Persepolis is overrated. There, I said it.
Sure it is an awe-inspiring archeological treasure that never ceases to amaze and delight even those with the highest of expectations. One is not surprised to learn that Persepolis was among the first of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, before the Taj Mahal, before the Cathedral of Notre Dame, before the Great Wall. It is a treasure, and I get it-Iran is filled with really-fantastically-amazing sites. From Tabriz’s World Heritage bazaar to Yazd’s wind towers to the glories in Mashhad, one cannot wend her way through Iran without tripping over something historically and culturally significant.
No one is disputing that, but what about everything in between?
One rarely hears much about the moments in between and I would argue (strongly) that it is all of the in between—the experiences one is not anticipating—that makes Iran a bona fide Trip of a Lifetime. In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite ‘in betweens.’
You are basically a celebrity, nay, hero. An American brave enough to visit Iran wins a lot of adoration and appreciation from the local Iranians. I would go so far as to say, as an American, I have never been so warmly welcomed abroad as I have been in Iran.
Sure Khomeini and Khamenei have not been the warmest, most welcoming hosts. For this reason alone, one of the most commonly repeated question an American will hear from local Iranians is (and I paraphrase): “The American people understand that our leaders and government do not represent the Iranian people’s feelings towards the West, right?” Their faces so earnest and hopeful, one finds herself lying. Repeatedly. Of course, we Americans know that. Yes, we are just as open-minded as the majority of the Iranian people. No, we do not believe everything we hear in the news and just like you don’t blame Westerners for the wrongs our governments have committed against Iran, we don’t blame Iranians for the government and religious leader’s disdain for the West. “Don’t be silly” is the subtext I offer. Repeatedly.
Random acts of singing.
So not only are most Iranians born with astounding good looks, but apparently they are also born with the most mesmerizing singing voices. Daily you will bear witness to the latter’s truth: a driver singing to the radio while waiting at a stoplight, an unlikely high school boy singing his heart out under a bridge in Esfahan, your guide demonstrating the acoustic properties and architectural genius of the Imam Mosque. For me, one of the most memorable of these moments was at the tomb of Sa’di (a great Iranian poet who was a predecessor to the more well know Ferdowsi, Hafez and Rumi). I’ll admit his tomb is not a must-see which seems a bit harsh, but also perfectly qualifies it for one of my beloved in betweens. This particular experience revolved around a seemingly forgettable security guard. We had the tomb to ourselves and so the security guard’s pleasant humming was rather noticeable and welcomed a compliment. Eventually he gained the nerve to confirm with the guide that I was, in fact, American. Upon learning the truth of the matter, he addressed me in Farsi informing me how sincerely he hoped that relations between our countries continued to improve (this was in October right after Obama and Rouhani had spoken for the first time and Iranian people were enthusiastically hopeful for the first time since 2008). He thanked us for visiting his country and we offered our thanks and moved on into the garden area. As we were walking away he started singing loudly; his voice was hypnotic. Thinking of it now brings tears to my eyes; it was so beautiful and emotional. It is one of my most memorable travel moments; one of those moments I have never mentioned previously as it is so precious I dared not attempt to translate.
If it is not already abundantly apparent, I am a female. And while I’ve always been a bit of a tom boy—owning an abundance of navy and grey clothing (a Californian’s version of the more sophisticated New Yorker’s black wardrobe), using makeup once a week, or as necessary—I am undeniably, entranced by anything that sparkles and shimmers. Thus, I was not prepared for the nomad section of Shiraz’s bazaar, a tiny yet mesmerizing area filled to the brim with all things that glitter and shine. The fabrics alone are wildly distracting with myriad colors of dazzling, sparkling, shimmering material. (There was one vendor selling nothing but different sized, different colored, different sheened sequined material.) The most wonderful part of this section is its draw for nomadic woman who are easily discerned in a crowd by their multiple skirts, all with some of this razzle-dazzle on the bottom layer. One of my favorite in-between moments came at this in-between section of the bazaar when I garnered the courage to enter a tiny stall. The stall was wide enough for one human and long enough for six-seven humans. I felt a bit sheepish entering this ribbon vendor’s stall, but I knew I would always regret it if I did not pick up some of the most fabulous ribbon I had ever laid my eyes upon. I had purpose and a need (the need for ribbon was real, but not at all interesting so I will leave it be for our present purposes). I began slowly choosing a meter of this and three meters of that. Soon the vendor (a large, fatherly looking fellow) was fully involved with a huge smile on his face, cutting me more generous portions of ribbons with each selection. And then came the curious locals. By the end, we were seven-people thick in that tiny space, everyone involved and everyone with broad, shining grins.
Why do we travel? For me it is the insatiable search for unique experiences. Experiences that take me out of my comfort zone and challenge me in ways I could have never anticipated. As a part of the younger generation of the more intrepid, adventure travel community I live in nearly constant anxiety that these unique, undiscovered experiences are simply becoming more and more scarce.
And then came Iran.
Although the country has seen its fair share of visitors, there will always be room for completely unique and unanticipated experiences. This is made even more alluring as almost all of the experiences a visitor has in Iran are of the most pleasant nature. Just try to step out of your vehicle in a remote area without interacting in two minute’s time. I dare you. A smiling local will approach you and offer some sort of warm and personal greeting. Next, he will offer you whatever he has to share. (A walnut currently occupies a place of prominence on my kitchen windowsill, reminding me daily of a local famer I met on my last visit.) And next, an honest and intense interest in who you are as a person that is so completely disarming you might just end up exposing something previously unannounced about yourself. Iran is the travel experience that keeps on giving and I see no end in sight.
Get in touch with Stacey to learn more about your experience in Iran, or explore our private experiential Iran journeys on our website.