Bike Ben's Blog


Until next time…

Photos from the exhibition in Phnom Penh.

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Two months to the day since I rolled those last kilometers into Phnom Penh, I have had quite some time to digest the incredible experiences of my epic cycling adventure. It’s hard to put such a journey into words as each and every day was so different from the previous one, the terrain, the weather, the people, often the food. It’s hard to summarise such a journey, in fact, I don’t think I need to! I think what will stay with me the longest is just how incredibly similar we humans are, everywhere, what we don’t know about each other we are scared of, this is the cause of so much misunderstanding. Traveling gives us the perfect opportunity to know what we don’t have to be scared of. I’m often asked how it felt to arrive, to reach  my goal. As I cycled those narrow and busy roads through the buffalo lined, rice paddies and on to my destination I guess I felt mostly sadness that the adventure was over, no massive sense of achievement, just the end of the road….till next time at least.
I hope that you have been able to share at least a portion of the joy that this trip has brought me, certainly the comments I have received from so many have helped keep me going. I have loved hearing from you all! Let the next next adventures begin….

Thanks to your generous donations, around NZ$10,000 was raised. It’s not too late to DONATE to The Cambodia Trust

Supporting A Great Cause: The Cambodia Trust

Click on arrow on the right to see the next photo. All photos care of Cambodia Trust, all rights reserved.

It has been my intention to support a charity with this trip since the beginning, it has taken me this long, and extensive help from my friend in Phenom Penh to find the Cambodia Trust. This organisation fits my philosophies and motivations perfectly and I look forward to seeing how I can be involved with some of their projects into the future. Their work is encouraging because they not only give but also train locals which empowers them to continue their amazing work well into the future, with or without the support of the organisation. Their work coincides perfectly with my own in the medical field and my long-term interest in prosthetics and support for the disabled.

My trip has so far taken me from Budapest along the Danube to Serbia and on to Bulgaria. I then pedaled east through Greece to Turkey and on to Iran. I then took a short flight over Pakistan to India where I have just completed 2 months of tough cycling in the high Himalayas. I’m now 10 kg lighter and fit as a trout. Ready to move on to central China and then on to Vietnam, Laos and finally Cambodia. I have so far covered 6,000 km and plan to cycle 4,000 more before reaching Phenom Pen.

My trip will cover a total of at least 10,000 km through 11 countries and at least 100,000 m of mountain climbing. I have passed through areas speaking 15 languages and 8 religions. I will take more than 10,000 photographs and shake hands with an estimated 2000 people. I will drink more than 500 litres of water and just 6 inner tubes. My pedals will rotate more than 10 million times and I will replace my brake pads at least 3 times. Burning about 5,000 calories each day, I will churn through a whopping 1,250,000 calories during the 7 months on the road.

So, with all that in mind, please read more about Cambodia Trust and donate what you can, however big or small your donation is.

Thank you so much for your generous support!

Bike Ben


A few final words on Iran

Click on arrow on the right to see the next photo. All photos of me where taken by Stefan Brandl:

I wander in a dazed state, just 50 minutes on the plane and I’m in another world, Bahrain International Airport. Awash with people of 100 nations, Arabs in long white outfits, Indians in saris and turbans, men in business suites, European backpackers clutching their guide books and Nepali guest workers all coughing in unison as if they’ve caught the same cold. A masked man screens me for Swine Flu, do I have a fever? Not yet I respond. I purchase a Greek salad from an Asian women named Minnie Cho who speaks impeccable American English then sit with an American of Syrian origin working in Bahrain, waiting for that flight to Jordon. As I wait, two middle aged Iranians on their way to the disco’s of Goa, who, almost as if compelled by their culture, buy me a huge bag of nuts for the road. I feel somewhat hollow inside, I’m again anonymous, just another human being amongst the masses seeking to make a better life in this oil rich Arab state. I’m no longer strange and intriguing, no staring or giggling scarfed girls, no “Hello Mister, where are you from?”. I feel sadness to leave a country where I felt always so looked after, as our last host said “A guest is the son of God” and we certainly were treated that way, totally spoiled you could say. Though this sense of obligation to take care of the guest pull many emotional strings inside too, why couldn’t we just interact as friends, or brothers. Why do they feel so compelled to give, give, give. In my world a true relationship is a two way interaction, give a little and take a little. This is not quite so in Iran.
Before entering Iran, avoiding politics and religion was a top priority. Quickly it becomes apparent that almost every conversation leads to this topics as they burn on the tip of every Iranian’s tongue. After recent elections, we were told by several people that the announced winner received no more than 6 million of the 40 million votes. It is said that the Mullahs, who hold a position of power higher than the president, pulled the right strings to put Mr. Ahmedanejad back into power, this sparked deadly protests in the streets which led to the deaths of more than 20 people, these protests continue in Tehran in another form. At night the people are going to the roofes of their apartments and yelling “Allah akbar”, God is great. The reason for using this expression seems strange to me and I was never given an explanation, but the people of Iran continue their struggle for freedom.
Not everyone is  against the government, in small, generally poor towns and villages it seems that cash handouts, building schools and other government funded projects have created support for Mr. Ahmedanejad. Posters of the president can often be seen in shops and in the homes of people in these areas. I met just one person from a city who supported the current regime, his viewpoint being that a lack of religion in the world is the cause of all conflict. I chose not to get into a discussion with him on that one. I was told that nationally less than 65% of the population attend the Mosque once a week or more, which is the minimum requirement in order to be a Muslim. The law stating that women must be covered in public extends only to the gates and doors of homes all over the country, with a very different life inside. Alcohol, drugs, sex, parties etc. are all very available, you just have to know how to work around the law and where to look.
As we enter the boulevard, a few guys can be seen leaning against parked cars on the side of the road, each trying to show off their muscular bodies. We choose the more common method, driving in the best car available (on a scale of 1 to 100, I’m told that our Nissan pick-up truck is a 75.) around the avenue, a 2 km strip of 2 lane road where car loads of girls and car loads of boys circulate in search of each other. Once a person of interest is spotted, a game of cat and mouse begins, we maneuver our car alongside her vehicle, with a short toot of the horn and small wave she opens the window, after a brief introduction, they are interested. My friend arranges to meet them in a quiet ally near by, away from the view of the vigilant police who can arrest us for such interactions with the opposite sex. We follow their small car as they adjust their hair and makeup in the rear view mirrors. We pull up alongside and stop, the driver lets her head scarf drop to reveal a meticulously tended hair style. As I don’t speak Farsi, I don’t understand what they are saying, however the seductive tone or her voice is obvious. I’m told I have beautiful hair and eyes by the curly haired girl in the front seat. They exchange numbers as we must move on, my friend tells me that we can meet them later if we want. I decline the offer, more than content to experience what lengths humans will go to in order to fulfill a basic desire, law or no law.
Back at my friends place, the door bell rings, he opens and in walks a tall, blond girl dressed in a tight white top and pants. She carries a dish of pasta in one hand and a blue headscarf in the other. My friend tells me this is one of his 3 girlfriends as she begins to clean the kitchen in his small basement flat. Once finished they sit together on the couch to discuss the upcoming operation to ‘correct’ his nose. Earlier they had visited the plastic surgeon with the girlfriend of his friend to convince her how much better her life would be  after the $3000 operation. This kind of surgery is incredibly common in Iran, women and men can often be seen with the characteristic bandage on their noses, almost a symbol in itself of a certain status. In a country where interaction between unmarried boys and girls is illegal and all must be covered apart from her face, such superficial details count for a lot.
Traditionally the women are supposed to be introduced to their future husband by a friend or relative, more or less only meeting their future husband once an engagement has been arranged. This continues today though more and more people choose to flout the law and interact with the opposite sex in what I would consider a normal way. In Iran, this can have it’s consequences. One girl I met was arrested and put into jail for three verbal abuse filled days of what she described as hell. Her crime: driving in a car with boy and girls who were not relatives or married. She was so hurt by this that she was trying to leave the country as soon as possible, by whatever means, in her case to study withthe hope of never returning. This was not an easy thing for her as she loved her country and so many things about it, but this had tipped her over the edge. Most people we met who spoke English has thoghts or plans to try to emigrate to anther country. This process takes several years and often they are rejected.
Once married, the place of women is in the home. While more women than men study at university, it is more for fun than a career, instead most of them stay home to cook, clean and raise children. In many cases this made me feel uncomfortable because the man is the one to take care of guests, while the women must provide food and drinks. In most cases we ate in the presence of the man only while the women stayed out of sight. Sometimes she only got to eat the leftovers of the meal, if we ate everything, then she had to find something else. Tradition says that this should make her happy as her food was appreciated, though for me it was an uncomfortable feeling because I didn’t feel that she was given the dignity she deserved. One women told me that, in fact, rights for women are actually quite good apart from the head scarves and social restrictions. In many ways I think this is, to some extent, true though Iran has a very long way to go before men and women have equal standings in society.
When Tuesday comes, each Iranian is supposed to call his friends and arrange where they will have a picnic on Friday. Picnicking is really a national sport, each Friday, Iranian’s pack themselves into cars, sometimes 8 or 9 in each, and head to the many green areas of the country. Water is the primary goal so all waterfalls, rivers and lakes, provided they have sufficient shade, will be packed with crowds of people. In fact shade is the primary criteria for the picnic, so parks, traffic islands and even the roadside will do, provided those brutal rays are kept at bay. A proper picnic requires a BBQ, this is made in record time near by, with hot embers being ready to sizzle chicken shish kebabs in under 15 minutes. After eating the tender morsels wrapped in bread with raw onion and salt, a gas stove is produced to  brew the favorite  drink, tea. Many choose to sleep the hottest hours of the day before packing rugs, plates, tea pots, stoves, skewers, charcoal and children into neat bundles, each secured with rope and placed like a huge birthday present onto the roof of the car to make room for the extended family inside the car for the long, windy journey home. If, for some reason, we were not invited to join in a family picnic, we were forced to look further afield for something to eat, in Iran this is very limited as 90% of all restaurants sell only shish kebabs, sometimes with rice, sometimes with just bread, but that’s it. The other 10% sell some other specialties and in the big cities, of course you can find pizza and hamburgers everywhere. But the shish kebab is king, like it or go hungry. Quite another reality is found when you are invited to someones home, many different delicious meals will be served, usually with rice. Rich sauces, soups and meats are complimented by many spices and condiments. Often salad is served, a mixture many types of strong herbs to be nibbled with the fingers or perhaps a Shirazy salad made from onion, tomato, cucumber and mint. Breakfast is always Iranian flat bread eaten with butter, jam, honey and cheese and walnuts.
Negotiating city traffic in Iran like playing chicken, you must be assertive but careful in order to place yourself in such a position so as to force the oncoming driver to stop. A near complete lack of traffic signals means that the only way is to ease you vehicle into the path of an oncoming vehicle, forcing that vehicle to break heavily to let you in. This system creates a haphazard continuity in an ever lurching mass of vehicles. A total lack of regard for lanes means that traffic on the right may suddenly decide to swerve across 5 lanes to make a left hand turn, apparently a normal (but hair-razing) maneuver, though as I saw, turning around in this manner can go wrong. As a car blocks 4 lanes of traffic to turn, a motorcycle sneaks past behind, the car accelerates quickly backwards sending the motorcyclist flying into a parked car. Quickly a crowd forms around the crying rider who appears to have broken his leg, clutching his back he tries to stand, I try to tell him to remain flat in case of spinal injuries, I place a shoe under his head as it is all I can find to make him a little more comfortable. Realising that I can not do so much more, I leave the crowd, hoping the ambulance will arrive soon. On a bike this total chaos makes it quite easy to bike, though incredibly dangerous. A simple wave of the hand will slow an oncoming car. The steaks are high. I chose not to think about it.
Donation boxes line the streets in Iran, they can be found in most shops and many homes. With a symbol of an old person on the side it is clear what they are for. In their religion, Iranian’s should put money into these boxes before commencing a journey to ensure safe passage. Even at motorway pay booths, the buses first pay the toll then pay God to ensure that they survive another excursion into the deadly traffic. Rumors have it that this  money, in fact goes into the government coughers and only a portion of it is used for caring for the sick and the elderly, but who really knows. As the bus driver leans out to pay this holy insurance, a young soldier runs his fingers over a picture of his wife and baby child as he is transported back to base where he and each male of his country must serve 18 months of their lives. With very few options to get out of doing military service, most are forced to put their lives on hold in a distant city form their own with little chance to see their loved ones. Some may pay a $15,000 bond to study abroad, paying a further $7000 to skip the service should they obtain papers to remain in a that country. For most however, this is impossible and the only option is to declare themselves homosexual which has major implications when searching for a job. One man told me that homosexuals were a huge problem in Iran, though he was not able to tell my why, for those that are they must live a secretive double life so as not to face ridicule in daily life. Ironically, males can often be seen walking down the street hand in hand.
Almost everything was wrong, where did my information come from? The internet? Radio? Word of mouth? Newspapers? Where? It is hard to say, but I can now say that my picture of this country has changed majorly. Before I entered Iran, I expected to find a very religious population, I expected the sound of the call to prayer to echo from every rooftop and I expected that I would find some of the friendliest people on earth. Contrary to many, I did not expect to find a country of terrorists. In Turkey, any mention of Iran was met with a brisk movement of a finger across the throat, certain death in other words. In fact, the biggest danger I met in Iran was the lightning storm on the first day. Iran is perhaps the only country in the world where a carpet seller first tries to sell you a carpet, then, after telling him my story, pays for the sunglasses I was looking for. This act sums up Iran for me. If the chance ever comes up, don’t miss go there!

I am now in Delhi, India. Tonight I will travel by bus to Shimla from where I will start my 2 month Himalayan adventure on the bike. Looking forward to being back in the saddle again. I’m joined by my friends Bridget and Carlos for this part of the trip. They both are far more expereinced cycle tourists than me so it’s great to be cycling with them.

Another side of life

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Smoke curls towards the end of the straw, the red hot glow of the metal is extinguished as it passes over the button sized blob of opium which is carefully placed on the end of metal pin. The 5 seconds of smoke are then exhaled into the room, the metal implement is placed back in the flame of a small gas stove in the middle of the room. Once glowing, a quick tap removes any residue and the process is repeated, and repeated and repeated. Each time the lump becomes smaller as the insidious smoke is inhaled. The man tells me that he is wasting away, smoking is unhealthy and how sad his mother is that he is doing it. With that comment, he carefully pierces a new ball of opium with the pin and molds it with his fingers into the optimal shape. several friends come and join, each offering for us to try. The more they smoke, the more uncomfortable I feel about being there. None the less we are treated with great respect and provided with hospitality far beyond their means. We accept an offer to be taken to Persepolis which is near by. Early the next morning, at break neck speeds, we race through town towards the ancient civilization. In the 45 degree heat, everything seems an effort, we gulp large amounts of water and try to grasp the scale of the place along with hundreds of local tourists. Only a few brave foreigners can be seen in Iran at this time. Lunch is served back at the house, but not before the stove is re-kindled and the smoking ritual is taken up again. Stopping precisely long enough to gulp down a minimal lunch in order to return to the cravings of an addiction. Our host, who had told us that he doesn’t smoke, joins the group of friends who gather daily at his home to ‘socialise’ in this manner, cigarettes he tells us later. His wife remains out of site in the simple kitchen, only appearing on demand to deliver tea and take the odd picture. The lunch she prepared is presented to us, after refusing to eat everything, we see that as suspected, the left overs are her lunch. If we were to eat everything, she would have to find something else. After Stefan is accosted by the local drug dealers when he tries to go outside to use the phone, we feel really uneasy, but keeping our calm we wait for 2 hours for the hottest part of the day to pass, then ask our host to escort us out of town on his motorbike should the drug dealers have other plans. Our nerves are not eased when, after 2 minutes flicking through a Persian-English dictionary, he warns us about thieves on the road. We leave without incident and arrive a few hours later in Shiraz where we are met by a hoard of very friendly soldiers who want signatures and, of all things, a drawing?? in their notebooks. With many laughs and a pathetic attempt to draw one of them, we are collected by our host who is a friend of an Iranian cyclist whom Stefan had met in Turkey some weeks before. Time to relax for a couple of days before the madness of India.
On the 23rd I will fly to Delhi, India via Bahrain where I will wait a few days for my friend to arrive from South Africa to begin the next part of my adventure in the north of India.

It’s like searching for lost treasure

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Warm water runs over my head and across my face before cascading to the ground below to send blobs of dusty water onto my feet and ankles. Hands rub and massage my hair, this is for sure the first time I have had my hair washed by a farmer in a small mountain village. Once the process is complete, he insists on brushing it to. Without any common language, there no other option than to go with the flow. Stefan is already sporting the latest hair style as he laughs at me from the other side of the room. Our invite home to this mans house  to sleep has proven more than we bargained for.
Stopping to ask for directions we were quickly invited home, a nice gesture after perhaps the toughest day of the trip to date. A combination of 25 km steep uphill combined with a total inability to trust ANY information about road conditions, distances, etc. We are exhausted and gladly accept the offer.
Obtaining information has almost become a bit of a joke now, every person you ask will tell you something different, sometimes a factor of 10 different. Or they will say that they know the way, for example: “Ok, from the waterfall go to the bottom of the hill and turn right, 6 km uphill then you can get water, from there it is just 4 km downhill to where you want to go, the road is sealed all the way”. Perfect we think, and since our two maps are wildly different from each other, and neither show this part of the country properly, we go for it. The right turn is correct, but that’s where it ends, after about 8 km uphill, no water stop, only 5 out of 50 km sealed and several unmarked intersections, we arrive at the place we asked for. At least there was a road!
We follow the farmer 5 km or so, where we are greeted very warmly by his family and, soon after, the rest of the village. At one point, I counted more than 30 men, women and children crowded into the tiny front room too oogle at the big strange hairy guys on bikes. With concrete walls and a mud roof, the house was decorated with only 3 framed pictures and certificates on one wall, a small charity donation box on another and a cabinet with a TV and DVD player on the third. A steel door with a large padlock, which had been repaired, stood open. Opposite, a low, narrow door lead to a small kitchen where a gas stove stood affirmatively with pots of tea and rice on the boil. A green carpet lined the floor, well worn and sporting a range of holes and stains. The ceiling was decorated with a plastic table cloth, nailed meticulously to the slender tree trunks which supported the mud above. Turkish music soon filled the room from the satellite dish mounted precariously to the roof of the shed outside. Our host then teaching us the latest dance moves for the area as delighted onlookers laughed loudly, many with their mobiles trained on us. The videos would be distributed amongst friends and family for future entertainment and bragging rights. Many cups of tea were poured, though only to us and the man of the house. The same was the case for dinner, with the children also being allowed to eat. I’m not even sure if the women ate at all, perhaps in the kitchen while preparing the most delicious meal of rice with chicken, beans, courgettes and tomatoes, washed down with, what I’m sure is a luxury for them, Fanta. Once refusing thirds, fourths and fifths forcefully, the meal is over and we are allowed set up our tent on a mat outside. Rugs, pillows and blankets are placed in the tent. We are shown how we should sleep under the blankets, but the heat of the day remains and I’m more than happy to sleep with just some respite from the constant onslaught of mosquitoes. With a crowd around the tent, peering in at every possible angle, I finally drift off to dream land, more than content with the day.
After sleeping in a haystack we packed quickly and moved off at 6.30 in an attempt to arrive at the waterfall before the temperature reached 40 degrees. Again our maps were grossly inadequate and our attempts to obtain information from locals had yielded anything from 25 to 100 km. An initial 19 km climb to a ski field had brought breathtaking mountain scenery, the valley below promised to provide the perfect setting for us to rest our bones till evening. In the village we were told 10 km further, 2 km later 3 km, 2 km later 10 km then finally after being towed for 2 km up the steepest part of a 5 km hill, the turn off appeared. A sign indicated 18 km to the waterfall! Well into the hottest part of the day, we had to eat something before proceeding, not believing that 18 km was possible, but it was. Mostly very steeply downhill, but about 4 km steep uphill finally got us to the holy grail, a lush green area in a desert landscape where hundreds of families had driven for hours for the famous Iranian picnic. It wasn’t long before we were invited for a BBQ which we gladly accepted. But first, a very refreshing shower, fully clothed, in the waterfall along with dozens of others. Fully fed and with the hottest part of the day past, we proceeded to find an alternative route to our next destination.

Avoiding a trend (I hope)

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Adrenalin fills my vains, I thrash about in panic. Out of the corner of my eye I see a hand raised with a knife. From the right a hand tries to cover my mouth, but no chance. I scream “F#*! OFF” as  loud as I can. A swing left and right and I’m free from their grip. I waste no time dashing the 30 m to the door of the hostel.
An innocent stroll to fill my water bottle at the water cooler turns into the biggest disapointment on the trip so far. As I fill my bottle, at least 6 men appear behind me on motorcycles. Suddenly I feel my bag being pulled at, then my arms grabbed. I react quickly realising that they are still half on their bikes and not so mobile. My bag strap is over my shoulder and not so easy to remove which adds to the panic.
With a bleeding nose and totally soaked from my own water bottle, I enter the hostel yelling. Within seconds the police arrive wearing bullet proof jackets and carrying automatic weapons. After ascertaining that I am ok and nothing is missing, then leave, helpless to do anything.
Nothing was taken apart from a little of the trust I have for these (mostly) trustworthy people.  I didn’t realise at the time but my sunglasses also went missing druing the scuffle, probably fell to the ground, could have been worse! This taints another day of Iranian hospitality where we were looked after by the friends of the cousin of the friend of a friend of a CouchSurfer whom we never met (Iranian networking).
Apon our arrival in Esfahan at 6 am, they were waiting for us, after following them 20 km, we were provided with breakfast and somewhere to rest before being taken on a tour of the city, as usual our attemps to pay for anything were politely but deffinitely refused. Finally, after a phone call from the police saying that we were not allowed to stay with them, they took us to a hostel. They then biked home then drove our bags to us in the city. How exactly the police knew we were there, I don’t know but they know everything.
It is a strange feeling for me to be at a hostel with everything that entails, backpackers, laundry service, booked tours etc, etc. I must say that after 2 months cycling, it was really nice to be here, though I can say for sure that after one day, I will again be longing for the freedom of the bike. Ironically, I had made a comment to a Canadian backpacker earlier in the evening about the dangers of touristy areas, my point now proven!

Digging deeper into a Culture

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For the first time in my 6 years of experiencing our world, I feel a longing for my friends, a deep and unfamiliar sensation that something is missing. After thinking long and hard about this, I have concluded that the culture in this country makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to have real interactions with people that are 100% genuine. This can be traced back to concept of Tarof, a uniquely Iranian concept (as far as I know) which overshadows any interaction between people in this country. Tarof is an Arabic word which translates as ‘to know each other’. In Farsi it is referred to as Roudarbayesti which translates to ‘to stand behind the door’. These two translations are a pretty good summary of what Tarof means in this society. It is deeply routed in the society and thus creates a challenge for the foreigner which can lead to real frustration and sometimes anger. So, what is this Tarof thing? Tarof is a complex system of social bluffing in a game of mental cards where each person is trying to out do the other to show ultimate politeness. Play the wrong card and you will be labeled as a social failure, or at least made feel that way. Sound complicated? It is! Tarof creeps into every aspect of life, it infects conversation and ultimately masks the true intentions of everyone. This makes developing strong relationships near impossible because you never know what intention lies behind an action. An example of the complexity of this. We, as guests are invited, along with a local, to spend the night in someones home. There are only two beds, so naturally the local finds every excuse to justify sleeping on the floor. When the host discovers the other man sleeping on the floor, he insists (in a confrontation lasting several minutes) on providing a mattress. To save face the mattress is accepted, but when the door closes it is placed to the side so as not to reveal to us that giving us the beds was, in fact a Tarof. These situations leave me wondering what the intention was behind providing us with a meal or a place to sleep. Was it genuine? Where is the line drawn between genuine interest in me and the cultural requirement which requires that the guest be looked after 150%? Then there is the issue of money, in my culture we feel good when we do not place much or any financial pressure on our hosts, it’s a game of balance. We give and take, you pay this one, I’ll get the next and so on. Not so simple here. The host wants to show the ultimate hospitality and with this will proceed to pay for everything from a watermelon which I bought as a present for the family (can this still be considered a present? Not really I guess) to passport copies and bus tickets. Sometimes with lots of discussion, the host may (just may) accept payment for such items, but it’s not easy to say the least and I don’t want to seem rude either. Initially it left me feeling quite uneasy, though after some consideration I have realised that if I convince them to let me pay, they will be left feeling like they have let down there guest, in this case, their tarof has been trumped. So let them pay as long as it’s reasonable and avoid those situations where they feel obliged. Buy the watermelon when they are not looking, save those biscuits for after you have left and so on. So after 2.5 weeks here, I have found an answer to my feelings of loneliness. Tarof makes it impossible for people to interact in what would be considered a normal way to me. I must analyse their body language, tone of voice and speech of my counterpart in an attempt the establish the level of Tarof involved in the interaction, sometimes none, sometimes complex and totally incomprehensible. The consequence being that the many people loose their self confidence for fear of treading on someones toes. This has the flow on effect of making a real human to human interaction very difficult, especially for me as a foreigner. Combine this with the tradition that the guest must be provided with the best there is (and lots of it), it is not surprising that I’m left with a range of new feeling which I have no previously encountered. The most believable history which I have heard so far behind Tarof goes back thousand of years to the reign of the kings, each citizen was obliged to show nothing but respect for their king when near by, but when out of his city, they freely ridiculed him as they wished. This has somehow developed into what it is today, a phenomenon which paralyses these incredibly humble and friendly people, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes a bad one. It has become clear to me that the best way to get the most out of this incredible country is to go with the flow, to think less and observe more, to forget about your norms and try to accept theirs and most of all to enjoy the ride cause it’s a roller coaster!

Making sense of it all

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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.

A different reality

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Lights begin to twinkle from many small villages around me, stars emerge from the twilight, the last of which reflects off the snow on the peaks beyond. The dry, dusty plains stretch out towards the Caspian Sea and rugged brown hills block the way to Azerbaijan. The rocks beneath me strut from the earth in rolling formations while scrubby bushes cling to life on the barren tops. Lizards dart from crack to crack as birds soar past on a graceful journey to their nests. Our tents gleam like jewels in green, red and yellow, accenting the beauty which surrounds them. A small gravel road weaves through fields of golden wheat, slowly making its’ way back to civilization.
As darkness falls, headlights appear on the horizon, growing steadily into a roar of engine noise as they near. My stomach growls as I await the feast which they have promised to bring.
The 1980’s Landrover bumps into view, with a final bounce and a short toot of the horn it comes to rest some meters from my tent. I’m introduced to a new member of the entourage, the rest of whom we met 2 hours earlier. The smell of alcohol on his breath explains the slightly erratic driving, they bring with them roast chicken, cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, pickles . We add our watermelon to the feast. In a gesture to show their gratitude, these gentlemen drove 25 km back to the town to buy us dinner after we turned down their offer to take us to their places to sleep for the night. Our reason being that this was certainly the most beautiful camp spot so far on the trip. Our acquaintance, Hanif who we had been introduced to by a lone cyclist who found us looking lost in Tabriz two days earlier, was run off his feet translating long sentences of gratitude stated in every possible manner. The theme was mostly what an honour it was that they could meet foreigners like ourselves and to serve us as best they could. The more they drank, the more they repeated themselves, finally they agreed that they must take us to the hot springs the next morning. After telling us that we meant so much to them and applying a soppy kiss to both cheeks, they left us to sleep in peace. They did not turn up as planned the next morning which, for better or worse, allowed us to move on, Hanif back to Tabriz and Stefan and I on towards the Caspian Sea. Before he leaves we make a quick call to Mohammad, as we had done two days before as we entered Ahar.
His car stood still in a large roundabout, he greeted us with a warm smile and a few words in English. He insisted that we stay in his home which we accepted. We followed his car the 3 or 4 km to his home. After a short introduction to the rest of his family, they left us for religious reasons. His wife not feeling comfortable to have us in her home while she was there.
For us, this feels very strange, but that’s just the way it is. After sharing dinner on Persian rugs on the floor we all slept in the living area. Being a mountain man himself, Mohammad invited us to join him to a castle the following day by car, we kindly accepted. Situated on the peak of mountain, it is easy to understand how Babek Castle withstood decades of attack from invading Arabs. This picturesque monument is very significant to the Azari people of northern Iran and Azerbaijan.

Training for Iran

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I curl up in the fetal position, trying not to let any part of my body touch the ground. Sweat beads on my skin, I’m shaking. My ears are filled with the thrum of large rain drops battering my tent just centimeters from my head. It is as if there is a horror movie playing outside as lightning strikes the ground all around me. My only hope is that we are in a small depression 100 m or so from the highest point. Water rushes under the tent in a rush to the slat lake which disappears onto the horizon. I lie sleepless, just waiting for the worst of the storm to pass. Two or three hours pass before the lightning becomes less frequent and the ground ceases shaking from the roar of thunder. I drift back into dreamland. Of all things that one may expect to happen on your first day in Iran, getting killed by lightning certainly wasn’t one of them.
Iran is separated from Turkey by an incredible set of steep mounts, gorges and rivers which fortify the area from the outside world. Twelve hours after our departure time from Van, the train slowly groans into a continuous lurch through a network of bridges and tunnels which took us through this incredible area. The Oriental Express as it’s known, sounds much more romantic than it is. Lumbering at best and completely stationary the rest of the time, it takes 4 days to travel the roughly 2500 km from Istanbul to Tehran. We take the first possible opportunity to get off once clearing the border and begin what will certainly be a memorable journey through the depths of Iran and everything it has to offer.

Looking out of a fishbowl

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“What are you doing in my town”. A moment of nervousness runs through me, “I’m the police chief here so please let me know if you have any problems”.  As quickly as the feeling of unease came, it disappears. It is our last night together, in the morning Olof will head back to Ankara and then Sweden and I will make up for the late start to the trip by taking a bus to the east of Turkey.
As the policeman blocks the road to speak to me, the cars build up behind him. With a grin and a wave he continues on his way. A guy on a motorbike, who we met at the first set of lights in town, waits patiently to show us where the only hotel in town is. As the hotel comes into sight, a guy comes over and starts speaking quickly in understandable english about us, him, the town etc etc. We try to keep up, “you coming with me now, we sitting and too much talking, ok?”. Some persistance is required before he gives us 5 minutes to change our cloths and meet him. He worked at hotels at the coast for years so has learned tourist english. This is only the second English speaking person we have met by chance since leaving Istanbul, actually in all of Turkey!
After a huge dinner for 9 lira (about 4 euro), he leaves us to his friends who speak no English but graciously show us around their town, the old market, historical building etc. After 125 km we are totally exhausted, but they do not see the signs and take us on a long walk to the otherside of town to drink tea in the ‘park’. This park is a small grass area surrounded by two factories with a distinct smell of chemicals in the air.
We arrive back at the hotel totally out of it, there is nothing we can do but thank them for being so kind. Sleep comes without a second thought.
Since leaving the coast, the landscape has changed completely. The lush green mountains with blue rivers and rocky peaks have changed to an open  landscape which has been carelessly shaped by erosion. The sandy soils taint the rivers gray and the vegetation is sparse and stunted. Water is less frequent and sometimes dirty. The people remain incredibly generous and friendly, we have only paid for a handful of the dozens of teas we have had. We were offered a half finished house to ourselves for a night and provided with a packet of biscuits when we stopped at a petrol station to buy something. At a time when we were both running low on energy a truck slowed to allow us to grab hold for a long hill, with a toot and a wave he continued when we reached the top.
Peering through a bus window, I feel as if I am in a fishbowl. The beauty of this country and people surround me but I can not experience it as we fly past. I feel that I will certainly have to return to experience this part of the country for real, by bike.
Tomorrow I will cross into Iran, providing the unrest is not out of control, I will spend a little over a month experiencing what is said to be the friendliest countries in the world. This is quite a reputation to uphold when comparing to Turkey. May the adventures continue.