The World Is A Dangerous Place, If You Worry About It

We’ve experienced the interesting phenomenon as we’ve moved eastward of being fervently warned against the terrors and the dangers of the bogeymen we are bound to encounter further east. It began as far back as Bosnia, where we were cautioned about driving through Serbia, but has been more pronounced ever since Turkey.

In Istanbul, we we were warned about traveling through Kurdistan, the easternmost part of Turkey, and a nationalist region that spills over the borders of Iran and Iraq. There, we were assured, the bloodthirsty Kurds would be lying in wait to slit our throats, steal our tires and pirate our music collection. Instead, I found cheap knockoff Nike toques, and nobody touched us or the car.

But the Turks and Kurds of eastern Turkey were in agreement about the certain fate we’d meet in Iran. Surely the trip would end there; we would be imprisoned for being foreign, forced to admit to espionage and it would take a diplomatic mission to get us out again. Of course, none of that happened. But that was only because we had not reached eastern Iran, Balochistan, which every Iranian took care to mention was a lawless place, prone to the type of bandits and brigands you’d find in an Indiana Jones movie. But in Kerman, we found out it wasn’t Iranian Balochistan we needed to be concerned about – it was Pakistani Balochistan that would be the end of us…

And so on and so on.

If I’ve learned anything traveling through this region, it’s that everyone is scared witless of their neighbours by some nightmare vision of a place edited together from sensational media reports and scenes from the beginning of Iron Man. Bad things happen in these places, to be sure: the Kurdish slaying of over 40 Turkish security personnel in August; the routine imprisonment of foreign (and domestic) journalists in Iran; the kidnapping and semi-regular bombings in Balochistan. However, I’m still surprised that the same people who are warning me against these places are the same intelligent people who would be made nauseous to write off whole cultures or ethnicities or religions because of atrocities committed by a maniac few.

There are three things totally unfair with this point of view:

1) It’s largely fed by grossly iniquitous media stories

This point is pretty much a given. You’re not going to hear stories about three Afghani Pashtuns inviting a tourist into the back of their shop for tea and a chat; only if that tourist doesn’t come back is something reported. But the former is far, far more likely than the latter, and the experience is interesting and rewarding even if they don’t speak a word of English.

2) The probability of something terrible actually happening is extraordinarily small if the right precautions are taken

I’ve read about three people being kidnapped in the past few years. By the figures here, let’s say Pakistan has had a few million tourists in the same period. Roughly speaking, by these numbers, your chances are about 1 in a million of being kidnapped.

As far as bombings go, they have been concentrated in Peshawar and places of worship (in Pakistan, anyway), which are in any case typically off-limits. If you’re smart about where you go, you hardly need worry.

3) Worst of all, it’s racist and bigoted, as the fear of these places is innately linked to a fear of the people.

Sitting next to a turbaned man on a plane and want to switch seats? Different situation, same prejudice.

I experienced one of the few shocks of the trip when an Iranian in Bam asked very sincerely if I was planning to travel to Afghanistan as well. My reaction was an instinctive no. Thinking about it more, I still wouldn’t go there right now; it is a war zone, after all. However, I’ll admit the images that flooded my mind at the initial question were not of army fatigues and war encampments, but those of masked Afghans binding me and tossing me in the back of a pick-up.

The easy thing to do, the thing that takes the smallest amount of mental effort, is to paint a place with broad strokes: evil, danger, threat. The finer details, like the three Afghans in their shop inviting me in for tea, are much harder to perceive, but are usually the true colours of a place. Those details are difficult; they confound the mind, as it’s those subtleties that jar your perspective the most, like scratches on a Barnett Newman painting, belying a more evocative work underneath.

To add some detail to your image of Iran, Pakistan and Balochistan, here are some images from the drive from Bam to Quetta. And there is also a video kicking around on YouTube, too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdvmHxkHjTw.

A bunch of these aren’t mine: props to Hariom and Marianna and Robert for their pictures (and Damon, Brian and Tanja for the company). Click on the first one to get started.

And there is also a video kicking around on YouTube, too:

Do You Have The Persianality To Drive In Iran?

It’s 6 in the evening and we’re driving into Tabriz, Iran. The sun went down 30 minutes ago, but we’ve been driving through a storm-induced twilight for the last few hours. The air is thick with diesel fumes and giant sticky-wet snowflakes and the visibility is from here to the taillights of the next car. Of course, when only about a quarter of the cars turn on their lights before it’s too dark to see, visibility is from here to “WHERE THE HELL DID THAT GUY COME FROM.”

A taxi flies up an on-ramp, brakes hard, swerves, accelerates, and squeezes between a guardrail and a lumbering dumptruck. The truck bovinely corrects course into the adjacent lane, scything a niche out of the traffic as the smaller cars scramble out of the way. A few honks of the horn, and the little Paykans and Peugeots break left and right and fly up the road in a cloud of exhaust.

A series of roundabouts filters vehicles as they enter Tabriz. The theory of a traffic circle’s one-way route is ignored by most drivers, who instead of methodically circling around to turn left, simply arrow into oncoming traffic to save themselves the… effort, perhaps? One can’t be sure. They are not the only fish swimming against the current. Cars fly in from every angle, exposing blind spots you didn’t even know were there. You’ve checked your mirrors three times over, but there’s no accounting for the little taxi that’s reversing into the roundabout.

My Iranian friend calls this characteristic suicidal lunacy of Iranian drivers “Persianality”. When he tells me I need more Persianality when I’m driving, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

My Persianality is a filthy car

It’s bad enough as a driver, but at least you’re behind a thin sheet of metal. Pedestrians don’t have that luxury, and maniacal drivers give no quarter to the bags of flesh that dart out in front of screaming traffic. Iranians take a whites-of-their-eyes approach to crossing pedestrians, which is to say they begin to brake when they see the stitching on your jacket. It buys you precious seconds, but I’ve found the safest way is to wait for a group of old ladies to wade into traffic and cower behind them. There may be a better way than using senior citizens as human shields, but I’ve yet to find it.

Back in Tabriz, nominally one-way streets abound when you’re in the city proper. Large dividers line major arteries and funnel traffic in one-way circles around and around the same block. This is common to most major cities in Iran, I’ve discovered. Want to get out? That’s why one-way streets are one-way in name only. Our hotel in Tabriz was on one of these divided streets, but in the other direction. I go to pull a U-turn in the dark, wet and snowy traffic, and think I’m just going to make it when the heart-stopping crunch of metal on cement immobilizes the car. I’ve just driven into a joob, the three-foot-deep drainage ditches that line random city roads, unmarked and curbless – just a straight drop off the side of a major street. Our little Nissan lists like a sinking ship, its front right wheel suspended helplessly in the roadside trench. I look up and realize the car has keeled off the road not 5 feet behind an Iranian Army truck. The soldier and some passing Iranians see the steering wheel is on the right side, laugh at our predicament, take a picture, then help push us out. The soldier then escorts us the wrong way down a one-way bus lane to our hotel. Welcome to Iran. Somewhat ironically, President Ahmadinejad holds a doctorate in transportation engineering.

The Good

There are a few positives to the sheer insanity of the driving here. For one, from the outside, the omnidirectional traffic circus is entrancing to watch. So many tons of steel careening around with inches to spare is like some sort of sadistic ballet.

For two, gas is just gleefully cheap. We filled up with diesel most recently for all of $12. I’ve thus been far less inclined to show any sort of restraint when driving, as gas mileage is difference of cents now, not dollars. This is typically Iranian, though – vehicles are often left idling because its simply financially trivial to turn them off.

Diesel is also much cheaper than petrol. We even got a tank for free from Mr. Hosein because it’s cents on the liter for residents.

 

There’s not much else to recommend driving in Iran. The people and the scenery, on the other hand, supply every reason to come here. Iranians are by far the most friendly people we’ve met on the trip. They are unfailingly generous and polite. And the country has had some of the most surprising landscapes of the trip. But that will be for the next update.

And for those who haven’t seen it, here’s a video summary of our drive from France through Europe, all the way to the border of Iran.