How would I spend my first day in Iran?
The question sounded ridiculously common-place.
I wandered aimlessly around the streets of central Mashhad for a few hours just to get a feel for the city and its people. Despite the picture painted by the Western media, Iran didn’t appear to be full of terrorists or religious fanatics. The streets of Mashhad were populated by ordinary people going about their ordinary everyday lives.
My first day in Iran? It should have seemed a bit more exotic – but, disappointlingly, it wasn’t. Apart from the giant posters and murals of Ayatollah Khomeini (and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei) and the greater number of women wearing the chador I could have been in any big city in Asia.
It was now the middle of August, typically the hottest month in this part of the world with temperatures between 35 and 40 degrees everyday. Consequently, the days were spent lazing around Vali’s guesthouse swapping tall tales and true with other guests until the late afternoon or early evening when it eventually started to cool down.
Actually, the full name of the guesthouse was Vali’s Non-Smoking Homestay – an unlikely proposition in Iran where 90% of the male population smoke and cigarettes are about $2/packet!. Dinner was provided each night at Vali’s and each night Vali’s wife (who remained virtually invisible the entire time I stayed) would cook a mountain of delicious dishes from the north-east of Iran. Dinner conversation was often dominated by one of Vali’s “civilisation dialogues”. I was never really sure what this was supposed to mean but Vali seemed to think it was important.
Often described in various guidebooks as “eccentric” or “charismatic”, Vali has been running his guesthouse in Mashhad for many years as a sideline to his real business of selling carpets. Nobody escapes without getting his full carpetseller’s spiel at least once. Vali was the sort of “character” that polarises most travellers. Many people find his “enthusiasm” infectious and endearing. And there is no doubt Vali genuinely loves showing foreign tourists around Mashhad and the surrounding area. But equally, many people find his manner tedious and, after a few days, move on.
One of the most interesting guests was an Irishman from Derry. Simon had been working in the Gulf as a English language teacher for many years but what was more interesting was that he also spoke Farsi and Arabic fluently.
I didn’t realise it at the time but Simon’s language skills would come in very handy in the very near future.