Day #1: Tehran

“Karbala can get mighty hot.” The speaker had a thick German accent.

That was the just about the stupidest thing I’d ever heard anybody say. Of course Karbala gets hot, it’s in the middle of Iraq. But I just nodded appreciatively. The guy may have been an idiot, but he had something I wanted.

“I don’t know how they do it.” The man stated.

I nodded again.

“I mean, millions of people march though this place, a bunch cut themselves and beat themselves. I just don’t get it.”

I could have explained Ashura too him. But I didn’t feel the need. It wasn’t even that hot. This year, the festival was in the middle of winter.

The guy wanted to gripe, who was I to complain?

But I had to say something. He had to have more to drink and he didn’t look like the type to do it alone.

“So what are you doing here?” I asked.

He took another bite of his chicken. We were seated in what might pass as a restaurant in these parts. He was tearing into his chicken with – one might say – religious fervor. And I’d taken the liberty of sharing my extra flask with his glass of lemonade.

“I’m a pilot.” He said, as if I ought to know.

“Oh,” I said, acting surprised.

“You?” he asked.

“Nothing like that,” I lied, “I’m with an NGO. We’re trying to set up microloans in these parts. The economy is really seasonal so the challenges in structuring thing-”

He cut me off mid-sentence. “You have some more of that special sauce?” he asked.

I was only too glad to oblige, I’d never worked for an NGO in my life. The truth was, I was a pilot too – and a lot of other things. I’d been in the Special Forces, years earlier. And then I’d just decided I wanted to explore. I wasn’t the kind of guy who walked into situations unprepared. I could speak a few useful languages – like German, Chinese and Arabic. I could hold my own in a fight. And I was a junky for local customs. I just liked going places and seeing what I’d see. That’s what brought me to Ashura and that’s what brought me to this German pilot in a street-side chicken joint.

I surreptitiously poured him another shot of vodka. The shop owner saw me and gave a disapproving look. I didn’t make him any happier by explaining, in Arabic, that it was just disinfectant for the water.

“Who do you fly?” I asked.

“Oh, anybody,” he said, “I fly pretty much everywhere. I run food around Africa, parts around India, guns in South America. If it comes with a paycheck, I’m there.”

I pretended to be shocked – and drawn in by the danger of it all. The truth was, I’d met dozens of his type. “And here?” I asked, with an edge in my voice.

“Pilgrims,” he said, “I love pilgrims. I can’t officially go to Mecca and Medina. I do of course, but I don’t talk about it.”

I nodded knowingly. “But,” he continued, “Iraq is another story. This place has been great for business. I load people up in the back of the plane. They don’t care about comfort. And I just bring ’em over here by the truckload.”

“From where,” I asked. I knew the answer.

I’d been walking down this street when I saw the guy. He had pilot written all over him – just like a dozen other guys on the same street. What made this guy different was that he looked just like me.

“Iran,” he said. “Well actually, Tehran. I fly poor, religious, people in Tehran who just want to visit this Holy place.”

He didn’t look convinced about the last part.

“Hm,” I said, “Sounds like a good business.”

“Oh, it is,” he said, “Great business. Short flights, lots of customers and not many questions.”

I smiled. I knew the Iran part – but not the Tehran part. I’d always wanted to see Iran – which was why I’d sat down. I couldn’t exactly go to Iran. I was a former US Special Forces soldier, after all. My passport wouldn’t exactly clear. But this guy could. And I could look like this guy.

He finished his lemonade.

We got up – he’d already paid for his chicken, and I changed the course of the conversation.

I could knock him out and steal his papers and just take his plane and his planeload of pilgrims. Or I could try to convince him to let me take his spot. I’d already decided on the second course of action.

“You’re a little drunk.” I said.

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

“When do you fly?” I asked.

“Two hours,” he said.

“Is that safe,” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, “I’ve flown drunk lots.”

“Not for the passengers,” I said, “For you. People around this parts don’t care too much for drinkers.”

He nodded.

“How about I fly your passengers back and you just sober up a bit in the meantime.”

“You?” he asked, “You work for an NGO.”

He was dismissive.

“I used to work for UPS,” I said, “I was a pilot.”

“But you aren’t me.”

“I look like you.”

“But you’re not German.”

“I can pass,” I said, in German.

He smiled at that.

“And how do I know you won’t steal my plane?”

I handed him my passport. “If I don’t come back,” I said, “Report me as an American spy.”

Iran doesn’t like American spies. He bit his lip and his highly intoxicated mind was made. “Okay.” He said, “You fly them back.”

We went to the airfield and he showed me around the unique aspects of his 50-year-old DC8.

Two hours later, I was off and he was snoring in the back of my car.

The flight was easy. My German was fluent. I got past border control for my four-hour layover in Tehran. I decided to explore a bit. It really was a beautiful city – with everything from ancient mosques to brand new revolutionary squares. But this isn’t a travelogue. It’s a story about the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in all of my travels.

I was in one of the more industrial parts of town, when I decided to open a random unmarked door to a giant warehouse.

When I opened that door, I was greeted with just about the last thing I expected to see.

A smiling Persian guy in a cheap red jacket standing next to another giant door with the words “Costco” blazoned across the top.

I was simply stunned for a moment. My first thought was that, while I’ve been to Costcos in a few places around the worl – from Australia to Korea – there aren’t any in Tehran.

Once I got over being stunned, I got to being scared. My second thought was about those old Russian towns. You know, the ones where they learn to be American in spy practice.

If that was the kind of place I wa

s in, I was in – pardon the French – deep shit.

My third thought was that if I wanted a chance to survive – and not have that German turn me in as an American spy – I better do a good job of faking like I wasn’t surprised.

I reached into the German’s wallet and pulled out what I’d spotted earlier. His German Costco card.

The man in the cheap red jacket smiled and said, “Thanks.”

In perfect, unaccented, English.

I walked into the store. It was a Costco alright. Shelves lined with Kirkland brand foods. A beautiful electronics section. Jewelry. Even a pharmacy and free test tastings.

“I’m never leaving,” was the thought in my head. But it never hit my face.

I grabbed a trolley and pushed through the aisles – stacking up on goods helpfully priced in US Dollars. I have almost no idea what I bought.

But I kept pushing and kept stacking.

The place was almost empty. I spotted only one other man – unfortunately somebody I recognized. A man named Ahmed Vahidi. A man who looked like death – and a man who was wanted by Interpol for killing 85 Jews in a bombing in Buenos Aires.

He appeared to be shopping.

Every red jacketed agent of the revolution smiling at me as I walked calmly by. And then I finished my pass through the store .

But I didn’t want to leave.

I figured as soon as I went for the door they’d stop me and it’d all be over.

Eventually though, I had to go. To stay any longer would have aroused suspicion on the small chance that they didn’t already have plans for me.

So I went to the checkout, presented my Costco card, paid for my purchases with my German friend’s credit card and just walked towards the door.

The moment of truth was upon me.

I kept walking – my heart pounding.

I was waiting for somebody to stop me.

And then, somebody did.

When I got the place where the receipt checkers normally are, a man stepped out. He wasn’t wearing red and he wasn’t smiling.

I waited for the worst.

“Where would you like that delivered?” He asked, politely, in Farsi.

I recalled an address I’d seen downtown. He nodded and grabbed my cart. I reached over and plucked a back of chips out of a pack on the top.

“Don’t show the label.” He said, as if reminding me.

“Of course,” I answered.

And then another man, also not in a red jacket, opened the door for me.

“I hope you had a nice experience.” He said, in English.

“I did,” I replied. And then I just walked out.

I was shaking all the way to the airport. I had no idea what had happened or why.

I got back on the plane and behind the pilot’s controls in the cockpit.

Why had I been spared.

I hadn’t a clue.

And then I reached into my pocket and pulled out the bag of Kirkland-brand chips. I tore it open. And there, amongst the chips, was my answer.

A slip of paper. In Farsi.

“Republican Guard – Sanctions Workaround Directorate.

Thank you for shopping in the land of the Great Satan.”

Shopping in America for people who could never shop in America.

I guess they thought I was quality control.

My days as a secret shopper were over.

I reached for my flask, took a swig, and fired up the jet engines.

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