28 December 2016

Impressions and Images of Iran: When the Fifty Cents I Overpaid Came Back

After spending 2 nights in Kashan, it was time to move on. My next stop would be Isfahan, where I made a reservation to a hotel for three nights. So during the morning, I checked out of my guesthouse, and headed to the bus station. Little did I know that I was about to witness one of the greatest expressions of kindness during my trip.

I had to take a taxi, so that I could go from my guesthouse to the bus station. I asked the guesthouse to call a taxi for me, and I also asked them how much a fare typically would cost. It has become my habit to ask third-party people how much taxis are, so that I know a ballpark value whenever it is time to pay. Hence I would know if the taxi driver was trying to overcharge me or not.

The guesthouse people told me that the fare would be about 80,000 IRR. At that time the EUR/IRR exchange rate was about 1 EUR to 40,000 IRR, making the fare to be about 2 EUR. Not bad, I can handle that.

I waited in the guesthouse lobby until the taxi came, and when it did, I said the typical "Salâm" to the taxi driver, exhausting pretty much the only Farsi I know. After a handshake, I lifted my backpack and loaded it into the trunk, and off we went.

After about ten minutes, we were at the bus station. When it was time to pay, I gave him a 100,000 IRR bill (2.50 EUR) which happened to be the smallest bill I had at that time. Given that I didn't speak Farsi and he didn't speak English, we were left with gestures. He showed me his wallet where I realized that he meant to tell me that he doesn't have any change. So I just gestured back saying I don't mind, that he should just take the whole thing, and I don't need change. After all, whether I pay 2.00 EUR or 2.50 EUR for a taxi, it didn't matter. It was after all just fifty cents.

So he took the bill, went back to his car, and reluctantly drove away.

I thought that was the end of it, so I went inside the bus station, and needing a bus ticket for Isfahan, I went to the appropriate counter in order to buy a bus ticket.

What happened next was totally unexpected.

About maybe 5 minutes later, while I was still at the counter waiting for my ticket to be printed, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned, only to see the taxi driver, wanting to return 20,000 IRR. It turns out that he parked his car and went out of his way to break the 100,000 IRR I gave him, just so that he could return to me the 20,000 IRR that I overpaid. That was a jaw-dropping moment, seeing a random stranger you couldn't even talk to, wanting to return something as small as 0.50 EUR. Needless to say, he made me smile, and made me realize that Iranian hospitality is indeed, unnervingly intense, on a league of its own. It makes one restore one's faith in humanity.

Later on I wonder, was 20,000 IRR small for me but large for them? After all, would I go out of my way and return 0.50 EUR here in Europe? 20,000 IRR could buy you a small snack, or two bottles of mineral water. It's not a high value, and definitely negligible. Nevertheless, it came back to me when I overpaid.

This incident pretty much set the tone for the rest of my trip. I have traveled in Morocco and Palestine before, which are Middle Eastern countries where travelers are easily seen as a walking bank, and pretty much there are many opportunities for locals to make travelers part with their money. So I was prepared for scams and other tricks. I always doubt random strangers trying to talk to you, wondering what they want to sell, or otherwise what their motive is. But in Iran, random strangers talked to me, befriended me in the bazaars, offered me tea, and the surprising thing is that the scams never came. Hence it really is a sobering and unnerving experience when you realize that this is really just the Iranians being friendly and hospitable to their visitors.

I'm telling you, go to Iran. It's a mind-blowing place. I only have good memories from it.

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