Amalia* – After what seems like the most boring 15-hour transit experience ever, my plane arrives in Tehran. I am finally here, in Iran. Today, 17th of December 2011, marks the start of my Middle East trip. The trip that I have always been waiting for. One dream can soon be checked off the list. I feel excited, thrilled, and nervous at the same time. Yes, I am alone here, at this moment. One part of me screams that I am insane. What am I doing in this totally strange place alone? The other part of me applauds myself for having the courage to do this. Well done, you have finally conquered your fear!
Iran seems like a strange place to me. It is not Europe or Arab Middle East, nor South East Asia. I have certain pictures in my mind about those countries. But when it comes to Iran, it is hard to imagine. I don’t know how it looks like or how the people there conduct themselves. Is it safe for me, a woman, to travel alone? I hope so, I’ve heard some travellers did it. I refuse to equip myself with a Lonely Planet book. I have little knowledge about this country, except from those travel-related forums, Wikipedia, and Wikitravel. Never mind, I shouldn’t be too worried. I will be meeting my host in a few hours time and I will be joining my travel mates tomorrow morning, so everything is going to be fine. Insya Allah.
There is other major issue that keeps me worried before stepping my foot in Iran, which is the visa, my ultimate passport to this country. Iran is one of the four Middle Eastern countries who are generous enough to give Indonesians a Visa-On-Arrival. But that does not keep away my nervousness. Few days ago, I was told that my Egyptian visa application was rejected. I was shocked and angry. I had no time to appeal. What if I am refused an entry to Iran as well? Having your visa rejected is already painful enough. I can’t imagine to be deported when I am already inside the country!
As we are waiting for the door of the plane to be opened, I smile when I see women starting to wear their long coats and headscarves. This is a familiar scene that I always encounter whenever my plane arrives in Saudi Arabia. This time, it is in Iran. You do not need to wear an abaya, but any long top and a headscarf will do. Some women wear chador. Some wear a “proper” headscarf. Some wear a headscarf with their hair shown. The dress code is not a big problem for me. This is what I wear every day and I don’t need to worry about it that much.
When the door opens, I get out of the plane and walk through a long corridor to the visa section atImam Khomeini International Airport. The airport is practically empty by international standards. It looks clean and well-maintained. I fill out the visa form and wait patiently – or rather, nervously. A minute feels like an hour. Just give me the damn visa! Then a nice officer – the only one who can speak English there – approaches me and tells me that he’s been trying to call my contact person to no avail. Does that mean I’d be deported? No, please not. He tries again for few times, and thank God, the person on the other line picks up the phone. Exactly thirty minutes later, another officer calls my name and asks me to pay the visa fee of 25 EUR. I have the visa now – 15 days! Alhamdulillah!
“Welcome to Iran”, says an immigration officer. I smile. As I take an elevator down to the baggage claim area, I can see the airport from the upper level. This airport looks so huge and grand because there is barely anyone there. Only few officers here and there. The baggage carousels have stopped working. The passengers have taken their luggage and have disappeared long before I reached this area. I can spot my blue backpack from afar, sitting there alone waiting for the owner to pick it up.
I take my backpack, exchange some money, buy a new SIM card, have a quick “Western lunch” (ironically, I can NOT find Iranian foods in the airport), inform my family that I have safely arrived, contact my hosts, and finally, get out of the airport to start this exciting journey. It is 3pm now. I know exactly what I should do next. Few days before my departure, my Iranian host gave me some instructions. I have to go to Kahrizak metro station and take a metro from there to the north of Tehran. This is the cheapest way to go from the airport to the city, so this is my only available option.
As I walk around the station to find the correct platform, I can feel that all eyes are on me. Some smile, some say hello, and some just stare, perhaps wondering what in the world this small girl with a big backpack is doing here. It is weird to be the centre of the attention in a foreign land that you know little of. I am not sure how to react or response – the only thing I can do now is to smile to anyone, hoping that my smile does not create negative perceptions like in Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, it is not and people response positively to my smile . With limited English, they start to ask me where I am from. Weird guesses from Japan, Philippines, to Korea start to come out. Once they discover that I am anInduunizii, they smile. “Aaaah, Induuniziii”, they say.
Tehran’s metro is surprisingly comfortable and clean, equipped with both English and Persian signs. Before coming here, I have a rather baseless view of Iran: a messy and a dirty country, perhaps like what you see in Egypt or Indonesia (specifically Jakarta). But that’s certainly not the case. I laugh at myself for having such an ignorant view. The metro dedicates the front and back carriages for women only, while the other carriages are for both men and women. I choose the mix carriage, so I can see Iranian men and women and how they interact to each other. Just like Saudi Arabia, Iran is an Islamic state. Is it as conservative and rigid as in Saudi Arabia? I hope I will find the answer soon.
An hour passes by. I find myself waiting for my host outside the metro station in one of the busiest streets in northern Tehran. It is rush hour, not a convenient time to be stuck in Tehran. This city is somewhat like Jakarta, but much less polluted than Jakarta. It is crowded, jammed, noisy, and sporadic. If you think buses and angkot (mini buses) in Jakarta drive recklessly, wait until you see how Iranians drive their cars. I don’t know how to cross the street here. Before I can even figure that out, somebody honks a car and calls out my name. Oh that’s him, Mansour*!
Mansour is an Iranian guy that I came to know through CouchSurfing. He has given me a lot of tips on finalizing my Iran itinerary. We wrote to each other before I came to his country. He is a very friendly guy with a great sense of humour. Upon meeting him, I know that I am in safe hands. He speaks perfect English, loves to travel, and has a plan to emigrate to Canada by next year. He invites me to his place and introduces me to his friend, Sara*, who is happened to be a CouchSurfer too. Sara seems like a quiet girl, but she has accomplished a lot in such a young age. She runs her own company and just like Mansour, she wants to emigrate to another country. But unlike Mansour, she prefers to emigrate to Australia instead.
So why exactly do young Iranians like Mansour and Sara want to get out of their country? “I don’t like the government,” says Mansour. Sara agrees. They talk about the lack of freedom. They talk about Islamic Republic that they oppose. They talk about the rising unemployment among ordinary Iranians. They talk about sanctions and their effect on Iranian economy. They talk about the dress code which is imposed by the government. For me, these are new and interesting insights. I have an Iranian friend back in the Netherlands, but unlike Mansour and Sara, he does not condemn his government at all, despite the fact that he grew up and lived abroad for most of his life. Conversing with Mansour and Sara makes me wonder: do they represent the majority of young Iranians? Are most young Iranians against their government? Do most of them want to leave their beloved country? I ought to find the answers soon enough.
It is almost 8pm already. The sun disappears. The cups are empty. The sweets are finished. Time passes so quickly. I already feel so comfortable around here. Unfortunately, I can’t be here all night long. It is time to say goodbye to Mansour and Sara. Despite the apparent sleep deprivation and lack of energy, I really enjoy spending these few hours with them. I hope to see them again soon.
My other host, Reza*, comes to pick me up shortly after. He lives within a walking distance from Mansour’s place. A tall guy with a sincere smile and an enthusiastic way to say my name, Reza was kind enough to response to my request and to let me stay at his parents’ lovely house for one short night. His parents and sisters welcome me with open arms. They immediately ask me to have dinner with them. His mom has prepared kookoo sabzi, a Persian-style egg dish, flavoured with some combination of herbs and leafy veggies. We eat it with some breads and yoghurt. It has a rich and interesting flavour. During dinner, we share about each other’s background. Reza’s parents are from Tabriz, a city located in Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province. Because of its close proximity with Turkey, they can speak a little bit of Turkish. Reza and his sisters have to translate the conversation into Persian so that their parents can understand. Although they can speak very little English, by the end of the day, I am able to somehow communicate with them using whatever means I can possibly use .
This is my first glimpse to an Iranian family, a modern one I would say. Their hospitality is not comparable to any other CouchSurfing experience that I previously had. They are friendly, warm, and are opened to discussions. They make me feel like home. They make me feel like I am part of the family. Although I have my sleeping bag with me, they give me a small mattress to sleep on and a blanket to cover myself. Their lovely living room becomes my temporary space now. This is definitely more than enough. I am so happy and grateful to be here.
I had a low expectation of Tehran before coming here due to its notorious crowded reputation, but the presence of Reza’s family certainly exceeds my expectation. They make my visit to Tehran more memorable – even though I haven’t even explore Tehran yet! Tomorrow will be the day when I can finally meet my travel buddies and explore the city. I cannot be more excited!
* Amalia is a 27 years old Indonesian woman and a world traveler. She has been blogging since 2004 in Amellie.net