Note: this article was first published on March 13, 2012. Originally it lived on my personal website, which has since evolved into ebizfacts.com, a site investigating different ways to make money online.
I'm writing this on my last day in Iran, just a few hours before I jump aboard a boat to Dubai. But I can't possibly leave without expressing my gratitude for all the amazing people I've met in this country these last ten days.
As mentioned in a previous post, I landed myself in a sticky situation by not bringing much cash into a cash-only economy, and I also realized quite late that my visa was only good for a week. So what should have been a cushy and relatively relaxed visit to Iran suddenly became a ten-day stress-fest, as I hustled to extend that visa and figure out how to make ends meet with what little cash I could get my hands on.
But now here I sit on my last day, friendly ATMs just a ferry ride away, feeling very lucky that everything unfolded how it did. Thanks to my rookie travel mistakes I ended up meeting some remarkable people, witnessing countless acts of humbling kindness, and catching several glimpses of a culture non-Iranians rarely get to see.
Humans: My favorite animal
People often criticize my terrible sight-seeing habits. It's not uncommon for me to stay in a city for several days or even weeks without visiting the typical tourist spots. Quite honestly, I don't much care to see inanimate objects, no matter how old or big or historically significant they may be.
I'm much more interested in meeting people, having conversations, sharing stories and experiences. For me, the best part of going on a walking tour or visiting a museum is that I get to meet and connect with fellow humans.
Before Iran, when asked what had been the highlight of my trip so far, my answer was always Amsterdam. Going forward, my answer will be Amsterdam and Iran. Why? Primarily because it has been in these places that I've met the most people. In Amsterdam I was out and about every day, forcing myself to start conversations. Here in Iran, I had to seek help from dozens of strangers.
– Azadi Tower in Tehran
An ode to the generous
If you'll indulge me for a few hundred words, here's a list of remarkably generous people I was lucky enough to cross paths with while in Iran...
- Mr. Mousavi, the owner of the Firouzeh Hotel in Tehran, where I stayed for five nights. He offered up a whole host of solutions to my money problem, and eventually connected me with an Irish chap also traveling in Iran who had cash to spare.
- Eoin, said Irish chap who trusted that I'd make good on my promise to transfer money to his account back home in exchange for a chunk of Iranian Rials.
- Behzad, a former motorcycle champ from Tehran who responded to my plea for help on Couchsurfing and gave me some cash in exchange for buying him Skype credit and the like. Not only that, but he put me in contact with several people in Isfahan and Bandar Abbas who helped me out big time later.
- Maral and Samira, who I actually met a couple of months back at the Iranian embassy in Budapest. They came through with lots of helpful advice via Facebook.
- Gholam, an absolute legend of a man who hosted me for three days in Isfahan. He also acted as my personal chauffeur, made sure I had Internet access when I needed it, gifted me several meals, and introduced me to many other great people around town. When his car ran out of gas on the way to the bus station on Saturday night, he quickly arranged for another friend of his to come pick me up so I wouldn't be late, and had his cousin who worked at the station ensure I was properly taken care of (read: best seat on the bus). Also, in a land where dancing is forbidden, Gholam refuses to sit still while the music blares. My fondest memory of Iran will always be of him shaking shoulders and clicking fingers behind the wheel as we weaved in and out of traffic on the busy streets of Isfahan.
- Saeed, who invited me into his home for several hours to use his wifi connection, then invited me to join his family for an epic feast. Afterwards his daughter taught me how to play backgammon, before Saeed and his wife dropped me into the city center to meet a friend.
- Amin and family, who welcomed me into their travel agency in Tehran with smiles and tea and brochures and prunes, before helping me book my ferry to Dubai.
- Hoda, who palled around with me for two days, gave me a tour of her university, and invited me out to her sister's graduation dinner. She was also kind enough to answer all my ignorant questions about women, sex and romance in Iran.
– Sunset, overlooking Tehran (as taken by Hoda)
- Mohamad, who wasn't even in town but saw to it that I had friends and a place to stay on short notice in Bandar Abbas. I'd arrived in his city with just enough money for food or accomodation, but not both.
- Another Saeed, who brought me along as his guest to a local swimming pool In Isfahan, where I made the most of the steam room and jacuzzi.
- Yasser, who picked me up from the visa office and drove me halfway across Isfahan to use the wifi at his office.
- Masoud, who gave me a lift across town and entertained me with tales of his sexual exploits beyond Iranian borders.
- Aref, who took time off work to get me settled in Bandar Abbas, gifted me food (falafel!) and drink, and conversed openly about his life, love, hopes and dreams.
- Nooshin, who was excellent company for my last evening in Isfahan, and answered still more of my ignorant questions about women, sex and romance in Iran.
- Abbas and Reza, who kept me fed (more falafel!), gave me a cozy place to sleep, and proved good company despite the severe language barrier.
- Angie, Elnaz, Hamed, Hoora, Issa, Mozhgan, Omid, Reza, Sara, Shima and Zarry, all of whom expressed concern and offered to help me out during my ten days in Iran.
And those are just the folks whose names I remember. There was also the random security dude at the visa office in Isfahan who flashed a smile and wished me well seventeen times in six encounters. And at least two dozen other nameless souls who made my stay in Iran all the better with their unfailing words and deeds of kindness.
– Irish love in Tehran
Lessons learned in Iran
I've long maintained that the world can't be a more generous place until people are more willing to receive.
Despite this belief, I experienced within myself a hesitancy to receive while in Iran. I often felt like I might be taking advantage of the people and their generosity, even when they would repeatedly insist on offering me a meal or a place to stay or a ride across town.
I'm pretty sure part of this hesitancy comes from the limiting belief that people only help others when they want something in return. And because I prefer not to rack up debts, worrying that I may fail to repay them, I try to avoid asking for help.
While this belief hasn't completely changed over the past ten days, it has suffered some serious damage. None of the people who helped me appeared to have an agenda. They saw someone in trouble, and they wanted to help. They felt it was the right thing to do, simple as.
Methinks another reason for that hesitancy I experienced is my strong identity as an independent person. I like the feeling of getting shit done, of solving my own problems. If I get myself into a mess, I like to get myself out of it without bothering anyone else.
But I couldn't get myself out of this mess in Iran. I needed the assistance of other people. I had to leave my ego at the door, put up my hand and ask for help. And then I had to accept that help graciously.
A younger me would have considered this a step back down the maturity ladder. But I now recognize it as a step up. Sure, I often had to surrender my independence and put my fate in the hands of strangers, but I see now that it takes a stronger sense of internal security to do this than it takes to go it alone.
– Posing with Gholam and his cousin, at Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan
Places change, but people remain pretty much the same
I leave Iran with a better understanding of both sides of generosity, plus a stronger conviction that most people are good, regardless of location.
I also leave feeling extremely privileged for all I was able to experience in this country. I've been lucky enough to see these people laugh, dance, pray and cry.
As I waited at the station in Isfahan for my bus to Bandar Abbas on Saturday evening, I watched a large family see off a young son. There were tears and hugs, kisses and well wishes. I found myself welling up just watching them, recalling the several times I've said similar goodbyes to friends and family back home.
All the best, Iran. Thank you for everything.
UPDATE: You can read a detailed report of my experience getting to Iran on the Trans-Asian Express over at Two Weeks To Travel.