"I am so sorry Mum. In case I am dead and you find this, it was a guy in a white car. The side mirror and the inside of the passenger seat door are broken. I made a mistake. Woops, sorry. Lots of love xxx"
Finding this note between the pages of my travel journal, scribbled on a torn piece of paper, gave me chills. I had written it months earlier, partly to try to make myself laugh, and partly because I thought it might be useful. I'd written it while sitting on a stranger's bed in Northern Iran, having been locked in his room against my will for several hours.
Earlier that day, I'd been in the back of a battered Toyota Corolla sharing a cab ride with two giggly young girls, their colorful veils pushed back to reveal elaborate hairstyles, and an older man ith deep wrinkles and hooded, inquisitive eyes. Two stout, conservatively dressed middle-aged women shared the front seat, and every so often they would crane their neck to steal a glance at me. I smiled and turned my gaze out the window, resting my head on the glass as I watched the lush, thickly forested foothills of the Caspian coast pass by. One by one the passengers filed out, and then I was alone with the driver. He was young, maybe in his mid-20s, with a thick crop of dark hair and a V-neck white t-shirt that looked several sizes too small.
He stared at me through the rearview mirror. "Let's have chai, he said, his wide eyes and giddy smile betraying his excitement.
"Thank you," I grinned back, "but I need to go to the campsite."
"It's dangerous to camp," he said in broken English and Farsi, "you can't go alone."
"Please just drop me there. If I don't feel safe I'll find a hotel," I insisted meekly, not wanting to offend him. He seemed nice.
This was my second trip to Iran, and I was surprised at how easy it was for me — a young European woman — to travel there alone. I was overwhelmed by the people's hospitality and gentleness, and over my two trips I encountered several kind men whom, if I had followed the advice outlined in "how to travel as a solo woman" type articles, I should have stayed away from. But I always followed my instinct, and got to know countless wonderful people because of it.
But that day in the taxi in Northern Iran I got it wrong.
The driver turned off the main road and into an open gate. With the help of my pocket Farsi dictionary, I managed to ask, "is this your house?"
"Do you live with your family."
I stepped out of the car onto the gravel and looked around. We were in a small garden with perfectly trimmed little hedges; tidy flowerbeds surrounded a bungalow with ornate bars at the windows. I turned back as he was lifting my bag out of the trunk, and I tried to tell him — with my hands on my heart and my head bowed in gratitude — that it was not necessary, thanks, I would not be staying for long.
"It's ok, it's ok," he laughed as he patted me reassuringly on the shoulder and proceeded to put my bag in a little annex, next to the main house. I was used to being invited into people's homes for tea, so I didn't hesitate. It'll be okay if his family lives here, I thought. No harm in a cup of tea.
As we walked through the front door into the living room, I noticed lots of framed photos of his family: mom, dad, and sister, smiling, on holiday.
But no one was home.
He bounced around, whistling to himself, happily preparing platefuls of dates, fruit, and sweets, which he laid out on the floor on a wipe-clean laminated Persian rug. We sat, legs crossed, sipping sweet chai, for a couple of hours, laughing as I practiced my Farsi and he his English. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I had gotten myself into a bit of a situation, and I was itching to get away.
"No camping. Men in Iran — no good" he said gravely, shaking his head, when I mentioned I should get going before dark.
"But I'm strong, I can protect myself," I joked, getting into a boxing stance, trying to keep the mood light. I didn't want to offend him by showing just how eager I was to get away.
In late afternoon, a few hours after first getting to the house, he agreed to take me to the forest for a walk, but insisted that it was dangerous to camp. My bags stayed in the annex.
In the car during the short drive to the forest I could feel my jaw clenching as the frustration of being told what to do — and not knowing how to stand up for myself — welled in my chest.
Twenty minutes later I was sitting under the shade of the thick canopy, as I inhaled the fresh, earthy smell, a relief after the oppressive pollution of Tehran, and watched as families laid out tea making paraphernalia, shisha pipes, and piles of Tupperware — the essentials of a Persian picnic. But, with him next to me, I felt detached from this peaceful, bucolic scene, as if I were staring at it through a cage.
At this point, I was still reassuring myself that this man was just like others I had met — a little too pushy, but ultimately just looking out for me. I hated the idea of overreacting and causing a scene — something that, as a woman, I have been socialized to avoid. Not that I'm for holding back when someone grabs me in a club, or catcalls me in the street. But there are other actions that feel just as intrusive, yet are harder to react assertively to — I can't count the times I've sat through a conversation I didn't want to be in, or accepted to dance with someone I didn't want to dance with. All because, as women, we are taught to always be nice. And no one wants to be that bitch.
It was dark when we drove back. This time, rather than letting me into the house, he led me to the annex, where my backpack was. As we stepped inside, he locked the door behind us.