Iran had been on my travel list for a long time. In August 2016, I finally got the opportunity to visit this mysterious country. I was curious to know life is like in Iran, and that is why I wanted to meet Iranian people. I used the website couchsurfing.com to fulfill that goal. In a month time, I stayed with Iranian people and learned how it is like to live in a country with many prejudices and stereotypes. I was welcomed by great hospitality and left the country with new friends. In my opinion, Couchsurfing in Iran is the best way experience local life.
How does Couchsurfing in Iran work?
The concept of Couchsurfing is to stay with locals from all over the world. As a host, you let travelers stay for free on your couch. You can write something about yourself on your personal profile and find hosts or travelers who you think fit you the most. However, a couch or a bed is most likely not where you will spend your night in Iran. Most of the time, I slept on a carpet facilitated with a pillow and blanket. And to be honest, it was actually very comfy.
Iran was the first country where I used Couchsurfing. When I announced at my ‘public trip’ on the website that I was going to Iran, I received around 30 invitations from Iranians. Even though there were sketchy messages from men between those 30, there were also kind messages from people who told me that I am welcome in their homes. It was always very easy for me to find hosts in Iran.
Beforehand, I heard that using Couchsurfing in Iran is illegal. I, however, never got the feeling that it is an illegal activity. The Couchsurf community is massive in Iran. And no, that is not exaggerated. Almost all Iranian people who speak English (basic English also included) have a Couchsurfing account. Students, just married couples to families with three kids. Many people know about Couchsurfing, and the community is expanding. Not like Facebook, you don’t need a VPN connection to reach Couchsurfing.com in Iran. Furthermore, there are no reports of foreigners who got arrested because of using Couchsurfing in Iran.
Being part of an Iranian Family
My first host was Sabra. A sixteen-year-old girl who lives in Tehran. From the first moment I was there, the family took me in like I was a new household member. I was going to family meetings, we ate dinner together, we had a girl’s night in the park, I played games with little sister Shadi and danced in the living room with Sabra.
Sabra’s English was excellent. Because the rest of her family didn’t speak English, her task was to be a translator during the time I stayed there. To translate her father jokes, her mother concernings, and Shadi’s stories. Sabra was very curious and interested in my life. How it is like to live in the Netherlands, why I was traveling alone and, of course, if I have a boyfriend. My little brother of her age was particularly interesting for her. When I had shown a picture of him, she could not stop talking about him.
Likewise, I was curious to her life. She told me about her love for Paris and that she wants to study in the United States where her aunt lives. When we were sitting in a women’s park, forbidden for men, surrounded by walls, and where women can dress freely, she mentioned about her doubts regarding religion and her country’s controversial rules. She also told me in the park that she was concerned about fulfilling her dreams of studying abroad and traveling in Europe. Obtaining a visa with an Iranian nationality is not an easy job.
Find different perspectives in Iran
I also had prejudices of Iran before going. News and media have a lot of influence on what we think about Iran. There are a lot of things going on in a country where we almost don’t know much about. Like they say: ‘the shortest distance between two people is a story’.
When I was traveling in the Kurdistan province, I met Maryam. She was just married and living with her husband in a beautiful big house. During the first morning, she showed me with pride a bottle of wine which she got as a marriage gift. And when she opened the fridge, there was a just-opened bottle of Johnny Walker whiskey. If she would go out, she would wear her headscarf even more at the back of her head than I did. And in the car, there was no headscarf at all. She was kind of rebellious for conventional Iranian sense. From origins, Maryam is Kurdish. She explained to me that Kurdish people show the most resistance to the rules of Iran, because some rules don’t allow them to practice cultural traditions like: Kurdish dancing. We spent most of our time at home. Cooking together, playing backgammon and talking about the episodes of game of thrones.
A week earlier, I stayed with Shima in the southeast part of the country. She was married and had a cute one-year-old baby. Before marriage, the families didn’t allow them to see each other before the wedding. They only knew each other from their childhood. Even though they didn’t know each other before marriage, you could see that they love each other. It was a loving and kind family. Religion plays a big part in Shima her life. She would excuse herself for a moment to pray and her hijab (headscarf) is important for her. Shima has her Master degree in English literature and is an English teacher. But, after she got pregnant, she decided to be a full-time mother, but sometimes she still gave English classes to kids at her home.
“What do you think about Iran?”
I got that question a lot. Not only from my Couchsurf hosts but also from random people on the street. They love to hear positive things about their country. Ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran doesn’t have a good reputation in many western countries. However, backpacking in Iran becomes more popular. Even my mother who watched documentaries about Iran, was more scared of me going to Turkey and relieved when I was in Iran afterward.
To come back to the question, Iran is one of the best countries I visited so far. When someone asks me about my travel experience, I am often talking about Iran. How cliché it sounds, without the great Iranian people I met, it wouldn’t be a good experience. Hosts we didn’t allow me to pay me anything, Shima who suddenly decided to buy earrings for me, a family who just ate lunch decided to make an extra special lunch for me and Sabra who gifted a Paris bracelet.
In total, I stayed with seven families in a month time. The other nights, I spend at hostels to find time for myself alone and to share experiences with fellow travelers. It is hard to be alone when you are a new member of an Iranian family.
It was a good experience. An experience I would recommend everybody. It was just a small piece of what I was able to see. But without using Couchsurfing in Iran, I don’t think I wouldn’t have such great memories as I have now.
*Because of privacy and security reasons, the names of the people mentioned in the article are changed*
Some tips to make your Couchsurfing in Iran experience more pleasant
- Buy an Iranian sim card. The price of a sim card is very affordable and will help you a lot with contacting your host because WIFI is hard to be find
- Bring some gifts from your home if possible. Your hosts will like to receive something from your country.
- Be careful of people who hassle you on Couchsurfing. There have been reports of people who ask for money during a Couchsurf stay. Always read the comments on someone’s profile, and be clear what you are expecting from your host and the host is from you.
- As a solo female traveler, be cautious of invitations of male hosts. They can have different intentions than you.
Go to couchsurfing.com and create a profile to gain your ‘Couchsurfing in Iran’ experience.
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