It started several months ago when we were considering a journey from Asia to Europe overland across the old Silk road…. What about Iran? I know two non-Iranians who’ve been before, one an intrepid and fearless young British kid I met back in 2007 and Yomadic, a travel blogger and career traveler whose recent visit was definitely a bit of inspiration to me in making this journey. Both talked of their visit in almost absurdly positive terms…..the friendliest and safest place they’ve ever been….why aren’t more tourists here…. I could go on. In fact, I think their commentary was so positive I almost began to question it…. are people simply excited to talk about a place they went where others rarely go? Or in fact were things as they said?
I expected to have at least a moment of apprehension as my Qatar Air flight from Doha landed in what seemed to be a nearly pitch black Shiraz airport in the middle of the night. Stepping off the airstairs, I couldn’t even see the terminal…. Quickly we all boarded busses to ride to the main building. Where was the Revolutionary Guard? I looked and didn’t even seen a single customs official or policeman or woman meet our flight. As we walked into the terminal that looked unchanged from 1970 the early morning call to prayer filled the room. It went basically ignored by all the Iranians from the flight excited to be come who were in a boisterous mood, as well as the small group of German and French tourists laughing away as the women tried to put on their scarves. It was funny to watch in fact as the Iranian girls were wearing skinny jeans, leggings and clothing that would not in any way be out of place in NYC while the French tourist women donned thick black robes they must have acquired on the layover in Qatar. Soon I approached the immigration officer who smiled and stamped my passport in a matter of moments without a word. As I went to put my bag into the x-ray machine to go through customs, simply following what everyone else was doing in front of me, a friendly customs agent put his hand on my shoulder and said “There is no need… Welcome to Iran, have a great trip.”
Hours later after checking into my hotel which magically had a room ready for me to sleep in at 05:00 (now THAT is an early check-in), I went off for a walk to see several key sights around the city. The friendly woman at the front desk told me places I shouldn’t miss, so I started off with a visit to a nearby coffee-shop which I found on Tripadvisor. I couldn’t have been welcomed more warmly by the kid who spoke nearly perfect Australian sounding English and set me up with a nice Americano and breakfast pastry. We spoke a bit and I took advantage of the free wi-fi to check-in with emails. When I went to pay however, the two girls in the kitchen heard me speaking to him and called me in the back to meet them. When I told them I was American, their jaws about hit the floor with excitement. Each one told me how they have met some French and Germans, but never an American…well maybe there was this one from Texas…nope, he was Iranian American. As our conversation came to a close and I nearly turned to leave, one of the girls stated that she had a question to ask me. “What was your impression of Iran before you came to Iran?” An interesting and very telling question….. I told her that I’ve met many Iranians in America who have all been lovely people, and that anyone I’ve ever met who has visited Iran absolutely raved about it. She went on… “Yes, but what about in the media….” Oh shit… I see where this is going. I couldn’t lie so I simply told her that I’ve always known what we see to be incredibly one sided, and that I hope most Americans do the same (I could feel myself cringe as I let out my first lie). She continued…. “Do most Americans think we are all terrorists with guns who yell Death to America?” I gave a half-hearted no….but I’m certain my expression told the real truth. I left Cafe Ferdowski caffeinated and with a smile on my face from my first meeting of some great Iranians, but with a bit of sadness as I realized just how far the divide really is due to our governments and media depictions.
After walking for several hours and strolling through the beautiful Eram Gardens, I took a seat on a park bench in the shade and began playing on my phone. Almost immediately an Iranian guy, Reza, took a seat right next to me and introduced himself. A very similar conversation to what I wrote above took place….and before I knew it I was helping him practice his English vocabulary. Now I’m not certain where he got some of these words…. It seemed like every other one was something I’d never heard of an assumed they were wrong, so I googled them for a definition. All words… but perhaps English words not used since Edwardian times….I began to think he simply transcribed a Websters Dictionary and I would be there all day! Thankfully he only had A and B words with him, so we were able to talk a bit too. When he learned I was American he excitedly exclaimed BARACK OBAMA and put his arm around me. I smiled and said that I hope Obama can live up to the excitement and remove the sanctions. This was met with a very hearty “Yes.” We chatted a bit more and soon he got up to leave, not before giving me a hug and telling me “You and I…friends… I love you Friend,” with a smile and a laugh.
I could go on and on…and to some extent I wrote out both of these stories because I don’t have any other effective way to communicate to you all just how warm of a place Iran has been. I could tell you nearly similar encounters when I bought water, bought a SIM card, bought an Iranian hamburger….bought water again. It just went on and on. Truthfully by nightfall I was exhausted and didn’t even mind being anti-social for a bit in my hotel room before bed.
So there you have it…. There’s a good and compelling reason NOT to visit Iran, if you are anti-social or an introvert. You’ll hate it, you won’t have a moment to sit on your phone and catch-up on Facebook or text friends. You won’t have a moment alone in a park to sit and admire the beautiful Islamic architecture.
I’m left not knowing exactly what to do with all of this. The gap of misunderstanding between our two nations is almost so massive it seems insurmountable. How can we convince those who never will visit each other’s country what the reality is? How can we tame or neuter the political extremists on both sides…. For Christ sake, we have an elected senator who sung “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, I-ran” to the tune of “Barbra Ann!”
I now know exactly how Yomadic must have felt when he penned his “The Secret About Iran That Disneyland Doesn’t Want You to Know” post. When you are confronted with something that challenges everything you’ve ever watched in your country on the “news” you can’t help but also feel a bit sad and angry. It would be absolutely ignorant of me to say that there aren’t human rights issues or political issues that Iran needs to deal with. But, to be honest, we have those as well…. Not to the same extent perhaps, but maybe we don’t always need to judge unless we are comfortable with being judged. The news producers in America who edit the constant clips of crowds shouting “Death to America” without a single bit of footage or news about what 99% of the country is doing on a daily basis and just how normal it all is will hopefully have a special little place in hell to call their own one day.
I’m excited to spend the next 10 or so days exploring this beautiful country and meeting its people. The next time that you hear an elected American official talk about bombing this country, or starving it with more sanctions I hope you remember just even the slightest bit from this post. Remember three smiling kids in a coffee shop expressing their love for America, a country which has only done them harm….first overthrowing a democratic government and installing a Shah loyal to Americas business interests and then crippling their economy with endless sanctions. If they can practically glow with excitement in their eyes when I tell them I’m American….I think we can maybe for once give peace and good old fashioned diplomacy a chance and help welcome Iran back into the world community – a place the people of Iran deserve.
I would be absolutely remiss not to mention someone who was integral in making this journey possible. Parsa and the team at Iran Visa & City Tour. From the moment I first began investigating if this trip would be a possibility by drafting them a note to see about Visas till moments before I boarded my flight and sent a concerned email after I realized that I gave them the wrong date for my arrival considering that I would arrive at 04:00 on the 12th and would really like to have a place to rest when I got there, they have been nothing short of amazing. I’ve never been one to use travel agents, truthfully in my experience I’ve usually ended up frustrated when I’ve tried as I’m a bit of a travel snob and usually think (or know) I can do a better job for what I want than they can. Nothing could be further from the case with this team. I initially didn’t even plan to book anything with them other than my Visa letter, but when they inquired if I needed hotels, I shot back a short note saying I didn’t have much money and assumed they didn’t really deal in budget accommodation. Boy was I wrong. The team spent months with me helping me find the best combination of cheap, centrally located and decent lodging in a high season for tourism here. Not only that, they helped me book a long distance bus that they were worried might sell out, and sent me numerous emails with seating charts and frantic emails when the bus changed from a SuperVIP bus with 36 seats to one with 4 more seats. Needless to say, they aim to please. I wouldn’t always write something like this, but in this case it would be inappropriate for me not to. If you are ever even considering a trip to Iran just shoot them a note and I assure you, they will make you comfortable and probably convince you to go!