Travelling on the kindness of strangers II

Gloomy roads
Gloomy roads

Descending into the fog…

It was time to pick up some hitchhikers. We had been travelling for about two-and-a-half months with our little Jagger, but it was only on very rare occasions that we managed to fit anyone in the back seat. Usually it was too full of all our essential travel supplies—pots and pans, my extra pairs of shoes, Mook’s digital mixer, etc.

But on the previous day we had coincidentally cleaned the car out, and when I saw two backpackers standing on the side of the road I knew it was time to finally offer someone a ride. We were high in the mountains and the weather was gloomy. They looked like they’d been waiting for a while. And they looked like they spoke English.

We stopped and offered them the back seat. They were happy to come along, and coincidentally were going to the exact same place we were—down to the Armenia-Iran border and then on to Tabriz. One dude was quiet but the other was chatty, and we breezed through the traveller small talk about where we’d been and where we’re going. It was fun and nice to hear a different perspective on places we’d been and places we skipped.

The chatty dude was a career hitchhiker, and he told us stories about rides he had caught and the kindness he’d experienced on his journey from Europe. All the tea and the booze and the fruit and the dinners he’d been offered from drivers or villagers on the way. He had a much better impression of locals in a number of places we’d been, usually because they were always giving him Free Stuff.

While we talked he presented a spread of Free Stuff—fruits and breads—that the two of them had been gifted the day before. We accepted it gratefully, because everyone likes Free Stuff.

The road to the border was much worse than we thought, and over the course of several hours we found ourselves travelling up and down the mountains on muddy roads in some of the thickest fog I’d ever seen. Occasionally we’d see a shepherd through the mist who would give us directions. The hitchhiker offered us his phone to use the GPS in exchange for a battery charge. We were grateful again.

We stopped for a short break to buy some snacks at a small town still some distance from the border. We could continue on through the bad weather or stop here for the night and head off again early in the morning. The roads were dangerous, but we needed to be on the border at 9am the next morning, and Mook was confident about his driving skills. The hitchhikers weren’t really in a hurry, though, so I pitched to them the idea that it might be safer for them to stay here.

We all went into the shop together, but Mook and I made our purchases quickly and headed back to the car, eager to get back on the road. We waited for the hitchhikers, for five and then ten minutes while they stood inside. What were they doing? Trying to decide if they’ll come with us?

They finally emerged from the shop, snacks in hand. “Sorry it took us so long,” the chatty one said, “They were trying to overcharge us on bread. The price said ‘200 dram’ but actually they were bagged in packs of three so the real price was 600 (€1.15)…”

Ten minutes for that?!

Day turned into night, but we continued on through the dark mountains in fog so thick we could barely see one meter in front of the car. The white dotted line on the road was our only guide as Mook’s driving bordered on heroic. What we thought would be a relatively easy two-hour drive turned into four or five hours of stress. But finally around 8pm we made it to Meghri, the biggest town near the border.

Mook and I had planned to look for a cheap guesthouse and get a good night’s rest before our 9am date at the Iranian border. The hitchhikers wanted to camp but didn’t know where to go. It would have been logical for us to separate at this point, but there were talks of drinks, and since we were all heading down to Tabriz the next day…

We ended up cruising around looking for a cheap hotel for us and a camp site for the guys. We’d gotten some recommendations from a taxi driver, so we scooted from Meghri to what some might call a border town and others a pit stop for truck drivers. One motel gave us a decent price–5000 AMD (€9.60) per person for a room with four beds. It was cheap, there was a shower. We were fine with it but we needed the dudes to agree, and they weren’t convinced. So we kept looking.

There were two motels next to each other, so Mook went to one and I went to the other to ask for a price. Both were too expensive. By this time it was getting late and we were getting tired. The chatty European hitchhiker suggested we should just see if we could use the wifi at one of the motels and just chill for a bit. One motel seemed cool with it, so we did.

The motel was small, but had a restaurant and huge outdoor garden with fruit trees and creeping vines dangling from trellises above a few wooden tables. A bunch of Armenian guys were shooting the shit with the motel owners at one end of the patio. We sat down at a table on the other end, whipped out our smartphones and went through the typical Internet-starved traveller routine (Facebook, email, WhatsApp, etc.).

I had mentioned to the hitchhikers earlier how Mook and I had received loads of Couchsurfing invitations very easily in Iran. We were hoping to find someone on the ground at our first destination who would not only be fun (what we look for in all of our hosts), but also be able to supply us with alcohol in this notoriously dry country. The day before, we’d settled on a girl who seemed chilled out and mentioned drinking in her profile. “Call me when you get to Tabriz,” she wrote with her phone number.

So the European guy starts hammering away on Couchsurfing while the rest of us attempted to deal with the Armenian dudes (a bunch of fiberoptic cable layers and border employees, we later found out) who suddenly found this group of foreigners amusing. They asked us questions and phoned their friends and kids to talk with us over Skype while we tried to check our email.

“I got one!” the European hitchhiker yelled suddenly. He leaned over and showed his friend their catch. “Ohh, she’s pretty!” Then he showed me. It was the same Couchsurfer who said we could stay with her. “Call me when you get to Tabriz,” she wrote them. The two-timing bitch!

Satisfied with his catch for a place to sleep in Iran, the hitchhiker started to work on his place to sleep for the night. He launched into discussion with one of the motel owners, a mousey and youngish-looking woman who refused to budge on the price of their last remaining room. A few minutes later he returned to our table, and over the Armenian’s laughter and questions announced that the owner would let us camp in the yard for free. There was a shower in the garage, and it had free wifi—the traveller’s essentials. The hitchhikers were satisfied.

Mook and I really wanted to sleep in a warm bed, but it was already late and a night of free accommodation was tempting. Plus we’d be so close to the border we could practically roll out of bed, into the car, and into Iran. We felt a bit weird about having pressured a motel owner to let us camp in her yard and use all of her stuff for free instead of just paying for a room, but the alternative was paying €10 each for a room with no wifi in the first motel.

We all got our camping gear out of the car and headed into the back of the garden to pitch our tents. The Armenian guys were going wild, so amused that this group of Westerners would rather sleep on the ground instead of paying a little bit of money for a normal room. They turned the LED lights of their mobile phones on and dragged us further through the dark garden, past trees and over barbed wire into someone else’s yard, laughing as they pointed to all the spots they thought would be the best for camping.

The four of us eventually made our way back into the motel’s garden and to the spot the owner originally told us we could camp at. She came over looking stressed out by all the shouting and commotion that these foreigners had suddenly birthed into her quiet evening. She told the Armenians to bugger off while we pitched our tents.

With that task finished, it was on to dinner. Mook pulled out his remaining tins of pork goulash, which we were hesitant to try and smuggle into Iran. We offered them to the two backpackers for dinner, and they shared their bread and biscuits (which were not Free Stuff but carefully selected as being Cheap Stuff) with us. The European hitchhiker asked the owner to bring us tea, which she did with her sustained stressed-out expression.

We’re not the type of people who like to ask favours, so to thank the owner of the motel for letting us stay in her garden, Mook and I gave her our last bottle of Cappadocian wine. She gave us a weak smile and analysed the bottle. We tried to apologise for the wine’s Turkishness, but she didn’t understand.

To wrap up the night, we told the hitchhikers our plans for the next day. If they wanted they could ride with us, but they’d have to wait at the border till all the customs processing for the car was finished, and we couldn’t guarantee how long that would take. They said it was fine, and they’d meet us at the Iranian side of the border in the morning.

We all went to bed, our tents parked next to each other beneath pomegranate trees. Mook and I snuggled in our one-man sleeping bag and closed our eyes. Then the hitchhiker started talking to his friend, completely unaware that his voice carried through the two thin layers of nylon that separated us.

“What do you think? Should we go with these two to Tabriz tomorrow? They seem cool, and we can get a ride all the way.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Or it might be nice to meet some Iranians instead…”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

“Every Couchsurfer I’ve stayed with now has been a girl. Two times in Turkey and now this one in Iran. She’s cute….”

“Yeah.”

“…And maybe she’s got some weed.”

“Yeah.”

“Almost out of battery, I guess I can charge my phone in the car tomorrow.”

The next morning Mook and I got up, gave Jagger a rinse to make him look pretty, got our shit in order and made our way to the border. When we left we told the guys we’d probably be finished with our customs paperwork around 11am. If they wanted to hitch a ride with us they could. If not, no worries. It was up to them.

Customs and immigration took us way longer than expected. The two hitchhikers arrived like clockwork at the immigration hall on the Iranian side, where Mook and I were blowing time while we waited for the gears of bureaucracy to turn. We told them what the situation was, but they said they were happy to wait, so we directed them to the trailer in which they could eat a meal at the border’s one restaurant, and went back to watching the clock move.

The clock did a lot of moving. We were finally cleared and ready to leave around 1:30pm, four hours after we had arrived at the border. The hitchhikers were still waiting for us, either in desperation at the lack of hitchable vehicles passing through, or with feelings of traveller camaraderie–we couldn’t be sure.

When I went to go find them, they were still in the restaurant where we left them. According to Mook, they thought the restauranteur was overcharging them—asking $4 for a plate of kebabs, bread and tea—and were trying to “wait it out” so they wouldn’t have to pay. They finally paid and we ran to the car.

The trip to Tabriz was uneventful, and we all relaxed to the views of gorgeous mountain scenery. Poor Jagger heaved under the extra weight as we sped through the plains. We arrived a few hours later and parked the car near the grand bazaar. What to do now? They wanted to find some wifi and Skype the Couchsurfer. I wanted to get a SIM card and call the Couchsurfer. We compromised by stumbling around looking for open wifi networks and a place that sells SIM cards at the same time.

An old Iranian man stopped us and started speaking in pretty good English, asking us where we’re from and if we need some help. We explained our situation and he said he could find SIM cards for us. We were grateful for the rescue and followed him through the streets. He and Mook got to talking. It turned out that the man’s German was even better than his English from his 20 years living there selling Persian carpets–the same as he did presently in the Tabriz grand bazaar.

After asking in a few shops, the man brought us to a post office where we could trade a copy of a passport and fingerprints for an Iranian SIM card. After hearing the economical price of mobile communications in Iran, the European hitchhiker decided he’d get one too. It wasn’t quite Free Stuff like wifi was, but it was pretty damn close.

With phones now functioning, the old man invited us to see his carpet shop in the bazaar (sounds fishy but he was actually just being nice). As soon as we set off, the hitchhiker jumped at the chance to contact the two-timing Couchsurfer, and they agreed to meet in 30 minutes in front of the Azerbaijan Museum. We were a bit miffed that the hitchhikers moved in on our Couchsurfer, but also that she was a two-timing bitch. We figured we’d hold her accountable and surprise the shit out of her by showing up together with the two guys.

The carpet shop was a bit touristy but cool. The old man was really sweet, and invited us for tea. The hitchhikers were itching to leave and meet the Couchsurfer, and while I really wanted to stay and hang out with the old guy instead, I didn’t want to let the penny-pinching hitchhikers steal our host. They wanted her for themselves—I could sense it—but were too polite to tell us to go away.

So the four of us apologised profusely to the old man and promised we would come see him the next day. Then we rushed to the Azerbaijan Museum. We’d taken longer than half an hour, but surely she would still be there waiting. We walked for what seemed like an eternity, as the temperature dropped and our tummies rumbled. When we arrived, the European hitchhiker took a look at his phone.

“Oh no….,” he looked deflated as he read a text message from the Couchsurfer out loud.

“I’m sorry but I cannot host you tonight. My mother and my sister are coming over and I have no room.”

The classic excuse. We all suddenly felt exhausted, but we had to do something. The hunt for free wifi was on once again, as we slowly paced down the street while staring at our phones, hoping and praying for that beautiful symbol indicating an unlocked wifi network.

We couldn’t find one, but some helpful dudes passing by managed to find us an internet cafe in the basement of a small shopping centre. Mook and I jumped onto a computer, but the two hitchhikers disappeared with the helpful dudes, complaining that they didn’t want to pay for internet. By this time Mook and I were really irritated by their relentless frugality, and we were dreaming of nothing but a kebab, a shower and a warm bed. So we did our best Google searching for a decently-priced guesthouse, memo’ed some addresses and went to leave. We paid 1000 tomans (€0.25) for our 20 minutes of internet use.

Next door the dudes were tapping away at their phones inside a wallpaper shop, presumably sending more Couchsurfing requests via the shop’s wifi. But it was time to go. We made our way through the dark streets and back to the car, where the four of us kindly and gently agreed that it was time to split the fuck up. The two dudes had been playing with the idea of sleeping in a mosque if the Couchsurfing thing didn’t work out, since they heard that was a Thing To Do. But Mook and I were ready for a little warm comfort bought with some cold, hard cash.

The two hitchhikers went off, presumably to conjure up more Free Stuff through the kindness of strangers. We took refuge in Jagger, munching on animal crackers while we contemplated Plan B. Later that evening we also experienced some unbelievable kindness from strangers, but despite everyone’s best efforts it unfortunately turned into The Night From Hell.

TBC



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