The Middle East / October 2003
By Larry Luxner
Soft-spoken, petite and unpretentious, Poupeh Mahdavinader doesn't seem like the sort of girl who would make world history.
But that's exactly what the 30-year-old social worker from Iran is doing, as she bicycles her way through 10 countries "in the name of love, friendship and global peace."
Poupeh — the first Iranian woman ever to attempt such a feat — spoke to The Middle East at a fancy lunch arranged in her honor by the Embassy of Pakistan's Iranian Interests Section, which serves as Iran's mission to the United States in the absence of bilateral relations.
Poupeh said that she was supposed to leave her native Tehran in early April, pedal through Turkey and Greece, then make her way to Italy, France, England, the United States, Japan, New Zealand, China, India, Oman and Saudi Arabia — in that order.
But war got in the way.
"A few hours before my trip was to start, at 8 a.m., the U.S. bombing of Iraq began," said Poupeh, speaking through an interpreter. "So instead of biking through Turkey and Greece, I took a plane to Rome."
There, she went directly to the Vatican, where she hoped to meet Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father wasn't available, but on Apr. 11, Poupeh had an audience with Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and by Mostafa Boroujerdi, Iran's ambassador to the Vatican.
Later that day, the two men watched proudly as Poupeh rode her bicycle out of St. Peter's Square on an unusual journey that later took her to France and England, across the Atlantic by plane to Boston, then again by bicycle south to New York and Washington. She's following the backroads, staying overnight with Iranian friends along the way — and is now en route to Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles before flying off to Japan.
There, Poupeh expects to tour New Zealand, China, India and Oman, arriving sometime next year in Saudi Arabia, just in time to make the Muslim hajj, or pilgrimmage, to the holy city of Mecca.
"I wanted to travel and see the world. One of the goals of my trip is seeing the beautiful wonders of God, and using a bike was the best means for fulfilling this trip," she said, adding that "I always have my scarf on as a religious symbol when I'm biking."
Poupeh — her head wrapped in a traditional pink hijab, sports a wristwatch with a bright plastic orange band and a long-sleeved Leonardo da Vinci T-shirt that she bought in Italy — hardly seems like a girl who has just cycled over 3,750 kilometers and has many thousands more to go.
But looks can be deceiving. The composed young woman is an accomplished swimmer, volleyball player, horseback rider and martial-arts expert who has also climbed Iran's highest mountains and has scaled a few of Europe's most tallest peaks as well. She's also single, by the way.
Asked if her parents are worried about her, Poupeh says: "My family is used to me and my adventurous lifestyle, and they're respectful of my goals — especially since they know my true intentions for this mission."
These include raising money for Rahmat — an Iranian charity that works with orphaned children — as well as "communicating with women, girls and youth in the countries to be visited, bringing their message to the women, girls and youth in Iran, and observing the manifestations of God in nature."
Relaxing in a chair underneath a portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Poupeh uttered not a word about the war in Iraq, Mideast tensions or women's rights. In fact, she's decidely apolitical.
"My belief is that on this trip, I have a special mission. Every human being has a mission on this earth, and this is mine," she said. "It's not a personal thing. Four years ago, I wanted to go on this trip but realized that what I was doing for the kids in Iran was more important, and maybe I should leave my global travels for the hereafter.
But then, she says without elaborating, "it became possible to go." The problem is that Poupeh had no luck finding sponsors to underwrite her epic voyage.
"Nobody would believe me either in Iran or outside of Iran, so no one sponsored me," said Poupeh, who began her trip with only $350 in cash. Nevertheless, Iranian friends and complete strangers helped her out along the way, and "as of this point, we have no financial support coming from anywhere, though the Iranian newspapers are covering my trip three times a week."
Poupeh has also gotten her fair share of publicity outside Iran. An online search of "Poupeh Mahdavinader" on Google pulls up articles about her in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Farsi and even Vietnamese.
And thanks to the Internet, thousands of people have followed her travels by logging onto Poupeh's colorful website at www.mahdavinader.com. There, they can read her daily journal entries — which Poupeh writes in Farsi from roadside Internet cafes and e-mails to a friend in Iran, who then translates the letters into English and uploads them.
"My trip has gone very well up to now, even though it was not sponsored by any particular company," reads one journal entry. "The truth is that I had no official letter or backing from any foreign or Iranian organization, and God has showed me that He himself is the best supporter of all. I was able to get a visa during wartime, and even more incredible, an American visa," she wrote. "The American Consulate said that Iranians must wait at least one month in order to get an answer, but they were cooperative with me and I got mine in two weeks, thank God."
Poupeh said she "chose a path that includes some of the most beautiful countries in the world, with very rich histories." Some of her favorite places include Verona, Italy, and the south coast of France, especially Menton and Nice.
Regarding the Big Apple, Poupeh noted this in her online journal: "Four days in New York was enough for me, even with all the sights, the dazzling lights, the enormous billboards and the delicious ice-cream. Manhattan is filled with tall buildings, so high and huge that even if there is an odd tree here or there in the street, it is hardly noticed. There are just buildings, buildings and more buildings, and so I got fed up with it all in the end."
Poupeh said it took her four days to bicycle from New York to Washington, though she had only positive experiences along the way. "A lot of people hugged me in Baltimore, and I was shocked that they had read about me in their local newspapers," she said.
Asked what the hardest part of her trip has been, Poupeh answered sadly that she was the victim of racial and religious slurs in England, where gangs taunted her as she cycled through urban areas.
"There were times during my trip that I went four days with no money, but I don't give up so easily. Despite all the hardships on my path, I have also experienced God's heaven on this earth," she says. "You can see the light of God in everything, and in all people."