BY EGLE GERULAITYTE
Iranian-born Mahsa Homayounfar defies all convention. Currently living in Spain, she runs a travel agency providing authentic cultural experiences and rides the most remote corners of the world. On top of all that, she has no trouble traversing Africa on two wheels with her boyfriend riding pillion.
She loves to discover, improvise, and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. According to Mahsa, adventure riding is true freedom – and she’d love to see more women out there embracing it.
Mahsa, you’re a true citizen of the world. How did that happen?
I was born in Tehran and lived there till I was 17. Then I moved to Germany, Canada, the UK, back to Germany, and finally chose Spain as my base. I really don’t feel attached to any particular place. I love all those countries for certain things they shared with me and feel at home in certain moments, and miss them for particular things.
Iran is great since it’s a very friendly and surreal country. I feel fortunate to have been born in a so-called underdeveloped country and especially in the Middle East since it has given me a great insight to the world in its different aspects. So I don’t have a problem when I’m in a poor or rich country, Muslim or Christian, it’s the same to me since I grew up with both. It gave me the amazing opportunity to see both worlds and be able to choose.
I always knew that I wanted to do one thing only: traveling and exploring the world. I was not happy with the idea of living in my small world, much less accepting the restrictions of the Iranian government. So the moment my parents decided that I was old enough to be by myself I set off for Germany. I had some family there and German was the language I knew best. It was extremely difficult to get a visa to most European countries as an Iranian, and it took me a few years to find a way to get the German visa. Eventually, I got a student visa and left.
Women in Iran are not allowed to ride motorcycles. How come you ride, and what does your family think of it?
I grew up in Tehran and learnt driving there. Racing between the cars was the only fun I could have and also a sign of protest and rage. Listening to the heavy metal or electronic music and driving cars at full speed was the only hobby I had. Bars were forbidden, music was forbidden, having male friends was forbidden. But driving was fine, and gas was cheap. I could have died in one of those teenage races on the highways… When I visit Tehran, I still really enjoy the way the locals drive. It’s almost like they surf in the streets!
Women are actually allowed to ride motorcycles, but there is no system in place to get your riding license. We have female plane pilots, and we have female racing champions. It’s just that motorcycling is a strange thing that has not been regulated and the government is reluctant to change it. So if there are women who got their motorcycle driver’s license from the pre-revolution time or from abroad (like myself), there is no problem at all. My family is fine with me riding. Actually, when I decided to buy my first bike I asked my mum to buy it for me as a present. They find it kind of cool and also strange that I travel the world on my bike.
Motorcycling for me is the solution for my desire to be independent and move around. At first, it was more of a matter of being practical and looking for the means of transportation that gives me the freedom to move. Now it has gained more importance for me, and I travel on a motorbike because I love both traveling and riding, it’s just who I am.
Is it safe to travel Iran as a solo female rider? What are your favorite regions in Iran for motorcycling?
Iran is a truly special country with incredibly hospitable people. I had only great experiences with the locals, the police, and even the more religious people. They think it’s cool, and are curious about me and my motorcycle. They admire you like a child. It’s safe as long as you don’t camp by yourself, but I would say the same thing about any other country too. You have to be careful in traffic – the Iranians do drive like crazy. My favorite regions are Tehran with its insane traffic that is a challenge to any expert rider. I also like northern Iran with all the mountains and green valleys that lie between the deserts and the Caspian sea.
Do you think it’s more difficult to ride around the world as a woman in general?
Yes and no! In a way, it’s much harder for women to ride around the world simply in terms of safety as well is physical strength. I have been riding off road solo and a couple of times when I fell, there was no way for me to lift my bike so it took me long walks and waiting hours until somebody came to help. The world is full of contrasts, and yes, it can be dangerous. For women, rape is still a very present risk. I have personally faced a few rape intentions and a lot of harassment throughout my travels. If I was a man, none of those incidents would have happened. But at the same time, the world is also a great place full of opportunities and generosity for women.
I traveled Africa on a bike with my ex, and I was the only woman that was riding while my partner was in the back. People just could not believe it! We were simply taking turns and it was great as we could both relax.
That’s definitely not a common sight at all! Tell us a bit more: what were your impressions of Africa, and how come your boyfriend rode pillion?
Five years ago, I decided I was ready for a big bike and a big adventure. Africa seemed to be the easiest option as it’s so close to Spain and West Africa seemed like the perfect the doorway to the ‘real’, black Africa. I’d also heard about a music festival in the middle of the desert and was very eager to check it out. For me, music festivals were always a good excuse to travel and to add more depth to my travels.
At that time, a lot of people advised me not to go – some tourists had been murdered in Mauritania, and the whole region received a lot of bad press. But I had worked and lived in Afghanistan solo before, so I knew that the bad reputation and prejudice rarely reflects the reality.
Me and my then boyfriend left our jobs, packed all our belongings, rented the nice flat we had in Madrid, bought a bike, got our driving licenses, took a 2-day off-road course (where I broke the bike!), looked at some maps, and headed south.
We passed Morocco and crossed Western Sahara and Mauritania. Mauritania was such a weird country, there’s nothing there. So much of nothing that it made us questions ourselves. We then rode to Mali, where we volunteered at the most wonderful music festival I’ve ever been to, ‘Festival au Desert’. Then, we went to Guinea, a country that nobody ever goes to and it was exactly the reason why we wanted to see it. It was tough, the maps didn’t coincide with the reality, the roads didn’t exist, there was no electricity or running water, no campsites for weary riders… We headed to Senegal, crossed to Gambia, and then headed back.
Our bike was a BMW 650F, quite loaded as we were riding 2-up. We had a deal that we’d take turns riding, and this is what we did. In the morning, I would be riding for 4-5 hours and he would do the rest as I was more of a morning person. People seemed to be amused to see me riding and him sitting in the back. It was great because we could rest, take pictures, or even have a nap when sitting in the back.
What about Asia? You’ve traveled there quite extensively too, right?
I traveled in South East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos) on little 125 cc rental bikes. I’ve ridden in Iran and Pakistan, parts of India and Sri Lanka, most of the Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), Middle East (Oman, UAE, Turkey). I love Asia. This is the continent that I understand quite well and is so varied and so rich. Food is good, culture is ancient, people are friendly. Persia used to rule huge parts of Asia, so it’s very intriguing for me to find similarities in language, culture, customs, food, laws, history… The nature is simply amazing and people are not as tough as Africans who would often think of you as this rich white colonist.
What was your most exhilarating ride so far?
Honestly, almost all of them. Riding at full moon in the Himalayas along the Ganges River at 50 miles per hour (crazy speed for those roads at night). Crossing the Balochistan desert in Pakistan with two other male riders who were worried and rather startled that I had no problem with it. Finishing my dream ride: the Pamir Highway at 13,000-feet altitude with great views over the Hindu Kush glaciers and the mighty Panj River. Riding along the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka at sunset. Crossing the mountain passes in the Andes between Chile and Argentina and passing by picturesque volcanoes. Riding off road in Ethiopia by myself and passing all those lonely villages with nothing to live on. Arriving in Dubai on my bike and feeling like a slow snail riding the 8 lane highways and having the highest sky scrapers in the world on my right and left…
You said you met a lot of inspirational people on the road… Who were they, and why did you find them inspirational?
One of the many things I love about traveling is the free learning that it entails. It’s simply magical how many interesting people you meet and how much you learn from them. I learned traveling tricks and tips, got a job, learned about motorcycling, saving, making money, love, different mentalities, different skills. Traveling widens your horizons and gives you ideas. Things that seemed difficult to me proved to be very easy. A lot of people I met on the road were like god’s messengers to me, bringing the good words and ideas that would enable me to live my life fully. They were all different types of people, locals that never left their village but had such a deep world view, seasoned travelers, optimists, believers, women and men.
You have seen so much of the planet. What do you think of women’s rights in different parts of the world?
I have been riding quite a lot solo, and crying a lot solo, too. Each time I’m riding in a remote area and see the slavery going on with female labor, I feel extremely sad and powerless. It seems that the entire world is based on men taking advantage of women, forcing them to go and get water, do the farming, cut the wood, carry heavy loads, look after kids, work, and work, and work. Urban settings are a lot better, but still, women are usually the ones that look after the kids, cook, wash and take kids to school.
What’s your advice about traveling to other women out there?
This is your chance. Take it. Our gender – female or male – should not hold us back. As female riders, I think we could support each other more. I see men getting together to plan trips or support each other. And it would be great to have women supporting each other, too.
Speaking of support, I wish we could have more suitable gear and bikes for women. I always have the feeling that our choices are limited. I would also love to see women riding and traveling on their own more, not just riding as pillions.