For most budget travelers, websites such as CouchSurfing, Hospitality Club or any other similar platforms* seem like a dream come true as they enable you to find a place to stay in most of the places in the world completely free of charge. There is much more to it though. Personally, I think this kind of traveling is first and foremost about meeting new people and only in the second place about where you stay. Of course it requires a certain amount of open-mindedness and tolerance from both host’s and surfer’s side but if you’re ready for that, Iran is the PERFECT place to have your very unique ‘couch surfing’ experience (we’ve already tried it in 6 different countries in the last few years but in Iran it was definitely the best). And CouchSurfing is the most active community of this sort out there.
A park in Shiraz
To let you better understand what made me think this way, I would like to give you a few reasons from our experience, which are the most important for me:
- It allowed us to meet up with some really unique and very interesting people who were nowhere close to the stereotype of a fanatic/orthodox Iranian Muslim that some people might have about Iran. In fact a few of them turned out to be much more open-minded than some of people I know back in Europe. If we didn’t have a chance to get to know these people while staying at their homes where they felt completely safe to talk openly about anything be it religion or politics, we probably wouldn’t discover this side of the Iranian society at all.
- Being invited to people’s homes is not only a chance to talk to them but also to see how they live. From our experience, most of Iranian Couch Surfers come from middle class families and it was very interesting for us to see, how the western culture (represented by numerous modern appliances, officially banned satellite TV etc.) mixes with their traditional, Persian housing style. Of course, all of it happens despite the official governmental condemnation for the ‘western world’.
Lavanya with our new friends met on the bus to Tabriz
- In many cases, after spending some time with your host, you get to know him/her well enough so as not to be afraid to ask all the question that you wanted to ask since the time you arrived to Iran (but were not brave enough to ask them to the strangers) – that’s how it was with us. We found out for example about the underground parties that take place among the youth, the many ways they find to meet each other, that the obligation of wearing a hijab is merely a sad and unpleasant necessity for quite a few women in Iran, that people do drink alcohol despite the religious ban imposed on it throughout the country, as well as that there is a large group of people completely disagreeing with the current state of affairs in the Iranian politics, etc… Of course if you don’t have the kind of boundaries we had, you can ask these questions to anyone you meet even in the street but you also need to remember that in a country invigilated by the secret police, like Iran is, it’s necessary to gain your interlocutor’s trust first, in order to hear a real opinion about the subject.
- Iranian hospitality is really unique. We experienced it in many different moments, in various ways– some people invited us home without us even requesting them for a place to stay, others offered us some great Iranian home-made food, some drove us around their city for many hours but the most striking (and strange) experience was when the father of our host, who was impressed by what we’re doing and our way of traveling, gifted us money so that we can travel longer!!
Quran Gate in Shiraz
- Even though Iran is definitely not a top tourist destination, there will be other travelers that you’re going to meet on your way. And you’re not going to be the only CouchSurfer in the country either, so that’s also going to be a chance for you to meet interesting people from other countries. Apart from Iranians, we managed to meet people from France, Hong Kong, Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland and we had some really good time together.
- Sometimes you’ll have a chance to see or do something unique – for us one of such things was for sure listening on 2 separate occasions to hear our hosts’ play traditional Iranian instruments – setar and santoor. As the mini concerts happened at our hosts’ homes, we even had a chance to try playing these instruments ourselves.
I hope we convinced you that there are at least a few good reasons to take CouchSurfing in Iran into consideration. There is however one important fact that you should also be aware of – for local citizens in Iran hosting foreigners in their house for more than 2 nights and without registering them with the police is technically illegal… but don’t worry, from the great number of people who tried it and didn’t encounter any problems (like us), we can tell you that there is nothing to be concerned about. And also as it’s illegal, we’re not posting the pictures of any of our hosts anywhere on our blog.
Football game at the Imam Square, Esfahan
There is however one precaution that you should take – if someone asks you in the street where you’re staying, always name a hotel and never the place of your host. You never know who is a regular citizen and who a member of the secret police in Iran… and sometimes by saying something innocent like this to the wrong person, you might just make your host’s life more complicated.
Nevertheless, don’t let me discourage you. As I mentioned a few times before, CouchSurfing is surely worth trying at least once. And even if it turns out you don’t like it… no big deal… you don’t have to use it for 90% of your stay in Iran as we did, you can always switch back to the hotel accommodation whenever it suits you (that’s another great thing about CouchSurfing, isn’t it?).
All the best for your surfing experience!!
In front of the Blue Mosque in Tabriz
*Internet based networks for travelers from all over the world that enable them to find hosts who can offer them a place to stay during their travels. For the ones that don’t have their own place or enough free space to host but still want to be a part of it, it can also involve meeting up for a coffee or a drink as well as simply providing useful information over the phone.