Travels in Iran – 1990: Having been in a major bus accident on route to Tehran – in which an Iranian I’d befriended had been killed; now, the prospect of another disaster was looming straight ahead.
He drove like a maniac rushing home to rescue the oven fries he’d left baking by mistake, cutting lanes in an effort to get back before his house caught fire.
And if this was the case he’d no worries about pulling the french fries out golden and crisp and not a minute overcooked.
But being in Iran I guess this wasn’t the reason why he drove the way he did. And I assumed french fries, hamburgers and Coke were no-no’s in Islamic Iran; believing Americana made the locals sick.
Over the years the media had created a bleak picture of Iran.
Usually the negative news – and it was this what stuck in my head: a closed society ruled by religion and hostile to the West, obsessed with martyrdom and wrecked by war. A land of crazies.
I felt this might be the case as the taxi driver grinned at me in his rearview mirror and said “Where you want?” Where do I want to go? Shit, he’s already asked me this twice. I realized – too late – that I’d taken the wrong taxi: the driver didn’t have a clue where I wanted to go. And he drove recklessly – not that I minded; I enjoyed the speed.
We cut lanes blindly, honking our way into gaps and tooting at anyone who did this to us.
Every second car around us was a Hillman Hunter with dented door panels or scratched and patched paintwork.
This taxi was also a Hillman “Chariot” (as the Iranian versions are called). But it had no fancy extras -in fact, many were missing bits. Vital bits like bumpers. But at least this rattling wreck had a rear-view mirror – apparently not necessary as my driver used it only to maintain eye contact with me, and something from which to hang Koranic script and beads.
“Where you want mister?” “The Foreign Ministry!” He grinned in the mirror and said nothing. “Visa, you know?” I waved my passport in the air, stamping it with my fist.
From the taxi’s window came my first impressions of Tehran.
A dusty-brown-concrete-block city, with L.A. style freeways clogged by cars. The motor-flow looped Tehran like mechanical spaghetti, strangling it like frayed rope as the city choked on smog.
Having arrived in late summer I could barely see the Elburz Mountains; they were hazy and lost, like my driver.
He pulled over and asked directions from a pedestrian for a second time, then we charged back into the traffic.
Iranian drivers displayed skills only seen in the West at demolition derbies.
I wondered: Is there a road code here?
Vehicles ran the gauntlet at intersections. Traffic lights didn’t work, nor were policemen present. Survival meant accelerate and swerve. And honk!
And continue honking. At one stage my driver got abused by a cyclist – who’d averted a crunching by fending-off our taxi with a hand-barge to the roof.
At another intersection three cars circled a fallen cyclist, drivers holding up the flow as they bickered over the blame.
Potential accidents occurred every minute, often three within as many seconds. Scenes so chaotic that it is unimaginable to New Zealanders accustomed to orderly roads.
Motorists in Tehran practiced a road code that I’d seen in other developing nations, like some unwritten but respected motor hierarchy.
The King of the Road was the truck – everything else gave way. Buses threatened cars and big cars fought smaller cars, while scooters – the greatest menace to the pedestrian – rode on both sides of the road irrespective of direction; others weaved along footpaths.
Later as a pedestrian in Tehran I was shown how to cross busy streets.
After waiting for a break in the traffic – which never came, an old man grabbed my hand and led me. We dashed amongst the traffic, stopping mid-way as cars whizzed past, then hoping approaching cars would slow, we sprinted across before the gap closed.
After half-an-hour we’d found the Foreign Ministry. The driver left in a hurry as I strolled to the entrance. But a soldier greeted my cheerful “Hello” with an expressionless “No, closed.”
His answer confused me: it was 10 a.m, mid-week. So I asked him again. “VISA, I need a visa extension.” “Closed. Tomorrow.”
After some minutes of asking passers-by I found an English speaker. He said it was a public holiday. And what’s-more I was at the wrong building – this was NOT the Foreign Ministry.
I was lost in north Tehran – at least 5 cm off my out-of-date map.
At a bus stop, I couldn’t read the Farsi destinations on the front of each bus.
And it was only thanks to an elderly man’s help that I made my way by bus from north to central Tehran.
I’d decided to get to Tubkani Square: it had been a struggle to board the crowded, battered suburban bus. And when this bus had arrived people rushed it like sharks to bleeding sailors. The old man grabbed my arm and we plowed into a scrum of males squeezing through the rear door – three at once. You see, the front door was for women and the bus was segregated into two: women in black chadors (head to ankle robes) in the front half, and in the back, crammed the men.
As the bus drove down the tree-lined boulevard towards the concrete smear of central Tehran, the old man hardly spoke, just smiled. He told me when it was my stop. I thanked him, said good bye and disembarked from the crush and onto the hot dusty streets.
I remember the old man’s words as we’d waited for the bus.
He’d said, “I am happy to be able to help you”, and insisted on paying for my ticket. “I do not see many foreigners in Tehran. Before the Revolution many came here but since then I have seen only three Europeans. I hope your coming to Tehran is a sign that more Westerners will return …”
PS: I returned to Iran in 2012.And loved it, again.