A new language, new writing, new money, new dictator portraits: border crossings always begin a new chapter. Crossing a tiny footbridge at a minor border crossing between Turkey and Iran was no different. Having heard rumors about endless delays miring travellers for a full day at the northern crossing, I found a bus that I thought would take me across a lesser used border to the south, into the Iranian city of Orumiyeh (see this map and look in the northwest corner).
Across the footbridge in Iran, I was greeted by an enormous portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini, flanked by his successor, the Ayatollah Khameini. Beneath them was an American flag burning from below, from the stripes to the stars. In case the picture left any ambiguity, the top of the flag was soiled by the footprints of a combat boot. Welcome to Iran, the border guard said to me with a smile.
An Iranian man, Khaled, was sitting next to me on the bus, and he took it as his personal mission to usher me through the border as quickly as possible, calling to me “Mr. Alex, please follow me over here.” With his help in 20 minutes we were through. On the other side of immigration, the bus passengers congregated waiting for the last passengers to get through. “Have you under the table?” a Turkish man asked in English, making a sweeping motion with his arm. I responded with a blank stare, since I had no idea what he was talking about. “Under the Table! Money! Money!” implying a bribe.
“No, no problems. And you?”
“Every time” he shook his head.
I tried to change money safely and legally, but the man behind the exchange counter at the bank shook his head and simply said “No rate.” So I plunged into a circle of men whom I suspected were black market money changers and were sure to have a rate. Mr. Khaled came immediately to my aid, proving himself once again an invaluable friend, since Iranian money is not that simple. Though the Iranian currency is Rials, everyone ignores them and all prices are quoted in Toman. So when someone says 1,000 Toman they mean 10,000 Rials; it seems a bit pointless but this is just the way. It’s very easy to get confused, especially when someone is trying to use this to their advantage to rip you off. What makes things more confusing is that people seem only to know the english number 100 and they use it liberally. Ask how much for a kebab and someone says 100 when they mean 10,500 Rials. Ask how much the bus is and the attendant says 100 when he means 950 Toman. I spent last night memorizing numbers in Farsi.
Arriving in Orumiyeh Mr. Khaled stuck by my side, as once again he felt his duty called. He told me he would arrange for a taxi for me, but ended up negotiating a taxi for 2 stops, paying for the entire fare, coming into my hotel to make sure that they had space, and giving me his mobile number in case I had any problems. All this before saying goodbye to a total stranger and finally going home. This was my first introduction to the famed Iranian hospitality, which is proving difficult to reconcile with the Axis of Evil.