The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed picks up where my van let me down. I was stranded on the far outskirts of a small Iranian town. All I could see was a long dusty road and the all-too-soon deadline for getting my vehicle out of the country.
My van was clearly not going anywhere. Three options remained. Pay the import duties, far beyond my means; go to jail, a non-starter; or flee. Any escape entailed crossing the border before my abandoned vehicle was discovered by the authorities so I opted to proceed with as much haste as I could manage while I planned. I packed what I could into my one sport-bag and began walking, trying to hitch a ride whenever a car approached. My dearth of funds paled to insignificance beside my looming lack of freedom.
Several hours and a few miles later a taxi pulled over. There was a young fellow from the US in the back. I explained that I couldn’t afford taxi fare – not even half a taxi fare. The passenger beckoned me in anyway. He, too, was headed to the border, his fare was already paid, and I was welcome to join him just for my company. I thanked him profusely and felt a bit of relief until he began telling me his story.
He was one among the many following The Beatles’ spiritual quest to India and enlightenment. He, also, had purchased a camperised van outside the Australian Embassy in London. I longed to share our common experience but dared not – perhaps the taxi driver was SAVAK. (I must confess here that I was so caught in my escape planning that I don’t remember the fellow’s name, or even whether I heard it.) My fellow traveller’s previous plans ended when his van was forced off the road and over a cliff by an oncoming transport truck driving on the wrong side of the road.
He was badly bruised but still able to limp his way back to the road. He sat on a rock near his wreck as a Good Samaritan, who had observed the incident and stopped, poked and prodded him. My companion spoke no Farsi. His rescuer spoke a lot of Farsi, but no English. A policeman soon noticed the commotion and stopped. He had a conversation with the helper, nodded understandingly, and bundled my new-found friend into the back of his cruiser.
To my friend’s surprise, rather than driving to a hospital, he was taken to the police station. An English-speaking officer questioned him and looked over his passport. He was then told he would be held in jail until he paid 400,000 rials import duty (over US$15,000). He was in jail for several weeks until his parents were able to raise the tax, a fee for his accommodations in jail, and enough extra to see him home.
Needless to say, his story terrified me. He went on to describe beatings and firehose baths. He exposed the gap where his two upper left incisors belonged and explained how they broke beneath the gum-line during his crash and were left to painfully fester until they fell out. I abandoned any thought of pleading for mercy at the border.
My anxiety grew as we approached the border. Was I nearing my freedom or my doom? My benefactor called the driver to stop a few hundred yards from the border. He said, although he trusted me, he didn’t want to risk any complications at the border. I thanked him and set off to cross the border on foot – hopefully!
I queued up, madly trying to devise a plan. I got to the customs agent still with no plan. I presented my passport, feeling rather ill. He looked inside and found the attached document about my vehicle. “Where’s your car?”
“Outside,” I said, neglecting to add two hundred miles away.
“Go over there.” He pointed across the room to a man behind a desk. “He will inspect your car.”
I looked around desperately. Jail loomed before me; freedom lay to my left. I turned and walked as casually as I could toward the exit for cleared travellers, expecting to be accosted at any instant – or shot. I made it out and picked up my pace as I headed for the Turkish customs. I made it to their small shack and presented my passport. I only had one small bag for the agent to check through but he seemed to take forever doing it. I didn’t have faith that international rules of diplomacy held much sway in this outpost. I kept anticipating an irate Iranian border guard dragging me back to an unpleasant fate. Finally I was cleared and waived on.
I left the Gurbulak border crossing behind, much relieved, still a free man. I was in the middle of nowhere, with two-and-a-half continents plus an ocean between me and home, but at least my biggest hurdle was behind me. I had my freedom, one small bag of clothes, three hundred and sixty-five dollars, and my wits to see me forward.
Next week: Beyond Frugal Traveller.
P.S. The above image is a newer construction but still shows the desolation of the Gurbulak border crossing. In 1979 there was only a small brick shack at the border, a house for the guards a few feet away, and not much else for several miles.
Peter T Elliott