While researching this trip to Iran I read several travel blogs. Almost every blog includes a glowing report about Iranian hospitality. One young man I had met in Sri Lanka told me that to find accommodation, you simply need to get off the bus in each new city and wait. Almost immediately people will come up to you and offer you a place to stay. Not a “I will give you a room for $25” kind of offer, more a “Why have you come to Iran? Where are you from? Please let me feed you and give you a bed to sleep in” kind of way.
I was about to leave Kashan and head to Isfahan. By this stage I had already experienced a little of the famed Iranian friendliness but was keen to see more. I had also realised that it would be touch and go whether the limited stash of funds I had brought with me would last the entire 19 days of my trip. With no access to my Australian bank accounts, the money I had absolutely needed to last. I had no backup. With this is mind I decided to try Couchsurfing in Iran a shot. I had tried Couchsurfing briefly a few years earlier while in Cyprus but with no decent references on my Couchsurfing profile, I had found it frustrating and ultimately a failure.
I should point out that the use of the Couchsurfing app and website is illegal in Iran. I presumed this meant that the hosts could get into trouble if caught using it, but I was not sure how that law applied to a traveller. However, given the successful stories I had heard from others, I decided to not give the legality of what I was doing further thought.
I started by adding my 3 week trip to my Couchsurfing profile. This allowed potential hosts to see it and send me a message if they wanted. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake as over the next few days I received about 20 requests from people all over Iran! All were inviting me to stay in their homes or to meet them for coffee and a chat. Since I had no concrete itinerary for my trip I couldn’t really accept any of these offers. I think the lesson here is to not post your trip publicly on Couchsurfing in Iran. You will be inundated with offers! The majority of which you simply can’t accept. What this response did tell me was that Couchsurfing in Iran is indeed as popular as I had read. Great!
I started looking through the list of available hosts in Isfahan. I found a few people and sent them messages. I was due to arrive in Isfahan the following day, so couldn’t afford to take too long to organise this. I quickly received a positive response from a guy named Samir. Samir’s profile had over 50 confirmed and positive reviews and none negative. I liked those odds so agreed to stay with him.
Samir told me he worked late most nights and so I would need to meet him at his house around 7:30pm the next day. I would have preferred to have been able to get settled in earlier, mostly so that I could dump my big backpack and then go exploring the city. But with no time to organise anything else, agreed to turn up about 7:30pm.
I arrived around 3pm in Isfahan and spent a few hours in Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the main square in the city centre. I then grabbed some dinner and a coffee from a placed called the Art Cafe. It was a lovely café, they played a lot of rock music and at one stage their playlist went the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Nirvana. It seems good music is universal.
Just before I was about to set off to meet my host I received a message from him informing me that he would be a few hours late. He was stuck at work but his neighbour could let me into his house instead. I set off to find his house. Samir lives in an outer suburb of Isfahan in a pretty quiet back street and I needed to catch a bus to reach it. His place turned out to be quite difficult to find. While I didn’t get lost as such, I was unable to find the correct building. I only had the exact address written in Farsi, not English.
It was dark now and at one stage I did consider the turn of events in my life over the last 3 years that had led me to this point. Here I found myself walking the dark and mostly deserted outer suburban streets of Iran’s 3rd biggest city, with nothing but a backpack. I did not know a single soul in this country, nor even a neighbouring one and I had no fall back option. In life we normally always have a support network of friends and family around us. A few years ago my current situation would have seemed completely bizarre at best, dangerous and scary at worst. However I was never worried. Travelling the world solo for several years, constantly without any kind of support network, gives you tremendous confidence.
Sure enough, a young Iranian man came over to see what I was doing. He said to me “why are you here, what are you doing here”. Good question! I responded that I was “looking for a friend’s house”. He looked at my directions written in Farsi and explained that the street I actually wanted was the next street across. He told me to follow him around the corner and onto an even quieter side road. The directions suggested to ring the bell of the second gate along. We did so. He spoke to the owner briefly and then moved on to the next house and rang that bell instead. Someone picked up, they had a brief chat and then the gate clicked open. Sweet!
The neighbour that Samir told me would let me in and show me into his house met me inside the gate. It was then that I learned that Samir’s helpful neighbour was actually an 8yr old boy. His name was Atash. He opened Samir’s front door and walked me inside. The house was very bare. The living area contained no furniture whatsoever. There was a T.V sitting on the ground and a small stereo system. There were however two very excited puppies in the house, and the house itself was very warm. Puppies and warmth, a great start!
I presume Atash had been instructed by my host, Samir to give me some food and a drink. Because he then directed me to sit on the floor, poured out a glass of beer and gave me a plate of potato chips. He tried to play some music from a tablet but it wasn’t working too well, so I offered to play some of my own. This is how I ended up sharing a beer and listening to David Bowie songs with an 8yr old kid in Iran for two hours.
All in all I didn’t actually spend all that much time with my host, Samir. He arrived late each night and was off early to work in the mornings. However, he let me come and go into his house whenever I liked. It’s quite extraordinary to consider the level of trust Samir had in me, a complete stranger. I wondered what kind of hospitality the average Australian would afford to a traveller from Iran in this situation?
The bed I slept in for these two nights in Samir’s house was not particularly luxurious. It seems that beds with mattresses are a luxury in Iran. So I slept on a bunch of blankets. It was not ideal but when Couchsurfing you either take it or leave it. I was happy to take it.
My time with Samir would have been more enjoyable if he had more time to hang out. I did manage to have a few interesting conversations with him in the limited time I saw him. The first was a discussion we had about the merits of living in Tehran as opposed to Isfahan. As a tourist, I felt that clearly the better city to live in was Isfahan. Isfahan is a beautiful city with tree-lined boulevards and parks. Wikivoyage states that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Tehran on the other hand is large and noisy, with a lot of pollution. A lot of visitors bypass or minimise their time in Tehran for this reason. However Samir told me that he much prefers living in Tehran, and for a reason I hadn’t considered.
He told me that Tehran was the kind of city where you could do whatever you want and get whatever you want. You just had to know where to get it. Tehran, like any large city, affords a level of anonymity not possible in small cities and towns. Anonymity in Iran, means freedom. It means an opportunity to be whatever you want and do whatever you want. In a country with so many restrictions on personal freedoms, that is a very big deal. If you want to party, drink alcohol, go to nightclubs, or be part of any kind of sub culture that Iranian law forbids, you better live in Tehran. Tehran is a city that never sleeps and one where if you know the right people, anything is possible and anything attainable.
The second very interesting discussion I had with Samir, was regarding his future. Samir has a relatively pleasant life by Iranian standards from what I can tell. However it became obvious while talking to him that he is completely dissatisfied with his life in Iran and his lack of freedom. He meets people from all over the world through Couchsurfing. He sees the freedom that they have for self-expression, and their freedom of movement around the world, and he wants in on that. However, it is not easy for the average citizen of Iran to emigrate.
He explained that for him to be able to emigrate to Europe legally, he would need an unobtainable amount of money. He said that if he was every going to manage to live in Europe, he would need to use a different, far less legal strategy. Firstly, he would need to be smuggled across the border. He said that it was easily done by paying someone to hide him inside a freight truck and smuggle him across the border. He said that for 5000€ he could get to Germany. Once in Europe his plan was to meet and marry a girl to obtain a spousal visa. It occurred to me that maybe this was why he was so heavily involved in Couchsurfing in Iran. Indeed, it appeared that he had made friends located in every corner of Europe. He mentioned a girl from Iceland that had stayed with him once that he was particularly smitten with and that it was his dream to live in Iceland.
Samir also told me that his final option was for him marry a man in Europe. He explained that he’d had a guy stay with him once from a Western Europe country that was gay and that while Samir himself was not, he would still happily marry a man if it meant obtaining a legitimate working visa. Given Iran’s laws against homosexuality, I am sure Samir is aware of the repercussions if this strategy was to go badly and end in deportation.
Everyone I have spoken to that has used Couchsurfing in Iran have had positive experiences. My only advice would be to contact a few hosts about a week before you are due to arrive to ensure that you are able to stay with someone with a good reputation and with some spare time to hang out. Overall I had a really positive experience and wouldn’t hesitate to couch surf in Iran again.