First Impressions of Iran

Em’s First Impressions of Iran

May 10, 2015

I left Barcelona with butterflies in my stomach, hoping the traveling would go well…And by the end I could do several blogs just about the transiting…but I will highlight to save your eyes. So many things happened…Here are a couple highlights.

When we arrived at the airport in Istanbul we were on the Tarmac and hustled onto a long shuttle. The terminal they had us come in for Istanbul was a great cacophony of the world…and packed…There wasn’t really anyone to help with information…I kept being directed to a bunch of monitors which seemed to be crowded with the entire airport trying to get information…It felt like a cattle car…and I, of course, was dragging since I didn’t get much sleep…
Once I finished with the “What Gate” game, I headed to what felt like an entirely different Airport…very modern with upscale shops…
Oh, first let me digress…As I was leaving Barcelona, I went through Passport Control only to discover the restaurants were on the other side…So a Customs official canceled out my exit stamp to let me go and then a customs woman came out to say I couldn’t do that…the man showed her where he had canceled my stamp and she reluctantly let me go through…so I have 2 exit stamps…
OK back to Istanbul…Every time I ask I am directed to a board that reminds me of a stock board, constantly changing. I finally find my flight and no gate assigned. So I head to the bathroom to change into the appropriate garb for my arrival in Iran. I walk in and this woman is taking off her blouse
announcing how hot she is…she sees me putting on my tunic and asks where I am from. I tell her the US and then she asks where I’m going. When I tell her Tehran and she says “that’s where I’m from…oh you will love it.”
I, of course, ask if I’m appropriately dressed and she laughs and says “wait until you see how short some tunics are” she told me not to worry it would be easy. She was so sweet to take time to try to put me at ease.
Once on the plane, a young man came on and was supposed to be in the middle seat but once he saw me, he seemed upset and motioned for me not to get up…I couldn’t understand him verbally but definitely knew what he was trying to do as he beckoned to a woman 2 rows ahead sitting in a middle seat between 2 men…and then spoke to an older man sitting in the window seat in my row…seemed he was trying to get the older man, whose wife was in the window seat in front of him to trade seats with his wife while trying to get the other woman, who I was fairly sure was his wife to sit in the middle seat next to me so the entire row would be women…The Iranian man across the aisle from me thought this man silly and kept giving me looks of “I’m sorry”…I just waited for someone to decide so I could settle in…the young woman said something to the guy and the next thing I knew the man stepped over me…and not a word. I was too tired to care…by then I was really needing sleep…and he inspired me to do just that…I slept for at least 2 hours throughout the flight…Finally I opened my eyes to the man staring at me and then beckoning me to move so he could get up…Once he came back, he seemed a bit more relaxed…maybe he just needed to pee the whole time!… but this encounter made me a bit nervous for my future encounters with men in Iran.
I had met 2 British businessmen on the plane and we had a brief conversation. We ended up exiting together and somehow I ended up in the wrong Passport Control lane. A nice Iranian woman guided me to a shorter but much slower lane for foreigners. My Chinese Tour friends from Barcelona’s Airport ended up cutting the line and infuriating some people and a verbal battle ensued…Lots of commotion…I watched one of the Chinese men taking pictures of the customs people, which is a huge no no…but he seemed to have gotten away with it..Finally my British friends and I moved lines and one of the men was called up…and then there seemed to be an issue…the Customs Official called me to come forward and then it seemed there was a problem for me too…He took both of us over to a few other officers at another desk…I was so happy it wasn’t just me…then my other friend was pulled so I figured it was a US & UK thing…And then they released the men…and it was just me. They were peppering me with questions about what hotel…why I was in Iran…What flight..etc…I was more nervous that whoever was going to pick me up would have left, thinking I didn’t make the flight…Then the Customs officer who spoke some English took me aside and looked very dire and asked “Why you smile in Passport Picture?” “What?” I asked…He kept asking why I was smiling…he went on to say that Europeans don’t smile…it really baffled him…and I was totally confused and thought that was why I was pulled…my smile was somehow suspicious…I immediately apologized and said I didn’t know it was prohibited…Then his face softened and he laughed and said He liked that I smiled and wanted to know if it was an American requirement…He said it was nice to see a passport with a happy person…Then 2 other officers started talking to him and he translated “What do you think of Iran?” I responded, “I like it…that’s why I want to visit”…then he asked “What do Americans think of Iran”…and these types of questions…At this moment I realized I wasn’t being questioned officially, even though they had taken my passport somewhere…They were just really curious to hear from an American on what we think…I told him I was still concerned about my driver so he called and had me paged…I was not sure why he thought that would help… he claimed the driver would hear my name and know I was there…Then he said if the driver wasn’t still there that he, the Customs Officer, would personally take me to the hotel…I think they were just having fun speaking to me…they peppered me with more questions about marriage…work…again asked me if Americans liked Iranians. Finally my passport came back and they let me go…I thanked him and instinctively reached out my hand to shake his…he laughed and reminded me that in Iran it was inappropriate for a woman to shake a strange man’s hand. I smiled and thanked him again and he wished me well and reminded me to come back if my driver wasn’t there.
The driver was miraculously still there and we took an uneventful ride to the hotel in Tehran…
I got to the hotel around 8am and was truly ready to collapse but just like in the States, check in is at 2pm…so I was told to relax in one of the lobby areas…My guide was coming at 10am to take me somewhere…So I spent some time fighting off sleep…until this young Iranian woman sat down and I said “Salaam” (the only word in Farsi I know). To my surprise she spoke perfect English…she was a Student of Linguistics and was studying the ancient languages and translating old texts…She was in Tehran from Tabriz for a book fair…We talked about all sorts of things and then a young man joined her…And they invited me to join them for breakfast…why not, I thought…She showed me pictures of her horse. And I showed her pictures of where I lived…they were both huge horse people…He was a professional show rider…I tried to pick up the bill but she would have none of it…she said I was her guest and that she wanted to Thank me for coming to Iran…she also thanked me for making such an effort to follow the rules of dress.

By the time she went to the book fair, my guide for the day had arrived and I was surprised to discover that there was another American woman on this tour…She joined us in the lobby. The other woman asked to go to the Tehran Cemetery…it’s the largest in Iran and it is also where the Ayatollah Khomeini tomb is…and is the cemetery of the martyrs…martyrs are those killed in specific terrorist attacks or during the Iran-Iraq war…during the revolution(seems there was internal battles and a bomb killed all the Parliamentary council)…also in the civilian plane that we shot down in the 80’s…and all those killed in wars…Well most of you know I love a good cemetery…and this one certainly was going to be…
Off we went to go to the Metro…but first we walked by the old American Embassy(on the same street as our hotel)…and yes I took pictures, which I was later told is illegal…so I will not be posting those until I get home (-;
The metro was like Barcelona…except there are specific cars for Women…We actually got onto a Male only car and quickly got off at the next stop to go to the correct car…But the men, including a few soldiers didn’t bother us about it.
Once in the all woman car, I noticed most of the women were wearing the black Chadors…They all looked so serious and then as soon as we got on they seemed to stare quite a bit. I would smile at one who would look shy and then smile back and soon they were sitting next to me and I was sharing a couple of Kitty videos I had on my phone…The people love to see Pictures and videos…Then all of the sudden this woman offers me a candy…so I offer her some chocolate I have and this goes on until we finally get to the stop…Another thing that happens on the Metro is that People(mostly women or young Boys, aged 10 and up) get on and sell everything from Clothes, MU to dish washing soap and anything short of appliances on the train…I guess with people working 6 day weeks and long hours, it leaves them little time for regular shopping so it is efficient. The camaraderie is amazing…All the woman help one another and offer candies etc…Everyone is willing to give up their seat for someone older or a foreigner (-; I kept trying to give up my seat…but they would have non of it…Sorry no pictures…There are cameras everywhere watching(I guess like the US) and they prohibit photographing transportation places…
Once we got to the stop, we navigated our way out and had to make it across a busy traffic circle…OK, let me say drivers in Tehran are scary…really scary…I read in Lonely planet this little blurb, under the healthcare section, that talks about not needing to worry if you get hit by a cab because the government will pay for your treatment…and then they gave an example of a man from New Zealand who ended up here for 4 months recovering! I couldn’t figure out why Lonely Planet would write such a thing…NOW I get it…There are NO real traffic rules and if they are, they are NOT followed at all…Motorbikes will drive the wrong way and up on sidewalks…you just cross the street and literally hope the cars, cabs(that I now really fear) and Motorcycles actually will stop…Well they never ever actually stop…they swerve…and this is at Crosswalks!
Once we caught our breaths and go to the tomb, I was told that people from all over are coming this year to honor the Ayatollah because it is an Anniversary this July…Their calendar is different from ours so I am not sure which anniversary it is…Needless to say there were quite a few people…not crazy crowded but a good number…Funny, these crowds don’t irritate me like in Europe…I think because they are all locals…Once we got there, we needed to put on what is effectively a sheet to cover ourselves even more…Let’s say the pungent smell of these lovely fabrics left a wafting sense that we were not the first to don them…The other American woman was quite taken aback and needed at least 2 changes before she could move on! …The one thing I have learned through this kind of travel is flexibility…go with the flow…
The locals level of curiosity is amazing… both Men and women will ask questions…all very innocent and friendly…It leads me to imagine if the tables were turned and they were visiting say NY or another big city…no one would give them the time of day, literally…and then if they traveled to smaller areas they would be looked on with suspicion…It saddens me to think how we would not live up to this same hospitality to a foreigner who looked so different.
The tomb is in a large prayer room and infused with green light…while there, all these women kept taking picture of me!!! They would giggle and come up to me as if I was someone famous…so I engaged…because I really love love meeting new people…We took lots of pictures…it felt like I was on some sort of odd red carpet…I would ask to take a picture with some people and then 10 people would pull out their cameras and snap away as I was taking a picture. All the while saying “Hello” “Glad you are here” “Have good day” and then some others…
Our guide for the day took us to the Martyrs area and was going through the history when a man came up and was talking to her in Farsi…at first I thought maybe we had done something but all he wanted to say was hello to us and make sure we knew about this one Mother, who was buried with the martyrs because as she was visiting her son’s grave(which she did daily), who was killed during the Iran-Irag war…she felt him rise up and kiss her(as she told someone) right before she dropped dead. So, she too, is considered a martyr. Once our guide told us, the man smiled and walked away.
Many of the graves have these boxes above them where family and friends put in things of their loved one’s lives…silver, mirrors, brushes etc) and then on specific anniversaries, they come with a table clothes and put it down on the grave and set the family table, including the dead son or sometimes daughter(rare) and eat dinner.
When someone dies here, they have a long mourning process…after 3 days they have a funeral…then they return to the site for another get together in 1 week and then 40 days and the final one is 1 year…other then the first one, all of them consist of food like dates and nuts and juice and water. We ended up crashing 2 of these…Our guide walked right up to one guy and he said we were welcome…it was the 1 week one for a Mother/grandmother. Then someone brought us juice as we were standing there off the grave site! Another one was the 40 day one…Interesting…
We then realized we were lost…Yep lost in a cemetery….It is HUGE…well we decided to cab it back to the Metro and return to the hotel…I was about to drop…no sleep will do that…Again the Metro ride was an experience to behold…and this time a little boy and I engaged since his mother was insistent that he practice his English…Although after playing with me for a few minutes his mobile phone, with a much more entertaining video game, drew his attention…Kids are all the same where ever you are…good luck pulling them away from their technology!
Well once at the hotel I collapsed for a couple of hours and then met our actual guide, Fatama, in the lobby. She, I and the other American woman, Pamela, went off to a lovely Iranian restaurant for dinner…They had live music starting at 9pm…Iran is big on Kababs here…so Kebabs it was…and after some traditional Iranian music, the owner came on stage and began talking…without understanding a word, I knew he was giving a welcome speech and making jokes…bad ones based on the reaction of the diners (-: ….he reminded me of a Las Vegas Club owner from the 70’s…actually the whole place felt very retro…It was a wonderful environment…Fatama, would interpret and his jokes really were bad…he introduced a singer who he said was a famous singer for those of us older…Fatama, who is 29, said she had no idea who he was…but then she is 29! The guy got up and started crooning like the old Lounge singer…he would wave and wink at me…along with all the other women…The meal was a delicious and the night was entertaining…perfect to set me off for a good nights sleep…
But Fatama & I ended up hanging in the garden and chatting…She is newly married and we spoke about that along with other issues of the day (-:
Fatama is lovely and so energetic about being a guide…
Our first full day was today and because this blog is already too long, I will just say we covered a bit of ground throughout Tehran…The National Museum…with tons of artifacts dating back 2 Million years…and more recent…As I wondered around various people would come up, including other tourists from Italy, Canada(Iranians who now lived there), Chinese etc…It seems that being an American in Iran is not just a curiosity of the Iranians!
After the Museum, we headed for the Grand Bazaar and ended up taking a little local transport…it was hysterical…it looked like a train shuttle from Disney…Standing waiting for the shuttle was another nice experience to meet more people…Everyone is so helpful too. As we were passing the Shahs Palace, these women tapped me to point it out. Once at the bazaar, we worked away through the crowds…ALL locals doing their daily deals…This is also where the men do their “stock market” trading…they stand on walls and yell values of currency…permits etc and other men raise their hands to purchase…It’s like the Mercantile exchange in the old days…We enjoyed a fabulous Banana & Yogurt and Saffron Ice Cream Smoothie…OMG Saffron Ice Cream is to die for…YUMMY!
Once we got into the heart of the bazaar we agreed that neither Pamela or I were interested in buying anything so we decided to stop for lunch. We ate at a nice little restaurant that had a large Iron Picture of the Last Supper…and both Pamela and I agreed that it looked like Mary was sitting at Jesus’ right hand…I will include in the pictures…We rushed out so that we could make it to the Jewelry Museum…According to Fatama, it has the most value of any gems collection in the world…and based on what I saw, I’d believe it…
Tehran is a hustling and bustling city like many others in the world…the people are moving at a fast pace and the traffic is like Indonesia and Kathmandu and many others…The weather has been great…cool at night and in the AM and warm, sometimes hot during the day. There has been a nice breeze so the usual smog that sits above it has not been too bad…and Alas, there is little smoking…BTW, wearing the Hijab is not difficult and as some Italian women and I were discussing today, we didn’t have to wash our hair…saves some time (-: And it seems my Tunic purchases were a good fit…I have gotten compliments…so all good on the clothes front. The men are as welcoming as the women…When carrying my camera many will yell out “picture! Take my picture!” It is not what I expected. The man on the plane seems to be anomaly. Seriously, everyone could not be nicer.
We leave for Shiraz & Persepolis in the AM and have an early flight so I will try to write another blog sometime early next week.

Your intrepid traveling friend.


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