“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman
Ok, time has come to handle my famous ‘Things You didn’t Know’ about Iran. I have felt in love with this country from the very first minute if not before!
If I would have to think of one word to describe Iran in would be ‘misconception’. You have no idea what kind of scary, horrifying and weird stories I have heard before my visit.
Even my Mom, who is quiet relaxed about my travels by now, freaked out a bit when I said that after Armenia I’m crossing a border to Iran for 5 weeks.
No wonder. When men such as Ahmadinejad represent your country in international media and interviews for CNN.
But this series is all about learning from my observations. Not about addressing serious problems of countries I travel in. Which I will definitely do in upcoming articles.
Interesting, funny and quirky facts about Iran.
1. Taarof Rules
I see understanding concept of taarof and its larger social context as essential to understand Persian culture.
It may cause misunderstandings between both parties. It can be a source for awkward situations in a social setting. That is why it is important for all travellers to quickly understand what taarof is.
You always have to insist on paying for services, in restaurants, in taxis. Because people will pretend they do not want to accept the payment.
A host is obliged to offer anything a guest might want, and a guest is equally obliged to refuse it.
If people invite you for dinner or to their house. When they offer you a ride or to help you with something do not be sure they really want to do it. You are obligated to refuse many many times before accepting anything, even a tea after dinner.
It does sounds complicated but you quickly should get an idea, at least I did and maybe that is why I had such a great time in Iran.
2. Hitch-hiking Issue
Hitch-hiking is the easiest and the most difficult thing to do in Iran. That is an opinion formed from my experiences. Mr Chinese Man (and no he is not Chinese, it is just his nickname) and I have hitch-hiked on many occasions in this amazing country.
It is super easy because Iranians are the nicest people in the world and they always want to help. Especially when you are a guest in their country! We usually never waited longer than 5 mins.
We have experiences so much good from people while hitch-hiking that it was overwhelming! At the end of the ride they always invite you to stay over their place! Your own host will give you a ride to the border of the city and will catch you a ride himself!
People will drive you for hundreds of miles even if they are going in completely different direction. Even better. They will drive you 100km to tell you at the end that they were just on the way to buy some groceries, but guest are guests!
I know which direction your mind is heading dear reader! So why it is most difficult thing to do Marysia? The reason is the same! Iranians are super nice people, too nice sometimes!
And how do I know it? Well, when shop owner who spotted you on the side of the road is so petrified that you are about to hitch-hike that he stops a tour bus; packs your bags, almost push you inside and refuse to hear no for the answer, you get an idea it won’t be easy.
But when people in the bus insist on feeding you, giving you water and start discussing options of dropping you by police station. So that Police can give you money (because Police helps tourists in need) than you know 100%. Hitch-hiking is not an easy task to pull off in Iran.
Of course we explained many times that we have money. That we hitch-hike for cultural and social immersion. But it was just too absurd for them to understand this idea. At the end bus driver tried to put money in our backpacks cos he was worried dead about us! Iranian are just too nice!
3. Numbers – Money Issue
It was the most confusing thing from all. Official currency in Iran is rial, but at any possible situations everyone gives you prices in ‘tomans’.
I’m good with maths, never had problems with numbers, and to be frank the calculation system is easy! 1 toman = 10rials. But what I couldn’t get my head around is why oh why they are still operating in currency which has been replaced in 1932? 80 years ago!
I remember redenomination of Polish currency back in 1995. On the beginning my grandmother sometimes gave value in the old currency. We all did for first few months, but after the period of transition and getting used to, it was gone. But not in Iran, oh no!
4. Change Issue
Do you think found this toman/rial thing slightly confusing but funny? Wait for this!
In Iran they have another problem regarding money. They are in lack of small notes and coins. And this is super serious, getting a note of 2000rials or even 500 is close to impossible! So when I got one, I was showing it to everyone! Ha ha ha
Ok, but what happens in the shops when they have no money to give you your change back? They pay you back in sweets, yes you heard me well, sweets. They always have some bars next to the cashier and they just trow it in your bag. Seems like heaven? For those with sweet tooth for sure! Meaning all Iranians!
5. Sweets Obsession
Do you remember this famous crazy phrase “Come to the dark side, we have cookies”? It is all over Internet but nobody knows where is it from and who started it!?
I have solved this mystery! Iranians came up with, I’m 100% sure!
These people take love of sweets and cookies to another level! You know like in Europe you always have banks and pharmacies everywhere. They have sweet shops on every corner, preferably too on each actually!
Sweets are a big part of culture here! You never come empty handed when paying a visit. Iranian will refuse taking money for hosting you but will be happy to accept sweets. Life and honour savers to all tourist in this beautiful country. Never underestimate the power of sweets in Iran.
6. Everybody is a PhD!
Education is super important in Iran. Almost everyone is a PhD. And even though there are rational reason to explain why, it is still impressive how well educated Iranians are.
It is great to see that even though women still experience legal and cultural discrimination at the hands of a patriarchal society, it doesn’t include education!
So why Iranians are so well educated? Three simple reasons.
First it was always an important part of Persian culture.
Second. Currently Iran is a quite closed country, government is censoring Internet and propaganda is flying all over the place. And I believe they see knowledge as something associated with freedom and aspiration.
Third reason is that there is not much entertainment available to youths. Clubs, dancing and drinking don’t take focus away from study. Like it often happens in Poland or other European countries.
7. Crazy Drivers
I usually have no issue with people driving like maniacs. It happens everywhere. Of course it may come across as a culture shock to many people from better organised countries. But I have been in so many crazy destinations that I have a culture shock every single time I get into the car in Europe.
I though that after Benin I have seen everything and there is no surprising me in this field. Oh how naive and wrong of me that was.
Iran is by far the most crazy place to drive in the whole world! Official!
There is no rules whatsoever! Not even one. Maybe somewhere on some ancient piece of paper in the archives! And Iran has the highest rate of accidents in the whole world!
8. Iran – Nose Job Capital of the World
That goes without saying when face is the only feature ‘to show’. Iranian Girls are known for using a lot of make up, they are 2nd importer in the world; just after Saudi. So I’m not surprised that nose operations are so popular here.
But there is a funny way how I learned about it. One day when I was travelling I have seen a teenage boy with a plaster on his nose and though yes accidents happens. Than the next day I saw another one and I started to think that men in Iran are quick to hand to hand fights.
This was all in deep countryside of Kurdistan and those were Boys. That is why the idea of the nose job didn’t cross my mind. Until exactly a day later, in the restaurant in the big city I saw a young Girl, like 20 years old, with the same plaster on her nose. Eureka!
When I saw her it all became clear. She told me that they keep those plasters longer than they should just to show off they had an operation!
In Iran everyone pays attention to noses. It is national obsession, just after sweets. Many times I had to explain that I did not have a nose job myself!
And many times there was picture taking involved so they could show it to their doctor. Who would think that my nose is so good looking.
9. The Hijab Rule
Yes, it is mandatory in Iran to cover your head. Even when you are a tourist. As a tourist you should always dress modestly in Muslim countries but it is a first country I had to cover my head, even in Oman where women were full chador.
We all know that I’m way too independent and a rebel to wear a chador. And I must admit I haven’t met many woman travellers going for this option; but there were many with hijab.
I went just for modest dressing and a scarf. I did all that with my own sense of fashion of course! Colours where flashing all over my clothes, and it was not a problem for anybody.
Woman in Iran are very stylish and they try to express themselves with clothes as much as possible. Colourful scarfs, stylish “manteau” which are kind of an overcoat. It is not uncommon to see hair exposed under small loose fitting scarves. And after observing women in Iran I went that way as well, with almost all my hair uncovered.
I had no problems with wearing a scarf and I kind of liked the whole thing. I’m a tourist and it was interesting experience and I knew it has an end date.
But if I would live in Iran and would have to; I would be biggest protester against this rule. Woman should be able to decide about their own clothing, and that goes without saying!
As Mr Rouhani said on Twitter “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviours caused by joy.” Kudos Mr Rouhani! Can we please follow up with this attitude in the future legal changes?
10. People in Iran are just too nice!
Those Iranians are just too nice. I used this statement like 15-20 times every day! People in Iran are so nice, so hospitable, so welcoming and so helpful that it is over-whelming.
It is partly an effect of taarof and guests being ‘friends of God’ but I believe that it goes way beyond cultural and social restrains.
I travelled around the world and people are amazing everywhere. I always say that I’m The Luckiest Girl in the World, because I receive so much good from people on my travels. Iran was a surprise even to me, it really stands out from other countries. Even to me.
I knew that people in this region are hospitable. And I never thought it will be easy to find a place where people will be nicer than in Oman, but I did and it is Iran!
It is the the most amazing country I have travelled in and I have millions examples to prove my point. People go great lengths to host you, to help you to have the best experience possible.
Geo-Restrictions & Censorship
The only problems I really experienced in Iran was a notorious strict internet censorship and extreme content filtering. Couple that together and you are left with an internet where Facebook, Twitter, VoIP services, leading news, entertainment, and sports websites simply do not exist. Iran is no doubt one of the best countries in the world to visit, but do get VPN for travellers with you before you go!
Every single time I was heart-broken when I had to leave. I have met some wonderful souls in Iran. I’m sure I will continue coming across some superb people around the world but Iranians will always stay in my heart!
Iran you have stolen my heart! As much as Israel did few years ago!
Some of the pictures in this article have been taken by an amazing photographer Boris Le Montagner from Boris Lemon Photos.