‘There’s no way all the people there are bad’

By Kirrily Schwarz – The Australian

IMAGINE going to stay with a bunch of people — mostly men — you just met in a night market somewhere in the Middle East.

It’s enough to make you cringe, because most people travel with an attitude of suspicion. We’re told to beware of strangers. We’re told we’ll be scammed, robbed, or worse. We’re told to maintain our guard at all times.

So what was Suzie Greig thinking when she went back to their apartment, in Iran?

The first question you’d ask the 26-year-old Australian is whether it’s dangerous, and you’d probably find her answer surprising.

“I felt much safer in Iran as a solo woman than I have in plenty of other places.”

She was at the market asking for directions when she met the group of cyclists. One young man spoke English, and when he said he was cycling, she found a friend.

“It was great, because I cycle as well,” she says. “His friends had an apartment in the town I was going to, so they cycled up there and I took the bus, and ended up staying the night.”

She had a great time, and says it’s important travellers say yes as much as possible.

“If people invite you to things, unless you feel particularly uncomfortable, say yes,” she says. “Iranians are really excited about inviting people into their homes.”

Iran is an Islamic Republic, and Suzie says the level of segregation between men and women was surprising at first.

In Tehran, for example, the first and last carriage of all suburban trains are women-only. Same goes for buses, where men ride in the front and women in the back. “There’s usually a separate door at the back,” Suzie explains, adding “it’s a bit weird to have to get out to go up the front and pay the driver.”

However, it does mean public transport is safe for women. “I could take a train at night and not get any weird vibes,” she says. “Honestly, I actually really liked it.”

She says men were generally very respectful as well.

“I tell a lot of people that,” she smiles. “People did look at me a lot, because obviously I don’t have an Iranian face, but it was fine. As a tourist, men weren’t really sleazy toward me, and to be honest, I think in Australia I’ve felt uncomfortable more often than I did in Iran.”

Her only bad experience was when a man followed her down the street, trying to speak to her. He was so persistent she eventually ducked into a falafel shop, waiting until he gave up.

“That freaked me out, it wasn’t OK,” she said. “It was early in my trip, though. If I compare that to how I felt the rest of the time, it was definitely an isolated incident.”

Modesty is another concern for women travelling to Muslim countries.

“I had to cover my hair, but often I could show a bit at the front, like my fringe,” she says. “You have to wear long sleeves, to your wrists, and shirts have to go to your mid-thigh.”

However, she said while all ladies wear shapeless tops to hide the top half of their bodies, many opt for tight jeans or pants to show off their legs.

Covering up all the time was a new experience.

“It was hot,” Suzie says. “Really hot. It’s annoying having something over your head, and bunched up around your neck, but it’s OK.”

2016 is an interesting time to visit Iran.

For years, it’s effectively been shut off from the rest of the world by heavy economic sanctions over its controversial nuclear program, but a historic agreement reached last July means the country is now reopening to business and tourism.

Many are curious to see what it’s like. In fact, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the number of Australians visiting the country has increased by 30 per cent in the past 12 months, however, it’s still clouded by a perception that it’s dangerous.

That’s partly why Suzie, originally from central Victoria, wanted to visit.

“If everyone thinks negatively about a whole country, that can’t be right,” she says. “There’s no way all of the people there are bad.”

She flew into Tehran, buying a 30 day visa on arrival, and says it was really easy.

“You need a hotel reservation, and they actually call the hotel to check,” she says. “I expected to get a lot of questions about why I was alone, and whether I had a husband, but I didn’t.”

She travelled with friends for a week before venturing out alone, and says she wasn’t bothered by the solitude.

“I always felt like I made friends really easily, Iranians are really nice.”

However, not many speak English.

“A lot of people said ‘Welcome to Iran!’ and that’s about it,” she smiles.

Suzie has been to almost 30 countries and speaks three languages, plus a bit of Farsi she picked up on the road.

She’s an experienced traveller, but she says the ability to successfully travel in Iran comes down to your attitude, not the number of stamps in your passport.

“You just have to be open-minded,” she says. “There are a lot of good people in the world.”

One of her favourite experiences came from meeting a woman at a bus stop.

“We were smiling a lot, and communicating a lot, without a language we could share,” said Suzie. The pair swapped phone numbers — and when they caught up again, the woman immediately invited the girls on a picnic.

“It was so good because we didn’t have words but we still communicated. It’s special.”

Suzie ended up staying with the woman’s family for about a week.

The Iranian landscape looks exactly how you’d expect.

“A lot of it is desert,” Suzie acknowledges. “But there’s a mountain range separating Tehran from the Caspian Sea, and it’s green and beautiful. There are ski resorts up there and everything, and I needed to wear a jacket.”

She travelled to south from Tehran to the desert town of Varzaneh, also visiting the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the city of Shiraz.

Isfahan, located somewhere in the middle, was a favourite.

“It’s really beautiful,” she said. “They have these bridges they light up at night, and there’s an incredible public space outside the main mosque, with gardens.”

While she doesn’t consider herself religious, Suzie says she appreciates beautiful things — including a mosque decorated with mirrors in Shiraz.

“I couldn’t get a photo because the light was playing around, but it was really pretty.”

Iranians are aware the world views them negatively, and it’s a perception they really want to change.

“A lot of people asked me what foreigners think of Iran,” says Suzie.

“I told them honestly that a lot think it’s dangerous. They don’t want that, they want the world to think of them as good people.”

She says having a good time comes down to accepting the differences, and choosing not to be afraid.

Here are Suzie’s top tips for visiting Iran:

  1. Check the visa requirements and make sure you have the documentation before you arrive.
  2. Take cash, because your card will not work. The local currency is the Rial.
  3. Say yes as much as possible, unless you feel particularly uncomfortable.
  4. If you have the chance to travel alone, do it — regardless of whether you’re a guy or a girl.
  5. Do your research. There are lots of blogs about transport, money, and appropriate dress.