by Niall Doherty

Having traveled by coach and train through countries such as England, Germany and Switzerland in recent months, I’d figured an overnight bus through Iran would be relative hardship.

But I’d never been so comfortable. I was seated in a plush reclining chair with acres of leg room, thanking the steward who’d just handed me several complimentary snacks and a bottle of water. I was at the side of the bus where the window seat was the only seat; no chance of knocking elbows with an unknown neighbor.

As we pulled out of the station, I added the cheap-yet-luxurious public transport to my lengthening list of Iranian surprises, the first of which wasn’t quite so pleasant.

Eight days earlier I’d stepped off a three-day train and into the darkness of Tehran. The surprise came soon after, when I learned that Iran was a cash-only economy for tourists. Until I left the country, my flexible friends would be about as much use to me as my Xtra-vision card.

So there was my stupid, pale, unprepared self, standing at a hotel reception desk and handing over the bulk of a hundred U.S. dollars, the only cash I had in my many pockets.

The next eight days had been an adventure, to say the least. With very little money to spend, I’d had no choice but to ask for and accept help from an abundance of strangers. One such was a former national motorcycle champion named Behzad. I’d jumped online and topped up his Skype account in exchange for a few notes of local currency.

Before we’d parted ways, Behzad had gifted with me with the phone number of his friend in Bandar Abbas, a gritty port town on the Persian Gulf, the same town I was now floating towards on the dream bus. I was headed there to catch a ferry to Dubai, the land of friendly ATMs.

But I had forty-eight hours to kill until that ferry set sail, and only enough cash left over for food or a hostel… but not both.

The next morning I stepped off the bus and into Bandar Abbas. With no money to waste on luxuries, I ignored the dozen taxi drivers who accosted me outside the station and hoofed it five hot miles to the city center, the shimmering gulf my left-hand man for the duration.

I’d learned of a cheap hostel situated above the main bazaar, and made that my first stop. My heart sank when I heard they were full up. I didn’t expect I’d be able to afford a regular hotel for the night.

I left the hectic bustle of the bazaar and found a quiet side street. With no choice but to once again put my fate in the hands of a stranger, I took a deep breath and dialed the number Behzad had given me.

Two hours later, I was being driven around the city by Amin. He was a friend of Mohamad, the guy I’d called. Mohamad was out of town, but had spread the word that some strange white dude was in town and in need of assistance. Amin had decided to take a spontaneous day off from his sales job and be my savior.

We spent the afternoon touring the city, gabbing a fantastic falafel lunch (Amin’s treat), and chat-napping down by the shore. Amin had a heart of gold but I suspected he was depressed. He couldn’t go very long without raising some tired complaint about his work, marriage, or appearance. His rare smiles faded quickly into a look of practiced dejection.

I felt bad for the guy. He’d followed the traditional life path — something much harder to break away from in a country like Iran — and at first glance seemed better off than most of his countrymen. But after spending several hours with him, I got the impression that his life was dangerously devoid of both joy and meaning.

I couldn’t come up with a way to offer him any significant hope or comfort. I found it hard to relate to the man, so different had our backgrounds been. I’d never known social pressure like he had, and he could only dream about the opportunities afforded to a Westerner like me. It crossed my mind that meeting a free and wandering soul like myself might actually do him more harm than good. As bad as he already considered his life to be, it surely looked even worse when stacked up against mine. Indeed, many of his comments suggested that his mind was busy making such a comparison.

As darkness began to fall, Amin drove me to a friend’s house. He’d arranged for me to spend the night there. Abbas and Reza were to be my hosts. Like Amin, both men were in their late twenties. Unlike Amin, neither could speak good English, but we spent the evening sitting on the living room floor, munching on more falafel and communicating in whatever way we could. They were relaxed and good natured. Reza was especially likable, his round face never far from a smile.

Turned out the living room was also the bedroom. We unrolled blankets and called it a night pretty early; Abbas and Reza had work in the morning.

I awoke to daylight and Reza putting away his bedding. Abbas had left already. Breakfast was butter on barbari. Soon it was time for Reza to go to work. I was to stay in the house for a few hours until Amin came to pick me up.

I’ll never forget what happened next. Before he left, Reza reached out and caressed my cheek for several seconds, like I’d only ever seen old folks do with their grandchildren back home. There was a look of pure love in his eyes, supported by a smile chock-full of affection. I felt hypnotized, my head-tilted like a puppy getting his ear scratched for the first time. It was one of those moments that seemed to last a flash and forever simultaneously.

Before I could recover, Reza had closed the front door behind him and I was left alone.

A thousand or so written words later, Amin picked me up and dropped me at a hotel in the center of town. I pilfered their lobby wifi for the next several hours, catching up on work and such. I took a long break at noon to go grab lunch, record a video for the blog, and get a haircut. Thanks to the kindness of Amin and friends, what little money I’d arrived with was proving to be more than I needed.

Late that afternoon, Amin drove me to the ferry port and bade me a quick farewell. He wasn’t so much the affectionate type, and I found myself wishing he was. A handshake was as close as we got, and then he was gone. Yet another Iranian man who had helped me immensely, without asking for a single thing in return.

In one sense it was a huge relief to board that ferry and leave Iran behind. In another, I was sad to be moving on. The previous ten days had exposed me to more generosity than I thought possible, and strengthened my conviction that most people are good, regardless of race, religion or nationality. It also reminded me that it’s never the sights you see or the things you buy that make travel worthwhile. It’s who you meet along the way.

Note: I’m away at a meditation retreat until August 11th. Comment replies and moderation will have to wait until then. Thanks for your patience.

Also, I wrote another post a few months back about my experience in Iran. Read that here.

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