After two amazing weeks in Iran, it is nice to take some time to reflect for myself and to explain to others what I experienced. So here I am attempting to blog again. My two favorite blogs were my first one and the one I wrote in February 2015. These are question and answer type blogs, where I can just feel like I am having a conversation with someone, and not worry about paragraphs and sentence structure. So, here’s a question and answer blog about my trip to Iran….
Why would you go to Iran?
When I was in South Korea I met a really nice guy, Farzad, who was traveling alone. He told me that he was Persian, but living in China. Ah, Persian. I looked at him and nodded. And then he said “Iran”. Oh, yes of course. It was interesting to me that in my mind, Persian evokes positive images of carpets and cats and blue tiles and ancient history, while Iran evokes negative images of anti-Americanism, radicals, Argo, and terrorism. Could these two places be the same? It’s not surprising that he calls himself Persian and not Iranian. He told me how interesting Iran is, and how I should try to visit one day if I get the chance. I filed the information in the back of my mind until six months later when I met Anne.
I met Anne in Mandalay, Myanmar. She was working with an agency that does tours in Asia. I signed up for a one-day bike tour of surrounding villages. We got to talking after my bike tour about travel and places we’ve been and places we want to go. She told me about a tour that she was going to take to Iran. She sent me the information, but the dates didn’t work with other plans I had, so I dismissed the idea quickly. Until she emailed me again a few months later that the plan was to go in August, and now I started to seriously consider going.
Before I decided to go, I researched. I googled about Americans traveling to Iran, safety, politics, dress codes, human rights violations, and visas. I read blogs from others who had visited. I also heard from a dear friend of mine, Elizabeth, my 92 year old solo traveling friend that I met in Guatemala and in Myanmar. She just got back from Iran, and she loved it. She emailed me a beautiful letter of how amazing it was there and in capital letters “YOU MUST GO NOW!”. And so I my mind was set.
I decided that I wanted to see this country for myself. I decided that I wasn’t going to simply listen to and believe the media about the dangers of this country and their people. I was curious to see how the people in this “axis of evil” would treat an American. I wanted to see the culture and the history. A couple months before the trip my friend Beth took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and there was an exhibition on the art of Persia, and it was breathtaking…the textiles, the ceramics, the tilework. I was so excited to see all of this.
What about human rights violations? What about the poor treatment of women? How can you visit this country and support this?
These are very good questions. When I decide to visit a country where human rights issues are a problem, I do research and ask myself, what impact is my visiting (or not visiting) going to have? Is it best to not visit a country at all? Can my trip initiate positive change, negative change or no change at all? Does the country want me to visit? Does boycotting tourism to a country help fight against human rights violations? Is it best to ignore the country and isolate them from the rest of the world until they shape-up? I don’t know all the answers. I research for myself, and I make my own judgments and my own decisions. You may not agree with my choices, but that is ok. I personally feel that building bridges instead of walls is the best way to bring about change in the world.
Americans can travel to Iran? Really? Isn’t it impossible to get a visa?
Yes, Americans can travel to Iran; however, you must be on a guided tour. The same is true for holders of British and Canadian passports. I understand that holders of some European passports can travel independently in Iran, although I didn’t research this.
I decided to go on the tour with It’s Journey Time. Masha, the tour leader, has brought many groups to Iran in the last ten years, so she helped me with the visa process. Any agency you use should help you get the visa. I needed to supply some basic information (name, passport number, occupation, etc.) and she applied for me. After a few weeks, my application was approved, and I could go to a pre-specified Iranian embassy or consulate (I chose Istanbul because of easy, direct flights to Tehran) to get the visa. Unfortunately, there is no Iranian embassy in the U.S., but you can get the visa through Iranian special interest section of the Pakistan embassy in Washington D.C., but I heard this is more complex than getting the visa at an Iranian embassy outside of the US. It worked out better for me, because I was in Europe prior to my visit anyway. I was told to bring my itinerary, travel insurance information, visa photo, passport and the visa fee. When I got to the embassy in Istanbul, they told me I needed to pay the fee at the bank across the street (I think 60 euros) and I could pick up my passport and visa the next day. It really wasn’t a difficult process. It did take 4 or 5 weeks to get the initial approval, but the actual getting of the visa was straightforward.
A tour? I hate tours. I’m a traveler, not a tourist. I would never take an organized tour. etc. etc.
Ok, I hear this a lot from other “travelers”. Tours are for old people, non-adventurous people, scared people. Whatever. I personally like tours sometimes. For me it’s a nice break to not have to think about where I’m going, how I’m going to get there and where I’m going to stay. There have been times during my travels where I have been lost, both literally and mentally about where I am. A tour gives me a mental break in the planning and researching, so I like that. I read (if you are not British, American or Canadian) you can travel independently without a tour through Iran, but since I didn’t do this, I have no idea how easy it is with regards to booking flights, buses, hotels, etc.
So how was the tour? Where did you go? How many people were on the tour?
The tour was very good. You can see my full itinerary here. The thing I liked most about it was that there was plenty of free time to just go out and do your own thing. We were not required to have 24/7 supervision. We were free to walk around wherever and talk to whomever. We had 5 people on my tour: me, a Brit, an Aussie, and two other Americans, plus the leader Masha (who is Russian), the local guide Mohammad (who is from Iran) and the driver Ali (also Iranian). We traveled around the country by bus, staying in most cities two or three nights.
Where did you stay?
Mostly 3 or 4 star hotels. They were fine, not especially posh, but not bad either. Basically what I have been accustomed to in my travels.
How did you get money?
U.S. credit cards and debit cards were not accepted in Iran, so I had to bring cash. You can easily exchange U.S. dollars and Euros for the local currency, Rials.
How much cash did you need?
It really depends on what you want to buy. Everything was included in my tour except meals, and that was usually less than $20 per day total. But if you wanted to buy some carpets or ceramics or other souvenirs, you might need more.
Is there really no alcohol?
Nope. Alcohol is illegal in Iran, even in hotels. We drank a non-alcoholic “malt beverage”, which to me tasted nothing like beer.
What did you wear?
This one was a bit of a hurdle for me. Women are required to wear long sleeves (to the wrist, although ¾ length sleeves is acceptable), long pants (to the ankle), and a shirt/top must come down past your hips (so you cannot see your butt or your waist). Also, a hijab (headscarf) is required at all times. When I first read over these requirements, I started stressing out. I googled images of what women wore, started following Instagram accounts of “hijab fashion”, and emailed questions to my tour leader Masha. I felt like I was invited to a costume party with a very specific dress code. I ran around H&M in Glasgow, Scotland looking for tunic-like tops that weren’t low cut and long pants. I read that women in Iran took appearance very seriously, and they were very fashionable even with the restrictions. I ended up bringing some long button down shirts and some linen pants and two “dressier” tops. I think I spent too much time worrying about the dress code. I’m not an overly fashionable person to begin with, and since I’ve been traveling, as long as I don’t look like a homeless bum, I think I’m doing ok.
Honestly, I didn’t like how I felt in those clothes and in the hijab. It was just not a style that I was used to, and things I would never wear at home, and it was really hot, so I was a sweaty mess most of the time. I never really considered that my wardrobe was an expression of myself or who I was, but being forced to wear something I did not like made me realize how much it mattered. I was resentful that males could wear whatever they wanted (except shorts), and I had to cover my head. Perhaps if it was colder, and not 100 degrees, and if I had the cash to get some really nice clothes I would’ve felt better. But as it was, I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room and take off the headscarf. Not everyone felt the same way about it as I did. My Aussie friend on the trip, Tracey, said she liked it and that she felt elegant and chic in her clothes. I felt the opposite…frumpy, unsexy and meek. I did adjust to it over the two weeks, and tried to see the positive side…No bad hair days! Always had a towel on your head to dry your hands after the bathroom! Decreased chance of sunburn or skin cancer!
I thought a lot about the dress code requirement for women when I was there. Every society has rules and norms and laws governing what appropriate attire is. For example, it is ‘illegal’ is the U.S. for a woman to go topless as most beaches, while this is perfectly acceptable for a man. Is this discrimination? Are we women oppressed because we allow this to occur? Or is it acceptable? I think the difference is that in the U.S., when we are unhappy about a law, we have the freedom to express it, and we have the ability to make changes. In fact, I’ve been reading about a “free the nipple” campaign which would allow more toplessness by women in the U.S., especially in regards to breastfeeding. On the other hand, some countries allow topless or fully nude sunbathing, and it is not an issue at all. My point is that every society has a line, and just because the line is drawn either more or less conservative that yours, doesn’t make it wrong. I wonder how many women in Iran are ok with the hijab and consider it an appropriately modest form of dress (as I am sure many American women consider having a top on appropriate too).
How did you get the scarf to stay on your head? Did the wind ever blow it off?
Some people used pins or clips on their headscarves, but I just draped it over and hoped for the best. If the scarf came off, our group had a code phrase to let each other know. We were all very conscious of the scarves and making sure it was in place. As Tracey said, if your scarf is off, it’s almost like your knickers are showing.
A few of us did adopt a local trick of using a “clip poof” contraption to help with the head scarf. It got your hair and the scarf off your neck for better air circulation, it helped to keep the scarf from slipping, and it made it look like you had piles of gorgeous hair under your scarf, so it was a fashion statement as well.
Were you scared?
No, not really. I was a bit nervous entering the country, as I wasn’t sure if they were going to give me a hard time at immigration. Turns out, it did take a bit longer for me to process my entry than some of the other people coming in, but I wasn’t questioned or detained or anything. It was pretty simple really.
Was it safe?
Yes, I would say that Iran is safer (in regards to crime) than many countries I have visited. I felt perfectly safe walking around alone. I was never hassled or bothered or catcalled or anything.
Was there a large military presence?
No, not that I noticed. We did occasionally see different military and security personnel, but they never bothered us.
Did you have Facebook? Wi-Fi? Email? Phone service?
There are many websites which are blocked by the government, including Facebook and YouTube. Most hotels and many teahouses and cafes had Wi-Fi. I was able to post photos to Instagram. (If you aren’t already following me on Instagram, my name is “Laurieseyes”). I was able to check email. I was able to text on WhatsApp. I was able to purchase a local SIM card for my unlocked iPhone which was handy when Wi-Fi wasn’t available.
What did you eat? How was the food?
Food was good overall. Lots of meats like lamb, chicken, beef (no pork), rice, flat bread, olives, melon, eggplant, yogurt… One of my favorites was a chicken, walnut, pomegranate dish and a dish where you mashed up chickpeas in a clay pot with spices (both of which I don’t remember the names). When I was tired of Persian food, I went out for the local pizza, which is interesting because they don’t use pizza sauce, but instead put catsup on it! You could get fresh juices on the streets, like a carrot juice with cardamom ice cream! Or different local sweets and pastries.
So, how was it? Did they hate Americans?
No. Quite the opposite in fact. We would be walking down the street, and you could feel people looking at us, and as soon as you smiled at them, you would get a big smile back and the usual question, “Where I you from?” I would proudly respond, “America! I am American!” And without fail, I would get a huge smile and a look of shock and happiness followed by, “We love America!” or “America is good!” or “Obama is good!” or “Welcome to Iran!”. People would drive by and honk or wave or turn the car around to talk to us. Or people would stop us to chat and take photos. Or people in parks would come up to us and offer to share their food or whatever they had. The only negative comment I heard in my two weeks there was a man who told me “Bush bad. Obama good”. I couldn’t disagree. One restaurant we went into started playing the U.S. national anthem after we told them we had Americans in our group.
How can this be? How can a country whose government has been so anti-American have so many people who loved us? Why were they so welcoming and kind? I think the biggest lesson is that the government does not always dictate the thoughts and opinions of the people they rule, especially in a non-democratic government.
How were women treated there? Are they considered inferior? Were there things you could not do as a woman? Were you treated poorly by men? Did you see other women being treated poorly by men?
Women in Iran can go to school, hold professional jobs like doctors and lawyers, they can drive, but yes, there are differences in how they are seen in society. Women cannot go to soccer games, swim in a pool with men, dance or sing in public. There are so many things we take for granted and so many rights and freedoms we are given in the U.S. We can date who we want, hold hands and kiss in public, jump in a river on a hot day. The laws there are based on Islamic rules from an interpretation of the Koran. Unfortunately these laws have been so strict that many Iranian men and women have been leaving the country to the U.S. and Europe for better opportunities and more freedom.
I was not personally treated poorly, nor did I see other women being treated poorly while I was in Iran.
I think the one time I was irritated was when our group was going to a shisha (hooka) place to smoke some blueberry flavored tobacco, and we were told women were not allowed in. That was a bummer, but not a big deal. Many shisha places do allow women and families.
The one time that really stands out to me is when we went to a rooftop “bar” of a fancy hotel. There was dance music playing, and I noticed a group of twenty-something guys and girls drinking sodas and juices and laughing and talking at a table. Some of them started dancing in their seats, moving their hands and shoulders to the music. One guy stood up and started dancing next to his chair. A staff member had to come to tell them to sit down. This broke my heart a bit. How can you be restricted from dancing? With dance music playing? I think dancing and moving along with music is such a basic human instinct, restricting it and limiting it is just so unfair in my eyes. I have heard that many people have parties in their own home where they service alcohol (illegally of course), and play music and dance, but in public this is strictly forbidden.
Tell me about Persian women.
Despite the restriction on the dress, Persian women (and men for that matter) are incredibly fashion conscious and looks-conscious, especially the younger women in modern cities. We saw many women with bandages on their noses from recently nose jobs, which is incredibly popular there. We were also told that some people would wear bandages on their noses even if they did not get a nose job, to give the appearance that they were wealthy enough to have had one! Women love brand named bags and shoes, make-up and nail polish. They push their headscarves back on their head to show a whisp of highlighted hair, or they allow their long locks to show down their back, below the scarf.
I read three excellent books on modern Iran while I was there that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in the current culture: Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai and Iran Awakening:One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Her Country by Shirin Ebadi. Or if you like to watch more than read: Anthony Bourdain in Iran or Rick Steves’ Iran.
Do they have minorities/other religious groups?
Is it possible for a tourist (woman) to rent a car?
I don’t know about this one, as I didn’t try. I will say that the driving in Tehran was some of the worst/most dangerous I have seen in the world. There is a huge disregard for traffic signals, pedestrians, and laws. Lanes on the highway are barely used as suggestions. If there is room to pass between two vehicles, you are welcome to, regardless if there is a lane. I personally would not attempt to drive there, as they do have a high fatality rate of people both in cars and pedestrians. Also the pollution in Tehran was very bad.
What are the attitudes toward American policy in the Middle East?
I can’t comment on this one. Although we were not restricted in what we could say to locals, I did not bring this up to anyone I met. I avoided bringing up any topics of politics and government. In my time there I did have one conversation with a man in a coffee shop who spoke freely to me about his dislike of the government rule they had in Iran. He was a college professor, and he said that the isolation of Iran from Western society has negatively impacted the upcoming students in today’s world. He expressed frustration that English is no longer taught in schools, and that the youth are not able to be competitive in scientific fields, and that many were moving out of country for better opportunities. He said that he was frustrated that he could not have a conversation with me (a woman) in a coffee shop without looking around to see if anyone was watching. This conversation for me was enlightening, and I appreciate this man’s honesty and candor. But it was only one opinion of one Iranian out of 78 million people in the country. I cannot say if his views were held by many or a few others. This was the only conversation I had regarding politics in Iran.
How would you describe the “vibe” in Iran? Are people stressed out? Laughing? Happy?
I would describe it is casual. And peaceful. Families spend much of their social time outside having picnics on the grass. After the sun goes down and the temperature drops, they head out to parks and open spaces and spread out a blanket and eat and socialize and people watch. I think this is their equivalent of our “going out” to eat. While we were there we did the same, with the blanket and the food and tea. It was very casual and relaxing. They seemed much less addicted to their phones and TV than Americans. And when I think of American socialization, it seems like loud, active, exciting activities are most popular, like sporting events and concerts. It seems that interacting and just hanging out is more valued there.
There are no bars, but some really cool tea houses where you can smoke shisha or eat snacks or drink juices. Both young and old people and families enjoyed the teahouses. I really like the easy atmosphere of them as well, as it is more my speed than a loud nightclub. I did occasionally miss a glass of wine or a beer, but it was fine.
Are you allowed to take photos there?
Yes, we were only restricted against taking pictures of banks, military or security installations and other places like this.
Do they have gardens of flowers there?
Yes! Beautiful gardens that are listed as world heritage sites.
Ok, so that’s all the answers I have for now. If you have more questions, you can ask them below in the comments or email me directly.
In summary, I really loved the experience of being in Iran. It was so different than anywhere I have ever traveled, and really opened my eyes to how different reality may be from what we are bombarded with in the media.
Peace and love everyone. xo