Spies Like Us

by tkos on August 17, 2012

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“The British Embassy has just been attacked. You need to get the fuck out of the Iran, now!” Kimmi reads the text aloud from a new friend of ours in Tehran, where we were just hours before.

Tension is at an all time high between the Western world and Iran. It is the sad and usual story of the U.S and allies believing that their ‘freedom’ is under threat from nuclear weapons somewhere from the sandy Middle Eastern deserts, so adopt a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ policy.

A few hours after some local idiots raided the British Embassy and burnt the UK flag in Tehran, the British government officially evicted the Iranian embassy from London. ‘If we are not safe in your country, then you are not welcome in ours’. And with that statement, the UK lowered diplomatic relations to one level prior to all out war.

The USA have held sanctions against Iran for almost 30 years, but recently increased this level to include international banking, almost crippling the Iranian economy. The Iranian government, full of misplaced pride and arrogance, appear to shrug and soldier on as opposed to resolve and expand. There are no heroes, winners or righteous in this Cold War, just a lot of poorer people. The Iranian government and the people of Iran are two very different entities, with almost opposite attitudes to the outside world.

Regardless of what the politicians are doing, it doesn’t change the fact that Kimmi and I are not even half way through the country and still have some 1,800km to go before we get to the border. Our friend’s advice of ‘getting the fuck out’ is not going to be easy.

We start to have a look at the route heading due South, from Tehran to Bandar Lengeh, where we will catch a boat over the Persian Gulf to the UAE. If we head south east and cross into the border of Pakistan, we run the highly probable risk of getting kidnapped by the Baluchistan tribe. Neither of us are really feeling that vibe so we opt for the boat option from Bandar Lengeh to Dubai and start to make our way south from Qom towards Esfahan

Sand, dirt and rocks surrounded the lonely road as it twisted and turned up and down the strolling hills. No shops, no houses, no factories, no farms, no people, no animals. As far as we could see, the horizon was filled with emptiness, just a harsh uninhabitable environment. At the top of an easy incline, we pull over for an Iranian biscuit we had stashed in our bag and a coffee from Kierans’ farewell flask that we had filled up earlier that morning.

‘Can you believe we have been through this entire trip, and not once have we ever been stopped and had our bags searched, including every border crossing! We would make excellent spies!’ Kimmi ponders as she munches on another biscuit. And in no less than 8 seconds later, a military jeep roars over the hill and locks it’s wheels into the side of the road like it was chasing a fox, ushering a cloud of dust over the both of us. We both freeze and as the dust settles, two soldiers with two machine guns get out of the jeep. I think we may be the fox they are hunting as my biscuit falls into my coffee. But this is no time to panic.

‘Hello!’ Kimmi exclaims, perhaps a little too excited while disregarding all Iranian custom and protocol of male and female interaction. The soldiers respond with a single word ‘Passports’. We get the passports out and hand them to the first soldier, who has a quick look, gets out a video camera and films them, then takes them back to the jeep. He returns without our passports.

‘Bags’, the second soldier states, waving his machine gun over the bikes. We have nothing to hide, but trying to explain an independent charity cycle across the world whilst making a documentary is not easy when the machine gun carrying soldier does not speak any English, nor does it help having a British passport 24 hours after the Iranian embassy has been kicked off UK soil. The soldier points to my front bag on the right side of my bike. In this particular bag, we have nothing but technical equipment.  Of the eight bags we are carrying, he could have chosen any, but as luck would have it, he started with this bag.

I slowly begin to lay out all of our equipment on the side of the road whilst being filmed by the Iranian Army, for use in court perhaps a little further down the line, or perhaps to justify our execution to the international authorities.

One hand held high grade video camera, one Point of View miniature camera for discreet filming with battery pack, one digital 8mp camera with 200mm optical zoom, one 16mp Sony Cybershot camera, two iPhone’s, one iPad, one Samsung laptop with 250gb hard drive, one 4gb memory card, four 32gb memory cards, three Barclays PIN code card readers for internet banking and all the associated wires and chargers to go with it. All in all, the bag weighs close to 9 kilograms.

I stand back and look at the sprawl of electrical equipment over the ground, like some sort of high tech market trader. The whole time the Army is filming. The soldiers look amazed at their find and are a little uncertain as to what to do with their discovery. One of the soldiers gets on the radio to base and starts describing the contents of our bag. ‘Problem?’ Kimmi asks so innocently and sweetly. The soldier sighs, nods his head and just says ‘maybe…’. This might be the time to panic.

The soldier opens up the lap top and starts going through it. I open the photo folder for Iran and as we start flicking through images of Ayotolla Khomeni billboards, ‘Down with USA, Down with UK, Down with Israel’ propaganda and Iranian military jet statues, I realise there is a pretty good chance that we could be going to jail for a very long time for being an international spy. This would be an excellent time to panic.

Kimmi starts going through the other bags. She pulls out an Omid-e-Mehr Foundation hessian bag from the charity we recently funded in Tehran and tried to have a go at explaining what The Kindness of Strangers was all about. If the soldier did understand, he certainly didn’t show it. We were now nearing 90 minutes of interrogation and searching, still on the side of the dusty road, but at this point, we were yet to be arrested.

Another hour had passed and we had pulled out all of our camping equipment including petrol, stove and cooking pots, our tools and spare parts for every piece of our bikes, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tent and all of our clothes.

In my clothes bag, I was carrying a Persian cookbook as a souvenir. I thought it might be nice to re-create some of the recipes we had enjoyed and was planning to send it back to Australia when I got a chance. I’d even had some hand written recipes in their by some local women that we had met and stayed with. The soldier looked so confused as to why a cookbook would be with me, the man, and not with Kimmi.

Kimmi, never ever to miss an opportunity to take the piss out of me in any language or international espionage scenario quickly leaps into a story as to how I cook for her all the time, when we are camping, when we are at home and how I am basically her personal chef. Both soldiers, stunned, turn to look at me and just burst into fits of laughter. How could a guy that cooks for his wife be an international threat?!

After all the bags had been completely stripped empty, filmed and turned inside out, and after Kimmi had done her best to explain what the mysterious tampon does, in broken English, the soldiers had another question, ‘Where is your weapon?’. We were confused as he didn’t actually say ‘Where is your weapon?’, he more or less acted it out. ‘Ah! I understand!’ and I reach into a little zipped bag and pull out our Swiss Army knife and proudly hold it high for him to see.  The two soldiers exchange glances and burst into further fits of laughter. Between my cook book and swiss army knife and their two machine guns, I’d have to say that it wasn’t my most masculine moment.

By this point they were convinced that we were not a threat to their national security. Kimmi, because she is a woman and me, because I cook for Kimmi and use a Swiss Army knife to defend her.

After two and a half hours, they return our passports and indicate that we must get in their jeep, . We are cycling in a restricted military zone and they wanted to drive us to the other side so that we could continue on our way.

‘No!’ Kimmi and I both cry out, much to the soldiers surprise. ‘We haven’t taken any other form of transport for the whole trip, we cannot take a jeep, we MUST cycle! Please!’ Kimmi pleads as she holds her hands up in the air and looks to beg to Allah. Bit brave I thought, but we’ll go with it.

And Allah must have been listening, as they followed us for the next 35km and 90 minutes, towards Natanz. And along the way, we cycled passed the front door of the Iranian Nuclear Plant and the biggest Military base in the country. It is the exact place the USA believe weapons of mass destruction are being held and it is the most protected area from the Iranians.

How I would have loved to have turned my discreet secret camera on!



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