From Shiraz, we took a long road trip, driving to Kerman. A note about air travel … it’s like a blast from the past. In the old days, Americans dressed up to travel on a plane, and when it landed the passengers clapped. None of that is so today. But when we landed in Tehran, and again when we landed in Shiraz (having flown from Tehran), the Iranian passengers all clapped. And everyone was dressed nicely, both men and women.
But that’s actually true in general … because of the dress code for women, you don’t see any of them (nor men) wearing sweat pants and casual slobbish outfits (as I’m prone to wearing). They’re all dressed smartly or wearing chadors. I noticed fancy, stylish shoes, even very high heels, sticking out from beneath even the most plain and traditional black chadors. Women in Iran find a way to make an individual statement either in their clothes or shoes, or in their makeup (which they’re now allowed to wear) or hair. They have more personal freedoms in Iran than in some other Muslim countries. They can also drive a car and leave the country without a male escort, unlike their counterparts in more conservative Muslim regions.
I was very concerned about the hijab, or head scarf, at first. I didn’t know how strictly its use was enforced, and Erik seemed to fear I would get thrown in jail if I was seen with it off. But the rules are more relaxed than I thought. For one thing, only the very back of the head needs to be covered. Many women wear these little puffy things clipped to the back of their head (at first I thought all these ladies had a pony tail of massive tresses beneath their scarves, but then Reza explained the puffy accessory) and their scarf rests only on that back lump. Sometimes they have headbands and glitter on the front of their hair. If an official from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Custom sees a woman whose scarf has fallen off, they will point it out to her and ask her to put it back on. So the first warning is very mild. Only once did Reza point out to me that mine had fallen down (though it fell down often) and I should put it back up because we were in a mosque complex in a particularly conservative town.
I also noticed that I was not the only one whose scarf falls off from time to time; even the Iranian women were often rearranging them on their heads. Once I started to notice this, I felt better, because I was appallingly inept at keeping mine in place.
One great thing about the several road trips we made was that I could take off my scarf while driving in the car on the highways. This was such a treat. But one time a hilarious little episode happened when a car full of men passed us and noticed me with my bare head. They were a bit excited and rolled down their window and took a picture of me as they passed! Reza said we should pass them back and take a picture of them as we passed. So Erik took one while the men hooted and held up the peace sign (as I was clearly a foreigner). So Erik’s in the passenger seat in front taking the photo while Reza is laughing and driving, and I’m torn between laughing and feeling embarrassed. (but naturally, laughing won out)
So anyway, back to the road trip to Kerman. We passed by an expansive salt lake, but sadly, it was mostly shrouded in haze, we could only just make it out. The water in places looked reddish with shores of white salt, and tall mountains in the background. Such a shame we couldn’t see it better. We saw some enormous piles salt, though, which had been harvested, sitting along the road side. I imagine their technology is far more advanced than what I witnessed in Uganda.
We saw an old royal hunting lodge along the way. Like so many ruins in Iran, it seems so lonely and isolated on the plains. In days past, this area was filled with a species of zebra that was popular to hunt. Now there are only a few left in a protected reserve.
Here is an assortment of photos taken through the window of the car to give you an idea of some of the typical scenery we drove through in Iran. It was early spring, so some greenery but not tons. Most of the time the tallest mountains were obscured in haze. Reza said they usually are this time of year. The little huts are where shepherds or farmers might rest or stay for a night. Like in the cities, no one bothers to drive inside a lane on the highway either. Their technique is to straddle the dotted line until a vehicle comes up behind them, then ever so slowly migrate into the right lane to facilitate the faster vehicle's passing. Twice we were almost run off the road by large 18-wheeler trucks neglecting to migrate, or changing migration direction after we're already beside them.
We had a picnic lunch at some random little roadside store/café which had wooden beds with carpets on them outside – this is the equivalent to picnic tables in America -- just a flat surface with a rug (like you can see me sitting on smoking the hooka). Reza says Iranians are world-champion picnickers. So we often joked about competitive picnicking as well as competitive tea drinking, as they are certainly champions of tea, as well. We seemed to drink it perpetually, and Reza even had a thermos of hot tea in the trunk any day we were on the road.
We often stopped at a roadside convenience store (better termed a stall) for some water or a snack. There were often open sacks of nuts and seeds, dried fruits and sweets. It seems to be perfectly fine to graze from these sacks and bins. Many times Reza took something and told us to take some and try it, with the owners standing right there without a care. Once I tried some chocolate-coated popcorn from such a sack. I thought it would be disgusting but it was actually quite good (not good enough to buy some, though). They sell crystallized sugar in giant hunks, it looks like it’s actual rock crystal just mined from a cave or something. They often infuse the sugar with saffron (turning it a light yellow) or other flavoring. If a convenience store can’t make small change for you for your purchase, they’ll just throw in some extra goodies like a candy bar or gum roughly equivalent to the change you are owed. This happened to us several times.
So a light picnic lunch on the way to Kerman, which happens to be Reza’s home town. The nice upshot of this is that he took us to his parents’ house, where he currently lives when he is not busy guiding tourists (which is nearly all the time he is guiding). He was very excited for a home-cooked meal, and we had the honored treat of indulging in his mom’s cooking for dinner, which was outstanding. Perhaps the best meal we had in Iran.
It was interesting to see inside a private home in the city. The main room was very large but it had only a couple couches lining a portion of two of the walls, and a small TV. The rest was just open space covered in several large rug carpets. They eat on the floor, as is traditional, by putting down a cloth and then a plastic cloth on top so it’s easy to clean up. His mom’s kitchen is quite huge with a 6-burner stove. It was strange, by typical Western sensibilities, to see such a large room furnished so sparsely … as if it was meant for a dance hall or something. Like so many moms around the world, Reza’s was tiny and adorable and very kind.
Later that night, Reza took us with him to his friend’s apartment for a small party of sorts. He hadn’t seen his friends for awhile and would be traveling for another solid month after guiding us, so this way he could see his friends and we could get the experience of talking with other Iranians. All of these friends spoke English, and the hosts, a married couple who were teachers, spoke exceptional English. The guy was heavily into American television shows and movies -- it was his primary occupation outside of work -- and they had a gigantic television screen. It’s not difficult for him to download these from the internet. Many people, it turns out, even secretly have satellite dishes. They're technically illegal, as the government doesn't want their flock tainted by filthy foreign films, but just like the citizens find a way to access illegal social media, they find their way to worldwide television, as well ... the average, especially young, person in Iran doesn't live in a bubble, and they feel connected to and amiable with, not opposed to and filled with animosity toward, the Western world. This is one point I want to really drive home to my American readers in particular. Anyway, our host seemed very pleased to discuss these shows and movies with us. Reza told our hosts how much I hated wearing the hijab (headscarf) and they immediately told me to take it off ... in fact the hostess was not wearing one when she greeted us. It was nice to feel comfortable. (Reza's mom served us dinner in full-on chador garb.) We talked a lot, laughed a lot, drank a lot of tea.
It was a late night, we got back to our hotel about 1:30 a.m. but had such a nice experience, one which most American visitors to Iran don’t have the opportunity to enjoy since we are restricted to moving around only with a tour group or guide. Only by luck -- because there were just the two of us, and we happened to get along brilliantly with our guide, and we happened to be in his hometown -- did we get the privilege.
The next day we drove to the ancient citadel of Rayen, a mud-walled city over 1,000 years old and a playground of little labyrinths. We had originally planned to see the old city of Bam which is the exact same style and time period but five times larger. However, it was decimated in an earthquake in 2003 in which 50,000 people died, including several of Reza’s friends. Reza said the completion of its rebuilding is still years away.
Rayen is a walled city with watch towers spaced along the perimeter. During its time, it was a stop along a merchant route, and any merchants wanting to do business within the city had to spend a couple days in quarantine in a small building outside the city walls so they wouldn’t bring in any diseases. Pretty smart thinking for those days.
I was a bit quiet that morning … you know, some days you’re just quieter than others. Reza asked me, “Are you OK?” Erik, overhearing, said, “She’s in heaven. She loves this kind of stuff.” Haha, and he was correct. It was loads of fun exploring. Even though you could see nearly the entire complex from above where it doesn’t look very big, once you get down into it, it’s larger than it looks and really is like a maze ... got lost a couple times.
In addition to the above-ground maze, there is a whole other level of labyrinth below the ground -- of rooms and courtyards and corridors, and even secret passageways. A strange black-shirted figure kept appearing in the doorways. Must have been a Persian goblin or something.
There is a section we explored that you can’t see in the overview photos. Parts have been fully restored and other parts lay in ruins, which I always think is interesting when parts are left un-restored and you can compare it directly to the restorations … interesting also to see which parts and features are the last to deteriorate. In Tunisia, it was always the bathtubs in the ancient Roman and Punic ruins which remained in tact when everything around them had crumbled away. Here it was mostly the frames around windows and niches.
More awesome sights were to come this day, but I think you’ve had quite enough for this post. Will return with Kerman Part 2! We'll close with a common theme in our travel photos ... the "Where's Waldo" shot. For some reason I am often wearing red while traveling, and when Erik takes a picture of me from far away we sometimes call them Where's Waldo shots.