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11-14th December 2012, Qeshm Island
We’re surfing the back of a black Toyota pick-up truck as it skirts the narrow road through the desert. We screech with delight as the wind drags our faces into maniacal grimaces. My hijab flies off my head, but I couldn’t care less. This island seems completely lawless.
The black pick-ups, of which we’ve already hitchhiked three consecutively, are driven by oil smugglers. At night, the island teams with them, their open backs thick with greasy black traces. To save our clothes, we stand and hold tight onto the bar behind the cab. “Shit, I think we passed it!” David yells into the wind. We all tap ferociously on the back of the cab until the driver brakes abruptly and we climb out, buoyed by the adrenaline of the ride.
It was an eight hour bus journey from Kerman, where I left Sarah and the two Mohammeds, to Bandar Abbas on the South Coast of Iran. From there I took a forty minute boat ride into the Strait of Hormuz, which separates the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Sea. Qeshm is one of the largest islands in the world and one of Iran’s Free Trade Zones. According to Wikipedia, about 20% of the world’s petroleum, and about 35% of the petroleum traded by sea, passes through the strait.
David met me at the port in Qeshm a few hours earlier, full of beans and clearly excited at the opportunity to hang out with a female after weeks travelling alone in Iran. This is an attitude I would begin to encounter a lot in the country, whenever I came across solo male travellers. Having already spent a few days on the island, he’s clearly fallen in love with it and has already arranged a full itinerary for our two days together, beginning with a taxi drive 40km across the island to the tiny village of Tabl. Tagging along with us on our adventures, is David’s new sidekick Mehdi. Mehdi grew up in Shiraz, but is now living on the island and working as a diving instructor in the main city.
The event we’re about to gatecrash is the 2nd Qeshm Star Fest, an astronomy festival taking place in the Geopark close to Tabl. The entrance fee is around $60 per person for the three day festival, but David has managed to blag us in as ‘guests’.
David, Mehdi and I find the Star Fest after a few false starts. We’re greeted at the gate and David explains that he met one of the organisers earlier and was invited to attend for free for an evening as a guest. The people on the gate raise an eyebrow at this, but smile and hand out guest badges, after asking us to fill in some forms.
It’s an interesting event. A few marquees and a giant telescope have been set up in the middle of the desert and astronomy lovers from far and wide have flocked together, pitched their their tents and are now huddled in groups, debating the wonders of the galaxy in excited voices. “Wow, star geeks!” I exclaim. I had no idea such a thing existed. David quickly finds an authoritative-looking man who speaks English and begins plowing him with questions – “What exactly is a galaxy?” “What’s the difference between a cosmos and a galaxy?” “How many galaxies are there, exactly?”
The view from Mr Amini’s courtyard
We’re staying in a homestay owned by a smiling, yet somewhat serious Mr Amini and a large number of colourfully-dressed women of various ages. I’m guessing some of these women must be Mr Amini’s wives, and others his daughters, but it’s sometimes hard to fathom which might be which.
David, Mehdi and I are sharing a spacious room with guidebooks, pictures of the island and roll-out mattresses. David already stayed with Mr Amini during his first days on the island and remarks on his inability to understand the concept of vegetarianism, despite a careful explanation. Sure enough, our ‘vegetable soup’ seems to contain finely shredded slithers of chicken – Mr Amini’s little way of ensuring we don’t suffer from malnourishment during our stay with him.
David is already sipping tea in the courtyard by the time I emerge from my slumber. He greets me warmly and orders breakfast immediately. A platter is brought out by a young woman dressed in soft blues and oranges, and the table is filled with eggs, jams, cheeses, breads and tea.
First on today’s itinerary is the Hara forest – a mangrove forest, half submerged by water. A bit of later research reveals these to be saltwater trees known internationally as Avicennia marina, and locally as ‘hara’. Trees of these forests can grow up to eight meters and have external roots. The forest is hugely ecologically significant as “environmental studies have shown that about 1.5% of the world’s birds and 25% of Iran’s native birds annually migrate here”.
Our guide is a lanky local whose name slips by me. He has a calm detachedness about him. The other guy in the boat, who shares our fare, is clearly a city-dweller. He grabs at branches, picks at trees and shouts at the birds that perch on slender branches. “Isn’t this a protected area?” David asks me. Mehdi laughs.
Our second stop is the Geopark, which covers an area of over 30,000 acres and makes up a sizeable percentage of the island. Earlier this year, UNESCO dropped Qeshm from it’s list of Global Geoparks. In order to classify as such, a Geopark must meet various aims in terms of conservation, education and geotourism. According to some sources, it could re-enter the Global Geopark Network by March 2014.
This part of the geopark takes the form of monstrous natural sand formations in a vast desert. The Desert has been top on my list of 100 Things to do Before I Die for as long as I can remember. I am enraptured.
David’s ferry is cancelled due to choppy seas. After a bonus evening together, we share a taxi to the airport. He’s bound for Dubai – only a short flight, but worlds away from our quiet desert island.
With David gone, events take a nose-dive. Mehdi invited me to go snorkeling with him, but when I arrive, he tells me “the sea is surfing,” and we can’t go out on the boat. Instead, he offers me a massage. I’m initially reluctant, but he tells me he studied traditional Thai massage while living in Thailand, and after a while I relax into the idea. Mehdi has three other flat-mates, all men. The entire apartment is one medium-sized, open-plan room. The bathroom is basically a cupboard. One lumpy human-sized sleeping-bag is asleep on the floor, but after a while he crawls out, says “Salaam” and disappears off to work.
Now it’s time for the massage. Mehdi gets me to change into my shorts and take my top off, lying on my front. He’s discreet about this and I’m starting to trust him. After some deep massaging into my feet and calves, he’s working quite high up between my legs and I begin to feel extremely uncomfortable. I’m about to tell him to stop, when suddenly he’s lying on top of me, breathing in my ear, saying, “Now I can massage your breasts.” I command him to stop immediately.
“Why? What’s problem? You know in Thailand, full body massage really full body!”
“No way, get off me now!”
“Ok, then just do lip massage.”
“What’s a lip massage?”
“Like French kiss… but not French kiss.”
I tell him “no” sternly, get up and lock myself in the bathroom cupboard to get dressed. When I emerge, Mehdi makes a show of pretending he has no idea what could possibly be the problem. I begin shouting at him that he’s behaving inappropriately and that if he had any decency he would accept it and apologise.
“Ok, I’m sorry, just forget it, ok?”
“Ok, I’m forgetting.”
To break the tension, we leave the flat in search of activity, which in the city is minimal. We meet up with two of the flatmates and another friend, who take me to see some caves and a ‘traditional’ chai house in a mall. We smoke water pipe and the guys speak Farsi together, barely acknowledging my existence. I feel that Mehdi is giving the minimal attention necessary in order to feel like he’s hosting me. After spending two full days together with David, I felt like we were friends. Now I feel like more of a burden.
The sea is still choppy and there are no boats. Without a better option, I stay at Mehdi’s place, laying out my sleeping-bag in line with the flat-mates. They lie in a row and watch the big-screen television all evening.
That night I’m very sick. For a moment, I wonder if somebody could have drugged me, but then it clicks that I’ve been drinking water from the tap. I remember walking around a lush green park close to Mehdi’s diving school the previous night. I commented about how green the grass was for a desert island and asked where the water comes from. The words “de-salinated sea water” reverberate around my head.
After half a night of puking, I feel very weak, but I know I have to get off the island. With Mehdi’s help, I make it to the port and get a boat back to the mainland, hoping for a cancellation on one of the fully-booked trains to Yazd.