‘The day John went to Iran,’ said my flatmate, Grace, letting a characteristic chuckle and sipping some white wine.
‘Ha… ha… ha…’ I said.
It was the evening of the day of my failed attempt to leave Russia. I was in a slightly morose mood about missing the flight.
‘Well, at least you didn’t get stuck here for 7 months, like I did,’ said Grace. That episode will never be forgotten. When compared to that, mine was a minor incident.
The next day, I was flying with Air Azerbaijan to Baku, where I would get a connecting flight to Tehran. The flight was uneventful, but I did see the Caspian Sea for the first time ever as we came in to land.
Baku international airport showed all the signs of wealth:
With a couple of hours before my next flight, I strolled around for a little while, but as everything was ridiculously expensive I went and found a sofa to nap on. I woke up sometime later to my stomach groaning loudly and gave in to the idea of buying an overpriced sandwich from the cafe.
It was when I was about to pay that I realised my wallet was missing. “Oh, you bloody plonker,” I thought.
*Dice Clattering* ‘Whooo! I told you I’d get him to lose his wallet!’
I looked sheepishly at the man behind the till and said ‘I’m sorry, but I seem to have lost my wallet.’
‘Your wallet?’ he asked. ‘Come with me, we’ll get it back.’
He called over a security guard and explained, speaking in rapid Turkish. The guard turned to me.
‘Where did you last see it?’ he asked.
‘I think I might have left it on the plane, because I haven’t used it since then,’ I said. I was horribly aware of the fact that even if I did get it back, if the cash was gone I’d be stuck. Visa and MasterCard are useless in Iran because of sanctions.
‘Okay,’ he said, and radioed his colleagues. ‘Empty out your bags just to make sure you don’t have it on you.’
I already knew that it wasn’t there, but did his bidding. ‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ I thought.
At this point a bearded man in a business suit approached and spoke in Russian with an accent no less foreign than my own.
‘What’s the problem, gentlemen?’ The question was directed at the security guards.
‘A missing wallet,’ said the head security guard, also in heavily accented Russian.
‘Oho, is that so?’ He turned and looked at me curiously. ‘Where are you heading to?’ he asked.
‘Tehran,’ I said.
‘I’m on that flight as well. What are you doing over there?’
‘Tourism, but I won’t be doing much if I don’t get my wallet back,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry about your wallet,’ he said. ‘If they don’t find it I can give you three hundred and fifty dollars to tide you over. How long are you going for?’
I was momentarily speechless. ‘Ten days,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much for the offer, but..’
‘Hmmmm…,’ he said, as though he had not heard. ‘Three hundred and fifty dollars should be enough if you’re just travelling around to see the sights. Intercity buses and accommodation are cheap. Iran is a beautiful country, you’re going to love it.’
‘That’s very kind of you,’ I said, putting my passport on the table alongside my other belongings, as I continued the search. ‘At least I didn’t lose my passport.’
‘Money is just paper, documents are the real gold, my friend,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Ireland,’ I said. ‘And you?’
‘I’m from here. That’s why I couldn’t pin your accent,’ he said.
‘Yes, we have a different accent, you could say. So what are you doing in Iran?’ I asked.
‘I’m attending a tourism trade show. That’s the sector I work in, but I’m also a dentist. Why don’t you pack your things away and we can get a coffee? We’ve still another forty five minutes until the flight.’
‘Well, if you don’t mind,’ I said, involuntarily adopting the typically Irish over-politeness.
‘If I minded I wouldn’t have offered,’ he said.
As we were having coffee, the security men approached us and handed me my wallet.
‘Count the money,’ said the head security guard.
I checked and everything seemed fine (the following day I would see that in fact one hundred euro had been taken, but I was so relieved to have gotten it back that I did not notice, nor would I have cared at that moment). I thanked the security guards and told my new, unexpected friend that if he was ever in Moscow, he’d be welcome to come for dinner or I could at least buy him a drink.
‘Oh, I do go to Moscow from time to time. My friends run a business in the Sokol district.’
‘That’s where I live,’ I said. ‘Small world.’
‘Really? You should visit them, they run a large gym,’ he said.
As we went to board the flight, he handed me a business card and said ‘stay in touch.’ According to the card, his name was Hamed.
The flight from Baku was only an hour. I caught glimpses of Iranian towns illuminated below and could hardly believe where I was headed.
I made another new friend on the flight over. An Iranian business owner who told me he owned a factory that made foam, like the sort of stuff you see in sports halls, and that he was supplying a guy in Moscow.
‘I have lovely girlfriend in Moscow. Her name Svetlana,’ he said in broken English, and showed me a picture of him with a tall redhead. ‘She very beautiful,’ he said, unnecessarily.
Imam Khomeini International Airport (Above)
Overall, it was a pleasant flight. There were a few curious glances thrown my way, as I was pretty much the only pasty, white tourist on the flight. When we landed (it was 23.30 local time), I said my goodbyes to my Baku friend and made my way to the visa section. The visa took about half an hour to get. The next task was to change hard currency into Iranian Rials. I went through the passport control and the border guard smiled and said ‘Welcome to Iran’ as he stamped my passport. This was such a stark contrast to the passport control experience of the previous day in Moscow.
It was when I entered the main area of the airport and glanced around for a currency exchange, that I heard a voice call my name. I turned and saw my bearded friend, Hamed, from Baku airport standing with a tall, slightly Asian looking man.
‘Neither of you speak the language, it’s late, so I thought we could all share a taxi into town. This is Marat, he’s also new here,’ he said, indicating his tall acquaintance.
We shook hands. Marat was from Kazan, in the Tatar region of Russia, and was visiting Tehran on a work trip. He asked me where I was from and when I told him, he said ‘I stayed up late to watch that Conor McGregor match, and all he gave me was thirteen seconds. He’s some fighter!’ It turned out that Marat had trained in karate for over ten years.
I exchanged some money and received a thick wad of large banknotes with Ayatollah Khomeini’s angry looking face on them.
Outside the main exit, we were immediately met by a group of taxi drivers and Hamed spoke Farsi with one, haggling over the price, or so I guessed.
The journey into Tehran took nearly an hour. I quickly learned that Iranians are crazy drivers, something that would become tattooed to the inside of my head during the ten day trip.
Hamed was telling us about his work, and about the first time he went to Russia in the 90s with a couple of hundred dollars in his back pocket with the intention of doing business. I was taking in the surroundings, the Iranian flags, the billboards of the ayatollahs, as well as various landmarks. I was also carefully observing the traffic, its movements making me very aware of the fact that I had no seat belt.
‘I’m going to get out first,’ said Hamed. ‘Then the driver will take Marat to his hotel, and then he’ll bring you to your friend’s place. He has the address.’ During the drive, he had obligingly rung my couch surfing host, Alex (that’s what he wanted me to call him), and got him to explain to the taxi driver where the apartment was.
We pulled in outside a hotel and Marat and I simultaneously reached for our wallets.
‘Don’t worry, lads, I’m taking care of the fare. Just stay in touch, alright?’
We got out, shook hands and thanked him profusely.
Marat got out next and we exchanged contact details and agreed to stay in touch.
Finally, we got to the apartment building of my couch surfing host. As I got out of the car, I heard a voice.
‘John! John!’ It was Alex, my couch surfing host. ‘Hello!’