I lay in my sleeping bag, the cold from the floor rising up into my back and making it ache.
It had taken four days of hitchhiking to get to Tehran, the capital of Iran and I was still getting used to a country where I had yet to see another backpacker.
I pulled out my phone and tried to jump on Facebook. Unfortunately Facebook, like dozens of other social media and networking sites in Iran, is blocked. Luckily, I had recently installed a VPN on my phone, a kind of Batman-style app which bounced my IP address around the world so that I couldn’t be tracked by Iranian authorities.
I had accepted that Iran was going to be a very different country to any I had experienced before and expected to be taking a six week break from sex, drugs and rock n roll. I had yet to see anybody drinking or smoking and, so far, the only girls I had seen had been hidden deep within the endless black folds of heavy chadors.
I had yet to even talk to a girl in Iran. I turned to Tinder in Iran… it seemed an unlikely prospect but I connected my VPN, curious to see if any chicks would be online.
One was. Her name was Emse. I messaged her with the best chat up line I could think of.
“You don’t look very Arabic”
She responded almost instantly with a tirade of abuse about how Iranians are not Arabic, they are Persian and that referring to an Iranian as an Arab was the same as mixing up England with Croatia.
Somehow, I recovered.
“So, wanna meet up tomorrow”
The next day, we met for a coffee.
We sat in a cafe, blue hair peeked out from beneath her green hijab; a compulsory garment for all women in Iran. Esme told me of her adventures backpacking in the Philippines, of her career as a dentist, of her hopes that a softening of laws and attitudes is coming to Iran. I told her about my current three year trip across the world, of my upcoming adventures in Pakistan, my plan to sail a raft along The Philippines and Indonesia to Papua New Guinea. Minutes slipped into hours and, before I knew it, the day was night.
I lingered, unsure what to do, aware of the many people around us and the police across the street before thinking ‘fuck it’ and pulling her into an alleyway for a cheeky kiss. She had to leave, of course, and I had plans to check out Iranian Kurdistan.
The next day, I would be off. We parted ways, unsure if we would see each other again.
Once in Kurdistan, I found myself thinking of Esme. I had only just met her but already I felt that hanging out with her might be more fun than freezing my ass off in a tent. The snow came thick and fast, making my planned hikes almost impossible, and I abandoned the mountains, sending a quick WhatsApp message and heading back to the highway.
“I’m coming back to get you. Pack a bag and let’s explore Iran together.”
To my delight, she said yes. Back in her hometown, we encountered our first problem. Being anywhere together, particularly after dark, could get us into a shit ton of trouble. Luckily, Esme had a plan…
“We can get a Sigheh – it’s a temporary marriage”
Convinced that I was probably being scammed by this gorgeous chick who had turned up out of nowhere, I was at first reluctant. This soon changed. One night later, we tried to check into a guesthouse, coming up with a stupid story about how Esme was not Persian but was in fact Polish… and had managed to lose her passport. The manager didn’t buy it and immediately tried to call the religious police.
It is illegal for an unmarried couple in Iran to stay in a room together which meant, given the large quantities of police on the streets, we were kind of screwed. We left the guesthouse in a rush, unsure of where we would stay as the cold swirled around us and snow began to fall. Luckily, thanks to the amazing community on a well-known hospitality website (also illegal in Iran), we were rescued by some locals who let us crash in their sitting room whilst we came up with a plan.
“Screw it, let’s get married”
I said to Esme across our cornflakes.
“It’s only a temporary marriage anyway”
She said calmly.
The quest for a mullah had begun…
Temporary marriages, or Sigheh, are used by lots of Iranian couples for lots of different purposes; a marriage can last from an hour to a decade and a dowry, traditionally, has to be paid.
Temporary marriages provide a way for Iranians to be intimate together without breaking the law. In the words of a good Iranian friend of mine, Amir;
“In Iran, you can find everything; parties, one-night stands, alcohol, LSD, everything is possible”.
After a somewhat complicated procedure which I am not going to get into, we had the piece of paper which would allow us to travel the country together without fear of the police.
It appeared I had just gotten married.
The wind whipped through my hair, dust from the desert spiralling into the air and settling on our packs, stacked by the side of the road. I smiled at the oncoming truck, a gaily painted pick-up, and stuck out my thumb whilst Esme balanced our cardboard sign on her hip and jumped up and down excitedly.
Hitchhiking in Iran is a somewhat alien affair. Iranians are not used to the concept of hitchhiking however they are all extremely well versed in the concept of hospitality…
We had been waiting by the side of the road for just three minutes before we caught a lift from an excited carpet-salesman and his long-suffering wife. We snacked on pistachios, offered to us by our chatterbox driver and began the long journey south, switching rides often and passing towering snow-clad peaks, lush forests, scorched wastelands and rocky outcrops…
We visited pristine beaches and splendid mosques, ruined cities and bustling bazaars. At every turn I was amazed by the kindness and hospitality of the people; free food, free rides and, often, a free place to sleep. For backpackers on a budget, Iran is a wonderland.
For me, there was one place in Iran which offered a truly untapped adventure, the volcanic island of Hormuz, way off the south coast, a place in no guidebook, a place known only to a few. This was where me and Esme were heading…
I learnt, quickly, that everything is possible in Iran, that this is a country which is emerging, blinking into the light as the country begins to open up to international trade and the prospects of tourism. I met with many young, idealistic Iranians who impressed me with their passion, their resolve that Iran will be a world superpower once more. And it deserves to be, this is a land of untold splendour, filled with friendly, optimistic people who are keen to learn about the outside world and to join the international community.
When I went to Iran, I truly had no idea what to expect; I was half expecting to see bearded fellows brandishing guns, muzzles flashing into the sky, although I was, of course, aware that this was not an accurate depiction of the country at all.
Iran is, in fact, one of the safest and most stable countries in The Middle East and during six weeks hitchhiking across the country, I was never met with anything but kindness, politeness and hospitality.
And a surprising number of parties, who would have thought raves in Iran are a thing?
But they are…
Go to Iran, it is not what you think it may be.
Tinder in Iran… who would have thought it would even be a thing? Find out what happened next with Esme…
Later, we would cross back to Iran for a big, fat, Persian wedding.
Want to learn how to travel long-term and earn money online? Pick up your copy of The Backpacker Bible.
To find out more about my Iranian adventures, be sure to check out my backpacking Iran destination guide.
Esme is not her real name. A couple of minor details have been changed to protect her identity.
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