23 August 2016

The Friendliest People in the World

Welcome to Iran!
On the first day of our Iran adventure, our guide told my friend and me, "There are many wonders to see here, but the greatest treasure of Iran is the people" (my paraphrase).

Having met several joyful, lively, and warm Iranians in my previous travels, I was not surprised--those people were the reason I wanted to come here in the first place! Still, I was glad to hear this sentiment spoken by a local.

Lovely girls at the carpet musem

We Americans understand that politically our two countries are not on great terms. I mistakely though that this meant Americans could not even legally enter Iran. But I learned from my first Iranian friends that, while the process is a bit more complicated than it is for others, it can be done. Someone with the right credentials (usually a tour agency or guide) must first apply on a US citizen's behalf for an approval number, sending that to a consulate (in the States, there's an Iranian Interest section inside the Pakistani consulate in DC). Next, visas must be applied for (I took my visa photo wearing a head scarf!) and collected at that consulate. Then, once in Iran, Americans must always be oficially accompanied. (Near the end of our trip, when it was starting to feel oppressive, we tried to lighten the mood by calling our tour guide "Dad;" good-naturedly, he played along.)

The cost of hiring a guide and the relative lack of freedom compared to travel elsewhere were certainly a consideration, and could be prohibitive for some. But for me, it was totally worth it.

Schoolboys at the White Palace

At first, I was surprised by random people we passed in the street bodly saying "Hello," even "Welcome to Iran," and then just continuing on their way. There was one stern-looking man who didn't even make eye contact but kiddnaperishly whispered, "Welcome to Tehran!" It sort of creeped me out, being my first day in Iran, and having had some last-minute doubts as to whether it really was a good decision to come. But after dozens of these interactions, I saw that it really was something people just did. They would see our "outsider" faces (and, I'm sure, our schleppy hijab fasion sense to comply with the women's dress code laws) and be compelled to welcome us to their land.

Come to think of it, even as we stepped off the plane that first day, we were greeted by a very welcoming and friendly young man who breifly chatted with us, and then later sought us out in the passport control line to give us his number. "Please, call me if you have ANY problems. I will help you. Really, for anything! And if you are in my city, I would love to invite you to my home." It was truly comforting to have his number, just in case. Again, as Americans, I learned that we can't freely visit people in their homes, but we did encounter many European travelers who had been constantly couchsurfing or staying with new friends they were meeting along the way. One Indonesian remarked, "They kept paying for everything! Really, I felt bad how they never let me pay!"

All along our journey we encountered bold and shy Iranians who would ask us what country we were from, welcome us to their country or city, practice their English, and possibly share some converstion, but always abruptly end with a smile and a "Good bye!" so that we never felt like we had to "get rid of" anyone. There were also:
  • The legion of boys who swarmed us at the White Palace; 
  • The people at the square who invited us to join their nighttime picnic;
  • The girls I played volleyball with (again, at the square, at night);
  • The Richard-Marx lookalike waiter that we joked with;
  • The children (and mother) we plalyed badminton with at the old Caravan hotel;
  • Our professorial Tehran driver who played "Stayin Alive" just for us;
  • The photogenic gentleman who posed for us in front of the marble basin;
  • The precious shop owner that was so patient as Phebe contemplated the perfect King Nasereddin souvenir while I watched part of the men's IRAN-CUBA volleyball game on his TV;
  • The subsequent shoe shop owners in the Bazaar who let us watch the REST of the volleyball game with them;
  • The girls at the carpet museum who shared their expertise AND their hearts with us;
  • The man at the tea house with an endless supply of lemons in his pocket, from which he shared freely; and most certainly 
  • Our guide, who spent so much time with us, becoming a real friend.
Badminton partners at the Zeinoddin Caravanserai

I know there were even more I can't recall. I can only imagine how much more we might have engaged with people if we were finding our own way, without a chaperone (Shahram, we appreciate you, but you know what we mean!).

I would love to go back to Iran. I hope that there will come a time when our countries' relations will be less strained, and perhaps there would be more freedom for our peoples to get to know one another as friends. At the same time, I wonder whether the wonderful hospitality we experienced might also be partly because they still enjoy tourists unlike in some other places where we are seen as annoyances and/or big walking bags of money. I hope that Iranians will always be so friendly and warm, even as their tourist industry grows and whatever our political ties may be in the future. For now, I have been immensely blessed to have visited this land and received the hospitality and friendship of the Iraninan people, indeed the true treasures of Iran.

THANK YOU to our guide Shahram of Step to Iran!