Part Six: A brief encounter with the Axis of Evil
It's best to begin this installment with the end. I was in the airport waiting for the plane to board, and decided to get myself a Coke®, so I did. The lady at the counter said, "Two hundred," so, I took on of the few two thousand ryal notes I had left out of my pocket, and gave it to her. "No," she said patiently, "Two hundred Thumm. That's 20,000 Ryals." What the heck is a thumm?," I thought, "and why hadn't I heard of this thing before?
I've collected coins since I was a kid. I've been all over the world, and the loose change has gotten so heavy my bookshelf needs reinforcement. There are lots of coins that are worth nothing. I've got a Turkish million Lira piece, an Italian one lira coin, and a few other weird things, but one thing I think is completely unique is the souvenir set I got in Shiraz. What makes it unique is one particular coin, a one-ryal piece that is worth one 9,000th of a dollar. It was dated this year, and it's thus the most worthless coin ever minted by anyone. Sure there are plenty of coins that are worth less than nothing, but they were all minted before catastrophic inflation rendered them so (I've seen people with wheelbarrows filled with money, it's not pretty). But this was different. This was made after it was worthless.
Having a national currency worth "less than nothing" is embarrassing. So the Persians invented the Thumm. Sure it's not worth all that much, but it's still respectable in a way. Inflation is beginning to ravage the Thumm the way it ravaged the Ryal. Land is up, food is up, fuel is up, and it's not just because of western sanctions, either. Our friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's power may be mostly fictional, but he has some control over the economy, and he's been doing a really bad job of it, and it was this in mind that on the last full day of my trip, I left Persia and entered Iran.
The village of Natanz is not one of those places that it's necessary to visit. It's a tiny place in the middle of nowhere where the locals wear colorful traditional clothes, have red adobe houses (iron-rich soil) and sell the few tourists that go there CDs featuring their picturesque lives. The nine of us (seven tourists, the bus driver and the guide) had the same lunch as always (I hope to eat chicken kebab again, but not any time soon) and after getting back on the bus, someone mentioned the nuclear facility.
The guide shrugged. "It's about twenty miles from here, on the other side of the mountains."
"Do you think we'll see it?" someone said.
"I don't know."
We saw it, all right.
The damn thing was right on the highway. We first began to notice some antiaircraft batteries, and then more, then we saw a modest smokestack and finally the nuke plant itself. There was military everywhere, and a number of signs warning us not to take pictures.
"Someone stopped a bus here and confiscated all the cameras...," the guide warned. A couple of my compatriots managed to surreptitiously snapped a few pictures. Talk of wars and rumors of wars pervaded the bus. We were home free, or so we thought. As we approached the holy city of Qom on of the group announced that his bladder was about to burst. So we stopped at the mosque right next to the toll booth.
It was about a hundred degrees outside, but everyone got out of the air conditioning and headed to make waste. Normally, this is something that shouldn't be mentioned, for obvious reasons, but on the way back, something happened. A cop got on the bus and told the driver that someone had passed a brand new law the day before and that he needed an assistant driver in order to be allowed to make it back to Tehran.
Now the reason for the new law was actually pretty reasonable. A bus driver fell asleep a few days before and got into an accident (I'd been in a similar accident in Zimbabwe some years back). the law was fine, but it seems that they hadn't bothered to tell anyone until they had started issuing tickets.
So we hung around for over an hour while the guide and driver tried desperately to find another driver. They couldn't find one, and the cops said that they'd let us go with a warning, but they lied. A trap was set, and about two miles north of the toll gate, the bus was stopped and the driver arrested.
After another half hour of quiet panic, the two returned with some semi-bad news. We were going to be aloud to make it to the hotel, and from there the airport, but the driver had his license revoked, and was issued a temporary one good only until midnight. As the owner of the bus who still had a huge loan to pay off, he faced bankruptcy...This with a wife and two kids to support!
We found out a bit later that the new law wasn't supposed to actually go into effect until later in the week, and that the driver could appeal and would probably get his license back. The cops in Qom were just having some fun with some drivers. That, my friends, is Iran.
When we arrived at last in Tehran, there was a blackout. The manager blamed sanctions. They didn't get the lights back on in our rooms until well after I had gone to sleep.
In our final episode, I'll sum up.