A visit to Iran can be exciting and scary, often at the same time. The fear factor is felt strongest when on the roads. About 27,000 people die on the roads each year. Iran’s population is about three times the size of Australia’s. Even when we convert our death toll to match the population size it still puts Iran’s total at 27 times higher than Australia’s each year.
One of the consequences of the number of deaths is the booming market for human organs. Iran’s Association of Kidney Patients, based in the capital Tehran, is responsible for all legal kidney transplants. All donors receive up to $1,400 per kidney. This may not seem much to an Australian, but that’s about one eighth of a year’s salary in Iran.
Iran is the world’s only theocracy. The religious authorities encourage voluntary gifts, seeing them as a blessing on the giver and receiver. Pious Muslims offer free kidneys to anyone who needs one. But usually the association gives money to the organ donor.
Given the ready supply, operations happen quickly. In the united States, by comparison, the average wait for a kidney is five years.
Readers will remember US president Bush’s description of Iran as one of the three members of the original “axis of evil”. Before my visit to Iran I was apprehensive. I was keen to go because of the country’s long history. But I also read the warnings on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade web site advising only essential travel.
The level of hospitality my colleagues and I received was overwhelming. Everywhere we went we were introduced to mayors and marketing officials. The last time I was photographed as often as when in Tehran was probably in the weeks after I was born. We quickly got used to celebrity status.
In Isfehan, the main tourism city, three limousines awaited us at the airport. We were in a group of 12 speakers at the third international conference on public relations. Other speakers were from Malaysia, India, France, and New Zealand.
Isfehan is a beautiful city. See Isfehan and die happy is an oft-repeated quote. That thought crossed my mind on the return journey in the limousine to the airport, when we topped 180 kph on the highway. The young driver was desperate to show how well his car could perform.
Indeed, most Iranians we met were keen to show how beautiful their country is. We visited the Caspian Sea on the north. Given that the former Soviet Union was just across the water, it is easy to see why Iran has had good relations with Russians for centuries.
Many people still speak Russian as well as Persian. Iranians are fiercely proud of their language. I made the mistake of saying hello in Arabic at the airport, and was politely reprimanded: “We are not Arabs, we are Persians.”
It was an eye-opening first exposure to the country. The two-hour wait for a visa was not pleasant after a 30-hour journey. Neither was the $60 fee. But travellers have to accept that visas are a part of the experience when visiting Arab nations. I have been to all of the available Gulf and mid East states except Kuwait and Syria, and the visa process and fee are part of the price we pay.
In truth, because of the low standard of living, costs are low in Iran. A visitor could get by on $120 a day. Five-star hotels cost about $70 a night, including a large buffet breakfast. Food is plentiful and cheap, though one soon becomes bored with the standard fare which appeared at most meals.
My companions invented a game where we predicted the menu for the next meal, awarding a mock prize to whomever was closest to what appeared. Salad followed by rice accompanied by chicken and lamb kebab won the prize every time.
We visited historic ruins in the mountains. These separate the top quarter of the country from the rest. This top quarter is lush, has high rainfall and is Iran’s breadbasket. Much of the country’s south is barren and stony desert.
The journey through the tight mountain passes provided the same high levels of fear and excitement. Our bus driver took every chance to overtake convoys of trucks. He screamed along the narrow roads flashing his lights to warn approaching trucks. We cowered in the back. At the end of the journey we experienced a strange feeling of joy at being alive. Perhaps it was the adrenalin rush.
* Written December 2007 after returning from Iran where I presented a conference paper. Published in Australia in the Geelong Advertiser, January 2008.