Moldova: the luxury of travel

Yes, it’s different. Travelling two rather than traveling one. It does feel my ‘project’ is finished – kind off. It’s more of a holiday being together. Less intensity of the contacts I have, less continuous awareness of what I am doing, less focus on the road and route. Less writing. More idle dawdling and chatting. More picnics in the shade of trees, more slow moving. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. At least not physically. The steep hills and poor roads of Moldova make sure of that. The beautiful rolling hills with a patchwork of grain, corn and grape vines, sprinkled with wild flowers, are punishing in the heat.

It also doesn’t mean the end of meeting people. The kindness of people wherever you go makes sure of that. Such as Ivan, who invited us in for the night and with whom and his neighbours we spent an evening drinking his home made wine and eating succulent dried fish he had caught in the slow streaming river at the bottom of his garden. And Andrei and his family who eked out their evening meal to include us and with whom we spent another evening, drinking more home made wine as he played the accordion and sang traditional songs of love and sadness, while the rest of the family joined in and clapped hands.

As is the case with all the countries I have passed through, Moldova is complex. There is something distinctive about the country which you see the moment you cross the border. The houses, often decorated with wood-cut symbols like ears of wheat, hiding behind colourful fences. The village streets, often potholed and sandy, are lined with leafy trees under which old men and women watch us cycle by. The geese which are herded along with a broom like stick. The wine which is brought out the moment guests arrive, and glasses keep being filled till even the second plastic one and a half litre bottle runs empty. Apart from the kind hospitality, what stands out most of all is the poverty. No running water in many houses, but private or communal wells. And on the worst main roads I have come across in my whole journey so far, old cars spewing smoke are joined by numerous horse and carts as well as a few top-of-the-range 4×4’s.

But despite what seems so uniquely Moldovan, the complexity is clear. People from Bulgarian, Rumanian and other descents also live here. Some groups feel they are so different they did not want to be part of the Moldovan Republic. Having avoided the independently declared Transnistria because of border crossing technicalities, we find ourselves later in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, where Russian is the official language, Gagauzian, the language spoken on the street, and Moldovan a minority language taught as a foreign language at school. ‘We should be a separate republic’, Vasily declares. ‘We are a special people who come from Bulgaria originally’. He works at the local museum which preserves the Gagauzian heritage. But 18 year old Demian finds it all ‘ridiculous’. ‘My Gagauzian teacher says I should feel Gagauzian. My Moldovan language teacher says I should feel Moldovan.’ He, like many young people, wants to leave Moldova and find better opportunities abroad. But for the moment he travels in the mind. Social media being his tool of communication. He conducts friendships across the world by Skype, Facebook and various Internet sites.

As we spend our last night in Moldova, camping in the school yard of a village, one of the older teenagers playing football there comes up to us. His English is good. He also wants to travel like us. He has never been out of Moldova, he says. But there is no opportunity. His voice trailed off. And with high unemployment and an average monthly salary of between 60 to 80 euros, as Vasily had said earlier, how could he? Suddenly, I feel guilty. He, like Demian, is probably also ‘nomadic’ in the mind and has access to the Internet. But it is no substitution for real travel, unexpected real encounters with people in their environment, the real dirt and grit of the road. The luxury of travel. Whether solo or as two.








Taking stock: the end of travelling solo

This would have petrified me 3 months ago, I thought, making my way in the almost pitch black labyrinth of paths and potholed roads between old Soviet apartments blocks. I cycled this during daylight to my hosts in Simferopol 3 days ago, and even then it was difficult to find my way between the rows of rusty garages.

In the dark it’s almost impossible. But I end up at a road which is lit. Not the one I was aiming for, but, I guessed, the one parallel to that. I managed that all right I thought. It’ll be easy finding the bus station from here.

I need to catch the overnight bus to Odesa to meet my husband who is flying in from London. We will cycle the last leg of my journey together, back to Istanbul from where I started. I confidently turn left at the large roundabout. But here as well the road is dark and dimly lit. The buildings at the side disappear and I cycle between trees. Absolutely no one around. Dogs barking nearby. Where am I? Did I take the wrong turning? I should have passed the bus station ages ago.

The road bends to the right and I see blueish lights ahead. As I cycle up to the deserted bus concourse, rows of empty bus stands. Is this the right bus station? I ask the only person I see: ‘aftobus Odesa?’. But he walks away without answering. ‘Spasiba’, I shout angrily after him. And when he doesn’t acknowledge that, even louder: ‘Spasiba’. Thanks for nothing.

But I didn’t need his help anyway. I wheel my bike past the empty bus stands looking at the list of names in Cyrillic on each sign. At the last one, I see the word Odesa. An easy name to recognise.

A bus turns up, but not at the bus stand I am waiting at. Out of nowhere people walk towards it. I follow them. Yes, the sign of Odesa in front. The baggage compartment is opened and the driver starts loading people’s luggage, handing out tickets for each bag. I wheel my bike even closer, but he completely ignores me. ‘Velosipyet’, I say, firmly. ‘Odessa’. He looks up and seems to say: ‘No way can we take your bike.’ He asks to see my ticket. Yes, I have paid for a bike. It says so in black and white. To be honest, when I bought the ticket with the help from Yula, who I had met only a few days earlier, I was told I needed to reduce my bike to 1 metre. ‘You need to make it smaller’, he indicates. ‘Sorry, I can’t do it’, I insist. I show that even if I take the front wheel off, the front rack cannot be removed, and it would only save 20 cm at the most. He gets angry. ‘I can’t take your bike’, he says. ‘Yes, you can. Bike nyet problem’, I say, more confidently than I feel. Others watch the stand off and a woman taps me on the arm. She sides with him. ‘You can’t take your bike. Too big.’, she shows.

I don’t care what it takes, I told myself. I am getting on this bus. The driver tells me to walk to the other side. I wait and wait. When it is almost time for the bus to leave, he walks over to me and opens the luggage compartment on that side of the bus. Completely empty! I start to laugh. ‘No’, he seems to say. ‘We have other luggage to come.’ But I start to put my bike in the hold. He doesn’t stop me. He doesn’t help me either. When all my luggage is in, he rubs his fingers, showing he wants money. I knew this would come. ‘How much?’ Hundred UAH. Ten euro. I pay him and board with a triumphant grin. I had been prepared to pay at least double.

When we set off, I reflect on the last 3 months of solo travel. In the first few weeks, there had been many moments when I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew. Those noises my bike made: was that supposed to be there? The rubbing of the brake blocks on my wheel: I didn’t seem to be able to solve that. Finding a place for the night: would I find somewhere suitable? Finding my way in a big city with traffic whizzing past me on both sides. Struggling up hills, with teenagers on mopeds, talking incessantly. Getting completely soaked and wet and cold with darkness falling. But each difficulty was only temporary and with each problem solved, the ride became easier. My first wild camp, my first puncture – I can do this. And now, three months later, I am surprised by how easy it all seemed, how obvious the solutions to problems were, and how kind people everywhere have been and willing to help. Loneliness has never been an issue. I enjoyed being on my own, meeting so many people. I have still so many stories to tell, about the amazing people I met. About Sochi and the Olympic Games (it will all be all right on the night, they tell me), about Nadiya who comes from deepest Siberia. School closed when temperatures dropped below -55, she says. And about beautiful Ukraine, with its hills and mountains and multicultural history. And Yula, who has set up a record label and has the vinyl printed in the same town in the Netherlands that I come from. And about Esther, whose genuine niceness forced me to examine my stereotypes about American evangelical Christians, probably the hardest stereotype of all for me to overcome.

Now I am facing my next challenge: how to share my journey, how to (re)learn the art of compromise. The challenge of ‘travelling two’.

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Abkhazia: fragile beauty

We are sitting under vine leaves, listening to the frogs and watching the night gradually draw in as the fire flies start their flickering dance. He was born in this house, he mimes. It was built by his father. Brick by brick. Both his parents were killed during the war of 1992-3, as was his first wife and many of his friends and comrades. He fought himself as an officer. He doesn’t speak English, and his Russian wife, Irina, whom he married only recently, either doesn’t want to translate, or doesn’t know how to convey the intensity of feelings. Or perhaps he doesn’t really want to talk about it. ‘Daour says it was awful. Awful.’, is all Irina says, as she shakes her head and looks down at her hands. Silently.

‘It dominates everything’, Julia says. ‘Every time people meet, whether with friends or in meetings with organisations. It always comes up.’ The war. The fact that people lost so many friends and family. ‘It cannot be forgotten’, she continues. Not yet. We are looking out over the smooth and calm, blue Black Sea where a pod of dolphins is hunting for fish about 100 meters off the coast. She is only 20, but with her fellow student in International Relations, Olga, she has big plans to help her country grow. They want to set up a tourism and business consultancy. ‘This is such a beautiful country, with beautiful landscapes and with so many opportunities’, they both say. ‘People just need to know about it.’

She speaks with a youthful certainty. About their plans. About independence. ‘People are now starting to realise we had to become independent. We speak a different language, we have a different history, we are different people.’ And even though she has one Uzbeki and one Russian parent and has spent her childhood in Uzbekistan, having lived in Abkhazia for only 8 years, she clearly includes herself in that history. With that one statement, she makes a claim for cultural and ethnic difference, and at the same time
making a case for a multicultural Abkhazia. ‘As long as you feel you are Abkhazian and support the country, you can be Abkhazian’, she says. I tell her about the kind and warm hospitable people I had met in Gali and how Mingrelians there live together with Abkhazians. Even though in an ideal world, they would prefer to still be part of Georgia, their main concern is to live peacefully together, I said. She didn’t respond to the latter. ‘If they want to live here, they should take on the Abkhazian nationality, not remain Georgian’, she insisted.

Her enthusiasm seems in conflict with the backdrop of ruins, especially of larger buildings and former prestigious structures, such as hotels, the railway station, and the old administrative building of the Georgian government. That one is kept abandoned, as a reminder of Abkhazian victory. But she is right. It is a beautiful place. Not just because of the contrast of the snow capped mountains in late May, the subtropical plants and trees and the empty pebble beach gently touched by an aquamarine blue sea. Its beauty lies in the contrast of the rusting piers, the deserted emptiness of the ruins and the will of the people to survive. You can see it in the small kiosks selling sweets and cigarettes at street corners. You can see it in the potholed gravel streets, which seem perpetually filled with puddles, lined with planted flowers. And you see it in the bazaar, where the freshest, high quality produce is sold – products of small scale eco friendly farming.

The pain of loss, and perhaps of having inflicted loss, cannot be forgotten. As Julia said, it dominates everything. Indeed being introduced to Daour’s neighbour, almost one of his first questions was, who do you think is right Abkhazia or Georgia? Of course, I couldn’t answer. But what I do know is that I have fallen in love with this strange, compelling, beautiful and fragile place, north and south, full of ruins and remnants of the past coupled, with a youthful and hopeful look towards the future. I could live here. For a while anyway.












Border crossings in Abkhazia

Borders are strange things. They are artificial creations; lines and limits, indicating something starts and ends at a particular, precisely indicated place. In the case of countries borders do work of course in precise ways in administrative and legal sense. And often we assume, by extension, that these borders also exist between people. That in a different country people are different, live different lives, eat different foods, believe different things. And to some extent that is of course the case. In all the countries I cycled through there were some very specific cultural ways; whether it concerned food, architecture, dancing, what you can and cannot say or do, and the political and social concerns people have. But in reality I found we share so much as human beings, and I felt at home in most of the places I have been.

But sometimes, people draw precise borders around their own country and region in terms of who they feel they are and what makes them different. This is especially so, in areas where the legal borders are contested. Such as in the case of Abkhazia. It effected me in two ways. First there was the case of crossing the actual administrative border, and secondly there were the stories people told me about living in their ‘country’.

Whether you think Abkhazia is a country or not depends on your political view. The Georgian government, and probably most people in Georgia, certainly think it is not. They will say the region is occupied by Russia. And most of the western political world supports that view. But, unsurprisingly, that is not what the Abkhazians think. The war in 1992-3 was fought precisely for that reason. It were Georgian tanks that rolled across the border first.

And as a result, my actual entry into Abkhazia was tricky from a legal point of view, or to be more precise, the potential exit was a problem.

Cycling up to the border the road gradually emptied. Black and white road blocks heaped together on one side of the road. On the left a pink concrete police post. Two uniformed policemen took my passport. I had to wait, phone calls had to be made. At my left a plain clothes policeman appeared addressing me in good English, explaining I was about to enter Russian occupied territory. And if I was to leave Abkhazia at the Russian border, I would be leaving Georgia illegally and I would be in violation of border laws. If I ever wanted to come back to Georgia, I would have a problem and would be fined. ‘Your name is now in our data base.’, he added for good measure. Finally, after an hour and a half, I was allowed to cycle over the rough and potholed bridge spanning the river Inguri towards the Abkhazian border post. Snowy mountains in view, and in the knowledge that for the first time in my life I had violated border laws. It unnerved me.

There were other borders to cross as well. I also assumed that people in Abkhazia would be different. The name itself suggests difference, something inaccessible, and slightly dangerous. Warnings of bandits and general unlawfulness rang in my head. But as I cycled over the beautiful, almost completely empty road, except for cows and pigs, surrounded by the twittering of birds and the heavy scent of the large fine needled pines lining the road, my main thought was how peaceful it all felt. This did not seem a place for bandits or unlawfulness. It did not seem a place for war either. But signs of the latter were soon apparent. Shells of houses and buildings. Some bombed, I expect, others just left abandoned as much of the Georgians – Mingrelians- who lived in this southern part, fled the war zone and the tanks.

Gali, the main town – more of a village really – in the south was strangely empty. Almost every other house and building was a ruin, trees growing out of its windows. I looked for a shop to buy food, but couldn’t find any. Following the smell of fresh bread, I found a bakery. I was invited inside and given some water and offered a seat next to the big clay oven. A young woman came in. A niece of the baker, it turned out. Esma was her name. She spoke English. Did I need any help? Well, yes, I am looking for a shop to buy some food, and I was also hoping to get a SIM card. She helped me with the latter, but food I didn’t need. I could come home with her to eat, and I could stay with her as well. If I wanted. Of course I did. It was the start of a very special weekend, meeting very special people who were very ordinary in their everyday concerns.

She introduced me to Zoya, now 83. With her red rimmed eyes and slight figure she looked like a frail little bird, but she had been an important local figure during the Soviet years. As the deputy local secretary of agriculture, she had often travelled to Moscow for meetings with Brezhnev. She got her medals out to show me, and a book with a photo of her sitting on the second row applauding a speech by Brezhnev, her former boss. Things were so much better then, Zoya said. It didn’t matter whether you were Georgian, Mingrelian, or Abkhazian. There was no war amongst ourselves. We were one big family. I was to hear that phrase often, I had already heard it a lot. Also in Georgia.

Esma’s family had fled the war. They had gone to live in Russia, but had returned a few years ago, This is the place they loved, where they belonged. Their house might not have many mod cons, no toilet with running water, but the infra structure in Gali was gradually improving. And in their nicely decorated house, Esma’s mother made some typical Mingrelian food; mamaliga, a kind of solid porridge made of corn flour. You poke a piece of cheese in it so that the warm porridge turns it into something gooey and sticky. Esma’s sister, Eliza, who had married an Abkhazian man, Daour, also came for dinner with her husband and children. They were to take me and Esma later that evening to stay with Daour’s family in the mountains. An Abkhazian village, they said, in the largely Georgian part of the country. It was a weekend of food and more food and laughter and being shown family photos, being shown where they make their wine and cheese, and walking amongst the mountains and the mandarin and nut trees, and hearing the stories of the past. Not the stories about the war, though. The time of the war was referred to in hushed tones. A shadow flitting over.

Daour’s parents, Arvelod and Leila, had stayed on their farm during the war, not wanting to leave their property and animals, but they had sent their teenage children to live with relatives in Russia, where they stayed and studied at universiity. Arvelod was Abkhazian, but Leila Mingrelian. At the dinner table three languages are spoken. All the family moves in and out of Abkhazian (Abswa), Mingrelian and to a lesser extent Russian. The children speak all these languages as well. When we visit other relatives in the village, it would seem that marriages between Abkhazians and Mingrelians are the norm.

Here there does not seem to be a drawing of limited boundaries around their identities. Instead a sense of wanting to live peacefully together.

On Sunday morning we drive to the ruins of the very old Bedia church. Arvelod dresses up for the occasion in traditional dress. The sword and belt had belonged to his father, and his grandfather before that. He wears it at celebrations and special occasions. My visit is such an occasion it seems. I feel quite honoured. He wants me to take photos of him. Walking around the hill top with misty clouds coming down from the mountains, I hear the cheerful tunes of Abkhazian folk music. Arvelod stands near his car, the doors wide open, the tape recorder at its loudest. He starts to dance, with a big life enjoying grin. He loves it. He beckons Esma. She hesitates, but then with her long black hair and pastel coloured skirt and top, she kicks off her shoes and joins him bare foot in the ethnic Abswa dance. The Abkhazian man and Georgian woman sharing their joy for music, dance and life.

When on Monday morning we return to Gali, or Gal, as Abkhazians call it, to pick up my bike, we go into Esma’s shop. She opened it only three month ago. A boutique selling, amongst other things, T-shirts and short dresses with images of Marilyn Monroe, Vogue and Paris. It displays a glamour which seems out of place in this strangely empty town where the war scars are so starkly visible. But Esma is offering her town a new vision. Of hope, of being able to make a living among the ruins, of looking beyond the borders. As they all wave me off when I get on my bike, my throat thickens. These wonderful, special people showed me that ordinariness, being with family, talking, arguing, dancing, cooking and eating and above all, sharing, and putting pains behind you, are what life is made of. I will miss them. As I head towards Sukhumi, or Sukhum, I am full of anticipation, mixed with apprehension, what the northern part, where the war was fought heaviest, would be like.


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Having left Azerbaijan with its gold-toothed smiling people, bread baked in large clay ovens, and dusty roads behind, it felt I re-entered the western world when cycling into Tbilisi; wide streets, shops with recognisable names, even a MacDonald’s, people in western clothes, and indeed, what I had been able to avoid for most part so far: tourists. Even the unusual and beautiful script, unlike any other in the world, and the steep cobble stone streets that I try to cycle up, could not remove that impression of familiarity. I felt a slight stab of sadness, as a return to the western world signals the end of invigorating and challenging otherness. I have come at the crossroads of my trip.

And as Nino, my host for the next view nights, tells me, Georgia itself is at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Underneath the western feel of Tbilisi, she says, old patriarchal values lurch and are sometimes stronger in everyday life than the law, such as when it comes to inheritance practices. The sons inherit, or get help from parents when buying a house, whilst the daughters, if they would happen to fall on hardship, are dependent on the charity of their brothers.

I have also left the Islamic world behind and entered the Christian orthodox one.The churches are testimony to an old and strong Christian tradition from the Byzantium times which even in the Soviet era never went away. I am surprised by how virtually everyone strictly observe the rituals of church visits; turning around when leaving the church and making the sign of the cross. Various of my female hosts do not enter the church, but hover near the entrance as they do not wear a skirt or have a scarf to cover their head. But it doesn’t apply to me, they assure me, when I forgot my scarf. I can go inside bare headed and in my scruffy cycling trousers. The old churches exercise power on me as well. The unusually high arches soaring towards the dome, the cross design of the churches, the sweet smell of incense, the free movement and mingling of visitors whilst the congregation and priests stand or walks, and the sudden male voices of the choir – they give a glimpse of another unworldly dimension.

But the cosmopolitan air of Tbilisi itself shows that Georgia, like its southern Caucasus neighbours, has a complex history. Whilst overwhelmingly Christian orthodox, there are also old synagogues, and mosques. The Armenian quarter and the jewellery and gold bazaars where Armenians and Minghrellians (Georgians who lived in and fled from Abkhazia during the 1992-3 war) sell their earrings and bracelets, are another sign of the complex history of Georgia.

But, despite its cosmopolitan history, national traditions are a source of pride as well. I am treated to videos of national dances, some of which are very energetic, others slow, elegant and eastern in their movements. Throughout my stay I am also urged to eat as much as I can of the national dishes to which my hosts treat me. Food, unlike any other I have eaten before; katchepouris(a kind of cheese pancake), pancakes with a bean mixture, meat and vegetables with walnut paste, pickled vegetable dishes, lamb stews, meat balls glistening in a layer of fat ( much more delicious than it sounds), and cheese. Lots of cheese.

National pride or not, the country looks towards Europe. English is more widely spoken than in the countries I have passed, with the exception of Iran. And in the outwardly dilapidated buildings of the State University, several foreign languages are studied, including Dutch. In the beautifully maintained Dutch Centre, the enthusiastic lecturer, Nino Pakhadze, teaches the equally devoted students to use Dutch at a very high level. Their dedication extends to students sacrificing their lunch break to come and listen to my talk.

Outside the city, I enter into a different world, again one with contrasts. Mountain landscapes and alpine green fields, cows with clunking bells, wild flowers and fast streaming rivers as well as old rusting Soviet era factories. But, rusting or not, the Soviet era is still very much part of the mind set of some. Whilst many of the younger generation feels proud of independence, many older people bemoan the break- up of the Soviet Union and feel nostalgic towards a time when work, house and a certain standard of living were ensured. Even Stalin is remembered by some people as a great man who put Georgia on the map.

And, as elsewhere, people are kind and helpful. There is the woman of the fruit stall who gave me a stool to sit on and bread and an apple to eat when I arrived wet, hungry and bedraggled having followed signs for a restaurant to only find the place had closed long ago. And the van that picked me up to take me to the next town when both my tyres instantly flattened after cycling over a drain. The garage that tried to mend the punctures (unsuccessfully as it turned out) with lots of advice from the men that soon congregated. The women of the katchepourri stall that helped me with the next set of punctures by ripping off a strip of towel to clean my black oil stained hands, the daughter who with her strong hands managed to get my gear connection to snap into place, whilst her mother with large, strong arms pumped up my tyres in no time.

Georgia: a beautiful country of which I have not even seen the most beautiful parts: the high mountains. I hope I will have the opportunity to explore these crossroads in more depth at another occasion, but, as I will explain in my next post, I am now in violation of Georgian border laws, which will make my next visit a little bit more difficult.








The southern route through Azerbaijan

I had turned inland, leaving the intense blue Caspian Sea behind me, having decided to take the southern road through Azerbaijan. As my time was limited, I had chosen this shorter route heading towards Georgia. Researching the route, I had been a bit surprised there was no mention of this road. Only the northern and middle roads were used by other cyclists it seemed.

In the sweltering lowland heat I cycled past dusty villages, small dykes, lining partially dried up channels fringed with plumed reeds. The latter reminded me of a dustier, drier version of remembered hot summers in the Netherlands of my childhood.

Further on the channel was filled sufficiently for two bare chested small boys to swim in the brown muddy water. They waved as I cycled past. Nearby a woman was washing clothes. The road almost empty, apart from local traffic; a few cars, tractors pulling carts laden with hay bales, a moped. The heat covered the land in a bright glaring haze.

Then the tarmac road turned into gravel. A white-grey road with sharp stones and potholes, and small stones on the edge that made my bike slip. The cars that came past throwing up clouds of dust. I battled on for a few kilometres worried I may get a puncture any time. No shade in which to calmly mend a flat tyre. At a shop outside a village, I asked how long the road continued like this for. Another 40 km, I was told. My shoulders slumped. My tyres would be ripped to shreds after that. Not only did I not fancy backtracking the 20 km already cycled, it would have meant a detour via the middle route, which I had been told, was dull and boring.

I stood there surrounded by men. I need a lift, I said. I can’t do this with my bike. They observed me silently, perhaps not understanding what I meant. I suddenly felt exhausted. Let me eat first. Hands helped me to park my bike. Inside the dark, cool interior of the shop, I just asked yekmek? I had no energy left to decide what to get, but the shop owner busied himself with getting some food for me. Bread? Yes, please. Sausage? Yes, please. Cucumber, tomato? Yes, please. Juice? Yes, please. I went outside heading for one of the chairs that stood in the shade, but he called me back and sat me at table in the annex of the shop, amid crates of fresh chicken, away from prying eyes. He came back a while later and made the gesture of sleep, pointing to the bed behind the counter. It was tempting, but no, I need to solve the problem of my route first.

Suddenly, a large man stood in from of me. He gestured he could give me a lift and take me to where the road was smooth again. I stuffed some more sausage and cucumber in my mouth, while the shop owner collected my left over lunch and put it in a plastic bag for me. Outside quite an audience of boys and young men had collected and watched as the man, Iskender, put my bike and luggage in the back of a Lada pick up.

Inside the car, another man, Cavid, was already sitting behind the steering wheel. Iskender came along for the ride as well, so I squeezed in next to him. I had to lean my arm outside the car to create a bit more space for myself. I grinned at them. A bit tight, I said. They laughed, understanding what I meant. Suddenly, the car left the stony road onto a small hard packed sand path. Huh? I asked. Iskender laughed. The road is no good. We’ll join it later on he gestured. I relaxed and decided I would enjoy the ride.

And enjoy it, I did. Cavid raced along the packed sand road, passing the wire fence of the border with Iran, the Lada jumping over potholes and large bumps. When he saw I liked the Azeri music on the radio, he cranked it up even louder. Ahead of us through the dirty and cracked window the brown grassy plain stretched ahead. We passed stables and dwellings made from reeds in the shelter of small humps in the land. Nomads? I asked. They nodded. Large herds of sheep and goats huddling together.

When the road became tarmac, we passed a police post. Iskender wriggled his big body down, so he couldn’t be seen. What? I asked. Are you an illegal immigrant? He had said earlier he was from Russia. Cavid grinned and held up one finger. Only one passenger allowed.

They dropped me off where we joined the original road, now beautifully smooth tarmac. They went back the same way they came. They had made this whole round trip, just for me.

Dull and boring, the southern route certainly wasn’t.










Things are not always what they seem in Iran. Take the chador as an example. From the view on the street it would seem that the majority of women wear this thin piece of usually black material draped over their heads and held with their hands under their chin, so it doesn’t slip off. But when I looked more closely and tried to count the number of women wearing chadors versus manteaus (a coat that comes to just above the knees), I realised that in the bazaar and old city in Shiraz it is about 50-50. But on the main shopping street in Esfahan, the chadors were a definite minority. And in the shopping mall in Shiraz there was hardly a chador in sight. It tends to be older women who wear chadors, but again, not exclusively so. One woman of perhaps 60 who sat next to me on a city bus – where men and women are segregated – asked me what I thought about wearing a head scarf. It’s not too bad, I said. I just occasionally find it very hot. Yes, she indicated, it was especially uncomfortable in summer when temperatures soar well over 40 degrees. She pulled a face. The contemporary design of her spectacles perhaps indicating she would much rather have worn something different than her dark manteau. But many women push the boundaries of the dress restrictions and wear tight manteaus in lighter and brighter colours than the standard black or dark blue. And many young women wear tight jeans underneath, and even high heels.

Chadors or manteaus, dark colours or bright, it is not a straightforward choice between modern and traditional, or between obeying the moral laws or not. Ayda, the 23 year old woman I am staying with in Tabriz and who, when inside her house wears a fluffy pink hair decoration which makes her look very glamorous, tells me that if she didn’t have to, she wouldn’t wear a headscarf and she would opt for different clothes in brighter colours. But she criticises women who wear make-up and body hugging manteaus. Women like that may find it hard to get a husband, she says. While she craves the freedom of information and the freedom of speech of the west, she likes the more conservative culture of Tabriz, where parents guard over the purity of their children and where men and women are separate at parties, unlike in Shiraz or Teheran, where people are more liberal in their dress and behaviour, and are prepared to take more risks, even it comes to stand them at a fine.

And while dress restrictions are shaping everyday life for women, they are as highly educated as men and many, as far as possible in a society with extreme high unemployment, have careers of their own, whilst also taking responsibility for the house, the cooking, and indeed the welfare of the husband. Although it could be said that that isn’t all that different from many in the west.

And the contradictions don’t stop there. Take, for instance, the deeply religious people, who are liberal in the sense they respect other people’s beliefs, and will not enforce religious practices upon others, not even on their own children. And who are indeed very critical of the Islamic government, particularly the way it uses, or rather corrupts in their view, Islam to suit their own purposes.

And indeed most of all, the contradictions between the kindness of the people, their readiness to welcome me and offer help whenever needed, the beauty of the culture, the poetry that many people can cite, the graceful architecture, the ancient histories of an empire which was famed, I have been told, for its liberal attitudes – comparatively speaking – to the workers that built its cities, such as Persepolis, and the harshness of the current government. Because while on the street it may seem that life goes on as normal, you only have to scratch the surface to hear the stories about hardship, uncertainty, lack of hope. Stories about not being able to express yourself, to say what you think, not being able to dance, to listen to the music you like, not being able to develop and use your talents. Stories of frustration and indeed fear. Whilst the western sanctions against Iran are crippling the economy – prices can rise phenomenally from one day to the next while salaries remain fixed, and whilst many medicinal drugs and equipment are not available, not many people blame the west for these sanctions, but their own government instead. Not that anyone will dare to say this publicly. But you hear it in the jokes on the street, the conversations in taxis, inside people’s houses.

I only dipped my toe into Iran and haven’t even begun to fathom the depth of this culture. But I made new friends, met with such kindnesses and I know that this is a place I want to learn much more about. So I can come back again and avoid making too many assumptions.