I’ve spent the last couple of days being shown around the wonderful town of Zanjan by my couch-surf host Roham and his friends. It’s been a joy. Ever apprehensive as to whether or not I’m on the same page as the people I stay with, sometimes it takes a little time to get to know where you stand and how you need to behave. Minutes after getting into a car to tour the city, my fears were allayed.
(Pointing to a building to our right) “this is our university.”
“Yeah. It’s shit.”
I was among friends.
The rest of my time here continued in the same vein, meeting several of Roham’s cohorts, again ramping up the standard of hospitality. The only reason I decided to pay a visit originally was due to a find via my travel bible “Atlas Obscura.” I wanted to see the famous Zanjan “Salt Men”, human remains of salt mine workers over 3000 years old, almost perfectly preserved from being encased in salt for centuries. They were discovered by accident as late as 2005, in the Chehr Abad mine in the region. Unfortunately (and understandably) I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but the most interesting example was of a 16-year-old boy who died when a tunnel collapsed. His clothes and tools were intact, with skin, fingernails and hair still visible. Creepy to some, fascinating to me, their discovery led to invaluable information about local ancestry. A visit is highly recommended.
Toilets. Some of you maybe aware of the design of Eastern water closets, but some of you may not. I’ve experienced them on a few occasions, but up until now, I’ve always dodged their use for a number two. In Iran, you simply can’t get away from it. My heart sank when I first opened a cubicle door and saw the abomination before me, but there’s no getting away from it here. Do or die. I ask my new-found friends if anyone has a Western toilet and only one of them confirms that they do. I inform him that I’m coming round to his house to take a shit.
But practice makes perfect, and soon I’m getting the hang of it. It’s incredibly efficient, because nobody wants to stand in that position for any longer than necessary, and water use is kept at a minimum. But it’s just not the same. Going to the bog is a luxury. There’s nothing better than holding a loaf back, waiting for just the right moment, when you take the morning paper to the throne, lock the door, complete privacy and solitude, and destroy the jax with last nights booze poo. It’s an event. It’s a tradition. It’s a constitution. Iranian toilets take that away. Not to mention the smell. And you’ve got to wonder how the women cope?! Wearing all those layers, the Chadors long, flowing robes, their usual dignity stripped bare having to squat like a junkie getting cavity searched. It’s bad enough trying to avoid your own togs when they’re wrapped round your ankles, and heaven help you if you’re having the same problems I was after drinking dodgy water in Yerevan. Alas, I have to get used to it, but I guess it’s good training for India.
Zanjan itself is a lively town, with extremely friendly and approachable people. I was already becoming something of a celebrity. Strangers approach in the streets with hands outstretched for warm handshakes. “Welcome to Iran” is a common greeting. Food is regularly offered with no charge. Children stare wide-eyed at the gringo. Iranian girls gather close and giggle. Everyone asks where I’m from. Everyone is smiling.
Roham and friends show me the mosques, the bazaars, the view from the mountain, the museums and the shopping mall – which is where you go to “pick up.” I’m introduced to his English teacher, a lovely man who is beside himself when he learns that Glasgow was my home. He used to live there himself, and we spend an easy hour reminiscing. Roham helps me exchange money, fix my phone (more fingerprinting) and his family feed me like a king. Never a problem. Never a dull moment. I’ve already extended my stay longer than anticipated, but if it were up to him, I’d never leave. There might be an Iranian/Scottish music collaboration that sees the light of day at some point. Roham beams with delight every time I concede another day, but time here is short, and with regret, I must push on. Tomorrow I turn to the Caspian Sea coast, the town of Rasht, and with it, apparently the most beautiful girls in all Iran. Lord help me I’m never leaving.
Thank you Roham. It’s been a total blast. You, your friends and family are among the reasons why the rest of the world needs to change their mindset about this incredible country. Apart from your toilets. Sort that shit out.