10 Days In Iran

I’m writing this on my last day in Iran, just a few hours before I jump aboard a boat to Dubai. But I can’t possibly leave without expressing my gratitude for all the amazing people I’ve met in this country these last ten days.

As mentioned in a previous post, I landed myself in a sticky situation by not bringing much cash into a cash-only economy, and I also realized quite late that my visa was only good for a week. So what should have been a cushy and relatively relaxed visit to Iran suddenly became a ten-day stress-fest, as I hustled to extend that visa and figure out how to make ends meet with what little cash I could get my hands on.

But now here I sit on my last day, friendly ATMs just a ferry ride away, feeling very lucky that everything unfolded how it did. Thanks to my rookie travel mistakes I ended up meeting some remarkable people, witnessing countless acts of humbling kindness, and catching several glimpses of a culture non-Iranians rarely get to see.

Humans: My favorite animal

People often criticize my terrible sight-seeing habits. It’s not uncommon for me to stay in a city for several days or even weeks without visiting the typical tourist spots. Quite honestly, I don’t much care to see inanimate objects, no matter how old or big or historically significant they may be.

I’m much more interested in meeting people, having conversations, sharing stories and experiences. For me, the best part of going on a walking tour or visiting a museum is that I get to meet and connect with fellow humans.

Before Iran, when asked what had been the highlight of my trip so far, my answer was always Amsterdam. Going forward, my answer will be Amsterdam and Iran. Why? Primarily because it has been in these places that I’ve met the most people. In Amsterdam I was out and about every day, forcing myself to start conversations. Here in Iran, I had to seek help from dozens of strangers.

Azadi Tower in Tehran

An ode to the generous

If you’ll indulge me for a few hundred words, here’s a list of remarkably generous people I was lucky enough to cross paths with while in Iran…

  • Mr. Mousavi, the owner of the Firouzeh Hotel in Tehran, where I stayed for five nights. He offered up a whole host of solutions to my money problem, and eventually connected me with an Irish chap also traveling in Iran who had cash to spare.
  • Eoin, said Irish chap who trusted that I’d make good on my promise to transfer money to his account back home in exchange for a chunk of Iranian Rials.
  • Behzad, a former motorcycle champ from Tehran who responded to my plea for help on Couchsurfing and gave me some cash in exchange for buying him Skype credit and the like. Not only that, but he put me in contact with several people in Isfahan and Bandar Abbas who helped me out big time later.
  • Maral and Samira, who I actually met a couple of months back at the Iranian embassy in Budapest. They came through with lots of helpful advice via Facebook.
  • Gholam, an absolute legend of a man who hosted me for three days in Isfahan. He also acted as my personal chauffeur, made sure I had Internet access when I needed it, gifted me several meals, and introduced me to many other great people around town. When his car ran out of gas on the way to the bus station on Saturday night, he quickly arranged for another friend of his to come pick me up so I wouldn’t be late, and had his cousin who worked at the station ensure I was properly taken care of (read: best seat on the bus). Also, in a land where dancing is forbidden, Gholam refuses to sit still while the music blares. My fondest memory of Iran will always be of him shaking shoulders and clicking fingers behind the wheel as we weaved in and out of traffic on the busy streets of Isfahan.
  • Saeed, who invited me into his home for several hours to use his wifi connection, then invited me to join his family for an epic feast. Afterwards his daughter taught me how to play backgammon, before Saeed and his wife dropped me into the city center to meet a friend.
  • Amin and family, who welcomed me into their travel agency in Tehran with smiles and tea and brochures and prunes, before helping me book my ferry to Dubai.
  • Hoda, who palled around with me for two days, gave me a tour of her university, and invited me out to her sister’s graduation dinner. She was also kind enough to answer all my ignorant questions about women, sex and romance in Iran.

Sunset, overlooking Tehran (as taken by Hoda)

  • Mohamad, who wasn’t even in town but saw to it that I had friends and a place to stay on short notice in Bandar Abbas. I’d arrived in his city with just enough money for food or accomodation, but not both.
  • Another Saeed, who brought me along as his guest to a local swimming pool In Isfahan, where I made the most of the steam room and jacuzzi.
  • Yasser, who picked me up from the visa office and drove me halfway across Isfahan to use the wifi at his office.
  • Masoud, who gave me a lift across town and entertained me with tales of his sexual exploits beyond Iranian borders.
  • Aref, who took time off work to get me settled in Bandar Abbas, gifted me food (falafel!) and drink, and conversed openly about his life, love, hopes and dreams.
  • Nooshin, who was excellent company for my last evening in Isfahan, and answered still more of my ignorant questions about women, sex and romance in Iran.
  • Abbas and Reza, who kept me fed (more falafel!), gave me a cozy place to sleep, and proved good company despite the severe language barrier.
  • Angie, Elnaz, Hamed, Hoora, Issa, Mozhgan, Omid, Reza, Sara, Shima and Zarry, all of whom expressed concern and offered to help me out during my ten days in Iran.

And those are just the folks whose names I remember. There was also the random security dude at the visa office in Isfahan who flashed a smile and wished me well seventeen times in six encounters. And at least two dozen other nameless souls who made my stay in Iran all the better with their unfailing words and deeds of kindness.

Irish love in Tehran

Lessons learned in Iran

I’ve long maintained that the world can’t be a more generous place until people are more willing to receive.

Despite this belief, I experienced within myself a hesitancy to receive while in Iran. I often felt like I might be taking advantage of the people and their generosity, even when they would repeatedly insist on offering me a meal or a place to stay or a ride across town.

I’m pretty sure part of this hesitancy comes from the limiting belief that people only help others when they want something in return. And because I prefer not to rack up debts, worrying that I may fail to repay them, I try to avoid asking for help.

While this belief hasn’t completely changed over the past ten days, it has suffered some serious damage. None of the people who helped me appeared to have an agenda. They saw someone in trouble, and they wanted to help. They felt it was the right thing to do, simple as.

Methinks another reason for that hesitancy I experienced is my strong identity as an independant person. I like the feeling of getting shit done, of solving my own problems. If I get myself into a mess, I like to get myself out of it without bothering anyone else.

But I couldn’t get myself out of this mess in Iran. I needed the assistance of other people. I had to leave my ego at the door, put up my hand and ask for help. And then I had to accept that help graciously.

A younger me would have considered this a step back down the maturity ladder. But I now recognize it as a step up. Sure, I often had to surrender my independence and put my fate in the hands of strangers, but I see now that it takes a stronger sense of internal security to do this than it takes to go it alone.

Posing with Gholam and his cousin, at Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan

Places change, but people remain pretty much the same

I leave Iran with a better understanding of both sides of generosity, plus a stronger conviction that most people are good, regardless of location.

I also leave feeling extremely privileged for all I was able to experience in this country. I’ve been lucky enough to see these people laugh, dance, pray and cry.

As I waited at the station in Isfahan for my bus to Bandar Abbas on Saturday evening, I watched a large family see off a young son. There were tears and hugs, kisses and well wishes. I found myself welling up just watching them, recalling the several times I’ve said similar goodbyes to friends and family back home.

All the best, Iran. Thank you for everything.

UPDATE: You can read a detailed report of my experience getting to Iran on the Trans-Asian Express over at Two Weeks To Travel.

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    1. Loved this and I think we all need reminding that people in general are good and if they get the chance will go out of their way to help each other. So much news – especially right now – of horrible things we do to each other. We really need this reminder and to believe it is true. Humans for all their problems are basically ok.
      What will Dubai bring I wonder?
      Really enjoying following your journey
      Kate x

      • Thanks for the comment, Kate. I agree that the news is pretty unbalanced, always feeding us the most negative and shocking stories.

        As for Dubai, I’m thinking that will bring lots of work, as I need to catch up on a lot of projects I let slide while in Iran.

    2. Great post, Niall! Very heartwarming. I love that you mentioned each person by name. Very touching. In a time when governments always seem to be at the brink of turning to aggression and violence to solve problems, I love that everyday people again show themselves to be kind, generous, and caring toward their fellow man. It confirms my belief that we might all be better off if we had less government and more love.

      • Thanks for reading, Crystal. I agree with your sentiments. So many Iranians told me that they hoped I understood that the government was separate from the people. Made me think of all the Americans who didn’t like being associated with the Bush administration.

    3. Loved this post, it comes to be one of my favorites. It’s definitely harder to receive than to give, even being able to accept help from our close circle is difficult, let alone from strangers, so congratulations on your learning! 🙂

    4. Man, I’ve always wanted to visit Iran! AirAsia is flying KL to Tehran and I’ve always been eyeing the deals. Still got to find the push on the bottom to do it. It’s gonna come some time, though 🙂

      I love your way of sight-seeing, it’s mine too :p The only places I want to visit when I’m in a country now are: a wet market, a university, a mosque / church (anything that’s not the main religion + one of the main religion), a coffee shop (other than Starbucks & co :p). Those who give you the glimpses of life 🙂

    5. Fascinating post, Niall. Just serves to reinforce my notion that the actual people of a country are generally very nice people, it’s just the government and the often sensationalist media that paints everyone with the same brush.

    6. Thanks so much for reminding us that on the streets of the world the people we meet are just people like us. They are not the actions of their governments, nor are they the spin that our governments and media place upon them.

      Thank you!

    7. Wow!

      Some of the best travel moments I’ve had, from caravaning in Kerry to exploring Cuba, have been when things don’t go to plan. I’ve always thought that it is not an adventure unless something goes wrong.

      Seeing all the names of the people who helped you made me wonder what impact you had on their lives. It’s not everyday you get to meet an Irish guy travelling around the world without flying and with only one pair of jeans.

    8. I too have recently had to learn to relinquish control in a situation and ask for help-which I really dislike doing. Do you think it is ego? Just an independent nature? A self worth thing? I’m still working through it myself. I’m glad that you wrote about it…and everything else, really. You open up and let people in, and even if you never traveled beyond your own village, that’s a very brave thing to do.

      • Thanks for the kind words, Lorri.

        Regarding the asking for help thing, I’m not sure what it is exactly, and I’m guessing it’s a bit different for everyone. I think for me a big part of it is that I cling a bit too tightly to my independence, and I fear that asking for and accepting help lessens it in some way. Not a logical fear by any means.

    9. i came across this post through facebook.

      i’m an iranian canadian who hasn’t been back since immigrating to canada with my family over 25 years ago.

      due to a potential war, there is quite a bit of anxiety within iranians living abroad. there seems to be not enough information to counter the propaganda and the superficial image of iran and iranians that has been created by warmongers and the mainstream media, who, instead of bringing in different perspectives, seem to be fanning the flames of another war. at least here in north america.

      what you are doing is to help break the stereotypes, the segregation and to bring humility into the world.

      kudos my friend.

    10. This is wonderfully inspiring! I especially love this: A younger me would have considered this a step back down the maturity ladder. But I now recognize it as a step up. Sure, I often had to surrender my independence and put my fate in the hands of strangers, but I see now that it takes a stronger sense of internal security to do this than it takes to go it alone.

      I hope take that step up at some point! Cheers!

    11. Hi Niall, I loved it ! Really regret that we could not meet up…
      I hope see you one day some where in another world… By the way I will spend 2 weeks in Euprope in 2 or 3 month, will you be around ?

    12. That my friend was a life-changing experience you had. Thank you for sharing that in the way you did, it was very personal and real. I felt personally touched by the generosity and the care of your friends who helped you. You brought out an amazing point when you shared about your reluctance to receive…that’s a normal response(it takes going through the circumstances that you encounter to even truly understand that struggle). It revealed also that you’re a humble man. You know the greatest way that you can repay all those friends is to help other in their time of need. I’m somewhat envious of your experiences, yet I’m grateful that I can glean a bit of wisdom from a sojourner as you, Niall. Thank you

      • Thanks, John. Glad this resonated with you. I’ve definitely been feeling inspired to pay all that kindness forward and have taken advantage of several opportunities to do so already. Feels good 🙂

    13. Wow Niall, great post, feels more heartfelt than the last ones for some reason…

      I also used to have some hesitancy to receive in the past. Experience led me to just embrace the fact that some people just like to be helpful.
      Later, I found myself helping couchsurfers just for the sake of helping and without an agenda of my own.
      After helping a fellow traveler, I always feel good inside, I feel like I’m contributing to the world via its residents.

      Now, I know I DO have an agenda. Its my desire to give back to the world, my desire to receive that feeling back when I help. The connection I create. The hopefully friendship that may come after. That is my agenda….

      Now, I can receive help more easily than before. I know what I’m giving back 🙂

      I just loved this post, has so much in it 😀 keep on rocking man!!


      • Thanks, Jorge. Scotty Peck would probably refer to your agenda as “smart selfish.” It’s the type of action that leaves you feeling good and helps make the world a better place, all at the same time.

        Glad you’ve also learned that lesson about receiving 🙂

    14. Love to follow your journey Niall even though its via an armchair. Am interested to hear what you learned about life for women in Iran from those you talked to. It seems very oppressive to me. I wonder how different your travel experience would have been if you were female? Maybe you should go in disguise next time to find out! Now theres a challenge too far 🙂

      • Haha. If I was disguised as a woman at least I get through customs faster. They still abide by the “women and children first” rule here.

        But yeah, the oppression is evident. As much as I enjoyed my time in Iran, I wouldn’t want to live there long term. A woman can be arrested for having her hair uncovered in public, and anyone can get in trouble for dancing on the street.

        That said, it seems that behind closed doors there’s plenty of casual clothing, sex, dancing and alcohol consumption. No matter how hard the government may try, that innate human curiosity and rebellious nature can never be extinguished fully.

    15. Awesome story! I have been looking forward to your account of Iran because I was quite certain it would be SO different from what is commonly reported on the news. You did not disappoint.

      I’m glad to hear you were able to meet such awesome people during your stay.

    16. Thank you for sharing this Niall!

      By writing about your incredible experience — 10 days of constantly being on the receiving end of generosity while in Iran — it has just been amplified many times over. Just spreading the word of the Iranians big hearts, in a way, is giving back to those who helped you.

    17. Hey Niall,

      I absolutely love these words of you: <>

      You are so right. And with your acts of courage and kindness at the same time you help so many other people opening up and doing the same.

      I have no idea what comes next and am more afraid than I ever have been in my life. But this keeps me looking ahead. Thanks, friend.


    18. Well, insert this quote of you to the above:

      “Sure, I often had to surrender my independence and put my fate in the hands of strangers, but I see now that it takes a stronger sense of internal security to do this than it takes to go it alone.”

    19. yes you are right dear . people are good there . i myself went there for 8 days in last nov. but it was fear of media that it is a bad place . people are good helping and if they know you are a tourist they will invite you for a dinner at there home . GREAT!!!!!!!!!now i’m going again there for a month .

    20. this time if you come to tehran just let me know send me an email i’ll show you some weed that you havent ever seen before then whenever someone ask u what had been the highlight of your trip so far ,, your answer is Iran then amsterdam 😀 :))

    21. This is such a truly heartwarming story.
      I seem to think it’s not the first time you have written such a story about having to make an effort at depending on the kindness of strangers. Do you think you are getting better at it now or do the long periods of independence in between make it seem just as difficult?
      Either way it’s good to remind us that the people are not always their government especially considering the media brainwashing.
      Have a good time in Dubai next.

    22. hi Niall
      I enjoyed reading your experience about traveling to my country.
      it will be good if some Iranian people read the traveler’s opinion. every western guy who came to Iran say’s that it was one of the best experiences they had but people here think that they are living in the worst place in the world :(.
      I love my country and you all are welcome to come. we will do our best so you can have the best memories in your life time.

      • no disrespect mona ! but after discussin’ over the article with some freinds , we’s reached to agreement that niall was a little bit lucky , not facin’ some wrong people ! i mean he was so lucky meetin’ right guys in right place & time ! correct me if i’m wrong !