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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Mission Impossible? Crossing the Border into Iran
March 25, 2000

RECEIVED: 02:24 am Pacific Standard Time
AGENT: Kavitha Rao, Class 1 Agent Rating
MISSION: Codename - WORLDTREK

Agent Kavitha's official statment concerning the events that led to her team's escape from Turkey and entrance to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

BEGIN TRANSCRIPT:
23:20 Thursday. Istanbul, Turkey

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After weeks of waiting we were finally issued visas!
Caption
After weeks of staking out the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, waiting for approval from Tehran to be granted visas, I finally got word from the home office in San Francisco:

"Our affiliates in Washington D.C. have just spoken with Teheran: approval has been granted and faxed to the Iranian embassy in Turkey.

Your mission: To get across the entire country, find your other teammates, get your visas for Iran, cross the border and find your Persian guides, Louie and Hadi, A.S.A.P.! The money has just been Fed-Ex'ed. We are already over a week late entering the country and the teachers are waiting!"

Doubts immediately entered my mind...

The embassy here in Turkey had not received any fax or approval as of closing time seven hours earlier. It was now almost oh-one-hundred hours in Teheran, and I found it hard to believe that Washington D.C. had just spoken with Tehran and received the approval.

"If I trust this message, I have to get all the way to the east of the country to the consulate in Erzurum during the biggest snowstorm Eastern Turkey has seen in ten years!" I thought.

Map
Agents Abeja and Monica, who were closest to Erzurum, had become stuck in Van in Southeastern Turkey. Agent Jasmine was not even on the mainland! She'd been marooned on the island of Cyprus as a fierce storm prevented any sea passage. The situation for Agent Brian and me didn't look much better. We had to get on a bus very early in the morning to make it to Erzurum by Saturday morning. The only problem: it was the first day of the week long Bairam holiday in Turkey, and all the buses were sold out as everyone was rushing to get away from the city for their 'spring break'.

Our guides were supposed to meet us at the border on Sunday morning. If Brian and I were going to make it in time we had to pack up and get an early start. Our only hope was to go the bus station and hope someone had cancelled their trip to Erzurum so that we could take their seats.

Friday morning, early... too early to talk about. Istanbul, Turkey:
The sky was still dark as Brian looked at his watch. "Oh no!" I said. My alarm had broken in the middle of the night and we were running late. We rushed to pack and say a hurried goodbye to Istanbul, our home for the past two months. We finally arrived at the bus station and split up to try to find a bus to Erzurum with room for two. After much searching, we found a bus leaving at 11:20 that had two seats remaining.

"What time will the bus arrive in Erzurum?" we asked, knowing that the Iranian consulate closed at noon on Saturdays.

"Yes," said the kind Turkish man behind the counter.

"Will it arrive in the morning?" (We asked a slightly different question this time.)

"Yes."

That's all we needed to hear! Whether or not his answer was true, we didn't have any other choice. So, we bought the tickets and hoped for the best.

Hours passed on the bus. At one point in the night, I awoke to find the bus stopped at a police barricade and no one could tell us when we would be able to move ahead.

"How will we ever make it to Erzurum in time? What will we do?" I frantically questioned.

06:32, Saturday. An empty lot surrounded by snow, exact location... unknown:
I awoke to an old woman shaking my arm. "What's going on? Where am I?" I looked out the window. "This is Erzurum?" I asked in disbelief. What I had imagined to be a large, bustling city appeared to be a small ghost town covered in eight feet of snow.

We still had time to try to find our fellow agents before the Iranian consulate opened, so we got a taxi and started our hunt. We headed directly to the Otel Ari, the meeting place we had last agreed upon over two weeks ago. A little old man inside answered our inquiry by waving his hands frantically at us."No Americans! No Americans!" he said in the little English he knew and pointed out the door.

"Hmmmmmm... now what?" Brian and I looked at each other in desperation. We were exhausted after an uncomfortable day on the bus. We were freezing. And to make it all worse, we were lugging around our heavy packs. Being a secret agent, disguised as a backpacker, is not as easy as it may seem. Not many other backpackers are carrying around 30 pounds of computer equipment and digital cameras!

Just then a man came running out of the hotel directing us down a side alley. He pointed at a hotel on the next street. We entered the hotel, and instantly, the man behind the front desk, picked up the phone and dialed a number. It was as if he expected our arrival. He handed the phone to me and I heard a familiar voice on the other end of the line say, "Hello?"

It was Agent Abeja! She came and met us in the lobby and helped us bring our bags upstairs. Within minutes, Monica's familiar face walked through the door and we all shared our lucky tales of making it to Erzurum despite all the obstacles in our way.

"But, where's Jazzy?" we wondered as we watched the clock tick past 09:00. "What if she is stuck on Cyprus? We can't go to Iran one agent short!" There was no email and no message. All we could do was wait, wonder, and hope for the best.

10:55, and still no sign of Jasmine. Brian and Monica had checked at the various hotels. Nothing. We paid our bill and started to get our things together to go to the consulate. All of a sudden, Brian gasped and ran out of the door. Hidden under layers of winter clothes and scarves, was our one and only Agent Jasmine trekking through the snow.

Yay! Now we could get our visas and make it to Iran in time to meet our affiliates on Sunday!!

Just then Abeja returned from making a phone call. "The fax has not been received in Erzurum, Ankara, or Istanbul." she said.

Although this was a major setback, there was still one remaining hope. The consulate was open on Sundays until noon as well, so if we got our visas early the next morning, we still might make it.

10:00 Sunday. Erzurum:
Abeja knocked at the door to wake us up. She had just called the consulate and still no fax had been received. No one would be in the home office for advice on Sunday, and we had no way of contacting our associates in Iran since they should have already left their home town to meet us at the border. There was nothing that we could do but wait... losing time and money as each day passed...

At noon, the phone rang. It was Hadi, our affiliate Iranian Agent calling from Tehran! Approval had indeed been granted and been faxed to Ankara, Turkey. We would be able to get our visas on Monday morning!

09:00, Monday. Erzurum:
We packed up and headed to the consulate to be there when it opened. Once inside we received an unanticipated shock -- they didn't have our approval confirmation! We did not give up that easy. We stressed to the kind Persian man behind the counter that the approval had indeed been granted, and that he should telephone Ankara to confirm. After hours of phone calls and headaches, the Odyssey Agents managed to get visas in their passports!!!! Victory!!!!!

Next step: Get to the Border!

15:00, Monday. Erzurum bus station:
The snow was coming down hard and there were no remaining direct buses to the border town Dogubeyzit. There were only buses to the town near the border. We would have to catch another bus from there to Dogubeyzit. If we didn't get to Dogubeyzit that night, we'd never make it in time to meet our guides on the Iranian side of the border the next morning.

The bus ride left us in a run down village that didn't have regular service to Dogubeyzit. Luckily, a family was kind enough to let us share a mini-bus -- and the cost of renting it. Exhausted, we set off to find a hotel to lay our heads for the night. We would meet the family in the morning. It looked like we would finally be going to Iran!

07:30, Tuesday, Dogubeyzi:
We woke up excited to embark into a new country, a new frontier -- when all of a sudden it hit us...

"Wait a second, we're going to Iran?!"

Iran is a fascinating country shrouded in mystery. Since our governments don't get along very well, we learn very little about it. That is why it took so long for us, as American citizens, to get our visas to Iran. Now that we're going we had to realize what visiting the Islamic Republic of Iran really meant. It would mean living for five weeks under the very strict and conservative laws of that country -- laws which would require us to conceal some of our own realities.

First, there was our outward appearance. Women in Iran are required to "cover up". All their hair must be hidden under a dark colored scarf or veil and their bodies covered in a full length cape or jacket. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, women are supposed to dress modestly like this so as not to attract attention towards themselves. We had become very familiar with seeing veiled women since traveling through Morocco, Egypt, and Palestine, but we never realized just how hard it was- our scarves wouldn't stay put and our hair wouldn't stay hidden. But as always, we helped each other, and soon, Agent Monica's short bangs, Agent Abeja's crazy curls, Agent Jasmine's hip new fro, and my long unruly locks were hidden behind black scarves.

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Jazzy helps Kavitha remove her nosering....ouch!
Caption
We looked at each other, amazed at the transformation, when Abeja pointed out the news I had been dreading... "Uhhh... Kavitha, your nose ring may not exactly be considered "modest" dress." Jasmine had already removed her nose ring a few days earlier, so the well equipped agents set out to remove my piercing. Armed with the tweezers from Abeja's Leatherman knife, Jasmine carefully pried open the piercing while I tried to pull it out.

After much squirming, the mission was a success, and I was finally looking like almost any other Persian woman... just with a small hole on the side of my nose!

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Equipment hidden away and hair carefully covered up, Agents Abeja, Jasmine, and Kavitha get set to walk across the border into Iran.
Caption
As we packed our bags we realized our next major obstacle -- our luggage. We were carrying many things in our backpacks that would prevent us from entering Iran if they were found while crossing the border. The Iranian government is very restrictive of the press and with our 5 laptop computers, we could have easily been taken for writers or journalists. Video taping is also frowned upon. And we have been traveling with digital video cameras since Africa. We started to conceal our equipment, wrapping it in layers of clothing. The deeper we packed, the more incriminating evidence we found. Photographs of women with their hair showing is a no-no, so all our pictures of friends and family had to go. Also, no matter how bad relations are between Iran and the U.S. government, relations with Israel are another matter all together. We had new passports made back in Egypt in anticipation of this, so that our passports showed no signs of our ever having been to Israel, but there were countless things we found in our bags that could have given us away. Agent Jasmine still had some Israeli coins while I had some toothpaste with Hebrew script written on it. Our Odyssey brochures also mentioned our itinerary, including Israel, so all the brochures had to be dumped as well. After a thorough check of our belongings and our physical appearance, we were finally ready to cross the border.

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Surrounded by snow covered mountains and blue skies
Caption
We walked outside into a cold, but beautiful new world. We were surrounded by snow covered mountains and blue skies. We packed into a mini van to the border, and proceeded to wait in a long line of people exiting Turkey. When we finally approached the window, before we even handed the man our passports, he handed us a fax. He had been waiting for us... It was a fax from the U.S. embassy in Ankara:

We have heard word that you are intending to travel to Iran. We must warn you that we do not advise U.S. citizens to visit Iran. We do not have an embassy in Iran and cannot offer you any services or protection once you enter the country. If you still intend to visit, we ask that you take a few moments to fill out your contact information in Iran so we can know your whereabouts in case of any problems.

Wow! How did they know we would be coming? We filled out the forms, got our exit stamps from Turkey and walked through a guarded door into... NO MAN'S LAND.

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No mixing of the sexes here! Brian sits up front with the other men, while the women stay in the back.
Caption
No Man's Land was the middle warehouse -- like area between the Turkish Immigration and the Iranian Immigration offices. We handed our passports over to Agent Brian, and 'our man' went to wait in the line with the other men, to gain entrance in to Iran.

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, with doubts floating through our minds, we finally saw the door open up and an Iranian guard was holding a stack of passports and shouting, "Americans!"

That's us! We rushed over to the door. He let us through and led us to another office. We looked at each other silently making sure that our hair was still covered and that nothing seemed too suspicious. In the next office we were greeted by yet another kind Iranian man in a uniform who not only stamped our passports, but who welcomed us to his country. Then we were led to the security check area, and terrifying images flashed through our heads of a receipt from an Israeli falafel stand, or some other remnant from our journey, being found in the bottoms of our bags.

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larger view
The Islamic Republic of Iran welcomes you in different languages.
Caption
The security man asked where we were from, and our escort told him we were Americans. They both laughed in disbelief... I guess not too many American backpackers pass through this border! He pointed at me, and asked me to put my bag on the table and open it. "He's going to find my computer and I'll be done for!" I thought. I put my large backpack on the table, but only unzipped the small top pocket, hoping he would realize that I'm just a sweet, harmless tourist, and not ask to see the rest. The guard shuffled around through my plastic bags filled with toiletries and vitamins, and said, "Okay, welcome to our country!"

We could barely control our laughter as we hurried along out of the security check! "Sure am glad we got rid of all our photographs and brochures!"
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Kavi and Abeja finally on Iranian ground
Caption

The next thing we knew, our escort bid us farewell and led us outside. We were in Iran! We were surrounded by snow covered mountains and blue skies... it looked quite familiar actually, but the man-made, politically imposed boundary brought a new feel to this side of the mountainous landscape. We were walking freely through a country that had always been 'off limits' to us as Americans. Within minutes, our Iranian affiliate, Agent Louie, found us, and we set off... excited to explore the riches this fascinating and mysterious country has to offer.

- Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

Abeja - Fire Jumping in Modern Persia
Brian - Of Sheep and Sacrifice
Jasmine - 'Cause you gotta have faith: A Visit to the Black Church
Monica - We are Family! Come on Everybody and Sing!
Team - Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States

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