This article was originally written for the travel writing competition “Fearless Footsteps” by Intrepid Times, about overcoming fear, real or imagined, when traveling.
Overcoming Fear in Iran One Breath at a Time
I am holding onto the metal side panel of the fire-engine red tuk-tuk until my knuckles go white. With my other hand I am desperately trying to keep myself covered, clutching the ends of my white headscarf in a tight fist with the ends of my black manteau.
We are hurtling over potholes, at full speed, on the wrong side of the road, chasing the sunset on Hormuz Island, in the south of Iran.
Yusuf, our twentysomething driver with the cool hipster hair-do and red soccer shirt, drives his tuk-tuk like a modern beast of burden through the rocky interior of the island.
I can’t remember the last time I have felt this scared. The Persian Gulf flashes into view, a pearl-colored carpet of stillness, before it disappears again as we fly around another bend. I feel the wheels momentarily leave the road, and let out a high-pitched scream.
Yusuf turns around with a surprised smile. “You ok?” No, I am definitely not ok. I am scared to death of ending up down the ravine that opens beside us. My bones are rattled and I am forever strangling myself as my headscarf becomes entangled with the straps of my camera. Not to speak of the permanent bad-hair-day a veil gives you.
I am not sure that Yusuf would understand any of my fears and frustrations, besides, we share less than a handful of words. “Yes,” I say, “I am ok.” I smile back at him in the side mirror. He motions me to adjust my scarf, then he opens the throttle and we’re off again.
Just as I am making a mental list of the different worst-case scenarios for our high-speed sunset chase, the tuk-tuk begins to slow as we roll down a steep hill, until we come to a complete standstill.
The monumental landscape of the Mars-like, deserted, interior of Hormuz Island gradually comes into focus. The silence after our roaring ride is overwhelming.
Yusuf tries the throttle a few times, but his beast is dead. We’ve broken down amid barren clusters of rock that look like shavings of thick dark brown chocolate, sprinkled here and there with a dusting of white, pink, yellow and purple.
The worst-case scenario, it turns out, is missing the sunset over the Strait of Hormuz on our last evening in Iran.
Yusuf smiles and squats beside his vehicle to fix a previously botched wiring job.
I take a deep breath and remind myself that travel is all about being in the moment, trusting the flow.
This is just one of the many mindfulness challenges our month-long trip through Iran has offered. Our journey has taken us from the green lushness of the Caspian Sea, through deserts and the fabled cities of central Iran, all the way down to the Persian Gulf.
Every day delivered the unexpected. Iran has been a month-long crash course in what Zen Buddhists call ‘beginner’s mind’. It refers to the practice of looking at the world without expectations, as if seeing everything for the first time. It helps to let go of stress, anxiety and fear. I was familiar with the theory. Iran challenged me to practice it.
I had stepped into Imam Khomeini airport a month earlier stressed, anxious and fearful of the unknown. My ears were ringing with alarmist headlines that declared Iran one of the world’s most dangerous places. My stomach was in a knot with the fears of well-meaning friends and family. “Things can flare up down there at any moment,” I was told over and over. I didn’t have the courage to tell my parents that I was going anyway.
At over 50, feeling this way seemed ridiculous. The last time I had felt this anxious about travel was when I’d left Germany on a one-way ticket to Jakarta, a fresh-faced, blond, 21-year old female solo traveller.
Getting ready for Iran was like preparing to survive in an alien land. Facebook and Airbnb, two platforms on which I run my business, are banned in Iran. Like everybody else, I downloaded a VPN. All throughout the flight I felt like a spy sneaking into the ‘world’s most dangerous country’ with a dangerous piece of software in my pocket.
My partner and I are the only two white people to get off the flight from Doha. A tall man takes my passport, turns away and talks for the longest time in a loud voice to a uniformed man. I focus on my breath. There is nothing to worry about. I have read a dozen blogs about how to get your entrance visa on arrival for Iran. But I worry that we are not married. That I have brought the wrong passport photos. That a wet stain on my scarf may be seen as a public offence.
The latest headlines about Iran that flashed across my screen before I turned my devices off, are on repeat in my head, like a broken record. I breathe in and out evenly. It calms me, until a man who looks like a character out of a pre-Revolution movie steps into my field of vision. I focus on his square glasses and the 70ies cut of his grey suit, as I keep breathing, in and out. His English is limited but very precise. “Pay here. In Euro is ok. Now you wait.” Before we have a chance to wait, he’s back. “Your passport. Welcome to Iran.” He smiles and puts his right hand on his heart.
It took less than 45 minutes to enter Iran, faster than I have ever entered any country. Being a guest in this alien land was easy from the moment we arrived, but finding our flow in a country that dances to a foreign rhythm remains a daily challenge in mindfulness.
Yusuf taps me on the shoulder. He has fixed the wires. We resume our journey at break-neck speed over a patch of unsealed road. We do the final stretch on foot, running down steep canyons and up rocky ravines. I watch with envy as his feet glide assuredly in worn-out plastic slippers over the uneven rocks that shimmer pink in the fading light.
I lose sight of him and call into the darkness as the boulders around me seem to move in a little closer. I find him sitting on a small ledge, below him the cliff falls away in a 20-metre drop.
In front of us the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s current tinderbox of political conflict, extends peaceful and empty, veiled in a soft pink haze. There was no magical sunset tonight. We have missed nothing. Six tankers line the horizon, like toys in a bathtub. On a clear day you can probably just see the tip of the Arabian peninsula. To our right a sheer cliff extends in shades of purple as far as the eye can see. At the bottom the sand shimmers in hues of charcoal under the gentle splashes of the Persian Gulf.
Yusuf is on his phone. I join him with trembling knees and give him the thumbs up. Until mobile phones and emoticons, the thumbs up was the Iranian equivalent of the middle finger. But I know Yusuf will understand my gesture as intended.
I am too scared to pull out my camera. It would take one wrong move for it to topple over the edge with me following behind. To watch the fading beauty of the Persian Gulf in front of me, I have to be totally in the moment, taking conscious, even breaths.
The fear of falling down the cliff is different from the fear I felt about coming to Iran. Both take me out of my comfort zone and both make me feel alive. Travel off the beaten track is a rare opportunity to experience the world through the lens of ‘beginner’s mind’.
When we get back to the car, Yusuf motions us to turn around. A full moon is rising over the mountains on the leeward side of the island. It’s the perfect finale to our month in Iran, a country that has made us feel safe and welcome in so many different ways.
From hugs by random strangers, to cups of cinnamon tea and conversations about Persian poetry with our hosts, to the home-cooked meals and many sincere salams, everybody has greeted us like the airport official on our first day. Welcome to Iran. Khosh amadid. I heard these words repeated so often, I will never forget my first two words of Farsi. I have never felt so welcome and safe in an alien land.
I am delighted that this article was chosen for publication in a forthcoming book of travel stories,”Fearless Footsteps,” by Exisle Publishing. Thanks to the editors of Intrepid Times, for allowing me to share this article here.
FYI: Since everybody asks me this, my partner and I traveled independently to Iran with only the first night booked. It was very easy to build our trip as we went. Iran has an extensive network or long-distance and over-night buses; main roads are modern and well maintained; the traffic is a little more fluid than in say Germany or Australia, but much less chaotic than Vietnam; taxis are very affordable and there is a wide variety of beautiful hostels and guesthouses to choose from. Iranians are extremely friendly, kind and generous hosts who will go out of their way to make you feel welcome and safe.
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