Dipped in silky water
Visiting Sareyn hot springs
September 21, 2005
My husband, Farzan's, Khaleh Azar boarded the bus with a thermos full of tea in one hand and an oversized plastic bag holding fifteen glass cups in the other; a petite woman, she held the bag in front of her as best she could, shouldering her way down the aisle. We were a party of fifteen (aunts, uncles, and cousins, my in-laws, husband and two small children) traveling from Tabriz, high in the northwest mountains of Iran, to Sareyn, a village known for its hot springs three hours east. Steaming glasses of amber tea soon made their way across the seats to all fifteen members of the voyaging party.
Sareyn's main street was a sprawl of shops: everything from handmade rugs to cheap plastic push toys for children were sold along its length. Restaurants selling kabob displayed stacks of skewered chicken and lamb from the store-front window; when a customer ordered, his meat was pulled right from the display tray -- as the meat dwindled, it made a visible gauge to that night's profits.
Most restaurants had their own bread maker and clay oven on display in a glass-partitioned corner. In full view of the restaurant patrons and passers-by on the street, the baker kneaded and rolled and swung the dough above his head then pressed it to the hot inside of the round indented oven (resembling the mixers on cement trucks); two minutes later, the bread was cooked. The baker peeled the sheets from the inside of the oven and stacked them for the waiters who delivered the bread fresh to patrons' tables. Many shops sold traditional Iranian wares for tourists: handmade tablecloths and runners, wooden utensils, painted glassware. The honey of Sareyn is famous and the shops with stacks of glass jars on display and thick square-shaped combs dripping gold were as numerous as bread shops in Paris.
The fifteen of us exited the bus and walked the short distance to the village square. Fifteen people and no hotel reservations. My anxiety was based on the complete lack of control I had in the situation; but was unnecessary, nevertheless. My only requirement in these situations is to wait but I am not patient by nature. Iranians ooze patience. They can sit for hours in apartments, parks, cafes doing nothing but drinking tea and passing the time with friends and family. Farzan and I waited in the lobby of a hotel that was booked while Daei Reza and the others trooped onward. We waited while the boys ran back and forth across the couches; we waited while they threw rocks outside. Finally, Farzan's parents returned. Fifteen people were a lot to fit into one hotel -- maybe we should look on our own.
The spontaneity Iranians show when offered a chance to get together with family surpassed any I thought I possessed. What was the sense in taking off at a moment's notice with no thought to where we would sleep the night? When I mentioned this to Farzan, he said that we could always sleep on the street. He recounted a story in which he and his family had slept a night on the street when all rooms in the village they were traveling through were booked. You slept on the street, I asked, appalled. Right on the sidewalk? Well, we had blankets and pillows, he explained. Iranians always carry blankets and pillows in their cars when traveling, just in case.
The hotel Daei Reza finally found for us was like an Italian boarding house: floors stacked like the layers of a wedding cake with about five apartments on each level fanning out around the central staircase. The staircase thrummed with constant activity: all that night doors slammed, as if people were speaking in some strange tongue and the slams were actually a means of communication. Our bedroom had a window opening onto the stairwell, and the magnified echo of people's voices resounded as if in a nightmare, each syllable drawn out and distorted. Women screamed; children cried; men shouted and called. It was the audio equivalent of a motion picture flickering onto a wall. Then someone turned on the stairwell light and our window shone a deep, unsettling yellow, like the eyes of Charibus, for an hour or more until someone shut it off again.
We met Farzan's father for breakfast at a small restaurant. We were served fresh bread, cream and honey, and tea. I sipped my tea and eyed Jamshid through bleary eyes. He seemed unnaturally chipper for someone who enjoyed his sleep so much. "Wasn't it hard to sleep last night?" I asked.
"Why?" he said, looking at me without comprehension.
"All the noise," I explained patiently.
It turned out that ours was the only room which had experienced the nightmarish audio performance. But the worse blow was that the three sisters and matriarchs of the family (Farzan's mother, her sister Azar, and her half-sister Mahin) had risen early to visit the hot springs. I received this information with a plummeting of the stomach. Sareyn is famous for its nine hot and mineral springs which are known to heal everything from rheumatism to skin ailments. The reason we were in Sareyn, the reason for the three-hour bus ride, was to visit the springs -- surely the American tourist would be given precedence.
Farzan said that Fereshteh was ready to bathe in the springs, and I could join her if I still wanted to experience them. I left to change into my bathing suit. Most women went in naked but, ironically, out of a sense of misplaced American modesty, I had brought my suit to wear, not knowing how exposed I would feel before a group of strange women.
We saw from the masses of black-robed women in line for the spring that the wait was at least an hour long. My younger son was already starting to squirm in his father's arms. I became desperate to at least see the spring. I had a hard time picturing the details from the pickings that people had thrown out. Farzan said that the water was boiling hot, originating from deep within the volcanic mountains. Ancient water, I thought; water as old as the hills, sprung pure from the heart of the earth.
His father, Jamshid, refused to step foot inside the place, insisting that it was dirty, and that the public slippers were just that, used by everyone. This conjured up the chlorinated swimming pool my father used to frequent; I saw a rectangular body of water lit by neon lights, rimmed with rows of damp plastic slippers fostering germs of an indescribable nature.
Fereshteh took me to the front of the line, to no avail. The guard there said I could not go in just to look. I had to take my place in line along with everyone else. I became unreasonably depressed at this announcement. It seemed that I was destined to forever imagine, never witness, the hot springs of Sareyn.
The others were lunching outside on the patio; Khaleh Mahin and Nazilah, Khaleh Azar, Fereshteh and her sons, plus Malakeh and Jamshid sat around a table stacked with plates of kabob and rice, and more of the restaurant's fresh bread. They beckoned me to the table but I pulled off a section of lavash and sat to the side. I could feel from their glances that they were confused; why sit apart when you can join family? After lunch we rode on one of the horse-drawn carriage rides offered to tourists. Farzan, our two boys and I occupied one carriage while at least eight others piled into another. We saw them go around after us, arms and legs hanging out to the side, faces full of laughter. This is how it feels to be part of a group, I thought; almost, I could feel it. I was so close.
That afternoon the fifteen of us squeezed into two taxis and rode for about an hour through rural countryside to sightsee at a local village; our taxi arrived first, stopping in front of a wizened stand next to a field of grazing cows. Iran was playing in the Asian Cup soccer tournament and it was with reluctance that Farzan had left the broadcast in the hotel. But inside the cramped square shop, a group of men sat on folding chairs huddled around a ten-inch black-and-white television set. "Gol zad!" came the cry as Iran scored again; the men raised their arms in unity. Farzan pulled up a chair. I took the boys outside where they threw rocks for half-an-hour while we waited for the taxi bringing Farzan's parents to arrive.
The tourist section of the village consisted of a small bazaar and a park. Tea benches were set up along the path, offering a respite for anyone passing through. The benches were wooden settees, covered in old and somewhat grubby Persian rugs. Customers removed their shoes and got comfortable with trays of tea and bowls of dates. Farzan's parents decided to relax while the others negotiated their way through the bazaar and up a steep embankment to the park. I didn't want to venture all that way without Farzan. I was always afraid of getting lost amid the -- to me -- chaotic array of venues selling everything from dried sour fruit to bundles of cinnamon sticks, and the men, women and children pushing their way past, constantly moving to and fro.
Our younger son thought it was great fun to climb on and off the settee, and I had fun too, first taking his shoes off before he jumped onto the rug holding the food, then putting them on again before he jumped into the mud below. Shahin, our older son, said he was hungry and I passed the information along to Jamshid, who went to buy hot yogurt soup. Farzan had thought that we would be able to buy kabob if the children were hungry, but it turned out that the only real sustenance to be had was hot yogurt soup.
"Would you like to try some?" I asked Shahin, scarcely believing that he would. To my surprise, he agreed. I had a moment of truth then, as my son surpassed all my expectations and stuck the spoon into the thick white broth. What if he liked it? How strange and wonderful that would be, as if his Iranian genes could eclipse our American customs.
"Yuuuck, this stuff is sour." He spat the soup onto the ground. Jamshid watched in consternation.
"He doesn't like the soup?" he asked.
I shook my head in regret. Jamshid looked down at the still full bowl he held in his hands without comment.
At that moment Farzan showed up, dispirited because Iran had lost the game. "Have some yogurt soup," I said. Malakeh opted to join us in climbing the stairs to the park, despite the difficulty her arthritic knee would pose in climbing. She lumbered slowly, clutching onto Jamshid for support.
On my way up the stairs to the park, I would be laughed at by a group of young women who eyed me from beneath their chador while walking down. I had then a momentous flashback to junior high and realized that, for me, feeling alienated was a custom of habit. I could look upon the situation metaphorically and say that visiting a foreign land while unable to speak the language or fully comprehend the customs made me feel as helpless as I did in junior high where I was picked on and shunned, isolated from the common group. But maybe it was I who was unable to let myself belong, who took perverse comfort in the withdrawal from social gatherings.
Upon cresting the summit we bumped into Fereshteh. A line of women stood before a small building. "What's in there?" I asked Fereshteh, gesturing.
"Uh," she paused, unsure of the English. She spoke rapidly to Farzan, who translated for me.
"She says it's a mineral spring. A cold spring. The water is naturally fizzy and supposed to be good to drink and bathe in."
Another spring; a cold one, but a spring nevertheless, erupting genuinely from the ground.
"Can I go in and see it?" I asked.
Farzan asked Fereshteh, who nodded agreement. "I want her to come with me," I said, pointing to Fereshteh, who looked only slightly put out due to the fact that she had her baby with her and had to bring him in too.
Fereshteh paid the man standing guard the entrance fee and we passed through curtains into the inner sanctum. It was as if I had discovered the secret gathering place of Iranian women. There were about fifteen of them in the small square pool, and they were all naked -- withered grandmothers and plump mothers, shapeless girls and supple teenagers. The imperfect bodies sagged here and there, puckered at the hips and stretched around the stomachs; breasts hung freely. I had never seen so lovely a sight. The women were completely relaxed with each other. There were no covert glances, no snide asides; everyone was at ease.
"I want to go in the water." I spoke before I realized what I was saying.
Fereshteh looked at me in surprise. I gestured to myself then to the water. She nodded agreement. I stripped down to my bra and underpants then removed my bra and hung it on the hook with my clothes.
"Biah," one old woman called, beckoning me to the water. She smiled broadly and called out something in Turkish. I looked at Fereshteh who translated: "She says come on in, the water's warm."
The woman cackled good-naturedly as I touched a toe to the frigid water. Generally it takes me a good twenty minutes to submerge myself into even a swimming pool, but I realized that I didn't have that kind of time. With each step down, the ring of ice moved upward from around my ankles to my calves, knees, thighs and stomach; I stood relishing the sensation. Then I dipped down until the ring circled my neck and my nipples hardened in the surrounding water.
Fereshteh clapped for me and I beamed. I cupped my hands and rinsed my face, and turned to look again at the women in the pool. Some talked quietly, some with animation in groups of two or three. A couple of the younger teenagers caught my eye; I saw nothing but an acknowledgment of my presence, an acceptance of the place I had chosen to take in the pool. The grandmother who had sassed me smiled again and waved.
I stayed in the pool ten or twenty minutes, bobbing up and down and dunking to my neck every so often. The water was silk on my body. I could have stayed for hours, feeling the cold only as a sensation of movement on my skin.
Fereshteh held open a manteau as a screen and behind it I redressed, first removing my underpants which I wrung out and stuffed into the pocket of my own manteau. My skin was covered in a fine layer of goose bumps; my clothes seemed to float on a layer of air. Fereshteh took an empty bottle and held it under the water rushing into the pool; she handed it to me and motioned for me to drink. Tiny bubbles fizzed in my mouth from the spring's natural carbonation. My metamorphosis was complete. I felt purified inside and out.
Outside it had grown cool, and I never did fully warm up. Never would a cup of tea more have hit the spot, but Khaleh Azar had left her thermos and cups behind and we were far from the rug-covered benches. I stayed cool until the shower that night at the hotel, where I ran the water as hot as I could make it and pretended I was in the volcanic springs. I never did get to experience them but I remember coming upon the three sisters that morning as they exited the bath. They wore black manteaux that seemed to merge into the fabric of one cloth. I stood looking at the trio huddled together in the early morning air -- cheeks flushed pink from the heat of the springs, hair escaping haphazardly from beneath their white scarves. They looked back at me, almost surprised to be caught by an outsider in such a state. They had lived together all their lives. They were happy.