This is PART ONE of our Iran adventures:
You can catch part two, Ancient Iran HERE
You can catch part three, Iran's Other Side HERE
A new world of kindness
After navigating our way through the narrow heads of the boarder with the wind in the sails of our boat bike TanNayNay, we spent a significant amount of time being gently interrogated by the first Iranian we met – in the form of a senior guard in his second storey office. After about an hour and a half, we inadvertently shut down the conversation (involving discussion of family members, prospective careers, favourite colours, the Persian language (Farsi), thoughts on the world and our intentions for visiting every single one of Iran's historical sights) by bringing up our lack of religion. Upon this admission, we were bustled out the doors within three minutes and onto the eagerly awaiting doorstep of Modern Iran, great great grandson of Ancient Persia. You can read more about the border crossing HERE.
Our first few kilometres out of the city if Astara that fine Friday afternoon were cushioned with a sense of childhood familiarity: there were families spotted around on picnic rugs everywhere. The first group surprised us greatly as they were plum in the middle of the highway nature strip but as we rode, we found that was fairly typical behaviour.
While riding into Chubar to meet our hosts we were stopped by a nice family, the wife had flagged us down from the front seat as they cruised past; a sight we were not used to in the past three or four months in Turkey, Georgia or Azerbaijan. After politely refusing their invitation to stay in their home we used their phone to call our host Azim to organise a meeting place further afield.
The road was decorated with excited Persians and augmented with many speed bumps; unusual on a highway we thought. Dudes on motorbikes hooned along beside in a friendly manner and within an hour or two we'd arrived in Chubar and were hailed to a stop by Ali Reza (Azim's son) and another 'surfer bloke named Mohi. We were led to a three storey home with a purple roof (Azim's favourite colour) and were taken inside to meet everyone. Mohi and Cherry had ridden their bikes from their home city of Mashhad after hosting Spaniards doing a similar trek. They were so unmanageably inspired that within six months of waving goodbye, they bought bikes, quit jobs and are on their very own adventure pedalling towards Spain. See them HERE.
We stayed three nights with Azim, Nilu, Ali Reza and his younger twin brothers Amir Reza and Hamid Reza. The three sons all went to school starting on Saturday, obviously, because Persian weekends are on Thursday and Friday. We became just another pair of their 'surfer children in the endless line of well-looked-after travellers. While being lovingly housed, Kat went to the doctor twice about upset insides and had each visit payed for!! Azim took us to Astara – to visit our first English Language classroom (which certainly wouldn't be our last) and to spend time with his friend and English teacher Yavar. We met his pupils and talked a lot, these students were starkly different from those we'd met previously – much more confident in speaking and questioning: it seems the emphasis on English language learning in Iran is to speak it, not simply theorise about it.
Back to School
Without any effort on our part, our next host was organised for us, just 60 or 70 kilometres up the road we were told, Sam was waiting for our arrival. On our way we stopped for lunch in Talesh and discovered a tiny one- or two-day-old kitten scrabbling in the rubbish on the side of the road making an awful racket. His mouth and lungs were caked with mud and Kat couldn't just leave him there, so little ginger Lion (Shir in Farsi) was adopted. After fifteen more kilometres cycled with kitten in the crook of an arm, we reached Asalam. As is normal, we stopped to borrow a phone (the SIM card we had just bought didn't work) and the phone's owner was of course Sam's neighbour, so he drove us into town and delivered us to Sam's door. We met Sam and his wife Zahra, and almost immediately (after being offered showers and food and dough – the Iranian version if Ayran, pronounced du-gh) were turned around and drove into Sam's school with them.
It was this, Sam's English school, that became as routine and part of our every day as waking up and getting to know his beautiful generous family. We spent four or five hours at school nearly every day, spending time with his students young and old, meeting the different teachers, being served endless cold drinks by the delightful receptionist and generally being as usefully English-speaking as we could.
That first night Shir the ginger lion kitten was adopted by one of the students who Sam said would take good care of him (her family has access to cow's milk which was recommended by the vet we'd visited earlier that day who suggested this bovine alternative only after telling us to leave him somewhere to die. Kat took to feeding him with a syringe and having him nestled close to her body at all times (he cried plaintively and loudly otherwise). She is the cat's mother indeed.
Integrating into Sam's Family
Sam's family were lovely – his fabulous sisters, known to us by their nicknames, Kobi, Shamo, Hamo and Fatima (nicknamed little fish) all took to us, and us to them like fish to water. Sam's Mama & Baba (mother and father) lived next door, his brother just down a pebbled pathway; they shared three plots of land which looked more like rice paddies and lush fields of South East Asia rather than the picture of dry dusty Iran we'd entertained.
Lucky Alleykat stayed a week and a day with them. Zahra generously taught Kat how to wear a mantu properly by sharing her wardrobe and her beautiful collection of scarves – from behind Kat could have almost been Iranian! We made a movie promoting Sam's school and English speaking (It's in Farsi, but you can watch it HERE), ate delicious vegetarian versions of traditional Persian food, and went on many days trips all around the place with Sam – up into the mountains, horse riding on the beach, weaving damp paths in the sun dappled forest and riding on fairly safe individual roller coaster carts through the fresh green air.
We met all sorts of interesting people while we lived with Sam and his family. One day at the office we met six exceptional people: a couple in their early thirties who were bravely attempting to move their entire lives to Australia – the man is an engineer and the woman (his wife) is an IT specialist and Perth is their destination along with a good group of other young highly skilled Iranians fleeing the country they perceive to have changed irrevocably. We spent time with three engaging girls, all very different in their dress and persona but all determined to learn English to enhance their own language teaching capacity and ability to understand great works of poetry and prose written in English. Third we met a gentleman named Reza, also probably on his way to Australia to study under his dietetics and diabetes supervisor at the University of Queensland. Reza and Kat were kindred spirits and talked of the importance of diet, the possibilities for vegetarianism and veganism and being inspired by each other's passions.
Sam's family own a number of rice paddies and quite well known for the quality of their 'source' and fertile lands. Over the eight days we spent with them we watched the plots of land surrounding their houses transform from lumpy bumpy dry earth into lakes awash with a gentle green hue: thousands of tiny green rice grain mohawks were fashioned all over. That means the women who planted that rice bent and sunk those little rice grains tens and hundreds of thousands of times over – the suppleness of their backs and hips is wanton! We watched one day of this folding of bodies and gradual green saturation of their land.
It was really these first two family encounters that opened our eyes to the incredible and undoubtedly forcible generosity of Iranians, they wouldn't let us pay for a thing (not food, not petrol, not entrance fees – this not helping pay was a culture shock for sure). At the family's protest, we managed to cook the infamous 'Swizzy curry' for most of them but alas, our efforts were cast aside by the vast majority; it was too hot for their delicate palates!
We were lucky enough to meet Sam's whole family on a Friday (which is like Sunday in Australia, the day of family, rest and historically a holy day). We ate with most (maybe all) of the family, Sam's eleven sisters and brothers, their children and spouses and of course, his Mama and Baba. We dined altogether on the floor as is typical in Iran. We played ping pong with Amir Reza, a 14-year-old nephew with flare, a divine personality and outstandingly good English.
Can you even taarof?
During our stay we open-mouthedly and ear-cuppedly learned about Persian culture and history and of course the infamous revolution. We engaged with members of the newest generation and the one before and began to learn about the finer points of Iranian life – especially about the notion of taarof.
Taarof is a version of French politesse, but taken to the extreme: it is used in the standard way, offering on open door to your senior before entering, not eating before everyone is served and saying please and thank you. However, it is amped to the next level in greetings and in formal interactions like shopping – people are verbally proselytising themselves; anointing their counterpart with age-old sayings of kindness and politeness that literally translate to the most extreme of meanings. Some of these may or may not include “how are you? How is your mother? Is your uncle well? Your family is so wise and deserving of wealth. Please deliver my warmest greetings to you nieces and nephews. I hope that your family comes into much wealth and may happiness continue to be a virtue you revel in. Please take these goods for free, I insist. My goods are not worthy of your money. My family's name does not live up to your kindness and wisdom. Let me sever the soles from my feet so you may walk more comfortably. Let my tears fall instead of yours so you may never feel pain again” and by now they've only just begun the conversation at the cash register!
It is essential in all Iranian society to be able to taarof properly, you can offend people easily without it and may lost your job if your boss don't rate your taarofing skills. But it is also something to be aware of, especially as a traveller: people will often tell you to take your goods without paying or that they don't mind if you stay three weeks instead of two days – Alleykat's rule if thumb became ask three times and if they're still insisting, then go with it.
Surfing in Iran
We left Talesh with difficulty and rode to Rasht. At a confusing crossroads we were met, advised and interviewed by a man from the Rasht media. He gave us his media pass so we could check out the website where his newspaper publishes a digital version. Read it HERE. We were obviously slightly shell-shocked and had fame stars in our eyes as we managed to get lost for a short while after this, but some felafels for lunch and a quick stop for a picnic in the shade on somebody's driveway we managed to get back on track and arrive half an hour early for our prearranged meeting time of six o'clock with our new host in Rasht.
While waiting near where we thought our host's house was, we borrowed a phone from two lovely gentlemen named Siamak and Siavash. Our host told them she was running late or that we were way too early and to please take us away from hanging around near her house. Siamak and Siavash obliged after first insisting that we should just take their phone as 'you need it more than we do' – to receive a call from our host Setare – we insisted we'd rather spend time with them than their phone and soon we four were new friends – they bought us 'weary travellers' water, juice and chocolate and stayed with us for almost two hours in a lovely sun-and-child-dappled park. We learned more about these boy's mandatory Military service, study, travel, home life and dreams. Soon our host Setare beckoned us back to her house where she and the two gentlemen swapped numbers as is apparently normal to do with complete strangers in Iran. We bid them goodbye with intentions to meet again in the next couple of days.
Jay, a couchsurfer from Thailand turned up while we were out the front and we all went inside 'surfed together. Upon entering the lavish apartment we met Hardi, Setare's husband and her moustached, witty and extremely kind son, Ali. Our evening was to be somewhat eventful; on a walk before dinner (we left at 9, so dinner was going to be a late affair – although entirely normal for Iranians!) we were stopped by plain clothes immigration police boss, Kat had a phone foisted on her and spoke to the police woman on the phone who wanted to know everything (why were we in Iran, who we knew, how we were travelling, what our favourite food was) and Setare was informed she would be receiving a phone call in the next few days and would have to come into the police station. The kind of 'surfing' we were doing is not necessarily allowed in Iran, but everyone does it – it's such an essential part of Persian culture: the offering of your everything including your home, your food, and a decent part of your soul.
Next day we took a taxi to Masuleh (we thought Setare wouldn't come because of the attention she had received from the police but she insisted) an age-old town latticed with very cool houses where the roof of one was the front yard of the one above. Very touristy, had lunch and ate/drank disgusting dough (Iranian version of Ayran, yoghurt drink) really curdled and so fermented it was fizzy with bacteria. Yuck. But, Setare gladly took it off our hands and guzzled the lot; that's how Iranians like it apparently!
We cooked dinner with Jay and Ali and his best friend Javad who spoke perfect English, was extremely personable and grilled us on our accents and knowledge of the English language. Siamak and Siavash came around for late dinner, brought cake and Setare forced us all to dance. Forced. In the lounge room with music coming from the computer. Very odd. But, as dancing in public is illegal, it is the done thing!
See many of Iranian friends in our video: A Message from the People of Iran
Don't forget to catch our video about Iran!
Read all of our Central Asian Series!
Or, catch up on our European Series HERE