they were singing in Farsi. The songs, I was told,  were quite patriotic. Not the sort of patriotism that aligns itself with power, ego, or military; rather, it was the type of patriotism that aligns itself with the culture and people of their country – the only type of patriotism I could ever embrace. The lyrics were so moving, that several people were in tears as they sang. I was told some of the tears related to the attempted uprising in 2009, when the government brutally crushed those protesting the disputed reelection of Ahmadinejad. This was young, secular Iran in action – no hijabs, no sharia law, alcohol is legal here. This was one of those moments where everything feels surreal. Is it really happening? Is it a movie? Sitting by a fire in the Iranian desert, with a group of young Iranians, singing about the love of their country. A country they love so much, it brings them to tears.

It was 2:30 am before I wearily returned to my room. Waiting for me was a friend I’d been chatting to earlier. I told him all about the night, he said ‘Yeah, yeah. I’m sleeping on the end of your bed tonight. Night’.

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Unattractive Attractions

Some people travel purely for the sites. It’s obvious at any major attraction, or any town that finds itself on the well worn path, even in Iran. The main cities of Central Iran are different to the rest of Iran. All of a sudden everything changes – the stores are full of souvenirs instead of local goods, the people are not wanting to talk to you bc you’re different, they want to talk to you bc you have money. The bazaar is less about watching locals in action, and more about watching the techniques they deploy to try and get you to buy a rug. I don’t mind, they’re just making a living, but from a travellers point of view, I don’t get it –  what’s the appeal with these places? Everything is choreographed and everyone is doing the same thing – standing around looking at stuff, patiently queuing to enter a site, or all sitting at the same restaurants. The village itself, that’s the site. There’s no 400 year old mosque, museum or ancient building, but theres a gaping mountain to wake up to each morning. There’s goats running across the road, there’s over-excited kids who’ve never seen an Anglo before, there’s other-worldy fashion statements, there’s the colour of the sky – these are the sites. Lonely planet is almost apologetic of such places, ‘there’s no sites’. Who bloody cares. You’ll never get a decent photo at the tourist traps. The best photos I shot in Iran were from random wanderings. You can randomly wander in parts of Iran and Turkey, in a way you cant wander in the west, because there’s less of a fear factor. In Australia, England or the US, I simply couldn’t randomly wander into someone’s land, or approach their house. People are protective of their land, in the US I’d probably be shot. In parts of Iran, I’d walk and walk, climb into some bushes, and then stumble across a family bashing pomegranates into buckets. Instead of being alarmed and being asked to leave their property, I’m asked to sit down and eat a pomegranate. Or, I’d see a Shepard with his flock, approach him, walk with him and end up back at his house for dinner. I’d say thanks and leave, then walk straight into another shepherd, ‘Here we go again’, as i bolt after him. You can’t go wrong with a Shepard photo. All the Shepard’s are different – some are just kids in a pair of track suit pants, others look like they’ve been guiding their herd since biblical times. This sort of stuff is just not going to happen at a tourist attraction. It may sound reckless to just wander into a strangers’ homes, but you need to be here to experience the feeling there is of safety and trust. Some of the fears we have in the west, are unique to westerners. They’re not universal, and shouldn’t necessarily be carried with us throughout the world. Fear for the sake of fear – if something is remotely possible, then fear it. I don’t want to paint a utopian picture, it’s far from it, but in this one aspect – fear, or lack there of, of each other; it’s another world. I felt completely safe, always. It’s a unique feeling. As that president said, ‘the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself’. (Disclaimer: I speak from the perspective of a male (obviously). Woman, unfortunately; need to be more vigilant).

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Being a Nerd, & Forced Relaxation

In parts of Iran, several travellers I met seemed to be battling loneliness. Next to no western tourists, coupled with the language barrier and unreliable internet, meant you’d go days, or longer, without English or contact with the outside world. These people often came to me for advise. I’d sit them down, spark up my cigar, stroke my beard and encourage them to adopt a different outlook (they’d tell me to stop being a wanker and to just try and have a normal conversation). OK, sorry. I’ll be normal. Think about it, when are you ever going to be in this situation again, to just have time in the evenings – no distractions, no web, no commitments, to just read and relax. Forced relaxation is a beautiful thing, if you can find a way to embrace it. It’s not until everything you’re accustomed to is taken away, that you think to find something else to engage in.

I’m generally not a marathon reader, i tend to read a lot of different content, in short, sharp bursts, like someone with ADD. That changed. I read. In a way I’ve never read before. In the real world, when do you get the opportunity to just read? Theres too many distractions – emails, pointless meandering on the web, TV. And who can be arsed with intense reading when you’ve just spent the past 8 hours at your desk working? I could feel my brain throbbing each evening, facilitated by a clearer mind from the absence of alcohol. I have an Encoclopeida downloaded onto my iPad, so when I needed info on something I read, I’d go there. It often spiralled out of control as one page would lead to another and so on. I learnt more in the past month, than all of the past year. It was a sweet ride. Embrace the uniqueness of the situation, and make the best of it. Then you begin to discover that no web and no alcohol, may not be such a bad thing after-all (for now anyway). When normal life resumes, I’ll have more than enough time for the distractions of Facebook, the cloudy mind created by friday night drinks, the cheeky midday pint on a Sunday afternoon, or the brain drain from designing something for an impossible client. Now, embrace the moment.

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Who Put the ‘Anti’ in Anti-American?

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These images probably fulfil all of the comfortable stereotypes you have of Iran – unreasonably hostile/American-hating extremists. These shots were taken outside the former American embassy in Tehran, now dubbed the US Den of Espionage. Its walls are filled with anti-American murals. ‘Why are they so anti American?!’ you angrily cry. Well, a quick flick through Wikipedia tells us how the US has been waging war against Iran for over 50 years. In 1953, Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, paid the price for having the nerve (and mandate) to seek a better deal for the Iranian people when it came to profits from their own oil. Obviously, this type of defiance to a western master is completely unacceptable. Foreign countries should never have a say in how their own resources are distributed!! So, Churchill promptly persuaded Eisenhower to have the CIA oust Iran’s democratically elected leader, resulting in the US installing one of its first ever, anti democratic, puppet regimes (the first of many). And, receiving a 40% stake of Iranian oil in the process. This is how you create an Empire. And this is how you create ‘Anti-American’ sentiment, making a target out of yourself in the process. Whats wrong with that? Reverse the roles: The Iranian Quds plotted to, and successfully ousted, a popular American President, so it could install an Islamist sympathiser in the White House and finagle a greater stake of Wall Street profits for Iran. Imagine. No thanks. If that happened, the species would be extinct by now.

But wait, theres more. There’s Iran’s humiliating loss of sovereignty over the next 30 years under the boot of US foreign policy extremists, which eventually led to the revolution. The future Supreme Leader being tortured by the CIA backed regime (and we wonder why he’s distrustful of the west). There’s the US pouring billions and billions of dollars to support Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. There’s W Bush thanking Iran for its intelligence and tactical support in the US war against the Taliban, by unexpectedly naming Iran as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, a comment which officially ended the developing relations between the 2 countries. There’s the barrage of propaganda flowing about the supposed ‘threat’ of Iran, in defiance of the facts. Propaganda so effective that everyone actually believes it. Oh, and there’s the repeated bomb threats and crippling economic sanctions, which are more about appeasing the strategic interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia than preventing any nuclear proliferation (FYI, the US and Israel are 2 of the most lethally armed nuclear weapons states in the world, both have used chemical weapons during invasions in the past decade *Google Fallujah or Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza*, no inspections or sanctions for them though).

That’s only a snippet. You don’t need to listen to any Anti-American Clerics to learn more, just go to Wikipedia for a summary of the history, it’s depressing. And Its not ‘Anti-American’, it’s ‘Knowledge of recent history’. The difference between your average westerner, versus your average other, is the others generally know exactly what the US and its allies have done in their region over the years, because they live and die with the consequences. The New York Times calls it ‘Protecting American interests’ in the region. Locals call it ‘resource grabbing Imperialism’. So the question is not, ‘Why is the Iranian government distrustful of the USA?’, the question is, ‘What exactly did the governments of the USA expect?’ Not every nation can be bought like the Israelis and Saudis.

For the record, over the past month, your average Iranian had absolutely no issue with your average American, or westerner. Quite the opposite. Western foreign policy on the other hand, well, join the club.

A Stuff & Shit Editorial
None of this is to excuse the current Iranian regime and its repressive and backward DNA. They take ultimate responsibility for their actions and their warped interpretation of Islam. But, it’s difficult to deny that US foreign policy is part of their backward DNA. A history of coups, bomb threats, funding enemies and gross double standards makes the regime more inward, more extreme and more anti-American. The regime may be a threat to sections of its own society, but it’s not a threat to the world. For these reasons, the sanctions should end and dialogue should be encouraged. There should be a regional commitment for nuclear disarmament, with all states adhering to the same code. The aspirations of Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony, and the warmongering of Israel, should not factor in attempts to lift sanctions or encourage dialogue. Governments should avoid meddling in regime change because ultimately, change must come from within. This is the Stuff & Shit road map to sustainable peace in the region.

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Noisy Neighbours

Reading the news yesterday about how Israel is trying to block the US and Iran from inching towards diplomacy, made me think of Israel as a spoilt little brat. They’re like the annoying little juvenile that no-one likes – always starting fights and being an obnoxious loudmouth, but has to be tolerated because it has a rich and powerful father. ‘If it wasn’t for your dad, we’d have sent you to your room long ago. Please, no-one likes you, just shut up!!’. If only.

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UPDATE FROM IRAN

I may end up becoming a travel agent for Iran. Currently in the mountains near the Iraqi border, Howaraman, which is a series of Kurdish Villages built into the mountains. I feel like I’ve entered a movie set – never have I seen anything like it, never will I see anything like it. The people are happy, honest, kind and all that crap. I’ve been invited into family homes and cooked for, shown family photos, given tea etc etc. The impression that we have of Iran being dangerous, is just plain embarrassing on our part. I won’t crap on about that though. Exactly halfway through the trip, plan to dart east to the desert tomorrow before making my way south to cross the Persian Gulf to Dubai, where i will meet a Bondurant. Strangely, this seems to be the only place I’ve had a wifi connection – deep the in mountains. Not fast enough to upload pics to my site though, but I can sneak a few very lo-res versions from the past few weeks here, all from north west Iran, which is a spectacularly diverse region in its own right. I’ve taken thousands of pics, it’s a shame I can’t share them as i go, internet is practically useless. I have absolutely no idea what is happening in the rest of the world, please let me know if Obama decides to bomb us.

Travel stories below.

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