Friday, June 28, 2013

Tehran: the Final Chapter

Fourteen days and seven cities later, I was back where I started, in Tehran. Only now, I had vanished most of the preconceived notions I had arrived with. I no longer expected authorities to check my paperwork on every corner. I did not stress over whether or not my head scarf remained firmly in place. If it fell off, I simply replaced it, no harm, no foul. I had grown comfortable enough with navigating the streets and bazaars (even the treacherous crossing of major streets) that I no longer felt the need to have a guide around to keep me out of trouble.

This last one came in the most handy as Yasna was now scheduled to do another tour and I was assigned to a local guide. The new guide, who shall remain nameless, seemed like a nice enough guy and he was certainly trying. Unfortunately, as good a person as he may have been, as a guide, he was worth 0 riyals. He spoke next to no English, had no sense of direction and had the uncanny ability to answer each and every question that he actually understood incorrectly. It was not long before I politely ditched him and spent my final days in Tehran on my own.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Kashan: Mansions and Mosques

FAQ #9: You're a vegetarian. Will there be anything for you to eat?

A: According to Lonely Planet and many of the sites I visited, not really. According to my own experience, yes, but (there is always a but) it helps if you like eggplants. Most restaurants, even in the more remote villages, have large multi-item salad bars, which are intended as starters, but usually have a sufficient variety to allow you to make a substantial meal out of just the salads. If you want a hot meal, then a penchant for that omnipresent purple vegetable does come in handy. There must be a hundred different stews devised around the eggplant and I believe I tried most of them.

One myth that was quickly vanished for me was that I was going to have no trouble finding falafel, hummus, tabouli and other foods that I routinely associate with the Middle East. Apparently, these things never really made their way onto the Persian table. The one exception was in the bazaar in Tehran, where one lone vendor sold falafel sandwiches (served not in a pita but on French bread) commonly referred to by Iranians as a "dirty sandwich" for its inherent messiness (as in "Are you really going to eat a dirty sandwich from a street vendor?" A: Yes)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ishafahan/ Eshfahan

FAQ #8: Will you be able to access your email? Do they even have Facebook?

A: I am noticing that none of the questions I am presenting here have a straight-forward answer. It is always "Yes/ No but..." This was not by design. I think it is more a result of the complicated reality for the Persian people. Their lives are lived with an asterisk. There is the official line and then there is the reality and the two can vary wildly.

With regards to the internet, it is available (except for when its not) but many sites, Facebook included, are restricted. One of the most baffling things for me was the capriciousness of the restrictions.  I expected social media sites (ie Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) to be blocked, particularly a month before a presidential election, and they were.  However, Whatsapp and Skype were available.  I was sure the NY Times would be blocked.  Yet as I sipped my morning tea, I was able to read an article about the clerics' marginalization of President Ahmadinajad.  When I tried to access ESPN to check on the Heat playoffs, it was blocked.  I could go to the Miami Herald site to get the scores, but if I wanted to read the neighboring publication, the Sun-Sentinal, that was blocked.  This blog right here- the one you are reading at this very moment- blocked. Hotmail-not blocked.

BUT,  none of this means a whole lot since everyone has found their way to a proxy server, which essentially makes it appear that they are logging on from somewhere other than Iran (don't ask me how this works, I don't know and I don't care.  We can chalk it up to magic and I'm ok with that). All I know is that I went to an internet cafe and had the guy that worked there log me onto Facebook.  Judging by the pop-up ads and the weather reports I was getting, this computer thought that I was in Santa Barbara, CA. The end result is that through a proxy server, you can log on to any site you'd like to. Although the connections were painfully slow, I was still able to periodically check in and see what my friends had eaten for lunch and who had reached what level on Candy Crush. Priorities are important.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Expecting the unexpected: Meybod, Chak Chak and Kharanaq

One of my best days in Iran was not even supposed to happen. As mandated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was in the country as part of a tour. A detailed itinerary of this tour had been submitted to and approved by the MoFA (not to be confused with the mofo's) and Yasna was required to periodically check in with them to assure them that we were sticking to the plan. Day 9 read as follows: Day at Leisure. In other words, there was nothing planned for this day. I was free to wander around and do as I pleased (although as a US citizen, I was supposed to be closely supervised, so the whole 'wander around' thing is rather open to interpretation). I had already determined that there was not much to do in Yazd, so I decided to book a visit to three nearby towns.

I am still not clear on what happened next. As I was trying to arrange the day tour, there was a sudden bureaucratic flare-up with no one sure whether it was ok for me to take off with another agency's guide and calls coming in from Tehran trying to figure out what was going on with the rogue American. (How they found out remains a mystery). I suspect that what I was encountering was a brief glimpse into the typical life of an Iranian, living somewhere between what is "legally prohibited" and what is "not exactly legal but tolerated". In the end, not wanting to make waves, we hit upon a new plan. I would forego the tour and Yasna her day off. Together, we would hire a driver and go visit the three nearby towns I had hoped to see.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Yazd's Earth, Wind and Fire

FAQ #6: Is it a dry country?!! They do have alcohol, don't they? (This question came primarily from my bar buddies.)

A: I'm sure they do.  They tell me they do. I heard many a story about house parties where contraband spirits flow, but with the exception of some homemade hooch that a local guide offered me early in the trip, the ban of all things alcoholic appears to be working all too well (at least for the non-connected visitor).  I went to veg restaurants, art galleries and every other place I could think of where a non-religious drinking-type person would hang out (in other words, my usual scene) but did not encounter anything stronger than near beer.

In lieu of actual ales, most stores and restaurants sell something called "Islamic beer" ( aka 0% alcohol near beer), which is essentially a malt soda.  A quick tip: when someone points to a particular brand and tries to tell you that it tastes like real beer, be assured that this person has not had beer in a very long time.  But if you want a golden-colored beverage, served in a frosty glass, it will do the trick and thus, it became my go-to beverage for those 17 days of forced sobriety.

That is not to say that I abandoned hope on finding an underground speakeasy right around the corner.  I thought that the isolated, relatively liberal no-head-scarf requiring caravanserai might be willing to break a rule or two, but I was wrong.  My expectations then turned to our next stop, the quiet desert town of Yazd.  That was a (dry) wash as well but it compensated by providing a great base for exploring some really cool nearby sights.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Topless in Zeinnoddin

FAQ #5: Will you have to wear a burqa?

A: No. As a matter of fact, you are unlikely to even see anyone wearing a burqa, as that is more of an Afghani/ Pakistani thing. The more religious Persian women wear a chador, which is kind of like a big black sheet, worn over the head and covering the body (but not the face). The majority of women just wear a head scarf, often worn as loosely as legally possible, a long-ish fitted top and jeans.

It is mandatory to wear a head covering, as well as a top that conceals the hips and arms, but lest anyone think that Persian women are unfashionable, they would be sorely mistaken.  These ladies rock the head scarf.

There is even an odd fashion trend that has emerged.  I first noticed it on my Tehran-Shiraz flight.  The flight attendant had either an unnaturally elongated head or a mass of hair under that scarf to rival Rapunzel's.  Picture the creature from the movie Alien, that kind of shape.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Swinging to Rayen, Mahan and the Kaluts

FAQ #4 (and 5 and 6 and 7...): But don't they hate Americans?

A: NO, NO, NO!! A thousand times no. Listen to me, hypothetical questioner, of all the major misconceptions about Iran, this has to be the #1 (and 2 and 3 and 4..). Never will you go to another country where the people go so far out of their way to welcome you. Nowhere else will you be granted near-celebrity status based on the mere fact that you reside in the US. In no other place you ever visit will you find the arms to be as wide-open, the smiles to be as genuine and the hugs to be as warm.  In other words, no, they do not hate Americans.

The first line from my travel journal on day #5:  "Couple things: Best day yet.  Lonely Planet sucks.  Coming here was a great decision."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Kerman: Home of Bazaars, Hammans, Teahouses and 0 postcards

FAQ# 3:  Isn't there an embargo?  Are you going to go to jail?

Answer:  Yes, there have been sanctions going back to 1979, but unlike the stupidity that is the US policy prohibiting Americans from visiting Cuba, these sanctions do not preclude travel to Iran.  There are travel warnings galore, but no actual prohibition exists, so practically speaking, you are not risking any jail time. For the tourist, the most obvious effect of the sanctions is the money problem.  As in the "What do you mean my ATM card won't work?!  How am I going to get money?" problem.

The only solution I found was to do something I normally try to avoid doing, carry dollars and lots of them. Normally, I will wait until I get to wherever I am going and take out small amounts of the local currency, minimizing my risk in the event that I unexpectedly become separated from my wallet, but due to the fact that western banks are prohibited from doing business in Iran, this was not an option. For all the concern that people expressed about my visiting Iran, one of my biggest worries was how I was going to manage for 12 in London with a purseful of cash just waiting to be snatched.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Persepolis Day

FAQ if you are going to Iran #2: Why Iran?

There really is no one simple answer. There are however a number of not very complicated ones. For starters, I had not been there, a fact which by itself, is not enough. There are a lot of countries I have not been to, 104 of them to be precise. Although there is the fact that during my visit to India, it seemed like every time I liked a work of art, building or garden, I would learn that it was actually Persian.

But there were 2 factors that swayed me more then any others. One was the absolutely fabulous Mezrab cafe in Amsterdam. Many summers ago, I stumbled across their former space in the Joordan and decided to go inside for a bite to eat. I was greeted by this kind and wonderfully gracious woman, whom I would later dub Mama Mezrab. She told me about her musician son, who was on tour, and suggested I stay for the musical jam session that evening. One bite of the heavenly ash-e-reste soup and one note of her even more heavenly singing voice and I was hooked. I began to hang out at the Mezrab every chance I got, eventually meeting her husband, her ridiculously talented son and the majority of Amsterdam's Persian community. It was always an oasis of warmth, kindness and creativity that made me long to visit this place this they spoke of.