Dubai to Tehran 8.19.2014 / by Walter Kitundu

After a fitful night of sleep in the Dubai airport hotel, we wandered into the sleek cold light of the vast terminal in search of coffee and something to fuel our final leap into Iran. I was optimistic and calm about getting into Tehran but the inverted sleep cycle and lack of hydration had me feeling the familiar tingles of anxiety that can precede a panic attack. I've been trying to keep my feelings near the surface so they don't quietly assemble and surprise me. I think I've done a good job at this but vigilance is a double edged sword… it monitors that which should be monitored while attending to things that should be ignored. It leaves you in a loop of only almost being fine.

At any rate, we boarded the plane and began to hear more Farsi. In less than two hours we'd land at Imam Khomeini International Airport but for now the white haze outside the window held up a brilliant blue dome of sky. We spun our tiny thread of noise and fumes as we hurtled through the atmosphere with several hundred other souls and in no time the desert appeared below. The mystery began to mount but so did my sense of calm. As we descended I had expected to see the mountains but then realized the airport must lay to the south. Our wheels touched down and the plane pirouetted onto a taxiway as a songbird found a sliver of shade under a runway marker.

At immigration we entered our separate lines and while all the Iranians were expedited through, foreign nationals had their patience tested. Mind you, this doesn't take anything more than knowing others are being seen faster than you. Never mind that the line we were in was pretty efficient in isolation, the fact that it was slower was enough to irritate some fellow travelers. I used their entitled sense of discomfort as my entertainment and before I knew it, it was my turn to be scrutinized.

Fingerprints were the order of the day since it was my first visit to Iran. My nearly non-existent Farsi was still enough to bring a few smiles to the young officers who tried earnestly to look stern and officious. At one point a group of seven came together to discuss the best way to proceed and soon enough my fingers were being firmly pressed, one at a time, onto a scanner, as an officer taught a rookie the ropes. We arm wrestled a bit as I figured out where the scanner worked best and tried maneuvering while the young man forced my hand into varying corners of the screen. There was no tension in the embrace however. I got the feeling we were both quietly enjoying it.

Once through we gathered our luggage and floated through the gates and into Iran proper, and by this I mean the loving embrace of relatives replete with flowers and food and generosity. We walked for only a few seconds before being treated to chocolate cake and melon juice in preparation for the long drive. I was in the land of taarof but this was an unfair fight. At a loss without local money, we couldn't enter into the dance of generous offers and counter offers and polite refusals with any seriousness. So it was we tasted chocolate and fresh cold juices and struck out into the reverberating sun to drive into Tehran.

I was curious to see if the driving was as bad as I've been led to believe. From a western perspective the driving is terrible. But that is often the problem with western perspectives, they are as narrow as the lanes in which they'd have you keep your car. The driving in Tehran is deeply improvisatory. These drivers aren't bad… they are really good. For a system this fluid (in which lane markings are strictly decorative) to work at all, a level of attention and awareness that surpasses anything I've seen in the west needs to be firmly in place.

It looks like people are using the lanes... but this is purely photographic coincidence.

It looks like people are using the lanes... but this is purely photographic coincidence.

Certainly there are accidents, among the highest rates in the world, but the fact that there aren't 30 times more crashes is due to the skill and, weirdly, the egolessness of the drivers. Don't get me wrong, the egos and the "me first" sensibilities are what drive this whole system, but critically, there is a point at which the ego evaporates and people acknowledge when they didn't get into a space first, and the other person moves in, and the system works. In the west, the ego persists entirely too long and if you unveiled this system in San Francisco, everyone would immediately crash into everyone else while pinning several thousand pedestrians in between the cars and life as they knew it would grind to a halt. It's just a different system… so I guess I understand why people who openly acknowledge that the rate of accidents is so high, also have a sense of pride about the driving here. 

It offers pedestrians a thrill too as I learned when we took a stroll to the grocery store. Confidence is key because you might as well be a motorcycle or a car. Your presence isn't treated any differently and crossing the street becomes an intoxicating mix of prediction, reaction, assertion, urgency, and patience. It's an equal mix of fun and terror at first and you end up laughing at the fluidity of it all just so you'll dare cross the next street when the time comes.

Tehran was shrouded in a cloak of its own devising. The smog created by the cars and clung to the city and mixed with the weather generated by nearby mountains to drape the city in a sticky warm haze. The city began to reveal itself, a syncopated mixture of tunnels and towers, colors and construction, brimming with humanity and history.

Our relatives offered ice cream (by offered I mean put it in our hands) and then swept us off to a late lunch, thereby insuring an afternoon nap. It is nearly midnight as I write this and I have no desire to eat whatsoever. I'm being beaten down with deliciousness. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Tomorrow isn't even here and we are upstairs chatting with young  friends about motorcycles and droughts, cell phones and self love. More fruit, and the offer of food, but the need for sleep takes over and we are ready for bed. Not even a full day in Tehran but still a very full day. Kheili.