24 mei 2010

Iranian diversity

I went from the dusty, smoggy and hazy surroundings of Tehran, up in the air to find myself in the desert like island of Gheshm (Persian Gulf) together with my very beloved Iranian friends.

Sun, heat, beaches and ocean should be the ingredients of a nice getaway form the big city. In most of the aspects it was just like that. We went swimming and snorkling and caught some fishes for the BBQ. But to be able to do this, we had to go with a little boat to a small island where there was no one to watch us and no police to remind us of the Islamic rules. Because I can tell you this, building a sand castle on the beach wearing the hejab with 40 C is just no fun.

On this Island, only a few km’s from Dubai, we are a lot closer to images people might have of the middle east. I remember Jos (our teammanager) telling his kids on the phone, that he was in a country far away from Holland, and he said: “I am in this country, where there are camels and people in long dresses and long beards”. The moment he was telling this to his kids, we were driving through Tehran, where you won’t find any camel, and hardly anyone with the long Arabic dress or a long beard. 
There goes another image of Iran out into the world which is just not true, look around!

But maybe he had been to Gheshm before. The camels were the first things I noticed when we drove over the island, followed by bearded people with long Arabic dresses and far darker skin than up in the north of Iran. It was as if we were in another country.  

The island looks a bit like a Star Wars filmset combined with Mad Max. Dusty planes with weird hills covered with a tiny blanket of hazy air. And round all these gangsters drive around like madmen with  illigal goods being brought in by tiny boats coming from Dubai. Besides this, an old mysterious looking Russian oil platform stranded years before illustrates the otherwise empty horizon of the ocean. It makes you wanna go there and explore.

In the 'big city'  on the island, most of the Sjiite mosques are replaced by the Sunni mosque (the majority of Iran is Sjiit). While we drive around I am amazed by the looks of the people. Some of them are very dark, almost Ethiopean and very beautiful. The women wear long clothes with flowery and colourful prints. Their legs (or at least what you can see of it) are covered with bright coloured trousers inlaid with gloden thread in amazing patterns. But what amazes me even more, is the masks some women wear. My friend calles them the 'moustache ladies' and I see why. There are a few different kind of masks. Some are like a moustache, where it's just the nose, the upperlip and a line above the eyes that is covered.
Others women wear a bigger ones, where the whole part of the eyes and cheekbones are hidden beneath a mask which is either completely black, of beautifully imprinted. What a mystery this creates. Why are they wearing them, what is there to hide?  
Don't you think that by hiding yourself, you make it more attractive and mysterious. What goes behind all this? If you see the clothing shops in the town, you see dresses and shirts you can't imagine people wearing underneath all these black drapes. But apparently they do, why would they sell 'm if not?
Even the guys from our own team were a bit shocked to see me without a scarf after seeing me with one every day. Image a person who has never seen a women without one before, and sees it for the first time...

I really like Iran, despite the islamic rules that in some ways determine the ability to move around as a woman. It's a country where the hospitality and open heartedness is just overwhelming. You will never feel unwelcome. The fear of what you think of the country, ("don't you think it is dangerous here?") and the surprise that you actually came to visit ("I am so glad that you like our country"). They know what is said on the news abroad and what is going on in the world. And it's sad to see so many people who would like to see their political situation changed, and to be able to speak out like they sometime dare. But they seem to be caught in this system where they can't get out of.

13 mei 2010

3rd Precidency tour

New city, new riders and a new adventure. Now we're in Tehran, the 17 million people city of Iran, were the rich live up north cuddled up against the mountains, and the poor in the south where the dry desert sets in. Where 3 million people traverse for work in the city every day. Where the smog is like a scrubby blanket lying over the valley because of the millions of cars.
(but some say it's from the sand, blowing in from the desert)

But here we are, in a new hotel on top of a hill in a park in the far east of Tehran. We have a brilliant view over the city, but that's about the only brilliant thing of it all. We suspect the hotel management for blocking the internet, the phoneline and for making deals with the taxidrivers who make us pay way too much everytime we go out to get some banana's for the boys. The organisation seems not very organised, but at least all the cyclist and the bikes from Tabriz arrived.
All of a sudden, Tour of Azerbaijan seemes like heaven.

The stages in the tour are very different from those of last week. They are all in and around Tehran, so we can actually unpack our bags and settle down a bit. But it does mean a lot of transfers to and from start and finish points. Luckily the organisation got a few dirt trucks to transport dozens of 3000+ euro bikes...

With two new fresh riders (Vincent and Robin), and a new team manager (Jos) we are all ready to go. After one week of being an assistent team manager I was confident enough to inform Jos ( a very experienced teammanager in Holland, but with no Iranian experience) a little about the whereabouts of an Iranian cyling tour.  I don't know if it was of any help, but it was nice acting like an interim manager for a few days. After the prologue (8 k's) and the first stage (16 rounds around the Azadi Stadium) I leave the guys to get their own banana's and yoghurt and to clean the bikes themselves, because I'm off to the Persian Gulf!

bye Azerbaijan

And suddenly it’s all over. Six stages , 15 teams, 5 different hotels,  10 foreign teams, 5 Iranian teams,  15 yellow cabs, 15 green vans,  a lot of non-English speaking guides, one very good English speaking guide (Ali, the machine), shimano 105 from the Georgians, chemicals from the TPT team, farsi on the tour radio,  and a lot of other crazy, hilarious, less good and fantastic things.

We started with 4 riders in our team but only Casper made it till the end. Sascha wanted to spare himself and his knee for the Precidency Tour so he skipped the last 2 stages. Lex decided to have a little ride with our team car while the judges were driving behind him, so he was out. Jan already got really far into the tour, but the last hills killed his final strength, and the broom wagon got him home.

After we said goodbye to Janneke and Casper, we went to the closing ceremony to celebrate the winners and the end of the tour, right? No big things, just a little get-together. But nothing like this.

Iranians love long and big talks. They will  thank everybody, but literally everybody. Even the guy who fell of his (motor)bike came on stage to receive an applause…because of the lack of injured cyclist? The ceremony was too long, and too boring. A pity, because it had nice elements, but you just shouldn’t let the choir sing for half an hour, then have some sad looking Iranian pop star singing a sad song for another 20 minutes, and have all, but literally all organisers, friends and volunteers get on stage. (and all this in farsi, I remind you).
After 2 hours we finally celebrated the winners. “do they do it like this in Europe as well?” somebody asked me. Hmm, not quite (I think).

So we say goodbye and many thanks to all the people in Tabriz. But without the handshake! Because even if they’ve seen us without the headscarf, even after we shouted at the guys, and even after being very ‘un-Iranian’ in our behaviour, the codes of conduct are still valid.

With all the riders we continue our journey to Teheran, where another stage race is awaiting us.  This time we stay in the same hotel for a whole week. It’s not the fancy and eloquent home like we had in Azerbaijan, and it’s not the grubby old beds from Kaheybar. It’s just a room with a few beds and a beautiful view of the city, if the smog doesn’t get too thick

On Tuesday the tour will start with a fresh team and a prologue of 8 km’s. After that we’ll have 3 stages and one criterion, all in and around Teheran. I won’t be there all the time, because I will go on a short holiday with my friends from Teheran. But first I’ll have to make sure that our new team (Jan Koelmans, Lex Nederlof, Sascha Damrow, Robin Puls and Vincent Ang) get’s on the road.

5 mei 2010

waving your hair in Azerbaijan

We just  got used to our scarf, so it took us a while before we dared to take it off...it was scary. It was as if somebody all of a sudden decided that you shouldn't wear trousers any more. And they are already without, but you are still wearing them. And now they say:"take it off, you are allowed here".
You feel naked and it feels like everybody stares at you...

Now this last bit I believe was actually true because we did get some looks. But then again, we should be careful with 150 guys around us who had all seen us only with a head scarf and all of a sudden all their imaginations about what's underneath, are scattered in pieces. Because the truth is out.

This is all happening in this enormous 5 star hotel some 3 km's outside of Nigchivan, in Azerbaijan. Beatifull, and like a golden cage...we're not allowed to go out there.
Luckily we have a room with a view, and it is enormous....

The first views of this country were amazing. Beautiful mountain ranges, snowy peaks in the distance, spring flowers nearby. We drive with a big caravaan of tens of Iranian yellow cabs and green minivans to our hotel, some 40k's from the border. A helicopter is guiding us and the sirens of the police lead the way. In the town of Nagchivan, the people wave at you as if you were the president himself.

We left Iran for 1 day and 2 nights. Tomorrow we have a stage of 80 k's up a mountain and  back again. A short but a constant climb. We'll see a bit more of the countryside, but it will only be views. Thursday morning we go back to the Islamic Republic. Back over the bridge at the border, back to the scarf on our heads.

4 mei 2010

I hope Allah keeps an eye closed…

It’s crazy, hilarious at some times and very emancipating. (for Iranians at least) There are like 150 men walking around us all day. And then there’s Janneke and me.

For European standards is already a bit strange that two women take charge of a men’s team. So you might be able to imagine how we look in between all the grumpy old teammanagers from Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazachstan, Iran and Azerbaijan with our colorfull headscarves around our heads. But let’s be hounest, if you want to make your first appearance as a women’s teammanagers team,  you better do it in Iran.

At first they just thought us being the wifes of the riders, then we sort of were on these lists, and we kept asking all this information about the race. So one of the organisors just politely asked Janneke while standing in the elevetor: ”so you are the team manager?” The answer was yes, so he turned to me, what my job in the whole event was; “she’s the mechanic”, Janneke replied.
I tried to hide my disbelief. Mechanic? Me? The Iranian guy was also a bit overwhelmed: “ In Iran we don;t have women mechanics”.
To be hounest, I think there is a lot of things women don’t do very regularly over here, unfortunately.

Because what’s better than to hang out of your window, with your headscarf flying through the air while fixing the back wheel of one of the riders. Or to be able to shout at our personal (imported from Tabriz) taxidriver who was (unfortunatly for him) assigned to guide us through the regions of Western Iran during this tour, without having a clue what a cycling race is and how things work (just like me, but I’m not behind the wheel, and I do speak English).

I hope our driver will survive. He seems like a strong man. But being used to the Iranian way to communicate with people in general, and especially women…
he’s gonna have a hell of a ride.

3 mei 2010


Click here for the first pictures of the first day in the tour...and some other Iranian pictures

2 mei 2010

Iran again

2,5 hours before our flight departure, Jan came back from The Hague. He had 3 passports with an Iranian visa and one without...he didn't get one.

But there was no time for thinking about the consequences of getting on an Iranian plane without a visa. We had our invitation from the organization, we had our contacts in Iran and we had a plane to catch, so off we went to Schiphol.

The moment we got out of the plane, a different set of rules were to follow. While Janneke and me were adjusting our headscarves every minute, Jan had to hold back when he wanted to give our Iranian friend, who helped him getting his visa, a big hug. “uh, you better not do that” she politely told him when he almost, being all happy about his visa, was about to kiss her.

The separate men’s and women’s entrances at the domestic airport for the customs (where we got a plane to Tabriz) were again something to remind us that we entered the Islamic republic of Iran. We don’t have to shake hands, we don’t have to bother about doing our hair, and we have our own entrances…

But here we are now, in our hotel in Tabriz. It’s weird being here without a bike, and in such different circumstances. All of a sudden I’m the tourist in a hotel, while before I was the traveler on my own bike. I can’t just go anywhere I would want to go.

I notice how little I remember from the last time I was here, it’s mostly specific things that I remember, but not these general things about Iran and it’s people. What did we eat? What do you say when you enter a shop, are there supermarkets, do you negotiate about prices? Slowly things come back to me, but to be honest, being in a city is so different from cycling through the country.

But the people are as friendly and curious as before. At first they walk past you 3 times, before they dare to really silently say “hello”. If you react, the fourth time they dare to stand still, and talk a bit. But the moment they discover your Farsi is not as good as it used to be they kindly say goodbye. (unless it’s a group of 10 schoolgirls who stand around you giggling for 10 minutes before taking off)
When I look out of my hotel window, I see almost the same view I had in New York a month ago. A bunch of yellow taxi’s blowing their horns, big signs on the walls of the shops, a lot of traffic and people on the streets. But you’ll have to look closely to see that the women on the streets are either covered with a headscarf or fully covered with a big black hajib. (ok, and the weather isn’t as nice as it was there).

In the meantime me and Janneke play the tourist (we went to this ‘cappadocia’ style village called Kandovan), Casper and Jan prepare for the tour, and Lex and Sascha (the other 2 riders) find their way to Tabriz.
This is gonna be serious, I’ll keep you updated.

29 april 2010


At this very moment, Jan is at the Iranian embassy in the Hague, trying to get our visa..
We fly in 4 hours...

Jan keeps me updated:
10:39 " It's my turn now, he goes to the back, spannend!"
10:42 " have a seat please"
10:56 " ambassy guy: the one who usually does these things, will be here between 2 and 4. Jan: I'll be in a plane by then" Ambassy guy: "I'll have another word"

23 april 2010

You get yourself into these crazy adventures where all of a sudden you are subcribed to be an assistent teamleader to a bunch of guys who like to cycle, and who like to cycle fast, specially when it is in crazy places like Iran. Don't ask me how I got into this situation, I just know that I am very anxious to go.

No, I have never been an assistant teamleader, I have never even seen a cycling pro tour from upclose, beside the few times I turned on the tv to see Contador winning a stage during the Tour de France. But I have been to Iran before. And I think that, and of course my love for cycling, got me into this happening (And me telling Jan that I really wanted t come with him when he told me he was about to go cycling in Iran)

What will happen, nobody knows. Apparently next week, I will be in a plane with Jan (who got me into this and is now a professional cyclists), Casper (professional marathon skater and for this event professional cyclist) and Janneke (team leader) flying to Tehran. Hopefully we'll meet the other three cyclist, who just finished a cycling tour in Thailand (?) over there.

From then, it's all a big surprise. The thought of spending at least 10 days in a car following our team and handing them out some energy, spare tires or some hope about making the finish does scare me a bit...but then again, imagine two European women following a peleton of 50 men with their head scarf waving out of the carwindow...

Maybe it will all give me a new view of Iran and it's people. Because a lot happened there in the Islamic republic the past 2 years and it's a viewpoint I will not very often have...so better use it.

You love sports, you love bikes, you love unknown cultures... you go to Iran to be an assistent teamleader and take it as it comes...

I better go and search for my scarf

20 april 2010

My newest adventure

Assistent teamleader at the 25th Azerbaijan International Tour and the 3rd President International Tour in Iran. Wander what Ahmadinejad has to say about two women in charge of the men...

The brewer, the adventurous pragmatist and the war correspondent

My adventures in New York City and above...

(more to come)