Thursday, March 24, 2016

[SHIRAZ] Cashless in Iran

I’m not a big fan of money changers. It’s been a habit of mine to leave a country without money in my wallet, which means to say that I also land at the next airport WITHOUT any moolah. I’m not broke, I just believe that in a modern world like ours, ATMs serve this very purpose. Once you are done with immigration, you claim your baggage from the carousel and then you go to the arrival section where an ATM with a cirrus logo is happily waiting for you, with matching blinking lights and a drum roll.

That’s not the case in Iran. Sanctions, you know? But first, shall we talk about my foiled plan to infiltrate Qatar without a visa? I booked a Qatar Airways flight to Doha en route to Shiraz with an unnecessary eight-hour layover because I found out that the airline sponsors visa-free three-hour city tours, with four trips each day. The catch is that they only accept 22 people on a first-come first-served basis. Landing at 6 PM in Doha, I didn't really know what made me think that I will make the cut for the 8 PM tour.

The Filipina manning the city tour desk said that I was 7th on the waitlist but she didn’t even bother to jot down my name, which was a clear indication that she knew there was no chance in hell that I was getting on that bus. And so I was bitter for a while, and then I decided to move on and take a nap on the comfy sofas at the family area of the transit lounge. The flight to Shiraz didn’t take off until 1:45 in the morning, but it was a really short trip that lasted no more than two hours.

The Iranian seated next to me was really chatty, and I was a bit of a jerk to him at first because I was dying from lack of sleep and badly needed a nap. He asked me where I was from. I usually tell people that I’m from Malaysia or Singapore, for fun, but it wasn’t a fun time on the plane because my eyes just won’t stay open. That Doha stopover thing was a big mistake. I could have just booked a flight direct from Istanbul and it would have been cheaper and shorter. I told him that I’m from the Philippines. He said so was he.

Oh okay, I get it. Back when I decided to get orthodontic braces for cheap at the University of the Philippines – Manila, the Dentistry and Orthodontics department was indeed full of Iranian students. I asked him what that’s about and he said that there’s some sort of exchange program in place between their government and ours. As for him, he studies at another school and is going back to Manila in a few weeks to continue his studies. And then I also met his other friend, who had the same status.

And so we became de facto buddies. The friend is the one who lives in Shiraz, while my seatmate lived in a city three hours away. They decided they'll just drop me off wherever it was I was staying, which they did. That meant saving up on taxi money from the airport and that I didn’t have to withdraw anything because I didn’t need cash in the first place. Calling it a night, we parted ways exchanging only our names. I haven’t seen them again since.

It’s a pity that I didn’t get any contact details. The seatmate is named Daniel. The friend is Mehdi. Mehdi could've been the first person I ran to for help after three banks snubbed and rejected my Cirrus cards. After talking to several people, I’ve concluded that I am cashless in Iran, and will probably stay that way until I leave on Monday. Well, all my flights and accommodations are booked, which means the only problem I have is food. Maybe I should try begging in the streets to enhance the experience?

Issues like this are always eye-openers. I was in a huge airport in Doha for eight hours with ATMs left and right. Had I known that I wouldn’t be able to withdraw money here, then I could've easily done it there. But sometimes such sudden dilemmas are necessary to test your character. Arriving at a solution is always so satisfying, along with the realization that you survived. And so what did I do? I guess this is the part where I have to thank PayPal.

I haven’t used PayPal in a while but had to when I booked my accommodations here in Iran. My first instinct was to find tourists who had extra cash and a PayPal account, but good luck with that. And so I just contacted the tour agency that took care of my accommodations, given how I already transferred money to them via PayPal before. They had to take out 10% of the total amount I transferred to them via credit card on top of the other 10% that PayPal deducts from them. Problem solved. I’m a survivor. :)

But like I always say, nothing worries me that much anymore nowadays, unlike back in high school when everything seemed to be a matter of life and death. If it doesn’t kill you in the process, then you’re all good. I’m alive and kicking. The only thing I regret is not being able to spend the whole day in Persepolis. We’ll have a second shot at that tomorrow. For now, we make do of what we have and just see what Shiraz has to offer as a tourist destination. There isn’t much, but you’ll eventually find something, right?

Taxis don’t seem to use meters, and so the first one I got asked for IRR 50,000 (~PHP 75). The conversion of the Iranian Rial is a bit weird for me so computing it all in my head kept me busy for a while. I had to find Pars Tour Agency to pay for the agency fee they temporarily waived in getting my authorization code which was necessary for the visa. I then found a local fast food and got a huge foot long for super late lunch. Along with a can of Pepsi, it cost me IRR 100,000 (~PHP 150) which was not expensive at all.

I saw some sort of Kasbah along the way so I backtracked after my meal to see it. You have to pay for a ticket to get inside and there were just so many locals lining up to get in so I decided to just stay outside and take photos. The view is awesome regardless, what with the peach of the walls mixing well with the brown mountain in the background as well as the blue and white combo of the sky. Add some locals swarming the place and you get a good shot of everyday life in Shiraz.

I just don’t understand what happened to my camera. It was really sunny today, which should have made the photos awesome. The pictures turned out to be bright alright but quite blurry, as if an imaginary fog manifested somehow. I had several photos of the Kasbah and its surroundings. Overall I loved how the place was very active, with locals just having a picnic and the like. I guess this is when I stop and admire the scenery, despite constant nagging from back home because they are worried for my safety.

But no one I know who has been to Iran had anything bad to say about the country. All of them enjoyed the experience and heralded the hospitality of the locals. I think I can attest to that. After my cashless dilemma, I wouldn’t have made it if not for the helpful locals that came to my aid. For that, I am grateful. Anyway, I tried looking for that mosque with colorful stained glass interiors but I got lost, and it’s only open until 6 PM. I did find another major attraction, but was hesitant to go inside so I just left.

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