Thursday, 13 March 2014

not moving on

changing money at the border
Our first mistake in Iran is not kissing in public, nor giving the thumbs up to the jolly drivers who call out to us and beep their horns (the thumbs up being the local equivalent of the middle finger).  No, our first mistake is arranging different Warm Showers hosts on consecutive days.  Our first night in Iran we have arranged to stay with Babak and his family in Choobar.  He wrote to tell us to call him when we reach his town.  But we don't have a mobile phone.  No problem, just grab one off a passerby.  So when a man in a shop waves and calls out to us we pull up sharpish and head straight over to him.  Can he help us call a friend? You mean Babak Mir?, he asks.  Babak, it turns out, is a Pillar of the Community.  So the man happily phones for us and tells us to wait. We make small talk (Manchester United or Manchester City?) until another man approaches who speaks really good English, in a faintly camp manner.  He is the local English teacher and he loves the British Accent.  Dick Emery springs to mind.  Then Ali Reza turns up to take us to his home.  Ali Reza is Babak's eldest son and speaks even better English.  We move off, but not before I give the Local English Teacher an affectionate shove on his shoulder in an "Oh you are awful...but I like you" kind of way.
Babak is busy working on his land, where he grows kiwis, so Ali Reza gets us settled in.  We meet his mum, Soraya, who is on her way to a wedding party, and his little brothers Hamid Reza and Amir Reza.  These two are twins, he tells us, but this can't be true as Hamid is a big bubbly kid and Amir is a skinny shy boy. But Babak tells us the same thing later.  We have our first Iranian tea, served in good-sized cups with sugar lumps on hand to hold in your mouth and drink the tea through, Persian-style.  We then drink about four more cups while we chat to Ali Reza, who is very chatty.  What do the Iranian people think of Obama? Gayle asks. Well, he replies slowly, there are 75 million Iranians, so I don't really know. When Babak gets home and has washed we sit down and eat dizi, a typical Azeri dish.  The north west of Iran is predominantly Azeri-speaking.  Babak is a gentle man and very relaxed.  After a very pleasant evening he suggests we might like to stay another night.  Our problem is we have arranged another Warm Showers host further along the coast for tomorrow night.  So we say our farewells.  The next morning he leaves early to his teaching job and we depart a little later to Hashtpar.

stop for a minute and four blokes will come along.....

To meet up with Farzan in Hashtpar we also have to ask someone to telephone for us. But this is not difficult in a country where people are interested in tourists, where they approach to ask where we are from.  We stop to drink water at the side of the road and before we know it four blokes appear with smiles and questions.  Farzan arrives in his car and invites us to follow him home through busy traffic.  Soon we are on the main road again and he follows us from behind, protecting us from onrushing cars.  It's a bit like being in the Tour De France, except there are cars and trucks whizzing past, we're not in France and no performance-enhancing drugs have been taken.  Gayle wins the green jersey for her sprint finish.

Farzan and Roxana live in a lovely spot out in the countryside surrounded by rice fields.  Next door are Farzan's parents and the families of his two brothers.  They are a big family - Farzan has 11 siblings - and his sisters are often at their parents'.  We are treated to a great lunch and, after a nap, we head off to Farzan's English school.  He came to the school to learn English, became a teacher, bought a share in the business, then bought the whole school.  Somewhere along the way he has worked for a Chinese company, and done his Masters in Law at Cardiff University.  Learning English is a big thing in Iran and it's accepted that learning at normal school is not enough, so parents pay for private lessons.  It turns out that there are seventeen English schools in Hashtpar alone.  We are taken around to each classroom to meet the students, introduce ourselves and invite questions.  The first night it is girls.  The age range is from about 7 to adult, and the questions vary according to the age group and their level of English.  We go several evenings, so meet the boys on the alternative days.  The popular questions are unsurprisingly how old are you, are you married, are you muslim, what's your favourite iranian food?  Farzan evidently brings all his guests here - so the students know they will get to meet foreigners and practice their conversational skills.  

the beginners' adult group
During the day we relax at the house and Roxana prepares some great food for us.  It's difficult to persuade her to let us wash up - sometimes she gives in to Gayle's insistence, but never to mine.  Despite Farzan's 'worldliness', the family are fairly traditional. Roxana only removes her headscarf in the home when I'm not there. His dad asks us who was Britain's greatest leader, a question that leaves us stumped.  He suggests Winston Churchill.  I laugh.  I always think of Winston as a drunken old colonialist.  In fact, when he was Prime Minister in the early 50's he asked the Americans to help bring about a change in Iran's government, since they had just nationalised Anglo-Iranian Oil (BP as was). The CIA arranged a coup to oust the Iranian prime minister, Mossadegh. It's stuff like this that gives the British a bad name in Iranian history.)

Farzan takes us out to see the Caspian coast. We end up at a beach backed by a large forest. But the beach looks scruffy to our eyes - it's not that long since we were in Greece. He tells us that it's much cleaner now, and he is really pleased. A while ago he took photographs of the beach covered in trash and sent a report to one of the newspapers, angering the local governor. It seems he regularly contributes articles to newspapers - some campaigning, some satirical. The environmental issue is poorly addressed in Iran. When we cycle we just see loads of litter strewn across the landscape, dumped in rivers, along the roadside, through the forest. It's startling. This is the dirtiest country we have visited on this journey. Farzan also tells us that Iran's gas consumption is about half of the total in Europe.

Farzan and his father
We have a few restful and pleasant days here and have fun at the English school in the evening.  We find ourselves slipping into a different circadian rhythmn - one not dictated by the sun, but by the hours kept by our hosts.  Typically they don't go to bed before 1am.  Thankfully they are not early risers and the afternoon nap helps keeps us sane too.  We discover that the back wheel on Gayle's bike has a tell-tale bulge.  The rim is worn and needs replacing.  We finally set off to Rasht with the hope of finding a bike shop there to get it repaired.  Our hosts try to persuade us to stay longer, but we have finally committed ourselves to leaving. 

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