British backpacker: Iran is the easiest country in the world to travel in, a misunderstood country, world’s most polite people
by Will Hatton
Iran is the easiest country in the world to hitchhike in
Will Hatton, from Brighton, travelled to Iran in January for the first time
He met Iranian Esme on Tinder and she ditched uni to travel with him
He revealed the country is nothing like how it is portrayed in the media
When many think of Iran, stereotypical images of hard-line clerics, the threat of nuclear weapons and women hidden by veils, spring to mind.
But with the country preparing for a ‘tsunami’ of foreign tourists as visa sanctions are lifted in the light of a landmark nuclear deal, there are hopes that this influx of visitors will be able to see and share a fresh perspective on the country.
And a British backpacker who travelled to Iran- and left with a wife- insists that the popular view held of Iran couldn’t be more different to the destination that he encountered.
Will Hatton, a 27-year-old freelance journalist from Brighton, says Iran is the easiest country in the world to travel in
Will Hatton, a 27-year-old adventurer from Brighton, first travelled to the Middle Eastern country in January of this year as part of his three-year mission to get from England to Papua New Guinea without taking any flights.
He hitchhiked over the border from Armenia with the help of an Iranian motorist, who couldn’t have been more delighted that a Brit was making the effort to come and see his country, something that Will revealed was indicative of the vast majority of the people that he met while there.
He told : ‘Iran is the easiest country in the world to hitchhike in.
‘Iranians have no idea what it actually is but they are so hospitable that as soon as they see a foreigner standing by the side of the road with piece of cardboard, they stop.
‘So it only ever takes a minute to get a lift.’
|Will making a sign for hitchhiking in Iran, which he says always works in under a minute|
‘People in Iran are painfully aware of how they are portrayed in the media, so they go out of their way to help you.’
While in Iran, Will met Esme, pictured, who ditched university to travel the country with him.
|Will is pictured grabbing a lift from a local motorcyclist in the country|
In fact, Iranians are extremely polite among themselves as well as to foreign visitors according to Will, who revealed that it is a common custom among people to refuse payment for a service or item, even if they do actually want the money, which can lead to some confusing situations.
He said: ‘They have quite an interesting custom called t’aarof – a system where Iranians almost feel rude if they accept payment from you.
‘So when you are getting a drink or taxi or anything really, the person will not take the money for payment and you have to insist four or five times.
‘It can be frustrating and also confusing because most time they still expect the money, even though they are saying no.
‘So someone would say that a taxi ride was free, then I’d say thank you and get out the taxi and they’d look at me in a certain way that made me realise what they had said wasn’t actually true!’
Will says he was surprised by just how liberal the attitudes are among the country’s young people.
|Will in front of the windows of one of the country’s many majestic buildings|
One of the biggest surprises that Will found though, was just how liberal the attitudes are among the country’s young people.
He said: ‘Everything is possible in Iran, I went expecting to see to be no sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll for six weeks, but that was not the case.
‘It’s all very much underground but there is a growing, arts, music and film scene that is very exciting, they just can’t go anywhere because their passports mean nothing.
|Walking through one of the souks in Tehran, which is laden with handmade items|
‘Iranians can only go to about 10-20 countries in the world easily.’
That hasn’t stopped the general population from being tapped into world news and culture though, despite government restrictions on internet access.
To get around the censorship, the country’s citizens download VPNs to disguise their computer’s country of origin so that they can access blocked websites.
Will did the same thing while travelling in the country, so that he could access the news, emails and also social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tinder.
It was during a search on Tinder while couch-surfing with two men in Tehran that he met Esme, 26.
He said: ‘There weren’t that many people on Tinder actually, but Esme was on there and I messaged her with the best chat up line I could think of: “You don’t look very Arabic”
‘She responded The Iranian culture is incredibly rich and the country was once one of the most important empires in the worldalmost instantly with a tirade of abuse about how Iranians are not Arabic, they are Persian and that referring to an Iranian as an Arab was the same as mixing up England with Croatia.’
‘But I managed to recover and we spent some time chatting before deciding to meet up the next day for coffee, in a date that flew by so fast that before we knew it, we had been sitting there chatting for 11 hours.’
Will had plans to head to Kurdistan the next day and Esme was back at university, so the pair parted ways.
|Several old buildings and ruins show the grandeur of the Iranian empire of the past|
But just a couple of days later, when Will found himself unable to get Esme off his mind, he messaged her asking if she wanted to leave university and come travelling around Iran with him – she said yes.
Soon, the pair had started off on their travels together, but before long Iran’s strict rules about unmarried men and women socialising started to cause trouble.
Will said: ‘In the first three or four days we had trouble checking into hotels and every time we did, it was dodgy.
‘So Esme suggested we applied for an Iranian temporary marriage, which is perfectly acceptable in Iran – many people have one.
‘This marriage licence, which lasted a month, meant that we could travel without a risk of getting in trouble.’
But while there were initial problems with booking in to hotels, Will revealed that the reactions of Iranians to a foreign man being in a relationship with an Iranian woman couldn’t have been warmer.
|The landscape of Iran is incredibly rugged in some parts and has become well-known for its skiing|
He said: ‘People said it was great we were together.
‘Iranians got very excited in general about a foreigner visiting their country, then when they realised she was Iranian, they would lose their s***.
‘They were so happy that someone had come to Iran and had an Iranian girlfriend because it showed I was not the kind of person who thought it was a bad country, it validated me.
‘Iranians are very aware of how they are portrayed on the world stage, they are the default bad guys in most low-budget actions movies and that’s got to hurt.’
Will said that the impression he got from the country was that it was a nation of people desperate to progress forward after years of being held back
It is a sentiment that Esme echoes, like many Iranians she is frustrated about the image the rest of the world has about her country.
She told : ‘Everything the media portrays about Iran is wrong, so people don’t see what the country is like unless they travel here for themselves.
‘The culture is amazing, the nature is amazing and Iranian people don’t engage in any kind of terrorism activity, which is what media try to suggest to people.
‘Whenever I watch something about Iran, I don’t recognise the country I live in.
‘Sure, we do have a corrupt government but the people of Iran are just like any other country – all they want is to be able to travel the world and experience new things, that’s what the youth cares about.
‘Being a woman in Iran is not particularly easy as there are so many restrictions, like the hijhab and things that women can’t do.
‘For example, women can’t go to stadiums because the government claims violence could happen, and women are not allowed to ride a motorbike.
‘It’s not easy but there’s always a way to work around it, there’s always a way around the restrictions.’
Will said that the impression he got from the country was that it was a nation of people desperate to progress forward after years of being held back.
He said: ‘Iran was once one of the most important empires in the world and you almost get a feeling of a country which has been set back by decades that is finally emerging into the modern world.
‘I met some really revolutionary people in Iran, lots of young people who are aware their country has been set back and angry about this but progressively moving forwards to change people’s ideas about the country.’
Will is hoping that by talking of his experiences in Iran, he will help to show a different side to the country that his fiancee comes from
Will headed to India after their Iranian travels and Esme met up with him a few weeks later.
The couple have been travelling the country for a couple of months and plan to head to Pakistan next, where Will is hoping to open a backpacker hostel before the end of the year.
The couple’s marriage licence has run out, so they are no longer married, but they are now engaged to be married properly.
Will revealed that Esme’s parents have been incredibly understanding about their daughter’s relationship, so the engagement is in part to assure them about her future.
He said: ‘Her parents knew about our relationship from the start. I had to speak to her mum again before we met up again in India.
‘She told me it isn’t normal in Iranian society to be doing what we’re doing and I promised I would send her back in one piece.
‘We’ve got engaged again, because we love each other but also because I’m a foreigner and she has dropped out of school.’
The country has many ancient ruins dotted around the countryside
Will is hoping that by talking of his experiences in Iran, he will help to show a different side to the country that his fiancee comes from.
He said: ‘I get asked a lot of questions about countries like Pakistan and Iran and I say the same thing about all of them – you have to go to these places and see them for yourself.
‘When I was a kid I was an idiot. I was very up for the idea of us having global enemies but that is bulls***.
‘There is no country that is more full of the world’ s bad people than any other – it is a ludicrous idea.’