Twenty-five years ago Mostafa Pour-Aliabadi, 44, was a manual laborer. Last year, he and his wife, Sakineh, hosted 900 tourists at Kalout Ecolodge, six rooms he built around his garden, in the village of Shafiabad, near Kerman.
The village is the very last populated area before the road veers into the world-renown Kaluts area of Dasht-e Lut desert, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, on which NASA satellites allegedly recorded a world record, a surface temperature of 70.7 °C (159.3 °F).
His words are testimony to tourism’s power to draw visitors to the most unlikely places and transform communities. Shafiabad (sha-FEE-awe-bawd) is now home to a growing number of lodges, called “ecolodges”, which do a brisk business during the late fall, winter and early spring months but sit empty during the intolerably hot summers.
His story is also an example of how Iranian charm and persistence overcome the obstacles in dealing with foreigners. Mostafa and Sakineh communicate with their foreign guests through only a handful of English phrases and the international language of hand gestures.
In his words:
“When we got married, I was 15, she was 16. We had nothing. We lived with our parents and I worked odd jobs, like construction work.
“Then a man I worked for offered to loan me the money to haul passengers, because back then there was no regular transportation from this area to Kerman.
“I remember the day he and I got the money from the bank and went to the auto shop. The car was a Paykan [a small sedan] with traces of three different paint jobs. They had put together parts from three other cars.
“And suddenly I was driving the only car in the 17 villages in this area. People would beg me to get in no matter how full it was, because if your wife was sick, how else were you going to get to the hospital [in Kerman]?
“They nicknamed the car ‘The 18-Wheeler’ because sometimes 12 people got in at the same time. Six people would sit in the back, some on their knees on the floor boards. Six others sat in the front, one of them on my left side!
“When the police stopped me for carrying too many people–and I also didn’t have a driver’s license at the very beginning–the passengers inundated them with pleas until they let me go.
“I drove [the 112 km road] to Kerman and back six times a day. Didn’t get home until midnight.
“When I was 20, I happened to give a ride to a couple of tour guides. They asked if I wanted to drive for tourists. Everything I have today started from that day because eventually tourists wanted a place to stay here and not have to return to Kerman the same day.
“At first tourists would get into the car with the villagers. Yeah, they did it because they had no choice. Eventually, I started driving for tourists exclusively.
“Then tourism dried up [during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] and I had to go back to manual work. The road to Nehbandan, we built it. Worked seven years, summers included.
“We carried a Coleman each. We drank one glass, poured one glass over our heads and poured the rest into our boots to be able to walk on the asphalt.
“Then tourists started coming again and we borrowed the money to build the rooms around the garden.
“It’s all the word of mouth. This TripAdvisor [website] you speak of, I haven’t heard of it. There’s no Internet around here. I think the only countries we haven’t hosted are Israel and some Arab ones. We’ve had Americans too.
“The books you see–we asked every visitor to write something. Sometimes they draw cartoons about things that happened here.
“We treat them so well, they stay in touch long after they leave. I’ve had international calls from people crying on the phone.
“Once some Brazilians came asking to just use the bathroom.They had no money, but ended up sleeping and eating here for two days.
“At first they were too shy, kept saying they were out of money. We forced them to the table. I told Sakineh, ‘Serve them the best pieces because that’s the way of Imam Reza.’ These same Brazilians sent us many [paying] guests in the following years.
“The secret to dealing with tourists is all about psychology, much more than the physical comforts. I never ever allow a frown on my face, no matter how poorly I feel. I only show my best and in return I always receive the best.”