3rd – 23rdJanuary, 2013
Yerevan is an ice-rink and we live in a fridge. The bathroom is a damp closet with a permanently wet floor – the kitchen too, since we turned off the fridge a few days ago to save electricity. The kitchen is colder than the fridge was anyway.
The Ghost left while we were in Iran – a seventeen year old boy from Iran, brought to Armenia by his parents some months earlier. I only ever met him twice during the ten days I was here six weeks ago. The Ghost huddled in his room playing computer games all day, door bolted, occasionally shuffling out to boil some pasta. He left without paying the rent.
A permanent ice patch has settled herself in the centre of the long, uneven driveway that leads down to Hrach’s steps. To keep warm, we cozy up in front of the gas heater in the hallway, nicknamed the Black Stone, after the one in Mecca. To us, this oversized Soviet metal contraption is equally as sacred. It’s the only heater in the house.
Outside, leaves bluster under heavy clouds. Stilletto heels ice-pick pavements, as Yerevan women demonstrate near-fatal feats of balance on the slab of ice that covers the city. They don’t put down grit in Armenia, and only the very biggest roads will occasionally get cleared. A journey to the shop is a treacherous venture.
Hrach works Canadian hours here in Yerevan, meaning work starts at 5:30pm and ends at half past midnight. The Canadian company he works for are keen to give the impression to business people they’re cold-calling across the US that their workers operate from an office inside Canada. This kind of work is quite typical in Armenia, where people have to fight for jobs. It’s not uncommon for a company to close a few months after starting, or to outsource their operations still further, to yet cheaper workers in China or Singapore.
We are nocturnal hermits, watching documentaries under blankets in front of the computer, drinking too much coffee and too much wine. Occasionally, we go out to a bar.
Lisa arrives from Tbilisi one blustery day, having hitchhiked well over 2,000km, through snowstorms, to visit me in Yerevan. It’s Lisa’s first time in Armenia and I’m intrigued by her reactions to a city I’m growing so accustomed to.
Lisa discovers parts of Yerevan I haven’t even noticed yet, like the old Blue Mosque in the South of the city centre. “It’s so fast!” she giggles as we jump onto the escalator down to the metro platform. It really is fast – strange how I never noticed before. “It’s so communist!” she says, as the metro screeches in. I impart my faithful advice, useful for all post-Soviet countries I’ve experienced thus far: “Don’t Smile. Drink!” It’s useful to remember that here, smiling is kind of weird. My friend Alex, who was born in the Soviet Union, explained it to me like this: If you smile, it means one of two things: 1. You have something to laugh about – that means you have something other people don’t have. 2. There’s something funny on the other person’s face.
It’s hard for people like us, who were socially conditioned from birth that if you meet a stranger’s eyes, you must smile, to respond to stares with a blank expression. Also, it’s hard to dis-attach myself from the idea that it’s rude to stare!
Braving the cold, Lisa and I take a marshrutka (shared minibus) 23km East of Yerevan, to the pre-Christian Garni temple – the only surviving one of it’s kind in Armenia.
Lisa is gone after a few days – too fast. The ice shows no sign of thawing. What has changed, is that I’m once again able to see Yerevan through a traveller’s eyes. There are curiosities and hidden corners, so much more to discover.
25th December, 2012 – 3rd January, 2013 , Isfahan and Tehran
My bus has just pulled in for a thirty minute break at a mangy service station when my phone rings. It’s Emée. She, Hrach and two French guys have just arrived at the Iranian-Armenian border. I’m so happy I could cry. “Let me speak to him!”
“Hey!” Hrach’s voice rings through the phone – clearer than the Iran-Armenia phone connection could ever mange. “Hey! Where are you?” They’re at the border, on their way to Tabriz. “Come to Isfahan,” I tell him, “I’m on my way to Isfahan now”. “I’m gonna go to Tehran?” “No, Isfahan! I’m going to Isfahan!” “I’m gonna go to Isfahan?” “Yeah, come!” “Ok, I’m gonna go to Tehran and then to Isfahan.” “No! Come straight to Isfahan!” “Ok, let’s see what’s gonna happen…”
I’m in Isfahan waiting by a bridge. I was delivered here at 7am by my host and told to wait for one hour, when I would be collected by Rahmin, my host’s friend and my friend’s lover from a year and a half ago. I’m excited to meet Rahmin, having heard so much about him from Claire. Unfortunately, it’s very cold. I don’t completely understand the logic behind waiting by this bridge in the cold at 7am in the morning, but I trust my host and dutifully comply. When I begin shivering, I get up and take a walk: up the river, down the river. I should probably mention that this is more of an ex-river. The river itself has dried-up, apparently part of a government plan to build an underground metro system at some point in the future. When my friend Claire was here a year and a half ago, she and Rahmin saved some fish that were drowning in oxygen in the recently dried-up river. I think of this now and smile. I smile also at the “no swimming” sign, the beached paddle-boats and the woman taking a short-cut across what was once the river-bed. Behind my smile though, there’s a frown. Why has the Iranian government dammed this river? Did anyone try to stop them?
A text message arrives from Rahmin after the appointed hour: something came up. He can meet me at 1pm. 1pm?! I have to wait here in the cold until 1pm?!? No way, not going to happen. I see a girl sitting on a bench. She gapes at me when I ask if she speaks English – she’s just on her way to an English exam. Well then, this will be good practice. I ask how far I am from the centre? Is there a coffee shop? A cafe? Anywhere at all I can sit and write? She says no, I’m far from the centre. She tells me to follow her.
It’s becoming obvious this girl doesn’t know the area at all, but I asked for help and now she feels responsible for me – even if it means being late for her very important English exam. She asks a woman for directions and when it becomes apparent that the woman knows the area, I beg the girl to go and let the woman show me the way to a cafe. She looks relieved and hugs me, before running off to her exam.
The woman invites me to her house for tea, where she introduces me to her teenage daughter, who is also studying English. The woman smiles at us speaking English together as she makes me tea and lays out slices of cake and fruit. It’s a typically Iranian experience and one I’m very grateful for.
The daughter asks if I have a boyfriend and where he is. I tell her about Hrach in Armenia, and that he’s now on his way to meet me in Iran. She tells me there’s a big Armenian community here in Isfahan, something I’d already heard about. My friend David recommended finding the Armenians to procure alcohol, since laws are a little different for Christians in Iran. “Today is an Armenian holiday”, she tells me, “it is a Christ-fest”. It takes a moment for what she means to sink in – today is December 25th, and I hadn’t even noticed! I begin to laugh. Since the age of fifteen I’ve been trying to avoid Christmas completely and this is the first time I’ve ever managed it.
Emée is no longer with Hrach and nobody knows where he is. Having come to Iran to meet me, now he’s apparently vanished. Feeling extremely impatient, I book a night-train to Tehran to look for him.
My train rolls in at 5am. Somehow I make it to my friend Komeil’s apartment, where I’m surprised to bump into a guy I met in Georgia, who is now staying at my friend’s house in Tehran with another guy I met in Yerevan – what a tiny world this is.
I’m frowning over a tarot reading on the question ‘Where is Hrach?’ when my telephone rings. It’s 5pm, two days after I spoke to him at the border. “Hey!” “Oh my god, where are you? I was so worried!” “Yeah, my phone didn’t register for a long time and I didn’t write your number down and I forgot to bring my charger and… yeah, sorry. So I’m coming to Isfahan?” “No, I’m in Tehran.” “Oh, you’re in Tehran? But I bought this ticket for Isfahan…”
Two hours later I meet Hrach at the metro station close to Komeil’s apartment. We didn’t see each other for almost six weeks. “Hey!” He says. “Hey!” we smile at each other, go to embrace and then remember where we are. Fighting stronger impulses, we steal a quick hug and begin walking together, sneakily holding hands.
After a couple of days hanging out with friends in Tehran, Hrach and I take a bus back to Isfahan. The plan is to find Armenians in Isfahan and celebrate Christmas with them. ‘Christmas’ in this context, actually means New Year. Armenians, being from the Orthodox branch of Christianity, celebrate Christmas on 6th January, but New Year is a bigger celebration, according to Hrach.
We find the Armenian part of the city. There are Christmas trees and Armenian writing. All the shops are called ‘Ani’ or ‘Ararat’. A giant Father Christmas looms over a street corner.
The plan: We find an Armenian coffee shop. Hrach will greet them in Armenian and they will welcome him like a long lost brother, invite us for Christmas dinners and drinks and parties and ply us with alcohol.
We find a coffee shop. On sitting down, the waiter comes to take our order. Hrach greets him in Armenian. “Are you Armenian?” The guy asks him, in Armenian. “Yeah”, says Hrach. He explains that he grew up in Syria and is now living in Yerevan. They chit-chat a while, me smiling and sipping coffee and witing for the inevitable news of all the parties we’re being invited to.
The guy goes off to serve someone else. Hrach leans over and whispers into my ear – “I just realised something – I don’t want to hang out with Armenians.” “What? Why not?” I hiss back, although the guy probably doesn’t speak English. “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. They’re just so… Armenian.”
We take the bus back to Tehran, back to our Persian friends. It’s Azadeh’s birthday and we intend to celebrate it with her.
This will also be the last time I see Emée for the foreseeable future. My last chance to say goodbye to my travel companion of most of the last three months.
In a few days I’ll be back in Yerevan, three days before Armenian Christmas. The city will be covered with tinsel and Christmas trees and I will realise that I have, once again, failed to hide from Santa.
20th-24th December, 2012, Shiraz and Persepolis
I am a giraffe in Iran. I walk the streets with my long neck, swaying in the breeze. People stop and gape. “Where from? Where from?” They’ve never seen a giraffe before, not even on television. Trouble is, being an exotic animal is starting to grind me down.
They say Shiraz is the most beautiful city in Iran. To me, it’s just a regular Iranian city, albeit with more trees, a bit less traffic pollution and more historical monuments. Ornamental orange trees decorate the avenues. There’s a giant adobe castle in the centre of the city.
The Long Night of Boredom
It’s the end of December 20th and so far the world has shown no sign of impending explosion, implosion or anything else. I kind of wish it would. The woman sits by the bonfire, waffling on and on, apparently about Zoroastrianism. She has been speaking in Farsi for hours already and there’s no sign, so far, that she will ever end, let alone the rest of the world. The man sitting next to me, my host – so far the only person who’s spoken to me – seems equally as bored. Tonight is Yalda Night: the longest night of the year. It’s traditional to celebrate this night by staying awake ’til dawn. I doubt I’ll make it to midnight.
When I was told of a party in a private garden in Shiraz, visions of liberal Iranians sitting around sipping shiraz wine came to mind. This was based not only on wishful thinking, but also on information imparted by a friend from Shiraz, who told me that people here still make the wine secretly, despite it’s prohibition. No such luck. Every woman in the private, walled garden is still wearing her hijab. Wine would be unthinkable.
During the next twelve hours, another three people attempt to begin a conversation with me, each beginning with the words “what is your idea about..?” I’m asked for my idea about Persepolis (I don’t have one), Stonehenge (it’s a big clock), “our land” (presumably meaning Iran), Allah (tried to avoid answering that one) and Iranian people – to which I respond that here, like everywhere, there are some very nice people and some total bastards, but mostly people are somewhere in-between – a complex mixture of life-experiences, thoughts and emotions, neither ‘good’, nor ‘bad’. It’s not a popular answer.
As the night wears on, my temper shortens. There is one woman with a light shining out of her eyes, but barely a word of English. She struggles to ask which city I’m from. Her husband sneers at her and says something in Persian. “What did he say?” I ask the man standing next to me. “He told her this is not important.” I spend the next half an hour communicating with the woman in a series of gestures and smiles. We share a big hug when we finally leave. After almost 24 hours in that garden, I feel like I’m getting out of prison.
The End of the World
Ali is my new host. He lives alone in the centre of Shiraz. It’s very uncommon in Iran for an unmarried guy in his thirties to live alone. We have some friends in common and are both members of the hitchhiking group on a certain hospitality exchange website, so we have plenty to talk about. Conversation swings to the End of the World which, according to popular interpretations, has been predicted by the ancient Mayans to occur at some point on this very eve. Back in Europe, it’s mostly hippies, conspiracy theorists, and other eccentric types who are into this prophecy, however, in Iran it seems to have made it to the mainstream. Several times during my travels I’ve been asked what people in the West are saying about the End of the World. Not much, actually.
If it were really the end of the world, I’d quite like a drink. I mention this to Ali, who promptly grabs a bottle of vodka from the cupboard. This, I was not expecting. We drink into the wee hours, Ali becoming increasingly flirtatious. “Why you are not drunk?” he slurs. “I am,” I tell him, I’m just more used to it than you are. I hear him being sick in the toilet before stumbling off to bed.
Milad is a fun and quirky young couchsurfer who’s passionate about hitchhiking. I contact him through that same inevitable hospitality exchange website and we decide to hitchhike together to Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 70km from Shiraz.
It’s my second time hitching in Iran and I’m glad to have Milad with me. It’s obvious to the drivers that he’s a student and his slight clumsiness adds to his charm. Every car that stops agrees to take us for free. I see men’s eyes in front mirrors and avert them, letting Milad answer all the inevitable questions for me. “Inglistan”, he tells them, when they ask where I’m from. We decided to say we met at a hotel. Couchsurfing is more or less illegal in Iran.
Sunshine vanishes as we leave the city. Persepolis leers out of the fog, adding a striking atmosphere to Iran’s oldest pre-Islamic ruins.
The Grey Flat-Cap
I can’t remember which way the coffee shop is, so I ask a man working at a kebab stand close to the Arg of Karim Khan – the 18th century citadel in the city centre. He points me in the direction of Shohada Square. I know it’s not the way, so I thank him and walk on in the direction I think is right, leaving three men staring after me.
I’ve long since begun looking at the ground as I walk, so as not to meet the eyes I know are everywhere, pointing directly at me. Unfortunately, this means I’m completely unaware of the tall fat boy in the grey flat-cap, until he walks alongside me. “Coffee-shop?” he asks. The only way he can know I’m looking for a coffee shop is if he heard me back at the kebab stand ten minutes earlier. “Are you following me?” His forehead draws down into a frown. He doesn’t understand, but I do. I slow my pace. Flat-cap slows down with me and looks impatient. He wants me to hurry up. After a while, he points down a side-street “Coffee-shop!” he tells me. There’s no way it’s down there. I stop and call my first host, the guy who took me there before. He tells me it’s on Hafez Street – I’m on the right road. When I get off the phone, the guy is gone and I continue walking.
I hear footsteps quicken behind me as the fat boy rushes up to me, grabs a handful of my behind and dashes off down a side-street, leaving me yelling after him – “FUCKING BAAASTAAARD!” He must have been tailing me for over half an hour.
Safely inside Farough Cafe, I engross myself in my writing. On looking up, I notice two young women staring at me as though I’m made of sunlight and gold. One of them asks politely if they can speak with me. I can hardly say no. I tell them about the grey flat-cap and they nod sadly. “We have to get used to this”, one of them says. Apparently this kind of thing happens to them all the time.
The reaction of men is worse. “Male company will reduce lots of hazards.” “Better to avoid crowded downtown streets.” They may as well say it’s my fault for being a woman, for being alone, blonde, not covering every bit of my hair – although I cover as much as the average Tehranian woman.
I feel that my time in Iran is coming to an end. I’m bored of the stares, the attention, the endless questions. I’m bored of being a tourist, of covering my hair and staring at the ground when I walk. I hate being a giraffe.