Without a map
Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd
By Duncan Beatty
September 23, 2003
In this second installment of the details of my
travels in Iran [Part I: Outside
the tea cup] I will relate my experiences when
I toured south through the
cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd.
My trip to the south was
a real educational and cultural experience, and quite an adventure,
since I had no contacts or connections in those places, as opposed
to my time in Tehran where I stayed in the home of friends and
spent time with the relatives of friends, all of whom speak English.
I traveled by bus with the local people and made no advanced
arrangements for schedule or accommodations, preferring to see
how the trip developed and make it up as I went along.
It started when I was at the bus station in Tehran
waiting for my bus to Isfahan. I was a little early, sitting
at the station
when Ramazan, who is in charge of the engineering at
the bus station, approaches me. He invites me to wait in his
office where we have a cup of tea and talk about life and politics.
He also gives me a needle and thread to sew up a hole I tore
in the knee of my pants. Actually, I first asked to borrow his
stapler and I was using it to staple the hole shut. I thought
it was working pretty good, though looking a little Frankenstien-ish,
but he thought I should have a needle and thread so he sent his
assistant to get it for me. To this day the stitches are still
holding, and the stables have long disappeared.
When my bus is boarding he takes me over to it,
introduces me to the driver, and helps me find my seat. He also
with me that everything is comfortable
and that I am ready to go. It is a little embarrassing since now the other passengers
are all looking at me.
Once I arrived at the bus depot in Isfahan, I needed to catch
a city bus to the city center. In general, drivers in Iran
do not seem to waste much time worrying
about trivial matters like safety. I had a little fun with this. By the time
I had bought bus tokens and figured out which bus to take I saw that it was already
pulling away from the bus stop. I ran down the street after it and jumped in
the open door. Fortunately I made it (with my backpack). The driver seemed quite
impressed and some of the local passengers gave me approving looks also. You
just can't have that kind of fun in America anymore.
I saw more tourists in Isfahan than anywhere else in Iran. They
were mostly Japanese or European, and seemed to hang around
the Naqsh-e Jahan royal square, which is a giant square that
used to be a polo field and is surrounded by the bazaar, a
and overlooked by the palace from the Safavid
dynasty (16th century).
It was here that I met Ali. He approached me and
and practice his English. He almost immediately invited me
back to his house to talk and listen to music. That was not
so uncommon, I experienced such quick friendliness and hospitality
many times in Turkey and Iran, but as a westerner it felt a
little odd. We decided to go to a teahouse instead. On the
way we meet a couple girls he knew, Mary and Naz, and they
decide to join us.
As we walked to the teahouse Ali is very
nervous about getting caught by the police while walking with
these girls. He says if caught, they would let the girls go,
and me also since I am a foreigner, but they would take him to
and hassle him. To prevent that we do this thing where they
walk about five feet away from us so it looks better, and they
sort of yell back and forth if they want to talk about directions.
When we sit down for tea, Mary and Naz are very
interested in asking me a lot of questions although they are
unsure of their English. They are quite happy in general and
optimistic about their futures, which is notably different
from Ali's outlook. They are still in school and plan
to be doctors or dentists.
It was interesting to hear their
perspectives on life in Iran. They do not like the conditions
under which they live; the social constraints and current bleak
economic situation, but they seem very sure that it will improve,
it's as if they know change is coming and they just
have to wait for it to happen.
As we prepare to leave I exchange
email addresses with Mary and she tells me, in private, that
Ali is a very nice guy and I should have no concerns about
spending time with him or going to his house. So, after tea
Ali and I go back to his house where I meet his family and
we listened to music (American "classic rock")
while I learn a lot more about him and his brother.
his brother are in a very difficult situation; they did not
do their military service, so they cannot get a job. They were
both educated at Tehran University and they took part in the
student demonstrations there a few years ago. Now they are
trapped and depressed, nothing to do if they wanted to, resorting
to drugs for escape. They smoke hash and opium and offer to
share with me, which I decline.
They also tell me if I want
vodka we can go get some from a guy down the street. I hear
many more stories from them, about being accosted and slapped
around by police and mullahs for having long hair, about their
niece who went for a job interview at the library and was told
by the mullah that he didn't hire streetwalkers.
would love to see a regime change, or find some way to leave
the country, but they do not want to fight anymore. I can sympathize
with their feeling after hearing their stories. Ali told me
when they took part in the student demonstrations in Tehran
they were "effectively subdued", and the way he
said it I could tell it was an overwhelmingly action that left
absolutely no doubt in the minds of the demonstrators of exactly
how little power they had. They are extremely bitter, but at
the same time they seem somewhat broken.
Later that night when I took the taxi back to
my hotel I made sure Ali gave him directions and worked out the
price for me
before we left. I didn't really know where we were, just
that we were south of the river and I was going north of the
river. I was relaxing, enjoying the ride and not really looking
where we are going when the taxi driver asks me if we are getting
close. Great! The driver doesn't really speak English
either; so he calls a lady on his cell phone and gives it to
me so I can give tell her directions. I can't recognize
anything; I actually can't even remember the name of my
hotel! I also don't have my travel book with my map in
I am at a bit of a loss as to what to do. Here
I am, lost in the middle of the night, in the middle of a town
know, in the middle of a country I don't know. The street I want
is called chehar-something,
but the driver can't understand me. Come on, I'm
thinking, how many "chehar-something" streets can
there possibly be, and I know my accent can't be that
bad! I guess it doesn't help that I really an say "chehar-something"
because I can't remember what the "something" was
either. So, we drive around for a while and finally I recognize
a big intersection, which leads to the hotel. When we are finally
on the right street the driver says "oh, chehar----"!
The next day I get up early and check out the
sites in the northern part of the city; the twin minarets, another
minaret that is
400 years old, etc. After a few hours I call Ali and we go see
a few sites together. The famous Minar Jonban ("shaking minarets")
Mosque and the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple. The shaking
minarets are famous because when you shake one, the other shakes
I was told that no one really knows why this happens, which made
me very curious to see if I could solve this little mystery.
When we arrived we went and got a place with all
the other people on the building to which these two minarets
are attached. At
the designated time a guy goes up into one of the minarets and
starts shaking the heck out of it, throwing his weight back and
forth to get it moving. Soon the whole building is shaking and
sure enough, the second minaret starts shaking also. I think
the real mystery is how this old building made of clay bricks
can be shaken around so much and not fall down.
It is starting to get into the afternoon heat
now so we go back to Ali's place for a break from the sun. While
there the girlfriend of Ali's brother comes over with
her sister and a friend (now we have all the ingredients to create
an explosive situation). These 3 girls want to ask me questions
and Ali has to translate. The questions start to get more personal,
eyebrows are being raised and smiles flashed, mostly by the girlfriend.
Ali's brother is getting visibly annoyed, and Ali doesn't
like being around so many people and doesn't like having
The two brothers go to the bedroom to smoke up,
leaving me to fend for myself. The girls all move in closer,
trying to talk to me but are frustrated by their lack of English.
They call for Ali to translate but he doesn't come. They
are searching for English words and then they come up with one.
Sex. "Six?" I say. "No, Sex!" they
say, pointing at the girlfriend. "Six?" I say,
pointing at the clock. I didn't fool them.
repeat. I point to the girlfriend, and then indicate towards
Ali's brother in the bedroom, indicating they are together. "No
no no" they say, waving their hands and making faces. "Will
you come to my house?" the supposed girlfriend says,
smiling happily. "No sex, virgin" I say seriously,
pointing to myself. "Me also," she indicated, all
of them smiling and nodding. I am laughing now, in spite of myself.
to get out of here I think.
Ali comes out of the bedroom, he
wants to go also, he is tired of all these people. His brother
looks a little glazed. There is a flutter of protest as we
prepare to leave but we are soon out on the street. Ali tells
me he doesn't
like his brother's girlfriend, he thinks she is a little crazy.
You're telling me!
We walk to the river and along the bank to the
Siyoseh-Pol ("thirty-three arch") Bridge. It is dusk, the lights
are coming on and
a lot of people are out on the lawns having picnics. It is a
beautiful setting and we find a place to sit and talk and kill
time until I go catch the night bus to Shiraz.
I caught the night bus to Shiraz and arrived at the first light
of dawn. I decided to walk to the park and nap since it was so
early still. When I arrived there I was amazed to find people
sleeping all over the place, families camped out on big carpets.
Some of them are getting up, preparing tea and going to get breakfast.
I decide to go get some fresh breakfast also and
eat in the park so I follow some of them and get in the line
outside the bread
shop. When the people in line notice me there they motion for
me to go to the front of the line. The shopkeeper asks me something,
I say "yek noon" (one bread), and he gives me
a big piece of fresh, warm flatbread. I ask "chand eh?" (how
much?), and he shows me a 250 rial coin (about 3 cents), but
since my smallest money is 5,000 rials he waves me to just take
I am thinking it would be nice to have some cheese
with my bread, so I wander down the street, snacking on the
bread (it's fantastic!), looking for another shop that is open
and I come across a line of people holding pots and pans. Even
better than cheese! This is a line for aash, a kind of thick
I get in line and again I am waved up to the front, where I
get a bowl full of fresh, warm aash. I go back to the park with
breakfast and find a spot to settle in amongst the carpets
After breakfast I try to go visit the tomb of
the poet Sa'di, which is right across the street, but it is
to early still
so the tomb is not yet opened. I head back to the park for
nap I was dreaming about. It's very comfortable, to be
a traveler in the midst of so many other travelers.
When I do finally get in to the tomb there are already
a lot of other people there. Sa'di is such a cultural
icon a lot of people visit his tomb, sort of like a pilgrimage.
There is an annoying little boy there who is trying
to get into all
my pictures and making mean faces. As I am talking to some
of the other visitors, the boy is standing nearby, listening
interrupting from time to time asking for translation.
When I tell them I am from America and it gets translated to
he says something I don't understand and put his hands
together in front of himself, mimicking handcuffs. I mimicked
it back to him and say "Bali (yes), America". The
others are very quick to suppress him now and send him
away. They quickly assure me that I have nothing to worry about,
no one will bother me, and that the boy is just being a
That afternoon, as I was relaxing in the shade, taking a break
from sightseeing and the bazaar, a guy named Reza approached
me. He is studying English in university and wants to hang out
with me and practice. He invites me to stay in his house with
his brother and their parents. Again I am a little uncomfortable
with just going to his house, but after spending a little time
walking through the bazaar and talking with him I feel more comfortable.
He is a very honest straightforward guy, and he tells me that
bringing me to his house will be good for him because his family
will be impressed that his studies in English are going so well.
Reza and his brother live with their parents,
and have 3 older siblings who have moved out and have families
of their own. When
we arrive at his house that evening they are having a large family
dinner and everyone is over, including all the nieces and nephews.
Reza puts me in his bedroom, I'm a little disappointed
to be quarantined this way but I think he wants me to be able
to relax and not be bothered by everyone. He brings me some food
and I meet some of the nieces and nephews as the come and go.
They are all in the 5-10 age range and a mixture of shy/curious/happy
you would expect from typical kids.
After dinner, Reza tells
me that his older brother and brother-in-laws would like to meet
me and would that be ok with me. Of course I am thrilled to get
to meet them! They come filing into the room, I am sitting against
the wall and they sit down around me. Reza does the introductions
and since none of them speak English he has to translate everything.
They ask me questions about US and about my thoughts of Iran.
It is typical stuff until the oldest brother-in-law,
who has been quieter than the others and has the look of a man
what it means to work for a living, weathered face and rough
hands, asks a question that catches me off guard, and I think
it showed. He asks me if I look down on them because they live
simple lives, have simple belongings and eat sitting on the floor,
and I come from America where things are so much better. He asks
it in a somber way, not negative or accusatory. I told him that
of course I didn't and that everything in America was
not so great; we still have our problems. But that question still
makes me think sometimes about what's important in life,
and what's just "illusion".
This is a little side note to comment on the furniture
in the countryside of Iran. It is something that I never noticed
Isfahan and still didn't fully internalize until I was
in Shiraz at Reza's house, but depending on how wealthy
they are, or maybe how traditional they are, some people just
don't have furniture like sofas, chairs or tables. They
sit on the floor, often leaning against the wall on a pillow.
For eating, they put a cloth on the floor, lay the meal out on
it and sit around it to eat. For sleeping they have mats that
are put out at night and folded up and put away during the day.
Being a minimalist myself that was just fine with me, which probably
explains why I didn't really notice.
It was very interesting to see the difference
between Reza's approach to life and the approach of Ali in Isfahan.
conditions are very difficult for Reza, he is doing what he can
to make his life better. He did his military service, then worked
hard for a few years driving a private taxi to save money so
he could go to university and study English. His hope is to become
an English teacher, which is a respected career and will allow
him to earn about 150,000 tomans a month, less than $200, enough
to buy a house and live decently.
Buying a house is key in his
since he can't get married until he can buy his own house,
and often houses must be bought in cash, no financing. Reza told
me that there was a girl in his class at university that he was
in love with. He had asked her to marry him, but she said. "She
could not, I have no house, no job." So of course I counseled
him to forget about this girl. But no, he
said he was going to ask her again and tell her he was almost
done with school, so he would soon have a job and a house.
I spent two days and nights with
Reza. He was on a break from school and had time to take me to
lots of sites and museums.
We talked a lot about girls and relationships. He is 30, has
never had a girlfriend and asks me for my opinion and advice
about many relationship issues. I had to tell him that I can
give him my opinion, but I may not be the most qualified "relationship"
adviser (as demonstrated by my advice above, since he will probably
that girl and have a long happy life with her).
One late afternoon,
we are visiting a park that is sort of the gates of
the city where people come to walk and relax. I notice a couple
of girls nearby, and after a while I see we are of playing leapfrog;
they pass us and stop for a look at the view, we pass then and
stop for a look. I point this out to Reza and tell him maybe
we should talk to them. He agrees, but is not sure what to do
and I'm not really sure either, damn language barrier!
As we walk past them again the looks are too obvious
to ignore (I only need someone to stare at me and smile about
5 times before
my courage is up) so I stop and say "Salam, chetori?" (hello,
how are you?). I think I caught them off guard a little, they
stammer a bit and say something, which, of course, I don't
understand. I looked for Reza to step in, but he did not realize
I stopped and had walked on. I was standing there going "ummmmm",
until Reza noticed and quickly came back to take over. It all
worked out well though. We talked to them for a while and they
agreed to go for a walk with us to a nearby museum/old estate
with beautiful gardens. As we walked Reza translated and there
were a lot of questions, mostly about my religious beliefs
I noticed that
people in Iran wait in line like they drive. They're
not rude or pushy, but if you ever want to get to the front
you can't be too polite, you have to take your space.
I had become accustomed to this and could fair pretty well
in 'line'. When I went to buy my bus ticket to
Yazd there was only one person in front of me at the counter.
I thought (foolishly) that there was no reason to be standing
right on his ass so I stood back a couple feet, leaning on
the counter. Another guy comes up and stands behind me, for
about 5 seconds. He then sort of wanders around me, into the
space between me and the first guy. I am standing there staring
at him, he glances over his shoulder at me, kind of smiles,
and goes back behind me. Pretty funny actually.
The bus ride to Yazd didn't start out well. I had purchased
my ticket and had my seat assigned, but when the bus was boarding
I made the mistake of not getting on right away and my seat
got shuffled. What happens is that when they sell the tickets
and girls are not allow to be assigned seats together, so when
they board the bus seat shuffling takes place so couples can
sit together and the driver doesn't really care (actually,
this sort of surprised me because in Turkey they have the same
system but people are not allowed to shuffle seats, not even
American guys and Australian girls). So I got shuffled to the
front row, isle seat.
At first I thought that might be ok
since it was a night bus and I was going to take my sandals
off, stretch out and sleep. Unfortunately, the drivers' assistant
to keep walking by me to serve people tea or soda, or people
kept walking up there asking questions and I always had
move my legs. There was no way I could go through a night
so I motioned to the assistant that I wanted to go to the
and sleep. There are usually a couple bunks in the back
of the bus. I don't know what he's trying to say but finally
he takes me back there. The bunks are full (I guess that's
what he was trying to say) but there is a little space
under one of them, about 18" x 18" and the width of the
bus. Perfect! I crawl in; it's right beside the motor
compartment so there is some noise, but also some heat!
I actually sleep very well, I don't even wake up
when we stop and the driver has to come and wake me up. All the
are gone already. I go up to my seat to get my stuff
and wouldn't you know it, my sandals are gone! I look in the
and find that my bag with my passport, camera and money
there though (I know, I know; I shouldn't leave it lying
around like that). I am trying to ask the driver and
assistant where my sandals are, we search all around but they
gone, nothing to be done. They offer me some other sandals,
some rubber flip-flops, that were in the luggage area of the
bus but they
are way too small. They stretch though, so I force my
foot into them but it is really ridiculous. The driver and assistant
smile and nod as if they were the perfect fit. Fortunately,
sneakers in my pack.
It was not yet light when I arrived
in Yazd. I didn't have a map of this town either. For some
thought I would walk into town instead of taking
a car, I thought
be more interesting that way, to see different areas
of the town waking up. I didn't even know where the
to follow the bigger streets, but it was really confusing.
There was some new road construction and I think
it was one of those
big roads that go around the edge of the town but
not into it. Needless to say, I got off that one after
a few miles
I made it into a main square of the town.
some bread and cheese for breakfast and sat in
of the square
to eat and think. I was really at a loss here.
I had no map or other information; I didn't know where to
do. After a nice nap on the lawn I decided to start
walking around. Within minutes, this guy named
Mo, comes running
up after me,
calling out in English. He worked at a hotel I
had walked past and he wanted to see if I needed any
assistance. He offered
to keep my pack at the hotel so I didn't have to
carry it around all day and he also drew me a map of the
pointed out 5 or 6 of the most interesting things
to see. Since I was
catching a plane to Tehran that night, he also
told me what time to return to the hotel and he would
arrange for a car
me to the airport.
With my newfound knowledge and good luck, I set
out to explore Yazd. It is a desert town and
different from the other towns. The most noticeable
difference is the existence
of wind towers, which are like big chimneys
on homes that catch the wind and circulate
it through the building. This helps to cool cisterns
of water and
It was a quick but fun tour. I
went into a bakery to ask to use the toilet (someone down the
street sent me there). It was
in the basement, where all the baking was done. There were
several guys working there and they waved me over to check
out the equipment and try some samples, fresh candy and cookies.
Towards the end of the afternoon I went back to
that hotel to see Mo. There is still some time before I need
to go to the
airport, so he takes me around town a bit on his motorcycle.
That was quite a rush. In Iran if there is an accident between
a motorcycle and a car, it is automatically the fault of
the driver of the car. This is reflected in the way they ride
motorcycles, with complete abandonment to any kind of traffic
laws. More than once I saw a family of four on a motorcycle
going the wrong way up a one-way street.
Mo also took me
to the airport on his motorcycle, and for that I had to carry
my pack on my back. He is just riding happily along, talking
to me over his shoulder, or even turning his head around
so he could talk to me better. There are cars everywhere, and
of course no one is paying attention to lanes or lights.
turned into the backseat driver. "Uh, Mo, there's
a speed bump-look at all those cars-is that an intersection?..."
At the airport the security guys made me put my
pocket knife in my checked bag, which made sense, you know, because
war on terrorism, but then they gave me my checked bag
so I could take it to the baggage loading place. It's
called the honor system and it seems to be quite effective, the
flight went flawlessly.
Back to Isfahan
I did go back to Isfahan for a couple days. I wanted
to spend more time there, but it was also because Mary
me and invited me to her parents' house for dinner - whatever
I wanted to eat. I chose ghormeh sabzi. Mary and Naz came
the hostel to get me and take me to her house. Her parents
already. Unfortunately, they did not speak English, but
Mary and Naz translated. Her mom asked "how old are you"
quickly by "how come you're not married".
It was a lot of fun, after dinner we had tea, then
some guitar music, then me being embarrassed because I couldn't
enough from university days to help Mary with her math
homework (it's been a while). Her father drove me back
to the hostel;
by this time I knew my way around town a bit so I didn't
The next day, it was back to Tehran for me, and some fun with
the immigration officials. Who would have thought that if you
overstayed your visa they wouldn't let you leave the
country? That doesn't make sense on some level. Believe it or not,
sometimes people bribe the officials in Iran.
So I went into
the office of the immigration guy at the
and told him I really needed to catch my plane and maybe I
could just pay the fine to him and he could let me go. I had
20,000 toman ($25) cash still on me, but I chickened out of
physically offering it to him. Anyway, he just smiled and said
no, he couldn't
do that. I got to go to court and everything. I think I plead guilty,
I paid my $2 fine, and now I guess I have a record in Tehran >>> Part
I grew up in Canada and have spent the last 7 years
in California. I am now taking my MBA at the San Francisco campus
of the Wharton School.
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