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.
One thing that no one seemed to have a way around were the intentional internet slow-downs which became more frequent the closer it got to the election. By the time, we got to our eighth city, Ishfahan (or Esfahan, depending on who you ask), even accessing email was becoming a challenge. Trying to do so in my dingy hotel was an exercise in frustration. Trying to do so in the gorgeous gardens of the 5 star Abbassi Hotel- not so bad. With the purchase of a tea and some sweets, I had their internet password and license to lounge for as long as I liked. The wifi still did not always work, but given my surroundings, it didn't matter.
After an initial evening of lazing and spotty wifi, we began our tour of Persia's former capital city. First off, we paid a visit to New Julfa, the Armenian part of the city. It was early and most storefronts were closed, but it was obvious that this was the "hip" part of the city, with plenty of funky stores, restaurants and coffee shops.
|One of the many bridges crossing over the Armenian section.|
|At night, it becomes a popular hang out spot.|
Instead of checking out the nightlife, we went to the Vank Cathedral, one of the largest churches in Iran (although, to be fair, there is not a whole lot of competition).
I had assumed that Armenians would be Orthodox Christians, so I was surprised that the frescos were not more in the byzantine style. There were varying responses as to the question of whether the Armenians were Orthodox or not (leaning towards, yes, they are) but the reason for the artwork looking as it does is because, back in the 17th century, they brought in Italian artists to do the job.
But, as mentioned, this was early in the day and the action was elsewhere, specifically it was in the Naqsh-e-Jahan square. Second in size only to China's Tiananmen Square, this plaza is home to two mosques, a palace and more rug shops than I thought humanly possible.
The inarguable highlight in Shah Abbas II's 17th century grand design is the Imam Mosque (or the Mosque formerly known as the Shah Mosque). It, along with the square as a whole, is a UNESCO world heritage site, is featured on the 20,000 rial banknote and gets a mention in Around the World in 80 Treasures. Needless to say, it also has some pretty impressive mosaic work.
To the west side of the square, you find the Ali Qapu palace, most of which is closed off to visitors. Fortunately, the music room is open, revealing some fantastical plaster work. From wikipedia:
The room on the sixth floor is also decorated with plasterwork, representing pots and vessels and one is famous as the music and sound room. It is certainly well worth visiting for the cut out decorations round the room, which represent a considerable artistic feat. These cut out shapes were not placed there to act as cupboards: the stuccowork is most delicate and falls to pieces at the highest touch. So we conclude that it was placed in position in these rooms for ornament and decoration. The rooms were used for private parties and for the King's musicians, and these hollow places in the walls retained the echoes and produced the sounds of the singing and musical instruments clearly in all parts.
Following our visit to the palace, Yasna gave me an hour to wander around and take photos. With so much to see and capture, I was trying to devise a methodical plan. And then the school girls came. As was becoming the norm, one of the more outgoing ones approached and asked where I was from. Soon, I was surrounded by young enthusiastic faces, telling me they loved America, asking "how are you?" and "what is your name?" and wanting to take photos. As I was relishing the role of minor celebrity, I saw one of the girls reach into her bag and pull out a pad and paper. Against all reason, the first thought that popped into my head was "Oh no. They are going to want autographs. I don't have time for that." Yes, here I am, a professional tourist; a person who has contributed absolutely nothing to the arts and sciences, who is receiving a wholly undeserved welcome and yet my mind goes to "Ugh, not this again." Luckily this delusion was short-lived, as the voice in my head piped in with "On what planet is this ever going to be an issue for you again?! Sign the damned autographs." So, I signed a couple of autographs and was rewarded with invitations to meet their teachers and join their picnic. Looking back, it is moments like this and not the many monuments that stand out most.
I had to pass on the picnic as I was set to meet Yasna for lunch at a popular nearby banquet hall. While we were waiting for a table, I was able to get a clandestine photo of one of the odder customs I encountered. This would the tape on the nose phenomenon.
Having grown up in Miami, I am no stranger to people's fascination with plastic surgery. It is extremely common for someone to go away on vacation for a couple of weeks and return with a smaller nose, perkier boobs and lips that only a trout would envy. We all know exactly what took place during this getaway but social norms require us to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. Not so in Iran. Due to its prohibitively high cost, cosmetic surgery has become something of a status symbol and what good is a status symbol if you can not show the world that you can afford it. The result is that you routinely see both men and women going about their day with surgical tape prominently displayed across their faces. There is rarely any bruising or other sign of a recent procedure, just the tape. I heard tell of a girl that went through an entire college semester with tape firmly in place. The kicker, apparently many of these folks don't even have the surgery. They can't afford it. But they can afford a roll of tape.
Following lunch, I decided to visit another one of Shah Abbas' creations, the Chehel Sotoun (or 40 Column Palace). Built as a place for entertaining dignitaries, it boasts some bright militaristic murals and is surrounded by a small park. This was one of the few places I found where you could rent an audio-guide, meaning that my time there was narrated by a comically Japanese accented guide, who was clearly reading from a script that kept referring to "our people", meaning Persians, but ended up coming off like a poorly dubbed film.
As I left the palace, I still had lots of time to kill, so I figured I would take a stroll through the park. I have no idea how it happened but somehow I ended up back in the main square and with sundown approaching, my plan was clear. I would wait it out and get the photo that appears on every website and tour book, the Square at Night pic(s). This was easily done the help of an internet cafe and fake beer.
Day 2 was another "free day", which came in very pretty handy because 1) my time in Iran was quickly coming to an end and I had not bought one single gift and 2) I/Eshfahan has the bazaar to end all bazaars.
Knowing that too much shopping would make me batty, I began the day with a visit to the Jameh mosque. Dating back to 771, it is one of the oldest in all of Iran, and acts as a one stop primer on the architecture of the region. This is because every empire that stepped foot in the area added or deleted something from this mosque.
Using a combination of my guidebook, posted signage and good old fashioned eavesdropping on various tour groups, I was able to experience the mosque's history, while exploring all of its various nooks and crannys.
But you can only put off the inevitable for so long and soon I was in the midst of the bazaar. There were the usual spices/ rugs/ souvenirs sections, but for sheer entertainment, my favorite was the men's clothing corridor.
|The entrance to the bazaar from the main square.|
The reason I enjoyed it so was the spectacularly metrosexual mannequins. If it wasn't for the fact that I was beginning to get strange looks from the shop keepers, I could have spent all day photographing these magnificent specimens.
After the shopping was done and the multitude of bags packed away, I reunited with Yasna for dinner. We headed over to the Armenian section, which, as expected, was pretty lively. We enjoyed dinner at a trendy Italian place and then went to a particularly artsy coffee shop where she knew the owner. All was well and good until the staff brought a birthday cake to our table. I was mortified. Here I had been traveling with this woman for nearly two weeks, I had spent all day in a city that doubles as a shopping mall and I had nothing to give her. She had never mentioned that it was her birthday! We both just stared at the cake. Finally, she motioned for me to blow out the candles. As hospitable as the Persian people were, this was simply too much. There was no way I was going to blow out her candles. It was bad enough I did not have a gift for her! Here was where I was putting my foot down. "No, Yasna! It is your cake, you have to blow out the candles." "But it is not my birthday, it is your birthday." Wait..what kind of mind trick was this. She persisted "I have your passport. Your birthday is June 2nd! Now blow out the candles!!!" And here was the rub, they go by a completely different calendar. Yes, my birthday is June 2nd but this day in Ishafan, according to our calendar was May 2nd. She quickly checked her phone (or perhaps Facebook through a proxy server) and realized the mistake. She immediately rebounded with the best phrase of the trip "So, you like cake?"