Margo continues her account of participating in a team cycling event in Iran.
Previously, Margo’s team had finished their race and had just been extended an offer to extend their stay in Iran to compete in another race in Azerbaijan, Irans northern-most state. Herself and one other rider took up the offer and this is where her story starts again…
….We spent a couple of nights holed up at Irans huge Azadi sporting complex on the outskirts of Tehran, before heading north. Along with other stadiums there was an outdoor velodrome and the national football stadium – with seating for 100,000. Athletes live-in for training in their various sports, and we were eating all our meals in their dining hall – the food was surely a step up from the hotel and certainly a lot fresher. I noticed only about three other females during our stay there.
I was quite comfortable there because I had been given the coaches suite to stay in – a certain luxury when compared to what the men were sleeping in; the ‘bowels’ of the velodrome.
To get to Tabriz, the capital of Azerbaijan, we were promised a flight but true to form, we were instead put on an overnight bus which took about 9 hours (another sleepless night for me) and deposited at the ‘Petro-Chemical Hotel. With a name like that you cant help but wonder if you’re going to stumble across a nuclear secret! For the record, Petro-Chemia are a major sponsor of one of Irans better cycling teams.
This race was quite a different experience to Tehran – a test on patience for both myself and my team. Its where the saying ‘en’shallah’, heard in all muslim countries, was really put to use. It means ‘as God wills it’ and it was their answer to every question or issue we had; from trying to organise tickets to get a fresh lot of riders over from Europe, organising management, gear, or to obtaining the requisite team clothing etc …. In the end it was far more simple for me to do all the jobs muyself. I became the team massage therapist, mechanic and manager!
I was stoked to be offered a gym to use in Tabriz, its part of the hotel complex and we had 5 days to fill before the tour
started. There were separate gyms for men and women, but what a time I had! I felt like a celebrity and got treated so
warmly. It was an everyday occurrence to be approached by a woman wanting to practice english, to know about me and to invite me for dinner or a guided tour of Tabriz. In a land of raw onion eaten at most meals, it was also new to inhale (there was no escape) the smell of onion that literally ‘exuded’ out of these women as they exercised. Even opening the windows to get fresh air in was of little use – they’re all ’shielded’ with covers that sit just off the outside, heaven forbid a male getting a view of women exercising..
I had a massage at the gym one day, always nice to get one yourself after doing so many. The therapist did not speak a word of english but her massage was one of the best Ive ever had, albeit under slightly ‘unusual’ circumstances. The room was big and bare, much like the massage table, covered only by a sheet of plastic. I was told to wait and someone came to put a sheet over the plastic, it was old, worn and didnt cover the table but I didnt care. She gestured for me to take everything off, which is fine and normal, but there was nothing I could cover myself with – luckily it was a hot room, however, we must have had half a dozen ‘visits’ from the curious manager (who knew a little english) and whoever else wanted to come and see if I was ok, happy, at ease etc. The door wide open with these happy, smiling faces that were so eager to know that I, ‘from New Zealand’ was enjoying my experience. I hope they were enjoying it too!
Once the race started, we stayed in different hotels along the way so it was a lot more varied than Tehrans tour. On the
second to last stage there was about 20km of racing along the Iranian, Azerbaijani and Armenian border. This was a unique and spectacular mountainous landscape of deep earthy tones, rich blue sky and occasional armed soldiers. It was while on this tour that we had a short sharp lesson in a couple of things, like supplying our own coffee because it just isn’t to be found at any of the hotels, and not being one minute late to breakfast or we’d be left unfed.
Need something from a chemist? It seemed nothing was impossible to get with stacks of drugs available over the counter and a well informed chemist ready to help. We had nights of not enough beds and days of feeling left out of the loop. There were less interpreters and fewer people speaking English, so one question could take hours to be answered. I was the only female but was treated very well. The one thing that seemed elusive was our details for flights home, and we found them out the day the tour finished, three hours before we were due to leave.
Five hours later (Iranian time again!) we were loaded onto a bus with the Kazakh team, bound for Tehran. We stopped for dinner at a road-side diner (Iranian style) and had chicken, rice and bread…
So the fun really began around 4am once we had arrived at the airport, when myself and the rider who had stayed on from the Tehran tour, went to go through customs. We were turned around and directed to a ‘police counter’ – our visas had originally been given for 9 days, we were leaving 21 days after that visa had expired. Thankfully, Id been using an Iranian sim card while I was away, and who best to wake-up with a frantic call than our trusty interpreter from the Tehran tour!
Eventually we we were back to the sports complex, along with the rest of the team whose flights back to Europe were a good 24 hours away, and it was a further four days before we could get a flight out. In a flash of ‘brilliance’ I called the New Zealand embassy to share our situation. The Iranian Cycling Federation were saying they weren’t going to pay for our tickets home, they were rather put out that our overstay had cost them around $900 USD.
We owe a lot to our interpreter and also a fellow Kiwi at the New Zealand embassy, he was awesome. We lunched two days in a row with him, at the embassy, and got to make calls home and use the internet, read newspapers and drink coffee etc. The worst thing about our delay was that our baggage had left Iran and gone on to Dubai – after we had been assured that no bags ever leave without passengers. This time they did, and my mp3 charger was inside, damn!
Despite the ‘character-building’ aspects and vast cultural differences that proved testing at times, travelling Iran is an
amazing experience, an eye opener and a massive learning curve. The people are amazing, the women beautiful, the food basic but (apparently) organic, and I have to admit, I felt pretty good while we were there; no jet lag, lots of energy and eating food that I dont usually eat.
Recommendations? Dont forget to arrive with cash on you! And keep your cultural sensitivity with you at all times. I know as ‘the kiwis’ we enjoyed some jokes and being the way that we are, but its not until I look back at our time there that I realise that while we adhered as best as we could to the cultural ‘laws’, I can see we did pushed the limits a couple of times! The small things we take for granted in the west, like being able to meet with someone of the opposite sex simply to chat, is seen very differently in Iran. We were not there to study the people or make comment on ther social, political, religous or economic beliefs. We were there to race and through that we were given an amazing opportunity to experience a culture so unlike ours. For that, I’ll always be grateful.