Iran, although increasingly visited by tourists from Poland, remains for many of us a total exotic. But what if you could put your prejudices aside and go couchsurfing in the land of the Persians? Traveler Stephan Orth came up with such an idea and learned, among other things, how to brew beer at home in order to avoid… flogging.
Close-minded, unapproachable, dangerous, threatening to the United States and everything Western. Stereotypes about Persians could be multiplied, instead it is better to confront them, because it is not the Iranian people who create a negative image of their country, but its authoritarian authorities.
And no one can better circumvent the rigors imposed by the regime than. the Persians themselves.
Stephan Orth found this out very quickly, because couchsurfing, i.e. staying overnight on the couches of (sometimes) locals he meets, is forbidden in Iran. Despite this seemingly absurd ban, the traveler had no trouble finding kind people offering him a roof over his head and a place to sleep.
An experienced couchsurfer, he visited more than 30 countries in this way and described his adventures in the book “Couchsurfing in Iran. He described his adventures in a book entitled “Couchsurfing in Iran. (Un)everyday life of Persians”. And the stories were bizarre, from a bikini party in pious Meshheda, 10-day pretend marriage, buying vodka in a pharmacy, or avoiding flogging for brewing beer at home.
Excerpt from the book “Couchsurfing in Iran. (Un)everyday life of Persians”.
I wake up on a hard carpet in the living room, a fluorescent light blinking lazily under the ceiling, my feet almost touching the gas stove standing against the wall. The room is decorated with numerous black-and-white photographs, paintings, and objects reminiscent of ethnographic museum exhibits. The alarm clock rings at seven, Hussein makes tea and hands me his keys.
– Get ready to leave, Nasrin is coming to get you,” he informs me.
Nasrin is a friend of Hussein’s and she is going to the desert with two couchsurfers she is hosting. What I had imagined as a wilderness trek begins to look like an all-inclusive trip, with a chauffeur picking me up from home and taking care of me all day.
The intercom buzzes and I step down into the dusty parking lot, which is surrounded by six-story apartment buildings. This is the first time I’ve seen their grimy facades in daylight. Nasrin is a temperamental thirty-something woman, tall and rather plump; a black chador covers her entire body, from under which only white gloves and blue sneakers peek out.
I am greeted from the back seat of her Pugeot by a couple of Australians, Richard and Sally, who I estimate to be in their fifties and thirties respectively. They’ve been traveling the world for four years – most of their time so far has been spent in Southeast Asia – and usually enjoy the benefits of couchsurfing. Squeezed in between them was Kiana, Nasrin’s seven-year-old daughter. Our guide teaches computer courses at the university, but for today she took a sick leave to show her guests the famous desert surrounding Kerman. Such are the priorities in Iran, the country of world champions in hospitality.
Nasrin is speeding along the highway between mountains whose tops are covered with snow, while the radio blares the wails of Michael Jackson and Beyoncé. The sight of an approaching vehicle, whose driver hasn’t realized that thirty meters to the left is a second two-lane roadway designed for the opposite direction, inspires her to deliver a mini-reference about men behind the wheel:
– They all think they are the best drivers in the world. When they see a woman behind the wheel, they push even harder to show who’s in charge,” he announces.
As we drive through the tunnel under the mountains, Nasrin introduces us to a local custom:
– In Iran, when we drive through a tunnel, we shout. – And she screams at full volume, accompanied by three foreigners and a girl. Little Kiana wins the loud shouting competition with such an advantage that I am glad I am not sitting next to her.
We leave the main road for a serpentine winding road through a mountainous landscape with occasional villages. Soon it turns into an arrow-straight road through the increasingly rugged steppe, with only isolated palm trees adding variety to the landscape. We see nebkas – dunes stabilized by trees, very hardy plants that can find enough nutrients in the sand to survive.
Nasrin knows the area like the back of her hand, hidden under a chador, because she worked as a tour guide for a long time. One day her license was revoked because she was hosting couchsurfers.
– It’s illegal, because the authorities fear that this is how we give shelter to spies,” she says. Two years ago she travelled exactly the same route as today with a Chinese, a Frenchman and a Polish woman. After a stop at a salty river it suddenly turned out that the engine would not start and it was already getting dark. – I called the police and they told me they could not send anyone. From time to time trucks drove by, but none of the drivers wanted to help us,” says our guide. So she dialed the police again. – I started yelling at them: “If I had told you that a group of young people who were drinking alcohol had gathered here, you would have arrived in a few minutes! But when someone reports a car breakdown, you won’t even lift a finger!”. This accomplished at least that they gave me the number of the roadside assistance that got us out of there.
Despite everything, however, the police took an interest in Nasrin’s dealings with tourists. When it came out that she was giving them hospitality, her guide’s license was revoked.
– One of my friends got into even more trouble. He was a soldier and was always showing guests military facilities. He was caught doing this and had to go to jail for two months. – As the woman finishes her story, she stops in front of a police station. We are in the village of Shadad.
– I have to report to them that we will be in the desert,’ she announces. – If they ask you who you are and how you know each other, say that you met by chance in Bam and that I am your guide.
However, the policemen are not as inquisitive as we feared. When Nasrin shows our passports, five men in camouflage jackets armed with machine guns laugh that “such an old man is traveling with such a girl because he wants to feel young again.” Richard has almost no hair left on his head – it is clear that he is twenty years older than Sally. Amused by their “old fart” taunts, the officers pay no attention to the fact that Nasrin’s license expired two years ago. They ask the guide how much money she takes from us. They don’t believe her assurances that she is showing us around for free, but they let us go on our way.
“Adventurous area” – proclaims a sign by the side of the road, and on the next one, as if to confirm these words, it reads: “Nehbandan 275 km”. This is the nearest village, but it really consists, as Nasrin says, of just “three houses and a gas station”. Until that point, the only traces of civilization are a straight road, where the car coming from the opposite direction can be seen from a distance of several kilometers, and an electric line running nearby. The asphalt ripples in the hot air, the ground seems to be covered by water, but when you get closer, you will see that it is just an optical illusion. The desert road is like a journey – just when you get to a place that just a moment ago was shining with tempting light, you already see another shimmering point in the distance and feel tempted to drive further and further.
The sandstone formations around us are getting more and more fabulous, the piles of dust on the roadside shaping themselves into taller and taller buildings or round domes called kalut.
– It’s a bit like the Australian interior,” Richard states.
Another sign announces: “Welcome to Gandom Beryan, the hottest area of the world.” The words “hottest area” and “world” are crossed out; presumably another place turned out to be hotter.
– But it really has measured over seventy degrees here. We say you can fry eggs on the ground here,” Nasrin argues.
After a while we reach the salty Shur River, which our guide has bad memories of due to a car accident two years ago. The riverbed is about five meters wide, and its depth does not exceed a few centimeters at any point. Lumps of salt remain on the shore, resembling snow mud. A little farther on, crumbly white sheets have formed on the sand, where tourists have left footprints and messages in Persian, and some truck driver has imprinted his huge tire. The thermometer in the car shows thirty-seven degrees, fortunately today is a windy day.
On the way back we stop at some particularly spectacular sand mountains with vertical walls that look as if they have grown out of the ground rather than being shaped over centuries by wind and erosion. We only get to see a microscopic fraction of this range of natural sand castles – it stretches one hundred and forty-five kilometers from north to south, some of the hills reaching the height of ten-story houses. On the horizon of this wonderful desert land we spot a snow-capped peak. Here the second or third hottest region on earth, there crackling cold – well, our “adventurous area” is full of contrasts.
While walking on the sand, Richard confesses that the disadvantage of couchsurfing is the lack of time alone and the constant need to adapt to the rhythm of others’ lives. For this reason, he occasionally sleeps with a companion in hotels.
– Well, but there are many more advantages,” interjects Sally. She adds that if I were going to the southeast of Iran, she can recommend a host in Chabahar. He rarely has visitors and his attitude towards them is all the more touching. He even took my Australians to a traditional Baluchi wedding.
– Colourful costumes, strict separation of the sexes and cheers from Kalashnikovs,” says Richard enthusiastically.
Back in Shadad we buy ice cream and Istak apple malt beer, with which Nasrin serves delicious kolompeh date cookies baked by her mother-in-law. Then we have to inform the police that we are leaving the area. The second encounter with the law enforcement officers also looks different than we expected. For starters, the policemen are rifling through the trunk of the Peugeot.
– They are looking for alcohol and opium,” explains our unlicensed guide.
Perhaps they are just checking if we still have room. One of the officers asks if it would be a big problem for us to take some things to the next police station in Sirche. After a while, five young men, armed to the teeth, carry boxes of canned vegetables and large cartons of chicken meat to our car. Twenty kilometers further we hand over the load to a young policeman, whose slow movements betray that we have roused him from his afternoon nap. Or maybe he is a typical inhabitant of the Kerman region?
– People here are considered extremely lazy. We blame it on hypoxia, the city is located at an altitude of one thousand seven hundred meters – explains Nasrin.
However, there is another explanation: in Iran, there is a joke that so much opium is smoked in Kerman that even the passengers of planes flying over the city are drugged.
Our guide has two more attractions planned – a hill with a plaque stating that it was climbed by the “Supreme Leader of the Entire Islamic World,” Ayatollah Khomeini, who sat here on a rock, may Allah bless it; and a store that sells vanilla ice cream with carrot juice, which tastes better than it sounds. Then Nasrin drives me to my host’s house, where I take an afternoon nap. Sleeping at this hour is something very Iranian, normally I can’t sleep a wink. My tiredness is apparently caused by the oxygen-poor air here.
From: Hussein Kerman
I’ll come home late, a friend had an accident
Hussein doesn’t return until half past eleven with his purchases of mushrooms and minced meat, which he plans to use to make sandwich fillings.
– I’m sorry it took so long,” he excuses himself. – One of my friends fell under a cab in Azadi Square and has a broken leg. He had to have surgery, but he’s better now. Do you want a beer?
My host takes out a 0.7 liter bottle of Delster malt beer and unscrews the cap. A loud hiss is heard; there was a lot of gas inside. The drink from the home brewery is sweet and frothy, but quite decent in taste.
– For malt beer, I add yeast and a hundred grams of sugar per bottle. Then I put everything next to the gas stove for three days and pour it into bottles. After a few more days, during which I degas the contents again and again, I finally have beer,” reveals the man who looks like Jesus on his profile picture and who can turn lemonade into beer. – But I have to be careful with it. If I get caught, I get eighty lashes.
“Couchsurfing in Iran. (Un)everyday life of Persians”, Stephan Orth. Published by Jagiellonian University. Premiered on 03.10.2017.