It only takes a short time in the Middle East to learn just how much God takes care of here. Coming from the West, we are used to concrete answers for mundane questions. A straight yes or no will do just fine, thank you, when you want to know whether or not the store will be open tomorrow. God is usually reserved for church on Sunday and private prayers. But here in Iran, as we’ve also experienced in Syria, Turkey and Morocco, everything is subject to God’s wisdom. Ask a local if the bus will arrive soon and they’re almost certain to reply with Inshallah – if God wills it – rather than any reference to a timetable or when the last one rolled by.
In our case, God seemed to be taking a particular interest in our Turkmen visa. For three weeks we’ve made countless tedious trips to far-flung north Tehran (a city that contains nearly half the population of all of Canada within its boundaries) and watched uncomfortably as bureaucratic bumbling stretched out the usual one week waiting time. Every day we called to ask if our visa was ready. A few times we sat outside the embassy for hours, hoping the answer might come back during their short work day. On each occasion the news was negative. “But when will it be ready?” we’d ask, anxiously thinking about the clock ticking down on our Iranian visas and 1,100km of desert cycling ahead of us. “Do you think maybe tomorrow? By the end of the week?”
Inshallah was the only reply they could give us.
Finally, yesterday, the response was positive. “I have just heard from Ashgabat. Yes, a 7-day visa,” the diplomat on the other end of the phone said. By now we knew him well and he’d also started to recognise us from the queues that gather outside the embassy every day.
“Great, we’ll be there tomorrow so you can prepare our visa,” we said confidently.
“Inshallah,” he responded, instead of the equally confident answer we were looking for. After nearly six months in the Middle East, we were rather tired of Inshallah and the vague lack of commitment contained in that single word, even though we’d admittedly used Inshallah for our own convenience in the past. Probing questions about children, or rather our lack of offspring, are always answered with Inshallah. It stops unwanted conversations in their tracks because no one can argue with God’s will. Now, with the weekend looming as well as the Iranian New Year, we hoped God would be in a good mood. We couldn’t spare another day to wait for our visa.
We fought our way through Tehran’s morning rush hour to the embassy and the smile on our diplomat’s face was encouraging as we handed over our passports and $77 U.S. dollars in notes so clean it looked like we’d ironed them. The slightest mark on a dollar bill makes it no better than Monopoly money as far as embassies are concerned. “We’ll prepare your visa immediately,” we were told. Immediately in Turkmen terms ended up being several hours. The tiny window between the outside world and their office finally opened in the early afternoon to reveal our passports, newly adorned with visas for Turkmenistan. “But, there’s a mistake,” we said, pointing to splotches of white-out over our entry and exit dates and our points of destination in the country. Of the four tourists there that morning, three of us had corrections on our visa and the fourth document was pasted in upside down.
“Don’t worry,” the diplomat said, apologising for the mess on our passports. “I’ve stamped everything twice so the border guards shouldn’t give you any trouble.”
He paused for a moment and then added with a grin, “Inshallah”.
Inshallah, indeed. We’ll have to leave it in God’s hands, although we expect the Turkmen border guards are well acquainted with scribbles and corrections over visas. They’d probably be more suspicious if we showed up with paperwork in pristine condition. In any case, we’ve no time to sit around fretting over our less-than-perfect visas. The Dasht-e-Kavir desert awaits and we’ll have a steady two weeks of pedalling if we’re to reach the border in time. With luck, there won’t be any sandstorms or other unexpected surprises but whatever happens, we’re sure God will take care of it. Inshallah. And for those of you who keep a close eye on our blog for updates, don’t be surprised if we go silent for a week or two. We’ll be pedalling through some remote territory so any emails or posts will be, well, subject to Inshallah.