Once again we were standing in the bitterly cold winter air, waiting to get our bikes on a bus.
At least this time there was a bus. That was the good news; services had finally resumed after four days and we had our ticket for Tehran. The problem now was the bus driver. He was making a huge fuss about carrying our bicycles, even though we’d called before we bought the ticket and been assured there was no problem and our bikes could come free of charge.
“Yok,” he said angrily, waving his hands around in the air and glaring at us. The messagewas clear. He did not want our heavy baggage on his bus. We weren’t worried because this had happened so many times in Turkey. We had our strategy: wait out the song and dance and then use clever packing to find a place for our bikes. It had always worked before but this time the bus driver continued to be hostile even after everyone else had loaded their luggage. A translator soon appeared. “He says you must pay 20,000 for your bikes because he has to leave carpets behind to make room for you,” we were told. No problem we thought, converting the amount in our heads to about $2. It seemed a fair tip and our bikes and bags were loaded onto the bus. Of course life is never that simple.
As we went to pay the driver became very angry and refused to take our money. “This is not enough,” the translator said. We were confused, looking at the bill that clearly had 20,000 written on it. Soon he clarified. We needed to pay 20,000 Tomans, a funny unit that Iranians often use but forget to specify when they are talking. It is just assumed, except by easily confused tourists like us. One Toman equals 10 Rials so we were actually being asked for $20 – a huge sum in Iran and roughly equivalent to our whole maximum daily budget. We exploded. “This is not fair, it’s far too much,” we screamed. Our answer came back quickly. Pay up or be left behind. It wasn’t really an option. The idea of cycling back to Tabriz once again was depressing to say the least.
“We don’t have that much money with us,” we lied, hoping to cut the price. There was little sympathy. Slowly we dragged out money one bill at a time until we’d paid the required bribe. The driver grunted and stuffed our money into his pocket, happy he’d gotten so much out of two rich western tourists. We felt taken advantage of and could only seek comfort in knowing that this problem of perception is common. The accepted wisdom in many countries is that if you are from Europe or North America you must be wealthy beyond belief. A few days earlier two American travellers told us about a hotel owner’s response when they repeatedly refused his offers to cook them nice but expensive meals. “Where are you from, the homeless part of America?” he asked, bewildered because Americans are normally his best high-spending customers.
Boarding the bus after this escapade we heard tutting all around and assumed it was because we had caused a scene until a man reached over to talk to us. “I am sorry that you’ve had this impression of people from Tabriz,” he said, ashamed on the bus driver’s behalf. We would have to agree that from our experience of Iran so far and that of other cyclists, who have also reported being asked for vast sums to load their bikes on buses, it seems the only unkind Iranians are driving the buses in this country.
As if to prove this theory, we arrived in Tehran to wonderful hosts, Hadi and Mehrnoosh. We met through the Warm Showers list for cyclists and they warmly welcomed us to their apartment. Together we’ve walked around their neighbourhood, seen some of Tehran’s palaces and parks, tried out the local restaurants and enjoyed getting to know each other. We couldn’t have asked for a better home away from home.
Now we’re turning our attention to trying to get south to the Persian Gulf, perhaps by train so we won’t have to deal with the annoying bus drivers. With a little luck we should be on our bikes again within the next week in balmier temperatures.