“Jesus’s Mickey”

This is a true story that happened to me in Moscow a few months back. I don’t know why I haven’t written about it until now. All that I’ve changed is the names of the participants, apart from myself. For the record, despite the awkward situation I am about to describe, the evening as a whole was a lot of fun. Also, the reason for the title won’t become apparent until the end of the story

Earlier this year, an Irish exporter found a potential buyer at an annual event in Moscow. It was looking promising, so the importer invited the exporter, Damian, to go to dinner. Then Damian asked if I would like to go as well. I wasn’t comfortable at first, as I didn’t want to impose on discussions they might have, especially as the importer had not specifically invited me. I voiced my thoughts to Damian, who said it would be fine.

We went to the company office to meet with the importers, they gave us a tour of the place and then we went to the restaurant nearby.

At the restaurant, the CEO, Aziz, ordered the first of several large bottles of vodka, poured for everyone and things began to relax. Aziz was a fiery, emotional individual who gesticulated, and was clearly from the South (the Caucasus, most likely), given his name and the fact that he had much darker skin than regular Russians.

He dominated the conversation throughout the evening, telling lots of interesting stories about the company and about his work in the United States running health clinics before taking over as CEO at his current company. Whenever a bottle of vodka was emptied, he would simply order another and kept refilling our glasses.

All of a sudden, he veered off topic onto more political themes, such as gay marriage and the Russian interference in the US election. His rant about homosexuality went on far longer than I was comfortable with. Not because I don’t find societal or political topics interesting to discuss, or because his views were the absolute opposite of mine, but because of the way he was talking.

As he spoke, he grew more and more animated, to the point that he had stood up with his hands on the table, staring at me continually and at nobody else.

He was what one might describe as emphatically homophobic.

I generally don’t get offended easily, and was not offended then, but was more acutely aware of the fact that this was not the time for me to voice my true opinion on the matter; nor was it the time to get The Giggles, which was precisely what I could feel rising up.

It was a sensation reminiscent of my school days, when I would get The Giggles, even while the most terrifying teacher was yelling at me. The more they would shout, the more I would laugh. Church was even worse for that. You were not allowed to laugh and everyone around was wearing sombre expressions; therefore ANYTHING would make you laugh.

I bit my tongue very, very hard, but could still feel the corners of my mouth twitching.

‘I do not understand this whole gay thing and gays being allowed to marry in the West. It’s so completely weird! You understand that men and women were made by God to be together, not a man and a man or a woman and a woman. It’s written in all the holy books!’

I nodded. So did Damian, who kept his eyes averted.

‘It’s the same with magnets.’

At this, I feigned a coughing fit and sipped some water. I wanted to excuse myself to make a beeline for the bathroom, but I felt it’d be rude to interrupt.

‘A negative charge is not attracted to another negative charge and a positive charge is not attracted to a positive. Do you have a wife, John? Do you believe in God?’

‘Not a wife, a girlfriend.’ I said.

‘And where is she from?’

‘She’s from here.’

‘She’s Russian? Very good! And what about you, Damian?’ said Aziz, turning away from me, after what felt like an eternity.

‘My wife is German,’ said Damian.

‘Nobody’s perfect, I suppose,’ said Aziz.

I used this comment as an opportunity to finally release some of the laughter pent up and the atmosphere relaxed again. We drank more and he continued on the same topic, albeit more calmly, but he then asked me if I agreed with his views on the matter.

‘Do you agree with what I’ve said?’ he said, staring straight at me.

‘Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion,’ I replied.

The dinner was very good, and the conversation finally moved on to other topics, where Aziz would stand up again, gesticulating, but this time his attention was directed to Damian.

‘Damian, my friend! We are going to make a loooot of money!’ he said, arm around Damian’s shoulder, the other patting his chest. ‘I think we need to drink to this!’

So that was that. We all tipped out merrily into the freezing night, but even under the warming influence of about 8 or so vodkas, I was still very much aware of how close I had come to getting uncontrollable Giggles at the wrong time and place.

It reminded me of all those painful times in church as a kid/teen, such as the time in primary school, when my class was standing in a part of the church where the sun was shining down through the high windows, reflecting off my wristwatch.

‘Here,’ whispered my classmate, Woodsy, ‘shine it on Jesus’s mickey.’ He indicated the model of Jesus on the cross, which was overlooking the altar.

For non-Irish readers, “Mickey” is Irish slang for penis.

I duly reflected the light upon Jesus’s mickey and then the priest said:

‘And Jesus said, take this, this is my body.’

*Muffled snorts of laughter*

Iran, part 6 – Graffiti at Persepolis

The journey to Yazd was the first time that we had got to see the Iranian landscape during the day. Until then, we had only travelled on the night bus. We were met by a crisp, early morning, the bright sun beating down on the street.

We threw all our things into the boot and got in, me sitting in the front, Denis, Marco and Valeria in the back. The first stop was Persepolis, which was about 60km to the north-east of Shiraz. Very quickly we found ourselves on a motorway, the dry landscape flashing by as we overtook lorries, buses and cars.

I was already busy snapping away with the camera.

‘You like taking pictures?’ said the driver, conversationally.

‘I can’t stop, there’s too much to see,’ I replied.

Soon, we were getting out of the car into the morning sun with Persepolis looming before us. It’s difficult to describe the effect it has on the onlooker, but the photographs don’t do it justice. I tried to imagine what the place might have been like when it was inhabited. How much had been lost to the sands of time, not to mention thieving human hands?

It was built under the rule of the Emperors Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I, at a time when the Persian Empire stretched from Greece and Egypt to what is modern day Pakistan. That is, until a certain Macedonian, who shall remain nameless, decided to throw the Emperor across his knees and give him a good spanking.

(Above top left clockwise: Gate of Xerxes, also known as the Gate of all Nations;tomb of Artaxerxes III; cuneiform script; relief of a lion attacking a bull; delegation of Persian subjects bearing tribute; relief of Persian Immortal Guard)

Now, while I could talk about the magnificent reliefs of the 10,000 Immortals, ancient troops described by Herodotus as an army that was allegedly maintained at 10,000 at all times, there was  another interesting thing I saw on some of the stones that has become a part of the history of the place. It was the graffiti.

The words “graffiti” and “Unesco heritage site” should not really be in the same sentence and would normally elicit groans of dismay from people, but I thought it was something worth researching. A lot of it consisted of the names and titles of individuals who had passed through in different eras – when the British Empire was still in existence, the year Ireland achieved independence, the last year of the Russian civil war, the year Nixon was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States; the list goes on.

Lt. Colonel Malcolm Meade:

Among these was a “Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm Meade, H.B.M Consul General 1898 & Mrs Meade”. I visualised these two, him most likely wearing khaki shorts and shirt, sporting a bushy moustache, sandy coloured hair, a hat and an “I say, ole boy!” type accent; meanwhile his wife probably had curly blonde hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, was wearing a light bonnet and was pointing at one of the locals and saying:

“Oh, Malcolm, look! I want one of those! Isn’t he adorable?”

“One moment, dear,” said Lt Colonel Meade, unslinging his rifle. “Dash it, I’ve no darts left! We’ll have to use the net, darling.”

For those who do not see the joke, it is a parody on the stereotypically racist, colonial mentality of the British Empire era.

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So who was this Malcolm Meade? To begin with, he was born in India and served a length of time in the Persian Gulf region from 1897. Having searched online, I found that there is a record of the Lt. Colonel at the Cambridge University archives, ancestry.com, an Oxford publication, titled “The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchants, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf”, as well as a Cambridge publication, titled “The Kuwait Crisis: Basic Documents”. I was also able to find a census paper, dated from 1911, with the Colonel’s name written in the fourth row:

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It says that he was born in “British India” and by 1911, Meade was 54, had been married 22 years, and had two children, both of whom were still alive. As it turns out, I got the detail about the moustache correct, as can be seen in the photograph below, taken in 1912:

Lt Malcolm Meade

It would seem that Lt. Colonel Meade was one of the instruments of British imperial influence in the Persian Gulf in the late 19th century. He lived in Bushire and had dealings with the Sheikh of Bahrain and the Sheikh of what is modern day Kuwait. Bushire (Bushehr) had come under British control after the Anglo-Persian War (1856-57) and played an important role as a trading post and port for the British.

Meade’s role being Her Britannic Majesty’s Political Resident in the Gulf, he signed and ratified an agreement in 1899 (a year after he carved his name onto the Gate of all Nations) with the Sheikh of Kuwait, stipulating that:

“the said Sheikh Mubarak-bin-Sheikh Subah of his own free will and desire does hereby pledge and bind himself, his heirs and successors not to receive the agent or representative of any Power or Government at Koweit [Kuwait], or any other place within the limits of his territory, without the previous sanction of the British Government; and he further binds himself, his heirs and successors not to cede, sell, lease, mortgage or give for occupation or for any other purpose any portion of his territory to the Government or subjects of any other Power without the previous consent of Her Majesty’s Government for these purposes. This engagement [is] also to extend to any portion of the territory of the said Sheikh Mubarak, which may now be in the possession of the subjects of any other Government.”

In token of the conclusion of this lawful and honourable bond, Lieutenant-Colonel Malcolm John Meade, I.S.C., Her Britannic Majesty’s Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, and Sheikh Mubarak-bin-Sheikh Subah, the former on behalf of the British Government and the latter on behalf of himself, his heirs and successors do each, in the presence of witnesses, affix their signatures on this, the tenth day of Ramazam 1316, corresponding with the twenty-third day of January 1899.”

Meade then added an accompanying letter to the Sheikh expressing his happiness at the signing of the agreement but made clear that “a most important aspect of the execution of this agreement is that it is to be kept absolutely secret, and not divulged or made public in any way without the previous consent of the British Government.”

One might ask, why all the fuss about the Sheikh not having relations with other powers? Well, throughout the second half of the 19th century, the Persian Gulf was an area of great contention between the British and Russian Empires, as well as other Great Powers (oh, how things don’t change), most of this being centred around Iran or Persia, as it was called then. Britain wanted to expand its trade routes, consolidate its influence in areas that were previously under Ottoman control and contain Russian influence at the same time. Russia was seeking access to another warm water port for its navy and obviously for access to shipping routes as well. The only warm water port Russia had at the time was Sevastopol in Crimea, which had been the focus of a conflict with Britain, France and Turkey from 1853-56. Although the scenario with Crimea today is different, it’s funny how history repeats itself, that that peninsula should once again become the centre of an international dispute.

To highlight Britain’s concern over its rivals’ role in the Middle East region, a memorandum “by Lord Curzon respecting Persian Affairs” stated that “a Russian railway ending at Kowait [Kuwait] would be in the highest degree injurious to British interests. A German railway to Kowait would be scarcely less so – even a Turkish railway to Kowait would be unwelcome.” 

I won’t continue rambling on about 19th century imperialism in the Persian Gulf, but it is interesting to find a single piece of graffiti on an ancient statue,  type that person’s name into Google, and find a whole well of information behind it. Thus, my first impressions of the title “Lt. Colonal Malcolm Meade” were pretty accurate. A bushy moustached colonial who had taken it upon himself to carve his name onto the Gate of all Nations. I’m sure the khaki outfit was a given, as was the repetitive dabbing of a damp handkerchief across an already sweat-beaded brow.

Ticket

(Above: Malcolm Meade second from bottom)

As can be seen above (Second surname from the bottom), he moved to France in 1929 at the age of 75. He died in 1933.

Henderson, Ellis, Mackenzie – 1973:

In 1973, three people called E. Ellis, E. H. Henderson and G.S. Mackenzie inscribed their names on the Gate of All Nations. 1973 was the year Nixon was elected president of the United States for a second term, the World Trade Centre in New York was officially opened, the Vietnam War ended, the Watergate Scandal erupted, Pablo Picasso died, a coup d’etat took place in Uruguay, one of 7 longest total eclipses in 1000 years took place exceeding 7 minutes, Bruce Lee died, a coup d’etat in Chile took place beginning General Pinochet’s 16 year rule,  the Yom Kippur War (also known as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War) took place, and the Bosphorus Bridge in Turkey was completed, linking Asia and Europe for the first time in history.

McIlrath (Mr & Mrs H. Darwin McIlrath): 

From April, 1895 to November, 1898, two Americans, Mr and Mrs H. Darwin McIlrath travelled around the world on bicycles. During their trip, their letters were published regularly in the Chicago Inter Ocean, a newspaper which was founded in 1865 and ceased publication in 1914.

Inter Ocean

(Above: Inter Ocean publishing house – 85 West Madison, Chicago)

The feat of cycling round the world on a bicycle was even more exceptional given the times the McIlraths undertook their journey. The bicycle had been invented only a few decades before and, the first being known as a Dandy Horse, which was invented by the German, Baron Karl von Drais, who also invented the typewriter. While not quite what we would associate with modern bicycles, as it was without pedals and riders had to propel themselves forward by running their legs along the ground, the Dandy Horse was the first two wheeled contraption from which would arise the standard bicycle.

Mr and Mrs McIlrath were indeed doing a journey of an epic scale, even by today’s standards, and all without the use of satellite navigation, mobile phones etc.

ChungKing

(Above: Mr & Mrs McIlrath)

They simply documented their experiences and telegraphed them back to the publication house in Chicago. Some of these were quite interesting and colourful:

China – ‘Received in state by the Toa Toi of Su Chow – Invited to witness an execution of a woman by the “Seng Chee” method – Debut of the bicycle along the Grand Canal – “Foreign Devils” pursued by maddened mobs of natives’

Seng Chee (Lingchi) is what is more commonly known in the West as “Death by a thousand cuts”. As the title describes, this is a form of execution where the hapless victim is tied to a frame and the executioner slices pieces of flesh off one at a time, making the process altogether rather drawn out. You could say that the point of a drawn out death penalty is not to cut corners. The Confucian idea behind this was that the victim would not be whole in the afterlife.

India – “Pursued by a maddened herd of water buffalo – A joke ends in a race for life – The Yankee flag a conspicuous feature of the Queen’s Jubilee at Delhi”

India – “Last days in India spent during the dreaded monsoon season – the pet monkey’s appetite for rubber brings about an annoying delay”

Finally reaching Persepolis, the McIlraths described the reason for carving their names onto the Gate of all Nations, indicating that they really despised vandalism, but having seen it vandalised by one of their main competitors from the US, they could not allow that to go unanswered and decided that the best way to respond was to further vandalise the statue themselves:

‘The portals are the favorite background upon which visitors inscribe their names. I have always held such proceeding as vandalism, and though the names of British ambassadors, naval officers and clergy deface the rock, I should have foregone the pleasure of perpetuating our visit, had not my eye fallen upon the following inscription: “Stanley, New York Herald, 1870.” Never for a moment has an inhabitant of Chicago allowed that New York thrust its ancient claim upon the world as a typical American city without resentment, and immediately we chipped beneath, “McIlrath, Chicago Inter Ocean, 1897.”‘

(Source: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiuo.ark:/13960/t1gh9k82k;view=1up;seq=5 Pg. 113)

And here it is, the picture taken by yours truly:

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Above the McIlraths’ inscription, a wandering Russian had carved the words “1900 Russia” (1900 Россiя), using one of the letters from the old Russian alphabet (“i” instead of “и”). On other sections, the names D.S.P Andre (1899), J. Crampton, J.B. Marrige and W. Sundt (1810) were inscribed. A Russian had simply put his first name, Серёжа, in 1928 – Seryozha in Roman letters – while another Russian called M. Vanyashin – М. Ваняшин – had carved his name out in 1922 (the year of Irish Independence). There were some in Arabic and Persian, which unfortunately I could not find anything on, as I do not speak either language. An R. Willock had carved a skull and crossbones followed by the words “or Glory” in the year 1810:

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Upon Googling ‘J.B. Marrige’, all that came up were links to tabloids with the headlines ‘Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin getting married?’. Such is the age we live in!

All of this to me was fascinating to see. I kept thinking about what had brought those people there so long ago, when the world was so much larger. It’s easy to forget that back then, long-haul journeys did not mean a few hours of flying, but several weeks of travel!

People have all sorts of reasons for doing funny stuff like carving their initials onto ancient statues, made by the hard working slaves and skilled stonemasons of long gone empires. I wonder what people of the future will think of the likes of “Dave was ‘ere 03”?

I snapped away, taking pictures of the marks, graffiti and artefact alike, left by those individuals who were long deceased. We wandered for two hours through the ruins, until it was time to leave and continue on the road to Yazd.

Iran, part 5 – Shiraz

There is something really romantic about the streets of Shiraz at night. It is full of little alleyways that weave between a web of backstreets, all dimly lit under fluorescent street lamps, highlighting the outline of arched windows and doorways. It is especially romantic when you’re standing there spellbound, snapping photos, and the silence is broken by the haunting, gut wrenching squall of a cat being quietly raped by another one in an adjacent alley. I’d always imagined that as the sound banshees would make, if they existed.

The morning we arrived, I began to shiver as soon as we stepped off the bus. The air here was, if anything, even drier than Isfahan, much to the dismay of my stubbornly chapped and bloody lips. We’d traveled another 600 kilometres further south. It’s hard to imagine how big Iran actually is until you paste a map of it over Europe (thetruesize.com):

Iran - Europe

In short, it’s massive.

We walked to the city centre in search of a hostel. It was around 6 am, so once again the streets were deserted, except for an old man stirring a gigantic pot of soup in preparation for hungry customers on their way to work. I could have eaten then and there, but as we were searching for a hostel, we kept going.

We found a place in a side street which was, to put it politely, like a rabbit warren. The young man showing us the room nodded and grinned, gesturing at the beds and bathroom. Denis took one look and uttered the following two words:”Fire hazard.”

He was right. There were no windows and you had to go down a stairway from the ground floor, then down a passage to reach it. We politely declined and went back out into the morning sunshine. Another hostel showed up on MapMe and we decided to go and have a look. It was in another one of those small alleyways that are littered all over Shiraz.

While we were looking at the map, a man in his sixties stopped and asked us where we were from and if we needed help.

‘We’re from Russia,’ said Denis.

We’re?’ I said, turning.

‘He’s not going to know where Ireland is,’ said Denis in Russian.

‘Russia? I was in Moscow during my youth. I went for flight training. I’m in the air force,’ said the man.

‘Really?’ said Denis. ‘What do you fly?’

I don’t remember what the name of the plane he flew in Russia, but he said that in the Iranian air force he used to fly a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft.

‘I’m going for another six months. I train new recruits now,’ he said.

We found the alleyway and said goodbye to the airforce pilot.

The hostel was run by a friendly, moustached man with greying hair and very little English. The inner courtyard was protected by a tarpaulin going across from roof to roof, while Persian style sofas, which were more like double beds with rugs on them, lined the walls; two long wooden tables stood in the middle, each laid out with a breakfast buffet.

(Above: Golshan Traditional Hotel)

We met an Argentinian couple who were travelling around Iran for three weeks.

‘How long does it take to fly from Moscow?’ Marco asked.

‘4 to 5 hours including a stopover,’ I said, taking a casual sip of sugary black tea. ‘Why, how long did it take you to get here from Buenos Aires? I bet it took ages.’

‘…. 27 hours…,’ said Marco, rather bitterly.

‘Wow, that’s a long journey! How come it took so long? You must have been exhausted,’ I said.

‘Well, we flew from Buenos Aires to Rome and then we had a twelve hour layover there before catching a connecting flight.’

‘What made you decide to come to Iran?’ I asked. This was a common question directed at tourists or which tourists directed at one another.

‘We decided we wanted to go somewhere different,’ said Marco.

‘My mother thought we were out of our minds,’ Valeria, his girlfriend, said. ‘”But why would you want to go to a war zone? What if Isis enslave you? I’ve read about what they do to women.” That kind of thing, you know? I told her that all that is happening next door. She didn’t believe me until I showed her a map.’

*

Shiraz is a large town. We visited the tomb of Hafez, the famous poet, as well as the beautiful Jahan Nama Garden nearby, where we were approached by a very friendly and rather inbred looking tomcat:

(Above left to right: Inbred Tom with undershot jaw; Jahan Nama Garden)

We also visited the famous Nasir ol Molk Mosque, also known as the “Pink Mosque”. It was constructed in the 19th century and took twelve years to complete.

Despite the hype over the Pink Mosque, I personally thought it was less impressive than it looked in the pictures online. Nonetheless, it is still very beautiful. Every morning from between 7:30 and 8:30, the sun shines through the stained glass windows, illuminating the columns within.

This sight grabs most tourists’ attention first and foremost, but there is another, far grander architectural sight called the Shah Cheragh mosque.

(Top left: Hafez’s Tomb. Middle and far right: Pink Mosque. Bottom left: Shah Cheragh Mosque)

At the Shah Cheragh Mosque, we asked the security guards at the entrance to the grounds if we were allowed in. They didn’t understand us, but gave up their chairs and offered us tea while they, as we were to find out, called a guide. We didn’t actually want a guide, but a young, bearded gentleman approached and led us in across the main square to a small office, where there was another pair of tourists speaking with an older bearded man.

‘That’s my father,’ said our guide (I don’t remember his name), indicating the older man. ‘He’ll speak with you and then I can show you around. Would you like something to drink?’

‘Yes, please/no, thanks,’ we said in unison. A tray of rosewater was brought anyway and set in front of us.

I sipped mine and felt my taste buds, which still hadn’t become accustomed to the exotic, if overwhelming flavours, explode and recoil under the earthshaking impact of sugary sweetness.

‘I don’t know how you drink that stuff,’ said Denis, observantly. ‘The smell reminds me of the perfume the alcoholics would drink in my hometown.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

By the time I’d drunk mine and then Denis’s (he’d stubbornly declined when I asked if he was sure he didn’t want his), I was starting to get a headache from the sugar rush.

The older man, now finished with the other pair of tourists, approached us and sat down opposite. He asked us the usual questions: “Where are you from?” “What brings you to Iran?”

‘Ireland,’ I said, somewhat resignedly.

He looked at me with polite interest.

‘Russia,’ said Denis.

‘Oh, my son has been to St Petersburg. He liked it very much. They’re good partners for us at the moment,’ he said.

He offered us advice on places to visit. It turned out that he worked in aviation, like Denis, and the tourism thing he did on the side, officially representing the state. That was self-evident by the way he and his son dressed and spoke. There was something distinctly less down to earth about them; there was no inclination towards humour or warmth, which we’d seen in the people we’d met so far. It was all quite formal. It’s interesting that representatives of the government, who were there to make a good impression on tourists and offer free tours, made less of a good impression than the warm, smiling people who’d say “hello” to you randomly in the street.

Our guide walked us through the mosque, which was a truly spectacular sight. A common feature of some of the more lavish mosques in Iran is that the walls and ceilings are covered in shards of mirror. Nowadays, this would appear to be cheap and tasteless, but back in the day, when mirrors were prohibitively expensive for us plebeians, owning one was a sign of higher social status; covering the interior of an entire building was a sign of colossal wealth!

I don’t recall a lot of what the guide told us, as I was too busy taking in the surroundings. However, I do remember that there was a tense moment when I asked him a question about religion. It wasn’t a particularly odd question, nor was it out of context, given that we were in a religious building; it definitely wasn’t offensive, but maybe he just didn’t quite understand.

‘The religion I was brought up on, Christianity, depicts the son of God on the cross. Is that odd to you as a Muslim, to see an image of the son of God nailed to a cross?’

The moment was tense and he stared at me. His English was definitely good enough to understand the question, as he was pretty fluent.

‘In Islam, we do not use images of God. Christianity is different.’

It was a pretty diplomatic response and in that typical fashion he avoided answering the question. As an atheist, I wouldn’t have found it offensive if he’d said he found it weird. I was just curious. I recall a Bangladeshi guy, Sujan, with whom I worked in Dublin, once asking me about Catholicism. When I told him that I didn’t believe in God his response was:

‘You don’t believe in God???’ he asked, in a thick Bangladeshi/Dublin accent.

‘Nope,’ I said.

‘Fair enough. I don’t get that, though,’ he said, lighting a cigarette.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping tea, and then he said:

‘By the way, can I ask what d’fock is with tha’ guy wit nails in his hands?’

‘Sujan, you’re opening a can of worms, but he’s the “Son of God”.’

‘Jeeesus focking Christ… So if he was the son of God, why the fock did they do that to him?’

‘Good question. I think they thought he was lying,’ I said.

‘And for that they nailed him up???!’

‘Yup.’

‘Crazy people. Craaaazy people…’

‘Yup.’

He sighed. ‘You know, the first time I come to Doblin, and I saw old woman with this guy around her neck with the nails in his hands. I tell you it focking freaked me out, it did. Like she was part of cult. It’s so weird.’

*

Outside the Karim Kahn Citadel (see below) we were taking photographs, when an old man approached us.

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‘Where you from?’ he asked.

‘Russia.’

‘Ireland.’

‘Ooooh, Russia! Putin is good president!’ said the man. He turned to me and said ‘And Ireland! In Tehran Bobby Sands Street! Very good, very good!’

He chatted to us some more, shook our hands and walked on.

*

 

Shiraz was the most conservative city we’d come across thus far. This, once again, was displayed by the way people dressed, particularly the women. The chador was much more common there than it was in Isfahan.

Aside from that, the people were as friendly as Isfahan and Tehran. It was particularly pretty with its labyrinthine alleyways behind the main streets, which we both explored at night, taking in the aesthetically pleasing arched windows and doorways, the peacefulness punctured by the occasional passing moped and the hackle raising sounds of a feline orgy nearby.

On our last evening, we met the Argentinian couple, Marco and Valeria, in the courtyard of the hostel. Like us, they planned on travelling to Yazd the following day, via Persepolis. As the cost of renting a car and driver was a flat rate, with a maximum of four people, we decided to all go together and split the cost, which worked out at $35 each. The trip would take about 9 hours, so we were to leave at 8 am.

We were sitting at one of the long tables having dinner. I’d bought a bowl of the thick, spiced bean soup that was for sale on the side of the street, along with some flatbread. There was another guest sitting at the head of the table who, as he quickly told us, was from Turkey. He didn’t hesitate to explain how much he knew about, well, everything, including cooking, and would talk over any contribution Marco tried to add to the one-sided conversation.

‘In Argentina, we have a special method of making a steak, it’s..’ Marco would say, rather valiantly.

‘Yes, I know that technique,’ said the Turkish guy, interrupting, ‘but there is another system that I use in the kitchen which involves… it’s much better. In Okinawa I…’ And so it continued like this on almost every topic until I’d reached the bottom of my soup bowl. I was chuckling internally, as I could observe Marco growing ever more frustrated the more the Turkish guy talked. Every time he tried to put in a comment or a point of view, his sentence would trail away into nothingness as the passionate storyteller continued on.

Nonetheless, he did show us an excellent way to properly deseed a pomegranate. It should be cut into quarters, then each piece should in turn be placed in your palm with the skin facing up and struck repeatedly with the back of a spoon. It is the most effective method I’ve ever come across.

With that, we said goodnight and left Valerie and Marco with their companion. We’d probably walked about fifteen kilometres or so that day.

‘I wonder if they’ll get to bed?’ I asked Denis.

‘I don’t know. He did seem to know an awful lot,’ he replied, with a wry grin.

‘That was a very useful method of opening a pomegranate, in fairness,’ I said, recalling the frustrating memories of attempting to pick the seeds out individually.

‘That’s true,’ said Denis. ‘Well, goodnight.’

‘Goodnight,’ I said, and crawled wearily into my own bed.

Iran, Part 4 – Isfahan

When you travel, you notice a lot of things; the architecture, the food, the people, how things are different and how things are similar. From the get go I was seeing new things. One of them, which became sort of like a game for me and my travel partner, was counting the number of people, men and women alike, who showed evidence of recent nose jobs. About ten times a day one of us would say:

‘Oh look, there’s another one.’

‘Don’t point!’

It would be a young man or woman with a bandage on his or her nose walking serenely down the street. Obviously, surgery to alter one’s features is not something new in the West, but here the frequent evidence of a recent nose job was quite baffling.

Isfahan could not be more different to Tehran. For starters, it was much less polluted and as it was located close to the desert, the air was so dry that I got used to walking around with constantly chapped, borderline bleeding lips. It was also far, far prettier.

The bus from Tehran took about 6 hours and we arrived at 7 am. I got off, hot and sticky, into the cold morning air. We decided to walk straight to Naqsh-e Jahan square, one of the UNESCO heritage sites, built in the 16th century:

Walking through the town, you might have thought that we were in an Italian town. In a funny kind of a way it felt Mediterranean. One thing I noticed was the lack of calls to prayer. In Istanbul the calls to prayer happen five times a day without fail.

The streets were just waking and traffic was building. Shop owners were opening up, but there was no sign of tourist activity like one would see in other places. We wandered around snapping photos before going to find a hostel or hotel.

What is worth noting is that wifi is not really a thing in Iran. If there is wifi in a hotel or public place, the chances are that it’ll be erratic or very slow. People travelling there should download an app called MapMe, which functions in the same way as Google maps, except that it does not require internet or 4G to work. You download the app and then you download a map of the country you are visiting. It is incredibly detailed; we were walking through a random park and it showed where the closest drinking fountain was.

On the way to the hotel, we saw people out doing exercises on public exercise machines. I saw a woman doing exercises while wearing a chador, the full length cloth that covers the entire body, apart from the face; it’s sort of like what nuns wear. We also passed Hasht Behesht Palace:

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For the price we paid, the hotel was very good value. We sat in the apartment sized twin bedroom/kitchen and ate breakfast.

‘I wonder what Iranian television is like?’ said Denis, picking up the remote control.

He switched on the TV and flicked through the channels. Some were of religious men preaching, others were news programs; one program was showing the step by step process of how fake grass is made in a factory. He carried on flicking.

‘Oh my god, of all things to be on the television at ten in the morning!’ Denis exclaimed.

‘What?’ I said, turning to look at the screen. There was Brendan Gleeson dressed in police uniform in what was none other than the Irish black comedy gangster film about drug smuggling, The Guard. I’d never seen it.

‘How have you never seen this? You’re Irish! You’d better not watch too much, or it’ll give away the story,’ said Denis.

‘I don’t think it’ll give away too much, since it’s dubbed into Farsi,’ I said.

I was mulling over how they had managed to dub Irish slang English and the fact that conservative Iranian national television was showing a comedy/thriller film about drug smuggling at ten in the morning. The paradoxes were mounting. On one channel there were severe looking bearded men, no doubt preaching Islamic moral code; on the next it’s a pasty, Irish ginger man saying something along the lines of ‘Oi’ll give ye me fist ta think abou, ye little bollicks!’ This translates roughly into: ‘Think very carefully, or my fist will help you think, you shrivelled up pair of testicles.’

We carried on watching while eating blood oranges and pomegranates for breakfast.

*

Naqsh-e Jahan square is not just a square. Behind the fronts of shops lining its edges is a sort of long inner arched street with stalls and displays on each side.

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These sell a variety of things from pottery, clothing and sweets, to jewellery, kitchenware and carpets. More than once we were asked where we were from.

‘Ireland,’ I would say, resignedly.

A polite nod.

‘Russia.’

‘Oh, Russia! Putin is best president!’

Out of curiosity, we went into one of the carpet shops. Even though we made clear that we weren’t buying, the owner, who’d been sipping tea, eating sweets and playing a game on his phone when we went in, seemed glad to tell us about his trade. The prices ranged from expensive to eye-crossingly expensive. One rug was a vast, silk woven piece, which had taken several years to make and cost a paltry $100,000.

Another shop that drew my attention was a junk shop, which appeared to have everything for sale, from marble doorhandles and old currency, to old fashioned razors and stamp books. While looking at a display of old coins, the owner asked me where I was from.

‘Er.. Ireland. Do you kno..’

‘Oh, Ireland! Bobby Sands! You know there is Bobby Sands Street in Tehran?’ he asked.

I told him that I did know, but that it was only upon coming to Iran that I found out.

‘Yes, was Winston Churchill Street, but now it Bobby Sands Street. Ireland was UK, now no longer. This year 1916 anniversary, yes?’ he said, grinning.

This volley of information made me feel like I’d been punched in the face, but in a sort of pleasant way. What were the odds that the owner of a junk shop in Isfahan would know about the 1916 Easter Rising?

On the second day, we were in a shopping centre looking for a loo, when Denis was stopped by a young guy and asked where he was from. I was too desperate to pause, so I beelined for the door with the ‘Men’ symbol on it. When I came back out Denis said ‘This is Arosh.’

We introduced ourselves. It turned out that Arosh was from Tehran, but was visiting Isfahan to take part in a video games exhibition and wanted to show us. As a gamer myself, I thought it might be interesting, so we went up to the fifth floor where it was being held. There were all sorts of games on show, including an Iranian version of Counter Strike. Apparently, many Western made games are unavailable in Iran, so domestic games developers make their own versions of Western games. From what I gathered from Arosh, copyright laws have little effect there and are not enforced, so this has allowed domestic developers to make their versions without interference.

One of the games I tried out was a fast paced iPad game, which involves falling babies and voodoo dolls; the object was to swipe them right or left into the monsters’ mouths. On each side of the screen was a monster, one which ate the babies and one which ate the voodoo dolls. If you accidentally feed baby eater a voodoo doll, he feels sick and you lose points, while if the doll eater eats the baby, he also feels sick and you lose points.

As well as games, Arosh had some graphic art pictures on display, one of which was of a barber shop run by hedgehogs. In the foreground was a cool looking hedgehog with a gold chain around his neck, smiling while clipping the prickles of a young hedgehog.

‘My God, I know who would Love that! My lady, she’s mad about hedgehogs,’ I said, before I could stop myself. ‘Are they for sale?’ I asked Arosh.

‘You can take it,’ said Arosh.

‘No, no, I can buy it, obviously. How much is it?’

‘No, they’re not for sale, but you can take that one, it’s not a problem.’

I didn’t feel at all comfortable with this.

‘Look, I’m happy to buy it from you, that’s not a problem.’

‘No, honestly, I won’t need it anymore after this exhibition, and the guy who made it is in Dubai now; he won’t need it anymore either.’

I didn’t know what to say. I felt that he was taking offence at my offer to pay for it, and I felt it would be offensive to turn down his offer. ‘That’s very kind of you,’ I said.

I gave him a box of Russian chocolates which I’d brought in the event of extreme Iranian hospitality, something that is rather famous. We agreed to meet Arosh in Tehran on the day we were due to fly back to Moscow.

*

That day we walked all over the city, visiting the Armenian quarter, which was located close to Khaju Bridge. Along the river on the way there, there was a long park where lots of families were sitting on Persian rugs and having barbecues. I spent most of the time salivating heavily from all the smells wafting through the air.

We came to an underpass, where there was a group of young buskers, one of whom was playing a guitar, the other a violin, while the rest sang in harmony with the main singer. Words can’t do them justice, but to say that they were good is an understatement. You could take all the buskers on Grafton and Henry Street (Dublin) combined, and the quality would still be nowhere close.

As we approached the Armenian quarter, we came across a little delicatessen and had a look inside. I bought a tub of olives in crushed walnuts and what I think was pomegranate molasses. Why I think it was pomegranate molasses is that, once again, it was so sour that my mouth was like that of an old man who’d just removed his dentures. Still, I guzzled the entire tub.

At the centre of the Armenian quarter, there there was a small coffee shop run by two well dressed guys, one with a neat beard and the other clean shaven.

‘They look like they’ve been together for years, like a proper couple,’ said Denis, conversationally and none too quietly, as we sat at the counter sipping our coffees.

‘Do you reckon?’ I have a terrible gaydar. ‘Hang on, they’re Armenian, keep your voice down!’ I hissed. We’d become so accustomed to speaking Russian and nobody understanding us that we’d forgotten that this rule might well not apply to Armenians.

As it turned out, they did speak some Russian, but if they heard us, they showed no sign of it.

Later on, we were at Naqsh-e Jahan Square again. We still had a few hours before getting the bus to Shiraz and were chatting about something when a voice called in Russian ‘Are you from Russia?’

Turning, we each uttered ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The speaker was a young chap who was clearly Iranian.

‘Where did you learn the Russian?’ we asked.

‘Oh, you know, online, but mostly through talking to tourists,’ he said, airily. ‘I also speak English and German. My name is Hamid.’

Hamid’s English was also very good. He’d been to Russia before, he said, and hoped to go again.

‘I spent like a thousand dollars on brand clothing when I was there. You can’t get that stuff so cheap here,’ he said.

I nodded, mutely. I had never ever spent $1000 in one go on brand clothing, nor did I think I ever would. He took us to a very nice tea house across the river where there were lots of Iranians chattering and eating sweets with their tea. I don’t remember a lot of the conversation, as I was in a haze of tiredness by that stage. He walked us back towards the centre, and we crossed the famous arched Khaju Bridge. Hamid explained to us that young people often hung out there to smoke hashish.

‘Aren’t the laws against that pretty strict?’ I asked.

‘For a first offence, you get three months in jail. But it’s all straight from Afghanistan, so it’s the best quality.’

We said goodbye and exchanged emails. On the way back to the hotel, Denis and I stumbled across the Russian consulate and decided to take a picture of the sign, at which point an Iranian guard emerged from a booth on the opposite side of the deserted street, bearing an AK47, and ordered us to stop and delete the pictures:

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So that was that, Isfahan was done; we were travelling another 500km south to Shiraz. Another night, another bus with recliner seats.

Iran, part 3 – A Day in Tehran

There are a few ways to survive crossing the road in Tehran; one is praying, an act which even the staunchest of atheists would succumb to when taking that fateful step. The second is that you could wait for the endless stream of cars, trucks and motorbikes, some weaving dangerously from side to side under a heavy, creaking load, to peter out.

These are both options, but the more practical one for us was to wait for a woman and her kids to cross the road and use them as a kind of human shield by walking alongside them. We quickly came to the conclusion that women and children, grandmothers included, are far less likely to be run over; it proved to be the most effective means of crossing busy roads.

The traffic wasn’t just crazy in Tehran, it was the same all over. During the trip, it became a habit that when we wanted to cross a street, our heads would swivel automatically in search of women and children. I recall us trying to cross a large, busy road with trucks, buses and cars whizzing past and Denis saying:

‘Shit, we’d better wait for a family to cross.’

‘Yeah, good idea,’ I would say, nodding in full agreement.

Moscow is a vast city, but somehow Tehran seems bigger. Estimates put the population at around 18 million people, taking into account unregistered inhabitants. Denis had already been there a day when I arrived and we decided to see some of the sights before catching the night bus to Isfahan.

We were fortunate that it was a clear day, so we could see the mountains overlooking the city. One thing that became almost immediately apparent when walking the streets or taking the metro, was the level of curiosity towards two individuals, clearly not locals, taking pictures of seemingly banal things like propaganda posters warning parents of the dangers of social networks. Perhaps it was partly due to the fact that there were not many other tourists.

We found Iranians to be extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners. This was expressed not from a desire to sell something, but out of genuine curiosity. While walking along the street, someone would stop us and ask where we were from.

‘Ireland,’ I would say, and nine times out of ten this would be greeted with polite interest. ‘Beside Britain, but not Britain,’ I would then prompt. More polite interest followed by a slow nod.

‘Russia,’ Denis would say.

‘Ah, Russia! Welcome, welcome to Iran, enjoy your stay!’ and he would shake both our hands and walk off.

This happened so often, that I all but gave up on saying that I was from Ireland. During that first day in Tehran, we were taking a picture of a propaganda poster in the metro, when a passersby stopped to say hello.

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(Above: Government warning against social networks)

‘Where you from?’ he asked.

‘Ireland,’ I answered, hopefully.

‘Ireland? There is street called Bobby Sands Street in Tehran,’ said the stranger in broken English.

‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. This really did come as a surprise, as the previous ten or so people did not seem to know about Ireland. Now we’d met someone who knew Bobby Sands! Before I continue, I am going to assume that some people won’t know who Bobby Sands was. He was a political figure in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, who died on hunger strike while in prison.

‘It where British Embassy,’ he said. It should also be noted, that Bobby Sands Street, as it turns out, used to be called Winston Churchill Street.

‘And you?’ he said to Denis.

‘Russia.’

‘Oh, Russia! Vladimir Putin good friend!’

Denis turned and muttered in Russian, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where I’ve been greeted by locals and told that Putin is a good friend.’

This was to become something of a trend throughout the trip.

*

I wouldn’t necessarily describe Tehran as a city of aesthetics. In fact, I can honestly say that it’s downright ugly for the most part. Nonetheless, there are some really beautiful sites which are worth visiting, Golestan Palace being one. This was the residence of the Shahs until the last one was toppled from power in 1979.

Golestan Palace

(Above: Golestan Palace)

What I’d been especially looking forward to about Iran was the food. It’s a cuisine that in the West people aren’t too familiar with; at least, not when compared to, say, Indian or Chinese food. Strange, divine, full of cholesterol fatty goodness, sweet, sour, nutty, fruity, juicy, salty, are all aspects that can be found in a lot of Iranian dishes. The main street food, though, is the kebab. We had a kebab almost every day while we were there. I think I probably had enough kebabs to make my arteries scream holy murder.

The first meal I had in Tehran was in a very basic restaurant in a side street where local workers ate. I recall how the owner asked us in Farsi what we would like (I assumed that’s what he’d asked) and a man opposite us pointed to a dish which another man was eating and indicated that it was tasty. It consisted of saffron coloured rice with a piece of fried fish and a bean sauce. We took the man’s advice and two portions came to about €3. The rice alone was an explosion of flavour.

I will not forget the first time I tried a kind of sweet and sour dessert/snack made from dried pomegranate (I don’t remember what it’s actually called); it came in sheet form and had a sticky, chewy texture. The reason it sticks to mind is because the second that my taste buds made contact and sent signals to my brain, my lips curled so far in that they sang melodies to my tonsils, while my eyeballs withdrew to examine the back of my skull up close.

Pomegranate

Sweet and sour is an understatement, but the thing is that it was oddly addictive.

*

So we wandered Tehran for the day and towards the late afternoon wevwent to the far north of the city where the wealthy inhabitants live. After exiting the last metro station, we found ourselves climbing a steep road leading up to lots of modern high rise apartment buildings.

Going inside one which we thought was a hotel, we asked the receptionist if we could possibly take a photograph from the top floor. He explained to us that it was actually an apartment complex, but that the caretaker could take us to the roof, if we liked. I can’t remember the caretaker’s name, but he was an Afghan with pretty good English and he was telling us about how he’d just come back to Tehran after being in Afghanistan for three years.

‘It’s too dangerous there. You can’t live, it’s just not safe. That’s why I’ve come back here.’

It was strange to think that we were in a country bordering Afghanistan, a place that had always seemed so far away. It was also odd to think that we were in a country that had been placed on Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil”, even though so far it didn’t feel very evil and everybody had been very pleasant towards us. It just goes to show how skewed politics is, when compared to actually meeting regular people face to face.

The picture below doesn’t really portray the true vastness of Tehran, even though it was taken from the roof of the apartment complex:

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The caretaker told us that only the very rich lived in that district and that apartments were upwards of 250 square meters and began at prices of $800 a month.

On the way back to the metro, we stopped by the bazaar. One shop was selling freshly made halva which would make your teeth hurt from the sweetness. I bought two 500g tubs of it.

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Just outside the bazaar entrance, we stumbled across a restaurant buffet and didn’t hesitate to go inside. After several hours of walking, I could have eaten a horse between two mattresses. Instead, I had baked aubergine with beef in an oily, lightly spiced sauce, bean soup and bread; again, for a very reasonable price.

When we finally got back to our host’s, Alex (he wanted us to call him that, although it’s not his actual name) a couple of hours later, we gathered our things and he brought us to a kebab restaurant not far from the bus terminal. Surrounding us were tables occupied by families, all eyes on a stage at the far wall where musicians and singers were playing Iranian pop songs. Very conscious of the fact that I’d only just eaten barely two hours before, I managed to pack half a gigantic lamb kebab in, much to my stomach’s dismay as it yelled “stop what you’re doing, right now, or else!”

At the bus terminal, we said our goodbyes to Alex, and wished him luck with his trip to Europe. We found the bus and getting on I was awed to see how much leg room there was between the recliner seats. Thus ended my first day, lying stretched out as the bus whizzed us  off into the night on the road to Isfahan.

Iran – Part 2 (Moscow-Baku-Tehran)

‘The day John went to Iran,’ said my flatmate, Gweith (I call her that as an affectionate means of irritation), 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 Gweith. 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:

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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. Woken sometime later, by my stomach groaning loudly, I 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 Azerbaijani. The guard turned to me.

‘Where did you last see it?’ he asked.

‘I think I must 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.’

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.

‘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 different accent, you could say. So what are you doing in Iran?’ I asked.

‘I’m there for 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, showing me a picture of him with a tall redhead. ‘She very beautiful,’ he said unnecessarily.

Tehran_IKIA_at_NightImam 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 and cost €60. The next task was to change hard currency into Iranian Rials. I went through the passport control without any problems, the border guard smiling, and saying’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, glanced around for a currency exchange, that I heard a voice call my name. I turned and saw my bearded friend 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. When I answered his question “Where are you from?” 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 at karate for over ten years.

I exchanged some money and received a thick wad of large banknotes with Ayatollah Khomeini’s angry face on them.

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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 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 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 (that’s what he wanted us to call him), my couch surfing host. ‘Hello!’

Iran – Departure, Part 1

Finally, after years of wanting to go to Iran, the time had come. The last time I had tried to go was 7 years ago, but I got called for jury service for the date I was supposed to leave. I also found out that the visa took too long to acquire in time before my flight.

Things have since changed. Irish citizens can now get an Iranian visa upon arrival in the airport for €60. For Russians it’s just as easy and will become easier as both governments are aiming for visa-free travel between the two.

Our planned itinerary was as follows: Tehran to Isfahan, Isfahan to Shiraz, Shiraz to Yazd, and Yazd to Tehran. Roughly 2000 kilometers in total.

Packing was a tight affair. Aside from my passport, I placed the camera and batteries as the most important articles, followed by underwear and socks. I double checked my passport and cash. They do not take Visa or Mastercard due to economic sanctions, so it’s cash only for tourists.

The big day came, I awoke all excited, danced merrily to KC and the Sunshine Band (Shake, Shake, Shake), and even decided to post boastfully on Facebook where I was going. Tell the world, like (loike, as they say in Dublin).

I met my travel companion, Denis, and we went to Domodedovo airport to the far south of Moscow. We had a leisurely lunch, I even had a last beer, and then we went to the passport control.

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The first sign that all was not well was when dark, ominous wrinkles of confusion spread across the burly border guard’s forehead, like a storm growing larger and larger over the horizon.

‘Is everything alright?’ I asked, in a would-be friendly, yet anxious voice. Mr Burly (I’ll call him that) shook his head curtly and continued staring at the multi-entry visa in my passport, which I’d proudly handed him.

‘Ey, Seryozh, come here a second!’ he called to his colleague.

A surly border guard (Mr Surly) came over.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Look at this,’ said Mr Burly.

The ominous wrinkles of confusion and then comprehension migrated to the vast plateau of Mr Surly’s forehead.

‘What’s the problem, gentlemen?’ I asked.

No answer. Denis watched anxiously from the other side of the barrier as they began to scan the pages of my passport, one after the other.

‘Do you realize that your visa doesn’t come into effect until February 25th?’ asked Mr Surly.

It was February 15th. Three weeks before, I’d handed over my single entry visa and had been issued a multi-entry. The date of issue said 25-01-2016, but the date of authorisation had been set at 25-02-2016 (It should have been 25-01-2016). This was a simple clerical error and very difficult to notice. However this error meant that I had been in Russia, technically without a visa, for three weeks. Mr Surly didn’t hesitate to point this out.

‘Do you realize you’ve been here without a visa for three weeks?’ he asked.

‘Fuuuuuuuck,’ was my first thought.

At this point, Denis intervened.

‘Guys, what’s the problem? You know, our flight is boarding now, we need to hurry.’

‘Well, your friend isn’t going to make it. Come with me,’ said Mr Surly.

Not fully understanding what was happening, I had visions of being stuck in Russia without a visa because of a bureaucratic hiccup. This happened to my flatmate, who was stuck here for 7 months.

Fortunately, the problem was simple enough to rectify, but there was no way I would make the flight on time.

Denis had to run to the gate, so I tried to hand him the various things I thought one might need on a trip: batteries, chocolates for couch surfing hosts, anti-diarrhoea tablets…

‘Just give me the hand sanitizer,’ he said. We said a hasty goodbye and he ran for it. I sat outside an office weighing up my options as I waited for them to come back with my passport.

The last attempt to go to Iran was haunting me again. The gods, as Terry Pratchett has so often mentioned in his Discworld series, like to play dice with the lives of mortals. At that moment, I imagined a rolling of dice.

‘Damn, clerical error. I was rolling for deportation,’ said one god.

‘Triple six? That’s a long shot,’ said his opponent. *Clattering of dice*

‘Double sixes. That discounts your roll, but you get a re-roll in the next round.’

‘Bugger. Well, it’s not over. With a re-roll I might try and get him to do something silly, like lose his wallet.’

The consul returned with my passport.

‘I am very sorry that you missed your flight, but I honestly couldn’t do the visa any faster than 20 minutes.’

He was very genuine. Nothing could be done about it, and I was led back through security to the main part of the airport.

‘Good luck, and once again I’m sorry you missed your flight,’ said the consul.

‘Be sure to check your papers properly, next time,’ said Mr Surly, ‘you just never know with these things.’

‘I will,’ I said.

So, I was still in Moscow and Denis was flying to Tehran. I’d already taken leave from work, so there was no point in wasting it. I went straight to the Internet café in the airport and found *clattering of dice – ‘Yesssss!’* a return ticket for the following day to Tehran via Baku, Azerbaijan.

 

Russian Vodka – an infusion of fruit and madness

Sometimes – actually, quite often – I find myself lying in bed in the middle of the night wondering when I’ll go to sleep. It’s not insomnia. It’s this thing called ‘pottering about’. This is a very broad title, as ‘pottering about’ can include a multiple of things: from washing the dishes, reading, hanging up clothes, to cooking; or bottling up plum-infused black market medicinal alcohol that you’ve just tasted a spoon of but are afraid to drink any more for fear of losing your eyesight.

It’s at that point that that thought stays with you and you must google the effects of methanol on humans.

The result is a panicked rummaging through the food cabinet to find that little box of baking soda which apparently helps to counter the effects of methanol on the system. Anyway, I am not blind, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. I am also now digressing.

You might ask ‘How did you get your hands on black market medicinal alcohol, JJ?’

In one of my previous posts some months ago, I recounted a conversation I had with a friend while walking the forest outside Moscow:

“‘So what are we going to do with the plums, put them in vodka?’

‘We can get pure alcohol for that. It’s way cheaper and better than vodka. Give them two months or so and they’ll make a really nice drink.’

‘How much is a bottle of pure alcohol?’

‘It starts at 800 Rubles for 5 litres.’

‘So why don’t homeless people drink it?’

‘I guess that’s still kind of pricey for them.’

‘Are you sure we won’t go blind from it?’

‘No, trust me, it’s not that kind of alcohol. This is cleaner than the vodka you get in the shops. Also, we add water to it, obviously.'” (voodoohamster.com/2015/11/28/russia-a-walk-in-the-woods/)

The plums we’d picked on our walk were not fit for eating. However, they were perfectly good for infusing pure alcohol diluted with water and we put them into the freezer until we had that very necessary ingredient.

One evening, a week or two after that conversation and following my friend’s directions, I found myself in a distant Moscow suburb on the east side of the city about 12 kilometres from the centre, close to the main ring road (MKAD). It being a district I’d never visited, I typed the address into google maps on my phone and duly followed it for about 15 minutes. The building in which the seller apparently lived was one of many identical high rises, so as I stood in the courtyard I dialled the number and waited. A woman answered.

‘Hello?’

‘Er, are you the person selling the alcohol?’

‘Yeah, which one do you want? I have…’ and she rapidly listed off a bunch of names I don’t remember.

‘I’m looking for the Luks 5 litre. It’s 1100 Rubles, right?’

‘Aha,’ she said. ‘Just one?’

‘Yes, just one.’

‘Where are you standing?’ she asked.

‘Near entry two to building 6,’ I said.

‘What are you wearing?’

‘A black coat with a hood,’ I said.

‘Everyone wears those,’ she replied. ‘What else are you wearing?’

‘I have a big empty shopping bag in my hand,’ I said, helpfully.

‘I asked you what else you’re wearing, not what you’re holding,’ she replied.

‘Jeans. Everyone wears those, too.’

‘Okay, someone will be down shortly,’ she said, and hung up.

So I waited, staring expectantly at the two entrances nearest to me.

After several minutes tall thin man in jeans, a hat and a leather jacket appeared from round the corner of the building, carrying a large plastic bag in his hand. He walked with slightly hunched shoulders.

‘Luks?’ he said.

‘Yep, that’s me,’ I replied.

‘Eleven hundred,’ he said.

I took the bag, he counted the money, and we both parted.

So now, two months later, that very same alcohol has been infused with wild plums but I probably won’t drink it. It’ll just sit on the shelf looking pretty with its dark purple colour.

I texted pictures of the bottles to my friends in our whatsapp group. One of the replies was as follows:

‘Bathed rats are grumpy rats. (he has three pet rats)

*picture of wet rats*

They even sulk when you try to dry them. But give them cold pasta… and they’ll be your friend in no time. No rats were harmed in the creation of this sideshow.

Also Jonjo, you are getting far too used to Russian culture. One of the key differences we have noticed is that you are not stopping to ask “is what I am doing retarded?” any more.’

 

infused vodka

You know you want to

 

Russia – Nothing to Declare

A friend of mine, asked recently when the next anecdote about Russia would be. I answered with something along the lines of “I’ll see when I get back.” As it happens, I only had to reach the airport for one.
Strictly job related, I brought back a load of whiskey and beer samples to offer distributors here in Moscow. I’ve brought excess alcohol in check-in baggage many times without any hitches. This time, however, was different. It was almost as though the customs official knew already.
As I jostled through the milling crowds towards the exit from the baggage collection area, a hand shot out in front of me, and a burly man in uniform took me aside.
‘Put your suitcase through the x-ray, please,’ he said.
I did as I was told.
‘Ooooh, I see there are a lot of bottles in your suitcase!’ he said. ‘Passport, please.’
I duly handed him my passport.
‘Irish? I hear Irish whiskey is very good, is that true?’
‘Yep, most of it is,’ I said.
‘Open your suitcase, please.’
I opened my suitcase to reveal row upon row of neatly wrapped bottles in bubblewrap. His face fell at this, as most of these were beers, but upon closer inspection, he spotted the burly bottles of whiskey underneath.
‘Do you have laws in Ireland?’ he asked me.
‘Em, I suppose we do?’
‘Do you have restrictions on the amount of alcohol you can bring in at any one time?’ he continued.
‘Not that I know of.’ I thought that in this instance it would be better to play dumb.
‘Well the permitted amount of tax free alcohol you’re allowed to bring into Russia at any one time is 3 litres, did you know that? You’re way over the limit.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know that at all,’ I said, shaking my head in what I hoped was disbelief.
‘Come with me, I’m going to show you our laws, so that you know for future reference.’
I followed him to a big list on the wall at the far side of the corridor, where he pointed and explained.
‘See? 3 litres! Do you realise that we could confiscate everything?’ he said.
‘They’re not mine, they’re gifts,’ I said.
‘You must have a lot of friends,’ he said.
‘They’re for Russian friends, yes’ I said, grinning.
‘What are you doing here? Are you a student?’ he asked.
I nodded. This was something of a lie, as my visa does not state that I am a student, but I thought that under the circumstances it was easier to go along with his questions rather than offer unexpected answers.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘well look, if you offer a token in exchange for our good will (translates into something along the lines of “Nasha dobrota/наша доброта) we’ll pretend like we saw nothing. Just make sure this doesn’t happen again!’
I pulled a 750ml bottle of black imperial stout out of the bag and placed it absentmindedly on the table.
‘I’ve always wanted to try Irish whiskey,’ he said, pointing at one of the short, stocky (and much more expensive) bottles at the bottom of the suitcase, which happened to be a 7 year old bottle of Glendalough.
‘Oh, Irish whiskey is very good,’ I said. I reorganised the contents of the bag, placing the whiskey bottle on the table.
‘I’m sure it is,’ he said, grinning. ‘Enjoy your stay.’
It occurred to me that it could have been a lot worse. If that had been in the likes of Germany, it would have all been confiscated in adherence to the law.

Readin’ in De Streets o Dublin

Walking around Dublin, one hears funny things. For instance, reading and walking at the same time is an interesting task. In fact, it is the feat of superior multi-tasking: *read and comprehend, avoid dog poop, avoid walking out into heavy traffic, avoid people, stop yourself listening to the conversations of passersby* The list goes on, really.
The last task is important i.e. stop listening to other people’s conversations – this is often difficult to do in Dublin, as inner city Dubs are wont to having conversations with each other standing at opposite sides of the road over the din of heavy traffic.
It’s extra funny when what you overhear is spectacularly contrasted to what you are reading in the given moment, such as the following:
“Toc’s fellow lieutenants – and indeed Anastor himself – were well enough fed. They welcomed the endless corpses the march had claimed and continued to claim. Their boiling cauldrons were over full. The rewards of power.
“The metaphor made real – I can see my old cynical teachers nodding at that. Here, among the Tenescowri, there is no obfuscating the brutal truth. Our rulers devour us. They always have. How could I ever have believed otherwise? I was a soldier, once. I was the violent assertion of someone else’s will.”
He had changed, not a difficult truth to recognise in himself. His soul torn by the horrors he saw all around him, the sheer amorality born of hunger and fanaticism, he had been reshaped, twisted almost beyond recognition into something new. The eradication of faith – faith in anything, especially the essential goodness of his kind – had left him cold, hardened and feral.
Yet he would not eat human flesh. “Better to devour myself from within, to take my own muscles away, layer by layer, and digest all that I was. This is the last remaining task before me, and it has begun…”
When suddenly you overhear the following:
Woman 1: “How’s Holly?!” she shouted.
Woman 2: “Ah, she’s grand. Goin’ inta de Junior Cert year, yeh know? Feckin’ books are goin’ ta clean me ou’. How’s yer little wan?” shouted no.2.
Woman 1: “She’s no’ little anymore, sure she’s neerlee twel’ve!” shouted no.1.
Woman 2: “Yeh, bu’ dey’re all little t’mee, ye know? Is she doin’ her confirmation this year?” shouts no.2.
Woman 1: “Jayses, yeah, I’m fuckin’ dreadin’ i’. Dat’s gonna cost an arm an’ a leg an’ Chrismus is jus’ gone!” shouted no.1.
Woman 2: “Ah Jesus, don’t talk to me, sure we’d be better robbin’ a bank, wha?!” shouted no.2.
Dublin streets are sometimes the best places to read something dark and grim.