Some Reflections in Persia

When we first visited Ferdswi Café, and saw it was actually open, I blinked away a few tears of relief. I saw the hipster young staff with their converse sneakers, and smelled the aroma of real espresso, and something in my chest expanded and smiled. It was the oasis of Western culture and familiarity I had been craving. It doesn’t matter that they use UHT milk that gives me diarrhoea with a consistent time lapse of four hours, or that the staff are polite to the point of subservient to us. It doesn’t matter that I feel customers and staff alike intensely scanning my face for longer than is polite whenever I’m here. None of that matters. The point is they play The Supremes and REM and Colin Hay and Pink Floyd and Elvis. I know the names of the beverages, because the menu is written in English and Farsi. This café could be in Brisbane or Seattle, or yes, here in Shiraz.

It would be easy to take the difficult aspects of Iran into this café with me: the exhaustion of these last few weeks, the sparse desert-mountain terrain surrounding Shiraz, or the way some locals’ eyes flicker to my purse as they charge outrageous tourist prices, but that’s not what this place is about. This place is about the aqua tiles that climb halfway up the walls and provide an aura of calm, with the colourful fishes and flowers and oriental faces painted on them, looking cartoonish and comical. It’s about the old records lined up on a shelf from biggest to smallest above the front door, and the way they have hand-painted the large hanging globe lights suspended high above us in bright colours.

It’s also about the raised workstation that I can’t see into, and the mysterious smells that come from it. I can see jars of nameless teas lined up along the high bench, which acts as barrier between us the kitchen. I want to know where the music is coming from (who put together the playlist?), and what sneakers the cook is wearing. Now that I think of it, I want to merge with the solid Persian man with the hippie hairstyle leaning languidly on the front counter. I want to know him, and understand what he is about and why he exists. If I could become him, maybe just for a few seconds, how differently I might see the world, and what a shift in feeling it would be. I want him to see me, to feel me, to look at me and know the entirety of me, and in his expression see reflected the thought: I see you. And I understand. Instead, he brings us our latte and French coffee, and there is a tension, a straining on his part to get it right, to anticipate us and yet to not be less than us.

 I need to understand who painted the half-finished aquamarine beams high above our heads; to picture their whole history, and immediately understand the heart and soul of this place; how and why it breathes, how people come to be here and what they feel and, by extension, what they want from me. Could it be that in this place of Western celebration that someone like me, a Westerner, is some sort of ideal, some sort of standard by which to measure their success? They are attentive, grateful towards us, and full of ways to improve our experience. And I want to tell them – don’t. Don’t be like this. You are amazing. What you have is enough, and you are enough. You are more than enough. I am not your judge. We are not the kind people you need to impress. You, and your sneakers and hipster glasses and that trendy vest – the person who decided to put “I want to know what love is” on the play list – are the true stars here, my heroes. You have saved my life, and will never know what this – what you – mean to me. Thank you. Thank you for doing this.

Inside, there is an icy hand gently stroking my stomach, pressing down finger by finger, and now strengthening its grip and starting to twist. The coldness begins to vibrate and then suddenly, like a dam bursting, it flows like a powerful river through my whole body, cascading waterfall-like over my thoughts, pouring cold water over everything. Now something heavy is lowering slowly yet firmly on my chest, and my breath catches just short of an audible gasp, because suddenly I am awash with a nameless fear, an existential terror, at being stripped bare and naked in a big, cold world: a white woman with a pink headscarf and little else in Iran, and then…I don’t know what, or where, or how, or why. At the same time, a familiar jazz track is playing and cheerful pansies are looking back at me from their boxed rows along the glass shop front. Maybe everything will be OK after this, in the nameless place where I will take off my headscarf and conduct the next phase of my life because, thank God, there are pansies and familiar jazz tracks here, and a young guy whose face lights up every time we tell him the coffee is great, as though it really means something to him.

Today they played Johnny and June Cash, and in the middle of singing along to Jackson someone – I don’t know who – skipped the track, and now it is Bob Marley, and Jesse reminds me that I am committing a crime right now, at this very moment: I am a woman in Iran, dancing in public (with my feet and hands and head and shoulders whilst seated, but still). I danced harder, and then promised I would have a blog post by 6pm. He held out his hand and, mid shake, I pull away, quickly spit in my palm, and force it back into his hand. Oh, I will pay for that one. I will pay. Instead, I go into the bathroom and notice that there are stains on my headscarf, and then imagine how happy I will be to liberate my hair in a week’s time, and how it will bounce and flow and animate its way in the world around it, cheekily speaking its own language, uninhibited by foreign laws.

Yesterday from a crowded and cheap fast-food restaurant near our hostel, we sat and watched a flock of homing pigeons flying overhead in the afternoon sky. They wheeled in a tight circle, dark silhouettes against fresh blue space, and disappeared behind a building, only to appear again, and again, again. 30, 40, 100 times, never detouring from their tiny flight path. Had no one told them they were free, that they needn’t return home to their owner? How easily one might have broken free, and flown alone, poignantly into the distant sky, his back towards the others. And maybe they would have seen the idea, and followed. But no, they have been trained well. 120, 130, 140 times. Again and again, going around in circles, an invisible wall between them and the rest of the sky. How big and impossible it must have seemed to them, how very much beyond their ken. That they might take up more than a tiny wheel of space and truly spread their wings in any direction they choose – well, maybe it is better they do not know of it, of the bigness and possibility, which itself can be a burden.

The small sausage pizza I ordered was really vegetarian pizza with some pale pink deli meat tucked under the layers of cheese. The large bottle of non-alcoholic beer was really a pineapple-flavoured fizzy drink, and the cheap plastic cups they gave us bent and caved in with the slightest pressure. Later, in our room, we alternated between this drink and the thermos of black tea the hostel owner had presented to Jesse earlier in the evening, which we sip out of ceramic blue and white mugs with lumps of white sugar tossed in.

We watch Kramer vs Kramer, and afterwards I wax lyrical about Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, and posit that there is no bad movie with either of them in it, but that’s not even it: if I were to really articulate my meaning, I would say they are my heroes, geniuses, and that I am at once envious of them, and also grateful that things are exactly as they are. What a thing it must be to see the world through their eyes, and have the talent to inhabit the skin of any person or object or situation at will, with such apparent ease and grace. Only five days ago we had watched Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and every now and then, for no reason, I will say to Jesse, in my own version of a an old woman with a Danish accent, I had a farm in Africa. I had a farm in Africa…

And even as I speak, it I am reminded of my Nana, and her love of the book (the real-life story and literary masterpiece of Danish author Karen Blixen) and of Africa. It was she, my Nana, who first gave me the book maybe ten years ago, which I never read until now, on this trip, in Iran. What a relief and thing of beauty I found it to be. And all the while, through the movie, amidst my love of Meryl Streep and the snatches of time reading the book on buses and trains, I am seeing my Nana, and her sarong and green-olive sun-hat, on the beach, and feeling the strength and warmth of her hands. She went to Zimbabwe and loved it, never stopped talking about it. And now, maybe twenty-five years after that, I am in Iran, carrying this book around, thinking of my Nana and saying over and over again in bad Danish accent, I had a farm in Africa, I had a farm in Africa…

 We leave tomorrow night, and will spend 24 hours on a train from Shiraz to Mashard. In four days’ time from then, we fly to New Delhi, and then to Kathmandu. The time here has been full of plans for Pokhara, Nepal, and talk of the small, rural property I would like to hire for a month, overlooking a lake and rice paddy fields and against a backdrop of the Himalayas. Will I hire a scooter or a bicycle to make the three-kilometre journey into town for daily yoga? If I have drinks in town with friends, is it easy to navigate my way home in the darkness? The owner hasn’t replied to my message with all of its questions, and in the silence there are dozens of exciting possibilities, which I know will soon be whittled down to a handful of cold, hard facts. So in the meantime, I continue to imagine and discuss and plan, blissfully unaware yet of the stark realities.

We have been in Ferdswi Café for five hours today. The staff know how much I enjoy listening to Johnny Cash, and keep replaying his tracks. The large hanging globe lights are on now, and it is nice to see the precise shade of light they give out underneath their hand-painted green exterior. In an hour’s time, when the dinner menu starts, we will order some vegetarian pasta, drink some more water (we have been slack this week) and then make our way back to our hostel, amidst the traffic and bazaars and hawkers and crowds of women in black chadors and men in tight jeans. Of what rubbish we will discuss then, I know not. But it is now 5:24pm, and I believe I will deliver my blog post on time – early, in fact. The slimy, unexpected spittle squashed between our palms must have worked to make it so.

I had a farm in Africa. I had a farm in Africa….


Iran Day One

We arrived at the Tehran train station around 4:30-5:00am on Saturday 1 November 2014. We’d had a reasonable amount of sleep and had given ourselves plenty of time on the train to wash, change into clean clothes and just generally feel fresh and ready for the next part of our adventure.

It was dark outside when we arrived, and the train station didn’t seem very big (we later discovered we were in a little offshoot of the main central station, which is quite big and probably would have had WiFi). We had planned to spend our first few nights in Iran couch surfing as it seemed like the best way to ease ourselves into the culture. However, with no WiFi access on the train and none at the station, we didn’t know whether our requests had been accepted and what arrangements were potentially in place. We decided to wing it and hail a taxi and try to communicate that we would like to be taken to a mid-range hotel.

The taxi driver didn’t speak English, but we loaded our stuff into the car anyway and as we were driving out, he stopped at the security gate and checked in with a man who did speak English. The man confirmed with us that we had no prior booking and would like to be taken to a mid-range hotel that costs around 15 euros per night. As is the custom in Iran, I sat in the back of the taxi and Jesse sat in the front seat.

We drove for about 20 minutes before the driver stopped at a very nice-looking hotel. The drive there was another story altogether: suffice it to say that speed limit signs and road lines are completely pointless in Iran.

When we parked, the driver indicated for us to stay in the car while he went in and talked to the hotel staff. After a few minutes, he came out and indicated for Jesse to come in, but for me to stay in the car. He reiterated this point by locking me in the car using a child-proof safety lock system! I found it pretty funny, but was also wary enough to locate where to unlock it from inside the car, just in case the taxi driver wasn’t the big fatherly teddy bear I had him pinned as.

They came out a short while later, and we drove off. Jesse explained that the place was too expensive, more like 60 euro per night. The thing with money and foreigners in Iran is this: the cash you bring in is the only money you have access to while you’re there. Credit cards are not accepted at all in Iran, and ATMs are only available to locals, not tourists. You need to bring in everything necessary in cold, hard cash and be careful about what you spend. Inflation is enormous in Iran and can change on a daily basis. We exchanged US $500 on the train, and got roughly 14 million Iranian Rials in return. Incidentally, the Lonely Planet guide we were referring to was enormously outdated (we later found out), and so that amount of money (which we thought would be more than adequate for 21 days) turned out to be not feasible. The cab ride alone cost us 500 000 rials. Fortunately, I had 500 euros that I hadn’t changed and Jesse had some more US dollars, so we should be fine. But back to the story….

After ten minutes, we arrived at another hotel. Again, the driver went in by himself to speak to the staff and indicated that we should stay in the car. Then he came out again and beckoned for Jesse to join him, and locked me in the car again. After five minutes, Jesse came out and got my passport and disappeared again. I know I shouldn’t have, but I kind of enjoyed having everything sorted out without my input. It gave me time to dream about wearing my play shorts. That’s probably the nice way of looking at it.

Things eventually got sorted out, and the men came out to grab all the luggage, and me, from the car. The hotel was quite nice, but I later found out a lot more expensive than our requested 15 euros. It was actually 45 euros, which equalled about 1.5 million rials. So in our first hour, we spent 2 million of our 14 million rials. Yikes!

It was great to have our own space and for me to be able to take off the many layers I was required to wear, and ditch my headscarf (which is generally quite snug, but a relief not to have to wear, nonetheless). By then it was about 6-6:30am. We decided to nap for a few hours, and ended up rising around 11-12pm. We had some leftover Iranian Pepsi and biscuits from the train, so we snacked a little. Eventually (not that we wanted to because we were so tired) we got up and went outside to explore and get something to eat. We seemed to be a less salubrious, quite industrial part of town. The traffic was very busy, and we played Russian roulette with our lives crossing the road. Basically, pedestrian crossings are entirely ornamental, and people (motorbikes, cars) just drive through at high-speed anyone. It is the combined responsibility of the pedestrian and driver to ensure there is no crash. I shat myself the first time I had to cross a busy intersection, but after a while there seemed to be a common sense/flow about it. Basically, everyone does whatever they need to do to ensure someone isn’t killed.

There weren’t a lot of restaurants on this side of town, and everything was written in Farsi, so we couldn’t understand anything or read menus. Eventually, we passed a very touristy pizza/fast food place. This is where we discovered how grossly misinformed we had been about the currency. We managed to order a pizza and burger, and got told it would cost us 20000 tomans. Basically, one toman is equal to ten rials. So what we were prepared to pay for in rials, we discovered was actually ten times more expensive – the meal would cost us 200,000 rials.

At first we thought we were being grossly ripped off, and hung back from paying whilst we tried to learn the Farsi phrase for “lower” and “I think it’s too expensive.” Eventually, we paid, and later found out it was correct. Doh!

We went home after that, and I napped for another few hours and woke up to loud drumming outside around 7pm. Jesse had been doing stuff on his computer. At 8pm, I was wide awake and Jesse then turned in. I got dressed up and went down into the hotel lobby cafe for a disgusting 3 in 1 Nescafe and to catch up on some emails. I also asked the lovely Persian lady on the front desk where I could buy some appropriate clothing, because I only had one outfit. She was so, so beautiful. She wrote down in English and Farsi a place for me to go, and how much it would cost me in taxi fare. She then offered to come with me and help me shop! I was so touched, and really excited. However, we were checking out the next morning and had loose couch surfing arrangements with our next host, and I felt hesitant to lock something in. I thanked her very much though, and was genuinely touched. Persian women are outwardly beautiful, and inwardly beautiful.

After that it was bed time – sweet, sweet bed time.











From Turkey to Iran

We began our three-day journey to Tehran from Turkey on Wednesday 29 October 2014. There were two train legs and a ferry component. At 12:30pm, we got a shuttle bus from The Pilot hotel in Cappadocia to the train station, about a one-hour drive. The train was due to depart at 5:30pm, and we got there around 2pm. The staff spoke very limited English, but we were able to purchase our train tickets OK. They cost us about $50AUD each.

We went out and got some food and a coffee in town to kill some time. I think the staff at the café assumed we were German, because they kept saying Auf Weidersehn to us. Jesse ordered Kofte Meatballs and I ordered Nescafe. I didn’t realise that they had given me the 3-in-1 sachet Nescafe (coffee, milk, sugar) until I added my own sugar and then tasted how sickly sweet it was. I finished it anyway, much to Jesse’s disgust. The drink I first looked down my nose at as become a secret love, and about as healthy as drinking a cup of tooth decay.

We got back to the train station around 4:45pm. There were a lot of people, and I wasn’t sure if they were Iranians or Turks, but later found out most of them were Iranians. There were a small handful of German backpackers also. There was a very diverse range of people – families, elderly couples, single men – and everyone seemed cheerful and friendly enough. From what I could see there were a lot of families, and some pretty cute kids running around too. True story: the coolest, most upbeat and friendly guy on this trip was a Downs Syndrome Iranian boy. He was about seventeen, and full of confidence and life. He made a point of talking to everyone over the course of the three days, danced for us all whilst we were aboard the ferry, and was just generally awesome. But I digress.

Whilst waiting for the train, I took out a book and put my glasses on. Prior to this, Jesse and I had been feeling a bit invisible. There were heaps of people around us, and lots of conversation and stuff happening, and we were completely alienated because of the language barrier, and also a bit of shyness. Most people glanced at us once or twice and then ignored us. I think that English as a second language is less common further away from capital cities.

For some reason, once I put my glasses on, people started paying attention to us. The whole energy changed and it’s like we were given some respect and weight. It’s hard to explain how this occurred, but suddenly people were looking our way, pointing, whispering, and we both stood a little taller from the sheer relief of not being completely invisible. We felt like celebrities. Little children came up to us and said hello. It was as though we were being viewed in a new light – maybe she is a doctor, a physicist, or a scholar. Little did they know I usually can’t even remember my own street address and postcode. We laughed, but I also decided that whilst in transit I would wear my glasses often. They seemed to be the only bargaining chip we had, apart from the fact that we were clueless tourists.

Something else I should explain about Turkish and, I can now confirm, Iranian public transport: it is very random. It is not uncommon to have unscheduled stops, irregular or no toilet breaks, and things occurring which nobody has any idea about. And for the majority of the time, no one really questions it. The onus is on finding out the information for yourself, and then it gets spread via word of mouth. If you don’t speak the language, you remain clueless and just have to wait and see what unfolds. There is no public, formal announcement. You can’t expect everything to work, or even for the amenities to be clean. I always travel with my own tissues/toilet paper, as the majority of public amenities offer neither. On the flip side, people seem to be blessed with the ability to roll with things and make the best of whatever situation they are faced with.

Our first train ride on the Trans Asia Express was for about 20 hours, and thankfully was an overall pleasant experience. When we first got into our compartment, the two of us, plus our backpacks and other gear, completely filled it. It was set up with two opposing couches that could fit four people facing opposite each other, and then the couches folded out into bunks. There were four bunk beds per compartment, but it was very cramped.

We had different information about how crowded it would be, and were banking on the fact that two young Western travel companions with a shit load of luggage would not be an appealing prospect to most locals. Already, there seemed to be a village/community feel amongst the passengers which unfortunately we didn’t exude. I was hoping prospective compartment-mates would decline sharing with us due to the lack of camaraderie. I couldn’t imagine 20 hours of silence or forced polite conversation with strangers when all I wanted to do was change into my play shorts and sleep.

I literally prayed to God that we would have the compartment to ourselves. Things were looking good, until the last minute, when an elderly Iranian couple was led into our compartment by the conductor. I am still quite ashamed about my reaction now. I was devastated, and showed it. The elderly woman was so sweet and smiling and laughing (even though she couldn’t have been relishing the prospect of spending he next 20 hours with us) and we both looked completely shell-shocked. We had presence enough to move what we could of our luggage out of the way, by putting the backpacks above us on a bunk, but that was it. I sat there glaring out the window, refusing to attempt small talk and hoping that if I were surly enough they would try to find another compartment. Sad but true.

They weren’t keen either and could tell it was an uninviting prospect: room-mates they couldn’t communicate with, a fuck-tonne of luggage, our strange Western ways….in the end, the man found another compartment and they bid us a civilised goodbye. We were free! I was too relieved to feel really ashamed about my behaviour, but don’t worry – my Catholic guilt sank in later. But it was for the best. We would have felt constrained and so would they.

Now that we had our own compartment, we sealed the deal by spreading all of our gear out. The top bunks held our luggage. The windows were tinted and also had curtains, so I was able to change into my beloved play shorts and singlet top. Anytime I left the compartment, I changed into jeans and long-sleeved top.

We actually had a really nice time. In our bottom bunk beds, we faced the window and could watch the Turkish countryside rolling by from the comfort of our beds. It was like watching a real-life movie. In some parts, the countryside was a little like what I imagine Switzerland to be like: rolling green mountains, clear brooks and streams, some snow-capped peaks. Meanwhile, the temperature inside was very hot at a minimum of 23 degrees in an enclosed space. Fortunately we were able to open the window a bit and both wear play-shorts – something that wouldn’t have been possible with other companions – so we ended up being fairly cool. We basically slept, read, watched movies on the laptops and chatted for 20 hours in our own space. It was like a really long sleep-over with random Iranians m mistaking your compartment for their own and taking you by surprise when you are having a moment with your stuffed bunny. It was fun.

The only kinda non-fun aspect to it was that I was sick. We had both been fighting off coughs and colds for the last week, and were probably both a little run-down. The night before we caught the train, I only got three hours’ sleep. I found that as we were packing to catch the shuttle bus, I started to feel a bit sinusy. By the time we were well into our train ride, my nose was like a faucet, my voice sounded like death and I was coughing like a smoker (I’m sure all the shisha had nothing to do with it). The positive side of this is that it made me sleepy, along with all the sinus medication I was taking, so I did sleep quite a bit. I had some emergency antibiotics in my first aid kit, but chose to let food be my medicine. So I ate cucumber, grapes, mandarins and drank heaps of water. No coffee, and did my best to cut down on sugar. Incidentally, I felt better by the next day.

The rest of the train ride was relatively uneventful, the only real down-side being the water closet (toilet). It smelled so bad, and I dry-reached every time I went into it. It was the traditional hole-in-the-floor style so things were very close to home. People had been very messy in using it, and the irony was that there was a toilet brush still in its plastic covering right next to it, untouched. Anyway, it’s all part of the experience.

We arrived at Van around 3:30pm the next day, and had to catch the ferry across the enormous lake. It took about five hours. The ferry was a sizeable passenger ferry, big enough to accommodate a few hundred people, but also not in the best shape. The light above where we were sitting was a hole in the roof with a wire hanging out. In the women’s WC there were only two toilets. One (the western toilet) didn’t have a light, toilet paper or a working flush, so it was out. The other was a traditional floor toilet, which was pretty muddy and ripe. It didn’t have toilet paper either, but it did have a working light. Yay!

The ferry ride was fairly uneventful – we watched a movie on Jesse’s laptop, I read my book, we got awesome sandwiches for roughly 4TL total. It was oily, toasted Turkish bread with cheese, salami and some sort of tomato sauce. After a day of not much eating, it really hit the spot. My biggest concern was now foraging enough napkins as possible to serve as both tissues and toilet paper. Fortunately, I had stolen a roll of toilet paper from our first AirBNB apartment, which at the time was kind of a joke, but now was nearly as indispensable as my passport and Buster, and, I was learning, equally rare.

I had just spread out across some empty seats and gotten really comfortable and sleepy (thanks, flu medication!) when we docked. Pissed off and happy at the same time, I joined Jesse in getting our shoes and coats on as quickly as possible so we could grab our gear and hopefully get a good train compartment on the second train. We stood up, teetering under our heavy packs, and began to move out of the crowded room.

Now, this is a shout-out to Iranian and Turkish men. Bless them, they have a genuine concern for most people, and take on responsibility for situations and things very naturally. They are very paternal. As we were moving, an elderly Iranian man indicated to me in broken English, “No train. Two. Cold.” After a bit more back-and-forth like that, we managed to establish that the train was not coming for a long time, and that if we waited outside we would be cold. So we sat back down. I was learning to trust the locals, who, despite the lack of clear guidance and communication, always seemed to know what was going on. Most of them were still in their seats. A few younger backpackers had left, but came back after ten minutes or so. So we spent another hour sitting in the ferry.

After that, there was some sort of signal that we could leave. So we left, and then waited in the crowded train station waiting room. It was probably around 10pm by this point. There was no train, so we just sat and read. I finished To The Lighthouse. Then after maybe an hour, the train arrived. Jesse and I were up with our bags on so quickly. We were determined to get our own compartment for the next leg of the trip, or at least not be the last to board.

But no. As soon as the cheers died down (everyone was so happy when the train arrived) we began to understand that we all had to get our tickets stamped and verified and provided passports etc. There were two men doing this at the front desk. Mind you, they didn’t provide this service whilst we were all sitting on our asses for an hour; it only started once the actual train arrived. So, fast-forward another half an hour and all the men rushing the counter – we had our tickets verified and could go.

This time, despite our determination, we didn’t get a compartment to ourselves. We had prepared ourselves for this however, and I wasn’t a complete bitch to our new companions.

The compartments (now on an Iranian train) were nicer and I think a little more spacious. They had little fold-back tables between seats and complimentary thermoses of hot water for tea. We found our compartment, and dumped our stuff. Then, two Iranian men, maybe in their late 30s, came in. They didn’t look thrilled to see us either, but both were very polite (from what we could tell). It was impossible for all of us to sit comfortably with all of Jesse and my luggage, so we dumped it all on one of the upper bunks, and indicated to the men that they could have the two bottom bunks, and we would share the remaining upper bunk. Nothing promotes closeness like spooning on a single bunk bed in an overheated room for 24 hours.

During this time, a conductor visited and asked us if we wanted dinner. Even though I wasn’t really hungry, I said yes and so did Jesse. The men declined. We were given massive plates of white rice piled high over what appeared to be half a chicken each. Also, some yogurt, biscuits, tea and a soft drink each. It was a very heavy meal to take in at any time, let alone roughly at 12am, so I ate a bit of rice and my tub of yogurt. The Iranian had left the carriage and we used this time to arrange ourselves.

In the process of doing this, we discovered that with some tactical manoeuvring and ingenious usage of space, we could actually stow our luggage in the overhead rack and Jesse and I could have a top bunk each. It was a small yet important victory.

I now hadn’t showered in god knows how many days, and was still in the same clothes I’d started out in: jeans, a thermal singlet, a long-sleeved thermal shirt, and a light, long-sleeved top over the two. Also a very snug, sleeveless puffer jacket. Many of these items will be burned when I conclude my travels.

The temperature in the room was stiflingly hot, even with the compartment door open. There was a heat vent next to the window, and it was burning. Grade eight science lessons now came to mind – hot air rises. Great, we had the top bunks. The two Iranian men, who barely had any luggage, didn’t seem to be bothered. They were both dressed in nice jeans and sweaters. I was wondering how, in this very confined space with two strange (yet seemingly nice) men I could possibly change into my play-shorts and singlet top and be comfortable for the next 24 hours without breaking some sort of law or moral code.

I indicated to one of the men, who had a very nice yet serious, almost brotherly attitude, that it was very hot. He nodded, looking responsible, and opened the top window. It opened to its capacity, maybe two inches. I thanked him.

We all made our beds, settled in and turned off the lights. I had made the decision that, Iranian train or no Iranian train; strange Muslim men or no strange Muslim men that I was getting into my play-shorts and singlet top. It was simply too hot to stay in jeans and thermals. It was also awkward to go digging around in our massive backpacks for more suitable clothing, as they were tightly wedged in the luggage compartment and the clothes packed in tightly. We had to work with what we had, and my play-shorts were in my backpack.

Now that the lights were off (although it wasn’t all that dark) I sat up in my bunk bed and took off my two top layers so I was in my sleeveless black thermal singlet. This was OK. Then, stretched out on my bunk with a single sheet covering me, I started to take of my skinny leg jeans, which was a bit of a mission. Just as they were off and I was in my undies, there was a sharp rap and the compartment door slid open. Two Iranian conductors were asking for our passports. Sweet Jesus. Fortunately, mine was next to my head; so I tried to look nonchalant as I passed it down to them from my bunk, taking care that the sheet should never unravel and reveal my tropical island-themed Bonds to these men. But yeah. On an Iranian train, unable to speak the language and surrounded by four Iranian men, wearing nothing but a singlet top and Bonds with only a very thin sheet to protect my modesty. Talk about feeling vulnerable. On a positive note, I have found Iranians to be very friendly, polite and respectful, and if there had been an accidental slip, I believe they would have been kind enough to “not notice.”

After that, we all drifted off to sleep. Both of the Iranian men slept with one arm covering their eyes. I thought maybe this was out of respect to me (the man on the bottom bunk bed diagonal me had a full view of me), until Jesse pointed out it could also be to block out the light. Maybe a little for column A and a little from column B. No idea what time it was by that stage. Interestingly, I felt much safer on this train and with these companions than if I had been in the same situation in say Australian or America.

The herding wasn’t over. We got woken up a few hours later at the Iranian border. We had to disembark the train, walk into a building and get our Visas approved. Again, we didn’t really know what was happening. We knew we were at the border crossing and to have out passports ready, but that was it.

By the time I ditched my play-shorts and changed into “proper” clothes, including a headscarf, we were amongst the last to disembark. When we got on the platform, which was dark, we found it to be very cold. I was prepared and had worn my jacket, but Jesse was in a t-shirt. Why….

Everything was empty and silent, and there were steams of breath issuing from our mouths. We followed some women in front of us, and after a few hundred metres eventually came to the building (it was more like a single room) where everyone from our train was packed in. All the familiar faces! We joined a queue and got our passports stamped. The young Iranian guy at the counter was quite friendly. He asked me for my Turkish visa, and I shook my head and said, tren (to indicate it’s back on the train). He shook his head, didn’t ask any more questions, and stamped my passport anyway.

After that, we played the waiting game again: we all sat down and waited maybe an hour until, by some invisible signal, we were told we could return to the train. When we got back on, we all tumbled into our respective bunks fully clothed and fell asleep. It was 4:30am.

We all slept, and then got woken up again some hours later. One of the men in our carriage tried to explain what was happening, but we didn’t get it. Then the conductor came in to speak to us. Somehow, it was conveyed that we needed to get off the train. We didn’t need our passports or luggage. We got off, and found that we were at a nice-looking platform and everyone milling around in a quite nice station room. Most of them had their luggage. It turned out that we had moved a total of 1km from our location last night where we got our visas approved.

By this point, I was feeling very tired and at the end of my rope. Jesse and I could see that some people had their luggage out and some didn’t, and we didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anyone who seemed able to explain to us what was happening. The prospect of going back onto the train and packing all of our shit and lugging it out was not inviting. We didn’t know what to do, so I decided to go to the toilet.

On the Iranian train, they lock the water closets whenever the train isn’t in motion. Our train had been sitting in one spot for something like seven hours. I wasn’t busting, but the few attempts I had made to visit the WC on the train had been unsuccessful since we first boarded. I found one at this new station, and there were many women in it, obviously with the same idea. Of course, all of the toilets were gloried holes in the ground with mud and urine splash back around them and no toilet paper. I asked an elderly German backpacker if she spoke English, and she indicated she did. I asked her if she knew what was happening, and she said we had to get our luggage inspected. So customs. She told me to look for a conductor in a red jacket to talk to. I went outside, and couldn’t see Jesse anywhere. I didn’t know if he’d gone back to our carriage or to the bathroom or what. I could feel dozens of eyes on me, and knew that I must look lost and confused and young and western and naïve. I got teary out of frustration for the first time, as I felt so powerless. So I went back to the toilet, relieved myself and had a very brief (there was a queue) teary in private.

We ended up ascertaining that it was only the Iranians who needed to go through customs. So we were able to go back on the train and chill (or sweat, whatever). It was another two or so hours before we left, making it around 10:30am. We had been sitting in the same spot for about 8 hours.

The Iranians slept, but I decided to boot up the laptop, start my day and write a blog post (this). After an hour or so, a conductor let us know that we could go into the dining car for breakfast. From here, we got a much better view of the scenery. Close to the boarder, the scenery is very beautiful: sheer hills and rugged mountains dominate the landscape, and little brooks and streams and lakes can be seen running through them. I saw the biggest eagle I’ve ever seen floating in the valley between two mountains. We had some tea and flat bread and jam for breakfast, and decided to hang out in the dining car semi-permanently for the remainder of the trip. As we moved on, the scenery changed and became flatter, more non-descript and monotonous.

I took advantage of the now open WC to have a rough wash, clean my teeth, moisturise my face and change my clothes. I felt one thousand times better when I returned to the dining car.

They served lunch around 4pm – a mountain of long-grain white rice over meat sticks, with lemon, paprika (optional) and some kind of flat white bread that looked like bubble wrap. We also got a tub of yoghurt and a soft drink.

Jesse also had some welcome news – he’d gone into our compartment for something, and found that the two Iranian men had left at Tabriz. I was quite fond of them both, but pleased nonetheless. After lunch, we went back to our compartment and re-made the two bottom bunk beds and spread out. Oh yeah…. and got into my PLAY SHORTS!!!!

The rest of the trip (12 hours) was relatively uneventful: we read, played computer chess, talked shit, ate and read up about Iran on a Lonely Planet PDF. The only semi-highlight (which is really actually a low-light) is that I got my first grope (I was the gropee, not the groper). It happened like this: it was the middle of the night, and I needed to visit the WC. I got all dressed up and put my headscarf on. There were a couple of people wandering around and some compartment doors open. The WC I initially went to was locked. I walked down the other end of the carriage to see if the second one was open. A conductor, who we had been on reasonably friendly terms with (he exchanged some currency for us and I praised a picture of his toddler son from his mobile phone, much to his delight) directed me, and in the process thought it necessary to put his hand lightly on my derrière to emphasise the direction (forward) I needed to go. It was something he definitely would not have done had there been other people around. It was light and seemingly innocent enough for him to brush off if challenged, but it was also completely unnecessary, inappropriate and, more significantly, unwanted.

Jesse had set his alarm for 3:30am, and we rose early to dress, pack and get ready for our stop. We got into Tehran about 4:30am. The next instalment I will leave for another time.