A guest is sacred in Iran. As over the top as this may sound, it has, in fact, been proven many times over already on this trip. It doesn't matter who it is, weather we were expected or unexpected, invited or uninvited, the people redefine hospitality, in my world at least. Being such generous hosts does have its' downsides for a weary cyclist also. An unexpected guest or even passer-by will almost always be greeted with something that sounds like "Hastanaboshy" (This is my best attempt at spelling it, it is probably several words in reality), this translates to "Don't be tired" or "Are you tired?". What kind of question is that? After a few days here you realise that it is a wonderful way of lightening the load of a working man (or woman, though, as yet I have not heard this from or to a women) and is usually answered with the same question in return. The next question can come in a range of languages, Farsi, English, Ajari or one of the 100 local languages in Iran. It almost always translates to "where are you from?", or at least I think that's what they want to know. I normally have to produce my wonderful world map to indicate where New Zealand is, the distance always brings some amazement. By now we are acquainted, it is time to get the formalities out of the way, usually in English "what is your name?" "my name is Ben, what is your name?". Usually the answer is there unpronounceable last name as most of them have the first name Mohammad anyway. In these few short second, quite a crowd has formed and the critical information (my country) is relayed around the circle like Chinese whispers. I'm sure the last guy to arrive thinks I'm from New England (which is equally interesting, even if it isn't actually a country). An invitation for tea will soon follow and often food also. Here is where the real challenge begins for the unsuspecting foreigner. The first challenge is to ascertain weather the offer is genuine, or are they interested in getting you into their shop to buy something, or even better yet, giving you something and expecting you to pay for it. This is quite uncommon, though to avoid offending anyone it is a good idea to make at least three attempts to pay. If they still refuse, you have made a friend, if they accept, I guess you have met a friend and a business man. This concept applies to everything, open a packet of biscuits and offer them around once, no takers (guaranteed, even small hungry boys), twice, no takers, three times, hungry boys only. With a final pleading attempt, your supply of cookies will be reduced to nothing in seconds. But don't worry, your humble offer will be rewarded 10 times over when you are invited by them for lunch or dinner.
The second challenge begins once you've accepted their kind offer. On arrival you will carefully remove your shoes in such a manner that your socked foot will touch only the doormat and that neither your foot touches the "dirty" ground around the mat, nor that your "dirty" shoe touches the mat itself. First hurdle overcome, now you must greet the family, carefully observing how formally you are greeted by the woman, if she doesn't look at you, don't look at her, if this is the case (which, so far, is quite rare), she will be almost completely covered, with just her mouth, nose and eyes exposed. If she greets you with a look in the eye, she probably will have her hair and neck covered completely. Then there will be those who offer you a hand to shake, these women generally have most of their hair covered, though there forehead and neck may be exposed. So, introduction's out of the way, time to wash your hands, for which there is a procedure too. Once located, the bathroom will almost certainly have a wet floor, to save your feet (or socks) there will for sure be a pair of cheap plastic "bathroom sandals", usually brown or blue, neatly placed at a 45 degree angle from the door too allow the door to close and to not allow the constant bad smell to escape. Squeezing my size 45 feet part way into them is enough to waddle the half meter to the sink to wash my hands in a (at least until I'm told something else) normal manner. So, time to eat. A plastic cloth will always appear and be spread out in the centre of a Persian rug which covers the floor of the more or less unfurnished room. Wrapped within this cloth is the Iranian flat bread, its' exact form and flavour differs from region to region. Soon after, plates of meat, rice, cooked and raw vegetables and often yogurt will appear. Sometimes non-alcoholic 'beer' or imitation soft drinks will appear along with water. Normally the men only will sit cross legged around the feast while the women keep to themselves in another part of the house. In some cases the women will also join.
Once the meal is finished, there will be several rounds of tea during which the second challenge comes into full swing, you must convince (mostly) yourself and them as to why you must leave, why not just stay for dinner and the night? With such great food and company, they often win. Dinner is usually served between 10 and 11, which for me is another challenge as by this hour, I'm usually more or less asleep, after dinner photos are often shown of home or Iran and there are always difficult questions about which country is best to move to. When the time (finally) comes, A heavy cotton mattress is placed on the floor in the living area and blankets and pillows are provided for sleeping. The Iranians normally sleep this way too, beds are less common though not unseen.
Far too soon, breakfast is served, again on the floor. It usually consists of bread with a range off topping such as cream, butter, soft cheese, honey and a range of (often homemade) jams. Each of these is carefully spooned onto bite sized pieces of bread in a precarious balancing act between gravity and getting the entire portion into your mouth without loosing any of it.
After at least one more tea, you finally are allowed to leave feeling happy, full and a little frustrated that you have covered so little distance on the bike. That's the price you pay experiencing such exceptional hospitality.
Each evening you shut your eyes wondering when you will next have a chance to sleep a full nights sleep.
I am now in Tehran trying to arrange the visa for India. It looks like I will be here for a few days, but fingers crossed I will be out of here ASAP and back on the bike. Everything is calm here for now. I have left my bike in another city to avoid the mad traffic of this city, it was a good decision for sure.