Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Scratching the Surface


From Tabriz we decided get a bus to Tehran. We needed to sort out our visas to Uzbekistan so it suited us fine to miss what turned out to be a very busy and polluted road. Arriving in the middle of the capital in the dark with no clue where we were heading was flippin scary.

But that fear soon turned to excitement. At a traffic light, mildly afraid for our lives, moderately stressed and utterly lost we asked a chap on a scooter if he could direct us to the Firuzeh hotel. He said “Sure, follow me” and zoomed off. We pedalled after him full tilt in a surreal half-hour chase scene that could have featured in any kick-ass action flick. I wished I had the initiative to film it all, but really we were just hanging on for dear life. The chap was weaving through the chaos of Tehran traffic, dodging, speeding, screeching, zooming. As we said before, normal road ruled do not apply here and the only thing that matters is to survive. He was riding down one way streets, onto pavements, running red lights while we cranked furiously trying to keep up. Often we also had a swarm of other motorcyclists pulling to the side of us and asking a whole lot of questions. “Where are you from?” “What is your name?” “Do you like Iran?” “Are you two married?”. Moving fast through chaotic traffic is difficult enough, but trying to have a conversation at the same time with two motorcyclists on either side of you turns downright exhilarating. It soon transpired that our guide had absolutely no clue of where we were going; he was asking around for directions, backtracking, asking again, carrying on. We just shut up and followed. And finally after several attempts we managed to find our resting place for the night. We had started in Northern Tehran and ended up in the South part of town. Our guide in shining helmet did not need to come here at all, just took it onto himself to take us where we needed. We did not know how to thank him, he just smiled, said: “It's my duty and pleasure” and sped off.

Arriving in a city where you know nobody is not the same everywhere. In Iran it is difficult to know nobody for more than five minutes. The day after arriving in Tehran we had several messages from couchsurfing hosts asking if we had arrived and whether we needed a guide. Some of the people we met through this network will stay in our memories for a long time. In fact, let me rephrase that: because of the friends we made here, this is a country we will have to come back to.

In Iran the couchsurfing network works slightly differently than in the UK. Here it is also used as a social network to organize meetings and excursions with other locals. In Tehran we met one such groups and ended up going to a caving expedition just South of Mount Damavand. These young Tehranis were a liberated and raucous bunch and out in the mountains it was difficult to remember the rigid rules that constrict Iranian society most of the times. Girls were wearing short sleeves, head scarves came off and for a while hijab was forgotten. For the sake of privacy I will not mention names here, but we hold two of the people we met on our little expedition as very dear to us. And if you are reading this dear friends, believe us when we say that we will be back to climb the Great Damavand with you (and have another sip of your potent moonshine ;-).

Also in Tehran we had our second English class. Again, this felt much more like a cultural exchange group than a language class. K teaches his students about behaviour, customs and ways of looking at the world as much as pronunciation. English classes in this country felt very political, almost radical, not in the sense that they directly teach dissent, but through stimulating curiosity and questions. And questions of course can be highly corrosive to the granitic bastions of propaganda.

We heard many harrowing stories, but our friends had an enthusiasm and joie de vivre that didn't betray the hardships and horror they had experienced. Their interest in making contact was genuine and innocent, and hanging around them was refreshing and light-hearted.


We had a some time to kill in the capital as we were waiting for the rusty cogs of bureaucracy to churn out a couple of stickers that would allow us to cross the next border. Somehow we managed to miss all tourist sites in Tehran and instead spent our time over (very expensive) cappuccinos talking, laughing, and generally hanging around with our new friends. Of course we had to rush about a bit to sort out our visas but that's tedious enough to do without having to bore the whole world talking about it. Let me just say that we have it easy, very easy in fact. Whatever complaint we might have about how much of a pain it is for us to try getting visas for certain places, pales when confronted to the impassable barriers our governments set up to prevent others entering Europe and the West. Really, we ought to cherish our freedom to roam as this is not a privilege shared by many.


In Esfahan we had another chance encounter with a group of young artists. We were stuck in town again because of waiting for a visa extension so we ended up spending a few days and smoky nights talking. One of my absolute highlights was the ability to play a long set of my favourite music one morning in a café in the Armenian part of town. In a country where dancing is prohibited, being able to play loud music was a great joy and privilege. Not many people were there but I was happy to share what I love with those selected few.


The last night of our stay I was speaking with S and M about the English language and being vegetarian when something clicked in them. I remember a very sudden and violent outpour of emotion. Through their words I heard of their frustration but through their voices I felt their anguish and anger. It was the first time I actually faced the intensity of our friends' fury. The only options that seem open to people here are to bow down to a system they despise or bail out, leaving much of what they love behind. I felt paralysed, unable to help or offer any true comfort. How can one go back home and watch telly after that?

Well, the chance to help someone presented itself just a few weeks later. Details might jeopardise our ability to help, so we'll just say we found a fragile briar we want to help bloom.

1 comment:

kat said...

amazing guys, you sound like you're having a fantastic adventure! I love reading your posts even though I go dizzy! - some weird optical affect of the white writing on moving background maybe? anyway through the lines I can just about see you and you both look so well and happy - yay! news here is pretty standard but we finally have our house - just a lot of diy work to be done now. We haven't moved in yet but have been visiting so Frankie can play in the garden and we can dream about how we'll be able to go outside in our slippers - it's the little things! Everyone is well and we're all looking forward to spending a raucous christmas at medla - wish you could be there too. big love xxx

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