There are a lot of places in the world, which have been repeatedly misconceived by the media. On the news we only see the bad side of middle-eastern countries: all we know about them is war, struggles, poverty, tears and blood. But what the media doesn’t know, or probably doesn’t want to let out, is that these countries have a lot more to offer than any other big glossy city in the world. I’ve been travelling for years, but even when I initially told my mom that from Armenia I was going to cross the board to Iran and stay there for 5 weeks, I heard a slightly-panicked voice from the phone (what mother’s voice wouldn’t be, after all?). However, my mum’s little freak-out didn’t hold my intentions back and so, in October I began my five weeks’ hitchhiking adventure through this incredible country, whose best identification word can only be “misconception”.
Iran is a huge country with endless distances to get from one place to another. We started the adventure from the north: Tabriz, Irani Kurdistan, Rasht, and then moved towards the interior most famous cities like Isfahan, Shiraz and Rashan.
Hitchhiking seemed to me and my friend the most reasonable way to experience every bit of it: we really wanted to immerse ourselves in the culture and in the community. However, when we tried to begin our adventure by stopping cars from the street just to ask for a quick lift or directions, we didn’t quite get that. Instead, we realised that Iranian inhabitants are just too kind-hearted, and that “doing you a favour” is not enough for them. Guests who come in their country are seen like gods, and need to be treated like so.
On one of our first days, my French friend and I were just leaving Irani Kurdistan, a place immersed in the mountain, on the border with Iraq. My friend stopped a car on the street and the driver asked where we were going. He said that there were no problems in taking us there, so we got into the car and he drove for 200km. During the ride, we found out that this guy spoke very good English and French and that he has been living for nearly 13 years between France, Belgium and Netherlands. We spoke about Iranian culture, mentality and thinking and when we reached our destination, we thanked him a lot for the lift and wished him the best for the rest of his journey. However the guy said to us that he wasn’t intentionally driving to get where we were, he only had to pick up a few things at the groceries for his wife and that he would have had to drive back to get home. We had no idea about that and apologised, saying that if we would have known, we could have found someone else that was going in our direction. “Yes, probably”, he said, “but then you would have had to wait another 20 minutes to find someone else, if not longer. I couldn’t let you wait in the middle of the street”. This was only the first sign of Iranian inhabitants’ politeness and we were truly amazed by it.
A few days later, we decided to make our way to Isfahan, which is about 300km away from Tehran, so we started hitchhiking on the motorway. A guy stopped and asked us what we were doing. When he found out that we were hitchhiking all the way to Isfahan, he said that we couldn’t do it, it was too dangerous. However, we had already experienced how people were in the country and we said that everyone was always so nice that nothing bad could happen to us. The guy was so concerned about us that when a bus was approaching, he stopped the driver, talked to him, packed our bags and almost pushed us into the bus. We tried to explain that we really wanted to hitchhike and experience the culture of the place, but he insisted that we get on board. Passengers who were already on the bus started talking to us, offering food and drinks, and they were worried that we didn’t have money. They suggested going to the police, where they would have helped us as tourists giving us some money for our stay. We tried to explain that we had money, but we really wanted to experience this place at its best, even if it meant walking for miles in the middle of the road. The people on the bus didn’t believe it and they said “We, as Iranian, would never admit when we are in need of money or help, we always tend to rely on our own strengths and capabilities”. At the end of the ride, when we arrived in Isfahan, we tried to pay the driver.
He obviously didn’t accept and instead wanted to give us money for our safety. This man wouldn’t have earned more than 200$ a month for his job, but in that moment all he could think of was us to be safe, and the only way he could make sure about that was offering all he had to us. We had to refuse about 15 times in order for him to put up with that. Being nice in Iran goes over every cultural belief and tradition, it’s just the rule. People are not forced to be polite, they know everyone needs help and they’re willing to really give you all they have. I’ve travelled the world for 11 years, seen many amazing places and met wonderful people. But there is something about Iranian people, which is just outstanding, and unique, they take the concept of “nice” to a whole new level. As a European citizen, I must admit that at time this is a bit overwhelming: although I have plenty of possibilities, I really didn’t know how to thank them and show my gratitude. They don’t accept anything back and if you try to at least buy some groceries for them, it’s just a big no-no and they just can’t stand it.
During our stay in Isfahan, we used Couchsurfing and ended up at a young couple’s place. They guy was a teacher who spoke very good English and his wife was a superb cook. They knew we were hitchhiking so at the end of our stay, the man drove us to the best hitchhiking spot at the end of the city, picked up a driver to take us to Shiraz directly. It was a long drive of about 400km and at night we stopped on the way to have dinner. We wanted to thank the driver for his ride, so we decided that dinner was on us that night. However, when the man realised that we paid for the dinner he insisted for us to at least stop for one night at his place, promising us that the next day he would have taken us where we wanted to go. He called his wife to say that they had guests for dinner and wanted to stop and get some chicken. When he got out of the shop, he was carrying 4 bags worth of chicken for dinner. We wondered who would have eaten all of that, since it was just 4 people at dinner. We arrived at his house and saw the wife who was cooking in four huge pots. At the end we realised that they invited 23 people for dinner, basically all their families and relatives, only because they had guests coming from Europe and they wanted them to meet us. We sat down for dinner and received an invitation for the following nights from everyone around the table who was above 18 years old. It would have been awesome to spend one day with each one of them, but our journey had to continue and we had to refuse all the invitations.
In Irani Kurdistan we were stopped on the street by a young girl and her mother who, of course, wanted to invite us to stay in their house. After a few minutes talking to them, we noticed that people on the street started to line up in a queue, and little by little everyone wanted to approach us, asking what we were doing and getting to know us. Iranian’s have an inner curiosity for the exotic, the foreigner, the outside world. Being nice is not only part of the tradition. They’re nice because they have nothing to lose: they have eyes that speak for themselves, without fear because they have already seen the worst and they don’t want foreigners to get in touch with that part of the country. All they want, is showing you that they are normal people, like everyone else, that war and blood in Iran is only what we see in the media, and that their humanity goes beyond that surface.
Iranian women wear the rainbow over their heads. Vibrant and picturesque scarves are wrapped around them, and they would brighten up even the gloomiest day in the country. When you see them, grouped one next to another at the Grand Bazaar in Tabriz, they create a sense of bliss and delight that radiates through the huge duty-free market.
In Iran, even the oldest traditions, like the goat’s sacrifice, becomes a joyful spectacle of folkloristic costumes worn by old people and children. There’s no reason to be sad, no reason not to smile, no reason not to be nice. This place is far from being that theatre of horror transmitted in the news: of course, that side is real, but doesn’t define Iranian people, doesn’t get concrete in their words and gestures. It’s only a tale, which gets defeated day by day by their inner positivity, never-changing humbleness and kindness.