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 double checks 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.
Isfahan 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 couple of mosques and overlooked by the palace from the Safavid dynasty (16th century).
It was here that I met Ali. He approached me and wanted to hang out 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 the station 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 a little 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.
Ali and 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.
They 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 it.
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 I don't 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 also. 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 we are 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 to translate.
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.
“Sex,” they 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. Time 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.
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 the bread.
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 soup. 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 my breakfast and find a spot to settle in amongst the carpets to eat.
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 that 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 and interrupting from time to time asking for translation. When I tell them I am from America and it gets translated to this boy, 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 nuisance.
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 who knows 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 until 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. Even though 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 life 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 marry 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 this time.
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.
Yazd 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 boys 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 had to keep walking by me to serve people tea or soda, or people kept walking up there asking questions and I always had to move my legs. There was no way I could go through a night of this so I motioned to the assistant that I wanted to go to the back 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 other passengers 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 overhead storage and find that my bag with my passport, camera and money are still 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 are 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, I have 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 reason I thought I would walk into town instead of taking a car, I thought it would be more interesting that way, to see different areas of the town waking up. I didn't even know where the town was! I tried 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 and eventually I made it into a main square of the town.
I bought some bread and cheese for breakfast and sat in the middle 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 go or what 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 town that 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 to take me to the airport.
With my newfound knowledge and good luck, I set out to explore Yazd. It is a desert town and the look of it is distinctly 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 the buildings.
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 their 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. I 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 of the war on terrorism, but then they gave me my checked bag back 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 had emailed me and invited me to her parents' house for dinner – whatever I wanted to eat. I chose ghormeh sabzi. Mary and Naz came to the hostel to get me and take me to her house. Her parents were there already. Unfortunately, they did not speak English, but Mary and Naz translated. Her mom asked “how old are you” followed 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 remember 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 get lost.
Home again 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 airport 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 about 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 1
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.