Rick Gunn remembers a man approaching as he shared a meal with Mohammad Tajeran in a restaurant in a small village in northern Malaysia.
The man asked the two strangers where they were from.
“The whole room quieted,” Gunn remembers.
When they answered the United States and Iran, Gunn said, there was an audible gasp.
“But you two are enemies,” the man replied.
“Mohammad looked him right in the eyes — he’s an intense guy —” Gunn related, “and he said, ‘No, we are friends.’”
Six years after their ride across Malaysia, the two are planning to reunite next month to ride their bikes across Iran in a symbolic gesture of peace. Their project, Wheels of Peace, will begin with each of them visiting schools in his respective country and sharing his experiences of finding friendship with someone who might otherwise be considered an enemy.
They will ask the children to draw pictures after the presentations and write letters to exchange with students in the other country.
Select drawings from students in both will be enlarged and displayed in certain cities across Iran.
Gunn said he and Tajeran had just planned to ride together, but decided later to involve children in their communities.
“They’re going to be the future leaders of the countries,” Gunn said. “Also, their beliefs and their views are much less filtered. They speak purely.”
He shared his story last week with fourth- through sixth-graders at Carson Montessori School.
Gunn, 49, told how he left his job as a photographer at the Nevada Appeal in 2005 for a three-year bicycle journey around the world. Unable to get a visa to ride through Iran, he searched the Internet for Iranian cyclists and found Tajeran, who was also riding his bike around the globe. The two stayed in touch over email, then met up to ride across Malaysia in 2007.
“Just getting to know each other, we found we had mutual interests and mutual passions,” Gunn said. “We both wanted to make the world a better place. When I left him, I put my arms around him and I cried.”
Elena Brugger, 9, appreciated the presentation.
“I thought it was great,” she said “I don’t like war because it means people are going to get hurt. It’s painful. It’s not nice. War is just bad over bad over bad over and over again.”
Gunn left it open for the students to decide the kind of picture they wanted to draw. Some drew war scenes crossed out; others enjoined hands or peace signs featuring the American and Iranian flags.
“I’m going to draw two people sitting back to back,” said Jacobey Nord, 10. “Then I’m going to write, ‘Don’t sit back to back. Shake hands instead.’”
Gunn is in the process of raising funds for the trip and will continue to visit schools in Carson City and at Lake Tahoe. He’s still awaiting approval for his visa, he said, and if it doesn’t come through, the trip will be done virtually through video chats.
He plans to leave for Iran on Dec. 8, with the first presentation in Mashhad to about 500 people. The two plan to ride 600 miles across the country, stopping for presentations in most of the major cities, including Tehran, where they will share the message of peace.
“Even if you have different cultures and different countries and different ways that you do things, we shouldn’t be enemies,” said Nai’a Keith-Handschuh, 9. “We should be friends.”
Gunn said they hope to repeat the tour across the United States.
Cameron Boeckman, 9, has high expectations for the project.
“Hopefully the U.S. and Iran become friends,” he said.