Friday, 12 November 2010

Giggly Wools

Travelling around Iran can sometimes give you an idea of what it must be like to be a superstar. Everybody looks at us, people take pictures as we cycle by, they chase us in their cars to talk to us, they invite us to their house and sometimes even gently elbow each other out of the way for the privilege of having us as guests. It's a surprising and novel experience, but I'm glad I'm not famous as sometimes I quite enjoy keeping a low profile.

Apart from our cozy tent we find ourselves staying in some pretty weird and wonderful places. We spent a couple of nights in a homestay in Tudeshk, a mud village on the edge of the Dasht-e-Kavir. This was a unique experience we both craved, a peep into village life in a traditional home where all rooms faced a central courtyard and the delicious vegetarian meals were served on a plastic table cloth on the floor. Another night was spent in the Iranian version of a roadside diner. A large room full of raised platforms covered in carpets and cushions. The owner invited us to stay the night and plied us all evening with pistachios and pomegranates from his garden. The only catch was we had to stay awake and wait for all the truckies (and a random half Iranian half Hackney geezer) to eat their kebabs and tuck themselves up in their truck cabins for the night.

Kashmar was just a name on the map until as we were cycling towards it a man called Sam pulled up alongside us on a scooter. He asked if we were planning to stay in town and then invited us to stay with him. Incredibly, that day we had had at least three other offers, but for some reason we had no hesitation in saying “yes” to his. Five days later we were still at his house, partly because we both came down with some gastro virus fun but mostly due to the fact we felt utterly relaxed and fascinated by our new friend. We spent our time learning about his past, meeting his friends, joining in on his English classes, witnessing the start of the saffron harvest, eating kilos of pomegranates and raisins, watching eagles soar, holding down tears while listening to harrowing tales and smiling deep into brown eyes when words were missing.

Meeting Sam was very special to us. He is a man of contradictions with a very colourful past. His stories were often so out there as to border unreality and yet we never failed to believe him. From many years at war as an officer in the Iranian army to becoming a spiritual seeker and devotee in India, his is a story of transformation. We think of him often and are looking forward to the happy occasion of our next meeting. Thanks to Sam we also met other very special people. Hassan and Narges totally embraced us and welcomed us into their home in Mashhad. Their help in many practical matters made it possible to carry on our trip with ease and a light heart (as well as the warmest sleeping bags).

One night, while still in Kashmar, Isla, Hassan and I went for a little food shopping. When I added a carton of milk to our food basket Hassan shook his head vigorously and placed the milk back in the fridge. By this point we were getting quite used to being carted around the place without really understanding what's going on, where we are going or why we are doing things in a certain way, so even though I did not know why I could or should not buy the milk in this shop I avoided questioning his reasons. A great part of the Iranian experience is letting go of the need to control how things happen. Decisions are taken in an organic sort of a way, by the entire group around us, never with any hint of urgency or hurry, and generally for rather than with us. So I sat back and let Hassan drive us back to Sam's house. On the way back to the small village where he lives, we took a different turn from usual and started driving down dark country lanes (think dust, tall mud walls and raisins, rather than leafy hedges). Hassan reassured us that we were going to get milk.

A few minutes later we approached a big iron gate and behind it (of course!) a dairy farm. Mohammad grabbed a cow, squeezed a litre of steamy creamy and milk into a pale blue plastic bucket and handed it to us with a big smile. We joined him and Mina, his young daughter for the obligatory cup of ├žay and sat on the floor of the small bare room to share some delicious anar (pomegranate). This was an evening of total simplicity and yet vivid in texture and subtle meaning. Forgetting the velvety nights of Zendejan will not be possible.

Leaving these splendid people and with them Iran was not easy, as their offer, renewed time and again to overwinter in the small languid village was casually seductive. On the other hand our nomadic blood was boiling and the call of the wild too strong to resist.

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