Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Reflections on Iran

Other than Turkey, Iran has been the country we spent the most time in, as well as being one of the places we were most looking forward to visiting. We had a wonderful time, but it also had a profound affect on us and was unlike anywhere else we have been. Many of the things we accepted whilst being there now seem very surreal to us. For this reason, we wanted to write a synopsis, and include some of the things that didn't really fit in the blog. Partially, this was because we did not want it to be obvious who had told us some/certain things, or where they lived. The last thing we want is to get anyone into trouble.

On Driving: Ostensibly better than Georgia. The general atmosphere on the road is a lot calmer, with fewer mental overtakes occurring, and definitely lower numbers of livestock acting as road obstacles. Having said this, city driving is terrifying on a motorbike. Most people seem to have no idea as to what mirrors are for, and randomly swing out into adjoining lanes without so much as a sidewards glance. Everyone is relying on somebody else seeing them, but nobody is looking. Adding to the danger, most scooter and motorbike riders have removed their mirrors entirely and do not wear any safety gear at all. This, combined with the fact that many people don't bother with seat belts and let their children clamber all over the interior of the car, goes some way to explaining the shockingly high road death statistics. According to a 2010 World Health Organisation report, there were 122.1 deaths in Iran per 100,000 registered vehicles. The figure for the U.K. from the same year was 6.5. No joke, on a few occasions parents held their toddlers out of the passenger window to get a better look at our bike. Thankfully, although this made us panic, everything was fine.

There are a lot of very old and badly maintained vehicles on the road, and evidently no emissions testing. This makes the pollution on the road terrible, and we were often engulfed in clouds of thick diesel smoke when stuck behind lorries. Many of the older cars have no working electrics, which is interesting when the car in front decides to slam on the brakes.

On a side note, there are heavy restrictions on importing cars, except for Peugeot. Foreign makes such as BMW, Porsche etc are for the very, very rich due to the import fees. We know politics is a dirty game in every country, but even so we were shocked to learn that the only two Iranian car manufacturers Saipa and Khodro are owned by top political figures. No prizes for guessing why importing foreign makes is so restricted...

On People: Hands down, Iranian people are the friendliest and kindest people we have met so far on the road. People genuinely want to take care of you, and we did not feel uncomfortable, afraid or threatened at any point. Although it can get a little tiring being constantly waved at, called out to or stared at like an animal in a zoo, overall we appreciated our warm reception very much.

The only thing I found a little difficult was that sometimes when male strangers came to speak with us, they would address all their questions to Oli, whilst I got completely ignored. We appreciated the fact that this stems from the culture and is a respect thing, but although they were just trying to be courteous I still found it frustrating on occasion, as it is not what I am used to. It was by no means everyone though, and we had so many lovely encounters with the people of Iran.

On Life in Iran: As a visitor, Iran is amazing. For us it was a hassle free destination and one of the best places we have ever been. However, we couldn't help but feel upset at how hard life can be for some people. Due to the economic sanctions, many people have seen their wages crash down to scarily low figures, whilst the price of goods has risen dramatically. Getting hold of basics such as medicines can be incredibly difficult. The sanctions may have been aimed at putting pressure on the government, but it is the general populace that are suffering.

Added to this, the difficulties people face with things we take for granted shocked us. Many young people had stories; From the girl who was questioned about her personal life by the religious police after they saw her hand a book to a male classmate, to the person who told us that some cafes make a lot of money by allowing unmarried couples to use them as date places. Romantic relationships are illegal outside of marriage. Whilst most people just get on with life, they have to suffer extra stresses.

Internet: The internet is slow and also heavily filtered. We could not access Facebook, our blog, Flickr, Youtube etc. whilst in the country. However, almost everyone gets around this easily with filter blockers / VPNs, so it seems to be broadly tolerated. We were surprised to be asked by quite a few people whether the internet in the UK was similarly restricted. Satellites for televisions are also banned, but again their use is widespread. Although there are crackdowns every now and then, it seems to be tolerated.

On Queuing: People do queue... sort of. Not in a line, but to the side (as in not really a line). The same principle applies whether waiting for traffic lights or at the bakery. It sort of works, and whilst proper line jumpers were rare, you still have to hold your ground.

On the Dress Code: For men, shorts are frowned upon (but as far as we are aware not illegal), but tight jeans and t-shirts seems to be a-okay. For women it is a little more complex. A long, loose shirt or manteau must be worn, coming to at least the mid-thigh. Trousers / skirts must come down to the feet. Hair must be covered with a scarf, although on the whole it is no problem to wear it pretty loose and far back. The girls in Iran are incredibly fashionable, and always seem to look very glamorous. The hijab is loosely interpreted, and some ladies wear it so far back they may as well dispense with it all together. Personally I am all for women wearing this if it is their choice, but the fact that it was law whilst there are few or no restrictions on what men can wear definitely grated on me.

On Alcohol: In theory, it is completely banned and we found that most people don't drink for their own personal or religious reasons. However, it is apparently not difficult to get hold of at all. One random person merrily pointed out to us all the local places you could get it on the black market (apparently this was also common knowledge with the police). We also had an interesting incident where somebody giving us a lift asked Oli to mix him his whisky and soda so he could drink whilst we were going. Obviously it would have been dangerous to do the mixing himself, as he was driving...

On Crime: Petty crime (at least to us as outsiders) seems to be incredibly low. Although everyone worried about our motorbike and kept warning us to be careful, we have never felt safer. Apparently people think that the European crime rates are very low, and were genuinely shocked when we told them there was no way you would have any stuff left if you applied the same principles in Manchester. Honestly, people in Iran leave their ground floor windows open in major cities, and the exchange shops have almost no security. At no point did we feel at risk carrying our camera around, which has not always been the case whilst we have been on the road.

A traveller we met on the Bandar Abbas ferry had actually requested information from the foreign office as to how many incidents there had been negatively affecting Westerners in the past year. There were only five reported problems, which for us summed up how safe it is to visit Iran.

On Food: All the Iranian home cooking we tried was excellent, but finding a decent meal out of the home can be difficult. Although tasty donner and amazing falafel are widely available, as mentioned in a previous post, there also seems to be a fashion for western fast food, and bad western fast food at that. On the plus side though, the availability of amazingly good quality fruit and vegetables was a real treat for us as we had quite a few opportunities to cook with them. The varied climate of Iran allows them to grow a huge variety of produce. It was very cheap, and far superior to what we were used to from British supermarkets. Oli is still missing the Iranian tomatoes...

All in all, Iran is a fascinating country and we had such a great experience. We have never felt more welcomed or better looked after as travellers in any other place. Although a lot of things were different for us as Europeans, we found we had a lot in common with the people we met and spoke with. As one of them told us, 'The sky is the same colour in every country', which was a nice and fitting sentiment. We left the country inspired by the generosity of the people we met, and are determined to try and apply this more ourselves. Hopefully life will get easier for people financially as the Iranian and Western governments start to resolve their differences, as these people truly deserve a break. We cannot recommend a visit here enough. Despite the hassle and expense of getting the visa, it was worth all the effort and every penny.

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