*Author’s notes: If we provoke a rattlesnake and it bites us, do we blame the rattlesnake? Do we have the right to seek revenge? Does the rattlesnake have the right to bite? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply understand that rattlesnakes exist and live our lives in harmony? Is that fear? Must we show the rattlesnake we’re the boss? This chapter ends with a rattlesnake. It’s neither fun nor funny, but it’s what happened.
Soon after I’d returned from Bandar Abbas, word had spread through the Page grapevine that I was a genius. I could actually learn to pronounce an Iranian name, find food and gasoline where none existed and distinguish rodent residue from electronic damage. And to top it off, I had a woman with supernatural powers to accompany me. Although they saw me as having x-ray vision, I saw myself as nearsighted among the blind. But all the area managers were crying for me to join them to sort out problems as they arose. Bandar Abbas presented the most compelling case because I’d been there twice, a feat accomplished by no other human being. So Felicity and I said goodbye to our landlords in Tehran and headed to live on the Persian Gulf for three months.
We spent our first night in a small hotel in the center of Bandar Abbas. At breakfast the next morning, we met Tom and Emily, another couple working for Page that was also staying there. Tom had been a radio operator in Vietnam. But because of the messages that passed through his head that he was ordered not to hear, he vowed to never again set foot in the nation that had violated its allegiance to hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Instead, he moved to Morocco where he’d met his freckled, chunky, cheery and tempered-for-strength porcelain doll who’d been born there to British parents.
To Emily, Iran was no stranger than Pennsylvania would be to a New Yorker. She could easily navigate the climate and the culture with a sense of authority, even without knowing much of the language. I wondered why Page hadn’t considered them extraordinary, but soon found out that they were of the lowly labor class, and I of the saintly salaried. I was in Page’s tuxedo department; Tom was in the bargain basement. I was often scorned for even associating with them.
But our friendship solidified instantly. At that first breakfast, we began discussing finding a house to rent and live together. That afternoon after work, Felicity and Emily escorted Tom and I to a new, Western style, three-bedroom vacant house on the corner of two unpaved streets a short distance from the city center. The adjacent lots were walled but had no signs of construction starting. The rent was much cheaper than our hotel rooms, but the house was unfurnished, and buying furniture would put it out of a reasonable price range. Tom surprised us by suggesting that we make furniture out of the used packing crates the telecommunications products had come in. For larger equipment, there would be four by four pine beams, two by fours, two by twos and various grades of plywood. There were also several forms of packing materials we could use to make cushion: four-inch thick Styrofoam slabs and puffy bits of popcorn, along with volumes of layered crepe paper and packs of unidentifiable spongy mush. Page had no use for any of it and left it all unattended for locals to haul off. If no one did, they burned it. We could get plenty within only a few days. Page also had a ready supply of camp stoves and coolers, along with plates, cups, bowls, cooking utensils and cutlery. And Tom had access to a wide variety of tools.
Emily and Felicity began excitedly chattering about shopping through the many fabric shops to make coverings for cushions and pillows. Emily was particularly enthused about a chance to visit the tailors she’d seen in the bazaar, busily working with antique, pedal-driven sewing machines. Felicity told a story of a formal gown she once made on short notice with a bed sheet and masking tape. Within an hour, the decision was unanimous. We’d take it.
The owner, a medium-sized, middle-aged Iranian investor from Tehran wearing a plaid sport shirt and khaki trousers, seemed excited to be finally renting his first completed property. He spoke English well enough to write the translation of a month-to-month rental agreement, and we all signed it while drinking shot-glass tea with sugar crystals. His bright eyes and mustachioed smile welcomed us to his newly developing nation, and he hoped we would decide to make Bandar Abbas our permanent home. And he would be a friend forever. Praise Allah.
For the first week, we camped in the bedrooms on cots, and used the adjoining living and dining rooms for a carpenter shop. Tom started by building a work table, earning the position of supervisor. He obviously had the best ideas. I worked as his assistant to make two beds to be covered by the Page-supplied camp-cot mattresses. We then built a couch frame, followed by an easy chair that almost matched except for the corrections of his mistakes on the couch. Then came a cable-reel dining table with almost-matching chairs, and end tables for the living room and bedrooms. By the end of the second week, all that was missing was decorations for the walls. So on his Friday night beer run, Tom came home with small cans of various colored poster paint. Puzzled faces watched as he began.
He started with a two-foot square, four-inch thick Styrofoam packing slab. But a few moments after the first touch with a brush, the paint started eating in, grotesquely distorting the image he was trying to create. Three disappointed observers began looking for a plywood replacement, but the unexpected eating only inspired the artist. With a mad-scientist expression, he began liberally applying the paint while closely observing to what depths it would eat before petering out. One section ate all the way through, so he covered the back of the hole with a bit of plywood painted the same color. Within minutes he had an appealing work of three-dimensional modern art with the meaning left to the imagination of the observer. We all applauded… and on the wall it went.
After two more successive successes, I felt a little slighted and claimed that anyone at all could smear paint on plastic to make random art. It didn’t take any particular talent. Tom politely offered me the next slab. I poured randomly but carefully to avoid eating all the way through, selecting a bit of each color for variety, concentrating mainly on saving face. After finishing, four sneering faces (including my own) rated it “horrible.” Then Emily tried… and then Felicity; horrible… horrible. Tom had a laugh, then randomly splattered bits of paint on another slab and in less than a minute… poof… another masterpiece. After a few more, the house was well decorated and Tom was unanimously voted resident artist. But there still seemed to be something missing.
On Saturday, we decided to take the bare-minimum ferry-boat to investigate Qeshm, the main port on the large, nearby island of the same name. But it was only slightly developed, and all we could find to do was stroll along the beach. But when we stopped to sit for a while, a small boy dressed in shabby clothes approached us, speaking Farsi with a questioning look while nodding towards his even shabbier and sickly looking puppy. I assumed he wanted money to buy it some food, so I offered him five Rials, a little less than a dollar. He beamingly took the money, handed me the puppy and scampered off. Everyone laughed as I realized I’d bought the puppy.
We took it to our newly furnished home, fed it and cleaned it up. His name came from the transaction. The Iranian Rials is called a “toman.” The word for half is neem. Because five Rials is half a toman, Neem Toman became the fifth member of our happy little family. And at last our home was complete.
We slowly learned bits of Farsi as we acclimatized deeper into the Iranian culture, but it would take far longer to become anything but strangers. While discussed things we missed from our native lands, Tom, Felicity and I often mentioned the forbidden pork products such as ham and sausage that we so often had for breakfast. But no one in Iran raised pigs. Beer, however was not illegal; it just wasn’t very popular. And because Bandar Abbas was a seaport, there were enough foreign visitors to justify a small pub, owned by an Armenian gentleman who could speak English quite fluently. Beer flowed quite freely, but there was no pork in any form.
But one day in conversation with the owner, we mentioned our ever-increasing craving for the forbidden beast. How we would love to have a normal America or English breakfast with crisp bacon or savory sausage! Eggs and pancake ingredients were readily available in the bazaar; but never… ever, bacon or sausage. But the owner of the pub came up with an idea.
Wild javelinas were plentiful in the desert and were considered a menace by most of the population. So when the owner approached the authorities to see if he could use his rifles to hunt them, they knew of no law that would stand his way. In fact, they had a great laugh at his completely insane idea to eat them, but told him to go ahead if he wished. After a short hunting trip, we had ham, sausage, bacon, chops and roasts with a distinct flavor of being totally natural and organic. One more cultural barrier was dissolved.
One day after work, we met a young American couple in the pub who were traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East in a Volkswagen minivan. I’ll call them Dick and Jane, even though I’ve used “Dick” before. Each were worthy of the name, but this one even more so. Their objective was to get into Afghanistan to buy hashish, a concentrated form of marijuana, to take back to their friends in Europe. But at the time, there was unrest between Iran and Afghanistan and the border was temporarily closed. They were looking for a place to wait it out, so they chose the nearest and city of any size on the Persian Gulf coast so they could find things they needed while enjoying the warm and sunny beaches. They slept in their VW and, because their limited budget consisted of only what their parents would send them, hadn’t had a decent shower for days. We suggested they park their van in our yard where it would be protected by the walls and the gate, and they could use our shower and cooking facilities. They thought it was a great idea and immediately accepted.
Dick was five-foot nine with a healthy build, curly black hair to his shoulders and a long, full beard. He wore loose cotton t-shirts with short sleeves and either blue jeans or baggy cotton trousers from one of the many countries they’d visited. I guessed him to be 26. Jane also had long, curly black hair, a slightly full figure but certainly not overweight, and always wore a cotton, above-the-knees, see-through shift common to the hippie culture. And, obvious to even the most casual observer, she never wore any underwear. Not surprisingly, they complained of constant harassment.
On the first night in the house, Felicity and Emily took Jane aside to try to indoctrinate her on the dress code for women visiting Iran from other countries. But Jane barely paid any attention to them, listening politely but with a smirk on her face. When they finished, she answered only with, “Well thank you for the advice. But I’m an American! I’m free and I can wear whatever I want. And if they don’t like it, they can go fuck themselves.”
Emily replied, “Be careful, Jane. With that attitude, they may just fuck you. And Afghanistan will be even worse. Here, the people are getting used to foreigners with new customs. But the Afghanis are more orthodox and deeper into their culture. And violent crime is more common in Kabul than in Tehran. You’re looking for disaster.”
Jane only shrugged it off with, “I’m not worried.”
While the girls tried to caution Jane, Tom and I talked to Dick. We told him a story that recently appeared in all the newspapers, and especially in the one in English. Five Americans were caught with a few kilograms of hashish hidden under the floorboards of their minivan while trying to enter Iran from Afghanistan. The penalty was death; to be shot at sunrise the following day; no indictment, no trial, no representation, no plea bargains. If you have the drugs, you’re guilty, period. The five were taken to jail and informed of their grave misfortune. The American embassy was notified, and they took great efforts to arrange an appeal to delay the executions for at least a day. The five were informed of the success of that effort, so they would be shot the following morning. The law had been in place for several decades, and all reluctantly had to agree that it’s the responsibility of any person entering any country to know its laws. There would be no further appeals.
The next morning at sunrise, the five were taken out into the courtyard past the armed soldiers of the firing squad. They were lined up, blindfolded with their hands cuffed behind their backs and the count began, “Ready,” called the officer and the soldiers lifted their rifles. “Aim,” and the soldiers cocked and aimed.” “Wait!” announced the officer. “We’ve just received another appeal.” But two hours after returning to their cells, the five were told the new appeal had also failed. They would be shot the next morning. Again they were line. “Ready,” called the officer and the soldiers lifted their rifles. “Aim,” and the soldiers cocked and aimed. “Wait!” announced the officer. “We’ve received new orders.” They were escorted to a holding cell and they were told they would be taken to the airport in Tehran for immediate deportation. They would never be allowed to return. The American embassy was warned that the next Americans who were caught entering from Afghanistan with hashish would indeed be executed. Iran simply didn’t want drugs to enter their country.
Dick simply shrugged the story off with, “Yeah, but we won’t get caught.”
The next few weeks passed without incident other than Jane’s continuing complaints of unwanted intimate caresses and pinches, but still with the arrogant refusal to change her attire. Soon the border to Afghanistan opened and they were on their way, well rested, fed, showered and at least advised. The solutions to Page’s engineering problems were limited to looking at the proper drawings, making phone calls on the now-working system or using common sense. I thank them today for having given me such an elaborate, three-month paid vacation on the sunny and warm Persian Gulf.
We later heard what happened to Dick and Jane through the international grapevine of travelers who speak English. I cannot attest to its reliability; I can only attest to what I heard. They’d gotten to Kabul and unfortunately got lost in the most questionable section of the bazaar. Some hopeful customers misread their anger and arrogance to mean they were not of the quality Dick and Jane preferred to serve. But they argued that their money was as good as anyone else’s. Insults were traded to such a degree that a knife came into play, which slit Dick’s throat and then removed Jane’s legs at the knees. As I heard it, she survived to tell the story. I know no more details and prefer not to imagine.
The idea of speculating on “what ifs,” along with making judgment calls for either side leaves me nauseous. I’d visit Afghanistan without fear; I’d go to the bazaar in the company of a properly attired Western woman. But I would neither judge nor provoke those I met. I’d proceed as I would in the Arizona desert, knowing perfectly well we could come across some rattlesnakes.
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