Day 269: Under the skin of Iran

Mural outside the ex US embassy in Tehran (*see below for the story)

Last night in Iran. Tomorrow our Silk Road chapter begins. A little excited about the upcoming journey, a little nervous about the unknown, a little fazed about adapting to another new environment.

In retrospect, Iran wasn’t quite how I imagined it would be. A lot more developed, a lot more open, a lot more en mode. The people are very very curious; we had a full time job of answering the same questions from strangers wherever we went: “Where you from? Are you married? Do you have children?” Let me guess what you’re gonna ask me next, “what do I think of Iran?” Bingo.

Sometimes I had to shake my head to pretend I spoke no in-glee-see when we were too tired for ad hoc interviews. Yes it did get annoyingly tiring at times (especially having to be Jumong and upsetting girls when they realized I really wasn’t) but it was all part of the unique Irani experience.

We probably made more friends in Iran than in our entire journey elsewhere. Thanks to couchsurfing (“CS”) – an online network of people volunteering to host travelers at their homes. The idea isn’t simply free accommodation, it’s cultural integration through living with locals. We found the Irani community to be a very welcoming bunch, even for CS newbies like us who hardly have references from other CS members.

Our most amazing experience was with our hosts in Tehran. Before we met they emailed us to be careful not to reveal where we were staying as it could get them in trouble with the authorities. “But it was worth taking the risk” they said, because they treasure the experience we would share together. And what a treasurable memory it was. P&L went out of their way to do things for us that really touched our hearts: checking schedules, booking tickets, printing maps, feeding us (looooved L’s cooking!) and packing a sandwich for our long overnight bus ride – all things we are eternally grateful for and will always remember (of course P’s warm friendly Federer smile too!). Meeting them for the first time was like meeting old friends (actually I don’t even think my friends would take care of us this well) and saying goodbye was tough.

Then there was also our host in the south – Kerman Mo and his family, who came to us with a big family welcome. Mo picked us up from the train station at 7am; I’m ashamed I might not even do that for a friend let alone a complete stranger. His mother Mama Sara fed us, spooning spatula after spatula of food, making sure our plates were always full and the rice or spaghetti pot empty. Hell his brother even smoked opium and asked me to join (at this point I was thinking maybe this ain’t such a good idea). It’s hard to forget sitting shotgun, wondering if he’s sober enough to drive after smoking Afghan bud all day. He seemed perfectly fine though.

In Esfahan P&L introduced their friend Big Evil who took us in at short notice. The funniest Iranian we have met who drove us out to town every morning before going to work and showed us around whenever he could. We passed by a place for sheep’s head, apparently a winter delicacy in Iran. “The best part are the eyes,” he told us, describing the ‘fabulous’ taste. Seeing the look of revolt on my face, he continued in his comical accent “I better shut up if I want my car to stay clean…”

And here in Mashhad, there is Mr. Rex. Easy going Rex who just left us his keys to get in whilst he was out. We had never met before, known only a couple days ago through a late couch request on CS. He wasn’t home when we arrived this morning but we didn’t wait in the cold. “Make yourself at home, the door-key is in the shoe” he told us over the phone. Gotta be kidding… He even left his apartment in our care cos he had to fly out tonight to Germany. “Stay as long as you like, just remember to switch off the gas and leave the keys when you go”. Speechless… His friend Hamid drove us around and also offered to pick us up tomorrow morning (7am again) for a lift to the shared taxi station – not so we can save a couple tomans, but to ensure the taxi drivers weren’t gonna rip us off. The entire CS crew in Mashhad came out to meet us for dinner, what a pity we couldn’t stay longer.

This type of hospitality is unheard of in the world I come from, where we learn to protect ourselves before helping others (covering your ass is the first lesson in surviving the corporate world). You have to be out of your mind to open up your home like this, but in Iran even strangers were given the mi casa, su casa welcome. What a way to get under the skin of a country pounded by western media for all the wrong reasons.

*The US embassy in Tehran was used in 1953 by the Americans to stage a coup d’etat to overthrow then prime minister Mosaddegh, Iran’s first democratically elected leader. The intention? Mosaddegh was acting in the interest of Iranians to protect their country’s oil from being exploited by the Brits and Yanks. The result? Dictatorship was reinstated (by the US) with the shah (monarch) back in power to continue supplying cheap oil to the West. Dirty politics. Read more about it on Wikipedia.

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4 Comments

  1. ace says:

    i am blown away with this entry. it's heart warming and amazing how hospitable people are. i am touched by this entry :)

  2. Leslie says:

    What amazing hospitality! It is definitely heart warming to see that you both have met such great people and have these memories to last a lifetime! :)

  3. Christina J says:

    I have really wanted to go to Iran ever since I read the book "Honeymoon in Purdah," by Alison Wearing–she talks a lot about the same kind of hospitality you experienced. Excellent book. I love reading about your travels. Keep up the great entries! Thank you. Oh, do you think Iran is safe for Americans? I suspect it is, but just wondering…

  4. 山 him says:

    Hello Christina

    Thanks for your support! Yes Iran is awesome and I'd say it is safe for Americans.. though getting through immigrations may be a little more nerve racking… really not one to comment though!

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