By Sharon Kreider
Travel Memoir Gold winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards
Before the internet, Google, or cellphones, the journey overland from Europe to Asia took time, ingenuity, and more than a little courage. Travel through Turkey, Iran, and Syria can be difficult today but was especially challenging for a young, white twenty-year-old woman touring these regions alone in the 1970s.
In February 1977, I found myself stuck at Gubulak, the border crossing from Turkey into Iran. Johan, someone I met in Greece, and I had been turned away from a Syrian boundary a few weeks earlier. Naively, we thought a bus service would just be there. Not only did such a thing not exist, but Iran had travel bans from sunset to sunrise. I was also completely unaware that civil resistance had commenced in Iran which led to the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi or ‘the Shah.’ I didn’t see another woman anywhere.
“The roads close at sunset. Iran has strict laws about this and just about everything it seems,” Johan groaned. “There are no places to hang out either at this hole.”
I looked at the hard, ugly benches and the gray cement walls of the compound building. “Can we wait here until morning?” We only had thirty minutes until the border between Turkey and Iran locked up for the day.
Johan folded his arms. “I asked the guard that. He rolled his eyes. I assume that meant no.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do?” The dark night had settled like a fog from the sea, cool and all-encompassing. “Do they send us back into Turkey or what?”
Johan shrugged. “I dunno.” He sat next to me and put his long legs up on his rucksack. I felt comforted by at least knowing one person in this uninviting environment.
We both spotted him at the same time. His long brown hair fell almost to his elbows and he carried a small canvas bag, slung across his shoulder. He nodded when he saw us and ambled our way, indifferent to the hostile sentry.
“Comrades, looks like we’re all in the same boat here.” He spoke with a honeyed American accent, smooth and soft.
Johan got up to shake his hand. “Yep. Name’s Johan, from Holland. And this is my friend Sharon, from Canada. We met on Rhodos trying to find a boat to Marmaris and decided to travel together to India.”
“Hi.” I gave a beauty queen wave, my arm bent at the elbow.
We sat on the inflexible pew and chatted about what to do.
His name was Larry. He pronounced his name in long drawn out syllables, Texas style: Laaarrrrreeee. “You know. Someone told me you can hitch a ride into Tehran with truck drivers from Eastern Europe. They’re less strict about company rules and apparently like the camaraderie, especially with a beautiful woman. Wanna try?” He looked at me.
I blushed and wondered how he got such flawless teeth. “I guess. We don’t have a lot of options.” I turned to face Johan. “What do you think?”
“Worth a shot. Stay here with our backpacks and we’ll ask around.” He looked out the window. “There seems to be a lot of big trucks out there and they can’t drive until morning.”
I watched Larry and Johan disappear into the ebony shadows and waited, attentive to the guards’ stares. One watchman came over, scoffed, and pointed to the large black and white clock on the wall. I held back the sarcasm. Yes, I knew the border would close soon. I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh.
The two-day bus ride from Ankara to this boundary had been unpleasant at best: the foul smells of rotten garlic on a packed bus, the overnight at a horrid motel, and the nasty outhouses at pit stops made me gag. Surely, Iran would be better than northeastern Turkey.
Larry rapped on my shoulder. “We found two truck drivers from Bulgaria who are willing to take us to Tehran. They don’t speak much English—just a few words. It takes about two days.” He beamed. His chest puffed up as if he wore a light down vest. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. We can sleep in the front of their cabs.”
The two Bulgarian truck drivers shook our hands. The shorter man had a beard and showed us a picture of his family. The thicker man’s belly protruded over his belt. Flecks of gray around his temples showed he must’ve been in his forties. The bearded man’s name was Sergey and the elder was Micha.
The three of us unrolled our sleeping bags and had a restless sleep, bumping into each other throughout the night. I woke early, eager to get going. Sergey and Micha were already up and motioned for us to be ready to leave in five minutes. We quickly used the latrine and left. Johan and Larry rode with Micha and I traveled with Sergey. I didn’t think to ask why they separated us like that. We halted for a rest mid-morning and the truckers shared food from their home; chunks of hearty whole wheat bread and cheese, juice, and fruit. In the late afternoon, we took another break at a small settlement and ate at a quiet outdoor eatery—rice pilaf, flat bread, and warm water from a spigot.
At sunset, the two trucks pulled off onto a long off-ramp and parked at the back of a long row of trucks, snuggly tucked within inches of each other. They looked like toy matchbox cars. Within minutes a number of semis parked behind us and we were frozen in place until morning. Darkness descended quickly. Stars appeared and a cool evening replaced the hot, dry day. Miles of barren hills and parched earth surrounded our little camp. I had spent the day looking at this waterless land, with only a few poor villages here and there to break the monotony.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to Sergey unzipping my sleeping bag. He rolled on top of me and began to fondle my breasts.
“No!” I yelled. “Get off me!”
Sergey laughed and said a few unfamiliar words. He started to unbutton my blouse and held my arms down.
I screamed and tried to wrestle his every move. I pointed to his family picture.
He laughed. I think he thought this was part of sexual play. We fought for what seemed like a long time, but probably only about ten minutes. Then, he just froze, looked at me, and apologized. He crawled back into his compartment and fell asleep. The loud snores kept me awake, but mostly I feared he’d try to assault me again. I thought about what my Turkish friend Davud had said, about women in this part of the world. “Unmarried women live virtuously at home until their fathers have arranged for their marriages. Women do not go out alone and do not take a trip with single men.” I did not know women were discouraged, even forbidden, from being in public places without proper attire or company. Women who openly shared the public domain were considered freely available, in other words, prostitutes. Maybe that’s why Sergey gave us a ride.
The next day we woke at sunrise and departed hastily. I focused my attention on the desolate landscape and avoided any eye contact with Sergey.
At our final rest break before Tehran, Johan stared at me. “What’s up? You seem sad?”
Sergey and Micha sat near us and laughed.
Johan and Larry thanked the Bulgarian men for their kindness. I sat on my pack and watched. I couldn’t bring myself to thank them, even though they did us a huge favor. Sergey glanced my way and waved. I didn’t wave back.
The bus, headed to Tehran’s city center, squealed around corners sending the passengers from side to side. I hung on to the overhead rail with both hands to steady myself from falling into an Iranian man. The full bus contained mostly men with one woman in a long, loose outer garment covering her whole body from head to foot or a burqa up front.
We tried several hotels and inns. At each place, the door slammed in our faces. The keepers shook their heads. I heard one man, in broken English say, “Oh, no, no. No foreigners allowed.” We took it personally, not understanding that the launch of the Iranian rebellion was underfoot.
Finally, we saw two tourists in the street. Larry yelled, “Hey. Can you help us?”
“Only one place in Tehran for foreigners right now,” one of the men told us. “Some uprising is going on about America and they think all of us are from the United States even if we are from Germany.”
The taller of the two travelers tapped his foot. “I don’t like it here and plan on leaving as soon as my visa comes through. You better go to the embassy tomorrow. I heard it takes at least a week and there’s not much you can do because of the riots at night.”
I perked up. Riots? Uprising? Sounds exciting. I whispered to Johan. “Let’s go out tonight and see what’s happening?”
Johan lifted his eyebrows. “First, let’s find lodging and food.”
Figures. Johan is thinking about his stomach, I thought.
The only place for outsiders to stay in Tehran was a four-story dilapidated dwelling with one shower house for the men and one for women, a cafeteria and office on the first floor, and several rooms on the second and third floor. The crowded, filthy dormitory on the fourth floor reeked of backed up toilets. But there was nothing we could do. We settled in to the dormitory until a room opened on the second floor. We ate in the cafeteria that first night and slept fitfully on sagging cots. Larry pegged it perfectly. “This place is a rip-off.”
The next day we took a bus into modern Tehran and stood in line for hours to apply for Afghani visas. When my turn came, the male clerk barked, “Passport. Open it up and leave it right here.” He tapped his index finger to a spot on the work surface. “Do not touch me.”
Who does he think he is? I thought. Geez, okay already. I did as he asked and offered a smile, trying to appear friendly.
He did not smile back. After several silent minutes, he slid my passport across the countertop, careful not to make any contact with my skin and said, “Okay, you come back in five days for visa.” His gaze felt cold and foreboding, like the chills I got once walking down a deserted alley in Vancouver.
On the third night, I convinced Johan to go out into the city. I had heard loud noises and pops of what I suspected to be rifles. Earlier in the day, I had watched a procession of tanks rumble down our street. Men sat on top and wore white turbans. They shouted things from a loud speaker. I didn’t understand a word. Johan seemed troubled, but I found the insurgency electrifying.
Iranian men, and women in full burqas, filled the streets yelling and holding up signs. I couldn’t read the symbols. Several had a picture of an older man with a long white beard.
Johan held onto my sweatshirt. “I don’t like the look of this.”
Suddenly a group of men rushed past carrying fire sticks above their heads. They looked like athletes running in the Olympics. A few screamed something and then others joined in. The frenzied crowd’s momentum picked up speed and the urgency tasted acidic and hot. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and the air felt saturated and seared like a steak on a boiling grill. Tiny panicky bubbles began to bounce in my veins. A loud bang erupted to my left, but I couldn’t see because the crowd had strengthened in numbers. I was swept into a human river bursting with a mania I couldn’t comprehend.
Someone grabbed my arm. I turned to face a woman in a light blue burqa who pulled me away from the thunder and onto a street curb. She lifted her veil and I saw she had the same skin color as me.
She spoke English. “What are you doing here?” Her voice high pitched and vehement. “This is dangerous. Get out. Now!” She pushed me into a bush.
I heard Johan holler my name and I yelled back, “Over here!”
He clutched my hand and pulled me up. “Wow. Let’s go.” A loud explosion echoed off the walls of a concrete building.
We ran down a side street and made our way back to the hotel. No one told me revolt could be so thrilling. The Iranian peoples’ passion moved and terrified me at the same time. The turmoil lasted into the early morning hours.
In the cafeteria, everyone talked about the upheaval, the opinions as diverse as we were. “Yah, I heard a few people got killed.” “I’m getting out of here as quick as I can.” “Oh, this will pass.” “They need the Shah.” “Better to go into modern Tehran right now.” “I’m scared.” “No big deal, just chill.” “Let’s get stoned.”
I didn’t go out at night again and we waited impatiently for our visas. Johan and I got ours first.
Larry would have to remain in Iran. “It’s because I’m American, I think. You guys go on ahead. I’ll meet you in Herat. There’s a really nice place there.” He jotted down the name of the inn. “It’ll seem like paradise after this.”
The uprising of Iran’s needs—both oppressive and worrisome—had strengthened during the week. I looked at the filmy disk of the sun and nodded. “I’m looking forward to being in another country. Hope you can join us soon.” I began to understand a little of the world around me. A culture built on modesty with a strict adherence to the Quran. A woman should shield her face and body from public view. Many of the Muslims seemed to shun anything western; handshakes, laughter, movies, books, dancing, alcohol.
We hugged and Larry gave us a bag of dried fruit and freshly-roasted pistachios for the long bus ride across the extensive Iranian desert.
When we got to about a hundred yards from the Afghani border the bus suddenly stopped. Native men in their turbans, and women in their burqas, began to murmur. The children’s eyes grew wide with alarm. I looked at Johan.
A big, burly man got on the bus. He yelled, “Baksheesh. Baksheesh. BAKSHEESH.”
I whispered, “Are we supposed to give him money? Is this blackmail or are we being robbed?” I slinked into my sweatshirt, trying not to stand out.
The man walked down the aisle and paused at each passenger, demanding some sort of pay out. I can’t remember now if he had a gun. I kept my eyes on the ground.
Johan gave him a few dollars.
The man grabbed the money and snorted. “You more, no?”
Johan stood up, easily a foot higher than the man and said, “No, I don’t have any more money right now.”
The man grunted a few times and left. Then, the bus driver got back on and drove to the border as if nothing had happened.
Once through Afghani customs, I asked one of the local men, “What was that back there? Why did that man demand money like that? Does this happen all the time?”
Two bus mates replied at the same time, “Oh yes, every day. Same thing. Bus driver and man make extra money. Drive to border or leave you in desert. You pick.” They both grinned revealing tobacco stained teeth.
We found the lodge Larry had recommended, just outside Herat. One word to describe the place—beautiful. The hotel’s several rooms formed a rectangle around a large, enclosed courtyard. In the center of the square, a fountain splashed water into a blue-tiled pool. The shrubs were in bloom; effervescent pinks, dazzling scarlet, oranges and yellows next to spring greenery. I let out a long sigh. Thank god I made it out of Iran. Today I’d add—Thank god I made it out of Iran—alive.
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Sharon Kreider is a freelance writer after a thirty year career as a licensed school and professional counselor. This is an excerpt from her book, No Direction Known: How traveling alone to Asia saved my life. She is currently writing a series of short stories inspired by her recent travels in Australia, and she is a member of the Northern Colorado Writers Guild.