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A Bike Ride Around the World

Excursion: Two men from Iran on a three-year friendship journey stop in L.A.

July 19, 2001|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spreading goodwill can be daunting. Even painful.

Take the slap in Amir Ahmadi's face by an irate monkey that apparently thought the Tehran native was about to take back a banana.

"Remember the snakes?" Hassan Alizadeh asked his closest friend in their native Persian. The creatures slithered over the men's sleeping bags as they slept fitfully on the ground of the Indian subcontinent.

Not that the industrialized world has proven free of obstacles for the 30-year-old bicyclists during their quest to foster friendship between Iranians and other peoples. In the spring, the Canadian embassy in Tokyo refused to issue visas to Ahmadi and Alizadeh, which might have ended their three-year trip save for a stranger who emptied his bank account to post a $20,000 bond.

Benefactors like the one in Japan are what keep the Iranian university students pedaling on a journey that will lead them across the United States, South America, Africa and Europe before they arrive home in 2003, Ahmadi said during a break this week in Los Angeles.

It's not the money, he said, although donations are vital to the two bicyclists, whose $4,000 in seed money from their respective universities dried up long ago. More important is the warmth and hospitality they've encountered in the 9,700 miles they've biked since they first crossed Iran's border into Pakistan on Sept. 9, 2000, Alizadeh said.

"Everyone seeks friendship," he said. "Humanity needs this message of friendship."

Among their first new friends were several Pakistanis who disguised Alizadeh and Ahmadi in the local baggy attire to protect them from fanatics who believe killing Shiite Muslims will earn the slayers entry to heaven.

"We appreciated the help, but the pants kept getting stuck in the bicycle chain," Alizadeh recalled.

The men arrived in Los Angeles Saturday and plan to stay here for a couple of weeks, thanks to compatriots who have launched their own quest to find a sponsor for the trip.

"Just by going around the world, they can offer so much to improve the image of Iranians," said Arash Hafizi, a producer for local Persian language KIRN radio and NITV television.

Bicyclists Will Visit 'Tehrangeles'

This Saturday, Alizadeh and Ahmadi will ride around Westwood, a main segment of "Tehrangeles," as the Los Angeles Basin, the world's largest Iranian expatriate haven, is referred to by some. There, a throng of Iranian Americans is expected to greet them. A Sunday stop for autographs and picture-taking at an Iranian restaurant in Encino is planned.

Other than the scheduled events, the bicyclists' itinerary is simple: Pedal to wherever their visas and mood take them.

They carry 66 pounds of camping gear. The only nonessential items are a small handcrafted plastic flag bearing Iran's colors--red, white and green--pasted on the front of each bicycle, and a two-letter sticker with Iran's abbreviation--IR--pasted on the backs.

"We want people to get to know Iranians better," Ahmadi said.

"We've discovered that people everywhere share that desire for friendship," he added. "It's governments that differ, not people."

There's never any shortage of curious strangers, Ahmadi said. Like Tom Miller, who met the two men at a rest stop north of Seattle, where they were forced to stop for the night, thanks to six broken spokes in Alizadeh's front tire.

"Where are you from?" Miller asked.

"From Iran," Alizadeh, the English major, replied.

"You're awfully quick to admit that."

"Why not? That's where we're from."

Miller, it turns out, had lived in Egypt a long time ago, where he worked for an American company. Starved for firsthand accounts of the Middle East, he scooped Ahmadi, Alizadeh and their bicycles up into his vehicle, and took them to his son's house for dinner and a good night's rest.

In the morning, Miller drove them to the bicycle shop, which was closed. "No problem," Miller said. "I'll bring you back later."

By afternoon, the men were on their way, pedaling south toward California, minus $100 of their small stash of cash, thanks to the tire repair, Alizadeh said. "In Iran, you could fix a whole car for that."

Besides hospitality, strangers they meet often give them gifts, Ahmadi said, such as crystal dishes and maps.

One Canadian named Mary gave them a Bible. "We give the gifts to other people we meet, although we haven't found someone to give the Bible to yet," he said.

Iranian expatriates have been the most generous, keeping the bicyclists fed, clothed and sheltered on many nights. Thrilled by the prospect of a nonpolitical, home-grown quest they can unite behind, the expatriates have formed a sort of telephone and e-mail chain, alerting friends and families in cities the men travel to, explained Behrooz Afrakhan, a KIRN sportscaster.

Expatriates are everywhere, Alizadeh said, even in Bangladesh, where the bicyclists were hosted by an Iranian-born college professor who had accumulated 26 professional degrees.

The hardest days of their journey have been in Asia, the men say, although snowy nights in the Canadian Rockies during the spring were a close second.

Some Countries Are Not So Welcoming

A few countries won't let them in, the men added. One is Australia, which refused to issue them a visa.

They managed to get a visa for China, but border guards, citing a law that forbids foreigners from entering in their own vehicles, refused to grant the bicyclists entry.

The men are videotaping and photographing their experiences, and Ahmadi is keeping a journal.

Alizadeh said they plan to write a book when they get home. After all, it was a book they found during an earlier bicycle trip to Jordan that inspired their own excursion.

"Travel Journal of Hopeful Brothers," is the book's title, translated into English. The authors were Iranian men who took a motorcycle trip around the world 48 years ago.

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