Determined not to have their dreams defined by their conservative government, a new generation of Iranians are hitchhiking and couchsurfing their way to freedom. Even if, for now at least, that freedom can only be found in private.
The air in this tiny bar is thick with smoke. Ershad picks up a fluorescent marker and scrawls on the wall: “We found here because we were lost.”
The mantra captures the essence of his nomadic spirit and directionless journey: Traveling freely, discovering the unknown, finding meaning in every single second of life.
We’re in Ghalat, Iran, a hilly town outside the city of Shiraz which boasts a long history of marijuana cultivation and a famously mellow population. The seven of us, who all met over the internet, arrived here by hitchhiking.
I met Ershad through Couchsurfing.com while traveling in Tehran three years ago. Ershad met the rest of our traveling party through Instagram, and the travel stories they all post there. “We are here to spread the love,” he likes to say.
Tonight, just like so many nights, all it takes to improvise a party is a good idea; a connection between the gathered people and a bit of space to create something. An unremarkable bar with a couple of bored-looking patrons can soon be turned into a night of riotous fun—with boys and girls getting lost in music and dancing, uninhibited. Even in Iran.
Young people having fun is both a powerful and unusual sight to behold in Iran, a country which became an Islamic Republic after the revolution in 1979—a process that radically changed the way of life for its citizens. Since then, Sharia law has ruled, and people have had to look for their freedom in private. This led to the birth of an alternate reality—a world beyond the Iran you see in the newspapers—with values and rules that differ to those espoused by the ultra-conservative government.
Ershad does not question his freedom anymore; he just lives his life to the fullest, regardless of what others, or the government, might think. Every day is a new day: A thumb to the road, a destination to be stumbled upon. He has embraced the pursuit of happiness and a passion for life as his only guiding philosophies.
“We are much closer to the mentality of the young Westerners than the mentality of our parents.”
Instead of complaining about the pressures and struggles of living in Iran, young Iranians like Ershad have begun focusing on personal experiences and personal growth. As a result, a new, people-powered culture of traveling, hitchhiking, and couchsurfing is emerging across Iran.
“Until only a year ago, I wasn’t able to travel like this,” says Arash, a friend of Ershad’s and one of our traveling crew. “But seeing how other people were doing it, and how wonderful the response from local people had been, I now hit the road any time I can.”
Previously, Arash had been studying engineering and following his family’s diktats, before breaking free from home. “They always thought they knew what would ‘be good for me’, but they never asked me what I wanted to do,” he tells me. “For now, I have no clue about that, either, but I am not worried at all. It’s time to run after my dreams and not follow someone else’s.”
Chasing ride after ride, Arash has learned to compare the infinite road ahead with the journey of life itself. He is thinking about studying theater, someday. “I’m in no hurry to reach my destination,” he says.
Arash isn’t a fan of smartphones, but it is thanks to social media that he got to know many of the people he travels with now. In fact, it’s because of this technological transformation that life in Iran has become easier for the youth of today.
Not only does it allow them to meet up and express themselves, but they use it as a tool to push societal boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable. “Thirty years ago, people in Iran didn’t have the historical and political consciousness we have today,” says Guman, an engineering student from Tehran and occasional hitchhiker. “They were living in a poorer, more closed-up and more provincial country than we live in today. We are much closer to the mentality of the young Westerners than the mentality of our parents.”
For just one day, the girls forgot about the headscarves that they’re forced to wear in every other public place in the country. The freedom they had longed for was all there; pure and regenerating.
That’s the reality for Sally too. Her father wanted her to study finance, but she chose photography. While looking for a job to help her gain her independence, she embraced the philosophy of traveling with nothing—save for the friends she met on the road, like Ershad and Arash. Their love of freedom is a love of simplicity and an understanding of what everyday life can bring.
With this same spirit, any Western traveler rambling through Iran can enjoy the greatest of experiences. Iranian people deeply respect foreigners exploring their country and are keen to host them. In fact, they sometimes risk falling foul of the authorities for small acts of kindness to tourists which contravene the law.
So it was for a young couchsurfer I met in the ancient city of Yadz. In his apartment, within sight of the Zoroastrian Fire Temple (home to a fire that’s believed to have been continuously burning for a thousand years), he had hosted over 500 travelers before he was caught by the police. “They threatened to kill me and prevented me from doing it anymore,” he tells me. “That was all I loved to do.” He’s now considering leaving Iran.
“Paradise is here!” shouts Hassan as we—a group of 20 friends—reach the island of Hormuz after a 24-hour train journey and boat ride from Tehran. Surrounded on all sides by the Strait of Hormuz, people come here in search of freedom from the stressful capital. By sunset, our scattered tents had created an ephemeral village by the sea. Under millions of stars, we spent the whole night feeding a fire. At sunrise, we played on the beach and we swam.
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For just one day, the girls forgot about the headscarves that they’re forced to wear in every other public place in the country. The freedom they had longed for was all there; pure and regenerating. But it did not last.
Suddenly, two soldiers burst into the encampment and begin shouting at us, shattering the harmony. The girls, wearing bikinis, have to cover up quickly and disassemble their tent (showing skin in public is strictly prohibited for women under Sharia law). They have to simultaneously put one chador up and one down—‘headscarf’ and ‘tent’ is the same word in Farsi. “Things like this make me want to leave this country so badly,” says Mahsa, one of the girls who has been dreaming about this journey for months. “I love my country, but I can’t accept these things happening all the time.”
Eventually, the soldiers leave us alone—but not before ordering us all off the island. Night falls soon after, and determined to not have this freedom ripped from us, we decide to remain on Hormuz.
Hassan leans close to Mahsa and whispers, just loud enough for me to hear: “We’re not going anywhere.”