SYNOPSIS:  Today was a day of taking care of business:  Changing hotels and flights, exchanging money, getting the visa extension process started.  As always, a few unexpected things happen.  how many officers does it take to answer one question?

It was with some hesitation that I left Nicola at the airport a couple of hours ago, knowing that she had a big extra bag to take to Teheran with all of our shopping stuff and that she had just heard the news that her flight was delayed by 2-3 hours…  That meant that all of our efforts this morning to get her on an earlier flight had been in vain.  I could see how stressed out she was at the thought of not making her connection to London via Moscow tonight.  Not a pleasant thought indeed.   But my presence would change nothing and the taxi was waiting and so I went.  At least we had attracted enough attention right away so that one officer from Qish Air (is that really the name of an airline?) promised Nicola to personally try to squeeze her on an earlier flight.  Of course, this is still the height of Noruz travel and all and everything is booked to the brim.

I am alone again in my hotel room, as I had been before Nicola’s arrival.  The silence is a bit strange.  It was nice to have a travel companion with whom to share the enthusiasm for Iran’s incredible historical treasures; someone who would help answer the never ending question “where are you from “ and  someone who would endure some of the stares with me.   Nicola, however, was rarely ever the object of the stares.  In fact, some Iranians we spoke to expressed surprised when they heard that Nicola was also a foreign visitor.  That’s how perfectly Nicola blended in.  Following a recent website’s visual advice she had bought exactly the right clothes – much of it at thrift shops – to look like a native.  Long men’s shirts and narrow pants seem to be the secret and her Queen of England-style head scarf topped it all off to perfection.

So, this is for all of the women who are thinking of traveling in Iran:  You can avoid almost all the stares and the attention if you blend in.  But you will also miss out on a lot of fun, well-meant interactions, and some extraordinary encounters.  This seems to be a mixed bag.  Inadvertently, I dressed to be myself and to wear what I would wear at home; but even at home my clothinging is not mainstream.  I came with modest clothing but it was not modeled on the Iranian uniform.  Instead of a tight scarf, I swirl around a long, thin shawl in a way that I can be comfortable.   But I get for it what I get, sometimes more and sometimes less:  A lot of reactions.  After almost 30 days in Iran, I have accepted this mixed bag and am ready to go on alone which will increase again the amount of both types of encounters without question.  In Nicola, I had a bit of a shield.

Aside from her perfect clothes another factor surely played a role:  After 32 years of service as a British police officer she is quite proud of her crowd demeanor as well – when she puts “it” on, nobody will mess with her.  One look at her and the message is clear:  Stay away!   Leave me alone!  One older guy this morning, however, must not have looked carefully.  He had just pestered me a bit more obnoxiously than we usually tolerate and he was one of those creepy ones.  I had given him a friendly “Good bye”, which I hoped was sufficient for him to get lost.  But instead he moved over to Nicola’s side.  You should have seen her:  Before he got out half a word she yelled at him to disappear or she would call the police.  She stressed the word “police” a number of times until the guy hurried off, most likely completely shocked by this explosion.  Nicola reminded me in the taxi to the airport not to leave this incident out of today’s blog.

When this happened, we had just come out of the Shiraz headquarter of Melli Bank.  Following instructions in the Lonely Planet, we had tracked down this particular building of Melli Bank.  It’s their headquarters. But aside from a tiny Latin sign you would never know.  They don’t seem to expect non-Farsi speakers around here.   I need to extend my visa tomorrow in order to stay 30 more days until my flight.  To be honest, I put the cart before the horse…  I have a flight home from Teheran at the end of April, even though I don’t know if I will still be in Iran.  Getting a visa extension may be a piece of cake or a Herculanean task.  It’s anyone’s guess.  It may work in Shiraz, or fail in Teheran, or vice versa.  There is no clear-cut rule.  I am counting on Ganesh for this one and on all the good will of the police officers and on my convincing them to understand that another month in Iran is absolutely essential for my work and the education of all of my students.  And if all else fails, I will call my powerful friend Akbar in Teheran to pull some strings.  Or perhaps, I should try to pull a Nisreen-style fit?  Do you remember her wonderful number at the Iranian embassy in Dubai?

I was lead from the front room to a side building to a guy who seemed to be in charge of the visa extension fees.  At the time, however, he was handling a huge brick of money.  If you don’t watch out, that’s what you get when you hand over a hundred dollar bill!  How much does a visa extension cost?  I asked him.  Do you have a number?  He asked back.  What number?  OK, no number.  What do you want to pay?  Seriously, that’s what he asked me!  What do I want to pay?  Have you ever been asked at the bank “How much would you like to pay”?  It was a first for me.  I was so confused, that I had to laugh.  Did he want a bribe?  Did he really not know what the visa extension costs?  I suggested to call the visa extension office at the police for whom this payment was, to find out the amount to be paid.  He asked:  Do you have their number?  And he was not kidding!  How on earth would I, a traveling foreigner know the number of their police department?  There is only one bank that takes these payments and one office that does this business and he does not know?  He suggested paying $20.  If it was not enough I would have to come back, he explained.  But if it was too much, there would be no refund.  I was willing to pay that much, bribe, or fee, or whatever.  It was a step in the right direction.  I hope that the receipt will do the trick tomorrow and that it is enough.  Two years ago, as stated in the Lonely Planet, $10 was enough…

As we left the bank, we spotted a booth labeled “Tourism Police”.  This was what we needed.  These guys could surely tell us where to locate the visa extension police just in case the Lonely Planet was outdated on that, too.  We headed on over and asked the first officer draped with a beautiful … what’s the name for this… Scherpe in German* – well, a decorative band that made his uniform look very festive.  He spoke no English.  By the time we left, seven officers, including some higher ranks had gathered around us – nobody able to speak English, nobody able to answer the question.  Finally, the big shot among them offered a street name which he wrote down for me in English and in Farsi.  Somewhere on that street, presumably, there will be the visa extension branch of the Shiraz police, somewhere on the left side.  I hope that Lonely Planet will be more helpful.

Much could be added in this blog about the process of getting a flight ticket canceled and another one issued.  There is always this strange phenomenon in banks and the like, even in some stores:  You are being sent from one counter to the next, from upstairs to downstairs, from one branch to another and from one person to the one over.  It is almost as if as many people as possible are employed for each fragment of a job.  Perhaps, this is indeed the system?  Labor is cheap and if you employ all the people in no matter how many menial jobs, at least they are not out on the streets either rioting or begging.  That certainly was the system old East Germany.  So much rings a familiar bell.

By now I hope that Nicola is in the air somehow going somewhere with all of her bags.  I hope that a solution manifested itself as it always seems to do.  This morning, when we had to change hotels and decided to walk the 3.5 blocks, we found out how hard that was with our entire luggage.  But getting a taxi and getting stuck in one-way traffic seemed even more pointless for these 3.5 blocks.  Just as we were resting and cursing the idea to walk, there was Mr. Do-you-need-a-cart?  Unbelievable!  Out of the blue he manifested himself with just the right sized equipment.  And for a tip he hauled our luggage much faster than a taxi could have and certainly much faster then we two old ladies could have, over to our new destination.   These things never cease to amaze me!

Have a good and safe flight, Nicola.  Things always work out!

Good night.

* And if Nicola were here, I would have a competent proof-reader and native speaker to help improve the writing style of this blog as I had over the last ten days.  As it is, you have to be patient and forgiving with me again.