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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2011 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — 3rd Place Winner

Sand and Pomegranates

Slowly Crossing the Desert in Iran

The sun shines as I wait at the crossroads for the small cloud of dust on the horizon to reach me. Today, I am visiting the desert for the second time in my life. The first time seeing the Gobi desert roll by from a rickety Chinese railroad wagon was  a beautiful sight, but hard to appreciate with speed and glass separating me from the experience. This time I am resolved to take it slow. I am standing on the edge of the Maranjab desert, in central Iran. My dirty backpack holds three kilos of food, and twelve liters of water. I do not have a car, or even a driver's license. I’ve decided to hitchhike, which is why I bring so much water. It is not that I cannot afford a cab or an organized tour. I want to walk and sleep alone in the desert.

How I got to stand at this crossroad is another story. I have been on the road already for four months, hitchhiking from my native Belgium. Taking things slow, making sure to appreciate everything between my home and my destination. We are called overlanders—people who like to travel at our own pace. I see a lot of other overlanders here in Iran. No one is going by car, many by bike, and most are following the classic route from Europe to India. The route has been popular since the late 60's and early 70's, when thousands of hippies converged on their trip to the East—often by hitchhiking. In fact, there are so many overlanders here, that every local I meet asks me where I am going after Iran, as if the country is not a valid destination in its own right. Iran is enough for me though, and I have been planning to visit this country for over a year now, with my imagination fired by a host of serendipitous events. I read up on it and attended an inspiring concert of traditional music. My Iranian friends all make fun of me though. They see the irony of millions of Iranians trying to get out of the country, only to see me be so desperate to get here. But I am firmly resolved to spend all the time here that I possibly can. It is a beautiful and big country, and it is ethnically as well as climatically very diverse. But I digress.

I was telling you how I got to these dusty crossroads. The answer is hitchhiking. Well, I did cheat a bit, as I took a taxi to the edge of town to start. Low fuel prices and high unemployment here collaborate to make transport by taxi excessively cheap, so I decide to indulge for the price of three Euros to save two hours of walking, or the hassle of figuring out public transportation. After that, it is not hard to figure out which direction to go. Iran has a lot of bilingual Persian-English street signs, and I get out of the cab at the signpost pointing to the desert. I wait for a full five minutes before the first truck arrives, and then I find a ride in another one. I make good time until I arrive at the military base.

The base is huge, more than a kilometer on each side. The road runs right next to it. I walk slowly until I reach a big stop sign with a lot of writing in Persian. I stop. I look at the guard behind the fence, but he is just morosely staring at me. I am unsure what to do. So I slowly walk towards him, making certain that doing so is also OK with him. Iran is not a country where you want to do something wrong, especially since they have a habit of indicting tourists who are mistaken as spies. The soldier replies with surprise at my hesitant hello, but he looks kind of puzzled when I ask him if this is the right direction for the salt lake, the biggest landmark around. He is probably confused due to my rudimentary Persian. I call my friend in Tehran and explain to him the situation. I then hand the phone to the soldier. Again, I was hoping that I do not look like a terrorist with an explosive device carefully constructed to resemble Scandinavian technology. When I get it back, I only hear laughter from the other side. My friend tells me it is fine to walk on, but the soldier was wondering why I was asking him if he has any salt for me. He is also wondering where my car is. I am satisfied, and I slowly walk past the base, still keeping eye contact with every soldier I see on the way.

After these tense moments, I am merrily hiking on the road. Happy to be moving, happy to just put one feet after the other and let my mind wander over the empty landscape. I am not in the sand desert yet; it is still a slightly green landscape of uninspiring small hills. I walk slowly, adapting to this new environment, and getting to grips that this is where I am going to spend the next few days. It is warm, but not hot. It is mid-November, and the sun never rises high enough in the sky to be dangerous and it is cold in the shade. There are no trees and no buildings around. I keep walking along on the dusty road. I keep walking until I reach an intersection of dusty trails. One of them is marked in Persian, but I can only understand that it is not pointing to the desert or any landmark. The other trail has no sign. It is probably the right one, but I really do not want to make a mistake here. If I have to walk the entire length of the trail, it will take me at least a day and a half to get to the sand dunes, and the same coming back. Doing so would leave me without enough supplies to spend any amount of time at the salt lake. So, I decide to take the safer option. I wait for a ride. Twenty minutes later, I am waiting for an approaching dust cloud which becomes bigger and closer.

The car stops, of course, with two males in their thirties, while modern hip-hop music is blaring. They are very unsure about what I am doing there, but I manage to make them understand that I am not in an emergency situation, and that I would be very grateful if they could take me deeper into the desert—which they promptly do. They are scouting out a hotel for an upcoming trip. The hotel, an ancient caravanserai, is right next to a 400 square kilometer dried-up lake. Perfect, I say. We cover the 30 kilometers in an hour and a half. I am happy I did not have to walk this uninspiring stretch with my heavy backpack. When we arrive, the hotel does not show any trace of human occupancy. My drivers, in quintessentially Iranian style, propose that I go back home with them, spend two nights as a guest, and then join them again when they come back with tents. It is genuine hospitality, something which two months ago, in other countries, would astound me. But, here in Iran, I get offers like this all the time. I am conspicuous, with my blue eyes and blond hair, but everyone who visits this country has the same experience. There are free taxi rides and family meals offered to me as soon as people see me pass through the streets. There are many stories, but just believe me on this one—Iran is truly a country rich in hospitality. I decline the men’s offer though. Right now, I am not in the mood for a couple of days of pampering, especially since I lack the ability to have a fluent conversation. And I am not in the mood to go back when I just made it to my destination. We say our goodbyes. When they leave, it is only me, the caravanserai, and a school bus of children taking their first ride on a camel. They look a bit puzzled when I start marching away from the road. I walk for another three hours, and decide to pitch my tent for the night.

I am on the edge of the salt lake. It is huge—400 square kilometers. Although it is as flat as a pool table, I cannot see the edge of the lake on any side. I walk a bit before the night falls, mostly to keep the silence at bay for a few moments longer. It turns out that there are only three things to see here: The section where the salt looks like small, half-centimeter thick worms; the section where the salt is gathered into fist-sized balls; and the section where the salt has gathered in ridges, creating a pattern of irregular polygons for miles around. It looks like a giant board game, and I am too small to make any sense of the rules. I sit down, next to my tent. I am just looking at the sunset and listening to the absolute silence that surrounds me. It sounds like static. My ears are unable to cope with this dearth of stimulation, and it is unnerving. I am bored. I eat, slowly. I walk around a bit, just to hear my shoes on the salt crystals and know that I am not dreaming. I watch night fall. It is a full moon, which makes it hard to see the stars. The best viewing will be in the morning when the moon is over the horizon.  Then, I see two campfires light up, and suddenly I realize I am very lonely here. I have my book, I have food—I have everything I need to be here. But I do not have anything coming in, no new things to see or do before I go to sleep. And it is only seven p.m. I start walking to the closest fire, but I quickly realize there is no way in hell I am ever going to find my tent if I continue. And, since I made a deal with myself to sleep alone here, I am unwilling to pack the tent and I pace nervously around it. Suddenly, an incredibly loud groaning noise comes out of the dark. It does not sound like anything that I know—too monotone to be a storm. It moves very slowly from left to right, but it does not sound like any car or truck I have heard. I have no idea what the sound is, and that scares me. But there is really nothing I can do, except secure my tent for stormy weather and wait. Perhaps it is a sand storm? The noise fizzles out slowly, and there is nothing left for me to do but to go to bed at 8 p.m.

I sleep like a corpse. Memories of the last dream or two continue to buzz around in my head when I open the fly of my tent. It is still, as dark as a cellar outside, with no trace of the moon anymore. It takes my eyes awhile to adjust, but then I see it—an impossibly starry night. Something I have seen before, but it is so rare that I pause to enjoy it for awhile. The night is cold, but not as much as I was led to believe by all the legends I have been told. I still see the campfire burn in the distance, even though it is four in the morning. The campfire comes from the direction of the caravanserai, so I decide to call it quits, pack up and head over there. I need to find my next ride. While I am marching, the sky slowly reveals slivers of purple, red, orange, and yellow. I feel as though this dome is slowly revolving around me, as this terrain is too flat to suggest any type of motion. I do not even feel I am moving— the only clue is the sight of the caravanserai slowly coming into view. The mystery of yesterday has also been solved, when I notice the loud noise again, and see it is associated with  blinking green and red lights in the sky. They are departing air flights, still low as we are just two hundred kilometers from Tehran. And they are loud due to both the lack of any buildings to dampen the sound, and the ubiquitous sand which causes echoes.

I arrive, and I am not surprised when I immediately get invited to have tea with a group of students around their campfire. There are five of them, and I am surprised that they are all men. The desert is a favorite among young people who want to mingle freely, just as it is a favorite for everyone who wants to indulge in wildly illegal behavior. Parties, dancing, even a woman without a scarf can be found in the open in Iran if you know where to look. The mountaineering clubs are usually filled with liberals, the hikes are filled with political debate, and cell phones are blaring music. But, this time, I meet people that are bona fide tourists. I get on very well with Mahdi, a 22-year-old. His English is fine, but he is the one that owns the Jeep they are using. And I am in luck. He has traveled a lot in the country, so we talk about different regions. He has traveled to all of them, including the cold Zagros mountain range, where the Kurds live, the wetlands of Iranian Azerbijan, and the Zoroastrian remains near the border of Iraq. It is difficult to find decent information on Iran, more difficult than every other country I have been to before. Even locals use Western guidebooks, as the best guides available in any language. Much information seems to be patched together by half-remembered conversations with tour guides, but, there is no alternative. I feel a bit sorry for him, because I know he cannot leave the country. Passports are only given to men who have completed their mandatory 2-year stint in the military. And, even then, it is hard to move around. Another Iranian friend inspired me to take it slow. He had his Schengen visa refused, but he decided to go to Europe anyway for three weeks to the only country that does not require a visa for Iranians—Kosovo.

Mahdi invited me to continue my trip with them. There are already five in his party, but he manages to squeeze two people into the passenger seat. We are driving off-road, enduring hours of bumping around. We follow the tracks of the previous jeep to pass through, which is easy to follow as the salt is crushed flat under the tires. The tracks will stay there for thousands of years. We horse around a lot. We have salt ball fights. We play baseball with a shovel. We are driving recklessly, which is that quintessentially Iranian form of entertainment, practiced wildly because it is one of the only legal ways to have fun. Most people go to see the natural world because it is the only way you can be yourself in this country, away from the prying eyes of unofficial police and neighbors. We make it to the sand dunes, and the same thing happens here. We push each other off the crest, try to snowboard down on a traffic sign we found a ways back. I am amazed at how hard it is to even walk in this kind of environment. The sand has strong and weak areas, but it is impossible for me to tell which one is where. Cresting a dune is even harder. Unless you dig in with hands and feet, it is impossible to make any progress at all—you just slide back down to where you started. The trick is to take it slow, going deliberately and digging in. It is amusing for awhile, but I am relieved that I am not hiking through the dunes.

I spend the next two days with this group, visiting nearby towns and camping out. Some things I had already seen, but I did not care. I have all the time I need anyway. In one famous park, Mahdi's friends excuse themselves to go and pray. Mahdi stays with me though, and I remind him that I have my own form of praying—eating pomegranates. He laughs, he is just as wild about them as I am, and when we discovered this we bought five kilos the next opportunity we had to do so. Eating pomegranates is probably the finest metaphor there is for Iran. Only when you open the skin do you realize what you have gotten yourself into. It might be young, yellow and sweet, or dark red and sour—or anything in between. In any case, it is the only thing you are going to be doing for some time. You need both hands, so it is very awkward to eat standing up or walking. And you are going to get dirty, so it is equally impossible to read a book or spend time at the computer. When you are eating pomegranate, it is the only thing you are doing.

Traveling in Iran is best approached in the same way. Cities are far from each other, and attractions are sparse. I became frustrated after a week or two, tired of churning miles in trucks and buses. I tired of getting lost in anonymous big cities, with every street indistinguishable from the next. But, after awhile, I decided to appreciate this slowness. I went with Mahdi on another road trip, and having your own car with a friend behind the wheel makes all the difference. You can share long talks about dreams and aspirations. I learned from him how it is to be young in Iran. How boys and girls can meet in semi-normal circumstances. We exchanged stories, perhaps too many stories. For example, the story where one of his friends gets kicked out of university for smuggling a girl into the student dormitory while hidden in a refrigerator box. Or the story about how he is beaten up by unofficial police when he was trying to get his vote back by demonstrating in 2009. Now we can share the story about how we met, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The funny thing about traveling slowly is that it never really feels slow. The longer you stay somewhere, the more you discover and the more satisfied you feel about your knowledge of a particular country or region. More importantly, such a way of traveling allows you to spend more consecutive time with people you meet along the way. You get to know new friends better, and as a result build a more profound friendship. You discover things about each other that you would have glossed over if you had less time. A country or region is more than a collection of cities and sites. It is also the story of innumerable people, and an entire culture that is never easily understood.