Why couchsurfing in Iran, of all places?
“Couchsurfing for the first time in Iran? Staying with complete strangers rather than in a 5-star hotel with armed guards?? Great idea!” scoffed my work colleagues when they found out I wanted to try it, not only for the first time in my life, but also in the mysterious Islamic nation much maligned in the western media. Why on earth would I want to risk being kidnapped instead of enjoying the protection of highly armed guards?? Were they getting confused with Iraq??
I had heard about the legendary hospitality in Iran and wanted to experience it for myself first hand. In fact, there has long been a tradition in Iran of hosting complete strangers in their homes even before the advent of Couchsurfing. Apparently, Iranians prefer not to stay in hotels when travelling to another city. If no family or friends are available, you use your extended network to find lodging.
Couchsurfing is technically illegal in Iran and the website is banned (Iran has the second most-highly censored internet in the world after China). That does not seem to deter 40000 hosts in Tehran alone from offering a couch. Getting caught hosting can apparently get you into serious trouble with the authorities. However, the fact that so many Iranians are willing to compromise themselves by exposing their real names, photos and (potentially) addresses, indicate the authorities have more pressing matters to attend to than to chase down couchsurfing hosts.
The whole idea that couchsurfing was even possible in Iran was popularised a few years ago in a book written by a German backpacker. The book was credited with opening many people’s eyes to the possibilities of travelling in Iran, but was also criticized for sensationalizing and exaggerating the debauchery he allegedly witnessed behind closed doors. Certainly, Iran is a very restricted society and there is a lot going on behind the scenes that outsiders would never know about without the opportunity to experience it first hand in the homes of real Iranians.
I used couchsurfing purely for the purpose of meeting local people, not to get free accommodation. I stayed twice with hosts, but also used it to connect and spend time with locals. I was inundated with offers. For example, I posted that I was going to be in Isfahan and received so many offers from Iranians wanting to host me or just hang out that I had to take the post down after 2 days!
Why travel to Iran?
Iran is a country shrouded in mystery. So what exactly is it like to travel there? Travelling is surprisingly easy, as it would turn out. Independent travel in Iran is definitely doable. That said, with the exception of one or two other travellers, most tourists go on an organised tour (vast majority elderly French and German groups), or book everything in advance and hire private drivers who accompany them on their journey. Citizens of the US and Britain are mandated to take an organised tour. I did not meet any people from Britain or the US during my entire fortnight in Iran.
What can you do there?
Iran has a fascinating culture and history stretching back 2500 years to the first dynasty of the Persian empire. Iran has some of the world’s most magnificent Islamic architecture. It’s mind-blowing! Iran is also famous for its incredible Persian gardens which provide calm and respite from the heat and hectic activity in the surrounding cities. So, you’ll spend most of your time sightseeing in incredible mosques and palaces, shopping in ancient bazars or eating in traditional restaurants.
Iran also has some incredible natural scenery, beaches and islands with bizarre geological formations, but I did not have time to visit these.
Is it safe?
Iran is a very, very safe country to travel in. I never felt any threat to my person. Petty crime does exist like anywhere, but I did not see any evidence of it. There was one terrorist attack in Tehran after I had left the country. This was the first attack of this nature since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Certainly, there are no armed guards at any hotel or anywhere else for that matter.
What about the people? All Terrorists, right?
Due to propaganda in the western media and vilification of the Iranian theocratic regime, the Iranian people are unfortunately portrayed as terrorists. For example, I mentioned to a Turkish friend of mine that I would not be able to distinguish him from an Iranian. To which he replied, Do I look like a terrorist?!
This is of course, completely illogical. For example, not all US citizens are red-neck fascists. This stereotype of Iranians could not be further from the truth. Iranians are the most hospitable people I have had the pleasure to meet. Everywhere I went I was met with offers of help and invitations. This kindness was genuine – not the fake kind you often experience as a tourist in many other countries which is often a charade to win your confidence and relieve you of your cash.
Tourism is still in its infancy and you therefore you still have a certain novelty value. Due to the fact that the Iranian passport is one of the worst in the world, young Iranians don’t get so much opportunity to travel. The Iranians I met were all super inquisitive and curious about the world. And so happy that I had chosen to visit their country.
Note there is a peculiar form of etiquette called Taarof. This is a complex behavioral code which foreigners find quite hard, if not impossible to understand. It usually involves a vociferous refusal of an invitation that you actually intend to accept or on the other hand, making an offer for a good or service you have no intention of fulfilling. For example, when invited to an Iranian home for dinner, it is expected the host will offer any food the guest wants, but the guest must refuse the offers, even if they actually want the food! It is unlikely that a foreign guest will experience this in Iran. I did feel sometimes, however, that I had maybe accepted an offer when I really should have turned it down politely.
What about politics?
Usually I don’t raise the topic of politics to avoid causing offence or risk sounding condescending. However many young Iranians I met were happy to discuss their situation, or predicament, as many described it. Iranians are very proud of their culture and history. Many I spoke to, however, were disillusioned by the corruption of the ruling elites. They expressed disgust at the squandering of their oil wealth and pined nostalgically for the days of the Shah. Didn’t the Shah live in lavish luxury while the poor went hungry, I asked? Didn’t he keep a secret police which detained and tortured opposition? Well…. yeah, but at least the country was moving forward and was engaging with the outside world, was the typical response.
Many also expressed their desire to leave Iran permanently as they saw no chance of a future for themselves. Note that presumably those I spoke to in English belonged to the educated middle classes, as most people on the street cannot speak much English. They cannot therefore be considered representative of all Iranians. Still, it is a great shame that many educated young Iranians would rather emigrate due to the perceived greater opportunities and freedoms abroad.
What about communication and getting around?
I did the so-called classical route, starting and finishing in Teheran, flying south to Shiraz, then on by bus to Yazd and Isfahan. Getting around is was much easier than I had imagined. There is a good network of luxury buses. Note the buses do not have toilets, but the drivers will stop on request. Flights are numerous and cheap. Prices are fixed, so there is no chance of sudden price rises prior to departure. This means during off peak times, it is quite possible just to turn up at the airport and jump on the next plane. Note that due to sanctions, fleets are ancient. Expect delays. Train is also an option, although I did not use it.
Most people in the tourist industry speak English, so booking tickets was not a problem. As mentioned, not many people speak English on the street, but Iran has a good 4G network and I resorted to Google translate on the odd occasion.
Is it expensive?
Iran is generally a cheap country to travel in. Food and transport are extremely cheap. Accommodation is not so cheap as their is a shortage of budget accommodation. Hotels do not offer the same value for money as in the west.
What’s the food like?
Persian cuisine is generally meat and rice based (kebab) similar to other middle eastern countries. Vegetarians dishes are available but not as numerous.
Iran sounds like a traveller’s paradise… isn’t there a downside?
It’s cash only for foreign tourists
Due to sanctions, Iran is not connected to the western banking system. This means you have to bring cash to cover your entire trip (Euros and $US are accepted). The fear of underestimating and running out of cash mid-trip caused me quite a bit of anxiety prior to departure. I budgeted 150 Euros per day – 50 € for accommodation, food and transport/tours respectively. In the end, I was well below this. As credit cards cannot be used to guarantee hotel and hostel bookings, no-shows and double-bookings are common.
Predicament of women
Iran is a highly patriarchal society run by an extreme theocracy. All women including foreigners must wear the head-scarf at all times in public. However, many woman push the boundaries and wear the scarf only half covering the head to expose a dyed fringe. This is especially the case in fashionable Tehran.
Iranian women told me that because they are forced to wear the hijab and loose clothing, many have plastic surgery on their noses as the face is the only part of the body they can use to attract a partner. Iran apparently has the highest number of nose jobs per capita in the world. Having the operation is apparently a status symbol – a sign you align yourself with European culture. Due to the high cost of an operation, it is also a sign that you belong to the wealthy upper class. If you can’t afford the operation, however, don’t fret – simply wear the post-operation bandage! Read more about this phenomenon here and here.
For an inside look into Iranian society, check the film Teheran Taboo, directed by an Iranian in exile, which is highly critical of the regime and patriarchy. It exposes some of the bizarre treatment women are subject to – e.g. women cannot work without permission of their husbands. The film’s title is sensational and I wondered how authentic is was. I fact checked it with several of my Iranian friends in Germany and they confirmed that the events depicted in the film are realistic, if not so coincidental as in the film.
Abysmal Road Safety
It is worth mentioning the atrocious road safety standard in Iran. Iran regularly features in lists of top ten most dangerous countries to travel in. The standard of driving and traffic in the main cities is abysmal. Drivers tend to drive in the middle of 2 lanes, so as to leave the decision to the last minute as to which lane to take – I mean, why commit yourself to a lane when you could change lanes at the last possible minute to gain a few metres ahead of the next car at the traffic lights?
What about alcohol? It’s prohibited, right?
Recreational drug users will be happy to know that despite strict prohibition, alcohol and other drugs appear to be freely available in Iran. So, Iran is no different to anywhere else in the world in this regard and the Iranian people like to consume recreational substances just as much as the next man or woman. Note that there are severe penalties for possession of any recreational drugs including alcohol. If you choose to partake, exercise extreme caution. This recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian (not known for sensationalist reporting) describes the charmed life of a drug dealer in Tehran. I asked my first couchsurfing host to verify this and he confirmed that practically any drug can be delivered directly to your door. Prescription painkillers (including opiates) and steroids can be easily purchased from sports nutrition stores. There is also an underground dance party scene as depicted in the movie Raving Iran about 2 young DJs battle to evade the authorities and put on illegal underground parties.
My crazy couchsurfing experience – part one
When I met my first host, Mohamed (name changed to protect identity), I could tell immediately he was a groover and the conversation soon turned to drugs. I told him about the Guardian article which claims the number one drug of choice in Iran is still opium, but is being challenged by crystal meth. He was living outside of Shiraz with his mother. He showed me his shed out the back of his garden complete with opium equipment – traditional pipe, tongs and hot coals. He then proceeded to demonstrate the preparation of ingestion of Iranian red opium. This procedure turned into a nightly event which, I found out later, Mohamed had been practising for around 7 years. I had only tried opium once previously in the golden triangle in Thailand 25 years ago and had a negative experience – disorientation and dysphoria. The effect of the red opium is mild euphoria(significantly less than alcohol or cannabis) with no disorientation or other negative side effects, like paranoia. My view is this drug falls into the too-hard basket due to the excessively long preparation and ingestion times (it takes at least 30 minutes to heat the coals to ignite the opium and 30+ more minutes of intense smoking to get the effects), and the high risk of dependence.
I decided to hire Mohamed as my driver to show me round Shiraz and take me to Persepolis. As previously mentioned, the standard of driving in Iran leaves a lot to be desired. Mohamed proved to be a highly skilled driver, adept at driving the entire time while texting on whatsapp and playing video games, somehow managing to avoid a collision by looking up at the road and swerving at the very last split second. On the highway to Persepolis he recounted a time when he had seen a massive pile-up on the road. Cars had somersaulted over barriers, severed limbs littered the road and an unfortunate soul was impaled by his steering wheel. This tragic event made a deep impression on him and he was visibly moved as he swerved round bends at twice the speed limit.
After a hot and dusty day sightseeing in the city, we picked up Mohamed’s girlfriend and headed north up the main highway to escape the heat and traffic. We were heading into the hills to a popular picknick spot with historic villages. Before we got there, we passed through a small village. Mohamed made a quick phone call and we stopped by a row of shops. A guy came out and threw a small bad of weed through the car window and we carried on to the picknick spot. I was surprised to find in the hills a community of hippies and an expresso bar run by Iranian hipsters. There was a strong smell of weed in the air and several groups of young Iranians carrying plastic bags, which I assumed contained alcohol. I later recounted this event to my guide in Yazd and he told me that the Shiraz people are famous for getting wasted (they invented Shiraz wine, after all!) and that the stores in the village are just a facade and front for the real business of selling weed.
The next night, against my strong protestations, Mohamed insisted we have an alcohol-fueled party. To procure the alcohol, he made another quick phone call. We drove to a dark deserted alleyway in a remote neighbourhood and another car pulled up alongside. He purchased 2 cans of Danish beer and a bottle of vodka. Mohamed asked me how much a can of beer cost in Germany. Around 1.50 €, I replied. Mohamed carefully checked the cans for signs of tampering. Not surprising considering the price for one can was over 7 €! I wondered how Mohamed could afford such luxuries being an unemployed, part-time driver. I found out later a typical salary for a young person in Iran is around 300 € per month. This is another example of the failure of prohibition. Cutting supply without cutting demand simply drives the price up and profits into the hands of criminals.
Once he was satisfied, we drove home to find his sister and niece were visiting. He made no attempt at all to hide his illicit gains, his 9 year-old niece inspecting the vodka and giving her approval of the quality. In fact, Mohamed had a trophy cabinet full of bottles of alcohol. When I recounted this later to other Iranians I met, I wondered why they were so brazen and seemingly nonchalant about the dangers of a police raid. The police do exactly the same! I was told. They drink and smoke like everyone else!
My crazy couchsurfing experience – part two
My next couchsurfing experience was nowhere near as crazy, but still a fascinating insight into life in Iran. My next host, Mansour (name changed to protect identity) was an extremely chilled guy who had hosted hundreds or couchsurfers overs the previous 5 years.
It was fascinating talking to him as he revealed the inner secrets of the lives of typical Iranians. Foreign films and TV are banned in Iran, yet everyone has satellite TV in their houses. Everyone uses a VPN to allow access to banned websites. Mansour even told me the Minister of Culture has a VPN to post messages to the youth of Iran on Facebook!
He showed me 2 pictures of 2 groups of women. One, in public, was a group of women dressed in full black hijab, exposing only the face. The other, obviously in private, featured a group of very attractive young women at a party dressed in short cocktail dresses and high heals with makeup and hair styled fashionably. Mansour asked me to spot the similarities between the 2 photos. I couldn’t see any connection. They are the same women, he declared!
Mansour took me out and showed me round Isfahan with his girlfriend. The next night, he was busy, so I turned again to couchsurfing. After spending the morning and early afternoon sightseeing alone, I spent the rest of the day meeting local people I had made contact with on couchsurfing. I had 4 different appointments every 2 hours from 3pm! The final couple I met were young hipsters who took me to some of the less famous historic bridges in Isfahan. They were weed smokers and confirmed the bad reputation amongst many young people of opium and alcohol, due to the destructive and addictive nature of these drugs and their reputation as drugs for old, conservative people. This is an interesting perspective compared to the hypocrisy of the west, where some drugs are vilified, while other extremely harmful and addictive ones (alcohol) are legal, freely available and not even considered drugs due to (wilful) ignorance.
Travelling in Iran was a unique experience. Through couchsurfing, I was able to connect and have extensive contact with Iranian people in their homes, albeit for a short time. It was a fascinating glimpse into this misunderstood and much maligned nation. It opened my eyes to many things, confirmed the ridiculousness of many western prejudices and exceeded my expectations in so many ways. Had it not been for couchsurfing, I might have had a completely different experience, eating and staying alone in sterile hotels and spending all my time sightseeing – like the typical experience of most tourists.
Disclaimer: The Earlybird does not condone or encourage the use of recreational substances, legal or illegal. The Earlybird does, however, support the human right of the individual to control what he/she puts in his/her body.