Monthly Archives: April 2010

Panic in Tehran

"We will make America face a severe defeat". No, really, what are you trying to say?

 

Imagine this: you arrive at Tehran International Airport after staying at a remote mountain village in Iran (just near the nuclear facility) where you have no internet access. After driving 3 ½ hours, you finally open the last 2 days’ worth of emails to read this from your travel agent: “Karen, we have a little snag as Emirates cancelled your seat on the 2am flight to New York. They are overbooked…[the rest fades into panic and is says simply: blah blah blah].” Heart pounding, you wonder if you are deeply screwed. 

Thank God, the next email from her read: “Never mind my email below. Emirates gave us the 2am flight…” Wheeeee-ew. A seriously close call. And that’s not where it ended, either. At check-in the woman wasn’t going to give me a boarding pass unless I could tell her my zip code in New York! Seriously! Once again, my trusty iPhone saved the day as there was an email from my hotel there, including their full address. I think this woman was reasonably clueless, though, since she asked me whether JFK (New York’s largest airport) was in the US or not. Errr…is this a trick question? 

For the last day or so I stayed at the remote mountain town of Abyaneh, nestled at the foot of the mountains, with a gorgeous view of the village. For the past week, I have spent my days winding my way back north from Shiraz to Tehran via road, which takes some considerable time. Tomorrow is my last journey of around 4 hours back to Tehran International airport to jet off to my next destination. 

I’m pondering the question about whether I’ll return to Iran, the main reason for which seems to visit my new dad, Ariya, and his family. However, I don’t feel the urge to return in the same way I did with Greece or New York, where I just can’t seem to get enough. This visit has probably resolved my curiosity about Middle Eastern destinations and, with the exception of Jordan (the Dead Sea, Petra, visiting the nomads in the Wadi Rum) and Beirut, I’m glad I don’t have another 2 or 3 weeks making my way back through to southern Turkey the way I’d originally planned. 

In about an hour, I fly to New York via Dubai, nestled contentedly in the bosom of Emirates Business Class. I’ll spend 4 nights in the West Village in New York (where I stayed in January), and possibly wander to Washington DC to meet some World Bank bods before winging my way on 28 April to Miami for some key meetings, and then heading to the Caribbean on 1 May. I am having a fairly strong hankering for the pancakes and eggs Benedict at my favourite little eatery in the West Village, plus some decent coffee (rare in New York, but available nonetheless at The Place, which also boasts incredibly friendly service). 

I’ve been asked to review some documents for the deal I’ll be working on, which I’m happy to do as it at least slightly lowers the risk that I’ll look like a moron when I turn up at these Miami meetings. However, I’ve just spotted a proposed transaction timetable and, having queried its tightness on the last round of reviews, I see that it has stretched out to the end of November. I’m wondering if this means that they will now need me to stay until then, and suspect it’s at least an indication they’ll need me for another month or two of work, potentially keeping me there through the dreaded hurricane season. 

On one hand, great – the timetable is more realistic. On the other hand, I’m really missing home and my precious pooches! I can’t even conceive of being away from them for another 7 months; the nearly 2 I’ve been away feels like long enough. Nine months is a very very long time in the life of a dog. Mum told me that she, my brother and his wife went to the Blue Mountains with the dogs last week, to a house we rent often. When the dogs arrived, they waited impatiently to get into the house and, when the door was opened, sped to the room I usually sleep in, only to find me absent. I have promised to take Mum and the dogs there for a couple of weeks when I (finally) return to Australia. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I thought I’d use this last post to show you some photos I like that haven’t really fitted anywhere else, and give you a quick rundown of some observations about Iran before I wing my way to the familiar New York (I can’t really think of bigger contrasts than between this tiny mountain town and New York!) And so I may as well begin with my favourite subject… 

Loos – as you’d expect, there are mostly the hole-in-the-ground Asian loos here, and toilet paper is sparse (I brought my own stash from Greece, which has often come in handy, even in hotel rooms, where replacing the paper seems rather lower on the priority list than I’m used to). In one hotel room, I was amused to see the supplied loo roll was a patchwork of paper, picked from remnants of toilet rolls, the remains wound by hand onto a single roll to let them live another day. Happily, all my hotels have had Western loos, so a little pre-planning and personal discipline leads to much happier outcomes. The loos always have a hose, usually attached to hot and cold taps, which is Iran’s substitute for toilet paper. I cannot figure out for the life of me how I am meant to use it without sloshing water all over the place (including on my clothes), and women in particular must need to virtually undress almost completely from the waist down in order to use them. Bathrooms – a pair of non-slip rubber slippers invariably sit at the door of the bathroom, needed because, in many bathrooms, there is no separation between the shower and the rest of the bathroom. This of course leads to the loo paper getting wet as the water sprays mercilessly around the bathroom, which is of course less of an issue than having none at all. Moslems are incredibly clean people, and regular washing (always under running water) is a key part of their belief system. However, this means that plugs for basins simply don’t make an appearance in bathrooms, making washing clothes in the basin slightly more challenging as the sudsy water slurps its way down the drain before you’re quite done with it. 

Food – kebabs are the food of choice in Iran, available in all restaurants I’ve been to. The reason they are so popular is that they create an enormous amount of smoke when cooked in the home, leading to Iranians heading out on the town in order to get their regular supply. Yogurt mixed with garlic is also a popular menu item, although I find the yoghurt too sour for my taste. As with Turkey, a savoury drinking yoghurt is also very popular during meals. Many restaurants have a buffet offering salads, mainly cut up veges like tomato, lettuce, cucumber plus coleslaw and pasta-based salads, the ever-present yogurt and thousand island dressings being very popular. Glad wrap is hugely important, covering the buffet items, often arriving on even the hot dishes. Rice is the main dish of choice, and butter is usually mixed into it; the remainder of dishes are really more accompaniments to the rice rather than the main event, which we are used to. Often when I cook rice, I think I’ve failed if I get a crisp crust at the bottom; however, here it’s a treat and often served separately with meals (and quite tasty too – I must do this more often). Flat breads are served at every meal, and I’ve become rather fond of flat bread, cream cheese and cherry or carrot jams at breakfast. For most meals, I’ve usually searched out the specialty dishes of the region, which are almost always a “stew” type thing, often accompanied by a soup of barley and veges, lentils. Coffee is nowhere near as popular as tea, which is offered at every turn. If you do find coffee, I’d be shocked if it were espresso, as Nescafe is all I’ve seen. Rather than napkins, tissues are everywhere and used to wipe oneself for almost every purpose, including at the dinner table. Pizzas are incredibly popular but, with such goodies as ham being a no-no, are piled with light, grey-tinged meats that seems to have some resemblance to ham and sausage, but sadly only in the seeing and not the tasting. There is no base of tomato paste (something I don’t understand the reason for), but it is served with tomato sauce and sometimes mayonnaise, which does improve on its bland taste. I do wonder what Iranians would think of the genuine Italian version, although they probably wouldn’t like it. I ordered a pizza last night and, not only was it not worth it taste-wise (I asked for meat and vegies, and the vegies included corn and – rather oddly lettuce) but, around 30 mins later, it came back to haunt me in a mad dash to the loo. 

Picnics – are quite the thing here, with families of locals pulling up any piece of available ground next to even a busy road to lay out their rug, set up their little tents (like the ones we take to the beach) and picnic away Ingenuity – in a country that has extremes in weather (the town I am in can have temperatures as low as -15, and has high as 50) numerous clever (and rather ancient) solutions have been used, including mud domes used as refrigerators and to store fresh water. Many homes are, like ancient palaces, divided into different floors or buildings for summer and winter, which is particularly prevalent in this village. The cleverest are the “wind towers” or “badgirs”, which catch any tiny breeze, shooting it down a chimney-like tunnel, into the house to cool it down: essentially, ancient air conditioners. 

Driving – without a shadow of a doubt, Iranians are the worst drivers I’ve ever seen (beating even the Greeks and the Italians) and, even if it were legal for me to rent a car here (it isn’t) I would never even think of it. Road divider lines are irrelevant, and traffic merges by the sheer determination of each driver who, despite the usual politeness of Iranians, hustle their way in as if there were no tomorrow. Crossing the road is an exercise in steely determination; the only time I did this myself, I was exhilarated by the time I reached the other side. Otherwise, I cross with locals, keeping them between me and the lumps of metal hurling toward me. Motor bikes carrying as many as three adults (none of whom wear helmets, despite the proximity to certain death) commonly speed along beside cars. The cars are usually old, with some Peugots, made in Iran of course, Kias and Hyundai’s in the mix. 

Banks – are everywhere, with little internet banking or ATM’s being utilised. In larger cities, it’s common to see 3 different banks on one block, and there seems to be at least one every few steps. Money-changing, however, is not generally done in banks, but specialist money changers who, without much ado (apart from inspecting your US dollars, euros or pounds to ensure there are no tears or other offensive marks) hand you plenty of rials. Iranian currency is very confusing. 10,000 rials is worth a measly US$1, and notes seem to go as low as 200 rials, which even here seem irrelevant. Of course, to make it worse, Iranians refer to an old currency system called tomans, which seems to knock one zero off the rials. 

Ayatollah Khomeini: a cool dude – pictures of spiritual leaders – or “Imams” are everywhere, and no-one is more popular than the Ayatollah Khomeini . At the domestic airport, a large advertisement displays pictures of Khomeini and another Imam (perhaps his successor Khameini, just to be as confusing as possible), declaring “This revolution is not recognised in anywhere in the world without Imam Khomeini’s name”. So, while in the West, he is regarded as something of a nutcase, I have heard not a bad word said about him here. 

The people – are generally friendly once you make a connection with them. Visitors are constantly stopped and asked “Where are you from?”, “Welcome to Iran” and “How do you like Iran?”. This is a country that knows it has a serious image problem, and even though many dislike America and its policies in the Middle East and with respect to Iran (nuclear energy, anyone?), love Americans. They are even reluctant to apply government policies negative to Americans; one American tourist I’ve met here was stopped at the airport for 40 mins of (ultimately apologetic) questioning before being allowed to enter Iran. 

The Iranian Identity – I’ve mentioned in another post that, although Iranians are Moslem, they are most certainly not Arabs. Many Iranians are descended from Aryans (where the name Iran is derived from) and are extremely proud of this heritage. Despite being invaded by numerous nations over the centuries, including the Turks and the Greeks, they have maintained their own identity by, as Ariya says, bending with their invaders and then seeping their culture back in until it stood alone once again. When the Arabs invaded, and introduced Islam, it was taken up by the people, but still they didn’t become Arabs, and remain to this day fiercely and proudly Iranian.  

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Ariya, no Arias, and Isfahan

21 April 2010

At the traditional mud house in Bavanat

Well, I think I’m over Iran.  Problem is: I have another 2 1/2 days to go and the ash over Europe means that my planned flight to London is in some doubt: and even if I get there, if the volcano spews some more ash into the air, I may not get away.  Access to the internet in my hotels for the last couple of nights in Iran will be patchy, and I’ve been stressing about whether I’ll be stuck in Tehran or be able to re-route to New York instead of London, via Doha or Dubai.

I finally reached Amex Travel, and they can get me on a flight to Miami via Dubai on the 23rd, so I reckon I’ll take that one rather than risk problems and either start in the Caribbean earlier, or visit New York, where my friend Joc happens to be travelling to at the same time.   Happily, my favourite place to stay in the West Village can fit me in on exactly the dates I might be there, so things are looking good for me strolling through Central Park in Spring (even though this would be my 6th visit to NYC, I’ve never been there in spring) and hitting some of the shows, restaurants and museums I missed in January.  I’ll know later today what my plans will be.

The magnificent square in Isfahan, home to some of the most glorious buildings in the Islamic world

I am in Isfahan and it’s a beautiful city – renowned as Iran’s most stunning, and the parks, mosques, river and squares certainly attest to that.  The problem is my guide and the fact that I’m very over feeling so foreign (I can take the stares and giggles with a smile on my face only for so long).  Both of my first two guides (and Lonely Planet for that matter) warned in one way or another that people from Isfahan are more interested in a buck than anyone else in Iran, and that’s looking pretty true to me. 

The desert drive to Isfahan

After the desert town of Yazd, I was driven to Isfahan by another guide (a back-wrenching four hours in his uncomfortable car) and started with my new guide, Mohammed, yesterday morning.

In Yazd

Mohammed at first seemed OK, but he lacks the enthusiasm and sense of welcome that both Jaleh and Ariya had in spades.  After following him around to the big sights, and getting annoyed because he seems so disinterested, we head to lunch.  When the bill comes, it’s around $22.  So I hand him $11 plus some change for a tip.  He says “It’s $22”, so I try to clarify “For one or for two?” (knowing it can’t be for one, since Iranian food is very inexpensive by our standards).  “For two, but the bill is $22”, and then it sinks in: he expects me to pay it.

Compare this to Ariya who I am sure (without letting me know) used his meal allowance to subsidise my share of a lunch we shared, asking me for only $8.  And, of course, I have happily paid for meals with Ariya and Jaleh, but because I wanted to, and not because I was foreced to (which neither of them would ever do).

So, I say, in my most polite voice, “The other tour guides have paid for their own meals, and I understand there is an allowance for your meal in what you are paid”.  To which he says “OK, I will pay for my meal”.  Too right you will, buddy.

I got brooding on this over the afternoon, and then again something else annoying happened.  He took me to see a carpet weaver, after which I was sat down, presented tea and the rugs came flying out, beautiful but unnecessary (my purchases in Turkey have left me with a significant excess of rugs!).  I saw a few then stood up and said “No thanks” but the guy kept with the pressure.  After making my intention clear, my expectation is that my guide will whisk me outta there, but Mohammed remains attached to the chair like a lump, leaving me to the wolves.  I have little doubt that he stood to earn a commission if I’d bought something, as Ariya had told me that every vendor who we spoke to in the bazaar asked him “How much for you?”

The beautiful Jameh Mosque in Isfahan - built to rival Istanbul's Blue Mosque

Afterwards, I ask to be deposited at the hotel, and resolve that Mohammed and I won’t be eating another meal together.  Of course, this decision doesn’t come cheap since I go down to the hotel restaurant and they don’t have what I want (no more kebabs, please) so I decide to forego dinner (second night running – this enforced dieting might have some advantages.  The hotel staff then rings me twice afterwards asking questions I don’t understand).  I don’t feel like wandering out and grappling with my limited Farsi, so I anticipate the joy of the breakfast buffet, which I plan to attack mercilessly tomorrow since lunch and dinner have been hurled under a cloud of doubt.

I’ve of course reported the happenings to my fabulous travel agent via email, and rearranged my tour of Isfahan to encompass as little face-time as possible with Mohammed.  We spent a couple of hours together this morning, and my silence had him asking me what was going on, which I wasn’t in the mood to mention (this mountain was going nowhere near Mohammed).  I buy more rials, some water, see a bridge and wander the main square, and head back to my hotel.  Farewell, Mohammed.

Meanwhile, even though the English at most of my hotels has been workable, and often great, here it is so limited that when my mum rang yesterday and asked to be put through to my room, the hotel hung up on her and sent someone up to my room to see what I wanted: they thought it was me who had called.

I haven’t realised until now how grateful I am for the wonderful guides, Jaleh in Tehran and Ariya from Shiraz to Yazd, who have helped me to navigate my way through this maze. 

Thumbs up over lunch

I have been meaning to tell you more about Ariya.  Ariya (his nickname – derived from the Iranians and their Aryan origin) is retired, in his mid-50’s, and leads a couple of tours each month to supplement his income and stay active.  He is a wiry whippet of a man, with glasses, grey flecked hair and an intensity where you just know you are going to be plied with every date, dynasty and king if you don’t hit the brakes early on.  Ariya loves what he does, and it shows.

When we first ate together, I kept talking through the meal, and he excused himself to eat: I realised that he sits, silently, eyes shut and pondering.  I imagine he is in prayer or saying some thanks for his meal.   He is fastidious in the extreme: for our first lunch together I watched, fascinated, as he opened a foil-wrapped square of butter with a fork and spoon and meticulously stirred it through his rice.  He carries with him detailed hand-written notes in Farsi and English on every sight so that he can recall any detail at any point, and he studiously reads up on every sight and destination, in both Farsi and English.

However – and this is the thing that makes him extraordinary – he is the absolute embodiment of Iranian hospitality, and no request is too great.  I have never before experienced someone worrying about nothing except my comfort and enjoyment at every turn; yet here it is in Iran.  I already told you that he arrived at the airport two hours early so he could park outside the terminal and avoid my having to walk too far.  He did the same the next morning when he arrived at 6.30am to park at the bazaar so he could drive me back to my hotel after lunch (even though it was only a 10 minute walk at most!). 

Orange blosson in Shiraz

On our first morning, in an old fort lined with orange trees, he searched for an orange blossom, which he hands to me.  He exudes enthusiasm about his work, and his energy is contagious.

He has bought me ice creams, water, newspapers – I wonder if he will earn anything after all this, and he will not take any money from me for such small items (I quietly calculate the sums and add them to my tip).  He tips a little girl who poses for a photo I take, as I am not aware of the custom, yet he refuses to allow me to repay him.  When I decide to buy an inlaid chess/backgammon board, he searches every shop in the bazaar for me and ultimately locates an even better one for me at $10 less than I was originally to pay, and with extras like a carrying case, pieces and three small jewellery boxes.

On my second night in Shiraz, I am invited to visit his family, and am greeted as an honoured guest.  Outside, he points to the trees that stand tall, proudly planted by him 20 years ago.  His home is lovely, with a terracotta tiled floor covered in Persian carpets; even the tables have Persian rugs adorning them, with stiff-backed chairs and couches surrounding a central area.  When arriving in a Persian home, you must take off the shoes, and if entering areas such as the kitchen, there are slippers to be put on before going in.

Ariya's oldest daughter and his wife

Ariya beams with pride in his family and his home.  His wife and their daughters, 16 and 21, and a friend of the older daughter’s, greet me and offer tea.  They are smiling and welcoming and absolutely beautiful, sitting comfortably in normal dress: their private life.  They have, like almost every Iranian family, satellite (technically not permitted) and pick up television from all around the world.  The girls love Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, and many other familiar names, as well as Iranian groups.  The show 24 comes on, dubbed in Persian, and Jack Bauer bursts into a room to discover the charred remains of the man he was searching for.  The girls put on music, and dance.  We talk about wearing head scarves and I imagine that there will be another revolution one of these days, as young people just don’t like not to have their freedom.  [As an aside, around 80 years ago, in an effort to modernise Iran, the hijab (or covering) was banned.  Many religious women, for the sake of modesty and their beliefs, were stuck in their homes for six years.  It’s not really about the hijab, but the right to choose whether, and in what form, they wish to wear it]

Ariya's youngest daughter (left) and a friend of his oldest daughter (studying law - poor girl)

I show them my new purchase: a hand-made, inlaid chess and backgammon board – they amaze themselves over it, and I feel I got my bargain, thanks to Ariya.  Ariya asks me to pose with it, and he is overjoyed when I give a “thumbs up”, which becomes our regular photo pose for the trip.

Ariya tells me that his wife is a singer of extraordinary talent.  But, according to the Quoran, women are not allowed to sing.  I’ll say that again: women are not allowed to sing.  Her gift must be confined to performances for friends at private parties, so in around five years Ariya plans to take her to Dubai or somewhere else where she can sing Iranian songs in public and use her gift.  What a horrible shame, that a woman’s beautiful voice can only be heard here behind closed doors – where is the logic in that?  Here in Isfahan, there’s a women’s mosque.  I ask why there is no minaret (the tower, which was traditionally climbed up and from which the call to prayer was sung from the top): it’s because the mosque is for the women, and women cannot sing in Iran.

This place cannot remain as it is: too many people are against the current restrictions and it is, after all, a democracy (putting aside the unelected religious rulers, of course, who can override any government decision).  However, it’s bound to have its problems: just a couple of days ago, some rebels were sentenced to death alleging that the last election results were falsified. 

Painting miniatures - this guy painted me a gorgeous picture of Hafez onto some camel bone in 3 minutes flat!

They ask if I will return to Iran and I say that one day I would like to.  “We hope that, when you return, you will find a different place and the head scarf is no longer needed.”  I agree: “I hope for the same, and (to Arya’s wife) that you can at last sing.”  Her daughter translates for me, and she smiles.

We agree that, despite being too young, he is now my new dad – an Iranian father to add to my Greek mother!  We sit next to the chickens, and laugh and drink tea and talk about oil and nuclear power.  He asks me with a serious face if I believe in December 2012.  I have no idea what he’s talking about, but guess: the end of the world?  Indeed it is.  His youngest daughter is worried about it.  I resolve to ensure we get in touch in January 2013, and he laughs.

Iranian aerobics (men only, thanks)

When we arrive in Yazd, Ariya takes me to see the main square, some crazy Persian exercise class (involving only men – a combination of weight-lifting, yoga and gymnastics). 

We’ve had a late lunch, so skip dinner in favour of ice cream (again).  The following morning in Yazd, my new guide asks, perplexed, when we arrived the day before.  From what I can make out, it was him, and not Ariya, who was meant to show me Yazd: Ariya stayed longer so we could hang out, and told some fibs to my new guide about our arrival time to get away with it!

On my last night with Ariya, it was so sad saying goodbye.  I let him know that, if we were in Australia, I would give him a hug.  But, for now, we simply shake hands: me and my Iranian dad.

Bridge in Isfahan. In 3 weeks, the river will be dry as the water needs to be preserved in the dams for summer

Even after I reach Isfahan he calls every day to make sure I am OK.  I tell him of my woes with my new guide, and he’s devastated.  His daughter jumps on the line and says hi – they’ve been checking out my blog!  I will really miss them, and would love them to visit Australia, but travel outside Iran is expensive for most Iranians.  Looks like I’ll have to return…

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Tea with Tribal Nomads

17 April 2010

A place to chill in Bavanat

A 3 ½ hour drive from Shiraz brings us to Bavanat, a small town on the edge of the desert dotted with mud houses and tiny streets; it’s more conservative than Tehran or Shiraz and nearly every woman wears her chador here.  A group of 11 Aussies (including a partner at Blakes – wouldn’t you know it?) stays at the same hotel I am at; they are on a 3 ½ week tour of Iran.

Persian chooks

We are at a traditional house, where we women may remove our head scarves, and huge wooden beds covered in Persian carpets surround an open area under shady trees.  A pen of chickens and ducks squabble behind their wire fence, and screech as eggs are collected from their proud stash.  Behind them, a fire warms guests who are fed nougat and tea to the sound of Persian music.

Ariya asks me if I want to go on a walk to see the surrounds, but I prefer to recline on one of the large beds and read.  At 4.30pm, we head off with the owner of our traditional hotel to visit one of the local nomad tribes who migrate to this area each spring in time for the coolest version of the long, hot Iranian summer.   Incredibly, Iran still has around 1.5 million nomads.

We drive up and up, passing arid hills flowing up from valleys that are part fertile, and part dirt.  This is a harsh landscape.  After 45 minutes, the camp appears, just a handful of tents erected now, with more to come as the spring migration completes. 

Looking through the goat hair tent

The car pulls up to a dark tent, and people in traditional dress stand at the doorway.  We remove our shoes, and enter the tent, stepping onto Persian carpets.  The nomads enter one after the other, and gather around a fire which leaps upwards, casting the children’s faces in orange light.  A goat hovers at the doorway, and it begins to rain.  The dark tent, made of goat’s hair, light shining through holes, protects the tribe even from heavy rain, while smoke exits easily though its roof.  It takes 20 days to make a new tent, and 2 hours to erect it once they have arrived for the season.

More and more people gather, greeting me with a handshake and a “Salaam” (Hello), and we sit on the floor smiling and talking – the number reaches around 20 by the time I leave.  I cannot get over how good looking these people are: I’m talking Hollywood stunners here.  But they sit in simple clothes and apologise for there not being more facilities, so gracious.  They migrate 500 km twice each year so they can spend the season in the most favourable conditions possible; most of the tribe is still to arrive here in the spring migration.

Men in the tribe have more than one wife, and they have numerous children, essentially so they can build their own workforce, but more and more tribal people are migrating to the cities instead of staying on the land. 

They ask my age, then try to guess; one gets it right but the others hover between 20-30.  I wonder if this is because they are incredibly diplomatic, or whether I have not spent a lifetime exposed to the elements like they have mean that, to them at least, I appear much younger.  When I tell them I am a lawyer, they ask questions about what happens if someone is killed in Australia – in Iran this is almost certain death, and I must try to explain nuances of self-defence via Ariya as my translator.  They ask about our marriage age and rituals, and whether bribes are part of our culture (they seem impressed that they are not).

The nomads' answer to Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves

It’s time to leave, and everyone gathers outside the tent to say goodbye.  There are no stalls selling tribal rugs; no stands flogging fresh pomegranate juice; no postcards with photos of smiling nomad children.  There are no tickets for sale here, and no bookings taken.  My hotel owner calls ahead and asks if we can visit.  The “price” of entry is a box of sweets for the children and some small glasses for the family. 

I wonder how long this way of life will continue, and when some entrepeneurial nomad will catch on to what they have and set up a souvenir stand and make something real into an homogenised stop on a tourist trail. 

On the drive home, I consider how blessed I am.  While all of you are working hard, solving problem after unnecessary problem, I drink tea with nomads in the hills of Persia.

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Of poetry and ice cream

 

“Of one essence is the human race,                                 

thusly has creation put the base;

one limb impacted is sufficient,

 for all others to feel the mace.”

–          Saadi (Persian poet), quoted in the United Nations Building, New York

 

16 April 2010

Tombs of ancient kings

Today’s big sights kick off with some amazing tombs built high into cliffs, and their accompanying bas reliefs, pondering lives from another age, now turned to dust. 

Ancient Persepolis

Up next, it was the sight to see in all of Iran: magnificent Persepolis, the heart of the Persian empire for hundreds of years, built by Darius the Great.   Persepolis covers 125,000m2, an astounding showcase of ruined palaces, imposing gates through which visitors passed, statues and carved depictions of the numerous nations that comprised the Persian empire – Ethiopians, Turks, Russians, Indians – bearing gifts for the King.  It is an easy rival for other ancient sites in Egypt, Greece and Rome.  Persepolis was finally destroyed by Alexander the Great, who in retaliation rode in from Macedonia as a pay-back for the Persians’ attacks on Greece, burning Persepolis to the ground, marking the end of the Persian empire.  It could be said that another empire died here, too, when in 1971 the last Shah put on an enormous party to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy, setting up luxurious tents for royals and heads of state from around the world: a great party it may have been, but it pissed his subjects off and his reputation never recovered.  The bones of the tents still stand in the shadow of Persepolis, rusting away.

Ariya and his notebook of facts and figures

Ariya tries to ply me with facts and figures; I beg him to keep it “high level” for me or my head will spin (even though I try hard to focus, I literally feel myself going to sleep when presented with too much information on sights).  Rather than try to process the dates and names of kings, I prefer to imagine another age when Persian kings and their armies, wives, and entourages roved through their palaces, governing 23 nations from this massive city.

Mirror work inside the mausoleum

After a rest, Ariya collects me and we visited a magical mausoleum for a former leader, covered in detailed mirror work that reflected all around the space, people sitting on the floor at the edges of the room, praying. 

Yummmm....Shirazi icecream (can you see the little noodle bits?)

After this, it was off for some more Persian ice cream, my particular favourite being the one that Shiraz is famous for: a blend of tiny pieces of delicate noodles with sugar and water suspended in a sorbet.  You add flavours – either lemon juice or rose water – to taste.  It is refreshing and unique, and I love it.  (Once I planned a book called “Buffets of the World”, really a fantasy about travelling the globe assessing international buffets, and getting tax deductions for it.  Really, I think “Ice Creams of the World” is really a more significant and enduring work).

Harfez, the great poet's tomb

We arrive at one of the more famous places for Shirazi ice cream (near the tomb of Saadi the poet), and cars line the streets with passengers scoffing down the delightful treat.  Ariya says that most people come and have two serves each (or perhaps he is providing me with an advance excuse for seconds).  He dashes off and brings us each a cup; he refuses my offer to pay.  After they are polished off, we agree to have another, and to forego dinner: a most excellent sacrifice!

Consulting Harfez

Ariya and I talk about ice creams of the world, and we agree and laugh that Saadi’s UN quote (above) really ought to read: “Of one essence is the human race because everybody likes ice cream.”  We joke about this every day, and it becomes our motto.  Next, it’s off to another tomb.

 If Islam is at Iran’s religious core (although many other religions also co-exist here), then poetry is Iran’s gracious beating heart.  For a thousand years or more, the Persians have revered poets such as Ferdosi, Hafez, Saadi and Omar Khayyam (Persia’s best known poet in the West, but more accomplished as a mathematician who worked out a year has 365 days way before anyone else did).  Ferdosi is attributed with saving the Persian language by using it when the pressure was on to adapt Arabic (while Iranians may have a rich and complex history, and have inherited Islam from the Arab invasions, they are absolutely not Arabs). 

Narges (left) and her buddy

Each Iranian seems to have their favourite poet, with Hafez being extremely popular because of his accessible and insightful writing.  The tombs of the poets rate alongside great monuments and mosques in the Persian mind, with Hafez’s tomb being visited even more than the amazing Persepolis. 

Hafez’s tomb is best visited at night, as the lights in the garden shine onto the tomb and porticos that surround it.  Hafez, alive 700 years ago, requested that on his death there be no mourning, only music, and so today it echoes around his tomb.

It is mostly young people who sit beside the tomb, or pause to touch it with two fingers and, as they do, recall the first book of the Quoran.  Over the two weeks of No Ruz, the Iranian New Year celebration, a staggering 120,000 people visited Hafez’s tomb.  For Iranians, Hafez has a mystical quality far greater than any poet in English tradition; the analogy, in my mind at least, is closer to a Catholic saint. The Persians believe that Hafez will speak to you if you believe in him.  They come to his tomb, open their book to a page of his work, and within it find what they seek:  the answer to their problem, or the telling of their future.  Reportedly, even Kings have successfully done this when deciding whether to go to war.

As Ariya explains this to me, a young woman asks if she can listen in.  Her name is Narges, she is from Shiraz and speaks wonderful English.  Narges asks me (as almost all locals have) what I think of Iran, and whether it is different from what I expected. 

Ariya asks Narges to tell me about Hafez.  She visits his tomb every Friday night (of course Friday is the local equivalent of our Sunday) and she loves him.  She asks me if I believe in Harfez, and I admit to not having heard of him before deciding to visit, and she asks it I will give it a try.  Narges hands me her Divan of Harfez (his collection of poems) and instructs that first, I must believe in Harfez, and then think of my question and open the book.  I hand my open page to her, and peers at the page in the dimming light.  “You have been very disappointed, and feel that many doors have been closed to you.  But if you believe in God, you will be successful.” 

We speak some more, exchange email addresses, and say our good-byes.

 Here, in this place, far from home, from the lips of a young stranger, the words of a poet long dead have meaning for me; perhaps I believe in Harfez after all.

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2 door knockers

Iran is more than desert: The Alborz Mountains, just north of Tehran.

I write this from Shiraz (yes, the place the wine is named after, although I suspect not much is produced here now), where I flew this evening.  Shiraz is in Central Iran, down south close-ish to the Perian Gulf.  From here, I make my way back to Tehran via car, stopping at all sorts of interesting places along the way.

I almost missed my flight tonight, not because we were late, but because all the announcements were in Farsi (no English).  I kept watching the Departures board, waiting for my flight to come up.  Once again, I heard some version of my name being called over the loudspeaker (I could only vaguely make out the “Toll” part) and looked across at the boarding gates, to see mine, so I dashed over.  When I arrived, I was immediately asked if I was me – so thank goodness I was awake enough to hear that announcement.

In Shiraz I was met by a very thoughtful guide/driver – he arrived to nab one of the best parking spots two hours before my flight was due to make sure I didn’t need to walk too far, and produced water for me when I got in the car.  He says I have picked one of the best travel agents (reassuring since it was a random find over the internet and none of the guide books mention them – the Iran Traveling Center).  He thinks that Lonely Planet has it wrong about some of the travel agent recommendations as they don’t look after people properly.  His attitude that tourists are their visitors and it’s his job to make sure that we are well looked after.  He is a history buff and, despite his being very thoughtful, I may find my head spinning from the rich history of Iran as he rolls it all out to me for the next four days.  He picks me up tomorrow at 8.55am (n0, not 9 – 8.55am) for a walking tour of Shiraz.

Iran: apparently THE place to snag yourself a Persian carpet

Today, though, was spent in Tehran, with visits to the carpet museum, another palace set amongst gorgeous gardens at the foot of the snow-capped Alborz mountain range to Tehran’s north (I think I have this right, but Jaleh will correct me if I’m wrong!), a bazaar and the carpet museum.  At the carpet museum, Jaleh very naughtily suggested I could touch the magnificent carpets until I was told not to, which indeed I did and then indeed I was.  We also did another drive-by past the old US Embassy so I could replace my lost snaps, at which point Jaleh warns me to be careful as it’s illegal (“very bad”), and of course the cops are right there (I managed to get some photos…shhh).  The mountains are also the home of some excellent and extremely cheap skiing, if that’s your thing. 

Finally, we visited the Azadi Tower, a huge gate-like structure, which is synonymous with Tehran, but all I can recall is walking on the road right beside the heavy traffic to find our car, and having everyone stare at me.

Flute playing in the bazaar

The bazaar is, essentially, Tehran’s answer to Westfield with winding covered alleys and little “streets” of related goods like textiles, electrical goods, dried fruit, spices, gold and – of course – carpets.  A great contrast to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which is over-ridden by tourists, this is where the locals buy their stuff!  We are accosted by a guy trying to flog his nomadic carpets and follow him to his store where Jaleh falls in love with some of them.  I confess that I do too, but I am starting to wonder where I will put any more carpets, and whether I have enough cash on hand to cover another one (Jaleh reports that there may be a way for some places to take credit cards, but all I can think is the Commonwealth Bank will kill me, for more reasons than one).  I leave it for the minute, wondering if I’ll regret not snagging a Persian carpet in Persia while I had the chance. 

Heading into Tehran's bazaar

There was no stopping me with the jewellery, though, and I bought some pieces from outside the palace and the markets (I stayed away from the gold – I was only interested in the traditional stuff) and got some lovely pieces that will be talking points for ages to come.

"Get out of the way!" - deliveries at the bazaar

Along the way, I did my best to take photos of various forms of women’s dress as we sped by in the car.  Jaleh, being cheeky, actually stopped a stunning looking, very stylish woman and her husband inside our restaurant so I could take a photo of them.  Along the way, there were a few women who had clearly had nose jobs – the bandages still stuck across their new noses.  Would you believe that nose jobs are trendy in Iran, and both women and men are keen to show them off!

Buses carry both men and women, although women ride in the front, and men at the back.  At the airport, you go through security twice – once on the way into the airport, and a second time before the boarding gates.  There are separate entrances for men and women,  it seems for practical reasons – men really can’t feel strange women up in public as one security woman did to me today.  But men and women sit together to wait for their boarding call once they have passed the security checks.

The average salary in Iran is around USD500 per month, with professionals like engineers earning around USD1,000 per month.  If you don’t own a house, being on the lower end of the scale can be a tough gig.  Tehran is not a particularly old city, although there was a village or two here originally.  It’s become huge most recently because the Ayatolleh, in an act to encourage people to move to Tehran after the Islamic Revolution, started giving away free land.  Now it’s a concrete mass, gaining much of its historical value from the museums where artefacts have been nicked from Iranian cities with richer history like Persepolis and Tabriz.  Just last week, the President announced that they were kicking off a program to move people out of Tehran by offering free land in less populous places.

Nose job?

We talk about the Government, and nuclear power.  Iran is pissing everyone off in wanting to move away from its dependency on oil and delevop nuclear capability – hence, the UN sanctions.  Who knows whether there is an evil plan to roll out weapons, whether now or one day, and who am I to claim to know the truth – but the real life Iranians I have met so far don’t seem remotely radical or militant – and they want nuclear power.  The people like that the Government is strong, standing up for Iran on such issues, although many think they are too religious.  The revolution was good, and necessary, but people want less interference in their lives.  The people feel that they are the ones who pay for their government’s positions on the US and Israel.

Now, Iran has a large dependency on Russia and China for trade; in the last post-election protests, instead of “down with USA” it was “down with Russia and China”!  As Jaleh asks, if you’re dependent on someone else “what’s the difference” if it’s the US or Russia and China?

There is actually so much I want to tell you about Iran, stuff that you just don’t see because it’s like a country sitting behind its own veil and the real story struggles to get out.  The place is undeniably modern.  I ply Jaleh with questions, and she is patient and open enough to answer them, so let me try with the thing that strikes me as the most important. 

Love the Iranian number plates. My favourite is the upside-down love heart - actually a 5

In Iran, people have two lives – the public and the private.  In public, they act as expected – head scarves, no alcohol, model behaviour.  But, and this is the intriguing thing, in private, they are free to be themselves, with opinions and their own sets of behaviours.  I notice that seriously gorgeous young Iranian men swagger about in tight T-shirts and jeans.  At parties, women will dress in a similar way, and people will drink alcohol – it really depends on their religious beliefs as to where their personal boundaries lie.  Although the Government is conservative (more so, it seems, than the people really want) it allows this freedom and – you must assume – gains power from allowing people to be themselves in private.

Jaleh says that she has no hesitation in going out with her male friends, and no-one is going to say or do anything to stop you if you touch people of the opposite sex (although don’t think public groping will make it big for a little while yet).  She reports that many of the limits put upon people are more cultural than they are from the Government, conservative as they are.

In terms of dress, it is only the most religious who get about in the black chador.  Jaleh jokes about the women who pin up their chador and only peer through with one eye, and was curious enough about one woman who she saw eating in a restaurant, passing food under her veil, that Jaleh took a picture!  She says that the Quoran only requires that women are covered so their faces and hands show, and reckons such women are “more religious than Mohammed”.

Young love on the streets of Tehran

As for the most intriguing question, yes, more and more unmarried couples are out there having sex, but they are not advertising it (again, the private life) and living together without being married is still frowned upon and highly unusual.

In the Golestan Palace, which we visited yesterday, Jaleh showed me a door with two different knockers attached to the outside.  The right side, heavier one, was for men.  The other, for women.  Why?  So the women of the house are alerted and can get themselves together if a strange man arrives; so they can close the veil on their private lives and present the public one to a stranger at the door.

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Breathing out in Tehran

From the back of my taxi in Tehran (that's Jaleh on the right in the front seat)

My flight to Tehran was uneventful, except for a man who wanted my seat since he prefers to sit at the aisle.  Naturally, I refused, having requested an aisle seat myself, but I thought it odd that he dispatched the flight attendant to ask me to move since I was sitting in my allocated the seat, and we were in comfy business class.

Turkish Airlines is, like so many things I encountered in Istanbul, very good, easily rivalling Qantas. I know – something I didn’t expect either.  I’ll have to let you know if the same can be said of Iran Air, which I fly tomorrow night to reach Shiraz.

Before I get off the subject of Istanbul, I really have to encourage you to visit.  It is a most extraordinary and beautiful place and also incredibly clean, which I only noticed on my last day.  There are things I didn’t expect to love – like the sound of the call to prayer, which is so often positioned in Western media as a creepy sinister backdrop to a story on radical Muslims, but in reality is haunting and extremely beautiful: each time I heard it I stopped and enjoyed it.  I am hoping to return either later this year, or early next year.  I also performed an additional “picking up Turkish men” test and went and sat again in a park next to a cute boy.  Within 5 mins he was chatting to me, so this appears a fail-safe method to gain – errr – “company” in Istanbul.  I don’t plan to repeat my experiment in Iran.

We landed in Tehran at around 2.00am local time (Tehran is 1 1/2 hours ahead of Istanbul; I’m now 5 /2 hours behind Sydney), and all I could think was to get that darn head scarf on before they realised I was a fraud and I was denied entry!  Passport Control was reasonably fast, mainly because I was at the front, and then down to collect the luggage which took forever.  Tehran Airport is as modern as any I’ve seen, and at last I was able to see first hand how women dressed and related to men.  And you know what?  Apart from the head scarves and the ubiquitous wearing of the shapeless jackets to at least mid-thigh, and even though I know there are rules (eg unrelated men and women are not meant to touch in public) nothing seemed different!  In fact, I got a little more culture shock reaching Istanbul and seeing my first troup of chador-clad women scuttle past.  When I visited my lovely friends at the carpet place, they joked about the women in Iran, with one of the guys calling them “Black Moslem Ninjas” at the same time as confessing that he had fantasies about some of the women behind those things, esp the ones where only their eyes are visible (very mysterious!).

My bag eventually turned up, and I found my driver.  As we scuttled through to the car, everything seemed pretty similar to stuff I’d seen – a mix of new and old cars (but mainly old), with nifty Farsi numbers on their number plates, in a multi-storey car park, and signs in both English and Farsi all the way into Tehran.  The drive to the hotel took around an hour, and there were a few hair-raising moments so I knew I was going to need nerves of steel on those roads!

My lovely Tehran guide, Jaleh, adorned in her Day 2 outfit - a light, flowy black kaftan

I reached the hotel at 4.00am, feeling like a bit of a snooze I must confess.  The manager and porter stirred from their sleep and a confused manager didn’t even know I had a booking! Oh goodie, I thought.  Lost in Tehran.

Eventually, he turned a page and found my name, and the porter showed me to my room, and held his hand out for a tip…odd, since I had no Iranian Rials, and had arrived at this ungodly hour.  I had no choice but to do nothing, feel bad, and the empty hand headed out the door with the rest of him.

Breakfast was flat bread and jam, cream cheese and cooked eggs (no bacon, of course) and a choice of tea or Nescafe (I picked the latter).  My guide and the same driver collected me at 11.00am and we headed to the Museum, a palace, lunch and the jewellery museum. The jewellery museum is Iran’s answer to the Crown Jewels, and was overwhelming – wars have been fought over this particular stash of loot, and it’s owned by the Central Bank and locked underground.  One must pass armed guards and security, and no photos allowed at all.  However, the amount of jewellery in this place was incredible – I couldn’t even try to put value on a 106carat uncut pink diamond, or a world globe standing over 1m off the ground depicting the earth made of rubies, emeralds and gold (yes Australia was there).

Traditional Iranian stews at lunch (the one on the left is lovely)

At lunch, the food was great – I do love Middle Eastern flavours, and I ordered enough to have leftovers for dinner.  On our way out, there it was: the first “Asian toilet” (ie hole in the ground) of my trip.  Oh goodie.  Thank God I was carrying my own supply of toilet paper, as suggested by the best guide books.

The Iranian people are very friendly: at almost every destination, my guide was asked where I am from.  She reports that tourism was up until about a year ago, when demonstrations once again dragged the numbers down.  Most tourists come from Germany and other parts of Europe.

Outside the former US Embassy, where the hostages were kept for over a year. Image taken "on the move" - just behind the tree limb is the Statue of Liberty "skull head"

Tehran itself is well known to be Iran’s pulsating heart, if also its least attractive destination.  The traffic is bad and I’ve already had a couple of near misses crossing the road as the drivers weave everywhere and have no regard for walk signs.  Every street seems to be named after Iranian martyrs of some description, and there are plenty of wall murals depicting various versions of “down with America!” including one great one outside the former US Embassy, scene of the Iranian hostage crisis, and now named the “Den of Spies”.  This painting is of a Statue of Liberty with a skull head.

The locals discovered some of the US’s “secrets” after they left and they are displayed for a handful of days each year in early February. The Iranians hate this place [for a correction please see Jaleh’s comment below!), especially since they regard that the Americans, having installed the Shah, controlled him from here, which is why they took the hostages to try and avoid another US puppet to make his way into power (not that I’m endorsing such behaviour, you understand).  Soon after this was the Islamic Revolution, where women made their way from highly educated and fashionable into their head scarves and chadors.  However, given how people felt about the Shah and US and UK attempts to control the country, the Islamic Revolution was welcomed and Ayatollah Khomeni is regarded as a hero.

UN Sanctions (people outside Iran  aren’t happy about plans to develop nuclear power), of course, impact modern Iran: you cannot use credit cards here, and even my mobile is picking up no signal (I assume because there are no roaming deals with Iranian mobile phone providers).  Money from overseas must be channelled through bank accounts held by individuals in places such as Turkey and Germany.

My guide and I discuss this, and she says that after the Islamic Revolution when Iraq attacked Iran, the US and Europe sided with Iraq (probably because Saddam was such a good kisser) and this left the Iranians feeling very angry.

Sanctions and being mad at the US don’t stop the major currency being the US dollar, though, as inflation sits at around 25% in Iran.  Of course, Iranian rials are used day to day, but my tour for example is being paid for in USD.  Plus, although their multiplexes show mainly Iranian films, this doesn’t stop Iranians from buying pirated copies of latest release American movies for USD1 a pop.

Red hot spunks on the streets of Tehran

All day, my head scarf has been given me the shits.  Today has been warm, and you can imagine how much a head scarf detracts from comfort levels, let alone when it’s constantly slipping off your head (apparently cotton are the best for stick-ability).  Men here seem to wear what they want – their dress is as you would find anywhere.  I’ve been keenly observing women’s dress, which ranges from the black Muslim ninja look to the very fashionable, with make-up and all.  The main rule seems to be don’t display flesh or female curves and bumps, and hair needs to be covered.  Jaleh, my lovely tour guide, wears tight jeans, a cotton jacket that goes just around 1/3 of the way down her thighs, plus a long headscarf that she adjusts constantly.  Yes, she says, she hates it and flings it off whenever she travels outside Iran.  I ask how opportunities are for women: they occupy 60% of the places in University, and she believes have many opportunities.  She is bothered by the mass media portrayal of Iran – she says many things are very different to what the rest of the world believes.

There is one good thing about wearing a head scarf, though: my next hair appointment is well overdue and the scarf covers a multitude of sins until I can have my wig restored to its natural colour!

Tehran glamour

One of the first things I noticed was that there are no women in any advertising here.  Jaleh confirms that this is because it’s prohibited; women should not be looked at for their faces or bodies but appreciated for their behaviour and minds and it would be wrong to use a woman’s image to sell.

Today, I have not felt the least bit threatened, except when navigating the busy roads and engaging in near-misses with bumper bars.  I am delighted to report that even some of the guide books (which suggest not looking directly into a man’s eyes) are just plain wrong and there seems to be what we would consider reasonably “normal” public  interaction between the sexes.

I’ll sign off now, and apologise for no photos.  I accidentally erased all my photos from my final day in Istanbul, and my first day here so will try and upload some within the next couple of days so you can see for yourself.

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Less mysterious happenings

Fishing off the Galata Bridge

I wake late (again) and linger in sleep, pondering what today might bring.  Part of me is nervous about what new man will fling himself at me today; the other is fearful of breaking my winning streak to date. 

View from Galata Tower

I phone a friend for a goss download, and head out to walk across the Galata Bridge (across the Bosphorous Straight), then up the Galata Tower (think: more CLIMBING) for stunning views over the city.  It is freezing and I’ve forgotten to bring my shawl. 

Istiklal Street

After this, it’s off to Istraklal Street, the very European shopping street where delights like gozleme and Turkish ice cream await the delighted visitor. 

If Greek sweets are something to behold, the Turks have taken it to a whole new level.  Their ice cream is sensational, and the variety of baklava enormous, not to mention the halvas, nougat and other tasty treats that are piled up in shop windows.

Making Gozleme on Istiklal Street

Inconguously, Gloria Jeans has opened a coffee outlet on this trendy street – how bizarre!

I return early, and invited to some tea with the Hotel Manager before asking him to arrange a cruise on the Bosphorous and my airport transfer tomorrow night. 

I ask him where he recommends for dinner: I feel like a Turkish pizza.  He suggests Dominoes (no, seriously, Dominoes).  I hesitate: do they really deliver that gorgeous pizza with finely ground, spiced meat?  Yes, he says, “It’s made by Turks”.  At the appointed time, I receive a small, depressing pizza with a topping resembling ham and pepperoni. 

Today, I cruised the magnificent Bosphorous Strait, which divides the European part of Istanbul from the Asian side.  I was stunned by its beauty, which could rival any waterway in Europe, with houses worth tens of millions lining the shores (a large waterfront mansion recently sold for USD85 million!).  After this, I headed to the Suleyman mosque, only to find Istanbul’s most breathtaking mosque closed for renovations for the next year!  Not deterred, I hunted for the Grand Bazaar, the enourmous shopping area, and promptly got desperately lost.  Not to worry – following Anastasia’s example, I simply asked, pointing to my guidebook and the Turkish word for Grand Bazaar, and following successive pointing before eventually stumbling upon it.  Shortly after, I was lost again, this time in the Grand Bazaar itself.  Amazingly, it has its own mosque, and shortly before 5pm, the call to prayer echoed around the mosque.

Before I jumped into my airport car, I visited Rejep and his guys at the carpet place for one last tea – they are such sweeties.

In less than an hour, I head to Tehran on a 9.30pm flight, to arrive at 2.00am Iranian time.  After confidently organising my visit, and watching as many of you guys pondered me, silently curious as to the state of my sanity, I realise that, in a little over 5 hours, I will be in Iran.  There is a oddly-shaped knot in my stomach as I wonder if it will be OK.  Of course it will – too many guidebooks and other resources have emphasised that it’s wonderful.  I met a woman in Greece who recently went, and she LOVED it.  And I have a local travel agent, who us looking after every transfer, hotel booking, and private guide on my trip.  But still…this is one place where maybe I wish I had a friend in tow.

I breathe a little more deeply and hope that 2.00am in Tehran airport isn’t too surreal and disconcerting.  I picture myself writing my next post from Iran, telling you how amazing it all is.

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