March 01, 2004
I am a 32-year-old woman from the States. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and after receiving my degree in the liberal arts decided to travel the world and start my real education. And so I've been travelling and living internationally for the past seven years-I have supported myself mainly from the worldwide ESL industry but have also waited tables in Greece, worked on movie sets in India, assisted photographers in Australia, painted bungalows in Thailand, whatever I could do wherever I was to pick up a few bucks to keep on going. Someday I'm going to settle in one place, stop working these silly jobs, get a dog, and be a photographer. Someday.
February 24, 2004
"Whoa!" I yelled at the cow that had thrown me off balance in attempts to get cuddly and nuzzle my leg. I gave in and pet the soft coat between her big black eyes. No, I'm not on a farm- I'm in Udaipur, India- a city of a million people, where cows wander the streets and cars swerve to miss hitting them.
Cows in India are sort of like dogs in the States; they wander in the streets and get fed by people. The main difference, however, is that cows get fed a lot more and don't bite. You'll also never see a stray cow as they are probably owned by someone. If for some strange reason a cow is left homeless, then it is quickly snatched up, for having a cow, it is believed in India, brings one closer to God.
Cows are sacred in India. They are seen as an all-giving mother, providing milk which is a staple in the Indian diet. Hindus would never dream of eating one; to do so would be sacrilege.
So the cows leave their homes in the morning, and wander around their neighborhoods getting fed. A cow is a unique form of social welfare. To feed a cow is to be blessed by God. So you see Hindus holding out chapatis and fruits that the cows eat with their big fat cow lips, the Hindus touch their ears and eyes afterwards, like how Christians cross themselves to pay homage to God. To feed a cow is to be blessed. And because everyone wants to be in the godsí favor, the cows are happy and fat and give their owners lots of milk when they finally shuffle home in the evening.
I haven't gotten tired of studying the cows here in the state of Rajasthan where I've just spent an amazing six weeks. A rainbow of saris, bejeweled camels, and ice-cream scoop roofs of Mogul architecture, Rajashtan is a whirlwind of candy for the eye. Here in Udaipur-a city of palaces and temples and shiny lakes- I am nearing the completion of my travels around Rajastan and will depart from this lovely kaleidoscope country in a few days to make my way further down south to Bombay.
I say country, because leaving Rajasthan for Bombay is like leaving one country for another, instead of travelling to another state. And this is one of the things that make India so fascinating. Presently, the Subcontinent is divided into six countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. I say presently, for with so many rebel movements in these countries, and considering that the borders of these countries are less than a hundred years old and still in a state of motion, it will be anyone's guess what new borders will be carved and shaped out of which wars.
And so for now, India is the biggest of these new countries. When we think of a country we think of a culture that dominates that country. Of course there are regional differences, but normally a country shares the same language, race, and style of dressing. In India, you have every color of skin imaginable. Black in the south, white in the north, yellow in the East, and red and brown everywhere else. In India, you have fourteen languages, twelve scripts, and hundreds of dialects. In India, you have Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Jews just to name a few of the many faiths there. With every religion, race, and dress represented you sometimes get the impression that the whole world has been compressed into this corner of the world. And it does sometimes feel like that when walking down a crowded Indian street; the whole world is bustling right along with you, elbowing and vying for a bit of space.
Though the dialect changes every hundred kilometers here in Rajasthan, the main language spoken is Hindi, which is written in the Devanagari Script. I've purchased a Hindi phrasebook and have learned a bit of the language during my stay here. I can now count to a hundred, ask about someone's family, and request that my food not be too spicy. I felt that I was making some headway with the language, but I'll pretty much have to scrap the phrasebook when I head down south. For though some people can speak Hindi, many people are learning it, just like me. Marathi is the language spoken in Bombay, so not everyone is going to understand me when I try to communicate. It'll be like starting from square one again; ground zero in illiteracy. I was beginning to make some sense of the world around me, but it's back to the funhouse again.
Going from Rajasthan to Bombay isn't like going from, say, Ohio to Florida. Sure, both are roughly the same distance from each other. But I will dare to say that going from Rajasthan to Bombay is like going from Finland to Morocco: worlds away in language, and worlds away in culture.
I don't really know what to expect from Bombay. I do know that it's more crowded, cosmopolitan, and has a different language reverberating down its streets. The only thing I know about Bombay is that it will be different.
Until the whitewash of globalization sweeps over the world and makes it into one homogenous place where humanity will more or less be the same, India will continue to be a smorgasbord of all that is available in the Subcontinent; a magical and maddening travel destination. Sometimes itís not that bad being in the funhouse, especially when cute cows come around the corner and nuzzle against your leg.
It was easy. I took a rickshaw to Lahore's train station from where I took a bus to the border. I got my passport stamped, my baggage searched, and was pointed in the direction of India.
"Excuse me?" I asked the immigration officer.
"Over there," he mumbled settling back into his seat and paper that I had interrupted him from. "India, over there. You must walk." Upon seeing my surprise he added, almost as an afterthought, "Not very far."
Ok. So I put my backpack on and started walking. After a few minutes I saw a huge archway, and once closer, could make out "India" above it.
Once I saw this word, the name of my destination, I couldn't help myself. I started running towards that arch, toward the letters that spelled India.
I have done it. I crossed Europe to Asia. Greece to India. No planes. Just overland.
February 23, 2004
Note: the following event took place in early November. For various reasons, I haven't made an entry since then.
"Tonight is Sufi Night,"Malek informed me and the other lodger, Matthew, that were staying at his guesthouse here in Lahore, Pakistan.
"Sufi Night?"I asked. "What is Sufi Night? Are you taking us to a movie or something?"
Malek gave me a serious look. "Sufi Night is very special here in Lahore. It is very important to our religion. You see the Sufis, you see Pakistan. And besides,"he smiled, his voice taking on the sing-song tilt that is typical of the Subcontinent, "The Sufis are very excited that they will be able to play for foreign guests. Come, come! They will not play until we arrive."
He hurdled us out of the guesthouse, into a rickshaw, and towards the enigmatic Sufi Night.
Sufi Night. Friday in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a day of rest. The stores are closed, no one goes to work, and people just chill out and relax. So Thursday night is like Saturday night in the West, just no bars.
But there is Sufi Night-the most happening place to be on a Thursday in Lahore. We pulled up at Baba Shasmar mosque; a 700-year-old mosque that was packed with people. The air was thick with the blue-grey smoke of cheris. Malek frowned and tried to fan away the ever-pervading smoke.
"People use this because they think it will bring them closer to God, but it is the drumming that truly brings one closer to God. The Sufis only need the drumming. This,"he coughed, "Is only for the observers." He pulled us through the crowds and motioned for us to sit in front. Normally, women aren't allowed to go to Sufi Night, but because I was a foreign guest, I was allowed to attend.
And so the drumming started. Thick, fast, beats that you could feel resonating through your spine and ribcage. The musicians were the Gongasain brothers, the most famous Sufi drummers in all of Pakistan, especially famous because one of the drummers is deaf yet is able to play because he has learned to hear through his stomach, sensing the vibrations and relying on eye contact from his brother as when to change beats. The drumming was amazing, and I had no idea that one of the drummers was deaf, until Malek told me the following day.
Hypnotic drumming, some of the men stood up, slowly turning themselves around in a circle. They began to spin around faster, round and round, their bodies becoming a blur, blurring into a movement that seemed physically impossible. I was transfixed.
"They do this to get closer to God," Malek smiled. "When they do this, they feel like they are in heaven."
And they spun like that, on and on, around and around, some of them for an hour straight, and then the drumming stopped and the spinning stopped and it was time for us to leave.
On the way back to the guesthouse, we stopped for mango ice-cream. That night I dreamt of roses. Matthew left for India the next day. After seeing the Sufis, there was nothing else for him to see in Pakistan.
This is the second week of Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims. From sunrise to sunset, muslims refrain from eating, smoking, and even drinking water. Needless to say, people aren't in the best of moods. I've been in this country now for three weeks, and am very tempted to go to the western city of Peshawar, but will leave that for a future time, a time that doesn't coincide with Ramadan.
Tomorrow I go to India.
December 16, 2003
The bus stopped in a dusty whirlwind of rickshaws, mango carts and donkeys. "Lakarna, Lakarna!" The Pakistani boys in the seat behind us yelled. Kent, Peter, and I got off and retrieved our backpacks from the luggage space below. We had made it to Lakarna in Southern Pakistan-the base for exploring the ancient city of Moenjodaro, and the base for the highest bandit activity in the country. Well, thatís what Lonely Planet says. Quoting the guidebook: "...the town is of little interest and more than a little dangerous." Though this edition had been written six years ago, I still had to admit I was more than a little nervous. Crowds of wide-eyed curious locals gathered around us, as I gathered that foreigners didn't come here very often.
"C'mon," Kent said as the crowd of locals closed in around us and touched our foreign backpacks, jeans, and Teva sandals, "let's go find a hotel."Continue reading "My Very Own Personal Armed Guard"
December 09, 2003
I was in a teashop having a lunch of spiced eggplant and toasted pita bread when Naslee sat down and introduced herself. Many people introduce themselves to me here in the super-friendly country of Iran, but I really hit it off with Naslee from the start. I think it because she's an artist-she works with color and so tries to find color in her day-to-day life. She talks and dresses colorfully, is attracted to the colorful and the eccentric and intertwines it into her being. Perhaps that's why she talked to me in the first place; I was a foreigner-different and a splash of color in the gray that can sometimes tinge on a landscape that is seen day after day.
Which is hard to believe in the colorful city of Esfahan. The old capital of Iran, Esfahan is full of palaces and gardens and turquoise-tiled mosques. It is a breathtaking city, but because not too many foreigners come here, its treasures remain unknown to the rest of the world. The next day Naslee took me around to all these palaces and gardens, places that she assumed a foreigner wanted to see. And of course they were beautiful, but after the first couple of palaces and gardens, they all start looking the same. Sitting in front of a fountain that spurted pink and purple light, she asked if there was anything else in Esfahan that I wanted to see. I asked if there were any art galleries in town. She enthusiastically piped up there were several, and that as a matter of fact, one of her friends was showing at one that night. But would I want to leave this beautiful garden to see paintings and sculptures from a local and unknown artist? Maybe I would find it boring, she worried. The lights in the fountain changed to yellow and orange. Muzac suddenly started to play from hidden speakers. Yes, I said. I could stand leaving the garden to see a local art show.
Because it's just lights, plants, and chlorinated water in the gardens. Cropped and trimmed and made all pretty for the tourists to see. Art can be ugly. But art can show the underside, the realside of a country, a culture. With Naslee, I had this opportunity.
The works did not disappoint. Colors splashed, scratched, and thrown on canvases, sculptures reaching up to the sky. Titles like "Trapped", "No Escape", and "Taste of Freedom" made me think these pieces had an anti-government tone to them. Maybe I was reading more into the work than the artist had intended. Anti-government, anti-establishment, the lure for freedom and the cure from domination. What else was I supposed to think when practically everyone I met told me that's what they wanted?
I've never been to a country as friendly as Iran. And I've never been to a country as frustrated as Iran. This frustration was all the people talked about. After background civilities: “Where are you from? What is your job? What do you think of my country?” were done with what they really wanted to talk about came out: “So you like my country? I don’t. No, I love my country. But I hate my government. It is horrible and no good for the Iranian people.” They shake their heads. “And we can not stop the government; anyone who tries disappears. It is horrible.”
I don’t know what to say. Of course I want to agree. Yes, your government is horrible. Yes, you need a new government. But what other options are there? And who am I, as a foreigner, and what kind of position am I in to give them any advice? All I can do is sit there and nod. I find myself nodding a lot in this country.
The Iranian people have had it tough the past thirty years. In the 1970’s, unsatisfied with the Shah’s-leader Mohammed Reza-mismanagement of the economy and alignment with the USA, the hard-line Islamic opposition retaliated with bombings, assassinations, and other acts of terrorism. Paranoid, the Shah started clapping down on anyone that he suspected of opposing him: people were jailed on false pretenses and even disappeared. Tension grew and finally exploded in a series of violent demonstrations that made the Shah flee the country. Ayatollah Khomeini- the leader of the opposition-returned from exile, and proclaimed himself Supreme Leader of Iran. Because he promised reform and change, he was welcomed back by a majority of the population. Announcing that an Islamic Revolution was sweeping over Iran, his clergy-dominated government was met suspiciously by some, as they feared it would halt modernization of the country. It was welcomed by others, however, for they saw any alternative better than the hard-line antics that the Shah had adopted before fleeing the country.
Shortly after Khomeini returned, Iraq-supported by the USA-invaded Iran, plunging the country into a war that lasted almost ten years and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Naslee’s family moved from the Southwest of the country to the northern city of Esfahan to escape the war. She told me how as a child, she’d have to run to fallout shelters to escape the bombs, and how the war gives her nightmares even today, twenty years later. The country was plunged into chaos and many people who had the financial means to leave Iran, did.
When Khomeini died, former president Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the position of Supreme Leader. Angry over the exodus of Iranians, the devastation of his country from a war that was supported by the USA, and the belief that Israel was a symbol of Western imperialism that would eventually creep east and take over Iran, he closed the country to Western influence. Proclaiming Iran an Islamic Republic, he banned dance, non-religious music, and passed a law that banned women from going to University and demanded they always have their heads covered in public, as well as be fully covered down to their wrists and ankles with the cloak-like garment called the chador. Heavy censorship was enforced to keep any “evil”, or Western, elements out of the country. The idea of modernizing Iran was done away with as law was dictated by the Quran, the Islamic holy book written 1300 years ago. This new Islamic government was welcomed by traditionalists, but there were also many people who had more progressive ideas for Iran, and believed that the new government would impede growth and modernization, plunging the country into a Dark Age.
Protests were quickly stamped out, with dissidents jailed, and some even executed. It was made clear that no tolerance would be given to anyone who spoke out against the government. Fear spread as people who were suspected of disobedience to the government disappeared. Support from the West waned because of these draconian measures and alleged sponsorship of terrorist activity such as hijacking of airplanes and bombing of Western interests. The American Hostage Crisis, assassinations in Germany sponsored by the Iranian government of dissidents that had fled Iran, and a death warrant on British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie??? on the grounds that his book, The Satanic Verses was blasphemous towards the Quran, caused the West to shy away from Iran even further as the USA put a trade embargo on Iran, plunging the country into further isolation.
Throughout history, it has always been the people that have suffered because of their governments, and in Iran’s case, this is no different. I saw a people hungry for modernization, and laws that were more in line with the twentieth century instead of the seventh. Though the chador has modernized into a headscarf and a button down, tailored coat, and women are allowed to go to University, things are still tough for them. In modern-day Iran, Naslee told me, a man, by law, can have up to four wives, or women that he has sexual relations with. But if a woman is accused of adultery, even if the circumstances are rape, she is stoned to death.
There wouldn’t be so much public unrest, she told me, if the government took better care of the people. The holy men, or Imams, take the majority of money from oil sales, money which is needed for public works, schools, and other needs of the country. Essentially, many Iranian people are poor, but they don’t have to be.
Iran was more open and progressive before the Islamic Revolution. The majority of people were Muslim, but in big cities like Tehran and Esfahan there were nightclubs where people could dance and listen to music, shops where women could buy the latest fashions, and uncensored broadcasting on radio and TV. Though many people didn’t drink alcohol because of their Muslim faith, it was still available and legal. I’ve heard Iranians say their country used to be what Turkey is now; Islamic but looking towards the future.
“There were even places to go dancing?” I asked Naslee.
“Yes, many places!” she said. She looked around, and then lowered her voice. “Would you like to go to a dance party with me tonight?”
“Dance party?” I stepped back. “But I thought dancing was illegal in Iran!”
“Yes, yes, it is,” she said. “But in the homes it is ok. Just as long as the neighbors like you and,” she grumbled. “they don’t report you to the police. My aunt is having a party. Will you come?”
The thought of going to a dance party in Iran was too irresistible to resist, so I enthusiastically accepted her invitation.
We left the gallery and after stopping by her house to pick up her parents and sister, went to the party. This was my first time in a local’s home, and I was surprised to see how modern it was. I was even more surprised to see that once inside, Naslee took off her headscarf and shed her coat, revealing an outfit of tight jeans, and a fashionable low-cut top. Her mother and sister also were wearing fashionable clothes under their coats, as were the other women in the house.
I stood gaping at them, my headscarf and coat still on. Having been in Iran for two weeks, and being told that I could only take off my coat and scarf in the privacy of my hotel room, I felt as though everyone had just gotten naked.
“It’s ok,” Naslee laughed, unbuttoning my coat. “You are in a house so do not need to follow the dress code. Besides,” she giggled, hanging it up. “Did you really think we wear these things all the time?”
I guess not. Still, the legal antics of Iran must have sank in a bit deeper than necessary, for when I took off my head scarf, I felt like I was doing something wrong. Still, I must admit, it was a nice feeling after being so covered up after two weeks of traveling through the country.
Naslee took me into the living room that was filled with about forty guests who were all fashionably dressed, lounging on couches and sipping drinks. The surroundings made me feel as though I could be in any Western country. Everyone stood up when Naslee introduced me and she took me around to family members and friends, the men shaking my hand, and the women kissing me on the cheeks three times. Everyone was really excited to meet me, as I was the first foreigner many of them had ever met.
After the round of introductions had finally finished, Naslee sat me down on a couch. “What would you like to drink?” she asked.
“An orange juice would be nice,” I answered.
“Ok,” she giggled, “but what do you want in it?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered. “Maybe a few ice cubes?”
“No!” she laughed. “Vodka, gin, maybe whiskey?”
I was shocked. Alcohol was strictly banned in Iran, and anyone caught drinking it could be arrested, including foreigners. I looked at her with wide eyes. “But isn’t that illegal, Naslee?”
“Yes, yes, of course it’s illegal!” she laughed. “But we are in a home, and because the neighbors like my aunt, the police will not come.”
“But where can you find alcohol in Iran?”
“My uncle makes it himself! My grandfather was a liquor brewer and he was taught the secrets of the business before the Revolution. Don’t worry! No police will come! Have a drink if you’d like! But if you want just orange juice, that’s no problem either-“
“No, no,” I started, not being able to resist a cocktail in a dry country. “A bit of vodka would be great!”
As I waited for my cocktail, I looked at the people lounging on the couches, and realized that they weren’t just drinking juices and cokes, but drinks filled with liquor. Though Naslee said there was nothing to worry about, I couldn’t help but feel nervous that the police would barge in any minute, and break up the party; arresting everyone for consumption and sentencing me, the foreigner, to torture, as I was probably the evil Western element that instigated it all……
Naslee shook me out of my paranoid little daydream when she came back with our drinks. After a few minutes the music started, Arabic-sounding, electro pop, loud and furious and completely different from any of the soft, chant-like music I had heard in Iran up to that point. People started to tap their feet, and a couple got up to dance, twirling their arms in their air and kicking their legs out. It looked like an energetic hybrid of Greek and Russian dancing. Within minutes, half of the guests were up dancing, stamping their feet and getting down on the dance floor.
Naslee shotgun her whiskey and grabbed my hand. “C’mon!” she enthused. ”Let’s go dance!”
I hesitated, sinking down into the couch. I was already getting enough attention just sitting there as it was. I could only imagine what kind of attention I’d get once I got on the dance floor and tried to bust some Persian moves.
“Oh, no thank you Naslee,” I said. “I really don’t feel like it, and besides there’s so many people and-“
“Don’t be shy!” she practically shouted, pulling me up from where I was trying to sink deeper into the couch. “Just do what I do!” She pushed me into the crowd and twirled her arms in the air, stepping back and forth with a vigor that I found difficult to keep up with. Everyone cheered when I came on the dance floor and within a couple of minutes, there was a circle of people surrounding me, clapping their hands to my stomping, two left feet. I guess there was nothing to do but follow Naslee’s suggestion and try to keep up with her dance moves.
I’m not sure if I managed to get the gist of Persian dancing, but I got the hang of it enough to stop stepping on Naslee’s feet. Someone handed me a shot of whiskey which made the dancing a lot easier. I had been scared of making a fool out of myself, but everyone was kind, and I assumed, they didn’t expect me know how to dance like them; they seemed to appreciate my efforts and got a kick out of a foreigner trying to dance like them. Almost everyone danced with me; even Naslee’s eighty-year-old grandmother came up and bumped hips. I seemed to become the hit of the party. Every time I sat down to rest, someone would come by within a couple of minutes and pull me back on the floor to dance. I was eager to please because I was a guest, but it was getting to be too much.
“Naslee!” I called out to her, as her seven-year-old cousin tried to pull me off the couch and spin me around the dance floor. “I really can’t dance anymore. Can you please tell everyone I need a break?”
She laughed and gently scolded her cousin in Farsi-the language of Iran. He blushed and went to go dance with his grandmother who obviously had a lot more energy than I did.
“No problem!” she smiled. “I told him that he had to stop trying to pick up foreign girls!”
Relieved that I got a break from being everyone’s party favor, I got comfy on the couch and checked out everyone else getting down. They having such a good time; this was the first time I had seen so much laughter and smiling the whole time I had been in Iran. Naslee’s mother sat down next to me, and proceeded to-surprise-surprise- complain about the government, namely how it banned dancing.
“It’s in our blood,” she explained. “It’s part of our heritage. Our ancient religion, Zoroatrinism, said it was necessary to have seventy days every year of celebration, for celebration and happiness are what brings one closer to God. But today, our government says that too much celebration and happiness keeps us away from God but,” she shook her head, “I don’t think this is true. Because,” she laughed, standing up and twirling around, “I feel so happy when I am dancing with my family and friends. How can the government say it is forbidden?” she twirled around. “Nights like this remind me of what Iran was like before the Revolution!”
If the dancing, the singing, and the laughter are any indication of what Iran was like before the Islamic Revolution then it must have been a vibrant country indeed. It saddened me that people weren’t allowed to openly do this, to enjoy life in this way because it was forbidden by the government for being “evil.”
The music stopped and Naslee said it was time to go, explaining that her Aunt didn’t want to upset her understanding neighbors by playing the music too late. As we said goodbye to everyone, I felt my heart get heavy as all the women who were just dancing a few minutes earlier, where pulling on their headscarves and hiding themselves back in their coats. It was time to go back out in the world and, once again, face the iron-clad dictatorship that is Iran.
Still, boozing and boogying it up was the last thing that I was expecting to do in Iran. Though it made me sad to see that these people had to hide out to enjoy simple pleasures like dancing and singing, it was reassuring to know that these pleasures hadn’t completely died out, no matter how hard the government tried to assure that this happened.
Mozumi and I left Tabriz the next night and took a train to the capital Tehran. The train was luxurious, with mattresses on the berths and yummy food.
Japanese travelers are serious budget travelers; you wouldn't think they'd be so concerned with saving a buck considering that their country is the richest in the world, but many of the backpackers are. They stay in the grungiest, cheapest places, and will take an uncomfortable 20-hour bus ride over a 10-hour comfy train ride, if they know the bus ride will be cheaper. Lucky for me, the bus and train from Tabriz to Tehran were the same price.
They keep each other informed on places to stay by the guestbooks that are kept at the budget hotels they stay at; big blank notebooks that are filled with maps, bus schedules, visa advice, tons and tons of useful information, if you can read Japanese. Which of course, I can't. English-speaking foreigners don't bother to write in these guestbooks which leaves us to be slaves to the Lonely Planet, which can be out of date and useless at times. So essentially, I was relying on Mozumi as he had the low-down on where to stay, and of course, the Japanese-Farsi phrasebook.
He took me to a grungy guesthouse with dirty sheets, stinky toilets and whose other two occupants were traders from Afghanistan. One had a glass eye and the other only had two teeth. They looked at me strangely, which didn't surprise me, as it didn't seem like the place that many Western women stayed at. These guys and the place in general freaked me out, and so I asked Mozumi to tell the drowsy reception guy that we wanted to be in the same room. He said it was against the law for him to rent a room to an unmarried couple. "But we are married!" I protested, hoping this would give us a room. The guy looked at Mozumi's Japanese passport and my Greek one and just snickered.
We eventually talked the guy into putting us into adjacent rooms. I went down the hall to use the bathroom, and when I finished my business, the two traders were in the hall, joined by another group of scary looking guys that watched me walk back to my room. I like to save a buck too, but not at the cost of being too scared to use the bathroom in my hotel!
I told Mozumi that I was moving going to look for another hotel that I felt more comfortable at. He was into the romance of staying in a hotel with glass-eyed traders and bedbugs, so he stayed, and I went solo, parting ways with Mozumi.
Tehran. A big, tangled metropolis with the best donut shop in Asia. I never thought I'd be eating donuts in Iran, but that's what I had for breakfast every morning. The owners were very friendly and had me over for dinner a couple times. I had an enjoyable four days in Tehran-walking around and checking out Iran's biggest city, until I came across the former U.S. embassy. It's now covered with anti-American graffiti, so of course I pulled out my camera and snapped away. All of a sudden, a group of big and bulky soldiers ran out and demanded why I was taking pictures of a high-security military training camp! How was I supposed to know that's what they did with the U.S. embassy? So they took me in for questioning, but let me go when I told them I taught little children. That seems to work in this country for some reason...........
After crossing the border Mozumi and I shared a taxi to the city of Tabriz with a music teacher and his son. I soon learned that getting through immigration was to be the least of my worries. The people in this country drive like maniacs. Unbelievable, really, for what is more unbelievable than someone reversing on the highway at full speed while the traffic swerves to miss hitting them? Our driver doing the same thing, that is what is unbelievable, and me realizing that it’s quite normal to drive backwards on the highways at seventy miles an hour if you’ve missed your exit.
We finally made it to the city of Tabriz alive. My first day in Iran was a blur of black-chadored women rushing by, Arabic street signs, and the mounting heat under my manteau and headscarf. Women really do have it tough in this country. I looked jealously at the men walking by in short-sleeves.
We were the only foreigners and got quite a lot of attention from everyone. After walking around the city for a couple of hours, we came across a small shop filled with eight men furiously puffing away on hookahs. We stood in the doorway watching, when one of the guys gestured for us to come in and drink some cay. Mozumi had a Japanese-Farsi dictionary and was trying to converse with the hookah man next to him. Amused, because he had probably never seen a Japanese person before- especially one trying to talk to him in Farsi- he grabbed the phrase book as the men all left their hookahs to come and take a look. After the fifth time of being offered a hookah, Mozumi accepted and promptly went into a coughing fit after inhaling. The man was so impressed with Mozumi's attempts at hookah-smoking and Farsi, that he invited us home for dinner. He swerved and veered through the streets with the rest of the maniac Iranian drivers,until we pulled up outside his house. his daughter opened the door, and stood there shyly looking at us. Her mother appeared behind her, giggling, and invited us in. She wasn't wearing a black chador but was still covered with a house coat that covered her head. I wasn't sure if I could take off my manteau and headscard since we were in a private home, so I kept them on. The house was huge, with a big courtyard and more or less mondern looking, except for the plastic on the furniture.
The wife instucted us to sit on the floor where a mat had been laid our with trays of fruit, yogurt, meat, and vegetables. We began to eat and it was delicious. The husband could speak about ten words of English, the woman none. Our basis for communication was Mozumi's Japanese-Farsi book. He would try to communicate with our hosts in broken Farsi with a heavy Japanese accent, and then translate into English for me. It was slow, but it worked well enough to find out each other's jobs and whether Mozumi or I were married.
So much kindness and hospitality-it amazes me that we got invited to someone's home for dinner after only being in the country for a few hours. I think I'm going to like Iran.
December 06, 2003
The next morning Mozumi and I had a breakfast of sesame rings and cay and took a bus to the border. A mini-van, is actually what it was, filled with farmers carrying sacks of flour and figs. We went through Turkish customs, no problem. It was about a five-minute walk through no-man’s-land to the Iranian side. I buttoned my manteau up to my neck and put on a headscarf. My stomach fluttered as we walked up to the Iran gate, the name of the country emblazoned in Arabic, a huge flag waving in the wind. I was excited, I was scared. I was in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I was going to Iran!
The border official came out of his little shack, shaking our hands. I wasn’t expecting that! “Welcome to Iran!” he boomed. “Go inside the office please!” He cheerfully called out something in the Iranian language of Farsi to his buddies inside. They all got out of their seats and stared at us in disbelief, giggling to each other. I took their reactions to our arrival as a clue as to how often foreigners do this border crossing. They motioned us over, and smiling, asked for our passports.
Because of the current political situation, it is extremely difficult for American-passport holders to secure a visa for Iran. I was born in Greece, and thus have dual citizenship, which gives me the privilege of having both passports, and the privilege of being able to get a visa for Iran. My Greek passport doesn’t hide my American nationality, however, as it is printed on the inside page that I am a dual national. I was already nervous about making this border crossing; the fear of there being an anti-American amongst these smiling immigration officials made me even more nervous.
Maybe they wouldn’t notice the dual-national heading inside my passport, I thought. Perhaps it’s just going to be a quick stamp in our passports and into Iran we'll go. Maybe, just maybe, crossing the border will be a lot easier than I had thought it would be.
But when they all gathered around to see Mozumi’s passport, marveling at his visas, the Japanese lettering, and his color photo, I knew there was no chance of that happening.
No one in the Middle East has a problem with the Japanese. And so after the officers oohed and aahed over his passport for about ten minutes, they gave him a stamp, a cup of tea, and welcomed him to Iran. They then motioned for me to hand over my passport.
They all gathered around my passport like they had Mozumi’s, giggling and flipping the pages, and then their faces fell. Here it comes, I thought.
“American?” One of the officers looked at me with a puzzled look. “You are American?”
My hands started to sweat. “Yes, Sir. I am Greek, but also American.”
The men looked at me dumbfounded and murmured amongst themselves. Mozumi sipped his tea and looked around the room. I all of a sudden felt like an idiot for coming to Iran.
One of the men asked suspiciously, “Why do you come here to Iran?”
Thinking this question might come such a situation in Iran, I already had a prepared answer. “Sir, I have heard from so many travelers how beautiful your country is, and how it is filled with historical places like the ancient ruins of Persopolis and the old fort of Bam. I’ve always wanted to see these places for myself, and as I am traveling to India, I felt this was a fine opportunity to do so.”
The man looked at me, and then went back to murmuring to the other immigration officers, who kept glancing up at me. Though I had a visa for Iran, there was no guarantee that I would be allowed into the country. They could easily send me back to Turkey. Or flay me alive and pickle my liver.
“What is your job?” he asked. “Are you a journalist?”
Being both a writer and a teacher, I decided to go with the more innocuous of the two. “Teacher, Sir.” I gulped. “I am an English teacher. I teach children,” throwing in the latter for good measure.
The man quickly nodded and translated to the other officers. After about five minutes of their murmuring and me sweating inside my manteau and headscarf, the officer that had questioned me, stamped my passport.
“Ok,” he said, handing it back to me. “Welcome to Iran.” He stared blankly at Mozumi and I as we quickly walked out of the immigration office. I didn’t get any tea, but hey, I made it into Iran!
I had no problem traveling through Turkey by myself, and was fine with the idea of traveling the rest of the route on my own. What I didn’t want to do on my own, however, was the border crossing between Turkey and Iran, as well as the one between Iran and Pakistan. What can I say? I was excited about doing this trip, but I can’t deny that I was a bit scared about doing it on my own. It seems that single women traveling alone are a real oddity in this part of the world; some women aren’t even allowed out of the home by themselves, let alone travel alone. Borders are full of police men and government officials, and being by myself, I suspected, would draw a lot more attention than if I was with someone else. Nothing would probably happen, sure, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable if I did this crossing on my own. So I’m a chicken….no don’t denying it!
I hadn’t met anyone in Cappadocia?? going to Iran, and so I came here to the border town of Dogebuyezit,?? in hopes of meeting someone. Warnings from Lonely Planet that this town wasn’t safe for women on their own rang through my head. But I was on my own, and if I was to go overland to India, I had to go through this city to do it, as it was the only border crossing between Turkey and Iran. Here in Eastern Turkey I noticed that a lot more women were covered up in full veils and that I, who was uncovered in comparison, was receiving a lot more stares. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I felt threatened but I certainly didn’t feel as comfortable as I did in other parts of Turkey.
An 18-hour bus ride and paranoia had me in quite a state, and so I promptly found a bakery and had a cay- Turkish tea-to get my bearings and decide on a plan of action. First thing I needed to do was find a place to stay, but according to my guidebook, there were no safe places in this city for lone woman to stay. I decided the only to do was to go around to each hotel and find a room that and that had the most locks on the inside of the door. After about an hour mulling over what to do I saw a young Japanese guy walk past the bakery. He was the first foreigner I had seen since arriving. I hurriedly paid my bill and ran out after him.
“Excuse me,” I asked, catching up to him , out of breath. “Are you going to Iran?” He seemed just as surprised to see another foreigner here in Dogebuyezit as I was. “Yes, I am going tomorrow. And are you going as well?” “Yes, and I wanted to ask if I could go with you as I don’t want to cross the border by myself.” “Sure,” he laughed, sensing my nervousness. “No problem, we can go together.” Relieved that I had found a travel companion, I booked a room at his hotel.
All I needed to do was find some clothing that was appropriate for the Islamic Dress Code in Iran. According to the Muslim faith, women need to cover their heads. A majority of women do this in Muslim countries, but in Iran it’s law that all women need to do this, whether they’re Muslim or not. A woman also needs to be fully covered, down to her wrists and ankles. She can either wear a chador-a black cape that covers the whole body and fits snugly under the neck, or the more modern manteau, a loose fitting, button down coat which could be any color. Deciding that I would roast inside a chador, I searched the clothing stores in Dogebuyezit for a manteau. Now that I had met a traveling companion and was more relaxed, I took in my surroundings without so much paranoia. Though Dogebuyezit is in Turkey, almost all the people are Kurds-ethnically different from the Turks with their own culture and language; it’s like being in a different country. And I didn’t realize how different it was until my greetings of “Merhaba!”-Turkish for hello- didn’t go down so well. Because the Kurds want their own homeland, there is a heavy military presence in areas where they live, like Dogebuyezit. Despite all this, I found the town to be a friendly place-once I learned how to say hello in Kurdish. Sure, I got stared at, but it didn’t feel near as threatening as Lonely Planet was proclaiming it to be. Perhaps I should stop reading my Lonely Planet so much.
I thought there’d be tons of places selling garb for Iran, but there weren’t-apparently not too many women cross over into Iran from Turkey. Or too many that need to do last-minute shopping in Dogebuyezit. I finally found a sickly, pea-green manteau. Not my choice of color, but that was all I was getting, and I didn’t think Iran was the place to be making a fashion statement anyways. I bought some headscarves as well, and exhausted from shopping and pre-Iran jitters, I retired back to the guesthouse for some serious slumber.