“Lost,” story by Sarah S. Forth

It was already dark when I stepped outside, but I didn’t mind. I was thrilled to be out on my own on the streets of historic Esfahan, away from our tour group for the first time in a week, walking amongst the crowds hastening home. The wide sidewalk was

filled with men in suit jackets and open-collared dress shirts, and women dressed in calf- length coats and scarves—as I was—or in the more traditional chador, a voluminous sweep of dark material held together under the chin.

As I made my way back to the hotel from the Internet café, where I had just spent the last hour answering e-mail from home, I took in as much of the city as I could. I breathed in the dry autumn air, inhaling the smells I was now beginning to associate with Iran: a mix of car exhaust, meat grilling over charcoal, and desert dust blowing in from the vast open spaces beyond the cities. My eyes, meanwhile, drank in the vibrant mix of the familiar—Korean sedans and Japanese motorcycles—with the new—two-feet wide water channels at the edge of every street, and curbs carefully marked with bright blue paint. Walking through the city gave me a rush of discovering things utterly new to me, that is until I realized I might indeed be lost.

I stopped for a moment to take in my surroundings, trying to piece together what I was seeing with the directions our Iranian guide Farzaneh had given me and my two compatriots when she dropped us off at the Internet café.

“This street runs behind Emam Square, where we were this morning,” she had said. “Remember?”

Of course I remembered, immediately seeing a picture in my head of the massive rectangular plaza built in the seventeenth century by the visionary Shah Abbas I, with its two blue-domed mosques decorated with ceramic mosaics that were among the very best in the Islamic world.

Farzaneh continued with the directions, instructing us to walk several blocks, turn right and follow the street that ran through the square. Our hotel would be on the other side. It seemed simple enough that I stayed on at the café by myself to finish answeringmy e-mail when my traveling companions left. No problem, I thought; once I find the square, I’ll find the hotel.

But now, here I was, alone with a flicker of fear in my chest, wondering if I would recognize the intersection where I was supposed to turn. The confidence I had on previ- ous excursions in foreign cities quickly diminished. I became more aware of the dark- ness, as there were few street lamps, illumination coming mainly from the passing cars and neon shop signs. The lack of light made walking along the old and uneven sidewalks difficult. Crossing the street also proved challenging; I had to find the narrow walkway across the water channel and then dodge traffic, which generally obeyed the drivers’ inclinations rather than any traffic signal.

Eventually I arrived at what looked like a major intersection and decided this must be where Farzaneh said to turn right. But one block later I came to a two-story wall of centuries-old, sun-dried brick: the backside of the arcade of shops that lined the sides of the great square. There was no through street. I turned around and retraced my steps. As I walked, my stomach started to rumble with hunger. Looking at my watch, I realized I had only fifteen minutes to make it back to the hotel in time to leave for dinner with the tour group. I worried that my being late might inconvenience the tour group and their dinner plans, or cause Farzaneh undue trouble. I picked up my pace.

As if summoned by my Iranian guardian angel, a chador-clad woman pushing a stroller came towards me from a side street. The woman was young and beautiful with classic Persian features: dark eyes, soft cheeks, and high cheekbones. A small girl tramped alongside her, clutching her mother’s robes.

“Bebakhshid, khanoom,” I said, “Excuse me, madam.” I was thankful for what little Persian I had learned from my language tapes. “Meydan-e Emam kojast? Where is the Emam Square?”

The woman gestured back the way I had come and said something I didn’t under- stand. She read the blank look on my face and her expression grew concerned. And then she asked me where I was from.

“America.”

Her face lit up and she smiled that same smile I had been seeing since I stepped off the plane in Tehran. “Amrika!” she said. And then she redoubled her efforts to explain where I was to go, gesturing assertively. I caught only some of it, but nodded affirma- tively, the way foreigners often do, hoping that in the end everything will turn out right.

“Moteshakeram,” I thanked her repeatedly before walking back towards the Internet café, which I eventually passed. It was then that I wondered if I had misunderstood Farzaneh, if I was supposed to have turned left when I exited the café.

I looked at my watch again, seeing that I had only ten minutes to get back to the hotel. Farzaneh was very protective of her group members, so if I didn’t turn up, she might feel the need to contact the police. I didn’t want it to come to that.

Once again I turned off the main street onto an intersecting street in search of the magic pathway through the Emam Square. I walked one block, then another. I spotted a mustachioed merchant lounging in the doorway of his store. I was nervous about approaching a strange man, but hoped that maybe he would know a little English, as many shopkeepers did.

“Bebakhshid,” I said once again. “Meydan-e Emam kojast?”

And once again came the question—in Persian—about my origins, and again, a great smile in response to my reply. The man pointed his arm in the direction from which I had just come and said something unintelligible to me. He then placed his hand on his heart and bowed to me again and again.

I smiled and nodded back. Then I turned around and began walking back the way I had just come, thinking about how ironic it was that everyone wanted to help, but that I had no language with which to take advantage of their generous spirit. I also realized that these strangers expressed a sincere warmth and acceptance of me, an American. Every random person I had met thus far in Iran welcomed me.

But still, I was lost. Anxious perspiration coated my forehead; I reached in my pocket for a tissue and felt a piece of paper. Pulling it out, I found a card from the hotel with its name and address. I had forgotten that Farzaneh had given one to each member of the group before we left the hotel that morning.

With a sudden burst of hope, I looked for a cab. But I was overcome by the reality of the situation: it was rush hour, when all the cabs would be taken, and I wasn’t sure I could identify one anyway since not all Iranian cabs were plainly marked. Anyone who owned a car could be a cab driver. I also knew that Iranians tended to share cabs but I didn’t know exactly how the system worked. Did I dare to simply flag down any driver?

I stood at a curb feeling helpless, somewhat panicked, and shaky with hunger when a small sedan broke free of the jumble of traffic and pulled up to the curb in front of me. It was a wreck of a car, with a well-worn interior and no visible insignia identifying it as a cab. The scruffy-looking driver wore a rumpled shirt and he reached back to open the door for me, less out of courtesy than because the outside handle was missing. I hesi- tated, unsure if I should trust the man or the car. I had a split-second to make a decision.

I swallowed hard, jumped in, and handed the driver the card. Ten uncertain min- utes later, we were outside my hotel. The driver signaled the fare by holding up two of his fingers and one of the green Iranian bills with Ayatollah Khomenei’s picture on it—about two dollars. I paid the fair and then held out a third bill for a tip. He waved it away, but I insisted.

I leapt out of the cab and ran up the stairs of the hotel, pushing open the heavy glass door. The clock behind the front desk read 8:10. I spotted members of my tour group seated on couches in the lobby and walked briskly towards them. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” I gasped. “I got lost.”

Farzaneh looked up at me with surprise. “You’re not late,” she said.

“We’re on Iranian time now,” one of the others said, and laughed. “No one leaves for dinner here until at least 8:30 or 9:00.”

I took a deep breath and plopped myself down onto one of the overstuffed cushions, exhausted, yet relieved—and grateful for the extraordinary kindness I received on the streets of Iran.