Late one afternoon I was cycling along the highway near the Caspian Sea. An old man drove by on an ancient rusty tractor looking very excited. With his age, scrawny figure, bushy beard and wavy white hair he reminded me of “Doc” – the eccentric professor from the movie “Back to the Future”. His enthusiasm and skittishness confirmed this first judgement and I grinned broadly, instantly taking a liking to the man. As I smiled I waved and he returned the gesture with a broad smile back.
I passed him in the busy streets through a small town. He caught up with me ten minutes later. He was carrying a load of packing sand and the tractor was slow. He gestured to me if I’d like to eat and I looked at him again, checked my odometer which read 110km and, in the late afternoon thought,why not? So I trailed him back to his village about 5 km away.
It was as if I was being paraded through his small village as he smiled gleefully at the locals as I passed by. I came to his small farmhouse in made of mud brick. Chickens scattered as we entered on a tractor through a large gate. It opened up into an earthen courtyard and I put my bicycle up against a stone wall. Ducks waddled about near the puddles and a second tractor sat idle but proud in the center of the yard.
Not having bathed in a week and after cycling in the rain most of the morning, I asked if I could have a shower and wash some clothes. Surprisingly the bathroom was quite modern and the water was hot. I scrubbed and scrubbed. The water was filling up the small bucket and it was more than I needed but I couldn’t work out how to turn off the tap. It continued to spill out and the guy walked in to give me a hand. It’s not uncommon for men in Iran to hold hands walking down the street or maintain a handshake long after the handshaking moment has passed. They kiss each other on the cheek three times when saying farewell and it’s not uncommon for men to fully embrace each other when greeting or saying goodbye – not in the way that Australian men do which is quick and often disconnected from any ‘feeling’. When Iranian men hug, they embrace each other like brothers and hold onto each other for minutes, I imagine the way soldiers did in the Second World War when, on the brink of defeat, relief arrived. But when the guy walked in and asked if I needed help ,I tried to indicate that I couldn’t turn the tap off. He didn’t speak a word of English and I only spoke a dozen words of Farsi. He asked if I needed help washing my back and before I could argue with him he had the scrubbing cloth in his hand. I was standing there stark naked but neither of us seemed to be bothered. I looked past any uncomfortable feelings that would have arisen had I not been aware of them. He scrubbed my back then left and I said thanks. I’ve never had another man scrub my back since I was a child.
Khan had a mostache that filled his face. He had this way about him, a warmth and guile that reassured me of any intention other than complete kindness. When he wasn’t smoking opium there was a cigarette in his mouth. And when he wasn’t smoking we were eating. Before dinner was served, the nutty professor started smoking opium. I declined the offer but watched in amazement as he heated up a small metal rod in an oil lantern then bought it close to a lump of opium and, as it burnt away, he inhaled the smoke through a pipe as long as his hand.
A sticky sweetness filled the air as this opium art display went on for a very long time. He stopped when both of us ate dinner together, but then started again once we’d finished. He must have smoked for hours. Unable to communicate, I showed them pictures of my family, which was all important in this world to an Iranian, and my route around the world. I showed them photos of places I’d been, but they weren’t that interested. In return, I sat through hours of going through album after photo album which contained photos of this man and his tractor. There were literally hundreds of this guy working on his tractor with friends. I gathered that he loved his tractor and it was his primary source of toil. Many of the photos were of him using the tractor to string up large transmission lines across the desert. Others were of him wrestling as a young man and a few of him hunting, but most of them were of this tractor. I saw one of his wife when they were younger crouched around a feeble old lady that I guessed was his mother. That was it. I really liked this guy.
People who spoke English came around later that night to let me know I was welcome to stay as long as I liked. I thanked them, managed to piece together stories through a translator and enjoyed sessions of tea most of the night. Khan had two beautiful girls who lit up his face whenever he came home or came to sit in his lap.
The next day we spent visiting friends. Khan smoked opium with all of them whether they partook or not. In the morning I watched Khan and his friend spoke opium together. His friend, whose name I didn’t catch, made a pipe by cutting the power end off a small light bulb, gutting the inside, putting a small cardboard pipe in the open electrical socket end, sealing the whole thing using a plastic bag and burning a small hole in the glass bulb. Inventive, I thought. What’s more, Khan and his friends did it completely in the open in front of his family sitting around like it was a Sunday afternoon sipping tea. I took some photos, more than I wanted, just for the fun of it.
It was all very cordial. I liked the idea that it’s not shameful like a dark opium den. If they’re going to do it, there’s something far more … what’s the word I’m looking for ,… respectful, no, refreshingly honest. While the guys smoked I turned to the two kids, one about 15 the other 12, for some English Farsi lessons. They helped me with my Farsi; I with their English. It was interesting reading the English book, learning how they view the West through learning (as if they are a part of it – as they identify being more akin to the West than their Arab neighbours) and I knew the words like ‘world’, ‘beautiful’, ‘bicycle’, ‘sleep’, ‘don’t worry’ and ‘nice to meet you’. The people here are so hospitable; the daughter would bring me a jug of water and a pan to wash my hands in after I finished a pomegranate. ‘How do you say that in Farsi?’, I would ask. It might be illegal bu,t at least in this village, it wasn’t frowned upon.
Khan did the odd job with his tractor while I was there, but I think this was mostly an excuse to visit others and smoke more opium. It rained for the three days I stayed and I was just happy not to be out cycling in the wet weather. We went out during the afternoon to a friend’s house where I watched them boil down some opium. While Khan sat in the corner smoking, the others watched on. His friend smoked the Shisha (a large water pipe common in the Islamic world) and another drank tea. His friend Ali made his own wine which tasted like a mix of grape juice and vinegar. It didn’t sit well in my stomach.
Another day we picked up a flagon of water in his tractor and delivered it to his friend on a farm a few kilometres away. After the job was done we went inside a small room that served as the farmhouse, pulled out the kerosene burner and heated up some metal rods used to smoke opium. On the farm, we picked up another trailer and delivered it to someone else’s place. I wondered if Khan did this all day so that his wife thought he had a job? It seemed that everybody was his friend. Apparently he didn’t need much, or didn’t want much either. He had a small plot of land to farm, a modest farm house, some chickens and his beloved two tractors that most likely served as his income.
If he wasn’t addicted, I would say he really enjoyed his opium. What was strange and fascinating for me was the norm to them. At the end of the day I had a headache from all the passive opium smoking I’d done. I slept on some blankets in a room I shared with Khan. It was empty except for a few old photos on the wall. About 4 am one morning I heard him come back from the toilet. In my sleepy daze, I felt the chill of the pre-dawn after I’d thrown the blanket off. Khan saw this and he gently put the blanket over me. He’d had his two beautiful girls very late in his life, but something told me that he wanted a boy. Most certainly he had a lot of love to give.
But the best thing that I learned that day was that everything in life is a reflection of ourselves. That’s what I love about travelling the way I do. It serves to take me out of the social stigma, cultural and educational paradigms and twist myself, opening to each and every experience. The act of seeing men hold hands or kiss each other on the cheek, eating dinner on the floor, having someone other than your lover help scrub your back, discovering the value of a good carpet, watching a man smoke opium in front of his family; some of these reactions are so unconsciously ingrained in us that they’re actually impossible to discover without some serious internal reflection. Others stem from just plain ignorance of nobody but ourselves. The old adage holds true; when we judge, we only serve to judge ourselves. Khan had a heart of gold and a beautiful family. Perhaps he was a little nuts, but I liked that cheekiness in him. In the days that followed, I thought about Khan and his family and I decided, above all, I think I liked his living honesty.