Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Country #92: The Islamic Republic of Iran

As the title of this post suggests, I have just returned from a 17 day journey of Iran. Well, not just.  I have been home for 3 weeks now.  Normally, by this time, I would have added at least a half dozen posts (along with an exaggerated number of photos) to this blog.  But the truth is, I have no clue where to begin.  There is the Iran that we constantly hear about, the Iran of our imagination...and then there is the place that I visited.  I don't know how to reconcile the two.  I feel that I am lacking the proper tools to convey the kindnesses I experienced when contrasted with the images of  burning flags and "Death to America" that come so easily to people's minds.  I know that my photos do little in capturing the beauty of this nation when juxtaposed with the misguided expectation of a third world war zone.  Never have I been to a place where the perception vs. the reality have been so starkly opposed.  I am going into this endeavor knowing that I will fall short.  

I am also going into it with the knowledge that there is woefully little travel information out there when it comes to Iran, so in the words of underachievers everywhere "something is better than nothing".  Hopefully these posts will help someone planning their own Iranian adventure or maybe even inspire someone else's.  If that turns out to be the case, let be known, I will happily accept repayment in the form of Kermani Gaz.

In the existing information, there are a lot of superlatives that get tossed Iran's way.  There's "most surprising travel experience", "kindest people", "most potentially intimidating".  I'd like to add to the list "most likely to provoke questions from friends and family".  In my case, a lot of those questions centered around my sanity, or potential lack thereof.  They arose when I first mentioned that I was planning this trip and persisted throughout every step of the process.  I still don't have an answer to the oft-asked "No, but really, are you crazy?"- it's relative, after all- but I do feel that I am now in a better position to answer some of the other inquiries. Let me start with a basic one.

Q: Can Americans visit Iran?

A:  (Spoiler alert: it certainly wouldn't be much of a blog post if they couldn't.)  This was the first of many surprises.  I always assumed that the answer was no. There was no way they were going to give the holder of a US passport, with no Iranian connection, a visa to travel solo around the country. It wasn't until I started researching the possibility that I found out that the answer is *yes.  Not yes, but *yes.  Holders of the blue passports are routinely issued tourist visas but they come with a number of conditions.  US citizens (and only US citizens) must come in as part of an organized tour and be accompanied by a guide throughout their stay (more on that later), so back-packing is out.  Ditto for staying at hostels or couch surfing.  Also, spontaneous 'let's go to Tehran for the weekend' jaunts are out.  An American passport increases the processing time from a week or so to 3+ months. But, the important thing is that it is indeed doable and the owner of the travel company I used told me he has never had any US citizens turned down.

I will not go into the minutia of the process, but will say that there were some harrowing weeks when I did not think it would happen.  My flight to Tehran departed on April 19th. Despite having begun the process back in early December, I was unable to get my visa until April 15th.  On this date, I appeared before the Iranian Special Interest section in Washington, DC (there is no embassy in the US) and was able to get a same-day 16 day tourist visa.  This would have been great news, but for the fact that I was scheduled to be in the country for 17 days.  I brought this up to the officials and was told "Naw, don't worry about it. You'll be fine."  And they had a point, I mean what could possibly go wrong with me, a US citizen, showing up to the airport in Tehran on day 17 with a clearly expired visa? So off, I went..

I flew into Tehran, where 40 plus hours and 3 flights later, I was met by Yasna, the guide who was to stay with me for the first 14 days of my trip.  My organized tour was to be just her and I. This had the potential of being really, really great or a total disaster- for both of us.  Fortunately, Yasna was super cool, laid-back and despite her penchant for trying to set me up with elderly hotel proprietors, a pleasure to travel with.  I, on the other hand, had the poor woman explaining to restauranteurs far and wide what, exactly, a vegetarian does and doesn't eat.

We began our tour the following day with a short 1 hr flight to Shiraz, where we checked into the Niayesh Boutique Hotel. It is a lovely restored home surrounding a central courtyard, all of it hidden deep deep inside a warren of small passageways.  Fortunately, they have a very active sign poster person, marking the way from all directions, otherwise I might still be trying to find my way back to this hidden gem.

The view from my room...

and how I was able to find it.
Yasna hit the ground running, taking me on a walking tour to the nearby Arg-e Karim Khan, which I believe translates to Karim Khan's fort.  This is not to be confused with the Karim Khan bazaar or the Karim Khan mosque.  Those came later.  KKhan (1705-1779) was the ruler of the Zand dynasty and was responsible for bringing in the top architects and artists of the day for the construction of his citadel.

It is believed that the monument to the camera-toting tourist came sometime later.

The leaning tower of Shiraz: a result of the moisture from the bathhouse directly underneath the tower eroding the foundation.
After an explanation of the history of the citadel, Yasna gave me time to explore on my own and take photos.  It was my first day and despite the warm welcomes I'd received, I was a bit nervous, certain that I was bound to say or do the wrong thing.

Right of the bat, as I was admiring the living quarters of the citadel, which reminded me of everything I loved about India's architecture, a security guard started following me around.  Seeing as I was the only visitor, clearly this was about me and he was just biding his time until I screwed up.  I kept fumbling with my head scarf, making sure it was still somewhere atop my head. I meticulously framed all my shots to make sure that I did not accidentally get him in the shot. And yet, as I was leaving one of the rooms, he started pointing and saying something in Farsi.  Checked the scarf, it was still there.  Looked to see if there was a no photography sign I had missed.  Nope.  Why was he yelling at me?

He kept pointing towards the open doorways and repeating something.  Meanwhile, I kept doing my "I am a tourist and have no clue what you are trying to say to me" pantomime.  Finally, he came closer, pointed to my camera, pointed to the doors, did the international sign for 'clicky-clicky' and said what I can only imagine was "Don't you see what a good shot this is? Why aren't you taking it already?"

So, I took the photo- one of my favorites from that day- and he broke into a big smile.  Pleased to see that we had broken this language barrier, I smiled back, looked at my photo and gave him the thumbs up gesture.  And then I remembered that the thumbs up gesture is the equivalent of the middle finger for them. At least I managed a good 10 minutes or so before screwing up.  Even though I had just fuck you'd him, he still good-naturedly followed me around for the next couple of rooms, making sure I did not miss any other good angles.

A note about the thumbs up taboo- this is not a gesture I think I normally use in my everyday life.  I had read the do's and don't's and figured that this could not possibly be an issue.  Yet, I don't know what came over me.  Forced to rely on non-verbal communication, I found myself thumbs-up'ing everyone in sight.  You would think I was auditioning for the cast of Fonzie 2: Electric Boogaloo. I couldn't help myself.  It was a rare day when I did not have to tell Yasna "I meant that as an American thumbs up. Not an Iranian one.  No offense."

When I got to the hamaam, or bath house, there were a couple of guys lingering around.  I once again made sure not to point my camera anywhere near their direction, lest I offend them. One of them asked where I was from.  Nervously, I told them America.  Suddenly, they were all excited and talking over each other telling me how much they love America.  They wanted to know my name.  They wanted to know if I was on Facebook.  They wanted me to take their picture.

Some variation of that conversation happened to me at least a half dozen times a day, each and every day that I was in Iran. Each and every day!! Someone would ask where I was from.  I would tell them I was from America and the reaction would be as emphatic as it was immediate.  They, without exception, wanted me to know that they love America, they love Americans and the problems between our governments are not the problems of us, the individuals.  Perception vs reality.

Yasna and I continued to the Pars Museum, KKhan's burial place and the site of a small exhibition. This was only our second stop and I was now carrying in my bag, approximately 20 entry receipts.  Shortly before my visit, the government had raised the price of admission to most museums.  A museum that had previously cost 20 cents to visit was now 2 dollars.  Somehow this translated to us getting 10 tickets, each worth 20 cents per attraction.  Any profit that they were hoping to see from the increased prices is undoubtably going straight back into printing and paper costs.  By the third stop, the tickets were going straight from the ticket seller to the garbage can.  My bag was only so big.
The garden of the Pars Museum

The gardens featured a sculptural wall of early Persians.  She explained that in those times, the moustache signified manliness.  The bigger the 'stache, the more macho the wearer of it.  Imagine if today's hipsters could time travel back to those days.

A few steps away was the Vakil Mosque, a beautifully laid out space, that is currently under renovation.  Earlier I referred to this as Karim Khan mosque.  The reason is because Vakil means "regent", which was his title...thus this is his mosque.

This pulpit was made from a solid piece of green marble brought over from Azerbaijan.
And finally, closing out the KKhan tour, we strolled through the Karim Khan bazaar, which to my non-shopper's eyes was similar to every other bazaar in every other city.  They are all a collection of passageways in which the shops are typically grouped by the goods they sell, meaning you will have 2 blocks of kitchenware followed by 3 blocks of clothing followed by 27 rug shops.

Once our tour was over, I was unsure what I could and could not do.  As an American citizen, I knew I had to have a guide, which obviously I did, but the question was how far could I wander from my guide.  Could I go off on my own during the times when we did not have any scheduled activity or did she have to shadow my every move? The answer to that question, I think depends on the guide.  In my case, the itinerary that was handed to and approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, clearly stated that I would have free time, so it was a non-issue.

Feeling emboldened by the reception I had received so far, I took a cab over to the Bagh-e-Eram botanical gardens.  They are a UNESCO-recognized Persian garden and the site of countless school trips and young people hook-ups. One thing I soon came to realize was: take away the clubs and the bars and everything becomes a hook-up spot for young people.

While at the gardens, I met two groups of women, both of whom excitedly told me of relatives they have in the US, wanted to be photographed with me and sought reassurances that I was enjoying myself and was being treated well.  This too would become a regular occurrence.

Proof that vegetarians will not go hungry in Iran.
Jewelry lane.
My second day, I went to a little place called Persepolis.  You may have heard of it.  More on that later.

Third day, we were set to go on an 8 hour bus ride to Kerman.  I (correctly) assumed that any meal served on board was not going to be veg. and didn't expect the rest stops to be much better so I did what any sane person would do.  I stocked up on enough nuts to keep a gluttonous colony of squirrels content for the entirety of winter.  With nut shops on every corner, this was exceedingly easy to do, leaving me with extra time to wander the city before I had to meet up with Yasna.

Mandatory Lonely Planet in hand (okay, well not mandatory exactly, but while having tea one night in the hotel courtyard, I looked around and noticed that every single guest- myself included- was engrossed in the same LP.  It looked like we had all been issued the same text at the border and told that there was going to be a quiz.), I went looking for the Masjad-e-Nasir-al-mosque, better known as the Pink Mosque.

Its chief draw is the stained glass windows which cast multi-hued shadows during the morning hours.  It is likely that the mosque has a rich and varied history but the truth is people are coming for the light show, which made it odd that the tour group in the courtyard was out there for so long listening to explanations.  You could just feel the wielders of the larger, more professional looking cameras itching to get inside.  At this and many other moments, I was grateful that I was having an atypical tourist experience.  The majority of visitors (and there are many) are a part of large scale bus tours but being either on my own, or just with Yasna I always felt like we had places all to ourselves, as was the case for me with the pink mosque for a good 20 minutes or so.

As I wandered, nut-laden, back to the hotel, I thought of what a difference three short days had made.  I was initially worried about spending 30 minutes in a citadel, shouting distance from my guide and here I was 72 hours later, confidently walking around the city during all hours of the day and night, something I am hesitant to do in many a place.  After countless expressions of concern from friends and family, here I was feeling completely safe and welcomed by the some of the most amazing people I had ever encountered.  Perception vs. Reality.

Murals like these are seen in all the cities.  They are generally young men who died in battle during the Iran-Iraq war.

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