For the first-time couchsurfer Iran will provide a wonderful introduction to couchsurfing – but quite possibly spoil you if you want to couchsurf elsewhere! For the seasoned couchsurfer Iran is a dream come true with many incredibly hospitable and interesting people wanting to host.
If you have never couchsurfed before I would recommend at least a few nights doing this if you come to Iran. It is an amazing way to get to know Iranian people and something of their family life, their food, their culture, ideas etc. Hosts are usually willing to help with your onward travel plans too (helping you buy bus tickets or calling hotels for you) which is a huge help if you don’t speak Persian! Although the traveller clearly gets a VERY good deal (the above + free accommodation), couchsurfing is by nature also beneficial for the host. It provides those with often limited ability to travel internationally, a chance to meet people from other countries, practice their language skills, make new friends and show off their patch. We met Iranians who were of course keen to practice their English with native speakers but also many who were learning German and some who were keen to learn French, Danish, Russian or Chinese. So it isn’t just English that people want to practice!
In all our hosting situations at least one person spoke very good English so communication was very easy. Many hosts seem to enjoy discussing things with guests, sharing ideas, breaking down stereotypes, asking questions, having fun and giving us different insights into their culture and country. We are in touch with quite a number of our hosts – even now 4 or 5 months later. They have become friends, not just hosts, and we are very keen to see them again.
Iranians are by nature extremely hospitable and most of the couch-surfers we stayed with were so incredibly kind, helpful and generous that I was nervous that their hospitality could be taken advantage of. For example by travellers who do not contribute anything to the costs (food, transport) and travellers who might overstay their welcome in their attempt at living free/cheaply for as long as possible. It can be difficult to provide food even for yourself at some hosts’ places, let alone provide for your hosts as they frequently insist ‘you are our guest’. With some hosts we had to be quite persistent regarding help with shopping, cooking and washing up, with others it was more natural and easier to contribute. I sincerely hope that Iranian CS hosts feel appreciated for their amazing hospitality and don’t get taken advantage of by budget travellers, especially as word spreads of how great it is to couchsurf in Iran!
We enjoyed engaging with our hosts and getting to know them, playing with the kids, meeting extended family and friends etc. All hosts gave us space to do our own thing too so it wasn’t too full on, a good balance of engaging and resting. Plus we mixed couchsurfing with staying in hotels where we could have more time to ourselves. I have already blogged a bit about our couchsurfing experiences in Iran in the ‘Living with the locals’ section of this blog. If you are interested click to read of our first experience, about single male hosts, our fabulous female hosts and more here.
OK… after that lengthy introduction, here are a few tips/ suggestions/ideas for those who want to couchsurf in Iran, 18 of them in fact, in no particular order:
- Take a silk sleep sack, a towel and perhaps a pillow case. In all homes we slept on the floor, on mats or blankets Iranian style. We found this pretty comfortable.
Occasionally these mats had sheet like covers but we never got sheets, so we were happy to have our silk sacks to sleep inside. Most homes were really warm so an actual sleeping bag would have been too hot. We didn’t need the heavy blankets that were often provided. Most of the time our sleep sack was warm enough but we were also happy to have soft, light, polar fleece blankets with us (a last minute addition to our packs). We travelled in February & March. In the summer blankets would be completely superfluous. I often used a scarf over the pillow for hygiene reasons (some pillows weren’t made of material easily washed) but next time I’d bring a pillow case for this. Some pillows were really hard and quite high, completely different to what we are used to and for us rather uncomfortable. For a softer or lower alternative, you could stuff some of your clothes in a pillowcase. If you are a fussy sleeper and have room in your pack it might even be worth bringing your own pillow with you. Also remember to pack a travel towel. We were not offered towels by any of our hosts, although had we asked I am sure they could have provided one.
- Create a ‘Public Trip’ on the couchsurfing site to save time searching for hosts. I had never tried this before but it was great! We were contacted by all sorts of hosts around Iran inviting us to stay with them. We were invited to stay with a host in a city we weren’t planning to visit as it doesn’t get much of a mention in the guidebooks, but we changed our plans to incorporate a stay there and it was one of our best CS experiences ever!
- Because couchsurfing is not simply ‘free accommodation’, don’t treat it like a free hotel. Spend time with your hosts, their friends and extended family members. We had some brilliant times with our hosts and their friends, playing hilarious card games to two in the morning – so much laughter!Visiting relatives of our hosts in their homes was also nice. Great chance to practice your Persian if you want to learn and see more family dynamics. Also young relatives can practice their English and get a buzz out of that. For some people, we were the first foreigners they had talked to. When planning how long to stay in a place, if you are couchsurfing allow extra time for hanging out with hosts. Stay a minimum of 2 nights. I’d suggest that it is a good idea to mix up couch surfing with staying in hotels so you maintain your energy and enthusiasm for meeting new people and engaging with your hosts.
- Get an Iranian sim card for your phone. Perhaps your first host might be able to help with this. Having a local number makes it easy for you to contact, and be contacted by, those you will stay with, to organise arrival times etc. Most of our hosts also kept in touch afterward too either by sms or using what’s app which is very popular in Iran.
- Take your hosts advice about places to go and things to do and if they genuinely want to join you then all the better but let hosts know you are also happy to explore by yourself so they don’t feel obligated. They have no doubt work or study to do but as you are their guest some will feel obliged to do all they can to make your stay a good one. Let them know they don’t need to take time off work for this!!
- Speak clearly and slowly. Although our hosts’ English was excellent, they sometimes struggled with the New Zealand accent or the speed at which we normally talk. In the first few weeks hosts always looked to me to ‘translate’ what Antony was saying!
- Don’t be offended if hosts ask how much you earn. This is not them being nosey, rather, it reflects a desire to know how incomes and the cost of living in Iran compares with those in other countries. Natural enough that a teacher is curious about how much a teacher earns elsewhere. Knowing the average salary for your profession in your country is useful (especially if you don’t want to specify how much you personally earn but still answer their question). To give a fairer picture of how things compare though, it is good to know and share the percentage of tax you pay and things like average cost of housing, food, power or general cost of living in your country. If you know this information in USD per month then even better! Having an accountant for a husband was rather useful when it came to this stuff 🙂 These kind of discussions were interesting for us too as we learnt how little Iranians earned, cost of housing etc.
- Be prepared to smile for lots of photos with your hosts and their families. Iranians love photos!
- Drink Tea – even if, like Antony, you never do so at home. You will be offered it all the time in Iran!
- Your host will almost certainly want to cook for you or take you out to try local specialities – try whatever you are offered! Be grateful and appreciative for any food prepared for you and try and remember the name of the dishes you like. Hosts often asked us what food we had tried and what Iranian dishes we liked. I made sure our hosts knew I was a vegetarian when I first wrote to them and this was never a problem. Antony thankfully eats everything so was trying a lot of different dishes and the meat ones with great enthusiasm!
- Take small things from your country for your hosts, like stickers, coins, postcards, playing cards, bookmarks, pencils, calendars etc. I wished we had more New Zealand themed stickers with us as these were light and popular- also with the adults! We met someone with a money collection so having some money from home would have been really good. We always left a NZ card for our host and usually left a small gift too… although we didn’t have enough. Sometimes we brought food specialties from the previous city to give to hosts on arrival. This was also appreciated.
- Before you leave home, get personalised postcards or cards printed that have your photo on it, perhaps some pictures of where you are from and the words ‘Thank you from…’. We didn’t do this but saw another couple’s card at a host’s house and thought it was an excellent idea (also to give to people who give you rides if hitch-hiking).
- Have a few good recipes handy with readily available ingredients (with you if possible) and insist you love cooking! That way you might just be able to cook for your host or at least contribute something toward a meal with them.
- If you have an Iranian sim in your phone (highly recommended) then buy an extra data pack. Although all our hosts had wifi it didn’t always work and most hosts have a data cap… we accidently caused a host to reach their limit because we were backing up photos over their wifi. Then they had to pay to be able to turn the internet on again and use more… they didn’t say anything but I felt bad about that. Good to be aware of this and not chew through their data! After we realised this I tried to just back up the photos using data on my phone instead. Buying extra data was relatively inexpensive.
- If your hosts invite you to something, say yes! We said yes to the swimming pool, to a wedding party, local museum, day trips, evening bbq etc. Fantastic. It’s not always possible of course if it involves travel to other places and extra time you don’t have. But if you are wondering whether to take up an opportunity or not, just do it!
- Don’t be afraid of the toilet! Quite a few hosts had western style flush toilets as well as or instead of the usual squat toilets but we actually got used to and prefered the squat toilets. Do make sure to ask the host about bathroom protocol/ how things work- especially at your first Iranian host’s house. But if you’re shy here is an explanation! Toilet paper generally does not go in any kind of toilet. Iranians don’t use as much as we would because they use water from a kind of hose to clean themselves (see silver hose on wall in picture), then perhaps a dab of paper to dry. Consequently some bathrooms don’t actually have loo paper and some may be missing a bag or bin for it. Take your own in case and leave a little plastic bag somewhere discreet in the bathroom. Often the host will notice and provide a bin and paper too if they hadn’t already. There will be a flush for the toilet – quite high up usually. If that doesn’t do the trick the little hose could be used too. Use the special slippers/ sandals provided in the bathroom and/or toilet for hygiene reasons and safety as the floor can be wet.
- Don’t be afraid to shower! Iranians are very clean people and get surprised by travellers who are not as well kept as themselves. On one couchsurf profile the host implored travellers to please use her bathroom and washing machine as often as they liked and explained she loved clean smelling guests!! Lol.
- Join the facebook group ‘See you in Iran’. If you are ever stuck for a host or want to meet with some locals then write about it here and you are bound to get a response from some of the 68,000+ members! There are also lots of travellers’ tips, experiences, photos and many answers to questions you are bound to have. The information in this group is invaluable to your next Iran trip- better than a Lonely Planet guide although that is pretty useful too. To those who aren’t even thinking of going to Iran but have somehow read this lengthy post anyway, joining this facebook group will soon have you dreaming of a trip to Iran too!