I don’t know what’s taken me so long to write about Iran. By so long, i mean more than two years. Was I keeping my memories in a cellar, hoping they’d age like wine? Perhaps. But we know memories get filtered too many times, in too many ways. So i better write, before they become nothing more than vague one-liners.
Iran was the essence of my curiosity, my eagerness, and much less romantically, an ode to budget airlines for the ex- poor student. Back in 2011, Air Asia flew direct from Malaysia to Tehran, but as the world would have it, this route no longer exists.
Everything about Iran was new to me. I remember packing for the 17-day trip. Long- sleeved baggy blouses that were long enough to cover the tempting curves of the female body ( i admit that in this aspect i didn’t have to try too hard) , loose lightweight fabric for the 40 degree desert, a headscarf that would protect my modesty and honour. And of course, the last- printed edition of Lonely Planet Iran that was more than a few years old.
And so off we went to what was possibly one of the most misunderstood countries in the world, and this is what I remember.
1. Iranians have a BIG heart.
I’ve never met more hospitable people in my life.Walking around in a square full of picnicking families, we’ve been asked a million times if we wanted a slice of cucumber or a tomato or some bread. There was sometimes no room for refusal. Yes, Iranians know how to picnic, big time. In Esfahan, families and friends would fill up the grassy patch on the main square with picnic mats and an amazing spread of food. The summer heat dissipates to make way for a cool evening breeze, and laughter fills the air. We joined them on their mats and talked about life in FarSinglish. (Farsi and Singaporean English), and wished we could join the kids in their fun.
When we lost our way and asked for directions, we didn’t get pointed to the right way, we sometimes get led to our destination. Of course, we didn’t ask for directions from one city to the next. In a bazaar, we got hungry and asked a random local where we could get food, and she led us to the coolest shisha cafe with the most eclectic collection of lamps- Azedagan.
Everywhere we went, there were people asking us if we liked Iran, what were our names, where were we from (“Singapour? In Cina? In Afrique?), and of course, why were we not travelling with our husbands.
2. The country is brimming with beauty, history, and culture.
When I say history, i mean thousands of years of civilization. You could get lost in time wandering around the alleys of traditional houses in Kashan where people still live, or try to imagine life a millennium ago in the abandoned desert settlement in Chak Chak. And certainly, feel extremely insignificant yet privileged in Persepolis (which also made me feel like i was in Athens, sans tourists).
Heading up north to the Alamut Valley, I’d never forget the drive along the winding roads with Kurdish music blaring, windows down, as I was thrown into a landscape that made me tear. Jagged, red, round, raw,and infinite. It’s been two years, and i still smile at this memory.
3. Iran’s transportation system is…pretty good I must say!
For some reason, people have expressed shock when I told them that Tehran ( the capital) had a Metro . The Tehrani metro system is efficient, and so are the inter-state buses that are absolutely clean, fast, and come with snacks and drinks. I remember having paid less than 5 USD for a 3 hours ride from Tehran to Kashan on a super comfortable bus with tidbits and pomegranate juice. As for the gender segregation on public transportation, I suppose not everyone’s a fan of this idea, but to look on the bright side, in crowded peak hours i thought it was a brilliant way to keep the armpits of dirty sweaty boys far away from my face, thank you very much.
Free and easy travel in Iran may be challenging if you’ve lost your Farsi guidebook. But I loved getting lost and finding my way with sign language skills, a big smile, and lots of patience.
4. Iranians are drop dead gorgeous.
One regret of mine is not taking more photos of the beautiful people in Iran, both men and women. I felt like a sub-human species walking among women with perfect faces specially crafted by God.
*Music Cue: God must have spent a little more time on you- Nsync*
And because they’ve never really seen many sub-human specimens, some of them think their noses aren’t high enough and you shouldn’t be surprised to see nose job plasters everywhere in Tehran. Rather than hide at home, the Tehranis seem to take pride in having The Plaster and they strut around town with it. I’ve heard that The Plaster is also a sign of wealth and status. I’ve never felt more inadequate in my life. I was pretty sure one of them would stop me to ask if i could see through my slit eyes and get enough oxygen through my flat nose. But they didn’t. Iranians have a big heart- refer to point 1.
5.The ultimate misunderstanding which we must undo
So, pre and post trip, i got the wide-eyed “are you crazy ” look when i mentioned Iran.
“Omg aren’t you afraid of terrorists?”
“What are you gonna do there? So dangerous,so many extremists!”
I could go on. But what I really needed to say is that from my experience, most Iranians are curious about other cultures, eager to know more about visitors, tolerant of other religions, and genuinely hospitable. I’ve been blown away and humbled more times than I can count. If i were to compare my own behavior with what I’ve experienced in Iran, I’m the one to be wary of, because I can be the unfriendly, nonchalant local that wouldn’t walk with a tourist for more than 5 minutes because i’ve got, well, “stuff to do”.
A place is truly more about its people than anything else. It’s been two years and the memory of dinner in Elham’s (a dear Iranian friend) home and her uncle’s private garden still makes me smile. A homestay which we found completely by chance (a Farsi name card passed down by another traveller) had me thinking of Hussein the charming little monster and all that summer cherry and mulberry picking in the valley. Iran is hands-down one my most unforgettable experiences. Forget about the politics and the bad press. The real Iran lies within its wonderful people. So close your suitcases, open your hearts, and just go. You will never forget Iran.