Tehran, Iran

I have never seen anything quite like the traffic in Tehran and the insanity of an Iranian behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Though the driving style might be similar in India or Syria, Iran has both higher traffic volumes and higher velocity, resulting in one of the highest accident rates in the world. Theoretically, the Iranians are right side drive but this seems to be flexible. It only takes the slightest increase in traffic volume for cars to start spilling over into the opposing lane. At first glance, the universal road signs and symbols all seem dangerously familiar. Iranians understand them totally differently with a rough translation something like: RED LIGHT means yield, PEDESTRIAN CROSSING means accelerate, and ONE WAY DO NOT ENTER means proceed with caution. You might think that you at least have sanctuary on the sidewalk, but this is the preferred thoroughfare for motorcycles. Yesterday I even saw a car decide that the sidwalk looked just a bit clearer than the road. I do a double take each time I see a car creep up on a red light and then dart through causing a cacophony of horns from the oncoming traffic, but this is very normal. So crossing the street takes an enormous amount of courage and you could easily find yourself standing on a street corner until your visa runs out. I wait until a reasonably sized group of Iranian women, preferably old, amasses on the corner and then together we plunge into the road, eyes dead ahead. With cars crashing into each like bumper cars, speeding down one way streets in reverse, and cutting across roundabouts the wrong way, you can do nothing but try to see the comical side of the chaotic confusion.

Perhaps a result of the dangers of riding in one, taxis are absurdly cheap. I bargained a taxi from $4 to $3 for a 20km trip down to the Imam Khomeini Shrine, site of his tomb. I half expected throngs of fanatical teary-eyed worshippers, like the footage of his funeral 12 years ago. From the outside the shrine is definitely imposing, with golden minarets which can be seen from kilometers away. But inside it turned out to be the opposite of my expectation, at least on this day, with a enormous empty hall resembling a high school gymnasium. Apparently His Holiness had wanted to his final resting spot to be a relaxed place where people could congregate, almost like a park. In keeping with His wishes, children shout and scream playing games in the atrium, while inside men lie sleeping on Persian rugs as if comatosed. The tomb itself is modest, with a simple cloth draped over the coffin and a black and white portrait of him leaned up against it. But he is now surrounded by cash, offered through a tiny slit in the glass by the devoted, with enough 1,000 Toman (10,000 Rial, or simply 100) bills to fund my travels for years to come.