Monday, March 31, 2008

Gainful employment

There are lots of wealthy Tehranis staying in the hotel - most of them very friendly and pleasant - an oft-repeated description, but it cannot be understated. Usually they are travelling in a tour group and stay for two or three nights. They are surprised to find two English serving them tea. Reza encourages us to sit down and chat - but we don't need encouragement and we while away a few hours with some of the guests. One young man tells us he is off to England in two weeks' time. "Where too?" "Southend-on-Sea. Is it nice?" "Mmm, possibly."* We encourage him to visit London while he's there and recommend the British Museum. He wants to visit Madame Tussaud's, we can't imagine why. "Look out for your President", we joke. We warn him that the English are not as openly friendly as the Iranian people, they need to melt a little first.
Once in a while the local police call in to check up on things at the hotel. Reza agrees with the staff the code word is "Cheese" should they appear whilst we are "helping out" in the kitchen - this is the signal for us to act like guests and not workers. One night, the code word is employed, and Gayle dutifully goes to the fridge and fetches the cheese! "What do the police look like?" we ask. We had seen a big bloke hanging around and got a little nervous. "They have beards" we are told. It seems they are Morality Police - checking hotel registrations (Iranian couples must be married) , and that the hijab is being worn, and that the hubble-bubble is not being smoked - it was banned last year. Whilst we are there, all these rules are broken.
Working in the kitchen has given us an unwanted insight into food hygiene. Standards are not that bad, but any food that looks untouched when brought back from the tables is recycled. One night as I was tipping a plate of rice and onion into the dustbin, Mr. Mehdi saw me and shouted "Mr. John! Stop!" I looked in horror as he reached down to retrieve half an onion. But it turned out I had chucked away a fork. But we are not put off - and are eating the best food we have had for probably the whole journey. We thought we might put on weight, but we appear to be sweating it off.
In the back patio each evening, an oasis of cool and greenery, Khouroosh invites foreign travellers to have a drink, listen to music, smoke a joint and play backgammon. Sometimes he even sells a carpet. He is a sociable young man who once left Iran illegally in an attempt to reach Austria. He got to Greece, where the police gave him a hard time and sent him back. One of his friends, whom he never got a chance to say goodbye to, took a boat heading to the Netherlands but ended up in England, where he lives in secret, working illegally, unhappy. He actually wanted to get to Japan, and now can't go anywhere, for fear of deportation back to Iran. Khouroosh confesses his new strategy to escape is to meet and marry a foreigner - "but there has to be love", he tells us.
There are several English who pass through - and Danny detects different accents. He likes the English spoken by the two Oxford students, Tom and Miriam. We call it BBC English. Another visitor had given Danny a Roberts shortwave radio so that he can listen to BBC World Service. Then there is Chris, from Essex, who turns up wanting to watch the Iran - Kuwait game (a two-all draw, with Iran lucky to get the point by all accounts). We talk football for five minutes and we are incoherent to all around us. Then there is Julian, the funkiest overlander we have met so far, driving a battered Mercedes van. The man has real soul - I know this for a fact because he kindly downloaded some of it to our i-Pod. Saman stays with Khouroosh for several days. He is an old friend from their carpet-selling youth. "Use my real name in your blog" he quips. "With any luck they'll deport me."
As the days progress and the holidays wear on, everyone gets more tired and as the holidaymakers start to return home we find the restaurant works less efficiently. Sometimes when food is ordered, none of the ingredients are to hand. People are sent out on emergency errands. Dishes are forgotten, meals are mixed up. It feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Danny continues the language questions. We hear him in the kitchen one evening talking to Madame Kermani, who speaks no English, "Don't beat about the bush, come to the point" He's been learning idioms. Reza says one day "Mr. John, I hope you and Madame Gayle always remember to take a painkiller before you come to help here."

The holidays are coming to an end for Iranians, but there is a steady trickle of travellers passing through, giving us ideas and tips. We know we will have to leave here soon, but we know it will be quite difficult, and we keep putting off our planning for the onward journey into the Stans..........

*This reminded us of the Englishman we met in Turkey. When we asked where he was from, he replied "Readingunfortunately".


Anonymous said...

what a fantastic and inspirational trip. I am planning a much smaller version of this and was hoping to ask you a couple of questions. Are you able to help?

slowmotion said...

happy to hear that you are having such a good time in Iran.
Thanks for all the good reading-stuff. k

John Harwood said...

No posts for a long time, are you both ok, or are you just working too hard?

The Sloths said...

John, sorry the muse has left, just that we've actually been on the move, would you believe!?!!

Paul, by all means, just e-mail us on

K, stay tuned!