Ali waves to us from the top of the hill. We wave back, reluctantly.
It’s the end of our walking day, and we are scanning the desert landscape for a suitable campsite. We have our eye on an abandoned house on the flattened section of the hill not far from where Ali is standing.
Being discovered as we weigh our sleeping options can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes, late-day hellos turn into invitations to stay overnight with very nice people. Sometimes, the smiles and salutations force us to continue a couple more kilometers to a spot where we are out of sight, and out of mind, from the people who greeted us.
In Iran, luck usually falls in favor of the first option. We wave and wait to see where this hello leads.
Ali* half-walks half-jogs towards us. He’s young, in his 20s, slender with floppy hair catching the breeze.
“Choi?**” he asks us, swiping his hair back and revealing dark puppy-dog eyes. He’s asking us if we want tea. We always love tea, but at this hour, with the sun starting to drop, we have another question in mind.
“Tea would be nice. Hob, OK. Mamnoon, thank you,” Lluís replies mixing English with the few words of Farsi we have picked up and gesticulating in universal sign language. “But, we piodeh (walk/walking) Iran, and soon we need to find a place for schaub (sleep or night, we mix up meanings). We have a chardor (tent). Can we stay in your garden?”
“We have a room… and television. You sleep in the room, not outside,” Ali says, searching for the English he learned years ago in school.
With the sleeping issue resolved, the invitation lingers. “Come. We have choi.”
In Iran, like other Central Asian countries we have visited, all things, include friendships, begin with tea.
We accept the offer, and heave ourselves upwards, a chore after almost 30 kilometers in full sun.
As we crest the hill, we see five men standing around. Some of them are young, Ali’s age and build; they flash quick excited smiles to the strangers who just walked into their lives. Others are older, tougher and weathered; they look us over with hints of suspicion.
If we believed what the media tell us, this would be the moment we turn and leave, stepping away from the never-well-defined potential danger broadcasters and reporters suffocate us with. These men are “those people,” the ones we should fear. They could be ones who harm us, kidnap us or do who knows what with us in the room on the other side of the hill.
Our gut instinct is stronger than blind fear.
We see them for who they are–construction workers building a winter shelter for sheep and goats owned by a local shepherd. They are sons, brothers, husbands, fathers and friends. They play volleyball, watch European soccer matches and root for the Iranian wrestler battling it out with a Kazakhstan athlete on television. They are curious about our walk and our lives, and different languages don’t stop our ability to talk, laugh and share.
Suspicion shifts. Kindness beats doubt. Humanity is what remains.
We sit in their modest concrete abode, lined with hooks holding t-shirts and pants. It’s a temporary housing situation while they work far from their hometowns, and there are signs that they will be packing up soon.
After sipping tea and chewing sugar cubes, they move closer to us to see the pins on our digital map and the line we intend to follow across the rest Asia into Europe. We eat chicken and bread, and they load our plate with rice, topping it with the crispy part from the bottom of the pot, a prized treat for Iranians.
They show us pictures of their families and the project they are finishing. They pull out foldable mattresses and blankets when it’s time to sleep, and make sure we are comfortable and warm enough.
Ali and his friend Hossein get up at dawn when our alarm beeps. We cannot leave without tea, fried eggs and bread in our stomachs, they insist.
We send silent goodbyes to sleeping men. Ali and Hossein slip on their sandals and walk us back down the hill. We reluctantly say our farewells. Leaving is always bittersweet.
Ali leans his elbow on Hossein’s shoulder. They throw us one more wave before we round into the road’s curve.
“Those people.” We hope to we meet more of them along the way. They are our blessings in a news world that curses them.
*I have changed their names with purpose, and for my Iranian essays I will use only generic, common names and unspecified locations. We will also not be publishing many photos of the wonderful people we meet to protect their privacy. People are not their governments, but unfortunately, government systems are what they are. We want to create a picture of the Iran we are experiencing, but are also sensitive to circumstances surrounding the places where we walk.
**All Farsi language words are spelled how we think they sound phonetically.