When we got to Tabriz we were desperate to find a hotel. We didn’t need to, there were plenty of warm showers hosts across the city but we REALLY wanted to stay in a hotel. Here’s why…
If you have read any of our other blogs about Iran you will know Iranian hospitality is world class, the best! And it is, it’s amazing. Iranians are warm, funny, generous and very consientious people.
But after nearly three weeks of travelling here we have discovered that Iranian hospitality can become a tad overbearing to an outsider.
Before you denounce us for being ungrateful, cynical travellers here’s an insight into Iranian hospitality.
First of all there’s the sheer amount of hospitality which is offered.
Naturally we’re used to folks beeping, waving and flagging us down while we’re cycling along and we are almost always happy to stop, take the customary photo and answer the normal questions. After all, we did choose to cycle a ridiculous looking bike.
But if we stopped for everyone in Iran, honestly, we would never get to our destination because someone tries to flag us down around every 15-20 minutes. So instead, we occasionally slow down, wave and say in our limited Farsi: ‘sorry we can’t stop, thank you, goodbye!’.
If we are lucky, they understand but often they will simply get back in their car, tail us for a while, overtake while shouting their questions from the window, and then rashly cut in front of us and stop again…
Also, sometimes, just sometimes, we want to eat a meal without four different individuals interrupting us to ask ‘where we are from’, ‘do we need help’, ‘are you sure the bicycle is safe’, ‘you must be very careful’… Etc.
Secondly, when you do get a rapport going with someone there’s the need to navigate your way through Taroof, Iran’s cultural etiquette of extreme politeness.
Taroof is hard to get your head around. First of all you are set the task of identifying if that ‘free ice cream’, ‘free lift’ or offer to host you really is genuine. To do this you should decline their offer a number of times. The conversation goes something like this:
Host: ‘I would like to host you at my house’
Us: ‘No, no, it’s ok thanks’
Host: ‘No, I really would like to have you at my house’
Us: ‘No, honestly, it’s really ok, we can sleep here’
Host: ‘Wait, I will call my friend who speaks good English, and he can tell you how much I want you to stay’
Friend: ‘Hello? Yes my friend really wants you to stay at his house’
Us: ‘Oh, ok then, that’d be lovely’
Sometimes a scenario arises where, for whatever reason, you really don’t want to accept their kind offer to host you. You’ve already completely emptied your food pannier and your tent is half way to being pitched. Maybe their house is a 15 minute cycle away and you’ve already completed a hard 90km day; mentally you’ve stopped for the day and the last thing you want to do is get back on that bike. Or perhaps you’ve just completed a 500m climb, you’re starving and you know the only way you’re guaranteed to eat a meal in the next half an hour is if you cook it yourself on your stove.
So you continue to decline their offer and soon they realise you don’t want to stay with them. You then either have to face their bitter disappointment or they try a different tack and start telling you that it’s a security risk camping here anyway or it’ll be far too cold.
In the end you end up accepting, either because you’re tired of declining or because you feel guilty!
The worst scenario of all is of course, when you misread Taroof. Suddenly your host feels bound to take you back to their house when they don’t really want to. They are angry about this, and this anger can manifest itself in a strange passive aggressive attitude towards you. To make up for your error you work extra hard back at the house to break the ice. But you still go to sleep knowing you’re in a home that had no intention of hosting you in the first place. Awkward! Fortunately this has only happened to us once!
Even in the congenial scenario where our hosts are delighted to have us and we are very happy to accept, Taroof still naturally comes into play.
‘Please eat more; was your shower ok; you must be careful on the roads; I think that route will be far too cold and dangerous…’
Of course we don’t mind this because we know that this attitude comes from a wonderfully loving place and is genuine concern for our comfort and welfare. There have been a few times however, when the Taroof has reached a point of complete ridiculousness!
Twice now our hosts have insisted on getting into their car to escort us out of the town. They insist, even though they know that we have a gps and have navigated our way through ten countries, and across 11,000km of terrain.
The first time this happened our host absolutely insisted that the quickest and easiest way for us to exit the town was up a stiff 300m climb instead of the alternative 8km longer DOWNHILL route around the mountain. We tried to explain our predicament but he insisted. Naturally we both ended up very grumpy. We, because we had to struggle up an unessesary climb, and our host, because he spent 35 minutes of his day crawling up the hill in his car at 7km an hour.
Another time one of our hosts had given us a bag of walnuts weighing about 3kg in weight. I decided to split this yummy gift in 2 and give one bag to our next hosts two days later. I made the grave error of attempting to give this gift to our hosts in front of their neighbours, and so followed a dramatic show of Taroof.
I put on my most gracious smile and offer them the bag explaining it’s a small gift for their wonderful hospitality. It’s pushed back into my hands. I offer it again and this time it’s taken but then simply hung on my handlebars. I patiently unhooked the bag and offer it again but by this point our host is backing away, their eyes darting between my face and the walnuts as if the bag might explode at any moment.
I shove the bag into their hands and it’s shoved back. Things were starting to get violent…
It was only when I started to show my irritation, and they realise that the walnuts were in danger of falling all over the floor, did they feel it was ok to accept!
We’ve absolutely loved staying with our Iranian hosts. 99% of the time it has been a wonderful, wonderful experience and many of them realise how alien Taroof might be to us so they dispel any anxiety by asserting there is ‘no Taroof’ in their house.
But don’t judge us for wanting one night, just one night, in a hotel room. A place where we can lie on a bed in just our t-shirt and pants, stuffing our faces with chocolate digestives while reading the Internet; despairing over the news that two of our MEPs had a fist fight in the European Parliament and that Donald Trump might just win the US election…
Tomorrow we’ll be back on the road and ready and eager to make more friends in Iran.