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The Middle East: Kish my Ash

Written on: Thursday February 19th, 2009

It was never my intention to travel to the Middle East on this trip. Originally, I had planned to go to Kenya from Sri Lanka, with the possibility of stopping at Maldives en route. But somewhere along the way I became intruiged by Dubai. And after arriving in UAE I began meeting people from other countries in the region, which further aroused my curiosity for the Middle East. Because of this, I now found myself in the airport at noon, waiting to depart for Kish Island, Iran.

Iran is a difficult country to visit if you are from the United States. It takes a long time to get a visa approved, and even after obtaining it, you may still be denied entry at the border. The exception to this law is Kish Island, where one is allowed to freely enter the country without a visa.

Sitting in the Dubai airport waiting to board my Kish Airlines flight, I was excited to have found this exception to the rule. I'm going to Iran...this should be cool!  But I soon learned that my flight was cancelled - apparently there were not enough people on it to justify its existence.  Dang.  Well, at least I only had to wait three more hours to catch the next flight at 5:45pm.  So I got a coffee and a paper and read about current events in the Middle East.  As I attempted to check in at 3:45pm I was told that this flight, too, was not going to Iran...this time due to a mechanical problem on the plane.  Shit!  Now this was becoming more frustrating.  I only planned to be there for two nights, and with today being effectively used up, the visit suddenly became quite brief.  Eventually we were hearded onto a plane arond 8:50pm.  An hour later we were entering the tiny Kish Island airport waiting to clear customs.  As expected, I was taken aside for questioning before being allowed to enter.  A young cop with the voice of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV quizzed me about my intentions in Iran:

 'Why are you here?'

"Tourism."

 'Are you updating your work visa for UAE?'

"No; I don't live in UAE.  I'm only traveling through the area and wanted to see Kish."

 'What do you do in America?'

"Structural engineering."

There was a long pause here, and I tried to break the ice a little by mentioning that my father was a cop in the US, but is now retired.

 'You are police?'

"No. My father WAS police, but he has since retired."

 'You are FBI?'

"No.  I am a tourist."

At this point, a long, hard stare was directed at me as he pointed a finger to a chair and instructed me to sit.  I did.  Then the other cop took my hand and started finger printing me!!  Fortunatly I had read somewhere that this will likely happen for Americans when they enter Iran, so it didn't freak me out in the least.  In fact, I mentioned how cool their electronic finger printing machine was, and that I thought prints could only be obtained with ink.  Apparently that was enough of a statement to prove my ignorance, and consequently that I was not here on a covert operation, to grant me legal access to the small island.

To complete this incredibly challenging day, the courtesy bus for the hotel at which I was staying didn't show up.  Even when I had the customer service lady in the airport call them to send the driver, they refused.  Now I was really getting ornery.  I was hungry, tired, getting a cold and sick of being told things that weren't true.  So I hiked across the airport grounds to find a taxi.  Upon arriving at the hotel and immediately asking why they wouldn't pick me up, they provided no answer; instead, they had other news.  They informed me that the 100 dihram room that was waiting for me was actually 200 dihrams.  WTF?!?  I was guaranteed the price by a travel agent in Dubai, and there was no way I was paying double. 

"What about a shared room?"

 'Oh, you don't want one of those.  There are up to ten people in them and they are cramped.  Just take the room tonight at 200 dihrams and tomorrow I'll see if I can talk to my manager and get you a special rate for the second night.'

"No.  Please show me the shared room."

So we walked across the grounds and came to a room.  It was a spacious room.  There were a total of five beds in two rooms.  Also within the complex were a kitchen and bathroom. I could have one of the two beds in the private bedroom, sharing the space with a professional Chinese  guy who was waiting for his visa to be approved.  The only other roommate was a Vietnamese guy waiting on the same thing.

"How much is a bed in this room?"

 '35 dirhams.  But the first night is free.'

"I'll take it!"

So after a hellish day and an unpleasant first impression of Iran, the title of this journal suddenly became apparent to me, as that is exactly what I wanted to say to a long list of people that I had to deal with throughout the day.

 

Morning provided a chance at redemption.  I ate with the Chinese guy then headed off to explore.  I strolled to the nearly deserted beach, spying only the occasional person amongst the palms.  Farther down the coast it was a bit more happening.  People were out an about, and mostly appeared to be Iranians on holiday.  They were playing on the beach fully clothed.  It was extremely perplexing to me to see a group of women completely dressed in black, head covered, face covered, standing on the beach, dipping their feet in the water.  Were they actually enjoying this?  How could they be?  I guess every culture has their own ways, so all I could do was respect theirs and move on.  I found a bike rental place and cruised around the perimeter of the island for a couple hours.  It was interesting and peaceful.  Everything was so quiet here.  People were friendly, waving and smiling as I rode by.

As saddle sore set in, I returned the bike and headed back to the hotel.  While checking emails I heard the unmistakable sound of ping pong being played....competitive ping pong!  Woo hoo!  Finally something to hold my interest.  I watched the guys play.  Yup, they were good.  When the game ended I asked if I could get a game.  The victor obliged and we went at it.  I lost that game, and was still trying to get my timing back.  Somebody else wanted to play me, and I quickly got into my rythem.  It was a blast!  There were people from all over waiting for their visas to be approved, so the pool of talent was large.  Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Kuwaiti...they were all there.  And the lone American, who gained instant respect as he sent them all packing.  I was undefeated after that initial loss (and I did beat that original guy the next two times we played).  As my friends know, I am fairly competitive, and ping pong is one of the few things that I am pretty good at, so it was enjoyalbe to be able to compete with such high quality players.

After a shower I went to dinner with one of the Indian guys, who, incidentally, was really cool.  The Iranian lamb kabobs were washed down with a Pepsi, and the entire meal was excellent.  Afterward we met up with a group of Filipinos and went bowling!  This little town actually had a bowling alley/arcade.  It was expensive, but quite fun as well.  The best part was watching people try to bowl who had never done it before.  Everybody laughed and had a good time.  Late night talking ensued, but I could hardly keep my eyes open, excusing myself at 3:30am to hit the rack.

As I left the country the next day I felt teased in a way: sure, I went to Iran, but I saw none of the true beauty of this country.  Perhaps if I am lucky, fate will once again bring me here, and next time I'll be able to explore beyond Kish.

 

From Will and Maria on Feb 25th, 2009

Oh man I cannot get my head aroud you smokin folks in ping pong and then goin BOWLING IN IRAN So tough