A Persian Birthday, getting lost in Allamut and a final farewell to Iran

The 3 hour taxi ride to Allamut was a sweaty one which wasn’t helped by my chronic french complainers. There was a heated discussion going on for the duration of the ride about 1 euro. The taxi man ‘overcharged’ us. Jesus, if I ever turn into that person please slap me on the face. This couple are backpacking for one year  so they have lots of rip off taxis rides to look forward too. I wonder will they ever survive?

When we arrive we were greeted by a friendly muleh who ‘attempted’ to help us. I thought Allamut was going to be v touristy and straight forward to navigate.  Like everything else in Iran it was not…… We arrived into a gorgeous little village called Garmarud. This is where the lonely planet recommend staying but it was as if the place had never seen a tourist. There was a spectacle of attempts of communicating in a mix of french, farsi and english. We weren’t getting very far and all we could grasp was the people warning us about the dangers of bears in Allamut and that we could not go alone.

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Muleh and Frenchie; each more confused than the other
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Really easy to nagivate especially when Iran has its own alphabet!!!!

At least the frenchies were on the same buzz as me and didn’t want to take a tour so we decided to brave the valley and prayed the bears would keep their distance. I completely underestimated the Allamut and had no idea of how vast it was and that  buses/taxis and hitch hiking were absolutely necessary unless you had a couple of weeks to trek.

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Views from the bus en route to Piche Bon
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Trying to find the ‘track’ in Allamut

We luckily found the one and only local bus to bring us to a village on top of the mountains called Piche Bon. Frenchies were bulling they had to pay 50c for the scenic ride (we got charged extra because our bags were so big so that went down v well!!).  We arrived to snow capped mountains and the greenest fields. It was glorious and for a few minutes even frenchies appreciated the scenes.

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Frenchie stocking up on fresh mint and chives for the dinner later that night

We trekked for a couple of hours in search of a waterfall and more importantly water!! We were painfully lost but after some more heated discussions we eventually found our way.

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Cooling down at this hidden gem of  a waterfall
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Stunning colours in the Allamut Valley

The following day was my birthday so I was v excited to camp in one of the most remote parts of valley. I left the frenchies to navigate and fight amongst themselves. I kept a peaceful distance from them. After reaching/bathing in the waterfall we tried to find a ‘track’ to reach some kind of a campable place. What we found was so much better;  a nomadic bee keeper who invited us into his tent for chai and freshly picked cherries.

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Getting lost in the glorious Allamut Valley

This man lived in the mountains with his adorable dog Gorgy. He had bee hives, a well, chickens and was completely self sufficient, he even churned his own butter. Even though we could barely speak to one another I instantly liked him. Frenchies on the other hand were not so keen and with light closing in said they wanted to find camp elsewhere. The bee keeper was so kind and  you could tell he was delighted to see people in these remote parts of the mountain. I happily pitched my tent and the frenchies begrudgingly did the same. If anyone was in danger it was me…. the grumpy pair  had each other…..

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Sunset massages with Gorgy the legendary dog
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The gang at breakie

I slept like a baby and woke up and spent the early hours of my birthday eating honey fresh from the comb and talking jibberish to the kind man. Frenchies inevitably warmed to him and realised he wasn’t dangerous. They requested to buy some honey off the man. It was amazing we saw him pick the honey  straight from the bee hives with his bare hands!!! It was extremely awkward when the scabby French refused to pay afterwards as it was too expensive for their budget. A rule of thumb especially in Iran always ask for the price first especially before the man has to put his bare hands into a bee hive. He took it so well in fairness to him and we said our good byes. It was a memorable experience and I couldn’t have asked for a more special birthday.

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Using his bare hands to collect the honey
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Honey the way it should be eaten
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Weighing the honey the traditional way

We started to make our way down the valley as we wanted to check out Allamut Castle and the surrounding canyons. We once again had issues with negotiating taxi prices, with the Frenchies not willing to budge it was not the easiest gig. In fairness to the locals there are hardly any tourists here and they live in the mountains so business is v hard to come by so if they rip us off a little I think it’s totally understandable.

Once we arrived at Allamut castle after a grueling up hill climb (with backpack) I was fit to collapse and decided I wasn’t able to make it to the top. I minded Frenchie’s backpacks while they climbed. I was secretly delira to have a break from the complaining pair. I found a bar of chocolate that had burst/melted in my bag from the heat. I chilled underneath a cherry tree and ate chocolate covered cherries and drank chai from a local old woman while waiting for the duo. I washed my feet in a small waterfall and had some shut eye. It was bliss.

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Happy as a pig in shit

The Frenchies arrived back (more) pissed off because the castle was covered in scaffolding and they still had to pay the entrance fee!!! I was chuffed with my smart decision.

We hitchhiked to a nearby canyon where the drive was almost more spectacular as we witnessed it during golden hour. We were laiden down with kg’s of fresh cherries that we picked off the side of the street so that was dinner sorted (they are famous in this area). It really doesn’t get much better than that. The lake was stunning and surrounded by mountains I found the perfect spot to camp. While on the search for water I bumped into a giggling Iranian family who fed me with watermelon and chai.

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Allamut’s Canyon
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Lovely golden hour

The view from my tent was stunning all that was missing was a glass of bubbles to celebrate by 27th birthday. Last year I celebrated with Nils in Colombia so I definitely missed him but am excited to see what my 28th will hold.

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Tent views on my birthday
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Camping here was pretty spectacular. Lake Oven, Allamut Valley
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The colours of the lake were so stunning

The next morning we did a trek to try to get back onto the main road.  The Frenchie’s arguing really escalated here as one wanted to walk via a river and the other via a mountain. I really didn’t give a rats which way I went as long as it meant I got back to the city.

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Ovan Lake, Allamut
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Stumbling across cute graveyards on the way

While the frenchies were in heated discussions I managed to flag down a van transporting chemicals? he said he would take us to  Qazvin for 2 dollars an absolute steal. The only hitch he would only take 2 people. He recruited a mate to take the Frenchies  who refused to split up so I was forced to go alone in the chemical van. The driver had no teeth not that that’s relevant but it certainly added to my discomfort. My lad turned out to be harmless and fed me with tea and seeds for the journey until we broke down…….

After a long and tedious ride I got back to the city of  Qazvin. I went back to Maryam’s luxury apartment looking significantly more violent than before. I was fed and watered with my fav saffron ice cream and watermelon while prep was fully underway for my birthday party. She informed me her husband Peyman took the afternoon off work so that he would be able to make me a birthday cake!! All of Peyman’s family came to the party and even brought me gifts!! I had only known this family for one day. Kindness beyond belief and I cannot thank them enough for the most memorable night.

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A Man making a cake for you in Iran= Progress! Peyman thank you so much it was hosh masay!
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Birthday dinner cooked by the amazing Maryam
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My amazing couch surfing family in Qazvin with my new pink stripy trousers present

It was so unique also learning about life of Iran through the perspective of teenagers and how much they hate wearing the hijab. It must make it so much harder for them as they can see through through social media what their western counterparts are entitled to do. Maryam’s children even treated to me to live traditional music which was outstanding. I was given a much needed birthday present of brand new clothes. I am now the proud new owner of  a man’s shirt and a pink hijab. Feel like a new woman. The  children informed me my current outfits wouldn’t be appropriate for the glam capital of Tehran.

The next morning I set off early to make my way back to Tehran where I was spending my last two days in the suburbs with Sarah and Ali  my first couch surfing hosts of Iran. It was amazing meeting Sarah’s family and once again I continue to learn about the long list of rules in Iran. It is not allowed for conservative men to shake a women’s  hands, a rule I have been continuously breaking.  I had a hilarious encounter with her cute family especially her hilarious Uncle. They almost kidnapped me so that I would stay for dinner  it seems like they are all in competition to impress you.

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Saffron Ice Cream= Reason enough to go to Iran
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Meeting Sarah’s gorgeous family

After our  escape we made our way back to Sarah’s cousins house for Persian Party number 2. This was a special one as I was treated to a cooking lesson on how to make one of Iran’s most iconic dishes Dolme, this is labour intensive and only made for special occasions. It involves stuffing the vine leaves from grape with infused saffron rice and meat and dried fruit and wrapping them and steaming them in pomegranate juice. It is eaten with salad shiraz. A show stopper of a dish. Thank you Fatima for all of your time and effort.

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Dolme the most amazing Iranian dish
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The birthday crew
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It wouldn’t be an Iranian party without a Shisha and child in hand (simultaneously)

The night was concluded with some perisan music, cake, red wine and even an irish dancing lesson. The next morning after a delicious breakfast spread this is where the fun commenced.  I  experienced an Iranian waxing treatment. It turned into a family affair with screaming children coming in/out during the horror scenes. A painful but necessary experience.

After a bowl of saffron ice cream to cool/calm me down we were en route back to Tehran for me to catch my flight back to Amsterdam. En route to the airport we made a pit stop to a house party. When I hear the words house and party in Iran I just imagine sipping on chai but this was actually a rave with electronic music. I certainly wasn’t dressed for the occasion. Incredible seeing an illegal Iranian party in full swing. Everyone who enters the door is greeted with a standing ovation. Sarah says its a sign of respect for everyone who has given up their time to come. The host also provides snacks of fresh fruit,vegetables, sweets and (non alcoholic beverages) even though I did see a little wine and whiskey floating. As I thought the party was coming to an ended I saw multiple chickens being bbq’ed for a full spread. Unbelievable hosting skills. We escaped as the Persian cake dancing with the knife was in full swing and Ali and Sarah brought me to the airport. We said our sad goodbyes. 0807-2019-112035219627500462843.jpeg

Couldn’t have asked for a better birthday. Thanks Ali and Sarah for making it so special for me

Iran has blown me away in every possible way.  It hasn’t always been the easiest country to travel in as a solo female but the kind people, the culture, the food and the insane scenery has completely compensated for that. This country 40 years ago before the revolution would have been completely different with alcohol, bars, clubs being illegal also it was not compulsory for women to wear a hijab. So Iran today for its people is completely different and more difficult for them to live in a country full of rules. That being said do not let it deter you the people will always greet you with a smile and a sense of intrigue as to why come to Iran?

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On my brief encounter with this woman she managed to communicate to me that he invites the whole country of Ireland to Iran and she will cook for them! What are you all waiting for?

I hope I have inspired at least one person to book that scary flight. Get yourself a hijab, an extra stomach, a few rials, a bit of farsi (it might save your life) and get ready for the trip of a life time.

Next Stop??? PAKISTAN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Road Tripping across from the Azerbaijain Boarder

I started off the week travelling further North to a place called Jolfa.  I had read that the scenery in this part of Iran was not to be missed. This place is really interesting as it boarders Azerbaijan.  It rarely sees tourists and because of the boarder there is no public transport and I was warned about hitch hiking and taking photos as the area is known to be quite dangerous. I took a quick detour to visit a monastery up in the mountains. I spent longer than expected up here partly because it was seriously stunning but secondly because we found a wild mulberry tree so we stocked up on the most delicious fruit.

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San Stefanos Church, Jolfa
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The UNESCO World Heritage Site; San Stefano
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Scenery en route to Jolfa

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The drive from Jolfa to Kalybar passes through the Aras River and is a sight for sore eyes. Simply stunning. Myself and Hussain (my driver) immediately hit it off which was lucky as I spent 8 hours with him. We took regular pit stops during the day for ice cream, kebabs and some more mulberry picking.

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On the other side of the river is Azerbaijan. We could see it for the entire 6 hour journey from Jolfa to Kalybar
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My driver insisted on making chai during this windy cliff side drive. Really Safe
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The drive is so diverse we even saw  rice fields
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This couple invited use in to eat some Mulberries from their garden
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The mulberry picking gang
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She told me she was too self conscious to get her photo taken. I think she is gorgeous
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Who needs teeth anyway
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Hussain, my kind driver

The 6 hour drive featured insane scenery from start to finish.  We eventually made our end destination to Kalybar a small little village perched in the mountains. I got collected by Babak my couch surfing host who lived in the most idyllic house on the side of a mountain.  They too had walnut, mulberry, cherry and apricot trees. They made alcohol out of drying mulberries in the sun which is a v common custom over here. His family owned a bakery and ice cream shop so I questioned would I ever be able to leave this quaint little village. The main attraction in Kalybar is a trek to the top of the mountain to view the famous Babak Castle.

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En route to Babak Castle
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My couch surfing host Babak on the way to the castle
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There is still one  man living at Babak Castle and he uses this Donkey as his means of transport to get food from the village
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Climbing to the top of Babak Castle in Kalybar

On my first evening I was invited for dinner with Babak’s family. I was instantly greeted with kisses and hugs and pure joy from his mother. Again despite the language barrier we immediately hit it off and I was treated to the most stunning array of  Iranian food. That night I opted to sleep outside on the garden terrace in due to its perfect climate. Despite the frogs and ants it was idyllic.

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Kofta Tabriz eaten with Lavish and all the Iranian trimmings in Kalybar
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Up there with one of my favourite spots in Iran

After Kalybar, I wanted to check out the Caspian sea craving a swim. I ended up doing couch surfing with the intense Mohammad. As a rule I have only been couch surfing with girls or families but on this occasion his reviews were excellent so I gave him a chance. I arrived into steaming Ramsar in the middle of the night and Mohammad kindly collected me in a taxi

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Saying goodbye to cool Kalybar and hello to hot Ramsar
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Freshly baked barbary bread in Ramsar
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This bread is made daily and it the best when eaten hot out of the oven

The next day we went swimming in the Caspian sea which is surrounded by the jungle a little bit similar to Tyrona in Colombia. It is such a shame it has such potential to be beautiful but in reality is was very dirty. It was a sad sight seeing all the men swimming in the sea and the women just watching from the shore. I inquired was I allowed to swim and was told yes but that I must go in all of my clothes. I didn’t even have to consider this and was in like a light bulb (this shocked Mohammad). After a while there was a guard screaming at me frantically I was worried as I had lost my hijab in the sea and was afraid there could be some problems. In fact he was warning us that swimming in this area is really dangerous due to water holes and that sadly three people died there only last week. We made a quick and lucky exit. It was only then I figured Mohammad was a funny fish (to be fair to Iran there haven’t been many compared to SA). He really wanted to brush my hair, massage my fingers and take my photo so I knew I wouldn’t be hanging out with his chap too long…..

I made an escape and decided to go camping in a cool village in the mountains called Javardeh. The weather up here was cool, cloudy and all in all pretty perfect. I instantly befriended a family who fed me with fresh chicken kebabs. It is a really authentic village experience with lots of families venturing up the mountain to escape the heat. But, there is absolutely nothing to do up here except eat and I was a little skeptical about camping as I would have been completely alone. I opted to hitch hike off the mountain with a kind couple and make my way to the big city of Qasvin.

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It’s all about the people! This family invited me to have lunch with them
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A family affair of making chicken kebabs (love how they use flatbread as heat protection)
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The gang mid munch (look how cute the older woman is)
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The shopping scene at Javaredeh

Back in Ramsar I bonded with a few men over some Islamic beer and sesame seeds. We eventually shared a taxi to Qazvin. This city is generally used as a good base to go explore the Allamut Valley. At this stage I was looking disheveled, rough and dirty and my couchsurfing hosts happened to be living in a luxury apartment in Qazvin so I definitely was not their typical clientele.

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Proud as punch of her freshly baked barbary done on the side of the street (Javardeh)
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The competitor in the Iranian bread market= Lavash. This is a lot thinner and used mainly for kebabs as it soaks up all of the meat juices perfectly

I was greeted by the gorgeous couple Maryam and Peyman who treated me like  a queen. The next day after an incredible breakie spread I went exploring and shopping with the glamorous Maryam.  A large majority of the day was spent browsing for diamonds and teapots (anyone looking for real diamonds come to Iran they are ridiculously cheap!!!). We tasted the local sweet delicacy of baklava flavoured with pistachio and saffron a divine combination. This is excellent with a coffee.

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Baclava Qazvin style; this stuff is sooo good
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Shopping here= Amazing

In the afternoon we cooled down with some saffron ice cream, this is the best I’ve tasted so far which had frozen chunks of cream mixed through it. I even got to crash a movie at an Iranian cinema. Interestingly, in Iran they are only allowed to display Iranian movies in the cinema, Western ones are strictly forbidden. I was also treated to the  famous  dish of Qazvin;  Gheymeh Nesar. It contains rice with meat, saffron, barberries, orange zest with almonds and pistachios. I forgot to take a picture it was that delish.

Next on the agenda was a 3 day trek to the Allamut Valley for my birthday with a French couple I met in Tabriz. Maryam equipped me with some home made saffron juice, and lots of delish snacks so I was good to go. As expected  the Frenchies were an hour late  but I’ve learned not to sweat the big stuff and I was just so delira to eventually find  some travel buddies for the up coming adventure (generally speaking tourists have been non-existent here)

 

My Favourite Place in Iran; Tabriz

Next on the agenda was the glorious city of Shiraz. Another night bus was unfortunately on the cards, desperate to save on time. I am overwhelmed with Iran and what it has to offer. 1 month is simply not enough. My couchsuring in Shiraz lived near the ancient city of Persepolis so I was told to get off in a random town (I didn’t read the fine print when they said they lived 60 km outside of the city centre). Getting off early on a bus always causes extreme confusion and generally results in the entire bus getting involved. They  love the drama.

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The ancient city of Persepolis

Out of the blue I was thrown out on a motor way in the middle of the night so not great. There wasn’t a sinner in sight except one small Iranian man looking equally confused, but he had a car which was hopeful. I needed to travel a further 12 km to make it to the house and there wasn’t a sniff of a taxi. I managed to figure out that he was waiting on a bag of flour (?) and once it arrived he would happily bring me to my destination.  We exchanged some stale food with one another and he seemed more than content with the gesture. Eventually the human sized bags of flour arrived and we were en route. To my dismay after only 5 minutes I found myself once again dumped on the side of the street.  The pits….

Not  a taxi in sight so I starting hitch hiking. I am really conscious that hitchhiking isn’t exactly the done thing over here. It is also further complicated when you put out your finger. The standard hitchhiking finger in Iran actually means ‘fuck off’ so not ideal (I only found this out afterwards, hindsight is a wonderful thing). Every day I am learning new rules in this country.  Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long  until a lovely chap bundled me into his car and away we went.  I paid him with fresh dates. Google maps dropped me off at a random house and after a few wrong knock on the doors and several invitations for chai I eventually found Najme and her family home. I collapsed onto the floor and the pair of us slept for 3 blissful hours.

I was treated to a divine breakfast spread of  flat breads, cream, sesame seed puree (AMAZING),  honey and cheese. Najme’s mother and father hadn’t a word of English but I instantly liked them, sometimes you can just tell. They couldn’t have done enough for me.  Once again, I know I must sound like a broken record but the we could all learn a thing or two about Iranian hospitality. Difficult to describe the kindness of these people who are living in a county with extremely difficult circumstances. They happily welcome privileged foreign strangers into their homes.

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Cream, honey and hot flatbread= heavenly

Naijme explained that her family were extremely traditional and that their biggest hobby was eating so I was warned. This is a common theme in Iran. I am a massive foodie and can put away a serious amount of grub but even I cannot keep up with the Iranians.  The minute breakie is finished lunch prep is in full swing and they are constantly worried you are hungry.

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Rice for one

First on the itinerary was a trip to the historical place of Persepolis. The ruins are now a World Heritage Site. At one of the tombs we met a bunch of giddy Iranian men who were celebrating the first day of their holiday. They were extremely merry and I soon found out why. They were nursing a bottle of Arak. Arak is a horribly strong liquor made of aniseed and grape. It was almost at boiling point from the sun. Obviously intrigued by it and also the fact all alcohol is illegal in Iran I happily sampled the stuff. They informed me of how they sneak the drink in especially to historic sites they pretend it’s water easy! Lots of Iranians make their own alcohol it’s far cheaper than buying it on the black market.

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Stunning tombs at Perspolis
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Boozing in Perspolis; definitely wasn’t expecting this
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Pretending we were freezing in Persepolis; in fact I think this is the hottest I have ever been in my life. It was almost 50 degrees!!!!!!!

After the trip we came back to Najme’s family home for more shut eye and one of my best Iranian feeds to date. Her mother is constantly cooking with some of the dishes taking up to 5 hours to make. We were treated to the sensational salad shiraz (typical to this area), Kalam Pollo (saffron infused chicken).

Preparations were in full swing for Mai hak’s 2nd birthday (Naijme’s adorable niece). The family invited myself and another Ukrainian couch surfer, Basil to the party  which was in their holiday home near the mountains . Because bars, discos and clubs are all illegal in Iran there is a massive emphasis on family gatherings and celebrations in their homes it is one of their cultural practices that I love. This was no exception and they pulled out all of the stops.

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Cutest overload with this beautiful little girl

A hilarious Iranian tradition is where before cutting the cake the family dance Persian with the knife and the knife is passed on for ages until eventually it is cut. This hilarious ritual could go on for ages before anyone gets a sniff of cake.

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Persian Party Style
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Another legendary Iranian Family
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The benefits of only drinking chai? Non existant hangovers!

That night myself and most of the family decided to sleep outside. Their garden was also full of apricot, peach, walnut, apple, cherry and pomegranate trees.The following morning the Granny was in the height of preparing a breakfast spread on par with the dinner productions. She was adement we stay for lunch but not able to budge I declined the tempting offer and myself, Basil and Najme made our way back to Shiraz city to check it out.

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Hafed’s Tomb in Shiraz. Exploring by night to avoid the blistering heat.

The next day we camped out in Naijme’s mates house eating sugary confections and copious amounts  of tea.  During my time in Shiraz I visited the in famous Pink Mosque (Masjed-e-Nasir-al-Molk). It is one of Iran’s most iconic Mosques. It was constructed in a way that when the sun rises the entire room reflects pink through the stain glass. Unfortunately the light is at its strongest during Winter and Spring so I didn’t see it at its full potential.  It was stunning nonetheless (until the hoards of Chinese erupted with their selfie sticks).

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Catching a peaceful moment before the tours arrive
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The stunning Pink Mosque in one of the most famous in Iran
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Morning light through the stain glass
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There is a constant pink hue to the room caused by the stain glass

Next on the agenda was a much-needed cup of coffee. I be friended a Dutch tourist (generally speaking I haven’t seen any tourists). I was adopted by his couch surfer host who showed the pair of us around for the day. It’s a stunning city with an equally stunning bazaar.

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Don’t even know the name of this place but loved it
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The courtyard at the Pink Mosque
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Court yards in Shiraz
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Somewhere beautiful in Shiraz

I cooled off in the afternoon with some faloodeh shirazi. This is a much try dish while in Shiraz where it originates. I was v disappointed as it’s actually rotten but the Iranians are obsessed with it. Its noodles frozen in a sugar syrup served with lemon juice. I gave it to a homeless man.

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Morning light at the Pink Mosque
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Iranian Rooftop tiles

That evening for sunset myself and Naijme went to visit lake Maharloo. This is a Pink Salt Lake. Strangely depending on when you visit it isn’t always pink but we were in luck. We practically had it to ourselves. The intensity of pink is strongest at sunrise and sunset (it’s not too dissimilar to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia except it’s pink and empty!!).

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The amazing pink salt lake
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The stunning Naijme rocking her hijab and hairy eyes!
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This place didn’t feel real
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Lake Maharloo is only half an hour from Shiraz and well worth the detour
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Soaking up the last of the sun before heading to the airport

Naijme had enough time to get to know me and insisted on escorting me to the airport foreseeing some difficulties. She wasn’t wrong.  I ended up loosing my boarding pass in the toilet. Luckily I was the only tourist in the airport so it was quickly retraced back to me. As a tourist it’s impossible to to buy things online in Iran so my amazing CS hosts from a flight to Tehran bought for me.  I eventually negotiated my way onto the correct flight and I befriend a cute old woman on the plane. She held me hand for the entire journey it was v romantic.

I then took a night bus to Tabriz. I rocked up to Tabriz feeling relatively fresh considering the hellish journey. I instantly fell in love with the city and at last it wasn’t HOT (maybe that’s why I loved it so much).  It is also famous for having some of the countries friendliest people and I instantly knew why.

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This woman looked terrifying at first and when I asked to take her picture she just started giggling

I started my day off in one of its famous cafes for dairy. All this café serves is raw milk, cream, cheese and fresh honey comb served with barbary (a freshly baked Iranian flatbread). It was crammed with locals and I  instantly loved it. Seriously good stuff (I went 3 days in a row). Tabriz is particularly renowned for its amazing food especially dairy products.

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The only place to have breakfast in Tabriz
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Hand churned butter, honey straight from the honey comb served with warm barbary
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This gent used to sell me my walnuts

The Bazaar in Tabriz is one of the most famous in the world and is the oldest in the middle east and the largest covered bazaar in the world.  It was declared a UNESCO Heritage site. It stretches for more than 7 km. I spent the day talking to randomers (one of my favourite hobbies). Randomer one of the day was Ali who like pretty much every business man in Iran sells carpets. We sipped on chai and talked nonsense for an hour and then of course this followed with a tour of the bizarre finishing in his carpet shop for  more chai. They don’t get pissed off when you don’t buy it’s so refreshing. They are so pleasant, not pushy and generally just proud of what they do.

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Ali; drinking tea like the locals from a saucer
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This cutie almost had me convinced me to buy a Persian Rug
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Standard chill time on the rugs in Tabriz
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This lad insisted on me photographing the un known chap in the pic

Once I said  my good byes to Ali I met randomer number 2; Mohammad who invited for chai and chocolate. This was the gist of the day. I even lost my phone for a few hours I left it in a teapot shop! The kind Iranians ensured it was returned to me. V lucky.

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Dying material to make carpets.
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Typical scenes in Tabriz’s Bazaar

That evening I took the metro to go visit Park Elgoli, just on the out skirts of the city. Whilst chilling having some rose water ice cream I was almost attacked by an excited group of Iranians. Turns out they were all doing a phd in Maths and were at a conference. After our photo shoot they kidnapped me and insisted on treating me for dinner and chai.

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Getting hijacked by the friendliest Iranians
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This man insisted on having his own private photoshoot

The next day was spent negotiating the price of Iran’s tea scene. I think the bazaar in Tabriz is like nothing I have ever seen. I could have easily spent a week here and the pictures don’t even justify this place. Later in the day I got picked up by an 18 year old eager to improve his English  so we went for coffee together. He explained that his Grandfather is 80 years old and has been selling carpets all of his life and still hasn’t discovered all of the bazaar. There are over 5,500 stalls here with parts of the bizaar dedicated to certain products such as cigarettes, shisa, spices, tea the list goes on and on. It’s beautifully overwhelming.  One man in the market even presented me with a rose and a typed up letter welcoming me to Iran and his contact information in case I needed any help. Way too ott but a ridiculously nice gesture all the same. The rest of the day was spent getting free food and drink samples from every corner of the market.

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Dreamy combinations of cheese, honey and rose
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The only way to eat honey; fresh from the comb
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Dates coming out of your ears. The Iranians regularly eat these with chai

I took a day trip to  Kandovan from Tabriz. It is the most enchanting place and often compared to Cappdoccia in Turkey.  It is a tiny village with man made cliff dwellings in the shape of cones which are made out of volcanic material. This place looks like a movie set.  The only difference is the inhabitants still live here and it is not touristy.  There are still around 600 people living here. It is surrounded by gorgeous mountains. We explored and spoke to the locals living there. The conditions here in Winter are vicious.

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600 people still live in the small cliff side village
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Every house is constructed into the cliff side
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Exploring the surrounding mountains in Kandovan
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The cutest little Iranian Family
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I love the pride in his face. He specifically asked me to include his rings in the photograph
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Local child selling his families crafts

I wish I had more time in Tabriz. An FYI there are direct flights from Hamburg to Tabriz and it only takes 5 hours. Don’t hesitate just book that flight to the dreamiest place in Iran.

 

Yazd; The Most Ancient Settlement on Earth

My experience in Iran to date has been a series of kidnappings from the kindest Iranians. Hospitality like I have never experienced. Randomers are constantly coming up to you on the street simply thanking you for coming to their country, there have been endless invitations for chai and families are constantly asking to host me. Next up was Mostafa, a kind stranger who helped me in a bus station as I was trying (very badly) to try and buy an Iranian sim card. This is some ordeal. Nothing really is straightforward in Iran but that is part of its charm and challenge. I figured it would be a buy over the counter job but no…..  Mostafa took me in a taxi and brought me to an official office. They requested my passport, signatures, finger prints and a witness. After a lot of hula balu I managed to get one, you would swear I was applying for Iranian citizenship! Turns out the sim card didn’t even work so all in all a good days work!

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The media has portrayed Iran as being extremely dangerous. Yet day after day I am welcomed by the the kindest people you could possibly imagine
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This family were really dangerous!!!

That night, I was booked onto the night bus to Yazd so I had one more day to explore the famous Mosque’s in Esfahan. They are completely out of this world and difficult to comprehend how they were built  over 400 hundred years ago. Myself and Mostafa decided to hit the sites together. First up was the empty Majed Jameh Mosque which I fell in love with.

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Majed Jameh Mosque, Esfahan
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Majed Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

We then sampled the signature dish of Esfahan; byriani which is flat bread stuffed with minced mutton and offal served with the typical chunks of onion, fresh herbs and of course  duk (this salty milk drink in definitely growing on me and Motsafa proclaimed it was the best he has ever tasted!).

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Byriani; the most iconic dish of Esfahan

The bazaar surrounds Naqsh-e Jahan Square and was named a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. I could easily spend days browsing in bazaars. You are constantly getting invited into bakeries, carpet and craft shops. The people aren’t pushy at all and are genuinely intrigued by you and so excited to see tourists in Iran. Shopping is therefore so pleasant. One act of genuine trust that amazed me was when Mostafa handed the taxi driver his credit card and gave him his pin number and asked him to go to the atm and with draw the taxi fare! Just crazy how trust worthy everyone is here.

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It’s no Phibsborough shopping centre but I suppose it will do the job. Esfahan’s Unesco Heritage Bazaar
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Strolling through Esfshan’s stunning Bazaar
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Artists at work in Esfahan
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The bazaar has an entire section dedicated to copper
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The home of stunning Persian rugs

The bazaar was empty as it was siesta time. We almost had the place to ourselves. Esfahan is famous for its copper, artwork, carpets and delicious gaz; a nougat stuffed with pistachio nuts and flavored with honey and rose water. The Iranians are sugar obsessed and it wouldn’t be untypical for them to consume 4 to 5 sugar cubes per cup of tea. Tea consumption here is on a next level with some of them having up to 20 cups per day. Luckily in Esfahan I managed to track down a much needed cup of coffee which is no easy task in tea obsessed Iran.

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Esfahan’s Mosque
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Still utterly blown away by this archway I had to include it again!

I camped out at the bus station waiting  from my night bus to Yazd. It is impossible to be alone in Iran there is constantly  droves of people wanting to speak, stare or photograph you.  Once again the kindness of Iranian strangers featured where a young boy in the hotel treated me to 5 cups of tea (in the loo all night!!), cucumbers, apricots and an empanada!!!(in Iran!!) an unusual but very welcomed combination. For a split second it brought me back to Argentina.

I didn’t sleep a wink on the night bus despite the buses being quite comfy there is the compulsory blaring of Iranian music at 4 am and the odd fuzzy film playing in the background. I arrived at 5 am, and as per usual felt rough.  A random skinny man with no teeth appeared out of the blue and grabbed my backpack and started to run away with it so naturally I followed him. He threw it into the boot of his car and said he was a taxi man, with no energy to argue we agreed 150,000 rial to take me to my couchsurfing host. Seconds later skinny man starts screaming at me in Farsi or Arabic (or both) because we were  lost, neither of us had an iota where we were except that we were on a long and tedious motor way. I eventually managed to get google maps up and we obtained relative peace until 5 seconds later he was screaming again. I was then thrown a phone and someone with some broken English was also screaming down the phone at me. The journey was subsequently upped to 600,000 rial.  The flood-works were inevitable  and at this stage out he freaked out and through me out of the car (without my backpack!). Seconds later skinny crazy man was back and ushering me into the car once again. After pure and utter chaos we eventually made it to the house….. We left on okay terms (relatively speaking). An aggressive start to the morning but I was glad to have made it to Yazd.

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Yazd, the most ancient settlement on earth

Aryan my new couchsurfer gave me a room in his Mam’s house  as he was working. So after some  quick shut eye I ventured into the amazing city of Yazd. I  have never seen anything like this place. The old city is one of the most ancient settlements on earth.  It features windy lanes and all of the buildings in the historic town are made entirely from mud and straw. The city is wedged between two deserts and like everywhere else in Iran at the moment it is piping hot. So regular pit stops were required for saffron ice cream and rose water tea (an Iranian delicacy that is out of this world).

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My pit stop for breakfast was at the glorious Art’s centre
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Breakfast with a view in Yazd
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Art works in Yazd

I think Yazd was definitely the hottest of the cities to date. The hijab was literally glued to my head as I pottered around drenched in sweat for the day. The only benefit to the heat was no one else was brave enough to venture out so I practically had the city to myself.  Yazd is the perfect place to get lost in. The mud brick alleys are stunning and so enchanting. It is also famous for Baklava and other sweet confectionery. I got a few free samples which I obviously inhaled but they are sickly sweet and not my gig. The city consists of mostly rooftop cafes and restaurants with some serious views of the ancient city.

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Some sturdy mud infrastructure
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Getting lost
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Standards doors in Yazd

Mid way through the day I was about to collapse from the heat so I opted to give the museums a miss and head back to the apartment to take a siesta pre dinner. What I failed to remember was the address of the house. After another confused taxi ride I rocked up to what I thought was the house and after banging the door down I got the fright of my life when a Muleh answered the door. These are the scary priests who are ruling Iran at the moment. I immediately knew this wasn’t the right gaf. I tried to asked the Muleh did he know Aryan  but then realised this was risky business as couch surfing is illegal in Iran (along with an extremely long list of other things). Anyway the Muleh just looked pissed off and shut the door in my face. I knocked on a few other random houses and no one knew who Aryon was (of course they didn’t…. I was on the wrong street!!). Anyway after lot of hula balu some random man on the street lead me down a lane and ushered me into a house which happened to be Aryan’s. I almost kissed the man as I was v close to fainting from the heat (It was almost 50 degrees). Luckily I didn’t as I had a sneaky feeling Muleh was on the lookout. Anyway a minor blip in the day that ended well. I took 3 cold showers, ate some ice and felt some what human again.

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I fell in love with the ancient alleys in Yazd
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Every corner of the city features intrinsic pieces of art
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These walls are entirely made out of mud

The next day I was booked into Ecolodge Nartitee in a random little village located outside Yazd called Taft. The lodge was paradise personified. It is a historic building made out of mud just like everything else in the area. The place was filled with cool people, mulberry, almond, walnut, apricot, apple and loads of pomegranate trees. I was fed and watered with the freshest organic and homemade food for  2 days.

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Breakfast for one…
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Baby pomegranate and its flower
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The house is decorated with dried pomegranates. They are really famous in this area
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Afternoon activities in the Ecolodge
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Traditional way of drinking water

On my second day, I got up at the craic of dawn to go explore the area on bicycle trying to escape the vicious heat.

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8am in Taft

Later in the day I chilled with the Grannies of the house where we spent the afternoon picking apricots and singing in Farsi.  Anyone visiting Yazd you need to check out this place. It is good for the soul and gave the batteries a much needed re-charge.

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Sleeping outside on the roof in Nartitee Ecolodge, Taft
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Delbar picking her apricots in Taft
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This was the owners mother who spent the whole day singing and smiling. A beautiful Woman
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The amazing memory wall in Naritee Ecolodge (you can spot the Irish flag hiding!)

 

 

 

An Epic Train Journey in Iran

The train from Andimesk to Dorud is rated by different travel bloggers as one of the most scenic journeys in the world.  Lots of Iranians don’t even know it exists (or tourists) for that reason it still costs 50c and is not easy to get to. I grabbed a bus from Kermanshah and in the middle of the night was dropped off in random Andimesk.

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Apparently one of these lads was the train driver! Doesn’t instil much confidence…

This place would rarely see a tourist pass through so when I arrived at the train station I stood out like a sore thumb. The reason this train is so fascinating is that it passes through valleys, peaks and dozens of tunnels while winding through the Zagros mountains. When the train staff saw me they immediately invited me for breakfast of flat breads, chai and rice pudding. It prepped me nicely for the stunning journey ahead. I was absolutely beefed following the sleepless night bus but after a while the tiredness faded as I was glued to the window completely in awe of the scenery.

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Sunrise as the train sets to leave Andimesk station

Most people take this 6-7 hour journey at night and I had read it gets pretty chaotic with locals having to stand for the entire journey. It was reported to be like an endurance test I was obviously oblivious to this in my carriage. Naturally I was intrigued by this ‘endurance test’ so I went to exploring and saw people sleeping in storage containers  and on the floor etc. Before I knew it I was whisked away by an Iranian bearded man with no English. All I gathered was he was pleading with me to go visit his mother. So naturally I obliged. I met his mother and the whole family who looked stunned to be witnessing such a sight (me in a hijab!!!!). Anyway seconds later the train conductor was down and escorted me back telling me it was too dangerous to be down there. Back to the throne for some more chai and biscuits feeling somewhat guilty and sad for the division and the reasons why I wasn’t allowed mingle with the locals.

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Typical scenes on the train journey
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There was killings with me and an Iranian Man as I had the windows open for the whole journey. The locals didn’t seem bothered by the view and he grumpily kept repeating he was cold! (it was over 40 degrees…….)

I cannot recommend the train experience enough. It is a pain in the arse to get to it but well worth the effort and so far a definite Iranian highlight. You will have all to your self and be fully immersed in the genuine amazing Iranian hospitality.

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A football pitch with a view!

Once I got off the train I was treated to some blistering heat so I decided to camp out for a while to try and figure out my options. Dorud’s main appeal is the train and the surrounding mountains and not wanting to waste time I opted to make my way towards Esfahan that night (or try!). Within 5 minutes the obsessed Iranian family were back over pleading with me to go to their house (well that’s what I think, it was in Farsi). I tried to explain I wanted to go to Esfahan, 7 hours away. I grasped that they wanted the honor to feed me and then they would bring me to the bus station afterwards.  I figured the old man and women made the creepy man seem a little bit more legit. I was aware that the train staff told me they were dangerous so I insisted on saying no at the beginning. With very little will power, little other options and no energy to brave the heat I took them up on their tempting offer. I know most people would cleverly run a mile but on this occasion my gut feeling was telling me they were decent people and to give them a chance. Before I knew it I was bundled into a taxi and away we went for a mysterious lunch. They were a family of 8 all of the men were called Mohammad except one who was called Homid v easy to remember. In Iran, if they are not called Mohammaed a safe bet is always Ali.

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No time wasting and all the stops were brought out including their pride and joy; Shisa

The language barrier is killing me and reminds  me of my early South American days except it’s worse here because there is absolutely no one else to help you even google is pretty useless as they don’t use our alphabet.

Their home was one big room where they all ate and slept. The old woman got straight to work wishing for me to experience a traditional kebab. She started violently tearing up a chicken carcass so I knew it was the real deal.  This particular family said they only have kebabs for special occasions so I was extremely privileged.  I was in two minds about Hamid the main organizer of the kidnapping.  He started to pray while we were all eating which made me a little un easy.  His family on the other-hand had completely  won me over and were fab.  They also wanted me to take a traditional Turkish bath ( a step too far even for me).

The lunch was an experience in itself and typical to most Iranian houses was eaten off the floor with. I love the whole culture of eating off the floor it is extremely sociable and most families I’ve stayed with don’t even own a table. I have realised I have an extremely sharp and protruding bum bone which is actually causing serious issues when trying to eat. It’s a pain in the arse (if you will pardon the pun!). Tables are a thing of the past so I better get used to it.

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The hair dryer working it’s magic!

The mother made her own yogurt and flat breads. The chicken kebab with rice was a sensation. They also have a thing about feeding you up and are so enthusiastic they don’t want you to stop eating.  I was constantly getting mounds of food thrown onto my plate with beaming smiles staring at me as I inhaled the feast. At one point they started taking food from their own plates to add to my pile. So excessive but they genuinely get offended if you don’t finish your plate.

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The crew from the train

After the grub I was keen to make my getaway eager to make it to Esfahan that night but Homid and his brother  had other plans. They were adement in taking me to a random location ‘to take photos of nature’. One thing about Iranians they don’t involve you in the decision making and bundle you into car and away you go (their intentions are usually good). 40 degree heat meant photos of nature were v low on my list of priorities. Dorud is a bit of a ghost town so with no taxis I relayed on the lift. Before I knew it I was in ‘nature’ and not a bus station in sight. It is cute how proud they are of their country and how they all want you to have the best memory of it but I was still a little wary of the brothers. Mohammad starting speaking about blood thirsty Arabs, ISIS and religion in the car and I absolutely knew this was my que to leave.

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‘Loving’ my nature photo shoot!

Luckily after our nature photos we made it to the bus station but not so lucky was the lack of transport. There were no more buses or taxis to Esfahan that night….. Mohammad and co immediately offered to drive me to Esfahan a mere 7 hours in one direction. With the ridiculous offer I naturally declined but again he just starting driving towards Esfahan!!! I insisted on getting out of the car  and mid driving I just opened the door (generally speaking I’m delighted with the easy option of a lift but on this occasion I definitely didn’t want to spend another 7 hours with the pair).

I made the executive decision that hitch hiking would be far more desirable and safer option. They reluctantly pulled over and the three of us hitch hiked. In fairness to the pair they explained to drivers that I needed to go to Esfahan. Having their Farsi was useful as Iranian’s wouldn’t be that accustomed to hitchhikers but because they are such kind people most of them stopped to make sure I was okay anyway.

I was lucky enough after only 5 minutes a gorgeous family who were headed in the direction of Esfahan kindly stopped. Needless to say not a word of English was spoken but I immediately hit it off with them as the Dad danced some Persian while simultaneously speeding down the motorway. Not dangerous at all. Things escalated quickly and before I knew it I was being bundled into their house and was being pampered by a about 20 giddy Iranians. I agreed to stay the night as I hadn’t a clue where I was but knew I was in good hands. The children insisted on fanning me, it was way too much but deep down I was loving it.  They genuinely treated me like royalty.  Iranian’s are feeders to put it mildy and I was presented with dish after dish as they kept taking photos of me while I was eating. An extremely uncomfortable yet amusing situation.

The night consisted of photo shoots with each individual family member. About 10 of them crushed into one room so that I would have my own private room. Kindness beyond words. I wasn’t even allowed to carry my backpack, they got offended if I did. I even got a tutorial on how to correctly wear the hijab there is an art to this that I have yet to master.

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These moments where you wonder how the hell did I end up here?

The next morning after a delish breakfast of flatbreads, cream, sour grape jam, eggs and cheese I was once again bundled into a car en route to an unknown destination. If you go to Iran you need to be completely happy with going with the flow. It’s the only way you will survive.

The destination is probably the randomist to date….Before I knew it I was in an Iranian hospital visiting one of the family members who was just out of surgery. This was a ludicrous situation where I was in a room full of women getting nose jobs done They all wanted their photo taken with me. I eventually managed to escape the ridiculous hospital situation and managed to go explore beautiful Esfahan with the Dad and their gorgeous 14 year old daughter. Like I said before nose jobs are ridiculously common over here I have never seen anything like it.

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Shah Mosque’s entrance, Esfahan
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The most stunning archway in Esfahan; Shah Mosque

In the afternoon we said our goodbyes and I made my way to my couch surfing family. That night after a traditional Iranian feast of ghorme Sabzi we drove into the city to visit Som e Pol which is really popular with the locals at night to have chai and chill.

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Som-e-Pol; One of Esfahan’s famous bridges where the locals gather in their droves the enjoy the sunset
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Really nice memories of this gorgeous couple who welcomed me into their home in Esfahan

Camping near the Iraqi Boarder

The tomato farm where I was camping was at the height of activity during the night. Sleep was difficult with the sound of hundreds of frogs serenading me. I got the fright of my life when I saw the inside of my tent move and to my delight I was joined by three frogs. One inside the tent and two underneath! SICK but a preferable alternative to a stifling hot room of smelly snoring men. I’ll take the frogs any day of the week. Afraid of crushing the frogs I bundled myself into a corner for a rough nights sleep. It also wouldn’t be camping unless you were joined by  a creature of some description.

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View from the tomato farm in Kermanshah

During our time on  the farm we were invited to an authentic Persian birthday party. A bizarre first experience of the division between men and women. Before the party all the women gathered together in a room to dance Persian. The men were not allowed in and had their own separate room. We re-grouped later and mingled over a fire with once again more chai. In more religious  towns it wouldn’t be allowed to have a social gathering with men and women late at night. The rules were a little more lax here because we were on the farm. Things quickly escalated after the first cup of chai and everyone was up on the floor dancing to traditional Persian music. It was an incredible scene and not too dissimilar to a early morning sing song after a heavy night in Dublin. Difference here? Not a dribble of alcohol but lots of happy heads nevertheless. It was amazing. There has to be something magial in chai?

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Golden hour couldn’t have been more golden
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The glam Iranians
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Suns sets in Kermanshah

Breakfast was the real deal of flat breads eaten off the floor with yogurt, cheese (similar to feta), cucumber and of course tomatoes served with chai. Myself, Sarah and Ali went to visit Bisotun which is a famous area for its inscriptions on these caves. Just my luck they were covered in scaffolding but the entire place is pretty incredible all the same. Because it was a public holiday the place was mobbed with Iranians. An experience in itself. With heat over 40 degrees my self and Hijab were having some vocal disagreements. For me it’s been the hardest part about travelling here. June and July are painfully hot months to visit Iran, that’s why no one comes here then except for me of course. You can’t even benefit from the sun because your covered within an inch of your life (not that I’m partial to tanning but you never know). 

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Raging!! The women weren’t allowed swim here.
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Absolutely baked at Bisotun

We made some pit stops to a nearby hotel for some much needed non-alcoholic Islamic beer it’s yum.  This hotel was a joke it had the most insane views of the towering mountains and most importantly aircon!!!! It costs 30 dollars a night to stay here.We had a traditional lunch in the hotel of khal a delicious dish of lamb, in a fragrant tomato sauce with almonds served with saffron rice. For me, I miss the heat of Mexican food and feel a little picante would take it to the next level and not forgetting the magic of salsas. Not that I needed anymore  picante in my life as I ended up getting sunstroke that evening. Overall though, the food is excellent here. Back at the farm I spent the afternoon eating ice cubes and watermelon in an attempt to cool down.

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Hotel with a view!

That evening, we went into the city of Kermanshah to check out the beautiful Islamic Shrine. Our main reason for hitting the city was to go shopping. Sarah is quite the fashionista and wanted to give my wardrobe a little re vamp. My bum has been making the odd sneaky appearance and it’s strictly forbidden. The cheap shirts I bought in H/M aren’t making the cut. So just want I needed to help with my sun stroke was a long jacket to cover my boobs and bum. We settled on a yellow and blue number and mosied around the bizarre sampling some free deserts. Raging I had to forego the red wine and shisa that night, I retired to my tent to try and nurse my pounding headache.

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Islamic Shrine in Kermanshah
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Glam Sarah in Kermanshah nailing the pose!
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Insider tips from Ali and Sarah: Mosque’s have the best WC’s so we are all big fans

I have been nick named WC by Sarah and Ali because they are amazed at how many times I need the loo. I’m bad on a normal day but this is next level stuff I should be taking out shares in Iranian ‘toilets’ or holes in the ground as I seem to spend most of my time in them. Unfortunately peeing on the side of roads/ in bushes in not the done thing which would usually be my venue of choice. I’m  perfectly ok with the drop toilets the only issue with them is loosing things inside. My hairy eyes sunglasses were the first casualty . Don’t worry they were salvaged and given a deep clean and are as good as new.

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One shrine better than the next

Thankfully the 8 litres of water from the day before sorted out the head and I was like a new woman so myself Sarah, Ali and Ali (farm owner) set off for a road trip to Kuridstan towards the small cliff side town of Palangan. Unfortunately we didn’t make it as far as there as with the Iranian holiday in full swing families were out in their droves with their chai, tents and bbq’s so the traffic was horrendous. It was a stunning drive as we viewed lots of different hill side towns.

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Sarah!
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Beautiful stacked villages in Paveh. Located in a region called Hawraman.
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Paveh, the largest hillside village in Iran

We made a pit stop en route home to taste some homemade kebabs. I was given an introduction on how to make them. They are usually served with the typical flat breads, roasted tomato, barbequed meat, yogurt (if requested) and quarters of raw onion. Drinks generally include either Duk or Islamic beer. Duk is rotten stuff but the Iranian’s go wild for it. It is natural yogurt mixed with water and salt. Not my gig.

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This little cutie teaching me the Iranian art of Kebab making
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Traditional lamb kebab eaten off a Persian rug (on plastic 😦  ) with  flat breads, homemade yogurt , roasted tomato and chunks of onion. To be eaten only with your hands. Divine

That afternoon we went to a cave mobbed with Iranian families so again not my gig but an experience in itself screaming children and families trying to get selfies with me in  a narrow cave wasn’t exactly my ideal but the Iranian’s are so charming you can’t but smile and go along with the charade. They continually thank you for coming to their country. Since day one the photograph requests have been coming in their droves. Even on sunstroke day they insisted I was beautiful!

We had such a laugh and Sarah and Ali introduced to me to the world of Iranian music (love It). My Farsi is also slowly coming along.  Our sing song was rudely interrupted with the random appearances of a police. This resulted  in a frantic dash to throw on the hijab and act ‘normal’.  We had time before my night bus to sample some rose water ice cream (it’s divine) and a shisa accompanied with some chai.

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Local Iranian breads

The night bus was almost missed because of the shisa but dangerous Iranian driving and a delayed bus ensured I made it. My random bus partner  offered to share her blanket with me and insisted on buying me food and drink for the bus. This girl was en route home having just gotten a nose job done. Nose jobs are ridiculously common here in Iran. I have never seen anything like it. Every second person seems to have one done. They will set you back a mere $100 if anyone is interested?

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The view from my tent just after the sun had risen. Idyllic camping location.

 

 

From Tallaght to Tehran

From the minute I got home from South America my feet were itchier than ever (and it wasn’t because of the athletes foot). I knew I needed another trip but Iran had never been on my radar. My mind had been obsessed with all things Pakistan and my original plan was to travel the country for 3 months.  One of my patient’s in T Town was Pakistani and kindly organised a letter of invitation into the country (mates with the chancellor!) a slight diversion from the childhood obesity problem.  This is essential to get the visa. So with visa in check I was good to go all that was missing was the flight. Needless to say I fecked this up big time and booked it for the wrong month!!!  It was going to cost me a mere €900 to change so it looked like I had a month to kill but the question was where to go…? Not a bad complaint to have I know. Trips within Europe were working out crazy expensive so I set my sights on Iran and found ridiculously cheap flights from Amsterdam.

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A farewell before the escapades!

Myself, Una and Dom managed the squeeze in a few days in Amsterdam before the big trip. We had a rocky start with the aggressive Amsterdam biking scene but we all survived and had a ball. We even made an embarrassing/awkward appearance at Nils’s low-key  soccer game. We were the only supporters……

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This pair! High on nothing more than life
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I couldn’t help myself the Diva himself; AmsterDOM

En route to Iran things were off to a flying start when I befriended a chap called Ali on the plane. He was a professional basketball player in the Netherlands for 15 years. He had just retired and was coming home for good to live in Iran. He gave me loads of tips and got me seriously excited for what was ahead. My first stop was Tehran, the capital of Iran and I had organized couch surfing with a couple; Sarah and Ali. The Iranians are known for their hospitality and this couple took it to the next level. I was given keys to the apartment as they were working for the day and Sarah had prepared the most stunning Persian breakfast. Couch surfing is massive over here despite it being illegal everyone manages to bypass this. I was offered accommodation, advice and help by 400 different Iranians when I posted onto the CS site. Absolutely incredible albeit it slightly overwhelming hospitality.

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Sarah and Ali; Tehran’s biggest legends

Day 1, I decided to go explore a little beefed from the flight I kept it local. For some reason I was wearing Ali, the man’s shoes and managed to lock myself out of their apartment. I’ve never had a great track record with keys. I had to wait awkwardly outside their apartment until they got home from work for him to see a stranger wearing his shoes. Anyway  after a couple of glasses of vino that night Ali soon realized what he was dealing with and all was forgiven. Yes I said vino was forbidden, all alcohol is illegal in Iran. It is not sold or served anywhere. I had totally psyched myself up for a month off the booze. Instead Iranian’s drink buckets of chai (tea) which is nice but not exactly the same gig (at least they avoid the vicious hangovers). There was no fear of a detox happening because Ali and Sarah have come up with an easy solution to the problem they make their own wine and its bleeding gorgeous.

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When tea looks this pretty its no wonder that’s all they drink

I was introduced to the wonderful world of Iranian cuisine which completely exceeded my expectations. First up was fesenjan , a delicious sauce made out of only walnuts and pomegranates mixed with lamb. Pomegranate is the most symbolic fruit of Iran. Unfortunately, it is not the season yet. Sarah served this with Iranian flat bread called Barbari, crisp and salted and covered in seasame seeds. Iranians are rice obsessed and mountains are served with basically every meal .The best touch is the golden saffron oil drizzled on top. Saffron is found absolutely everywhere here and like everything else is dirt cheap. Next on the list was ghormeh sabzi; a concoction of lamb, beans in a herby/citrus sauce with buckets of spices that’s cooked for hours. Sarah is a genius in the kitchen and all of the guidebooks tell you to experience the best of Iranian cuisine you need to eat with a family. Restaurant’s foods are not comparable.

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Ghormeh sabzi served with salad shiraz, saffron rice, mixed leaves friend rice.

From the get go I was having awful trouble with the hijab. Before coming I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised when Sarah told me they only wear the hijab outside (this completely depends on the house your in). I was freaking out on the plane and had my head covered from the minute I left Amsterdam (I know overkill but I was adement I wasn’t going to have any disasters this time). This is another one of Iran’s strict rules; the hijab must be worn by women at all times outdoors, your bum and chest must be covered and you must dress modestly (even when you’re in the car, the police will check!). In 30 plus degrees this is a toture!

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Day 1 and already having some hijab hiccups

I successfully negotiated an Iranian metro and arrived at stop one the Golestan Palace. This place couldn’t have  been more excessive and was the best introduction into the insane talents of Iranian artwork.

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The front building of the Golestan Palace.
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One of the many intricate walls of the Golestan Palace.
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Wall of mirrors, Golestan Palace.
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Standard sitting room inside the palace

Afterwards I tackled the famous grand bizarre. Bizarre’s are a big affair in Iran and are crammed with tiles, carpets, spices, copper and jewelry. Tourism has definitely not kicked off in Iran yet and I was faced with lots of looks of confusion, intrigue but mainly smiles. A man from a carpet shop escorted me around the market for the day v ideal the as the place runs for km’s and its v easy to get lost. Previously tourism had been a lot better in the country but since conflicts it has significantly declined. Iranians are clearly trying so hard to change the perception of Iran and are constantly thanking you for visiting and and are just so curious as to why Iran?

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Fresh rose petals are found everywhere. Used for tea, drinks and desserts

I spent the afternoon in an artsy park that displayed Iranian arts and crafts. The coffee shop wouldn’t let me pay for my chai and instead stuffed my pockets with some juicy dates. The shopkeeper even gave me a Farsi (Iranian lesson) this is next level difficult but kinda of essential when travelling alone as not many of them speak English. They have their own writing/ numerical system and write in the opposite direction to us.

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Standard street tiles in Tehran

Iran is probably the biggest culture shock I have had to date. Sites like Couch surfing, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are all illegal. You need special software on your phone if you want to use them. There are so mainly seemingly ridiculous rules that the Mullahs enforce in this country. Whether or not these rules are enforced in households depends on the families religious faith. It also didn’t help that I was visiting during Ramadan. It is absolutely forbidden to eat/drink during daylight and virtually everywhere was closed. Obviously not everyone complies but if caught in public there is a risk of being arrested.

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Beautiful looking street food; these are filled with honey and nuts and then fired.

Another thing making travelling here even more challenging is you cannot use your debit card. The only way to get Iranian money is by doing cash exchange. The currency here is either rial or tomen (I have no idea of the differences despite numerous explanations) and nothing will prepare you for this. You are dealing with the millions.  I was told not to change my money in the airport because of the low dollar rate that day (it changes daily).  This is a massive issue for Iranians at the moment but as a westerner visiting everything appears to be v cheap. Day 1 I got totally ripped off doing this exchange as per usual I trusted the cute old man. I fall for it every time. It wouldn’t be travelling if you didn’t get ripped off at least once or in my case multiple times. You win some you loose many.

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Imam Khomeini Mosque, Tehran
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Obsessed with the stunning hand painted tiles

I happened to be in Iran for a national holiday where they were celebrating the anniversary of the death of the King. This could only mean one thing an Iranian road trip to the west of Iran, yet to be touched by tourism.  Sarah and Ali kindly invited me to tag along on their trip so I jumped on the bandwagon. We set off for a place called  Kermanshah very close the Iraq border (a 7 hour drive from Tehran).

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Road tripping with these legends

The Iranians’ are absolute lunatics on the roads so this was an exhilarating  journey. This place suffered brutally during the Iraq-Iran war. We all went couch surfing together to an eco-tomato farm. When we arrived we met another group of Iranians also couch surfing (some were volunteering with the tomatoes). We immediately hit it off despite my lack of Farsi. Back to square one with the hand communication, pain in the arse but it gets the job done. Instead of sleeping in the room with 8 Iranian men I opted to pitch my tent beside the tomatoes with a stunning view of the nearby rocky mountains. Ta Dom for the deadly treat of a brand new tent let’s hope it has more success than the previous one.

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Pretending I can speak Farsi

The farm was stunning and also grew walnuts and rose plants. It had bee hives and also farmed chickens are quail. The rose plant is extremely popular in Iran found mostly in deserts and drinks. Home for the next few days was looking pretty idyllic.

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Locals outside the Tomato Farm in Kermanshah

Hard to believe only a few days ago I was cycling around Amsterdam and now I’m wearing a hijab and speaking Farsi!

A final fact that I still can’t get my head around Iranians’s weekend is thursday and Friday so Saturday marks the start of the working week. Mind blowing stuff!

A Photographic Memory

It has taken me almost six months to be able to write this, partly because I cannot physically put into words what the trip meant to me and in a way writing this officially ends the best year of my life (I am also guilty of being v lazy). But here I want to reflect  on what I learnt from travelling solo for one year and a few of my favourite photographic memories and maybe even inspire one or two of you to book that scary one way flight into the unknown!

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The last day!!!! Starting my journey home to Dublin leaving dreamy Isla Mujeurs in Mexico 😦

Trying to settle back into ‘normal life’ after 12 months on the road has been challenging to say the least. Living in a travel bubble for one year completely separated from reality changes your priorities and your entire perspective on life. This bubble is both uncomfortable, scary, exciting and dangerously addictive. Travelling solo as a female around Latin America is definitely a challenge but is one of the most liberating  and exhilarating things I have ever done. Anyone nervous especially girls just do it. I think everyone should experience solo travel at least once in their life.

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Another benefit of solo travel. You can puke all over rainbow mountain and no one needs to know about it. I had violent altitude sickness that day but managed a fake smile.

I have gotten better at embracing the here and now even if it is a two hour commute on a bicycle to Tallaght. I am a sucker for a challenge. This commute often feels like backpacking (or cycling Bolivia’s death road aka the Greenhills road in Walksintown)!

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Bolivia’s death road V my commute to work (similar gig)

Since starting I have had 4 punctures, been hit by a car (luckily I was okay the woman thought I was a wheely bin), ended up hitch hiking to a presentation (that’s a v long story), cried for an entire hour en route home pretty convinced I had frost bite (I did not!!), almost got blown away during multiple storms. Admittedly it is usually quite bleak but there is the rare day where the wind is behind my back, sun is shining and I am listening to the Beach Boys and I feel invincible. The quick morale of the story, cycling in Dublin is a joke but better than public transport!! Our bodies can do so much more than we give them credit for.

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Cycling in Amsterdam on the other hand…….

During my trip someone once told me I was a magnet for problems and disasters. Maybe that is true these disasters have subsequently followed me to Dublin and most likely will follow me wherever I end up next. Only last week I set my hair on fire in a restaurant in Berlin while roller blading a Half Marathon!!!!! Sometimes you might feel like crying  and whenever you do try your best to laugh! No joke, literally everyday of the trip there was some kind of a disaster in store both major and minor. I look back now and can honestly smile about them all.

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This is me on cloud 9 having completed my first half marathon on blades.  This is also before my hair caught on fire (most likely caused by my recent dodgy highlights which were particularly flammable).

I find it difficult to describe how I feel after the year away but it is without a doubt an emotional roller coaster consisting of indescribable joy, loneliness, guilt, sadness, isolation and fear.  A year of camping, hitchhiking, sleeping on mountains, caves and couchsurfing went by in the flash of an eye. I was broke, homeless, lost, robbed, held up at knife point and violently sick (on numerous occasions). You do stupid things and all rationale goes out the window. A perfect example of this is me buying a motorbike in Brazil with the plan of biking through the Amazon into Colombia?! In my defense I had been on a bus for almost 3 days so I was little delirious (as opposed to normal!). It is still there in case anyone reading this in headed to Brazil!?

Just a few of my photographic highlights

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Fresh off the plane. Day 1 of the trip and I am straight to the fish market in Santiago, Chile.
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Valparaiso, Chile stole my heart. I spent my first 3 weeks here (originally supposed to be 3 days).  Week one consisted  of getting  held up at knife point by two Chilains, I was attacked in my sleep by a drug dealer and lost my only debit card. This was not enough to deter me from the most enchanting  place, the people, the music and especially the street art. I rarely cry but I cried leaving Valpo. Maka thanks for the pepper spray it was literally life saving.
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My first day hitchhiking in Patagonia! A scary yet exhilarating experience. Hitch hiking was never something I planned on doing but fellow travelers easily convinced me. Little did I know it was the beginning of  a whole new level of adventure. The simplicity of this photo makes me smile and I remember how proud I was to make it to Cerro Castillo after hitchhiking with four different men. The mountain in the background is where I ended up sleeping that same night (without a tent/sleeping bag). I was luckily oblivious to the disaster that awaited me.
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Me at the top of Cerro Castillo, Patagonia. I had been trekking for 10 hours carrying my entire life (literally); laptop, wine, beer, clothes etc etc. I was covered in blood, melted butter and yogurt and was stung to death by bees. Unforgettable for all the right reasons. Patagonian scenery is so stunning it messes up with logical thinking despite everyone urging me to turn back and give up I persevered. Sleeping alone on a Patagonian glacier was yes, crazy. This was the most physical challenging thing I have ever done (2nd place is the Paris Marathon which was also hellish but at least it was only 4 hours of hell). I learnt that I am pretty hardcore, ridiculously stubborn and arguably stupid.
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Marble Caves, El Rio, Patagonia, Chile. Patagonia These caves are entirely made out of marble.
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I love the simplicity of this picture. I took this on the Carratera Austral a road in Patagonia extending  1,240km long.  This road is famous for it’s lack of transport, shops, petrol stations but more importantly for its stunning scenery of fjords, glaciers, steep mountains and lakes. Hitch hiking is a must here.
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Trekking  through  Patagonia’s Glacier Exploradores. I hadn’t slept in 48 hours  yet I didn’t feel tired at all! This was an amazing day and the scenery was just jaw dropping.
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A shell of myself at the end of the W trek (a solo 4 day mountain trek in Patagonia). I was freezing, starving and exhausted but my main memory still remains the mountains. Such a surreal place.
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Perito Moreno, Argentina. I vomited continuously at this glacier but gathered enough energy to take a few pics of this ridiculously pretty place. This day marked the beginning of my 6 week illness where I contracted a virus from drinking water from a river (in fairness I was asking for it).
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Cordero: Patagonia’s signature dish of barbecued lamb. This was a new’s years day feast where the lamb was covered in beer and barbecued for 6 hours. Without a doubt my foodie highlight of South America. This was like silk in your mouth I became quite barbaric eating this but it was a truly sensational. This was a perfect day eating cordero, drinking buckets of red wine and sunning ourselves in Ushuaia where it was surprisingly warm!
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Worth the continuous vomit inducing up hill climb for this rainbow sunrise.  I do remember thinking will I ever get better or maybe this is the new reality for me. Vomiting while camping in Patagonia is a different level of rough. For 5 minutes I completely forgot about vomit and was blown away by a double rainbow and burnt orange sunrise.
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Motorbiking from Salta to Cafayate (well not quite…sitting on the back taking photos!). This photo reminds me of two amazing things I got to do; experience couchsurfing and secondly get to motorbike around Northern Argentina (gracias Mati). I since became  a little bit obsessed with motorbikes and am now a proud owner of a Honda which is sitting in a random village in Brazil. Just another one of Ró’s genius travel decisions.
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A harrowing experience exploring the mines in Bolivia’s Potosi.
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Waiting for sunrise at Salar de Uyuni. Special special place.
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Úna!! When your Mam travels solo to Bolivia and treats you like a queen. Memories of a lifetime.
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This photo always makes me smile. I motorbiked to a peach festival in Cochabamba, Bolivia with a group of complete strangers.
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Camping in Toro Toro’s National Park in Bolivia; home to thousands of dinosaur footprints. So cool!
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Salkantay Trek; en route to see the main man: Machu Picchu
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Gocta waterfall, the third highest in the world. It has been known to the locals for centuries but it was only in 2002 it was discovered by a German who noticed it on google maps . Crazy how many un discovered beauties are potentially still out there. This was definitely one of my Peruvian highlights and better still no body else was there! 
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Successfully completing the Santa Cruz trek in Huarez in Peru.  Again from a very un-reliable source I was told this was a walk in the park and I would be fine solo. I was not……and spent the 3 day trek stranded on the Cordillera Blanca.  That being said this is home to the Paramount picture mountain so it had to be included as a highlight!
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I will never forget snorkeling in the Galapogos Islands in Ecuador. Just incredible.  Everything about the Galapagos is a highlight.
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Wild Galapagos Tortoise. Obsessed with these guys.
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Seals doing what they do best; chilling. Isabella, the Galapagos.
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Celebrating Colombia’s world cup with the locals. I made it onto Colombian radio for correctly predicting the match result (3-0 to Colombia V Poland). It insured free drink for myself and Nils for the  rest of the day!
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Typical lunch scenes in Cartagena, Colombia
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Picking up a hot German in an airport in Ecuador has definitely got to be a highlight! This is Nils, we met going to the Galapagos Islands and initially I hung out of him for his very efficient and organised travel itinerary. We shared left over lobster on our first date (the couple next to us where sending it back so I  controversially asked the waiter would he mind if we ate their left-overs). An uncomfortable yet perfect experience. I soon found out he was also pretty sound and we spent an amazing 8 weeks travelling around Colombia together.
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Getting to play 5 aside football against the locals in El Rio, Colombia. The pitch was in the middle of the jungle doesn’t get more authentic than that.
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Communa 13, Medellin, Colombia. Previously known as one of the most dangerous districts in the world.  It has since reformed itself  through art and music and stole my heart.
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When you friends travel across the world to see you (and of course Colombia). For the first time in 9 months I was given new clothes, hair and make up and made feel female again!
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The trip around the San Blas was incredible from the people, the culture and the food. I have never seen or experienced beaches like this. I doubt anything will ever compare. LOVED it.
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Guanjuato’s (Mexico) local market. I creeped on this man for ages he seemed so content selling his tomatoes. I was always at my happiest when surrounded by food.
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Cipriano; Serving the people of Real de Catorce (Mexico) with menudo. It is a horrendous concoction of sheep intestine and chilis. A must try while in Mexico. I spent the afternoon chatting to the 83-year-old who had never once left his home town and he couldn’t’ have been happier.
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Camping in Real de Catorce, a small village built-in the middle of a desert. I befriended two dogs here Cookie and Cracker who I will never forget. The only way to access the village is through a 3 km tunnel. Cracker was hit by a motorbike as I was leaving the village trying to follow me. The loyalties of dogs is an amazing thing.
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Cascada Tamul in Huasteca Potasina, Mexico. I hitch hiked to this place with a group of roudy retired Mexicans after a night camping in a random man’s house. My whole week in Huasteca Potasina  was a series of very dodgy (and exciting) adventures ( I won’t elaborate….).
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Barancas de Cobre: Mexico’s hidden gem. I zip lined through the whole canyon. Myself  and Tim a man I picked up on the bus had the place to ourselves. Pictures will never justify this place. Without a doubt scenery wise, my favourite place in Mexico (and 3 times as large as the grand canyon!)
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This picture speaks for itself. I love and relate to it.
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One of the best things I ate in Mexico was this home made tortilla.  The woman grew her own corn, milled it and made fresh tortillas everyday.
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Waking up to sunrise at Hierve del Agua in Mexico. I was told I was crazy to camp here alone…well I wasn’t alone, the restaurant lady lent me her three dogs who minded me for the night. The next morning I got to explore for hours before the tour buses came in their droves.  Skinny dipping beside a petrified waterfall without costing a penny has got to be a Mexican highlight.
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El Chepe: One of the world’s most stunning train journeys located in Northern Mexico. Northern Mexico is known as being really dangerous so very few tourists come here and I was also advised against it. It was here where I left my passport in the fruit/veg aisle in a small supermarket. It was returned 24 hours later. Never judge a place based on other people’s opinions go and see for yourself.
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Northern Mexico getting another shout out.  Myself and an Israeli chap motorbiked to Creel. Trying to to take this photo was extremely dodgy but totally worth it!
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This is Rosa pre booze, a lovely lady from Creel, Northern Mexico.  This woman pestered me for ages begging for money to buy water. Obviously no one is going to deny an elderly woman water so I gave in. Moments later Rosa emerges with a bottle of tequila which she shared with me! (and yes tequila and water are the same price in Mexico).
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Rosa post booze. Rosa is now perched in our bathroom and every time I pee I am reminded of the day I went boozing with one of the Northern Mexico’s biggest legends. Her face tells a thousand stories.

Some parting advice;

Don’t always take the easy option get on that bike, book that flight, step into the unknown and who knows what might happen you may even be lucky enough to pick up a hot German in the airport.  Life can pass us by in the blink of an eye so speak to that stranger, be open-minded and curious. Everyone has an untold story waiting to be heard.

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Biking/Camping  through Northern Argentina

I completely get that hitchhiking, couch surfing and sleeping in tents isn’t everyone’s gig but it’s always good to put yourself out of your comfort zone every now and again (no need to be as extreme as me aka 8 weeks straight in a tent). The experiences you will have will be authentic, exciting and unforgettable. You think you can’t do it but you absolutely can!

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Just maybe invest in a better tent than mine 😉 This was taken in Palenque in Mexico during a thunder storm (the sunglasses are just because of sleep deprivation). My Christmas present to myself was a tent and I it was the best thing I have ever bought even though we both looked constantly disheveled.

Money seriously comes and goes and ultimately can be replaced. Some of my happiest memories are when I didn’t have any. Material things are so un-important but memories will last forever. I know its v cheesy but it’s true. I became so much better at accpeting at dealing with things that got lost, broken and robbed and believe me there were a record amount of things.

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Broke times while living in Cusco. I managed to be-friend a smelly hippy called Ekkie who taught me how to busk using a tambourine. Earned enough to buy an ice cream=success

The best thing I did on the trip? becoming fluent in Spanish. I will never forget Christmas was spent with a group of Chilanos who hadn’t a word of English and after everyone pissing themselves at my Spanish attempts I persevered and months later I landed myself a job in a hostel in Cusco and was able to lap away to every randomer who came through the doors in Spanish. Progress!! It’s hard work at the beginning but just power through it is so so worth it. The whole point about travelling is obviously seeing amazing places but for me it is more about connecting with the people. Doing both is a glorious combo.

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Getting to talk to cute locals like this in spanish is really special

Life is a series of peaks and valleys and just like traveling  it is not always going to be Instagram perfect  but wherever you are living learn to live in the moment is the best thing we can do. No matter how grim, how cold, how tired or how fed up you are there is always a solution, put a smile on your face and power through. Even a 25 hour bus can have its up sides!  Some of my most challenging moments of the trip are now my best stories and fondest memories but at the time I clearly remember thinking I had hit rock bottom (sleeping in a cave alone is perfect example of this).

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Low times in Santa Cruz. Getting stranded in the Andes in Peru is no laughing matter. Sleeping alone in a cave with a bunch of cow’s sounds worse than it actually was. As good as you would get in the Westbury.

A final thank you to all of the amazing people I met on the trip, the strangers who took me in, fed me, the couch surfing community and those who picked me up off the sides of the street. I am also so grateful to everyone who spared the time to read about some of my trip.Your comments and messages meant the world to me.

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A huge apology for the stress I caused. Dom and Una; two saints who put up with my  loose travels.

This quote perfectly summarises  what travelling means to me

”Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” Anthony Bourdain

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‘We all have a little spark of madness we mustn’t loose it ‘ Robin Williams. Me, Magda, Iv and Sheldon Manuel in Merida Mexico. The most legendary couch surfing hosts.

 

Week 50: Merida & Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Isla Mujuers. Mexico

My final week of the trip was ending in Cancun where I was to take a bitter-sweet flight back to Dublin.  The rest of my time was spent  in Merida, known as Latin America’s cultural capital. It has so much to give. My time was mainly spent eating (The Yucatan is one of Mexico’s foodie highlights). One of the days myself and Iv went to a group of cenotes which are natural waterholes. This was an incredible day, to access them we had to go by horse and carriage. We were essentially alone for the most of the time and had the cenotes completely to ourselves. The Mayans consider the water in a cenote to be sacred and are very protective over them. There is something magical about this water for the next few days our skin felt like a baby’s bottoms.

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Our ride to the hidden Cenotes
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Having some shut-eye in the most incredible Cenote
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Iv in one Merida’s secret cenotes
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The amazing roof top of one of the cenotes.

Some of the other foodie highlights of Merida included; tacos borracho aka drunk tacos where they cook chorizo in beer (a ridiculously good combination), salbutes (fried tacos), cochinita pilbil (divine pork), queso relleno to name just a few. The Yucatan hands down has the best food (with the exception of Mole from Oaxaca; a glorious concoction of chocolate and chili’s and lots of other divine ingredients).

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Most of my Mexican Food Photos have one bite out of them I can never resist that first hot bite of food.
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Mole; the stuff of dreams. This is traditionally from Oaxaca but I ate this one in Merida. We had to order two of them they were that good.
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I can’t remember what this is but I ate two of them. Need I say more.

En route home from the cenotes I really wanted to try the Yucatan’s iconic dish of Poc Chuc where pork is marinated in citrus juices and seasoned with achiote paste from the annatto seed. It is cooked in strips on the grill. So we drove the guts of 2 hours to the desolate town of Mani where they are famous for the creation of this dish. We screamed our hearts out to Mexico’s most famous singer Luis Miguel en route. For those of you that know me will know I have become a little bit obsessed with him. There is a netflix series about his life which is a must watch for everyone!  When we arrived in Mani the fecking restaurant was closed. Apparently the town of Mani shuts down after 6pm on a Saturday. Anyway positive as always we bombed it back to Merida and settled for a mountain of Panuchos, fried tortilla topped with all the local favorites of shredded turkey, cabbage, picked red onion. Anything tortilla based in Mexico (which is basically everything) is bound to be gorgeous. Be warned! the food in Mexico will make you fat! It is just sooo good.

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I have arrived at La Chingada!!!! (something only Mexicans will understand)

One of the days we just went exploring the gorgeous town of Merida where I was lucky enough to bump into Mexico’s newest president. We did a spot of shopping and of course plenty more eating with Iv and all of her family. The family were genuinely like saints and treated me like I was more important than the president.

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Peeling the clothes off me in the humidity; picking up some Mayan clothing
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When bartering turns into friendship
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Day out in Merida with my new Mexican family
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A standard roundabout in Merida
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Merida is famous for its restored Hacienda. The most stunning buildings
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Merida is filled with this cute joined chairs, it is known as being one of the most romantic places in Mexico
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I was never that tanned just some v good lighting!

One member of the family that can’t be forgotten is the adorable Sheldon. A legend of a dog that I wanted to take home with me. He joined us on all of our excursions.

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Shelon Manuel Demonte

We finished the day by making our way to the beach the most northerly point of Mexico, Progresso. It was so beautiful watching all of the fishermen do their sunset fishing.

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Sunrise and Sunet are the best times of the day to catch fish
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Sunset fishing in the Caribbean
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Marquesitas with the best

My last night spent with Iv and Magda consisted of a Mayan fashion shoot where I got to try on all of the traditional clothing. All of the clothes are beautifully hand stitched and like nothing I have even seen before. Magda gave me a gift of a gorgeous red dress as a memory of Merida and a tutorial on how to properly sleep in a hammock (this is a skill). The dress has since gotten a lot of airtime I love it. I will never be able to thank this family enough, truly special people who treated a stranger like royalty. I met Iv in the desert in Mexico in a remote place called Real de Catorce. I was camping and she was staying in a hotel. She used to supply me with the free shampoos and breakie bits, like gold at the time. She was travelling solo around her own country and we bonded over some gorditas (Mexican tacos) and our love of Mexico. We have stayed in touch ever since.

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You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it’ Robin Williams.
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One lunatic leading the other. Magda is 83 years old, has slept in a hammock her whole life. Battled cancer for years, survived. Traveled the world on a motorbike. She is the epitome of living and an inspiration to us all. Muchas gracias amiga ‘hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo’
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Sheldon at the fashion shoot. This is the most expensive piece of Mayan clothing that exists in Mexico
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Merida’s famous ice cream (more like sorbet) car where there specialty flavour is mamay a traditional Mexican fruit. I could live off this stuff.

I made my way to Chichen Itza to see the famous archaeological site. This is like the Machu Pichu of Mexico and is known as one of the man-made wonders of the world. I wasn’t going to bother going as I had been to Palenque but you get a sense of FOMO if you don’t go to see a wonder of the word. It was a very pleasant morning I nipped in and out early to avoid the hoards of tourists. What wasn’t so pleasant was my refusal to pay for the cloak room which meant I had to cart my backpack around the sacred site. Served me right. I am not that obsessed with ruins so a quick in and out job is perfect for me.

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The backpack got dumped in a bush for this shot
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The main man: Chichen Itza
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In fairness, v impressive

Afterwards in an attempt to cool down I went to cenote Ik kil for a dip. It was beautiful but way too touristy for my liking. It was completely different to the ones in Merida where we were lucky enough to have them to ourselves. I was too scabby to pay for another locker so myself, backpack and additional bags walked down hundreds of steps to get into the cenote. A gorgeous day all round ended by me hitch hiking  to Valladolid where I was eventually making my way to Playa del Carmen for the home stretch of the trip. I stocked up on some corona and peanuts with a few old mexican men and we all squeezed into a TINY collectivo for the 3 hour journey. (peanuts and corona were a mistake in hindsight, I ended up puking out the window in true Ró style!).

In Playa I was meeting my friend Brenda who I used to work with in Cusco in Peru. She is working as a doctor in Play del Carmen but is originally from Monterrey. I ended up leaving all my bits in a Mexican dentists office and went exploring as Brenda had to work. I have to say Playa lived up to its awful expectations. I felt like I was in Magaluf. It was a real slap in the face that my trip had come to an end (and apparently Cancun is much worse). This place is filled with western restaurants and bars, hoards of Americans, all english speaking, high-rise hotels, tacky shops and you pay for things in dollars. It was horrific and I immediately to decided to escape to a nearby Island for my last 2 days.

Iv, my friend from Merida put me in touch with her friend who lives in Cozumel, an island near Cancun. The gent sorted me out with free ferry tickets and offered to drive me around the island. An offer I couldn’t refuse and I was delira to leave grotty Playa del Carmen. I just went for the day. It was absolutely idyllic. I splashed out on a private bed on the beach and amazingly it was deserted so I had the place to myself. The snorkeling was really impressive. Crazily I only had my first margarita on my second last day (I had been sticking to straight mescal and tequila). It was dolla bill but worth every penny. Long gone are the days of eating stale bread in Patagonia and cold pasta out of cereal boxes.

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My own private section of beach in Cozumel
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Stormy sunsets in Cozumel
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Stocking up on the last of Mexico’s delicious seafood

I wanted to spend my last night on an Island avoiding Cancun like the plague. The plan originally was to go to Holbox which is supposed to be more authentic than Isla Mujuers. Anyway time was not on my side and I only had one night left so myself and Brenda opted for Isla Mujuers and it was perfect. There is no doubt that it is very touristy but if you search enough you will find quiet pockets of absolute bliss.

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Isla Mujeurs
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Palm tree bliss
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The last swim of the year
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Spending my last night of the trip with one of Mexico’s legends; Brenda!!

 

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Marshmallow sunsets

Our last night was perfect. We dined in one of the Island’s best restaurants; Limon. Ta Jo for the serious recommendation. They are famous for their caramelized pineapple desert. The owner/head chef Sergio is bbq-ing the finest seafood and meat in his garden. I am allergic to taxis, no matter where I go so I convinced Brenda the walk wasn’t that long. We walked the entire length of the Island (about one hour) until we arrived drenched in sweat to the finest restaurant going. Nothing a few margaritas didn’t fix. The pina is a sensation. You get served half a pineapple where they caramelise the inside and flambe it with rum and serve it with ice cream. Definitely a contender for the best dessert I have ever eaten.

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Muchas gracias amiga! nos vemos in Irlanda!
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The journey home begins……My last photo of the entire trip. The smile is fake my bag is 30kg

The airport was a disaster with the bag 10 kg over weight it was going to come with a hefty price tag. I was a bit of an emotional wreck anyway that when the flood works came on your woman left me off scott free when I explained to her that I wante to keep my tent. There was issues going through security when they found 6 pork and mole tacos in my bag. I explained to the police man that it was my last Mexican taco  and he let me away with it. I gifted him with a taco to thank him. There is no end to the disasters but I wouldn’t have it anyother way make life more interesting.

Mexico you have stolen my heart. I will be back

Week 50: San Cristobal de las Casas ,Palenque & Merida. Mexico

Myself, Lorcan and Emma decided to do a cookery class to learn how to make tortillas from scratch; Mexico’s most iconic food.  We firstly went on a tour of the market which was great where the woman explained all of the weird and wonderful things you typically see in Mexican cuisine. The markets here are incredible and you could easily spend hours floating about.

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Fijoles aka beans!
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Stocking up on meat
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Browsing for Chicharron (aka crackling); the stuff of dreams

After purchasing all of our ingredients we went back to her house where we started making the dough and our fillings for our tacos and quesadillas. I was in my element. We also learnt how to make traditional Mexican salsas and guacamole. One of the most interesting things we tasted was a type of corn that had mushrooms growing from the side of it. Apparently these guys are really rare in  Mexico but were so so good. The tortillas we made were black because of the variety of maize we used. Nothing will ever compare to the taste of a homemade tortilla ridiculously good.

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Emma finding it hilarious making tortillas
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What a quesadilla should actually look like
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Spot the graceful Irish eating

My last day in San Cristobal was spent recording videos on the exotic fruits and vegetables found in Chiapus. Emma kindly co produced these. We rewarded ourselves afterwards with a trip to the famous wine bar where the hours seem to disappear too quickly. We had spent that day mooching around the shops and cafes. San Cristobal is famous for the amber stone. I tried to buy some as it is dirt cheap but failed miserably and settled instead for some pox tasting (a delicious liquor made from corn).

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Myself and Emma trying out the local pastries (these are minging by the way) Stick to the tacos and you can’t go wrong)
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A typical Mexican scene; Emma, myself and Rob dripping in sweat while eating spicy tacos

Based on the success of tortilla making class stemmed the idea of an Irish taco bar named; Bag of Limes so watch this space……

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Shooting some lowpro videos
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Emma such a pleasure meeting you. Buen viaje
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Myself and Emma doing a spot of Pox tasting
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Good bye to beautiful San Cristobal I cannot wait to come back

The next day both myself and Rob planned on making our way to Palenque. Usually the bus to is 3 hours but naturally enough in our case it was 10. Surprisingly it went pretty smoothly as we were warned about road blocks which are v common in this area. Some of the locals lay out a load of nails on the road and demand 50 pesos off each passenger to let the bus pass by. I was lucky enough on this occasion to be travelling with Rob because as per usual there were a few funny fish on the bus. We arrived v late and felt fairly delirious after the long journey.

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Arriving to horribly humid Palenque in my PJ’s looking like a hobo

Palenque is famous for its Mayan ruins but what makes this place distinct is that the ruins are located in the middle of the jungle. They are supposedly more beautiful and less crowded that some of the other more well-known ones. Rob who was travelling for 5 weeks was also an avid camper. He was keen to camp in the jungle so delira with a camping buddy I decided to join him. We rocked up to these cabanas who were charging a whopping 3,000 pesos for a cabana compared to a refreshing 100 pesos to pitch the tents.  Obviously there was no one staying there for that price so we had the place to ourselves including the most stunning private pool. Palenque is insanely hot so I was pretty worried about sleep that night. I was almost 10 weeks in Mexico and my first and only bad meal was in Palenque which in fairness isn’t bad going. The uninspiring chicken fajita were served with a side of salsa aka ketchup in this case. Really really bad. Unfortunately we were in the middle of no where so had no other choice. During the minging dinner there was a torrential rain storm where my tent conveniently leaked. Rob’s gear was a little bit more upscale so he was home and dry. Despite the wet I managed a couple of hours sleep. The beer always helps with this and after almost 1 year on the road my sleep standards are extremely low.

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The only 2 clever clogs camping
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The damp broken tent. She is growing on me
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Star fruit trees located outside our tents. Absolutely love this fruit and its my first time seeing/eating it in the wild

We were woken to the sound of howler monkeys which was pretty cool. We made an early start to try to see the ruins before the heat and the crowds. We had a delicious breakfast of tamales and tacos. Dirt cheap and ridiculously tasty. I am not the biggest ruin fan but figured while in Mexico I had to see at least one. I was pleasantly surprised and actually really enjoyed them. They were absolutely stunning and the backdrop of the jungle made it a truly enchanting place.

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Me at Palenque’s vast jungle
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Catching the early sun
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Rob exploring Palenque from below
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Gorgeous little houses in Palenque

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That afternoon we were wiped from walking around the ruins it is pretty exhausting. We chilled in our private pool while nursing a couple of beers. Where we had pitched our tents we were surrounded by lime, banana, mango and star fruit trees. We used to pick fresh limes to put into our ice-cold coronas which we drank in the pool. Not a whole lot to complain about that setup. We then ventured into town for a delicious lunch and went browsing for a Piñatas for Rob’s nieces.

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Glamping in Mexico
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How the other half live

Back at the pool I spent a while chatting to a creepy Dentist offering me free accommodation at his ranch. Maybe next time…… I was planning on catching the night bus to Merida to meet my friend Iv. This particular night bus was notoriously dangerous but I decided to take my chances with no alternative option. Before catching the bus myself, Gustavo and Rob met up for some wine and seafood. With my trip sadly coming to an end I am allowing myself a few more treats wine being one of them!

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Sweaty Seafood dinners with Rob and Gustavo

The night bus was rough and absolutely freezing. I was completely wiped out of it with the air con. I arrived at the crack of dawn and there was another backpacker outside crying because she had been robbed on the bus. I felt awful for her as I have been in that situation and it is the worst especially when alone. Rob caught the same bus the following night where two other people were robbed and they attempted to rob Rob but he managed to kick them off. So unfortunately the bus lived up to its awful reputation. God only knows how I got off scot-free.

Iv, the most gorgeous Mexican who I met in Real de Catorce while I was camping invited me to her home in Merida. She came to pick me and insisted I stay with her. At this stage of the trip I was looking very disheveled and to be honest I was hanging on by a thread. The visit to Iv’s house couldn’t have come at a better time. It was only when I arrived that I realised I had left my camera, bag of electronics and some clothes in Palenque which was 12 hours away! A desastre.

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The moment you realise you have left half your stuff in a Mexican jungle 12 hours away!!! You either laugh or cry so I choose to laugh!

 

Like most places in Mexico I ended up staying longer than expected. Merida is beautiful and parts look really similar to Cuba. The heat is the only issue but is a pretty big one. It can sometimes reach up to 50 degrees. Needless to say I was dying. Iv knew I had no clothes to my name so including the huge private room she gave me she  also included loads of clothes. Iv you are one of the kindest people I have ever met thank you for taking me in and showing me the most amazing Mexican hospitality.

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Iv, her mother Magda and her niece Vale eating Marquesitas. These are a typical sweet pancake from Yucatan and are traditionally served with cheese and sometimes nutella. They are ridiculously good

My first day with Iv who is also a foodie involved going on a road trip with her and her legendary mother; Magda. Magda is 83 years old and when she was younger traveled the world on her motorbike.  She is a hero and we immediately hit it off. We went to the town of Motul to sample their famous breakfast of Huevos Motulenos. This is a popular  dish with the locals consisting of fried eggs served on tortillas with refried black beans and a tomato-based sauce, which is often studded with ham, peas, and plantains and then sprinkled with cheese.The Yucatan has some of the best Mexican food and the most variety.  The place we went to is the most famous place to get this dish and on a busy day they might go through over 1000 eggs.

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Iv and her family having Merida’s most famous ice cream shop Helados Colon. They specialise in sorbets. The best flavour is Mamey, a local Mexican fruit.

Next stop of the day was a quick dip in a nearby cenote (a natural underwater pit). We then drove to the town of Izamal. It is known as the Yucatan’s yellow city where all of the buildings are painted yellow this is compulsory and the result is nothing short of magical. It is also known as one of Mexico’s Pueblo’s Magicos.

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Izamal’s most iconic building
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A lovely little dog having an explore of the Monostroy
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Brewing storms

More food was on the menu in the afternoon where  I tasted more local dishes in the most stunning restaurant. I tasted  papadazules (tortillas stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and topped with a sauce made of pumpkin seeds and tomato), Queso Relleno (Edam cheese, stuffed with a mixture of pork, peppers, onions, tomatoes, raisins, capers, olives and herbs and spices) and sopa de Lima  (soup made from chicken stock and lime and filled with chunks of chicken and pieces of fried tortilla).  All of this was polished off with  Agua de Chaya.  A traditional drink from the Yucatan made from a local spinach. This is really good for you and so refreshing.

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Hand made tortillas

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Iv and the sublime queso relleno

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Legendary mother and daughter outside Izamal’s best restaurant Kinich

Luckily Rob was also planning a trip to Merida which coincided nicely with him being able to return all of my stuff from Palenque’s jungle. We met for Moijitos in La Negrita (Merida’s coolest bar) and exchanged the goods. Once again someone was looking over me. Rob such a pleasure travelling with you for the short time good luck with your vegetable allotment and more importantly your beer making business.

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La Negrita
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Sweating with the excitement of tasting our first Mexican tequila; Don Julio
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Merida’s best bar; La Negrita. Only buying mojitos only for the free sunglasses!