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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