- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Cyclist Rick Gunn left his South Lake Tahoe home for Iran before getting official permission to get into the country.

He nearly ran out of money pedaling aimlessly around Oman during time he’d planned to be working on a peace project in Iranian schools.

And he came close to watching his entire “Wheels of Peace” plan fall apart when, just a few days before he was supposed to return home, he and Mohammad Tajeran, his partner in the project, still hadn’t met with any school children.

But it wasn’t until recently, when he found himself defending the trip during a public presentation, that Gunn felt, “as vulnerable as I’ve ever been in front of a crowd.”

The audience member who chastised Gunn for glossing over what were, in her opinion, moral shortcomings in Iranian and Islamic societies, wasn’t the first person back home with a hostile reaction to his story.

Another person sent Gunn an email blaming pro-peace activists for “enslavement, death and misery of millions,” and compared his bicycle journey to the efforts of a disgraced operator of a fraudulent charity.

“This is like putting your foot on the cultural third rail,” said Gunn. “Even if you don’t take a side or a stance or anything you are going to get flack.”


So what is it about Gunn and the Wheels of Peace that makes some people so upset?

On its face it’s an innocuous-seeming effort to connect people from different cultures through kids’ artwork.

But at its core the project revolves around making cross-cultural connections in defiance of broader, cultural norms that contribute to the rift between Iran and the United States. And, as Gunn is learning when he talks about the project, challenging those norms can be threatening to some.

“The hardest thing people have to confront when I bring a presentation to them is there are human beings (in Iran) and there are many good human beings there,” Gunn said. “It makes it too hard. It is very neat and orderly if they can write them off as being terrorists.”

Gunn and Tajeran dreamed up the Wheels of Peace idea after a chance meeting in 2007 while they were each riding across Malaysia.

Gunn was touring the world by bicycle, taking photographs and volunteering to do service work in cities and villages along the way. Tajeran was on a mission of his own after quitting his job in Iran as an engineer to ride around the world by bicycle and plant trees.

They rode together for 10 days before going their separate ways, but not before bonding over their similar life stories.

“One day he realized this was not the work that was filling his heart, he discovered his dream was to ride a bike around the world,” Gunn said. “That is hauntingly close to my story. It made my hair stand on end when I heard it.”


They decided to collaborate on project to share artwork and letters from schoolkids in America with schoolkids in Iran.

Gunn asked the kids in Lake Tahoe to write and draw whatever they would like to share with kids their own age in Iran.

He would then deliver the artwork by bicycle and return with letters and drawings from the Iranian children.

There was a problem, though. Tajeran couldn’t get a visa to enter the United States legally and Gunn was having trouble getting one to enter Iran.

So after raising money online to help defray costs and collecting artwork from local kids, Gunn was faced with being blocked from making the delivery.

He and Tajeran agreed they would meet in February 2014 in Oman, a nation with a leader who had been involved with trying to smooth tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and make a plan to proceed.

So Gunn traveled to Oman with his bike, the artwork and arrangements by Tajeran to stay with a family there.

Unfortunately, Tajeran had problems getting to Oman and Gunn had no reason to continue staying with the family. So he set off to ride and camp in Oman while hoping to hear from Tajeran.

“I just started off on my bicycle across the desert just to kill time,” said Gunn, all the while he traveled with the looming thought that he might not complete the project.

“I’m still a human being bound by an ego, I don’t like to fail,” he said. “I would have been devastated if I had returned without seeing any schools.”

Eventually, while Gunn was camping in the Oman desert, his phone rang.

It was Tajeran calling with a new plan. They would meet in Queshm, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf that Gunn could visit without a visa.

Gunn made arrangements to fly to Queshm and, after a tense meeting with border officials who scrutinized his travel documents and took his fingerprints, finally connected with his friend.

The two set off together by bike, riding, camping and exploring the island.

Through Tejeran they also connected with a school which they visited, delivered the artwork and worked with the Iranian children who made artwork of their own to send back.

Tajeran also made similar connections with a school in northern Iran, Gunn said.

“It was largely symbolic, but that meeting and those images and those stories went out through social media,” Gunn said. “This small, seemingly irrelevant symbolic journey we made resonated outwards.”

They’ve also come to realize that, like the United States, Iran is culturally diverse and home to people, many of them younger than 35-years-old, who want more peaceful and prosperous international relations.

But the government in Iran gets in the way. Gunn said restrictions on free expression and human right violations are a blight the nation needs to overcome.

“If I could wave a wand and clear that away I would do it,” he said. “I just believe you can’t do it with a bomb, that is not the magic wand.”


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com

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