Iran, a guide and our impressions
Usually while travelling, it makes it more enjoyable and funny to just always say yes. In Iran however, we learned to say no. Generally speaking, going East from Europe people are more friendly and hospitable, and it is really nice as a traveller. In Iran especially, it was awesome that we could rely so much on the locals, that we got so many invites that we could have stayed in a home and payed nothing for food for our whole time their if we wanted to. In some areas actually it got a bit overwhelming though, because we were never left alone and had to start declining a lot of people, when sometimes all we wanted is to put up our tent, eat and sleep after a long day of cycling. We felt like celebrities, and no matter where we went, people sought us out almost immediately to offer things. One day I think a man asked us to stay with him and his family for over an hour, saying “Please come to my home” repeatedly for at least 50 times.
Why are Iranians so different in this regard, why do they adore western travellers (including the US, it’s only the governments who fight each other) so much? Maybe since they are pretty closed off by sanctions, internet censorship and the lack of means to travel, they are super curious and take every chance to talk with us and find out more about the world. Or maybe the hospitality really comes from the Muslim culture, as a few of our more religious hosts told us, but taken to another level, because they are a proud and ancient nation. Or all of the above. Whatever the reason, the stories are true, sometimes they fight about who gets to invite you into their home and they really get offended if you decline any of their offerings, may it be food, housing, shower or anything else. It is even more confusing when they bring tarof into the mixture, where for example a shopkeeper declines your payment a few times before accepting it (and some cases genuinely want to give you something for free), and more often than not they really like to mess with tourists about that.
This was the first country where we really started to feel the cultural differences, and how far away we had already come from Europe. We took a bus from the Western part to Tehran to have time for some things we wanted to see in the South, and looking out at the window, seeing those colourful sandstone shapes and the unfamiliar landscape without trees, it all felt unreal, like in a dream. Then we got off the bus late at night and curious eyes followed us to the brightly lit, impressive Azadi tower, one of the cities great monuments next to the station. Goosebumps crawled onto my back while I walked under the arch and looked up at the patterns. Several passer byes shook our hands and welcomed us into their country, with the smile and genuine happiness of children. You couldn’t help but be part of the joy.
Not everything is rainbows and butterflies though
After all the amazement, the dark part of Iran is really in high contrast to the everyday people, and it was a strange feeling having this in the back of your mind. Before the Islamic revolution in ’79, the country was leaning more towards the western culture, and people were more or less free (well, until they went against the will of the shah, or as we call it, the king). Right now on the other hand, it is looking pretty bleak, the government is excellent at terrorising the people. Art, intellectual and religious freedoms are a basic human rights in the west, but here saying the wrong thing can have dire consequences and in cases of blasphemy against Islam, lead to the death penalty. There are quite a few musicians and directors who had to flee the country to avoid prison for life or worse. Women especially are getting a bigger share of the unfairness of law, as they don’t have much control about how they can behave or even what clothes they can wear.
You can really laugh about some of the other silly laws, that it is illegal listening to rock and metal music (I’m not making this up), consume alcohol, or that even men have to wear long trousers (fun in 40 degrees). On top of this, women can’t cycle or run in public, because as one of their ministers said, and I quote: “it would cause economic ruin”. Looking at it from Europe, they look so ridiculous, but this is the sad reality of the people living here, and punishment for even these lesser crimes involves a big fine or whipping(!). Having the death penalty looming over you makes you tread really carefully with all the other things though and your smile turn into distaste when you think about it. Having said that, it is even more shocking how light-heartedly the locals speak to us and treat us so generously.
Culture or religion?
Because a generation grew up already after the revolution, the Muslim habits are so ingrained into the families, that even most of our open-minded, western hosts were wearing the headscarf in front of us, even in their homes.I guess since most of them was born into it by now (it is mandatory from the age of 9!), it is part of their personality, and also part of their culture. So if you get invited to a home like this, you should respect their way of life, and ask if you should put on the hijab. I am not entirely sure how much percentage of the women would throw away the scarf if the law was scrapped, but in more traditional areas where almost everyone is even wearing a chador (a long, usually black blanket like thing covering the whole body, which is only by choice or family enforcement), I don’t think it would be very high for quite a while.
Although foreigners are also subject to these laws, outside big cities, the police was way more lenient with us (I actually even managed to run in shorts and t-shirt in Tehran, without any problem), but they also offer escort and stalk us sometimes, to “keep us safe”. It really looked like they were just bored, or their superiors were interested in the tourists, all the while 10 year olds going a 100km per hour on a motorbike behind them was an everyday thing requiring no attention. And you wonder why they are in the top of fatal traffic accidents.. At first I was wearing pants and a buff on my hair, but halfway through the country, I was regularly wearing shorts and only a cap while cycling, and even though we had several police check-ups, it was almost never a problem. The worst that can happen is that they ask you to put something on. Or accompany you to the police station to make sure you are not spies. 😀
Because of the current sanctions, the country is not able to connect to the international bank system, so we had to take in all the cash we intended to spend. Usually it is not so safe to carry a large amount of money with you, but this country is an exception. Not just because the locals know about this problem for the foreigners and robbery is basically unheard of (they have way too strict laws for that and the ordinary people are terrified to do any major crime). It is also because the same sanctions caused the economy to crash and the local currency to devaluate heavily. It made us look like millionaires when we changed just a 20 euro note for example, we received so much cash back that we couldn’t fit it into the wallet. Actually we were millionaires in the literal sense, because at the time of our arrival, one euro was worth more than a hundred thousand rial, and also did a 20% swing while we were there, making our spending power even better. So we actually spent less in two months here than a month anywhere else. To give you a general idea, we spent around 170 eur on food, and ate really well, eating out way more in restaurants than usual (which was close to zero in Europe). And of course the local’s generosity helped a lot too.
I gotta say Iran had it all when it comes to travelling; political problems, friendly locals and cultural immersion (I even learned to read and write Farsi!), drama, comedy, beautiful architecture and nature together with an ancient history. It was really one of our best countries we’ve experienced, and to give a little of the feeling to it, the next post will share some of our most incredible and strange encounters and stories from there.