Stephan Orth has a rule when travelling: say yes to any and all opportunities. So it is that when the award-winning travel writer continued to hear stories from fellow travellers about Iran, he decided it was time to see the country for himself.
“Iran was interesting, because everyone who had been there said something about some incredible, surprising experiences with the hospitality [of Iranians],” says Orth. “They told of a country that’s completely different from what you’d expect from the media stories.”
By then, working as an online travel editor for Germany’s Der Spiegel, Orth had already devoted years to travelling the world, and had written the bestseller Opas Eisberg about an expedition to Greenland in his grandfather’s footsteps. Looking for stories that would provide a glimpse into a country often shrouded in mystery, Orth decided to spend his time couchsurfing — staying with locals that offer to host visiting travellers for free.
“If you’re really interested, and if you ask lots of questions, I think you can learn much more than expected about a place, even if you’re not fluent in the language.” – Stephan Orth
“I had a very interesting talk with a famous Russian traveller once, who said that you should think about how much of your travels you spend with people who are paid to be friendly to you — who are working in the tourism industry in some way, and they’re just paid to do what they do for you. If you think about that, and try to reduce this number, it’s probably a pretty good idea to get a more authentic trip,” he says.
Over the course of two months — twice, renewing his initial three-week visa — Orth covered nearly 8,500 kilometres, heading from busy Tehran in the country’s north, to the laid-back island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, to the pilgrimage city of Mashhad near the Turkmenistan border. In total, he stayed with 22 hosts across the country, always following his golden rule of saying ‘yes.’ One time, he was invited to stay with a wealthy prince who bottled his own wine; another time, he was invited to a meeting of sadomasochists.
“I got into a lot of situations where I was surprised what kind of things happened secretly, as soon as nobody is watching,” says Orth. “In public, it’s a kind of masquerade: you follow the rules of the Islamic Republic. But as soon as the door is closed […] everything you can imagine that young people do in Western countries, it also happens in Iran.”
“I got into a lot of situations where I was surprised what kind of things happened secretly, as soon as nobody is watching. Everything you can imagine that young people do in Western countries, it also happens in Iran.” – Stephan Orth
During his two months in the country, Orth received more than his fair share of Iranian hospitality, and also learned the vital art of declining such grand gestures of generosity — once, having to rebuff an offer from a host to take home his $10,000 carpet.
“I told him how much I liked this carpet, and just after that, he said, ‘Oh, that’s great! I’m so happy that I will give it to you as a present.’ If I had started rolling this carpet up and walking out of the house with it, I think it would have very quickly changed my friendship with this guy,” he laughs.
“[One host] took me to a wedding the second day I was there, but also kind of treated me like a social experiment the whole time,” adds Orth. “He was sending me [out to] talk to people […] He would stand behind and watch the situation, and just see how people react to me, to this weird foreigner.”
Along the way, says Orth, he fell in love with a country many often neglect:
“Of course, there are some issues about religious leaders, and the government, and freedom of the people. It’s not an easy place to travel to. But then, on the human level, if you just meet the everyday people, if you take part in everyday life, it’s something so different.”