Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why Iran?

I get this question sometimes.  Why the Stans?  And the best answer I can come up with is something like "I don't know much about them, and yet, I'm not likely to die of a tropical disease or meet bugs bigger than my head."  There are not a ton of countries like that.

But there's a little more to it when I think about Iran.  I guess it's partly so that I can pull a personal trump card in the left-vs-right or east-vs-west or consequentialism-vs-deontology debate; I want to have proof that Iranians are regular people, just like us.  I guess it's because I have arguments like this:
Someone: well we have to be invading Iraq and spend extraordinary amounts on our military because if we don't, the terrorists will get us.
Me: no we don't; if you want peace, work for justice. (pope quote bonus!)
Him: that's not true.  The terrorists hate America.  They hate our freedom or our prosperity or something.
Me: even terrorists are not born as crazed creatures who want to kill America for its own sake.  Where does that mentality come about?  Radical education.  Why is there radical education?  Because some radicals want things to really change.  Why do they want this?  Because their lives are not so good.  If their lives were better, they wouldn't become radical in the first place.
Him: I disagree.  They are fundamentally different.
Me: No they're not!
(the camera zooms out to reveal that we're both driving in a car.  pan to a road sign that says "Welcome to Loggerheads!")

So I guess it'd be nice to say "I've met some Iranians, and they're fundamentally the same."  Not just so I could win that argument-- well, okay, maybe just so I could win that argument.  Say I have that argument three times; if I do convince three people that we're better off helping foreign countries instead of bombing them, maybe that's three (or more) votes that might change in some election someday, and so some concrete good would come out of it.

But it's not about votes, really.  It's about compassion.  I think I would be the happiest if I had the most compassion for everyone.  And knowing people builds compassion.  Finally, my compassion can increase others'.

For example: say I call tech support at a big tech company, and get a guy who sounds like me.  If he's helpful, great; if not, I'll probably think "well he's just having a bad day, I can imagine myself having a bad day too."  If I got an Indian guy a couple years ago, and he was unhelpful, it'd be a little harder to just laugh it off; I might be more likely to think he's a dumb or mean person.  But now I know two Indian call center workers, and they're great guys, so I'm more likely to think "this might be my friend, and I can imagine him having a bad day, no worries."  And then, say I talk about visiting my friends and how they're great guys, and so MY friends gain empathy for Indian call center workers too.

Iran Iran Iran.  Maybe I can build some links of empathy between the US and Iran.  This seems worth doing.

(inspired a lot by Rick Steves and his Iranian-American producer Abdi Sami. This interview is pretty on-the-money, except the tourist-berating is a little obnoxious, more on that later.  This essay sweats Europe pretty hard and feels a little naive in parts, but I also mostly agree with it.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Unfortunately, Balochistan is one of those places they warn you about.

My plan was India/Bhutan/Nepal/India-Pakistan-Iran-Caucasus-Turkey-etc.  As mentioned earlier, you can indeed go to Pakistan overland, at Wagah between Amritsar and Lahore.  Today I tried to figure out if you can go from Pakistan to Iran overland.

Here's the deal, fellow armchair travelers!  You most certainly can.  Take a look at this map and follow along.  Cross from Amritsar to Lahore, get yourself to Quetta (about 1/3 way up the Pak/Afghan border); things are reasonable up until there.  Then you have to get to Taftan (zoom in one click on the map; it's on the Iran border and called Kuh-i-Taftan on Google Maps) in order to cross to Iran.  It's a 24-hour train ride that leaves twice a month, or a 15-16 hour bus ride that leaves daily.  This crosses a province called Balochistan.  Once you get to Taftan, you cross over to Meer Jawe (/Mirjawa/Mirjaveh), then on to Zahedan.  Here are some links that make it seem quite possible.

Here's the other deal!  I don't think I will.  I'll take a flight to Iran.  Balochistan is described as "lawless", "tribal", "dangerous", and "even Pakistan police don't go there."  I exaggerate a bit for effect, but I get the feeling it's a notch or two above US-State-Department-dangerous (which is not actually dangerous).  You particularly don't want to be there at night, and if the ride takes at least 15 hours, and the border is probably not open at say 8pm, how do you not-be-there-at-night?  Furthermore, to be in Iran I have to be part of a tour (because I'm American; more on this later); how do I meet up with them in any reasonable amount of time?  (Here are some links that make it seem rather dumb.)

Or, I shouldn't say dumb.  I should say, it's certainly possible, and I'd probably be perfectly safe, but I think it's above my threshold of risk.  Even more: it's above my investors' threshold of risk.  Is that a fair way to put it?  I've got a lot going for me, and a lot of people have made it that way.  My family, friends, educators, etc. have been investing in me for a while, and by now I'm a figurative pre-IPO Google.  They each own a piece of me, and should something terrible happen, it's not just me who goes bankrupt.  So avoiding this crossing is, at the very least, a gesture of goodwill towards my metaphorical stockholders.

It's not easy, though!  I have a bit of shame about this, a bit of disappointment in missing out on the bus trip of a lifetime through places nobody goes, and a further bit of disappointment that I'll have to say "I went all overland*".  I think that the "I want to tell a really badass story about this" angle is foolish, though, so discounting that, the scales tip in favor of flying.

Besides, I'll have a ton of other badass stories to tell!