Our home in space

Guy Ottewell

A ride

My longest hitch-hike was from London Bridge to Tehran, in a Landrover with four students who hoped to get to India. I couldn't drive, so my functions were to learn the languages on the way and buy eggs, and sometimes to stand up through the roof watching for potholes in the rough roads of the Balkans and Turkey. I had to get to Isfahan, the city of the blue mosques. I had a summer job helping to teach a refresher course for teachers of English from all around Iran. At the end many of them invited me to stay with them at the cities to which they scattered, so I continued my hitchhiking, south to Shiraz, north back to Tehran and along the Caspian coast, and into the Turkmen region and back through the mountains, and at length I was again following the highway of Iran, between mountains and desert, eastward into Khorasan, the province of the sunrise.
     Somewhere past Neishabur I was picked up by a bus. It had come all the way from Shiraz, carrying among others a company of female pilgrims. The driver, whom I call Asya'i (awss-yaw-EE), “Asian,” because he seemed a character as large as the continent, claimed to have a wife in every town along the way. “Yak Zan Bas Ast. One Woman Is Enough,” pronounced a pious passenger behind me, whom Asya'i dismissed with “He's from Māzandarān. It's wet down there.” Some of the driver's sons controlled arguments among the passengers, or clung to the outside so as to jump off and place chocks under the wheels at halts. At the successful start after any halt the pious passenger initiated the chant of the Salavāt, in which all had to join. When curiosity about me had subsided, there appeared ahead a tall figure wearing only black turban and black off-one-shoulder robe, and smoking a cigarette. He did not deign to signal for a ride, but the driver took him on board, explaining to me: “Once before, when my axle broke, this holy man prayed and it became mended.” He was a sayyid, descendant of the Prophet, and was walking from the shrine of Karbala in Iraq to Mashhad, twelve hundred miles. After attending the rite of Muharram, he would walk back to Karbala, and then fly home to Pakistan, where he was of a rich family; and he did this every year.
     The bus ran out of gas. The sayyid could not amend this, and walked on. We spent the night at a teahouse, where I learned to smoke the qaliyan or hubble-bubble, and next day a son came running back along the road with a gas can. We went on, but at another stop an old man sitting on a chair in the road was hit, and died. The last I saw big Asya'i, he was being held by six policemen.