Our ride to Rasht takes us along the coast but out of sight of the sea. There's drizzle when we say goodbye to Farzan and Roxana but by mid-morning the rain has set in for the day. The leaden skies do nothing to improve the landscape unfortunately. This part of Iran is very popular with locals because of the green. And it's green because it rains so much. We pass more waterlogged rice fields with last year's stubble still showing. The province of Gilan is known for it's tea - the national drink - cultivated here since an Iranian managed to smuggle a few hundred plants out of India. (This is the same trick that the British pulled off in China, thus breaking the Chinese monopoly on the trade.) The tea drunk here is quite delicate with a flowery scent, not as bitter as our black tea or as stewed as Turkish tea. We trundle through a few towns and when we can't find the right road to the south of Rasht a local leads us in his car to the turn-off. Somewhere on the highway we are also flagged down by a couple of men who call out our names. They are friends of Farzan and invite us to stay with them. One of them tells us he has cycled around the world with his daughter, but his English is quite bad, so we're not entirely sure we have understood him properly. However, we have a commitment to our couch-surfing host, Zahra, in Rasht, so we politely decline their offer. It's a long ride and we are wet and filthy from the ride when we arrive at the end of the afternoon.
Rasht is a big city and Zahra is evidently a city girl. She's not wearing any black and she doesn't hesitate to shake my hand. (The advice for men is not to offer your hand and wait to see if the woman does. More conservative women don't shake hands with men. I will never forget the first time I went to Pakistan with my friend Imran and when we arrived in Karachi at his aunt's house I followed him in giving his three cousins [all female] the continental kiss-kiss on the cheek. Imran was mortified but afterwards couldn't stop laughing about it.) Immediately there's something about Zahra's confident self-assurance that speaks volumes to us. She seems impressed that we've cycled so far in one day. This is in direct contrast from others who only drive and think we can cycle 60km per hour. We are introduced to her mum and dad and quickly served tea. Today, as we cycled, we reflected how different Iran is when we stay with local families - it really makes a difference to our experience, compared with our trip last time in 2008. Ultimately this is true in all countries - you get a much greater insight into the culture and the people. It's what makes Couch Surfing and the like so special. Now here we are in Rasht with our third host family and we are beginning to discover the complexities of Iranian society.
Zahra tells us that she trained as a civil engineer at university in Tehran, and then worked there for five years before deciding to switch to psychology. She studied for her Masters in Turkey but to practice without supervision in Iran she needs her Phd. Without a Bachelors in the subject it's hard to find a place at a university but Barcelona accepted her. Great news, except that Spain has refused her a student visa. This leaves her enormously frustrated. There is a slim chance for her - but only if the dodgy consul at the Spanish embassy is replaced (he apparently favours applications from wealthy Iranians willing to invest in property deals managed by a friend....) Remarkably she is not disheartened. She is, we realise, a determined woman.
The days continue to be grey and rainy and Zahra confounds us once more by declaring that she loves this weather. To us it is a reminder of the endlessly dull days of Pennine weather we get at home. After one week in Iran we have had sunshine only for a few hours - although we know when we cross the mountains it will be a different story. We head off to the coast for a little look around. The journey is in a shared taxi - a ubiquitous sight in Iran as almost every car could be one. They are almost as cheap as buses but much faster and probably provide employment for 20% of the population. I can only think this is the reason for their continued existence. In the city the traffic is horrendous, but once we get on the highway the driver can relax a little and put his foot down. Every driver here wants to be Ayrton Senna - but only because they don't realise how come he isn't racing these days. (Farzan in Hashtpar drove like a madman and was quite cocky about it. Of course, he might be a great driver, but what happens when some dozy incompetent pulls out in front of him as he races along?? His father had implored him "Don't drive like a driver, drive like a teacher.") Down at the seaside it's fairly quiet and a bit nippy. There are fisherman out in small wooden boats, and a couple of guys wade in with rods. A few locals come down to the shore for a walk. A couple plays badminton. We sit down and take tea from a flask and talk and talk. We return to Rasht just as dusk falls. The driver on the way back hurtles along, weaving inside and outside the other traffic. The skin on my face is pulled back by the g-force. I practice my usual habit when driven by a lunatic of looking sideways out of the window instead of through the windscreen. "Actually he's one of the better ones", Zahra assures us. Later, in a traffic jam on a three-lane highway we count six rows of cars trying to squeeze along the same direction, whilst an over-ambitious and impatient fool tries to undertake everyone.
|picnic out of the rain|
|Misha, the Persian cat|
|two determined women|