Malawi and Mozambique: today the adventure begins

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I’ve avoided going to Africa until now. I’ve always found it condescending how people gush about the lovely people and how simple life is. Apart from the fact that these friends are westerners questioning their own comforts and caprices, they are nice people, the type who see the good in everyone. Frankly, I’m too cynical, and often look over a kind person’s shoulder in search of the hidden snag. And so, I was afraid that, unlike JF, who falls into the former category, I’d be disappointed. Worse still, I was afraid to be proven right. Neither happened. I’m back at home for a few weeks now and exotic memories warm the cold French winter, but I am contented to know that the Africans I met, regardless of their poverty, are as good and as bad as the rest of us.

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On our first night in Lilongwe we booked a reasonable hotel. I wanted to be eased in slowly. It was the only thing we’d reserved, apart from flights, before we landed. The Lonely Planet mentioned a bar called Harry’s, and considering that’s the name of my local pub at home in Donegal, we had no choice but to go there. The taxi took us to a barn, in what seemed to me the outskirts of the town, but which was the centre. I never really got a feel for the city. We were staying in the old centre apparently, but it was a pell-mell of eighties style malls. We hoisted ourselves up on the bar stools and asked for two greens (Carlsberg). If there’s one thing myself and JF are very good at, it’s figuring out the best and cheapest local beer. I asked the black man behind the bar if he was Harry. He laughed and pointed to a tall, skinny and formidable white man on our side of the bar. ‘French and Irish, that’s a complicated combination!’ Harry winked and turned the TV on to the Ireland vs All Blacks game. ‘If the Irish win you can buy me a whisky’. They didn’t and he bought us plenty of gin and tonics. Malawi makes a good gin and hence the night became like a dream, where I was sitting on an armchair outside watching JF and his new friends roaring with mirth. I found it difficult to move my bones never mind my lips.

 

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The next morning, pushing scrambled eggs around my plate, I was surprised and a little anxious when the waitress handed me a slip of paper with Harry’s name and number on it. ‘Good Morning Madame. Harry will be here at midday to take you for lunch.’ ‘Quoi?’ I looked wide-eyed at JF. I had no memory of making any such arrangements. ‘Ah oui, ba oui, I forgot to tell you. He’s taking us for lunch.’ Harry collected us in his pickup and took us to The Duck Inn about an hour outside Lilongwe. He kindly shared a magnum of French wine with the party, which was magnanimous of him, considering he recounted how I called him an arrogant English man the night before. We ended the evening with Rita and Philippe, finishing off every last bottle of alcohol they had and Rita trying, and failing, to show me how to dance like an African.

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‘Today the adventure begins’ was our mantra from that day on to our last. And the mornings usually began like this:

‘Is there a bus to Senga Bay today?’

‘Yes, there’s a bus to Senga Bay.’

‘Great, what time does it leave?’

‘Oh sometime.’

‘Does it leave at 10am?’

‘No. Before that.’

‘What time?’

‘It’s left already.’

All we knew was that we needed to get from A to B, but how was always a mystery. As JF well noted, nothing seems to work as scheduled but there’s always a plan B, especially if you can pay for it. Malawi, as the distances are short and the roads are in good condition, is a good introduction to Africa, as all the guide books said. The first few days in minibuses and matolas were a novelty for me, but after hours of cramped traveling with no control over our timetable it soon began to wear off.

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The minibus system is efficient, if you’re not in a hurry. It only leaves when it’s packed with people sitting, standing or slumping. The longest day travelling on the same chapas was from Lichinga to Cuamba in Mozambique. The night before had been one of our wilder nights, we went to bed at 10pm. While JF was looking for the shortest queue to get cash from an ATM I ended up talking to a prisoner officer and his friend. They asked us if we needed a drink, we looked thirsty they said. We got into their car and they took us to a secret little bar in the back streets of Lichinga; Philamon did not want to be spotted drinking in his uniform. From there, he and Symitone took us to see the airport (we still don’t understand why), a basketball game, an insult competition and dinner in another bar. JF took part in the insult combat and he was surprisingly good. Arguing with me for the last many years has obviously paid off! It was Philamon’s aunt or cousin or mother, her status changed with every beer, who cooked. Grilled juicy chicken, matapa (cassava leaves in spicy peanut sauce) and xima, a mushy white cassava-based staple. That was generally all we ate in Mozambique but it was always fresh and mostly tasted very good.

 

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The next morning therefore was a little difficult at five o clock. We walked for an hour on the red rusty roads of the city looking for the bus station. I asked directions at every corner as JF pretended he wasn’t with me, which was pointless considering we hadn’t seen any other white people in days. I was convinced everyone was sending us on a wild goose chase. ‘Where is the bus station please?’ and whoever I asked flipped a hand, lazily, one way or the other and said ‘that way.’ We found the station without as much as walking one hundred metres in excess, JF pointed out with an annoyingly knowing smile. He reminded me again that I needed to trust people.

We sat on the chapas from 6am to 8am, waiting for it to fill up. Outside the driver and his conductor were hawking for customers, shouting the destination and the price. The sun was coming up and the dusty heat was beginning to make the eyes water. Young children sold soft drinks and doughnuts; bananas and mangos through the open windows. The conductor packed chickens and ducks under our feet and strapped bags to the roof. No-one seemed to care that we were the only white people on the bus. When the bus for fifteen people was filled with about forty-five we took off at a fierce speed on dirt roads for the next seven hours. I had a young mother breast feeding her son beside me. We were so close the child’s head would fall on my lap and her elbow jabbed my ribs with every bump. My knees were wedged like intertwined fingers with the man in front of me. Nobody seemed to mind so I tried to relax. I looked over at JF who gets a sore back driving ten minutes to work and he looked serenely ahead of him. ‘Since when have you become so damn patient’ I growled.  ‘I’m not patient, I’m stoic’, he replied. I wanted to hit him, and after the long and painful trip, I probably did, verbally. Another reason I wasn’t so keen on going to Africa was that JF had been to many countries on the continent before with his ex-partner. It’s bad enough spending hours on a cramped minibus with someone who starts every sentence with, ‘the last time I was in Africa….’, but having him babbling about stories with his ex-wife became too much in the hot and smelly heat.

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We travelled many days and hours in such buses, some journeys were harder than others depending on the seats and the amount of passengers. We took bikes, motorbikes, boats, trucks and pick-ups. We even ended up in an ambulance when we needed a taxi.

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The most stressful adventure for JF was in a small fishing boat across Lake Malawi (50 nautical miles), which is ironic considering he crossed the Atlantic in a sailing boat. I wasn’t stressed at all. It was Nkhata Bay and the ferry we had planned to take to the other side was not running that day as we had thought. It was broken too, so it wasn’t clear if we’d ever get the ferry. On the lakeshore beach we saw the fishermen coming in from their night fishing and went to ask around for a lift. Two young guys bargained a price and we said we’d think about it, so we went for a beer. I wasn’t too keen on them, they were already steaming drunk on gin at nine in the morning. Soon word spread around the village that two mzungus (white people) needed to cross the lake. Different boatmen came to us at the bar to offer their boat and their services. We had become interviewers looking for the right candidate. I had a good feeling about Frank and his son Winston and so we arranged to meet them at our hotel to talk about a price. At this point I believed JF and I were of like mind regarding the plans. They came, we gave them half the money for petrol and arranged that they’d come and collect us at four the next morning.

‘Did you see the boat Úna?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you notice it was full of water?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And you’re not nervous about crossing an empty lake for seven hours in it tomorrow, with those guys?’

‘Na.’

‘I don’t understand you at all sometimes. You get nervous with me when we sail but you’d go anywhere with those guys.’

‘Yes.’

‘Really? Just like that?’

‘I never used to be nervous sailing with you at the beginning either. And then I got to know you.’

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They arrived at six, by which time I was losing my nerve. We had to then wait till nine until the ATM worked again before setting of. The crossing was pleasant. We read and slept and swam and talked. JF woke up every two hours to bail out the water, I was glad he did, but Frank and Winston didn’t seem to notice. I hadn’t realised that we all had been a little nervous until we got closer to Likoma Island. The relief of seeing our destination and waving to a few fishermen in hollowed out trunks, the first we’d seen in hours, was palpable. Winston started to joke around, the serious Franck cracked the odd smile and JF started to talk again. As usual, we hadn’t booked the hotel that we had read was on the island and so we were delighted to see a friendly face behind the hut bar on the lakeshore.

‘Hello my friends. Where did you come from today?’

‘Nkhata Bay, the other side of the lake.’

‘Really?’ and he tried not to laugh ‘On that boat?’

‘Yes! On that boat,’ JF nearly roared and ordered two beers.

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It really felt like we had reached paradise, the adventure accentuating the pleasure. Our room was a little hut by the water. We swam by sunset and snorkelled before our breakfast in the morning. It was our last night in Malawi and the electricity went off at 8ish like it had done every night. It didn’t matter. We were used to going to bed early by then and we had a candle lit spaghetti Bolognese dinner on the shore with the other guests who were also mzungus. That night, in crispy clean sheets and guarded from mosquitos with a high falling net, I tried to articulate my feelings about Malawi to JF. It’s a poor country and when we were there people were going hungry, for the want of water. The rainy season takes longer and longer to come and when it does it often results in floods. Many of the hotels we stayed in were of a high standard, run by white people for white people. The beaches and the prime land is bought by expats or white Africans, many of whom we met, it seemed to me, luxuriated in a sense of superiority. I took JF’s silence to mean he was enthralled by my rant and I waited impatiently to hear what he had to say. I looked over at him lying flat on his back, his hands rising softly with his snoring chest. I elbowed him roughly, by accident, before falling asleep to the sound of the Malawi lake water lapping for the last time.

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Tosh in Senga Bay, a friendly and audacious young father, had explained the selling of land to us. Until recently the tribal chief distributed the land among his people, or to outsiders who proved their worth in the community. Now however, the chiefs are offered an unrefusable sum of money by foreigners that they sell off the land, leaving local people with nowhere to live. Tosh shook his head with regret as he was telling us this, but conceded also that he makes some money himself acting as an intermediary between buyer and seller. We sat on small seats on the dusty road drinking our greens in the local bar. Tosh had just taken us around the long tables by the lake where shoals of tiny fish, usipa, are left to dry. All passer-by’s stopped to have a look at the TV before the electricity cut for the night, kids wanted their photos taken and my e-cigarette was the funniest thing they had ever seen. I agreed with them, all I wanted myself was a real smoke.

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In Cóbuè, the first village we stayed in Mozambique, on Lake Malawi, didn’t look that different from across the water. Later walking around, we noticed a grand but neglected church in a square, an echo of a not so distant colonial past. Thick electricity poles crisscrossed the scorched earth, again a subtle but important difference between the two countries. There was a street with shanty shops blaring music late into the dark, selling sweets, vegetables and hardware goods. There was no running water though and the next day, seeing a teacher waving her stick at a rowdy crowd of kids under a tree hit home. The children were bare footed and some had swollen bellies from malnutrition. We sat awhile as if we too were in class, getting nervous we’d be asked something difficult. A 4×4 whizzed past and covered the whole scene in a cloud of red dust.  Maybe the discernible gap between rich and poor was what put me always slightly on edge in Mozambique. People seemed less shy accosting us for money and at times others tried to do us out of a few dollars. When we confronted them though, they’d smile and pat us on the back telling us not to worry.

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Mozambique Island too was full of contradictions. Only us and the odd scraggly cat wandered the Stone Town, on the north of the island. This was once the administrative capital of the country which the palace, the fort and the oldest European church on the continent give credence to. Apart from the musty grandeur of the past the town was dead. Makuto Town on the south, in contrast, was moving to the beat of a busy everyday life. Fishermen shouted out the price of their colourful fish on the beach while punters bantered them down to their own prices. Children walked with plates of samosas and fruit on their head. They walked silently but seemed to sell with their eyes. A wink and a nod and the deal was done. Women pounded maize between houses in the dark alleys with ferocious energy, or maybe anger.

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We had dinner on the island with Sara and Jimmy, a Portuguese woman and her Mozambican boyfriend. Her mother was a schoolteacher there before moving back to Portugal. Education was bought and not earned she explained, which breeds corruption. The droughts of recent years were not the only cause of the lack of food. Her boyfriend remained silent as she told of how he voted in the last election. Before leaving in the morning he was going to vote for the new guy who was going to change the system, but when he came back he admitted he had voted for the status quo. ‘Not only the family but the extended family rule how business is still done. Jimmy’s cousin was presiding over the casting votes and warned him that if he didn’t vote for the ruling class his life would be made difficult’. ‘Life is tough enough,’ she said, and ‘so what can you expect?’ ‘One thing leads to the next’ she continued, ‘people use mosquito nets to fish now because they can’t afford the real ones. The problem is that they catch all the small fish leaving no food for the big fish. There isn’t even enough fish to eat anymore.’

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Our last night in Maputo exploded in an electric storm, the likes of which I’d never seen before. We stepped off the sidewalk into a dingy little bar, a street or two behind the fort, just before the torrents of rain started. It was the cheapest, but worst beer we’d had in Mozambique. ‘Nevertheless Úna, the girls at the table beside us were very friendly’ JF commented. ‘Indeed’ and I shook my head in disbelief. It was only later, as we huddled in doorways to shelter from the storm JF noticed that the only other souls out were women in short skirts and knee-high boots. They wondered if he wanted to come in from the rain. They were very friendly indeed.

I haven’t become one of those people who, after spending two weeks in Africa, come home declaring their lives have changed. The ground didn’t tremble the moment I pressed my foot into the dry soil. Nor did spending time in the company of many friends we met, who were full of joy and humour despite their hard lives, make me want to change anything about my own. But it is true; I have a desire to go back again. Apart from their recent colonial history, not so different from my own, which is only a blip in their long narrative, there is a myriad of cultures and traditions and languages which are exotically colourful compared to mine. When I was there I felt like I was drawing back a curtain, but behind that curtain was another one and another and on and on. It was like unwrapping a present with infinite layers of paper, never getting to what’s inside but loving the anticipation all the while. And that’s magic.

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The Itinerary

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Lilongwe

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Senga Bay

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Nkhotakota

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Nkhata Bay

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Likoma Island

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Cóbué

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Lichinga

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Cuamba

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Nampula

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Mosambique Island

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Maputo

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Publicités

Friends

It’s difficult to write how I feel when my eyes roam from one friendly face to the next. I know whatever I write will sound cheesy, but this time, that’s ok. The people in these photos made our trip. When I think back to Sarajevo, it’s not the Stari Grad that I remember, but the stories Enes told us about the siege. It’s not all the heartache the Beast caused in Iran, never mind the money spent on it, that I think of when I look at the smiling faces from there. A warmth spreads from my innards that makes my heart flutter when I recall the kindness and generosity the people in Iran showed us. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every single character in the following photographs changed JF and I in some way or another, and our life is much richer because of them. Every story or smile shared opened up another little door in our minds that shaped our experience. It’s true to say too, that without each and every one of you in the following frozen memories, JF and myself would probably be divorced. As much as I find him interesting, seven months on the road alone would have been a bore!

I speak on behalf of myself and JF now when I thank you sincerely for making our trip what it was. I hope someday to see you again, and we’d love to be as good to you as you were to us.

 

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Christophe, Paris, France

 

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Carla & Erich, Winthertur, Switzerland

 

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Miha, Lubljana, Slovenia

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Enes, Sarajevo, Bosnia – Herzegovina

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Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria

 

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Bitola, Macedonia

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Daiana, Ionut, Alexi, Vadu, Romania

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Sibiel, Romania

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Caliu, Clejani, Romania

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Caliu & Family, Clejani, Romania

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Somewhere in Moldova

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Soroca, Moldova

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Marina, Odessa, Ukraine

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Teacher & Students, Odessa, Ukraine

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By the river, Ukraine

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‘Beerless’ & friends, Minsk, Belarus

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Minsk, Belarus

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Alexander, Minsk, Belarus

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Nina, Moscow, Russia

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Transiberian, Russia

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Transiberian, Russia

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Irina & Vladimir, Irkutsk, Russia

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Dima, Lake Baikal, Russia

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Tuya, Ulan – Bataar, Mongolia

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Bataar, Ulan-Bataar, Mongolia

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Ulan-Bataar, Mongolia

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Transiberian, Russia

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Larissa & Igor, Nijni-Oudinsk, Russia

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Valentina & Larissa’s Mother, Nijni-Oudinsk, Russia

 

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Olga, Yuri, Andrei, Elena, Nijni-Oudinsk, Russia

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Maria & Katarina, Moscow, Russia

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By the Volga, Russia

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Elbrus, Zalina & Family, Beslan, Russia

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Regan, Olivier, Darren, Tbilissi, Georgia

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Shoka, Nikoloz & friends, Mestia, Georgia

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Tomas, Ushguli, Georgia

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Kristine, Vardzia, Georgia

 

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Walter & his wife, Gyumri, Armenia

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Mikoyan’s niece, Sanahin, Armenia

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By the river, Dilijan, Armenia

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Dilijan, Armenia

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Srbuhi & Mary, Yerevan, Armenia

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Kirsty & Mark, Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh

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Gan, Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh

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Tabriz, Iran

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On the motorway, Iran

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Mehdi & Amir, Qazvin, Iran

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Mehdi and Amir family, Qazvin, Iran

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Saeed & Hossein, Tehran, Iran

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The mechanics, Tehran, Iran

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Tehran, Iran

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Zhoubil, Tehran, Iran

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Takin & Shabnam, Tehran, Iran

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A., Isfahan, Iran

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A & friends, Isfahan, Iran

 

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Henrietta, Yazd, Iran

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Mohamed, Parandak

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On the road, Iran

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Jamar & Family, Sarandaj, Iran

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Hoda & friends, Sarandaj, Iran

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Dogubayazit, Turquey

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Senol & Tayfun, Trabzon, Turquey

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Senol & Tayfun, trabzon, Turquey

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Selime, Turquey

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Egirdir, Turquey

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Foça, Turquey

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Mehmet, on the road to Kusadasi, Turquey

 

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Carmel & Lochlann, Kusadasi, Turquey

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Jay, Loic, Lisa, Istanbul, Turquey

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Thierry, Istanbul, Turquey

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Irish crowd, Thessaloniki, Greece

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Dion, Greece

 

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Siobhan & Connor, Acquasparta, Italy

 

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Catherine, Nice, France

Reminiscences from the last leg home: Italy, Nice and Lyon

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  1. Bari

Smelly socks and body odour polluted the air. We courteously asked a German, who was sleeping on our seats, to move. I vill not. I must sleep. And he pulled the sleeping bag over his head. We were told that the seat numbers we paid over two hundred euros for, meant nothing. Driving out of the ferry and through Bari as fast as we could was our sole objective.

  1. Naples and Pozzuoli

Only for Airbnb we would never have known Pozzuoli. It’s a small port town outside Naples. Before the family arrived, JF and I walked around the centre and had a beer in the square. The small city is not beautiful, but colourful. The pastel coloured street buildings creating the square’s borders reflected the multi-coloured cocktails that young and old were drinking. All of us seemed oblivious to the large Roman remains of a market dated 194BC, sitting adjacent to the square. Watching the Friday evening crowd we concluded that the modern world reigned in Pozzuoli. An obvious gap between rich and poor was evident in the clothes people wore, from labels to rags. Tattooed youths hung around the square, pulling on fags and clinking beer bottles. And yet, Tripadvisor offered an array of expensive restaurants that could not be seen from the streets.

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We didn’t have much luck eating out in Pozzuoli all the same. All our food fantasies were shattered when we sat outside a busy restaurant on the square.

Do you have pasta?

No.

Do you have pizzas?

No.

Do you have any hot dishes?

Sandwiches.

Do you have coffee?

No.

(Jesus Christ, what kind of restaurant is this? Ultan could not believe his ears.)

JF and Kevin, like all good in-laws, said nothing

Do you have wine? I asked.

Yes.

Ah well, we are alright then, Nancy, Madge and I sighed with relief.

Nobody had what they wanted to eat, but the waiters were charming and the atmosphere was Italian.

The following night we ended up in a stuffy, upmarket fish restaurant. The waiter tried to confuse me into buying a more expensive wine. Little did he know who he was playing with. JF and Kevin, like all good in-laws, said nothing. Madge never ignored the price of anything and Nancy does not like to think anyone can pull the wool over her eyes. The man had to deal with a very grumpy, verging on a rude table, all night long. On the way home I asked who liked fish anyway. Nobody except Madge, and she was the only one of us who ordered the single meat dish on the menu. I watched her all evening pick the tough chunks of God knows what animal out of the pasta and put it to the side, adamant not to take one morsel in her mouth.

The highlight in Naples was visiting the Catacombs of San Gaudioso and having a pizza across the road afterwards.

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  1. Pompei

We walked Nancy and Madge out to have lunch in a restaurant, outside the gates. Kevin, Ultan, JF and I decided to run in and have another quick look around. I wanted to see the wall painting of Priapus, for obvious reasons, and JF wished to see the bordello. Ultan and myself were anxious to tick off the cultural ‘must sees’ and get out of there, while JF, the little cherub, kept disappearing into small alleyways and courtyards; and Kevin, the Greek God, fell into the few potholes on the site. Impressive is an understatement to describe Pompei. An ancient city fossilised in time is a rare historical gift given to humans. We strolled around the city, 2000 years old and mused how little we have developed since.

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  1. Capri

JF surprised me by going off schedule and not telling me. He booked a room with a view on Capri Island. We walked around the island in the rain, climbing up and down steps. JF skipped with excitement when we came across Villa Maleparte, from one of his favourite Godard films, le Mépris. Walking back from the sea paths we stopped off in a busy local bar and had a spritz with the locals. The quixotic Michel, who never lost an opportunity to remind us he was a slightly touched Italian and an Australian woman married to a local, who slipped into the bar for a sly spritz or two. She had left her husband with her six month old child to go to the shop, but decided she needed a sneaky drink and a cigarette before going home.

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  1. The Amalfi Coast

We slept in a car park by the little cove of Praia, steep cliffs giving the impression of being lost at the bottom of a deep hole. A small family-run restaurant was carved into the stone. The pass-remarkable father’s father sat in the corner, looking over his glasses. Fresh pasta and creamy sauces steamed up the window. We rubbed away the fog on the glass and saw the loyal Beast parked and waiting by the moonlit sea.

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  1. Gaeta

Empty cobbled streets and closed restaurants in the town of Gaeta gave the impression of walking into a coffee table photo book, beautiful but dead.

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  1. Sermoneta, Todi and 8. Acquasparta

If Italian towns were packed with Greeks, they’d be much more fun, we often thought. We stopped off at more medieval towns before landing on the doorstep of Siobhán and Connor in Acquasparta. A little haven of Ireland in the Umbrian hills. Letterkenny gossip and the general trials of being an expat filled our evening. Massimo and Ilaria played and talked as the aromas from Connor’s kitchen brought on a hunger which was duly satisfied by the best chicken I have ever eaten.

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  1. Assisi, 10. Perugia and San Gimignano 11.Siena

I have a very fond memory of JF acting just as I usually would. We marched around Assisi and gave a nod to Francis, before rushing off to absorb more beauty in Perugia and San Gimignano. I noticed JF’s camera hanging limp over his shoulder, abandoned and disused.

Mais, es-tu malade JF?

Non, pourquoi?

Tu prends pas des photos?

J’en ai marre des villes moyenâgeuses.

Oh ok, I said, delighted to realise during our last week, that he is actually human.

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After hesitating over the price of a spritz on Piazza del Campo, we consumed the ambience like the other tourists there and relished in the romance of it all. We ate fresh truffle pasta (which I had been dreaming about) in a local restaurant outside Siena, and slept amid vineyards on a hill. We awoke to the sound of gun shots. Looking out the windows of the Beast we saw game hunters prowling quietly, rifles cocked.

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  1. Lucas and 13. Cinque-Terre

In Lucas we were bored but ate deep fried pasta in the alluring circular Piazza del Anfiteatro. Later, the Beast snuggled up beside the large and homely campervans in Monterosso, while JF and I did an express tour of Vernazza, Corniglia and Riomaggiore, taking train rides that last only a few minutes between each village.

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  1. Genoa

Walking down Via Garibaldi, we fell back into step with an era of decadence and imagined ourselves floating down grand stairways. Every second building is a UNSECO villa, yet, move one small street away from the grand avenue and buxom prostitutes stand in the shadows of doorways. As if to ease us back into our French life, our hotel room was sea-themed. We celebrated our last night in a foreign land with a bottle of prosecco under the covers.

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  1. Nice

Catherine and Pascal welcomed us once again into their new home. The last time we burdened them with our presence was in Hong Kong. Catherine showed us around her upside down home – instead of building up or out, they extended downwards, digging into the rocks below the house to create an entire new floor. Sitting around a hearty dinner of Chile Con Carne, we laughed and teased JF about the incorrect French he had being teaching me throughout the trip. Many types of vodka from different countries showed their exotic labels on the table later.

  1. Lyon

Inside a house on the outskirts of Lyon, Antoine and his band, Beauty Camp, rehearsed. We sat on a damp couch and listened to them run through their set one more time. I tapped my foot in time with their catchy melodies and looked at Antoine’s socks, one red and one blue, stuck into white dirty runners and over them hung his eighties styled rolled up jeans. I think I concluded that it looked so bad it was probably cool. Even though it was I who asked Antoine to book a fancy restaurant, I later regretted it. It was cold hearted and overpriced. JF was appalled that people actually still eat turnips, never mind that they constituted his main dish which cost over twenty euro. Didn’t the English only feed turnips to the pigs and to the Irish? he asked innocently. I did not answer. We had left France a long time ago and had forgotten JF’s golden rule: a restaurant that is too posh to serve rosé should be avoided at all times. It was a pleasure though, to dine with Antoine’s girlfriend for the first time, although we felt he had already met her. Antoine talked of nothing else during our week in Moscow.

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  1. Nantes

We drove for seven hours to SNO sailing club in Nantes. There, Mouches helped to attach the fireball dinghy to the back of the Beast before taking me to the train station.

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  1. Saint Nazaire

I travelled home alone. I missed JF but longed for time on my own and in my home. The weeks since that night have been tumultuous.

    19. Maubuisson

JF drove for a further five hours to sail the next day. He won the race and arrived home on the Sunday evening at 11pm, to start work for the first time in 7 months at 8am the next morning.

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Greece, back home in Europe

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Greece became the prism through which we viewed our entire trip. It became our little jewel, reflecting the experiences we had gathered just till then. It was our stepping stone back into our life we left behind six months before. We sped through the border, no one bothering to even look at our passports; we were back amongst our own. We stopped off in a small super market in Alexandroupoli where we were once again faced with familiar products. And while we fumbled in our pockets for long disused euros, we knew our adventure was coming to an end. Greece was the perfect setting to look over our venture with nostalgia: secluded beaches and small mountain villages all to ourselves; fresh food with no fuss; historical sites next to unpretentious towns and friendly people laughing over frappés. We closed our eyes and let the warm sea breeze caress our memories. The tourist mass exodus left restaurants empty for us and waiters with the time to talk. Traveling out of season was a luxury we never took for granted. We were sipping the last of the summer wine and we knew it.

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It was frightening too, because I knew JF spent much of the fortnight in Greece wondering how he managed to put up with me at all. On one of the many mornings, after having breakfast by the sea he threw away the end of my coffee and shook his head.

Qu’est-ce tu as? I asked uneasily, not wanting to know the answer.

Rien.

Quoi?

Pourquoi tu termines jamais ton café le matin? He was smiling but his head was still tilted in disbelief.

Je ne sais pas trop, c’est toujours trop froid à la fin. Pourquoi? Ça t’énerve? I wasn’t looking for a fight. I just wanted to know.

C’est incroyable qu’on est toujours ensemble quand même, après 6 mois.

Yeah, I suppose. But I didn’t want to know anymore.

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I could see him surmising sometimes, as I slowly let the light of day brighten my dark mood. His slanted, ironic smile gave it all away. ‘Quoi là maintenant?’ I’d sigh, already knowing the answer. Yes, it is amazing we haven’t killed each other in the morning yet. We were parked in a maize field near Metéora and when I woke up I had a view of monasteries perched on top of pointed cliffs. It looked like I had been transported into a mystical world where people lived in the sky, I should have been content.

What’s wrong with you? I asked JF first thing after opening my eyes.

Nothing? Why? I could tell he instantly regretted asking two questions at once, he knew it was a risk.

Well, I was sound asleep and you woke me up with your big deep breath.

Sorry.

Why were you sighing?

Dunno, I’m happy.

Happy. I choked on the word as if I had swallowed a fly.

Look, are you going to get out of bed or what lá? I barked.

Yeah, ok.

You know we both can’t get up at the same time. So I’ll wait for my coffee.

Okaaaay. And he got up to make my coffee, like he did every morning.

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On the coast beside Itea I drank my coffee, almost all of it, and watched as JF flapped and splashed in the sea. I followed his childish body with my eyes, as he scrambled over rocks into the water with his camera and then climbed a hill, giggling with delight. All the while, I dragged on my miserable cigarette, daring the day to begin.

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Throughout our trip I’d turn into a moaning teenager if we visited more than one historical site a day. Greece had an abundance of places and although the history and mythology that coloured my view of the world was given context, I still complained. Will you die? I’d ask, if you don’t visit the tombs of the Macedonian Kings in Vergina? The Beast is like the donkey in The Quiet Man, I’d say, but unfortunately it stops at points of interest and not pubs.

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Names of heroes and Gods that peopled my past were given a place of birth or a temple. Dion, at the foot of Mount Olympus was Zeus’s sanctuary, its impressive 200 AD mosaics almost in one piece.

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In Delphi I was thankfully persuaded to see the stadium: stone seats and starting blocks from the 2nd century BC, not so different from today.

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Tu vas ou là maintenant? I felt lazy and I wanted a sneaky cigarette.

Bah, je vais voir le stadium.

Mais pourquoi faire, c’est loin, j’ai la flemme. Allez-toi.

Ok, he said and turned to go. But he knew well I hate him seeing something I don’t, in case it’s the most amazing spectacle of our entire trip. It was only a matter of seconds.

Attends. Attends. J’arrive. Putain, ça sera nul, je sais en plus. Tu m’énerves. Pourquoi tu as besoin de tout voir et tout le temps. C’est trop chiant.

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Like all the tourists in Olympia too, we got ready, set and went on the track, thinking about the burling men that ran there naked thousands of years before. If married women were caught trying to get in at the time, they’d be thrown off rocks into the deadly crashing waves of the Ionian Sea. Single women were invited, with pleasure, to watch strong male bodies shudder and thump the ancient world.

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Even in antiquity, the unmarried woman benefited from certain advantages. If I were single, for example, I would never have visited the 2000BC site of Mycenae and the medieval city of Mystrás on the same rainy day. The deluge damped the cultural experience.

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Some days, we happily concluded, had just been perfect during the six months. Driving around the Inner Mani was one such day. It started with a frappé by the blue and yellow harbour of Gytheio. JF steered the Beast through narrow streets and high mountain roads, while I looked at the omnipresent defensive towers in amazement, built by hot headed feuding families in the 15th century. Every now and then I’d slap him on the knee and tell him to brake, to indicate, or to turn, shouting in irritation at his bad driving. You can’t drive and look at the scenery JF. O my heart, be careful. I’ll do the looking; you do the driving. Just another day in paradise.

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We walked for hours in the village of Monemvasía, known as the Greek Mont Saint Michel. And while that is slightly exaggerated, the village toppling into the sea is very seductive. What made the day special however, was watching Ireland beat France later in a restaurant by the sea. The owner kindly let us watch it on his computer. One section of his restaurant was packed by Albanians watching soccer and the Greeks were in another area shouting at some local team on a hanging screen.

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History looked disapprovingly over our shoulders as we took a break in the graffiti-covered modern world of Athens.

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Finding a place to wash after days of pulling the same underwear on, because there’s no point putting clean on dirty, is a true relief. I washed only my hair in the icy Lousios river as it was too cold, while JF literally got caught with his knickers down. He stripped off all his clothes and jumped in. He happened to look up while palmoliving his tender parts (probably singing) all over and saw a tourist covering his daughter’s eyes on the bridge.

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We met many people in Greece too, which was our greatest pleasure in every country we travelled in. I insisted we drive (JF drive) for hours around the mountain villages of Dimitsana and Stemmitsa looking for a restaurant I had read was excellent in various guide books. We finally found Panaghia to find the restaurant was closed. It’s closed? Really? J’ai voulu rien dire mais, I can’t say I’m surprised. A village of seven inhabitants in the mountains in Greece, in October, having a restaurant that is open? At least he kept his rant till we got there. We had a beer in a small bar in the next village of Zatouna, a local bought us a few tsípouros and we had a fine meal in the local taverna. That night we slept in the village square, and although it was a little difficult for the morning toilet, it was very pleasant.

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One afternoon we set up home outside a campsite, on the beach by Dion. When the owners pulled up on their scouter and asked if we’d like to pay and sleep in their place, we said no. I asked them if we could offer them a drink instead. We were sleeping in their front garden with a prime view of the sea, after all. The evening ended eating fish and pulled pork in their kitchen, while sharing many a tsípouros. The Russian lady was flamboyant and outrageous. Her Greek husband sat stoic beside my own and lamented the fatal female flaw: jealousy.

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In Thessaloniki we watched the rugby in an Irish bar, which was a rare experience. Cavorting with non-locals is a serious faux-pas in JF’s world, especially in Greece’s second biggest city, as the Thessalonians were partying in every open space.

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In the Beast, just like being on Hakuna, there’s always a hitch. Niouniou, who used to sail on Hakuna would say before every race: J’aime qu’un plan se déroule sans accroc. I like a plan without a hitch. Greece highlighted how we had learnt how to calmly follow whichever turn the road took. And although JF passed unfazed from one minute of the day to the next, like a cow chewing his cud, he did blame me for all the unpredicted twists in our Greek itinerary. It was late by the time we reached the island of Lefkáda and finding a romantic beach for our last night in Greece proved more difficult than expected. George (the GPS* see below) was hesitant in accepting Greece as part of Europe and didn’t show all the roads. The island rises steeply out of the sea and accesses to the beaches are by corkscrew roads that fall in steep curves to the bottom. JF had picked a beach from the map on our phone, a secluded cove that was at the other end of the island. I believed we should check all the beaches on the way, in case we drove by the best one. The sun sank lower in the sky. JF and the Beast heaved and turned up steep hills before descending into another bay, some were inaccessible and others were privately owned. I was finally taking us to JF’s golden beach, to his personal Tír na nÓg, when suddenly the road on my phone disappeared and I saw a little blue boat floating in space. Just then JF, or perhaps the Beast, ground to a halt. The road in reality had disappeared too. We were stuck between beautiful, high stone walls with no way forward and only one long reversable-way back. I took a deep breath and let the green pastures below us sooth my panic. The three churches that enveloped us did not help calm me, until I saw a pleasant little green garden by the humblest of the three.

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Regarde-moi ça! I feigned cheerfulness.

C’est beau non? On a tous qu’il faut, une église, de pelouse. C’est tranquille. Je suis sûre que la plage ou tu voulais aller était privé ou nul ou quelque chose, c’est sûr.

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Eating later, in the little local at the bottom of the hill, JF checked the internet and showed me pictures of the beach he had wanted to get to. It looked beautiful. We decided to go the next day, but when he was awoken by drops falling on his head that night we changed our plans again. Because of my incredible talent of organising the rain with pattering efficiency we left Lefkáda without seeing his paradise. JF attributes all rainfall in his life now to me, simply because I’m Irish. Thanks to the bad weather and my curse, we had the pleasure of walking around Ioánnina, visiting the island and talking to the locals in a lesbian bar.

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Because we missed the return trip on the 19th century Kalávryta – Diakoftó train, we ended up in the holocaust museum of Kalávryta which commemorates the annihilation of the town by the Germans in WW2. Had everything ran according to schedule we would have missed an important lesson in history.

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It was difficult to leave Greece, not just because we had such a wonderful time there, but because we knew Italy was the last country before France. We ate our last gyro in Igoumenitsa, letting the grease drip down our chins like already forgotten memories and took the ferry to Italy.

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*George the right-wing and racist GPS, who JF spoke more to than me, by the time we were back in Europe. I’d hear him whisper sweet nothings in his ear: Ça va mon chéri, c’est pas ta faute. Tu ne peux pas avoir raison tout le temps. Or worse, I’d realise we were going backyards and ask the two, who were always in cahoots with each other, ‘Pourquoi on va en Turquie là et pas en Italie comme prévu? Tu sais on fait de l’est là depuis quelques heures et il faut qu’on va ouest mon chéri? And Jf would simply reply: C’est George. Ah il est quelque chose eh? And would sigh with affection.

Turkey

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I crashed into the Turkish border. I didn’t walk over it; I didn’t even drive over it. I ripped the top off the customs building and bashed the edges of our boxes, creating small, fat, round metal sacks. This was the first 20 metres I had driven since France, and so I was mortified. The Turkish men hanging around, shuffled awkwardly on their feet, not looking at me, but pointing to JF and then to the boxes. JF marched over towards the Beast, me with my head hanging inside it, and his mumbling accelerated to grumbling. Don’t start JF, I pleaded, pas maintenant! And when he saw the colour of shame on my face he thankfully shook his head and walked off. The dent my ego suffered was made all the worse by the fact that I had been showing off, driving my big car in front of the men. I had pulled off my Iranian scarf and got behind the wheel with an inflated sense of my liberated femininity. But, this was one of the first of many lessons Turkey was to teach us.

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Just when we were beginning to believe that we were weathered adventurers, that we had acquired a little more je ne sais quoi than the regular tourist, Turkey put us back in our box. Even before I knocked over the border, we were confronted by two important facts which we had forgotten. Two out of the three border crossings from Iran were closed and there were threats that the third could be closed too. We decided we’d cross from Armenia if need be; completely forgetting that due to the tensions between the two countries there is no border. We would have driven hundreds of miles for no reason, la route negative, which we try to avoid but take too often. Regardless of the soured relationship, Armenians have left their mark on Turkey; their simple churches are scattered throughout the country. Only a few have been left in their original state like on Akdamar Island, most have been converted into makeshift mosques. When I finally made it to the desk to get my passport stamped, I was told that I couldn’t enter Turkey because I was Irish. I needed a visa as Ireland is not part of the Schengen Arrangement, a fact I’m not so proud of. But when JF muttered that it was really about time I got French citizenship, I was angry nevertheless.

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We questioned our intelligence again while driving through the east. The Turkish army swarmed the land, their presence hung heavy like a threat. The PKK use them as targets and they know it. As we drove through Doğubeyazit, we passed many small tanks topped with a revolving gun that aimed at passing cars. ‘Ah c’est un Land Rover comme le Beast,’ I said to JF as we passed by one. We looked again and realized it wasn’t a Land Rover, but very similar. We smiled and drove on, never once thinking that if it looked like us, we looked like them. A day later we drove up to the crater lakes of Mt Nemrut, feeding the Beast water as he overheated. The Beast toppled along the small road by the lake and when we pulled up to a few men drinking tea around a shack style café, they told us they thought we were the army coming. ‘I’d be very careful driving that thing’ they said. ‘Don’t go further south than Lake Van and don’t drive at night’. We took their advice.

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The men left us alone by the warm crater lake, where we slept in silence, apart from the occasional low flying plane on its way to Syria. Before sunset we had noticed rabbits and turtles were everywhere, and so when we were awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of our plates banging to the ground, JF mumbled ‘silly turtles’, before falling back to sleep. The crashing plates had awoken him and not the Land Rover rolling over and back which had startled me awake. ‘Turtles my ass’, I thought and lay flat on my back trying to listen for more sounds over JF’s innocent snoring. We had a cup of tea with the man in the café the next morning and I asked him what animals were around. ‘Oh the bears, the bears, there are many bears here and they come out at night. Did you have any problems?’ ‘Not at all’ I said ‘We just had a turtle that violently shook our car, ripped open our rubbish bag, scattered all our plates over the field and ate the stew that was left in the saucepan!’ ‘Isn’t that right JF?’ Luckily we didn’t get out of the Beast to look at the turtle.

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We weren’t always so sharp at choosing our sleeping spots either in Turkey. We saw on the map that the Ihlara Valley, not far from Cappadocia, would be perfect to camp: a deep gorge with a river running through it. When we got there we realised the only access into the valley was a descent of 400 steps. In Gallipoli we visited a few of the many graveyards and memorials dedicated to the thousands who died on the shores of the Dardanelles during WW1. We set up camp that evening in a park with a beach. We swam and had our shower by the water. As we were having a beer a park ranger came over to us and politely informed us that alcohol was forbidden and that we could not sleep there. Behind some trees, not even 20 metres away, there was the perfect place to sleep, which wasn’t in a public park. We wondered how we had missed it. On the sea from Ephesus, not far from Kuşadasi, we stopped off at what looked like a quiet campsite. It was late and dark. We looked for an office or someone to pay for the night. We found it strange that there was no-one around. We noticed old couches outside big dark tents. There were cars parked outside some of the tents, but there were no children. We had a pleasant dinner by the sea, a dog insisted on licking JF’s neck and we went to bed. The next morning, as JF made my coffee, he put his head into the Beast and said, ‘Je pense qu’on a dormi parmi les SDFs’. It wasn’t a campsite. We had parked up, as innocent and as insolent as only the bourgeoisie can be, and slept among the homeless.

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One would think that after 35,000km covered, we’d know how to avoid going backwards. Not JF and I. Friends of my auntie Madge have a house in Turkey, but by the time I remembered to contact them we had already passed them by 150km. The morning after spending a lovely evening in Foça, we drove back to Kuşadasi to spend the evening with Carmel and Lochlann McGill. It was worth the U-turn, and we met Mehmet on the way. It was special to catch up with old friends of my parents and my aunt, even if JF was a little lost in Donegal lingo and gossip. They took us on a sunset tour (after the sun had set) and showed us how to eat fish in Turkey. They bought the fish in the market and brought it up to a restaurant above, looking over the sea, where it was cooked to perfection. I don’t like fish, but that night was one of the best meals I had in Turkey. Grilled fish and raki, tout simplement.

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We walked through Izmir during the Kurban Bayramı Festival. The centre was deserted. Shops and restaurants were shuttered closed. It’s the one day of the year the busy market sleeps. Bright orange life jackets and thick black rubber life rings swung from phone shops and jewellery stores. They caught the wind and moved the hooks they hung on. The creaking sound was all the more sinister in the silent streets. JF had read in Liberation that anyone with a shop in Izmir was profiting from another’s misfortune, selling life jackets to refugees desperate to get to Greece. Is olc an ghaoth nach séideann maith do dhuine. Apparently some life jackets are filled with sawdust; cheaper to manufacture but would sink like a stone, with the person inside them, to the sea bed.

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The same day we noticed lone sheep being carted off to their deaths, their little heads peeking over the top of trailers, nodding up and down in wonder. ‘Ils partent pas en vacance, ça c’est sur’, JF nodded his head sadly. Outside Izmir we stopped by a slaughtering field and watched as hundreds of sheep were butchered in the name of religion. Men and women took charms off the sheep’s necks and watched as the thick bright blood spilled and mixed with mud. I was surprised by how religious life in Turkey was, and wondered how Ataturk would feel about morality slipping back into affairs of the state. I was taken aback to have seen many more burqas in the east of Turkey than in Iran, and on our first day we had to search beneath the surface to be able to buy beer in a supermarket. Bars are few and far between and alcohol is not sold in many restaurants. Walking through Trabzon with Tayfun, we squeezed through the busy streets lined with cafés, packed with young people drinking tea. We finally found one of the two bars in a city of over one million. The Government has increased the tax on selling alcohol, thus making it more difficult to go against religion. The cafés spill over with men of all ages drinking tea. And while it was pleasant to see men enjoying each other’s company, I wondered where all the women were. A country where the leader suggests women should not laugh, so as not to tempt men, does not leave much to the imagination. One evening two young boys on a motorbike took us to an empty field where we could camp. It was in the wilderness and I decided to take a shower in the pink setting sun. The boys returned with a basket full of food for us, but when they saw my naked white skin, they took off in the direction they came, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake, never to return.

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As always, we never knew where we were going to sleep, but in Turkey, we found mountains, deserted beaches, rivers and fields. It was dirty quite often, rubbish thrown everywhere, but it’s a country with a diverse landscape. In the east we stayed in a few campsites, not wanting to look like a conspicuous army tank lost in a field. Our first night we slept under Ishak Paşa Sarayi, but other times the campsites were dirty and expensive. And, even if they were useful for showers and clothes washing, as we moved west we abandoned them, never knowing what to expect. One night, on Cunda Island, we had a beach and a port to ourselves, our view was a castle on an island in the sheltered cove. The next night in Iznik, we slept outside fishing huts on the lake. Bins had been torn apart by dogs beside us; cars sped past on the road not so far away and the insistent rain caused a muddy puddle around the Beast, making the night time pee a dirty procedure.

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Turkey was the most touristic country on our trip, and it took us a day or two to adapt. When we drove into Göreme in Cappadocia we were stunned by the mushroom shaped limestone structures firstly and secondly by the amount of tourists in the town. From Göreme we visited the underground city of Derinkuyu, 8 levels and 60m deep. We slept under the cave houses of Selime, after having lentil soup in a local café, where we met the only person who supported Erdogan. Before walking the ancient streets of Ephesus and admiring the still standing 117AD library, we washed ourselves in the hot springs in Pamukalle. The water deposits limestone, creating rolling white calcifications under the pool Temple of Apollo. JF’s favourite site was Boğazkale: the Hittite capital city of Hattaşuş. The Lion’s, Sphynx’s and King’s Gates are still standing since 1600 BC.

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Perhaps it was the crowds that rendered us more featherheaded than usual, but twice in Turkey we didn’t pay for the bill. We had two beers on our hotel terrace in Cappadocia which we never paid for, and in Amaysa, after visiting the Pontic Kings tombs (333BC – 44BC) we had lunch in the town. On the road later, JF asked how much the lunch was and I said I didn’t know because I hadn’t paid.

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If not wanting to spend money foolishly is a travellers’ trait as opposed to a tourist, who splashes out on a two week holiday, then we are definitely travellers. We met Lisa and Loic in Istanbul and after they brought us a bottle of champagne to our Airbnb flat, we headed out for dinner. We walked in the rain down a street close to Istiklal, which has nothing but restaurants and bars. As we walked down the street, we were not only accosted, but attacked by waiters trying to pull us into their restaurants. It was raining, it was cold and it was our first night together. We were hungry and simply wanted to eat, no-one wanting to impose their wishes too forcefully on the others. The hackling waiters only added to the confusion. We eventually cracked and went into a loud seafood restaurant. The food we saw on other tables looked wan, and the prices we read on the menu, we all knew, were too expensive for any kind of food. The waiter opened a bottle of water on the table without asking us. Lisa and JF simultaneously caught his arm and from Lisa came ‘We didn’t ask for that!’ and JF says ‘We are not paying for that, take it away. We don’t want it!’ Loic went to the toilet, Lisa and I looked around uneasily and JF started spurting ‘awful, oh la la’ and ‘the worst meal we ever had’ and after more tutting, ‘Extremely over priced for what you get’. He continued, ‘décevant’, ‘qualité médiocre’. When he got to ‘à éviter absolument’, on his trip advisor reviews, he stood up and declared he was leaving. ‘Loic won’t like this’ says Lisa with a glint in her eye, ‘but he’s in the toilet. Let’s go, go go’. And out we marched. We ate in the same restaurant Loic’s friends had taken them to the night before, and it was excellent. The four of us like our food and being French(ified) we like a bon rapport qualité prix.

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Loic worried about the freshness of our dishes. A plate of calamari was set down in front of us once. Loic looked it over, smelled it, felt it between his fingers and put it back on the plate. Je mange pas ça moi. Je le crois pas que le poisson est frais. As we sat at another ‘overpriced fish’ restaurant in Anadolu Kavağı, we realised that none of us had ordered fish. Cats jumped on our table and tried to eat the bread. We had ordered a beer, but there was none. Loic again: J’ai un doute que le poisson soit frais. Et même si c’est congelé, ça m’étonnerait pas que ils le recongèlent, freeze, unfreeze, plusieurs fois. We all looked at him and laughed, knowing with dread that he was right. I had ordered chicken. Et le poulet? I asked him. He looked at me and said, je commanderais pas ça non plus. Loic became like our father in Istanbul. JF and I were delighted to let others make the plans and do the organising that we just followed. And in Istanbul when Lisa or Loic suggested doing something, we happily agreed. Lisa and I would chatter away, stopping every now and then to ask where we were going or what was happening. We spent one day walking around the crowded and busy streets of Kadikoy. The cobbled streets and beautifully displayed shops with olives, nuts and pickles were extremely charming. The day we spent on the Bosporus and later visiting the roman cisterns, I decided that I wanted to visit Istanbul again soon.

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The best part of travelling is that you have time. And having time means meeting people. After an extreme sailing race we had a beer with one of the competitors, Thierry Douillard. Later that evening, Loic’s friends Clare and Jean-François, both Sciences Po lecturers in the city, invited us for a delicious meal. Once in Istanbul, as I sat around a table in a busy restaurant, I took a mental picture of the scene and smiled, because it reflected travelling at its best. Loic read Jay’s future from the coffee dust, while Lisa looked on lovingly. We had met Jay in Lviv, sitting alone in a bar, waiting for his Ukrainian girlfriend. He was wearing a sailing jacket and so we asked could we sit with him. When we rang him in Istanbul, he laughed, telling us his girlfriend was arriving that day.

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The Turkish people we encountered were warm and generous, traits often associated with Muslims. Ladies invited us to taste their freshly cooked bread on Lake Eğirdir. A woman invited us in for tea in Semile, giving us tomatoes and chillies from her garden. When the Beast finally chugged its way to a Land Rover specialist in Trabzon from the Sumela Monastery, Tayfun, who was there with his own car, soon became our translator. He took us to eat while Ṣenol worked on the Beast and later showed us around the city. Tayfun insisted we stay with him and treated us to a delicious brunch by Hagia Sophia the next morning. We were fascinated by the years of graffiti on the church’s walls: mariners looking for guidance before setting sail.

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Turkey was our last country before Europe and the contrast between East and West was stark as we crossed into Greece. It’s the eve of another election, in which Erdogan would like to consolidate his power under the guise of creating a coalition. He created stability and in return enjoyed Sultan-style admiration from many of his people. Not many we met throughout our short stay there supported him, accusing him of abuse of power. Europe must tread carefully too. Turkey holds 2.5 million refugees, who Europe hopes will stay there. With borders being created again in Europe and the Schengen being threatened, the West would like a stable Turkey, at whatever cost.

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Welcome to Iran! Where are you from?

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I never realized I had been brainwashed by propaganda until I travelled through Iran. I immediately began to question the image of a downtrodden, suppressed race hostile to the Western world, as the friendly army man checked our car crossing the border. He opened one door, half-heartedly looked inside, smiled and welcomed us to Iran. The lack of paperwork and severity, I had been expecting was a relief. Before leaving Armenia, Russian officials (The Russian army occupies the Armenian border) took us aside and questioned us on why we were visiting Iran. It’s a dangerous country, they warned us. We never once felt in danger in Iran and the Iranians were the friendliest people we have met on our trip. A man ran after the Beast in Rasht, and hailed us down. Welcome to Iran! he shouted and gave us the bread he had just bought in the bakery. Once, on the motorway, a car packed with a family, flashed at us to pull over. We did. They opened their boot and gave us tea and pastries, took our photo and drove off again. Even the men on the tolls would not take money. No money, welcome to Iran!

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Tabriz was the first city we stopped in and we were overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. We saw on the map that there was a campsite in El-Goli Park, on the outskirts of the city. When we got there, we realised it was simply a city park, where people camp. Every green space was covered with Persian mats and large families sitting around their samovars. Green, blue, pink and orange tents were pitched everywhere: between cars in the car park, on the doorstep of a mosque and on the roundabouts outside. Children ran in and out between the magic carpets, steam from the ever-brewing tea imbued the air and women swished and swashed in the evening sun, their chadors looking like phantoms in the dying light. It felt surreal, and JF and I wallowed in the foreignness of it all. As we sat on our blanket, looking around in silence, one family gave us apples, another gave us tea.

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Our time in Iran ended in another park in Sanandaj, Kurdistan. We drank tea and ate watermelon with Kurds from Iraq. The men tried to teach us how to eat sunflower seeds, but failed. They invited us to go with them to Kurdistan in Iraq, which we would have, had our Iranian visas permitted. Two young couples came over to talk to us and we had lunch in their apartment the next day: three engineers and one linguist. Iranians are very well educated, and they have a curiosity that brings them out of their own isolated world. One of the few policies the Islamic regime didn’t try to destroy from the time of the Shah was the emphasis on a strong education.

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Hoda, the linguist, cooked a traditional meal of saffron rice and lamb stew. We had non-alcoholic mojitos to start and jelly to finish. Like in all the times we ate in people’s homes, the food was delicious. On the streets there are mainly only kebab shops and it was difficult to find a juicy khoresh (sauce with vegetables). The kebabs were good at the beginning, meat that’s stuffed inside soft, flat bread with a few slices of onion on top, but it got monotonous after a while. As our friend Frank Aba explained: kebabs are cooked better on the streets than in homes. People eat khoresh at home and kebabs in restaurants. One evening we ate with Frank’s friends in Isfahan. The meal was late as usual, 11pm. The women placed the big plastic table cloth on the floor and we all sat cross-legged on the edge. After only ten minutes JF and I had to change position, our western knees cracking under our privileged weight. Silver platters stacked high with saffron rice were handed around and we were told to dig under the rice to find flat and tender beef. There were two different types of khoresh: mixtures of walnut, lentils, spinach, pomegranate and spices I know nothing of. Everyone was given a little bowl of spicy pickled vegetables, a speciality from the Persian Gulf. JF drank the traditional bitter yoghurt drink, which I didn’t like so much.

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One evening when we were looking for a tree to camp under outside Qazvin, two young men, Medi and Amir, invited us to smoke hookah and eat fruit in their father’s garden. When we said we didn’t want to stay in a hotel, but in our car, they insisted we stay in Amir’s luxurious apartment. His mother and sister came over with saffron drinks, spinach and aubergine pancakes, fruits and vegetables. After leaving Tehran (again), with our newly fixed Beast, we pulled into a shop in Parandak, to buy milk for the morning. The shopkeeper got his son from his house and they invited us in. The Beast was safely locked up, we were given a shower and a bed for the night, and the family sat around watching us as we ate. Later the aunt, uncle and their kids came by to have a look too. It was the first, and the last time, we met people who supported the regime. But, most of the Iranians we spent time with spoke English and so their outlooks would already be different from those who don’t speak English.

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Couch surfing in Iran is very popular and the authorities can’t control it. Young people like to meet foreigners and practise their English, with the hope for many, to leave Iran someday. We spent two nights with the cousins, Saeed and Hossein. We slept on the floor in our own room, with the comforting sound of wine fermenting in the corner. Everyone makes their own wine in Tehran, we were told. Also arak (homebrewed alcohol) is easy to find, if you know the correct people. Our second night in Tehran, the cousins threw a small party with a few of their friends. We drank arak, ate breaded chicken wings and talked politics. Once again we were surrounded by educated and cultured young people, most of them about to embark on their PhDs; all of them disillusioned by the regime and willing to leave. Iranians are very sociable, the family the centre of life, and that evening one woman talked about her fear about moving to Australia. For her own development she had to leave, she told us, but she knew she’d miss her family and the Iranian hospitality in general.

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We had lunch with Takin, the commercial manager for a company that imports French boats into Iran. JF beamed with pride when he saw a framed photo of Hakuna Matata on his office wall. Takin ordered in traditional Iranian food and we had lunch together in the conference room. The conversation was relaxed and we felt at ease in Takin’s company. He was equally candid about his personal life and the political situation in Iran. Over-sized and daunting paintings of Khomeini and Khamenei smiled down, cynically, on us as Takin spoke with hope about the nuclear deal that had just been signed with Obama: If the embargo is lifted and we finally get credit cards in Iran, business will take off. Since the first negotiations, our office phones have not stopped ringing. American companies are crazy to do business with us. We had planned to have a sociable lunch with Takin, nothing more, but we rang him a few days later from our broken Beast, desperate for his help.

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After we left Tehran (the first time), the Beast started to cough up black smoke and became sluggish. We were told that it was bad diesel and he’d be better once we emptied the tank. The Beast’s trouble brought us to Rasht where we met the effusive Frank Aba. We went to the park in the city to camp, but unlike the other cities we were not surrounded by families picnicking, but drug dealers. We reluctantly found a hotel instead and met Frank the next morning. A man whose every step oozes energy and whose eyes brim over with mischief; eyes that never miss a pretty girl passing by. The morning we met, he was wearing a light blue shirt, fresh against his tanned and healthy skin. He had American slacks that fell over his comfortable shoes. His bright white hair was meticulously combed over his head and kept in place with brill cream. His equally white moustache, which his daughter hates, skipped over his mouth that never closed. We were shocked when he told us he was seventy-five. He left Iran in the fifties to be educated in the USA. I need to come back to Iran every year, if not, I don’t feel myself in the US. He was refused entry for four years, which he explained left a void in his American life. The regime viewed his international dealings as suspicious.

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With Frank we climbed on rooftop upon rooftop in Masuleh, stopping for tea and hookah. We drove along the Caspian Sea and Frank pointed to all the hotels that thrived under the Shah, now looking sad without bikinied women lounging in the blue tiled verandas. There’s a poignant nostalgia for the last of the Dynasties and the Pahlavi Kings, among young and old. When we visited the Nirvanan Palace with Saeed and Hossein; and later the Saadabad Palace in Tehran with Zhoubil, they pointed to each beautiful and rich piece of furniture with regret. Saeed explained that his parents were part of the revolution in ’79, but that they were remorseful shortly after, in light of the leadership that followed. If the Shah stole our money, the mullahs’ pockets are much deeper, one taxi man told us. Frank, who’s not a religious man, believes the mullahs and imams are ruining Iran. People have nothing to do anymore. All they can do is eat and shop; he’d say pointing to families having picnics on the side of the road. It’s ridiculous that women need to be covered up, he’d sigh. He proudly took us to a small private beach on the coast; a beach where I could swim with JF, and in a bikini, a rare experience in Iran. That night we slept deeply as the omnipresent Caspian rain pattered on our tent.

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Iranians flock to the Caspian Sea, in search of the rain. Being Irish, I was amazed to see families splashing on the wet footpaths, their faces tilted towards the falling drops. Driving through Alamut Valley was pleasantly cool, but later in Kandovan, the wind was so biting I wore my coat for the first time in months. Not what I had expected in Iran. The next morning the fog lifted and we spent a few hours wandering among the cone shaped house caves. Going south it became hotter and whenever we needed to shy away from the burning rays, we often spent hours strolling through a city’s busy bazaar, never bored.

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The Beast finally stopped working in Kashan, and we left Frank behind as we limped (and later were towed) back to Tehran. Before leaving we got advice from various mechanics, but they’d take one look at the diesel engine and slam the bonnet closed. Frank translated one conversation for us:

  • ‘What would you expect from an English car’, I said, slapping the Beast on the flank.
  • ‘No English cars now because of the embargo’, says JF, holding his hands up to the clear blue sky.
  • ‘It’s not the English’s fault, it’s your fault’, one old and toothless mechanic said. Frank translated and laughing, pointed to JF.
  • ‘Me, what have I done?’
  • ‘If you damn French had kept Khomeini in France, we wouldn’t have the problems we have today.’

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There are only petrol cars in Iran and because of the embargo there are no refineries for the oil that they have. Diesel is used for trucks alone and is often dirty or watered down. Whatever the case with us, the Iranian diesel did not suit the Beast’s bourgeois taste. Takin sent us to the best mechanic, and one of the few who knows anything about diesel engines, in Tehran. We arrived late in the night, behind a small tow van, and Mati, one of Takin’s colleagues took us back to his house to stay, where he and his wife gave up their bedroom for us. Zhoubil, another colleague, had spent the day on the phone with the mechanic, translating our problems. While the beast was in the garage, he took us sightseeing and put us up in his apartment that night. We tasted his homebrew and watched a movie. When we realized the Beast would not be fixed in a matter of a day, Takin took us to the best Dizi (mutton stew) restaurant in Tehran before packing us off on the bus.

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Getting the visa in Tbilisi, the Iranian in the embassy laughed at us when we said we were only taking 50 euros into Iran. We didn’t know at the time that credit cards don’t exist, there is no way of getting money as a foreigner, and cash is needed to pay for everything. Luckily, just before leaving Armenia, we decided to take an extra 600 dollars with us as emergency money, in the unlikely event of the car breaking down. While it only cost 15 euro to fill the Beast up in Iran, the week in the garage cost 1200 dollars. We were down to the last cent by the time we left. When we met Frank again in Isfahan, he explained that the Isfahani people were very mean and told us this joke: A naked woman gets into the back of a taxi in the city centre. The taxi man keeps checking in his rear view mirror and turns nervously around, looking her up and down. The woman finally asks him what the matter is and asks has he never seen a naked woman before? I have seen plenty and I don’t care. I just don’t know where you could be carrying the fare, he replied.

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Isfahan is Iran’s third biggest city and the Naqsh-e Jahan Square rests as its heart and its beat. When we walked through it on our first evening it throbbed with people, walking or drinking tea. Where are you from? Welcome to Iran!, anyone we smiled at said. The blue domed mosque is one of Frank’s favourite in the world. The next evening, the three of us, posed and took photos on the Shahrestan bridge, from 3rd Century AD. The orange lit arches shone with pride over a dried out river. Iran’s lack of water is getting to a critical point. The regime has no vision and does nothing about the situation, Saeed from Tehran explained.

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From Isfahan we went to the Zoroastrian city of Yazd and walked around the sun-scorched streets. Because of the hot climate, the city’s architecture is dominated by towering windcatchers and has an extensive system of qanats: an underground water system. Our hotel which was in the old centre had a busy, lush green courtyard. We had dinner with Henrietta from Germany that evening, after we meet in the Dasht-e Kavir desert.

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From Yazd we took a taxi to Shiraz, the city of Hafez and once the centre of a great wine. We lost a hundred dollars the night before and thanks to Sabrina, who gave us £15, we managed to visit Persepolis, stay in a hotel and have dinner that night. The columns of Persepolis appeared dignified, standing tall for over two thousand years, as we drove closer to them. The frescos, which we stared at in silence, looked as if they were chiselled yesterday. It was the tombs of Naqsh-e Rajab that left us speechless, however. They were mentioned only as a side trip in the guides we had and we very nearly didn’t even visit them. Four imposing, square tomb doors, cut into the rock face dominated the desert surrounding them. Behind the enormous slabs of stone lie the bones of four Achaemenid kings, including Darius the Great. Frescos and cuneiform adorn the dead bodies by celebrating battles won and love lost.

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Hafez is the most revered poet in Iran and his poetry, from the 14th century, is still recited by Iranians today. Ironically his poems exalt the beauty of women and extol the wine from Shiraz. We visited his grave in a park dedicated to him. His stone coffin sits atop a circular stage, and men, women and children recite his poems while touching the stone. We sat and watched the crowds coming and going as we ate faloodeh: ice-cream made from noodles and topped with sweet rose water sauce. Because of my stubbornness, I didn’t see one of the most beautiful Mosques in Iran. JF and I entered the Masjed-e Nasir-al-Molk Mosque through different doors. I was stopped and told to sit down until they found me a ‘tourist’ chador. As I impatiently waited, I watched young women being given facial wipes to take off their lipstick. I sat, getting hotter, already overdressed and itching under my head scarf. I realised putting on a chador was a step too far; there’s only so much I can take in the name of culture. I had to fight to get out, and the covered ladies on the door, like bouncers, were reluctant to let me go. Shiraz was as south as we went in Iran. We flew back to Tehran the next day to collect the Beast and headed west towards the northern Turkish border, passing through the top heavy villages of the Hawraman Valley, on the way. The two other border crossings were closed, thanks to Erdogan bombing the Kurds and the PKK targeting the Turkish army in retaliation.

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I pulled off my scarf with relief and changed into a pair of shorts after we entered Turkey. Not only was my attire stifling but such a blatant symbol of male dominance, I found difficult to stomach. In Iran, by law, women must be covered, but the younger generation’s headscarf is falling further back on the head. A few miles from the Iranian border in Turkey, I saw more burkas in a small city than I had during my entire time in Iran. Again, I questioned the soundness of the information I consume in my daily life. Erdogan, a once trusted friend of the West is killing Kurds and gently instilling a stricter Islamic state. While the Iranian regime helps to keep Hezbollah and Bachar el-Assad ticking over, other Middle Eastern countries, who are friends of the West, have foreign policies which should be viewed as much more questionable. There are many countries in the world whose people are hostile to the West, Iran not being one of them. And yet, before leaving Europe, friends and family warned us not to go there.

I disagree with any religion being involved in politics. A secular state is a small but important step in any democracy, in my opinion. While Iran is an Islamic state, over half the population disagree with its policies. A country should not only be judged by its government.

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