Getting out of Iran is proving to be more difficult than getting in. Imagine my surprise when arriving at the huge port of Bandar e Abbas to find out that it was closed for the Persian New Year holiday celebrations. I was told to use this exit route to Dubai after my Pakistan visa was rejected, leaving me no choice but to ride 2,300km across this arid, hostile landscape to the southern tip of the country, where the United Arab Emirates is within striking distance, just several hours away by boat across the Persian Gulf.
But not for me, and not for some time either. As (bad) luck would have it, this is the first time the port has closed for this special holiday. It’s late at night and I’m tired, so I assess my options and decide to grab a few hours sleep before trying my luck the next morning a couple of hundred kilometres up the coast at Bandar Lengeh, where I’ve heard a boat also goes to Dubai. But I hardly sleep at all, as my mind is racing through all the unresolved issues, while the heavy traffic is also racing on the street just one floor below outside my budget hotel room, with its jammed windows and broken air conditioner.
I give up on any chance of sleep at 5am the next morning and ride out, following the coastline west, all the while watching out for the stray goats that are searching for the best vegetation right on the edge of the highway. I make it to Bandar Lengeh at around 9am and head straight for the port complex. It turns out that there is a boat — correction, there was a boat — but it’s already gone and the next one is four days away on Saturday.
I’ve nowhere to stay, the sun’s now beating down and I’ve a choice to make. I decide to get a ticket. But it’s not that simple. It never is in Iran. I’m taken two blocks away by a friendly guy called Ahmad, a teacher who also has some kind of travel agency ‘on the side’. I’m ushered into another building, where I’m told to wait. It’s all friendly, but why did I ever think that it would be like at home, where you turn up, buy a ticket and ride straight on?
I’m then taken upstairs to an office where I’m introduced to a tall, stern looking official with a fantastically thick beard. He has a real air of authority and a slight air of menace about him. I’m asked for my passport, bike papers and carnet, and once he has them he shuts the door and disappears. Two more officials join myself and Ahmad and they all seem to have a good laugh (in Farsi) discussing my situation. The ‘beard’ returns and gets me to fill in another form, before asking a heap of questions about where I’ve been in Iran, what I think of his country and what will I tell people when I return home. I give the answers I hope he’s looking for.
Two hours pass in this fashion, and then he says I have to come back the next day to make a start on the paperwork. I’ve heard these kind of stories before, but didn’t expect it to happen to me so soon. I feel completely helpless but tell myself to remain calm, keep smiling and positive. I realise that my destiny is in their hands and that I’m not going anywhere soon, but at least there is a plan, of sorts. I try to convince myself that a couple of days rest will do me good — that I’ve been going too far, too fast and need to slow things down anyway. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m stuck, and have no control over the situation.
Ahmed must have seen through the not-so-brave front I was putting on and comes to the rescue. He lives an hour away from the port and suggests that I come and stay with his family overnight. He has his son Ebrahim with him and they seem genuinely trustworthy so I accept, and follow them through the busy port traffic and out into the desert.
After about 90 kilometres of riding in the hottest part of the day, we turn off an endless straight road and head through a canyon-like environment where a town suddenly appears out of the dry, sandy surroundings, like a welcome mirage. It’s a tidy town too, with neatly trimmed shrubs, trees and the first green grass I’ve seen since leaving Europe. I’m wondering where they get the copious amounts of water needed for irrigation when we quickly make a sharp right turn and arrive at Ahmed’s place.
I’m shown inside to a spacious guest quarters and then invited upstairs to join the family for lunch. When I climb up the outside steps to the main part of the house and remove my shoes there are at least 12 people sitting on the floor tucking into a fantastic spread of fish, rice, vegetables, salad, bread, dates, and many other bowls of delicious, but unidentifiable food. I try some of everything and my plate is piled high — and then piled up again.
The men are all speaking Arabic here, but one of the young women speaks some English and so I’m able to describe what I’m doing in Iran, what my ride is all about, and what my life is like back home in the UK. I show my family pictures and wonder if they pass any judgment on my ‘girls’ showing a full head of hair in the photos, unlike here where the headscarves are worn, even indoors.
After lunch, everyone wants to take a photo with me (this has happened a lot in Iran, also with complete strangers!) and then Ahmad suggests I go and rest — he seems to be able to read my thoughts. I slope off to the guest quarters, lie down on the thick Persian carpet and drop off instantly, only to be woken up by the Call to Prayer, which I’m still trying to get used to.
The evening follows in similar fashion, and we’re still eating at midnight. I make my excuses soon after and try to slip off quietly, but I’m followed downstairs by all the men, and we tuck into delicious pomegranates and chat about children, work and fishing, among other topics. Then, three of the men lay out their blankets next to mine and I find myself bedding down for the night with my new friends. It’s a surreal experience but then it’s been that kind of day.
I’m woken early the next morning by Ahmad and we have our breakfast down at the beach with three of his sons before travelling the 100 kilometres back to Bandar Lengeh to sort the paperwork. When we arrive, I’m greeted like an old friend — ‘Hello Mister Andy’ — and I’m introduced to another six or seven customs officials, all of whom insist on a photograph with me and the BMW bike (nothing bigger than 250cc is permitted here, so the 800cc BMW GS is attracting a fair amount of attention). The agent I’ve agreed a fee of $30 with to organise the paperwork disappears with my carnet and passport and returns one hour later, telling me the ticket office is closed until Saturday. Then another official pipes up and says that due to the bad weather forecast, the boat has just been cancelled until Monday. These two statements are like hammer blows and leave me gobsmacked — and even more helpless than before.
Nobody seems bothered in the least by the situation (everything is ‘God’s will’ apparently) as time seems to have an entirely different meaning over here. I’m trying to hold it all together, but I’m starting to worry now, as I was only granted 11 days on my visa and it’s due to expire on the day the boat leaves — if it leaves at all. No one can tell me how much the ticket will cost, and as none of my bank cards will work in Iran, I’m using a bunch of US dollars hidden about my possessions — and these are depleting fast.
So here I am, stuck in Iran and relying on God’s will, a collection of well-meaning but ineffective officials and an agent who doesn’t inspire confidence, to put it mildly. On the bright side, I’ve had an unexpected, yet welcome taste of Iran home life. My hosts have been kind and caring, and while I’m marooned in the deep south of this huge country, I feel safe. I’ll definitely remember these people long after I’ve boarded that boat to Dubai, if I ever get on it.