They were like a stone rendition of Edward Munsch’s The Scream, the caves lined up along the hillside with empty sockets for windows and a long gaping hole of a mouth opening to the close rooms inside. Ali, my husband’s cousin, told me that it was tradition for a bridegroom to spend two years carving out a home in the rock for his bride to be; it seemed an impossible task, one designed by a father from a fairy tale, overcome only by the will of the suitor — metaphor for surpassing all to achieve one’s desire.
Kandovan, known for its embankment of inhabited caves carved into the hillside, could have been idyllic; a river turned to stream under the protection of hills and trees, chickens scratched and donkeys ambled steep rocky paths; a bridge arched gracefully, connecting the village to a stand of rocks and small park. But the stream was filled with garbage. The wrappings of modern life — orange juice boxes and potato chip bags, plastic straws and foil wrapping — all these clogged the narrow passageways between rocks where the stream gurgled down.
We watched a peasant woman clean her child’s diaper in the river, swooshing the contents into the flowing water; upstream (thankfully), another woman washed a rug — it must be the place to clean as several colorful Persian rugs hung over the bridge’s railings. We crossed the bridge with Farzan’s aunt and cousins and found a large rock on the other side for our picnic. I was to regret forgetting my camera that day: if I wanted pictures of typical rural Iran, this was it. A young shepherd in ragged clothes crossed the dirt below our feet with a handful of sheep following behind; these were sheep right from the nursery rhyme (though mocha-colored — no snowy white sheep here) definitely wagging their tails behind them. I scrambled down the rocks with my two sons and we patted the sheep’s coarsely matted wool as they milled slowly around our feet.
My husband, Farzan’s, Khaleh Azar cracked a watermelon and poured cups of tea. Walking later through the small local bazaar further down the river bank, I would see more sights I couldn’t capture: spices — sumac, saffron, cinnamon, turmeric — mounded canvas sacks before every small stand, the stands themselves no more than lean-tos pitched either side. Rose leaves fragranced the air. Honey pots swarmed with bees. Peasant women wrapped in floral sheets grinned toothless grins at us and invited us to sample their wares. We bought cinnamon bark and Khaleh Azar commanded a large metal canister of honey to be brought for her approval. She waved aside the bees and brought out a spoonful of thick golden honey; it poured slowly onto her hand in a mellifluous stream and she nodded approval. This was the genuine article.
The long hours of the afternoon set in and the women settled themselves on blankets with the samovar close by. This was how they spent their time: talking and drinking, nursing babes and calling after the children. But I hadn’t learned Farsi and felt restless in their small circle. I joined the boys throwing rocks into the muddy stream, cringing at each mud-laden splash.
I grew more restless and walked alone down the stream, discovering there a scene from a silk-woven rug: forest-setting of trees and rocks, stream running down from the mountain. But the view before me was overlaid with the garbage that should have been placed in a trash can, plastic and foil and paper stuck amongst the rocks, melon rind and orange skins scattered like droppings. Locals blamed the tourists, the families picnicking on rugs, blankets laid across the dirt like squares from a chess board. Every family had a samovar and most had brought fruit and food as well. No one seemed to notice the trash. They sat and talked, stopping to look up every now and then at the lone girl sitting on a rock. I had not learned the art of sitting and talking for hours at a time, which is one that Iranians excel at. To sit with family in a natural setting holding a steaming cup of tea — what more is there to ask for?
The afternoon deepened into early evening and the stream turned pink with the reflected sun. Still the women sat and talked while the men huddled around a small television in a local store, cheering the Iranian soccer team. I took the children to a park with metal swings and slides, and on the way back missed the best picture of all: a young boy, no more than eight, with a donkey on either side of him attempting to cross the stream while a rumbling dump truck attempted to back into it. Aha, I thought, tradition and modernity literally colliding; what a photograph. The truck screeched to a stop just in time and the boy screamed profanities at the top of his voice. With no understanding of Farsi, it was easy to guess what he was saying: watch out for my donkeys, you moron.
When the sun left the sky and the evening breeze picked up through the trees, I was worn out with sights. I felt as grubby as if I had bathed in the muddy waters. Farzan’s cousin had mentioned touring the inside of one of the caves but with such inactivity we never got around to crossing back over the river. Without a camera I could do nothing but regard them from afar and reflect upon the perseverance required to carve rooms into rock and spend a life there. Khaleh Azar noticed me and beckoned me to the rug. I sat with the women and enjoyed the rhythm of their steady talk, the sudden cackle of Khaleh Azar’s laughter. The evening breeze played in the trees and I grew calm. When Khaleh Azar poured a cup from the samovar, the surroundings became insignificant. After the long dusty, disappointing afternoon, I began to appreciate Iranian philosophy: the benefit of quiet conversation and the blessings of a hot cup of tea.
I walked alone down the stream and discovered the garbage marring a scene right from a silk-woven rug: forest-setting of trees and rocks, stream running down from the mountain. I had seen this exact setting woven into a rug on the wall of a shop; but the view before me was overlaid with the junk that should have been placed in a can, anywhere other than this countryside.
Locals blamed the tourists; they came, they saw, they littered. Most jubs in Iran are used as long, flowing garbage cans, everywhere from Tehran to the villages. Even the mountain villages were scorched with a line of trash from top to bottom. It was an eyesore to me, used to litter in the engorged cities of the U.S., but expecting freshness and purity from this otherwise pristine landscape.