Wages are generally low in Malta, which meant saving money for the trip was a little difficult. It also meant that Norway(one of the most expensive countries in the world), was probably an odd choice for the adventure.
The decision followed the same lines as usual.. I stare at Google Maps for a while and then pick a country or possible route that catches my eye, with the hope of figuring it all out later.
A rough plan emerged. After a couple of weeks back in the UK and then a month in Zakieh's home country, Iran, we would fly to Oslo, Norway. From there, we would get a train to about halfway up the coast and then slowly kayak in and out of Norway's famous fjords, making our way south for a few weeks, before getting transport back to Oslo.
As it was a new mode of transport for me, it meant lots of new kit was needed. Which, although funds were low, I was very happy about it, as it allowed me to indulge in an old addiction of mine; Amazon.com. There was a time when I was ordering so many things from Amazon, that I'd have no idea what most of the parcels were until I opened them. It was like Christmas every week, with the same level of surprise, except only with myself.
More than ever, everything had to be as lightweight as I could afford. I got ordering...
Lightweight 2-Person Tent
Double Sleeping Bag
Double Inflatable Sleeping Mat
9 x Waterproof/Dry bags of Various Sizes
Waterproof Jackets & Trousers
2 x Inflatable Life Jackets
The list grew and grew.
Zakieh had never kayaked and I hadn't since I was a child. So the first thing we had to do, was have a little practice run.
By the time we arrived home in the UK, enough of the kit had been delivered for us to have a trial. First we would just test the kayak. It was one of the cheapest that I could find, £110. But it had good reviews and most importantly, was the lightest inflatable double kayak that I could find in our price range, weighing just less than 10kg.
The next day we had a bigger practice run, to make sure that the kayak could carry lots of weight (us and most of the kit) and that the tent & sleeping gear was good enough and we could handle kayaking for an hour or two.
Second and final test passed. Everything worked how it should've done. The only concern was the tent was on the small side. Our double camping mat just fitted inside, with enough room to sleep, but next to none for storage, there wasn't much of a porch area either. This was the result of trying to keep the weight down, with the 2-man tent weighing only 2.7kg.
Somehow, we crammed everything inside three bags, one of them being just a small backpack. The weight of it all was far too heavy, not helped by the fact that Zakieh is half the size of most humans, which meant I would be doing most of the carrying.
It was over three years since I'd first met Zakieh in Tehran and this was my first time back there since. Not so much of a super-sized adventure this time, more of a chilled meeting of friends and family with a dash of adventure.
I entered the country possibly at the fittest level I have ever been at and left at the other end of the scale. Never have I eaten so much food.
It's the Iranian culture to show great hospitality towards guests and offering food is a big sign of that. If you refuse, it's generally thought that you are just being polite and that really you do want more, so they will try again and again. We do a similar thing in England I know, but our level of then trying to force it upon the person is nothing in comparison.
I began calling it the 'food train'. Each morning, when I sat down at the breakfast table, I would get on the food train and wouldn't get off again until it was time to sleep.
I initially tried fighting off most offerings, but even if I did manage to convince the cousin holding the plate of fruit (just after finishing breakfast), that I was full, then it would only be a few minutes until the Aunt came over offering cakes. Then it would be the Mum offering tea and dates, next another cousin with some biscuits and then back round to the start, until lunch was served. So after a while I gave up. 'Nah, mamnoon' (no, thank you), repeated constantly, changed to a singular, 'balay mamnoon' (yes, thank you). It was much simpler.
After being force-fed so much food that I was eventually ill, I left Zakieh & family for a few days and took a train to the north, where I met up with a friend, Ashkan, who'd helped Daniel and myself out while we were cycling through Iran three years previous.
To look at, I don't stand out too much as a foreigner in these parts. Unfortunately, one of the crew tried talking to me in Farsi. I knew what was coming. The moment he realised I was foreign, everyone got called over. Five minutes later I was doing an interview for them, which was then broadcast on local tv a couple of evenings later.
Alcohol is illegal in Iran, but that doesn't stop the Iranians smuggling it in or brewing their own, which many people regularly do. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the capital, Tehran, would have seemed more like a European city than one of the Middle East. That all changed however, rapidly, after the revolution.
Many people in Iran are completely non-religious. It's a very young country too, 70% of the population are under 30! Where I'd just come from was testament to that. Mashhad is different though, it's home to the largest mosque in the world, named 'Imam Reza Holy Shrine', and the city in general and the people, are very religious.
We took a visit to the mosque, where we watched thousands of people attempt to remind God that he's a wonderful bloke and I got close to the actual shrine, where people were going crazy trying to touch it. Thankfully, a couple of days later it was time to move on.
Other than my eyeballs feeling like they were on fire, it was a pleasant trip.
We managed to lose them for an evening and get away for a long walk and a meal out together and then got a taxi back. Entering the taxi, we had to go through the usual routine. I'll do my best to explain..
One of the most prevalent customs in Iran, is that of 'Taroff'. Taroff comes in many forms. It can be as simple as fighting to pay the bill when out with friends or family. Or in a more complicated form, it can be used as a way of showing politeness and respect and of leveling out the social classes in an attempt to make people feel equal.
For example, a poor person may offer someone much wealthier than them, the last of their food or whatever else, depending on the situation. The other person will then decline the offer, but will be offered twice more, both times declining it. This gives the opportunity for the poor person to still offer things. In this scenario, its obvious to decline all three times.
The most used form though (from what I've seen), is where the offer is accepted on the third attempt. This can be between people you know or complete strangers. Maybe you are being offered tea at somebody's house, but you shouldn't jump straight in with a "Yes, please!", you should decline it two times first before accepting on the third attempt. I can get away with it as I'm foreign and it's Zakieh's family. But with anybody else I still should follow this custom.
This even occurs when you buy something, or every time you take a taxi. So when Zakieh asked the taxi driver that night, 'How much do we owe you?', the reply..
- 'Ghabel Nadare (It's not worth mentioning)'
'No, how much?'
- 'It's fine'
'Please, tell me?'
- '20,000 please'
If you've seen the 'Austin Powers 2' scene, with Will Ferrell as the guy that has to tell the truth if he's asked the same question 3 times, well its basically like that most of the time.
"Where is Doctor Evil hiding?!"
There are few places in the world with a history and culture as big and as interesting as Iran's. The Persian Empire (AKA Achaemenid Empire), was the largest ancient empire that existed. Ah, for those that didn't know, Iran is Persia, Persia is Iran. The name got changed 80 years ago.
The Persian Empire was the creator of many things we see today. The list is huge, too big for me to list here and now, but the most important one.. a Human Rights Charter.
It was the first place to ever say "Hey, people of all races, religions and languages should be treated equal", there was much more to it than that obviously, but that was the basis. Which, makes it sad to see what sort of government is in place now in Iran.
The birthplace of human rights, now with a government that only cares about power and religion. Unfortunately the west (US & UK) played a large part in the downfall of modern-day Iran. Should I go into that now? I'm starting to go off on a tangent here. Yes, no, maybe... Ok, but in the smallest possible nutshell..
BP (British Petroleum, although they were called something different at that time) rocked up in Iran at a time when there wasn't a centralized government. They went searching for oil and eventually found some (a lot). They made a horrendous deal (for Iran, a great deal for Britain), with whoever claimed to be in charge.
Iran got itself together, formed a proper government and then suggested the deal be altered. Negotiations went on for decades, with Iran always being promised things, but nothing got changed. The profits were never shown to Iran, so nobody knew if they were getting paid the right amount (obviously they weren't). Things gradually got worse, the royalties paid to Iran got less and less through the years, basically, in the end they were just stealing Iran's oil.
In comes a guy, Mossadegh, he is appointed Prime Minister and the people of Iran love him. He says enough is enough and threatens to nationalize Iran's oil (give all the oil back to Iranian companies). So in response, Britain makes the world buy their oil from somewhere else, screwing Iran's economy.
With Mossadegh now over an (oil) barrel, allies of Britain, America, drafts up a new deal. It still has to be very good for Britain (of course) and it has to be slightly better and most importantly, appear much better for Iran. Mossadegh reluctantly agrees to the new deal. Amazingly though, Britain pulls out. They have other plans. They were taking oil from countries all over the world and were worried that if Iran got an ever-so-slightly better deal than before, then these other countries would want the same.
So instead, with the help of the CIA, Britain orchestrated a coup to remove Mossadegh from power and install their friend, Mohammed Reza Shah (the king of Iran), to have full control (well, full control if he does whatever they ask).
That's right, that thing our governments always bang on about and supposedly so desperately want in the Middle East.. Stability, with a good leader and a happy, supporting population. Well Iran had a glimpse of that, but there is something more important than stability and happy people and that's money. So it was forcefully and illegally removed from them.
Mohammed Reza Shah, the West's puppet, was obviously not popular then with the Iranian people. Mossadegh was sentenced to life in prison, where he eventually died. Mohammed Reza Shah and his brutal regime clung to power for 25 years with help from the west and by torturing and executing people that were against him.
Then, in 1979 after years of opposition from the public, the people of Iran rose up and the Iranian revolution took place. Mohammed Reza Shah had no choice but to flee Iran and the monarchy fell. The people celebrated their victory, it would be a new start.
Unfortunately, the people that took control in the excitement and confusion would prove to be in a whole different league of evil to the Shah they'd just removed.
Fast forward to present day and that same "government" is still in charge. Iranians have learnt their lesson from revolutions and are worried that if they did rise up and manage to overthrow the government, it may only make matters worse, so they are between a rock and a hard place.
Most of this was well known, but actual proof of Britain and America's involvement, came out only five years ago in 2013, when the CIA declassified the documents. Something that Britain had been trying to keep secret for a long time.
So, there is Iran's recent history in a tiny nutshell. It could easily be 100 times longer than that, but this is an adventure blog, so where was I?
I'll let the pictures do the talking for a bit..
'Rokt Laks' - Smoked salmon basically. Sounds lovely.
'Kjottboller' - Meatballs & mash. Great combo!
'Polse' - Like a long sausage in a wrap. Can't go wrong with that.
'Smalahove' - A sheep's head.
Come again?! When did people decide these things tasted good, did I miss something?