If we listened to some of the mainstream media and travel warnings, much of the modern world would be off-limits. And while venturing to a war zone is hardly advisable, our featured contributor Ben Groundwater argues that travel can help add ‘personal experience to disconnected opinion’.
My cab driver is fumbling with a book of some kind, trying to turn the pages while gripping the steering wheel with his knees. This would only be mildly alarming if we were crawling along in one of Tehran’s notoriously horrific traffic jams. But we’re not. We’re out on a highway near the city’s airport, and from the back seat of the old cab I can see that the speedometer is nudging 100km/h.
The driver doesn’t seem too worried. He keeps flipping through the book until he gets to the page he’s looking for, keeping one eye on the traffic that’s screaming past us and the other on the pages on his lap, before he eventually turns to face me and smiles.
“Welcome,” he says. “Welcome to Iran.”
It’s a phrasebook, that thing on his lap. I can see it now. That’s what he’s been reading instead of looking at the road. He’s been risking life and limb—mine, it should be noted, as well as his own—to find the right words in English, to figure out what to say to properly welcome me to this country he calls his own.
Iran. Would you expect a warm welcome? Would you expect to be embraced? You should. Because if you visit, you will get exactly that, time and time again, over and over, until it’s almost overwhelming. Everyone wants to say hello. Everyone wants to make sure you’re having a good time.
There’s a look of surprise most people have when they come over to talk to you in Iran. Like, what are you doing here? Haven’t you read the news? In fact, people ask those exact questions out loud. They’re surprised any traveler would take a punt on their country, that they’d come to see if the reality matches the news stories. Of course, it doesn’t.
Iran is one of the friendliest places in the world, if not the friendliest. There’s an ingrained sense of hospitality in Persian culture, a desire to welcome strangers and provide for them, but it goes further than that. There’s pride here. There’s also gratitude that maybe, just maybe, you’ll enjoy yourself in their country and take their message to the world: that this isn’t an ‘axis of evil’. It’s a nation of overwhelmingly decent people who just want to get along.
Travel’s good like that. In fact, it’s what seeing the world with your own eyes is all about. It lets you make your own decisions. It adds personal experience to disconnected opinion.
This is a sensation you can have anywhere in the world, but never more so than when you’re visiting a nation or a place that some people might consider ‘dangerous’, that people would tell you are ‘no-go zones’. You might be in Iran, or you could be in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Israel and the Palestinian Territories, or Colombia, or even Papua New Guinea.
These are countries that have struggled to attract tourists in recent times, after battling through domestic issues which have dominated headlines worldwide. When you only read about these places in the news, you begin to form an opinion of them as scary, as being the enemy, as being the sort of places you would want to avoid. But travel teaches you that the opposite is true. That there’s so much to gain from taking a chance on a ‘no-go zone’.
To begin with, you have it to yourself. Egypt used to be famously teeming with bumbag-toting tourists getting in the way of all your photos. Now, there’s no one there. Colombia has some of the most beautiful Caribbean beaches around, as well as buzzing, exciting cities, but it’s still flying under the radar for many mainstream travelers who aren’t prepared to take the chance.
It’s the welcome you receive, too, when you go to these places. It’s the fact people are grateful you’ve come to see things with your own eyes. It’s the genuinely good nature of the citizens of even the most troubled lands that makes you glad you made the effort to discover it for yourself. Iran is a case in point.
I was to find out on that trip that the welcome from my cab driver, delivered at 100km/h on a highway outside Tehran, would be repeated—at least in terms of cogency and sincerity—over and over again.
A kid on a motorbike would almost run into a fruit stand because he was waving and calling out greetings as my friend and I walked along the street. A guy called Hamid would spend days with us in Isfahan showing us around his city. A group of young girls would lead us through a mosque just to practise their English.
There’s a feeling of being welcomed that you often don’t get in even the safest destinations. The travel experience is at its best when it surprises you, when it forces you to question your assumed knowledge, when it changes your world view for the better. And sometimes going to the ‘danger zones’ will do just that.