Friday, May 29, 2009

Part 3 - Pictures

(See Comments)

Iran & Syria - Part 3

When we set up our trip we asked if it would be possible to meet some average people and have an opportunity to see how they lived. We were told we could “stay a night in a rural home with a nice & kind family.” That sounded perfect and we immediately accepted the offer with pleasure.

Which is how we ended up in Bavanat and came to know Abbas Barzegar and his family. Abbas, an attractive, soft spoken, thin man in his mid-30’s, is the grandson of a nomad who settled in Bavanat some years ago. I guess settling in one location is inconsistent with a nomadic life, but as I understand it the grandfather opted for Bavanat because it would provide year round sustenance for his sheep. He was willing to alter the family’s traditional lifestyle to accomplish this.

Bavanat is a county in Fars Province, of which Shiraz is the administrative center. It is 150 miles northeast of Shiraz in a mountainous region. Until we reached the hills the landscape reminded me of the Southern California/Nevada border. It is desert-like and home to very few people. Once in the mountains it all changed. We went sharply uphill and passed through several villages. While the area is called Bavanat, there are a number of small villages included in Bavanat. During our visit we were located in a village named Bazm.

While it is true that the Barzegars are a “nice and kind family,” and in many ways are average Iranians, we soon realized that Abbas has both an interesting personal history and a strong personal and business relationship with Mohammed Yazdanpanah, owner of our tourist agency, Let’s Go Iran.

Abbas claims to be poorly educated. He may have overstated this aspect of his background, but my guess is that he didn’t complete high school. He does not speak English. When interacting with Abbas, all this is irrelevant. He is smart, charismatic, warm and friendly, and a very shrewd entrepreneur.

About 10 years ago he was running a small grocery shop in Bavanat. One day two German backpackers who were lost asked him for help. He did more than point them in the right direction. He provided food, lodging and hospitality. They became friends, stayed in touch after they returned to Germany and for Abbas an idea was born. He’d enjoyed meeting these foreigners; he’d enjoyed taking care of them. His entrepreneurial spirit told him he might be able to make a living by providing hospitality for other visitors. Since then he’s been turning this dream into reality.

Over the years Abbas worked with various travel agencies. He needed them to link him up with tourists who wanted to include a rural area like Bavanat in their itinerary. He was inexperienced in general and a novice in the tourist industry in particular. What happened was predictable. He got ripped off by the agencies. They’d tell him they were charging ‘x’ and he would get ‘y’ percent of the fee. In fact, they were charging ‘x’ + ‘z’ but his cut was calculated only on ‘x.’

Only when he met and began working with Mohammed was he treated fairly and honestly. It restored Abbas’ faith in the process, led to new opportunities, was profitable and generated in Abbas a fierce loyalty to his partner. When we asked Abbas what we could do to promote tourism in Bavanat he said we should have people contact Mohammed. When we asked for his email address, he gave it to us but added that it was better to write Mohammed. I have every reason to believe that Abbas’ feelings are reciprocated by Mohammed. I found the bond between these two men to be inspiring.

Abbas employs about 150 people, half the working population of his village. In addition to the guesthouse in which we stayed he has a hostel that sleeps about 30, is building a larger up-scale guesthouse, has opened a restaurant nearby and owns several shops in the area. He has a greenhouse in which he grows vegetables, and other land that he uses for farming and grazing. Like I say, a serious entrepreneur.

At the entrance to Abbas’ compound we were greeted by three little girls age 7 to 10 in beautifully decorated traditional local dress. They were Abbas’ daughters (one recently adopted upon the death of a relative.) One was holding a container with smoking incense. We were told that we should bend down and let the smoke waft over us. Another was holding a silver urn filled with symbolically important goodies.

It took us about one minute to conclude that we were thrilled to be in Bavanat. What a great way to start a visit.

I have no way to measure how Abbas’ compound compares to other homesteads in Iran. As it stands I found it impressive. On one side is a mud or clay structure that represents what houses were like centuries ago. Now it is preserved as a kind of museum. To get into it we climbed a ladder and were taken into a room that was set up as a home might have been a hundred years ago. Around the room, in niches and on the floor, were artifacts – tools, vases, pottery, utensils, carpets. Down below at the ground level were several dozen chickens and roosters. I assume that these old houses kept the animals below while the people lived up above.

On the other side is a newer structure that houses the Barzegar family. Walking on back toward the rear we passed 4 or 5 fenced and leashed large, noisy dogs. They are used out in the fields at certain times of the year to protect the crops. They looked and acted fierce, not at all pretty or cuddly, which I assume is the point. But since when we were there they weren’t out working I was glad they were penned up and restrained.

Back at the rear of the property is a new building where we stayed. While it lacks some amenities I would have liked, it is very well done. Abbas obviously tried hard to make it attractive and comfortable for his guests. It has two bedrooms, two large rooms that serve as living and dining rooms, a modern kitchen, and two bathrooms. It is decorated with pictures, photographs, carpets and local artifacts. Certain traditional items are there to protect against evil spirits. The building is clean and feels new.

There are a few problems with the guesthouse. Our bedroom had two single beds. A large bed would have been more to our liking. We had an ineffective heating device in our room, and it was cold at night. Mehdi told me that in the other bedroom that he and Mahyar used it was too cold to sleep. The bathroom is small with no bath and a shower that is almost unusable. And cold. Finally, the dining room chairs were uncomfortable. So I hope Abbas does better with the new guesthouse he’s building.

These less-than-perfect items didn’t detract from our overall feeling that coming to Bavanat was a wonderful experience. We’d do it again and recommend it to others.

Before dinner we went over to a special room in the family quarters, sat down on the floor in front of an open fire and had tea. Abbas and his daughters were there. We hadn’t yet met his wife. The water for tea was heated in an old teapot set atop the burning logs. We were told later by our Iranian friend, Monib Khademi, that having tea in this setting and in this way is very typical of how things are done in Iran. We had a choice of tea. I opted for what Abbas called Pharoah tea, a stronger than usual variety.

After tea we went to the family kitchen to meet Abbas’ wife and observe her dinner preparations. Mrs. Barzegar was an attractive 30-something, slightly shy and eager to please. Two other women (relatives I think) were helping her. Dinner was delicious (not surprising since it was all home cooked), as were breakfast and lunch the next day. I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember exactly what we ate, except for wonderful eggs at breakfast. Sandra remembers that we had a lentil soup that was special and that everything was delicious, but is also short on specifics.

The next morning we took a drive and had a walk to get a first hand look at village life and the countryside. In the Bavanat area groves of walnut trees are everywhere. I love spending time wandering through these small places. The roads are unpaved. The houses are simple. The people are not accustomed to seeing outsiders. The kids peak out from gates and windows. It is an ingenuous setting, honest and unpretentious.

At lunch I talked a little with Abbas about his business. He said he hosts about 4,000 guests a year. Last year 70 Americans came to Bavanat. We were the first Americans to visit this year. I had the sense that he is somewhat of a poster boy for Iranian tourism. He’s never been to the U.S., but he’s been in Europe and Asia to promote tourism at conventions and other events. He proudly showed us a scrapbook of pictures from those trips. He also has a video that was made (I don’t know by whom) promoting Bavanat. A couple of years ago his daughters made an appearance with President Ahmadinejad, and of course that was featured in the video.

We completed our visit to Bavanat by trading gifts. In addition to chocolate and postcards we asked if it was appropriate to give a cash gift to his daughters, who were very helpful to us and their parents during our visit. No problem, they said, so we were happy to do it. They gave us several items, including two small handmade balls that, while decorated and pretty, are mainly meant to protect us from evil spirits. Whatever I may think about evil spirits, it was nice to see that certain traditions haven’t died away.

Once we left Bavanat it didn’t take long before the hills were replaced by desert – flat and sand as far as the eye could see. We were headed for the Zeinodin Caravanserai, one of the inns built on the Silk Road to accommodate travelers and their animals on the trade route between Asia and Europe. I became familiar with the caravanserai phenomenon when we were in Turkey a few years ago, but I’d never stayed in one. I’d now have a chance to fill in that missing piece of my biography.

Over the centuries hundreds of caravanserais were built. Some say they originated in Persia. Zeinodin is a classic small caravanserai built by Shah Abbas I early in the 17th Century. It has been faithfully renovated and turned into a hotel. The entrance leads into an open to the sky circular courtyard around which are six guest rooms and hotel facilities. The inside walls of the enclosure are filled with large rooms that in the old days were stalls for animals or chambers to accommodate merchants, their servants and merchandise. Today they are used to house tour groups and assistants like Mehdi and Mahyar. Sandra and I were among the favored few and had a room facing the courtyard.

It sounds a little more exotic than it really was. Our room was a small, dark space with two single beds and very little else. No closet. No sink or bath or toilet. No dresser. One light bulb. Common bathroom facilities on the other side of an open courtyard are not my favorite thing, especially in the middle of the night, but I’ll spare you the details. I’m sure what we had was better than what was available to travelers and their camels when they arrived at the end of a long, dusty day on the road. Even so, at the creature comfort level Zeinodin struck me as more fitting for ascetic monks than pampered Americans.

At another, more important level, being there was a terrific experience. It is an oasis setting, a lovely structure alone in the middle of the desert, nothing close by. We went up to the roof at sunset to enjoy the fading light and stillness. The public spaces are wonderful. The courtyard, the dining area, the entrance, all are decorated with carpets and artifacts from the past. An area just outside the door to our room was like a carpeted porch – a place to sit on the floor with pillows to lean against – great for reading or writing.

I’d say the caravanserai was ‘casually’ managed. More camaraderie than efficiency. The visitors were all foreign tourists, mostly European (we shared a dinner table with some Spaniards.) The hotel staff and tour guides seemed to know each other well. A buffet dinner was served about an hour later than the appointed time. The food was mediocre and, for Iran, highly priced. It was so much a setting that catered to non-Iranians that the usual dress code for women was not required.

With all that could have been improved, the Zeinodin Caravanserai provides a unique experience. That is what is promised and they do a good job of delivering on their promise. I’m glad we stopped there.

Getting ready to leave after breakfast the next morning was easier than usual. We hadn’t unpacked anything except a few necessities. But getting ready to leave didn’t equate to actually leaving. I wish I could say that loading our luggage into the car got easier as the days went by, but it was an ongoing struggle. Every day was like a Day 1, with the lessons from the previous day(s) forgotten. Sandra and I dealt with it by making sure that one of us was present to oversee the process.

It didn’t take long to get to our next stop, Yazd, an oasis where the Dasht-e Kavir desert and the Dasht-e Lut desert meet, and capital of Yazd province. It is architecturally unique (almost everything is built from adobe), and is known for its silk weaving and sweets shops. Yazd is also a center of Zoroastrian culture. Several people had told us that Yazd has a special ambiance, is a very pleasant place to be. They were right.

On the way into town we stopped at a Zoroastrian Fire Temple that houses a flame said to have burned continuously since 470 AD. For Zoroastrians fire (and water) are key elements of ritual purity. It isn’t the fire itself so much as the clean, white ash that is produced and used to purify worshippers. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I find Zoroastrian temples to be more kitschy than beautiful. This one didn’t change my opinion.

Later, to complete our mini-tour of things Zoroastrian, we drove out of town to see (from a distance) their Towers of Silence. For practitioners, a corpse is a vessel of decay and must be disposed of in a way that does not pollute the environment. This is done by placing the body atop a hill in a sacred spot easily accessible to scavenger birds that function as a clean-up crew. The leftover bones are buried in sealed ossuaries.

As I understand it, these days Zoroastrians either bury or cremate their dead, so the Towers of Silence in Yazd are preserved relics from the past. Some years ago I visited (again from a distance) the Towers of Silence used by Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis) in Bombay. It’s possible that these are still in use, but recently they’ve had a problem in keeping the tradition alive (so to speak). Why? There is a shortage of vultures needed to get the job done. But that’s a story for another day.

In Yazd we visited the city’s two large mosques. It will come as no surprise to hear that they are beautiful. But what really stands out for me is the time we spent walking through the Old Town. I’ve been in many Old Towns in many countries, and I’ve never tired of wandering through the narrow, twisting lanes that lead me past houses, shops, public spaces, sacred places and special-purpose buildings of all kinds. In the process, of course, I encounter the people who live there. That’s the way it was in Yazd.

Mehdi pointed out that two ancient wooden doors lead into each home. Mounted on each door are metal knockers that don’t match. One is meant to be used by women, the other by men. Since the sounds are different, if you are inside you know whether the person knocking is male or female. These knockers are beautifully designed.

We saw many buildings that are equipped with windcatchers (badgirs), a traditional Persian architectural device used for centuries to create natural ventilation. Windcatchers are tower-like structures that capture the breeze, send it down through a shaft and then through cool water, which creates a cooling effect on the other side. Windcatchers are not only practical, they are lovely to look at.

We came upon a children’s playground. We passed an old madrasa, where children have been educated for centuries. We found a tiny bakery, crowded with stone ovens, workers and customers – and providing mouth-watering aromas. We had a snack in the basement of an old building originally used for – I can’t remember what, sorry. We exchanged dollars for rials in a shoe store. (Since it was done openly I assume it was a legal transaction, but I don’t know for sure.) We asked why a large color photograph was in the rear window of a car. I thought maybe it was the face of someone running for office. Turns out it is the recently deceased father of the car owner, and he is being honored. We watched women shopping. Sandra found a sweets shop, which facilitated her ongoing research project to taste and assess personally every available Iranian cookie. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

We had lunch in a great restaurant, Hamam Khan, which was formerly a bath house. It’s a wonderful space, almost like being in a museum. Lots of diners. Good music in the background. And the food wasn’t bad either – we had fesenjan and meatballs. Dinner in Yazd was at the Silk Road Hotel. It is a simple establishment that I would characterize as backpacker-friendly. Their eating area is in an outdoor garden (not a particularly beautiful one) and the menu is limited. Always willing to take a chance on something I haven’t had before, I ordered camel stew. It was disappointing. Not much taste and very fatty. I suspected a higher end restaurant would do better with camel. Alas, I didn’t find camel on the menu again, so I wasn’t been able to test my suspicion.

Before we arrived in Shiraz I’d never heard of a Zurkhaneh, which literally means “House of Strength.” Mehdi told us about it and thought we’d enjoy seeing one. A Zurkhaneh is a traditional Iranian gymnasium in which their national sport, called Varzesh-e Pahlavani, is practiced. He said that there were no tournaments taking place during our visit, but clubs that compete practice every day and often open their practices to the public. It sounded interesting, and said, “Let’s go.”

So we found ourselves at the Saheb.A.Zaman Club in Yazd. They would be practicing at 6 the evening we were in town. At the top of a flight of stairs we entered a large, high-ceilinged space. In the center was an oblong pit about 3’ deep with a floor of clay. Around the periphery were folding chairs for visitors like us. On the walls were pictures, banners, quotations and other paraphernalia. On the floor in the space between the chairs and the pit were dozens of weighted items of various sizes and shapes that would be used by the club members as they practiced.

Facing us on the opposite wall about 15’ above the floor was a man who would lead the exercises by playing a large drum, singing epic songs and reciting the poetry of Hafez. The words and music were amplified, so once the leader got started it was very loud.

The roots of the Zurkhaneh and Verzesh-e Pahlavani go back thousands of years. Over time the pastime has been adapted to fit and promote Islamic culture. It is more than a sport and includes moral qualities and values such as courage, selflessness and, above all, faith and loyalty to the Prophet and Imams. So when the competitors/performers practice or compete they combine tests of physical strength and flexibility with specific rituals.

Since I knew nothing about the way the sport is played or the symbolism involved, I could only respond to what I was seeing in front of me, but that was more than enough to be a treat. Nine or ten men were in the pit. They ranged in age from teenagers to one man who was in his 50’s or 60’s. Not surprisingly he looked to be the fittest and most skilled. They exercised and danced with and without the weighted items. They were at it for about 40 minutes, during which time we were mesmerized. The music and poetry had a hypnotic effect on us and the other 30 or 40 people who filled the room.

The Zurkhaneh and Yazd itself were memorable. It would have been nice to spend more time there.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Part 2 - Pictures

Top & Bottom: Vakil Market
Naqsh-e Rajab
Rock Tombs
Dan & Mehdi at Persepolis

Iran & Syria - Part 2

Saturday, April 4 began with a visit to the Karim Khan Citadel and Baths. King Karim Khan ruled during the Zand Dynasty in the mid-18th Century. He built this fortress and lived in it. Later it served as the governor’s headquarters and then, in the 1920’s, was converted into a prison. Now it is a museum.

What most captured my attention at the Citadel was a display of old black and white photographs. They provided a glimpse of life in Shiraz a hundred or more years ago. Or at least life for those at the top end of society. It was reminiscent of the way Indian maharajahs and nawabs lived in those days.

Karim Khan was also responsible for building the Vakil Mosque and Bazaar, both of which I found impressive. As a generalization, every major mosque in Iran is a wonder to behold. This is not the place, nor do I have the requisite expertise, to discuss each mosque we saw in a way that distinguishes one from the other. For that I suggest you consult books or articles on the subject and look at pictures.

It is possible, however, to provide a short primer on Persian mosques. Typically they have a dome and an entrance eivan, a barrel-vaulted structure, that leads into a large courtyard surrounded by arched cloisters. Behind these are four inner eivans, one for each direction of the compass. One eivan includes a mihrab that faces toward Mecca. Sometimes the roof of the inner chamber is held up by dozens of columns.

What makes Persian architecture unique is the lavish use of surface ornamentation and color. Tiles decorate the walls and domes not only of mosques, but also shrines, tombs, and more. The peak period for tile making was the Safavid era (1502-1722). Tiles are made in two ways. The best tiles are mosaics, tiny pieces that fit together to form a whole. Less prestigious are square tiles with a painted surface, called “seven colored” tiles. No matter how the tiles are made, the array of colors and overall impact of these structures is staggering.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that bazaars are where life happens. Call them by whatever name suits you – bazzars, souks, markets, malls – their common purpose is to entice people into (usually) tight spaces to facilitate shopping. These are the places where everyday tasks are done. But it’s more than just doing business or buying things. In the bazaar people relate to each other. They trade information, gossip, argue, brag, opinionate, laugh.

I love these markets. I may not be able to speak the language, but I can observe what’s going on, see how people behave with each other. I can feel the energy, the pulse, of the place. Always, no matter where in the world I am, I’m struck by how much the atmosphere is at the same time foreign, alien to me, and familiar. Walk through a bazaar in Asia or the Middle East and you’ll see how much people are both different and the same. Watch the children at play. The games may be different but their enthusiasm is universal. Watch the women talking to each other. They may be covered head to toe in black chadors in the Vakil Bazaar, but as they lean toward each other in an animated conversation, they could be anywhere. Have I mentioned that I love these places?

U.S. economic sanctions against Iran have been in place for 30 years. In some ways trade and financial restrictions have had an impact. For example, even though Iran is OPEC’s second largest oil producer, most of which it exports, sanctions have made it difficult for Iran to maintain its refineries, so domestically petrol is in short supply. Also, high oil prices helped Iran provide subsidies for its people, but as the price of oil has fallen the subsidies have been reduced.

Even with these negative economic realities, in the Vakil Bazaar and the other marketplaces we visited in Iran we saw few signs of scarcity or a lack of willing buyers. The shops were stocked with a wide variety of items, many of which were imported. Obviously we didn’t conduct a serious research study, but our impression was that at least at the bazaar level Iranians were doing OK.

Having said that, we did hear complaints from younger people that it is hard to get ahead financially, that jobs are hard to get, that salaries are not high so it is hard to save, that real estate to buy or rent is expensive so they have to continue living with their parents when they’d rather be out on their own, that they had to delay getting married because they can’t afford it.

We followed our Bazaar stroll with lunch at another impressive eating establishment, the Sharze restaurant. We had a table upstairs, looking down on an attractive central courtyard and musicians who were doing a great job of entertaining us.

After lunch we went to the Shah-e-Cheragh Shrine. The shrine houses the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad (brother of Imam Reza, who was a descendent of Mohammed and the 8th of the 12 Imams of Islam), who died in 835 AD. Now, this one is a serious piece of work.

Mehdi kind of hustled us into the place without really explaining what was going on. First, Sandra needed to go off to the side and get a chador to wear. It was typical of what is provided for female visitors at many mosques and shrines – a brown, tent-like garment that is worn over the clothes you have on and covers you head to toe. It is difficult to keep closed, so for the novice it is clumsy to wear.

Then he headed her off to what turned out to be an entrance for women. Until then we hadn’t realized we would have separate entrances. Sandra, not knowing what to do next, went inside. As it turned out once she was inside some women took her in tow and guided her through the process.

Mehdi then hurried me off to the men’s entrance. He was obviously concerned about how Sandra would fare, so I spent less time inside than I would have liked. He didn’t want her to come out before we were finished and not know where we were.

I’d never experienced anything like this shrine. The inside was reminiscent of the Hamze Shrine in that the walls and ceiling were covered with countless tiny mirrors that gave off multicolored reflections that were dazzling. There was a decorated floor to ceiling wall in the middle that divided our side from the female side and in essence made one half of the tomb itself available to be seen and touched by each sex.

For Shiites, visiting Shah-e-Chergagh is an important pilgrimage. It is clearly an emotional experience, and many people were quite vocal in expressing their emotions. I was fully occupied in just taking it all in. I would have liked to take pictures but photography is not allowed.

Mehdi gave me just one instruction: when starting to leave I should back away toward the exit so as not to turn my back on the revered tomb. I followed his instructions, and all too soon we were outside again. Sandra, of course, was in no hurry, so we waited some time before she appeared. For both of us, Shah-e-Chergagh was one place we’d have no trouble remembering.

Our final stop of the day was at the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. It won’t surprise you to hear that it, like all the others, is lovely. But in just two days we’d overloaded on Islamic monuments of various types. It was time to relook at our schedule with Mehdi.

We were originally scheduled to stay in Shiraz the next day, April 5, and see more mosques, palaces, gardens, etc. Then on April 6 we’d head out of Shiraz toward a small village, Bavanat. En route to Bavanat we’d stop at Persepolis, Iran’s best-known ancient site dating back 2,500 years, and the nearby necropolis, i.e., rock tombs of the Persian kings, and the tomb of Cyrus in a place called Pasargadae.

Our favorite lover of old stones, Ms. Marsh, had a different idea. How about we go to Persepolis and environs tomorrow and then if the spirit moved us we’d have time for a second stop on the way to Bavanat? While Persepolis itself gets the most attention, the necropolis and Cyrus’ tomb were on her agenda and she wanted to make sure that we left no (old) stone unturned and saw everything. Accepting this plan would require Mehdi to alter his idea about what we should do and when (a challenge for him) and he would also need to make some logistical changes. After some conversation the new plan was accepted. We’d go to Persepolis (about an hour drive from Shiraz) tomorrow.

But we still had dinner in front of us today, and it was to be a special one. We’d been invited by Mohammed Yazdanpanah to dine with him and his family at his home. Mohammed owns and manages our tour agency, Let’s Go Iran. We realized that for him this was a business dinner, but for us it was another chance to have a meal in an Iranian home.

Mohammed is an impressive guy. He’s about 35 and very entrepreneurial. When I was investigating various tour agencies to decide which one to use, I didn’t realize that several agencies with different names are owned by the same person. It turns out Mohammed owns about six agencies and has a number of other tourism-related businesses.

My assumption is that Mohammed was particularly interested in taking good care of us because we’re Americans. Compared to tourism in other countries, even though Iran has much that could attract tourists its tourist industry is small. And in terms of American tourists, it is tiny. Most of the people traveling to Iran are Europeans. If relations between our two countries improve it is likely that the American market will open up. Mohammed is well aware of this.

He lives with his family in a large house passed down to him through his family. His living quarters and furnishings are upscale. The first thing we noticed upon entering was a huge flat-screen TV tuned to a Los Angeles-based Iranian station. Also at dinner were Mohammed’s wife Lada, Mohsen, his younger brother who had been our driver for the first two days, and a friend who owns a well-known Shiraz restaurant, Teen.

Lada was wearing western dress and told Sandra she was free to take off her “uniform.” Sandra was thrilled to be rid of her head scarf, at least for a few hours. Then Mohammed offered us drinks. I was surprised, but probably shouldn’t have been. I’d heard that in the privacy of their own homes many Iranians disregarded the prohibitions in force when they were elsewhere. He had vodka and scotch. I opted for vodka over ice. It would be the only booze I had in Iran, and I totally enjoyed it.

The dinner and the evening were also totally enjoyable. Mohsen is just finishing an engineering degree and will soon go into the military for his 2-year mandatory service. Lada seems quite westernized and bemoaned the fact that she hadn’t been given permission to travel to Sweden, where she has a married sister. The Teen owner (I can’t remember his name) brought the food from his restaurant, which was delicious. Had I not known otherwise I would have assumed it was home cooked. We must have had a good time. It was almost midnight by the time we got back to the hotel.

For our drive to Persepolis and for the next 10 days until we flew back to Tehran we had a different car and driver. It was now Mahyar and his bright yellow cab. Mahyar is 29, married and expecting his first child. He has studied computer science but hasn’t yet found a job that allows him to use the skills he learned in the university. He fancies himself as an English speaker but has only limited facility in the language. Mahyar is a very nice guy but is not the brightest light in the chandelier. He lacks whatever it takes to learn from the past and not make the same mistake repeatedly. But our relationship with him was as a driver, and he’s very good at that job. I doubt there’s a person alive who could drive a vehicle I’m riding in and score at the top level on everything I care about, but Mahyar would come close.

Which reminds me – what is it like to drive in Iran? Well, the answer comes in two parts. There is driving on the highway and there is driving in cities. About the former, not many problems. The highways are easy. They are well maintained, the traffic is light, and there seems to be an acceptable level of courtesy on the road.

Driving in the cities inspires a one-word description: insane. Traffic is heavy. There is a winner-take-all mentality. There is no readily apparent concern for the other guy irrespective of whether the other guy is in a car, on a motor scooter or is a pedestrian. In a society where the rules of the game are different for men and women, I saw no sign that sex matters in urban traffic. Nor does being young or old make any difference. Everyone is fair game for the traffic predators, and to be out on the streets assures that you will be either the hunter or the hunted – or both. The only possible exception is large vehicles. Trucks and buses have an advantage and they make full use of it.

As an observer, the only thing that surprised me was that there were not more accidents. Vehicles entering a line of heavy, moving traffic barely slowed down. They forced their way in. And once in the traffic they constantly maneuvered for an advantage, forcing the car next to them to move over, slow down, speed up or stop. The process was never ending. And it seemed to be done without emotion. When someone lost their little mini-war with the next guy they didn’t show any anger. I didn’t see fist waving or hollering or horn blowing. It was just on to the next battle.

As a pedestrian I was a frightened novice. Intersections and crosswalks guaranteed nothing in the way of safety. On a busy street I’d ally myself with others who were waiting to cross, and then move out when they moved out – hoping that our numbers would act as an inhibitor for the bad guys. It must have worked; I didn’t get run down or injured.

Mahyar’s car wasn’t the newest item on the highway, but it was medium size and under most circumstances would have been acceptable. But I had a concern about whether all our luggage would fit in the trunk. We had two large and two small suitcases. If you know me you know that I don’t assume everything is going to be OK. When my instinct tells me that something may be wrong or could go wrong I want to find out in advance whether my concern is justified or not.

I looked at the trunk space. I didn’t think it was large enough. But both Mehdi and Mahyar assured me there would be no problem. I expressed my doubt that they were right, but since we wouldn’t be packing up and leaving Shiraz with our luggage until the next day I decided to let it go until then. I’ll return for the conclusion of this saga in a little while. Today would be about going to Persepolis.

We went to the rock tombs, called Naqsh-e Rostam, first. They are magnificent. Cut out of a cliff high above the ground are four tombs. While there is some debate about it, they are believed to be the resting place of the Archaemenid kings who ruled from 522-404 BC, Darius I, Artaxerxes I, Xerxes I and Darius II. The openings of the tombs lead to funerary chambers where bones were stored after vultures had picked them clean. Alexander sacked these tombs in 330 BC. Below the openings are impressive, well-preserved bas-reliefs that honor monarchs from the Second (Sassanian) Persian Empire that began in 224 AD.

Facing the cliff is a half-submerged stone cube building thought to have been an ancient fire temple. In a fire temple (Surprise!) fire is worshipped. This is in contrast to other temples in which an image is worshipped. I think Mehdi and Sandra were more fascinated by this old cube than I was.

Our final stop before lunch was Naqsh-e Rajab, nearby cliffs in which were carved more large, monumental Sassanian bas-reliefs depicting various military campaigns and victories. While the scenes themselves were impressive, I was amazed that after something like 1,700 years these out-in-the-open rock carvings are in such good shape. I would have thought that erosion and/or earthquakes plus destructive conquerors would have destroyed them.

We ate lunch at Cane Tavoos (don’t know what it means), an open-air eatery that exists solely to feed Persepolis visitors. It is an attractive space, with the tables set among trees and next to a pond. Here, as elsewhere in Iran, two things were ubiquitous – music and birds. Rarely were we in a public space in which no music was playing, and most of it was traditional Persian sounds that I found pleasant, not intrusive. So too with birds. They were everywhere. Mostly small birds with small tweets that were easy to enjoy.

For a lover of old stones it doesn’t get much better than Persepolis. As you know, I find it hard to visualize how ancient ruins might have looked in their heyday. What I see, to repeat myself, is old stones. But even for an ornery resister like me, what remains today at Persepolis is sufficient to get a sense of what it was like between about 518 BC when Darius the Great began building his empire’s capitol city to when Alexander burned it down in 330 BC. It was obviously extraordinary.

The columns, gateways, staircases, statuary, palaces, bas-reliefs, and the sheer scale of the city combine to leave the viewer awestruck and maybe even a little humbled by it all. I’m told that while Persian in ideology and design, Persepolis incorporated architecture and artistry gathered from throughout what was a vast empire.

I won’t go into detail about our visit to Persepolis. There are more than enough words and pictures easily available online and elsewhere. We spent both an afternoon and the morning of the next day wandering through the site. It may be the most memorable part of our exploration occurred as we walked down the main staircase of the Apadana Palace.

The wall of the staircase is covered with three tiers of bas-reliefs that depict a procession of 23 delegations bringing their tributes to the king. At the top of the staircase Mehdi told us where the first delegation was from, described the unique aspects of their dress, pointed out the various gifts they were bringing, revealed the little-known symbolism that could be seen in the panel, and more. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting. I wonder if he’ll do that for any of the other delegations.” I should have known. He talked about each and every delegation in detail. All 23 of them. We heard about the Arabs, Thracians, Indians, Parthians, Cappadocians, Elamites, Medians, and the rest. If was a tour de force.

We called it a day about halfway through what there was to see. Sandra had been brilliant in suggesting we organize this day and the next so there was time for a return to Persepolis if we wanted. Which we did. We finished our walkthrough in the morning and then went to Pasargadae to see the Tomb of Cyrus, which was also on the way to Bavanat. I could have done without Cyrus and other ruins in Pasargadae. Maybe it was because they paled in comparison after Persepolis and the rock tombs. Maybe it was because I was over my limit of so many old stones jammed into two days. Maybe it was because they were just boring. Any explanation will do.

On our ride to and from Persepolis I noticed trash and litter everywhere I looked alongside the highway. At first I thought it might be an isolated instance that could be explained. But the more we traveled the more it became clear that this is just the way it is in Iran. It’s really a shame, since the natural beauty of the countryside is phenomenal. It’s like a massive garbage dump has been spread out to cover every nook and cranny. There were some places, like deep into the desert, where the trash thinned out, but that was a rare exception. Even when we drove through unpopulated areas we saw a lot of debris. I can only assume it is the result of decades of irresponsible behavior and neglect.

We were about to spend our final night in Shiraz. We realized that this was our only stop in Iran where we’d be able to settle into a four-night stay in one hotel. For the next ten days we’d be in each place only one or two nights. Barely enough time to unpack. But we’d knowingly set it up this way, so we weren’t inclined to complain.

The itinerary also required many hours of driving most days. I’ve mentioned my concern about whether Mahyar’s car had enough room for our luggage. It turns out when we were preparing to leave the next morning my fears were realized. One of our large bags and the two small ones would fit in the trunk, but not both large ones. “Don’t worry,” Mehdi said, “we’ll put it on top of the car.”

I didn’t like the idea – at all. But I couldn’t see another way other than changing car and driver, which didn’t seen like a practical solution at this late date. There’s a subplot here. We had contracted to have one person who would be both a guide and driver. It was clear that the agency was having a problem finding such a person. We learned later that there are very few guide/drivers, and Mehdi isn’t one. He’d told us at the beginning he wasn’t sure if he’d be with us for the entire trip. He didn’t say that they hadn’t been able to find a guide/driver (this was the high season and guides were in demand) but we could figure out what was going on. Our hope was that even though we’d paid for one person we’d end up with Mehdi and a driver, which is what happened. Thus my conclusion that changing car and driver wasn’t a practical solution.

Back to the lack of luggage space. Mehdi and Mahyar started to tie the suitcase to the luggage rack on top of the car. They were hopeless. No way would the bag not fall off. One of the men from the hotel came to the rescue and did a competent job of securing the suitcase. So now we were ready to go – almost. I asked if they had a cover for the bag, since the weather was changeable and it was sure to rain, if not today then someday soon. No, no cover. So we had to stop to buy a tarp. With that in hand we were ready to head to Persepolis and on to Bavanat.

The ‘let’s put the suitcase on the roof of the car’ chapter only lasted for the first leg of the drive. By the time we arrived in Persepolis, even though the thing was securely tied on and we were (kind of) prepared for rain, my displeasure with this solution boiled over. We had to find a way to get the bag inside the car with us. We found that we could wedge it into the space between the two seats in front, which meant it was partially between Mahyar and Medhi and partially between Sandra and me. For us, we now had less space in an already limited back seat area. But it was better than leaving the bag on the roof. Sandra and I switched seats every day to distribute the discomfort fairly.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Part 1 Pictures

Hamze Shrine

Mrs. Saei

Lunch is Served Emperor Room at Ferdowsi Hotel


Iran & Syria - Part 1

This is Part 1 of my chronicle about our “What/Why?” trip.

“Where are you going next?” I’d be asked.

“Iran and Syria,” I’d reply.

“What?” was the first (incredulous) reaction.

“Iran and Syria,” I’d repeat.

Then, after a moment of stunned silence and an “Are you crazy?” look, would come the “Why?”

I’d explain that thousands of years of Persian history had left countless ruins – temples, ancient cities, ziggurats, piles of old stones all over the place, and Sandra has an ongoing love affair with old stones. She’s never met an old stone she didn’t want to see and learn about.

And more recently Islam, in partnership with Persian art, architecture and poetry, inspired the creation of some of the world’s most beautiful mosques, gardens and other public spaces.

Now would come the “Yeah, buts. . .” Yeah, but don’t you know that for the past 30 years America has been the Great Satan? Yeah, but those guys are developing nuclear weapons. Yeah, but have you forgotten they fund and support terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah? Yeah, but their crazy President, Ahmadinejad, denies the holocaust and wants to destroy Israel. Yeah, but you’re not only an American, you’re a Jew. Doesn’t that worry you?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all that. And “No,” I’m not worried. I’d heard and read that without exception tourists in Iran and Syria, including Americans, said they’d been greeted warmly, felt safe and recommended that their family and friends take the same trip.

Besides, for many years we’ve made a habit of traveling to unlikely and/or exotic places. These include Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Myanmar, Borneo, Egypt, Turkey, and more. Going to Iran and Syria seemed to us to be a continuation of our natural pattern.

I’m not a great fan of old stones, but I am a fan of people, and I wanted to see for myself what life is like for an Iranian or a Syrian. I was under no illusion that spending a few weeks on the ground would make me an expert. I did think I’d get a sense of what is going on and perhaps even gain a few insights. So on the evening of March 31, 2009 we boarded United flight 926 bound for Frankfurt, where we’d connect to a Lufthansa non-stop headed to Tehran.

In the lead-up to our departure I posted a few Iran-related items on my blog site: This is what I said on Jan. 9:

Our on-again off-again trip to Iran is on again. We had tickets to go a year ago and then realized that we'd be there during their two-week New Year celebration. Not the best time for visiting. At the same time our macho Texan in charge of going to war was saber rattling. Better not to be there if the Americans were going to bomb the place. So we decided to reschedule for this spring, figuring a new president was a safer bet, at least in the near term.

Israel is always a wild card in the Iran equation. We had no doubt they'd take military action when they felt the threat pushed them past their boiling point, which is low to begin with. As it turns out they're now diverted by Gaza and that should slake their need for blood for a while.

As we discussed this trip over the holidays both Sandra and I realized that our reluctance to push the 'go' button had less to do with any possible war than with not being eager to go on another long trip so soon after our 3 1/2 weeks in Italy this past fall. But also we saw the likelihood that if we didn't go at this point we might never do it. So we concluded - Let's do it.

Our original plan was to include Syria, Jordan and Greece. Then we began thinking about Uzbekistan. Samarkand, the old Silk Road, sounded kind of exotic. That would mean not going to the Middle East. But in the end we went back to Syria and Jordan, but not Greece, which would have jammed us into a timetable that was too compressed. (In a final reevaluation Jordan was also dropped in favor of more time in Syria.)

So the decision was made. And I went to work researching and contacting travel agents in Iran. Americans can get a visa for Iran, but are required to be in the country on a guided tour. The tour doesn't have to be large - 2 people are fine, but the arrangements must be made by a local agent.

From the beginning one travel agent, Let's Go Iran, most favorably impressed me. They responded quickly, paid attention to our preferences and interest in a slightly off-beat customized itinerary, were competitive in price, and seemed to have the right approach to customer service.

So yesterday I agreed to use them and we're moving forward. Our contact is someone named Parisa Evazi. From the tone of the emails I received I assume Parisa is a woman. Our last messages were particularly enjoyable. She asked if we wanted to include a camel ride. Cutting it would reduce the cost slightly. I suggested we bag the camels and commented, "I find camels pretty uncomfortable, don't you?"

She said: "Well, regarding camel riding idea. To be honest I am afraid of touching animals, so never never, even in my dreams try to test riding them."

We leave March 31.

I had more to say on March 19:

I wrote in January that we were organizing a trip to Iran and Syria. We're down to the final part of the process - visas.

Syria isn't particularly difficult, unless your passport shows you've been to Israel, in which case it's VERY difficult. I have a relatively new passport. No Israeli stamps.

For Americans to visit Iran we must have a local Iranian tour operator put together the trip and apply for a Visa Authorization Number. We made the application in early January, and for more than two months there was no sign we'd be approved.

Then just the other day we were authorized. That meant we could now send our passports and applications to Washington, which we did FedEx overnight, and actually get the visas. The only problem is that time is short. Norouz, the Persian New Year, begins tomorrow, so the Iranians (who are located in the Pakistani Embassy) won't be working. Nor will they work Monday. Our departure date is a week from Tuesday, the 31st.

I'm told by TDS, a visa facilitating company we're using, that we have enough time. We'll see. I don't trust foreign bureaucrats to move quickly. Check that. I don't trust any bureaucrat, foreign or domestic, to move quickly.

In the meantime there is nothing to do but make our final preparations and wait for the process to unfold. TDS knows they have to expedite things. They sound like they know what they're doing. And like I say, we'll see.

Telling people about this latest jaunt of ours elicits two reactions. First, "What?" Followed by, "Why?" Let's just say we like to visit places that are off the beaten track. For Americans at least, Iran and Syria qualify.

To be continued . . .

Finally, on March 30 I posted this blog:

The visas came through. Late, but not too late.

We leave tomorrow. Back on April 26.

I doubt I'll be adding to this blog while we're on our trip, but you never know.

Stay tuned.

As it turned out I didn’t post any blogs during our travels. However, I did take notes and we did take a lot of pictures, so now I’ll put it all together.

We landed at Tehran’s new Imam Khomeini International Airport a little before 2 in the morning. It had been 22 hours since we left home. I’m usually not sleepy after a long flight, but more just weary and a bit spaced out. It didn’t take long to clear immigration and customs. In fact, the Iranian officials on duty didn’t seem remotely interested in giving us a hard time. The visa that had taken so long to get was all that interested them.

The visa, by the way, is a thing of beauty. Look at your passport. You’ll find that most visas and entry authorizations are old-fashioned stamps that fit in one of the four little squares on each page of your passport. Not the visa for the Islamic Republic of Iran. It fills an entire page and is seriously high tech. It includes my picture, a hologram, and digital information. Very impressive.

Our arrival in Tehran gave Sandra her first chance to done the required "uniform" for women. Or, as it is euphemistically called, "modest dress." This means a headscarf and outer garments that are shapeless and fully cover the body. She wore them with good grace but definitely didn’t love them. It was interesting (and amusing) to watch women on the plane as we were preparing to land. In business class, where we were, we’d noticed that most of the Iranian women were well-dressed, fashionable and chic. They too put on their uniforms before the plane touched down. They retained their elegance, but now they were now appropriately dressed.

The airport is about 40 kilometers from the center of the city, so even in the middle of the night the ride into town takes a while. We were met by Kambiz Madanipour (Kami), who would be our guide in Tehran, and a driver. Kami is a cool guy. Tall, shaved head, 38 years old, bright (a little arrogant) and a good communicator. His personal story is a sad one. He is married and has a 2-year-old daughter. His wife has terminal cancer and is being cared for by her family, so Kami lives alone in Tehran. He sounds philosophical about his wife’s illness, but I think it is a cover to mask some feelings he doesn’t want to express publicly.

It’s always a little eerie to arrive in a new city when it’s dark and mostly closed down. You get brief glimpses of what it must be like in the daylight, but except for a few bright lights it’s mostly a mystery. Two things stood out on our ride to the hotel. First, along the main roads incongruous red, blue and green neon lights illuminated overpasses and other structures. Then, once we got into the city the driver used a series of empty narrow streets (I had the impression that maybe he was lost) to get to our hotel, the Ferdowsi. The route he followed wasn’t a problem; it just seemed to me that with light traffic the main roads would have made more sense. But then, what do I know about driving in Tehran? Ferdowsi, by the way, was a highly revered 10th Century Persian poet whose memory is honored on buildings, squares, and streets all over Iran.

We were very happy to be in a hotel, and the promise of a bed was very appealing. The receptionist said we’d have the Emperor Room, whatever that meant. It turns out the room was furnished in a faux-opulent style, with over-the-top bedspreads and drapes. I would have happily traded them for some counter space or cabinets in the bathroom, of which there were none. I think every room in the Ferdowsi is an Emperor’s Room. When we returned for an overnight stay at the end of our trip we had a different room with the same furnishings.

We slept reasonably well (it was close to 4 a.m. by the time we finally got into bed) and awoke on April 2 for our first full day in Iran. As it turns out, my itinerary planning was a bit flawed, since this was also the 13th and final day of Norouz, Persian New Year, a major national holiday called Seezdah Bedar. It is a day when traditionally families hang out together, usually out of doors, and everything is closed down. We didn’t want a heavy day of sightseeing anyway, but more a day to recover from our journey, which was fortuitous since we didn’t have much choice in the matter.

We had arranged with Kami to meet us at the hotel late morning, which he did. Even though they were closed, we could walk through the Golestan Palace/National Museum area to get a sense of what it is like. The Golestan is a monument that highlights the excesses of the Qajar Dynasty (1779-1925) in Iran. The Lonely Planet has this to say: “The Qajar Dynasty was a disaster for Iran, transforming 2,500 years of empire and influence into an international laughing stock in just a few decades.” Not spending time in the Palace was no great loss, although the Museum is said to be worth a visit. And then, because we’d expressed an interest in seeing the Tehran Bazaar, he took us to the also-closed Bazaar. It was deserted, so we could only imagine what it must be like on a normal business day.

The highlight of the day, and one of the highlights of the trip, would come in the afternoon. Kami had arranged for us to have lunch at the home of his friends, the Saei brothers. The older brother is a lawyer; the younger one is completing his studies in tourism management. They and their two sisters (who we did not meet) live with their mother in a nice apartment in West Tehran. Their father died not long ago.

We had read and been told that Iranians are very hospitable; that if one is invited to someone’s home for a meal it is an opportunity not to be missed. It’s all true. Their mother had prepared a feast, which we ate Persian style on a floor covered with gorgeous carpets. We must have had 12 dishes – rice, pickles, chicken, kebabs, yoghurt, vegetables, and more. Before and after lunch was served we were encouraged to eat fruit, nuts, cookies and other miscellaneous goodies and drink tea. It was impossible not to overeat. But given that this was our first real meal in Iran and everything was delicious we didn’t hold back.

Mrs. Saei is a lovely woman. While she is on the shy side and speaks no English she is a powerful presence in her home. We asked about the spices she’d used for our meal. In addition to describing them she put together a selection of spices for us to take as a gift. We traded gifts in both directions. We had brought chocolates and postcards from San Francisco, which they seemed to like.

Kami wanted to say his prayers after lunch. In fact, he wanted to say his prayers twice, since he’d missed one of the calls to prayers in the morning. We watched as he performed his ritual ablutions, washing different parts of his body in a prescribed sequence and manner. He did it in the kitchen. Given that the family has 3 refrigerators, a stove and other appliances, once all of us were in the room space was limited. When he had completed his ablutions we adjourned to the room in which we’d eaten and he said his prayers there. Sandra and I observed the process; the others went about their business.

We were scheduled to fly to Shiraz in the evening, so after our wonderful lunch we headed for the airport. We had time to spare and used it to stop at new shopping mall not far from the Saei apartment. It would be a chance to get a look at a modern Tehran bazaar. I was underwhelmed. It was large and unpretty. Granted, it had the requisite high-end shops, places to eat, and a play area for the kids, none of which interested me. It may be that my aversion to shopping and shoppers put a damper on any enthusiasm I might have generated for the mall itself, but my prejudices aside – I didn’t think it was very well done. However, Kami seemed to think it was impressive, so what do I know?

The old international terminal, Mehrabad, is now used for domestic flights. It is functional and without charm. Given the way our day had gone, we could have taken an earlier flight to Shiraz. At this point we were very tired and looked forward to getting settled into another hotel and another bed as soon as possible. Time passed slowly, but it did pass. Our plane was on time, the one-hour flight was uneventful, and we landed in Shiraz at about 10.

We were met by Mehdi Fatemi, who would be our guide for the next two weeks, and Mohsen, a driver. They took us to the Aryo Barzan Hotel, we agreed on a time to meet in the morning (not too early) and finally, thankfully, we could go to sleep.

Shiraz is a city with a big reputation. It is celebrated as the home of Persian culture. While Shiraz was settled as early as the Achaemenid Period beginning in 550 BC, it was at its peak from the 13th to early in the 16th Centuries. Shiraz is synonymous with art, education, poetry and enlightened rulers.

Shiraz was home to two of Persia’s most famous poets, Sa’di in the 13th Century and Hafez in the 14th Century. As a matter of fact, the first two places we visited on our first day in Shiraz were the tombs of Sa’di and Hafez. In retrospect, given the orientation of our guide, Mehdi, this is not surprising. Mehdi is enormously proud of his country’s heritage and is an avid advocate and promoter of things Persian. His mastery of Iran’s history is phenomenal. He has an encyclopedic knowledge at his fingertips and brings it to bear whenever it is called for (and sometimes when it isn’t called for.)

If there is a downside to having Mehdi as a guide it is that he cares so much about everything and wants so much to share all of it with those he is guiding, it can be overwhelming. This is less true for Sandra than me. I like to ‘be’ in places. I’m happy to be in the space and take it all in viscerally. Not Sandra. She needs to know everything about everything. The only person I know who is even close to being as curious and questioning as Sandra is her mother. A good example of the fruit not falling far from the tree. So with Mehdi, Sandra was like a pig in shit (no offense intended.) Her endless questioning generated endless answering.

For us Mehdi presented an academic personality and mostly a serious demeanor. He was friendly and attentive to our wants and needs, but he didn’t often remove his professional mask. He wanted everything to run smoothly; when something went wrong he was distraught. Once in a while he asked a question of us – say about the U.S. – but we were surprised that he didn’t have more curiosity in that regard. At 32, Mehdi had been a guide for four years. He seems happy with the job, likes traveling, and is certainly good at it.

He showed a different personality when interacting with our driver, who was Mohsen for the first two days and then a man named Mahyar Geramizadegan. We spent dozens of hours on the road. For almost all of those hours Mehdi would be in a non-stop conversation with the driver. An animated conversation, with a lot of back and forth and many laughs. So I’m sure that in his interactions with us we saw only a part of who Mehdi Fatemi is.

As far as what we saw and did during our 16 days in Iran, at one level it lives for me as a swirl of mosques and shrines and temples and old stones and gardens and hotels and restaurants. When I go back over each day’s events and use my notes and pictures as reminders to jog my memory, or ask Sandra for clarification, I can usually distinguish one place from another and remember details. And certainly there are some aspects of our trip that stand out as memorable, with or without notes and pictures. But it is easy to get lost in the mass of it all.

Having said that, we had a very busy April 3 in Shiraz. It was Friday, the Muslim world’s Sunday, so the stores were closed, but Mehdi wasn’t going to let that get in his/our way. We went to Sa’di’s tomb first. It dates from the 1860’s. Except for an underground fishpond and teahouse, which was crowded, the grounds were tranquil and attractive. Inscriptions of verses written by Sa’di are everywhere.

Just after we entered the main part of the tomb a man came up to Sandra and wanted something. At first we couldn’t figure out what was on his mind. Then it became clear. His wife, a traditionally dressed woman about 50, was standing a few feet away, and Sandra was being asked to go over and stand next to her so the husband could take a picture of the two of them. There was no verbal communication that we could understand, but Sandra was happy to comply. Once the picture was taken the two women shook hands and went their separate ways.

Shortly thereafter, a young man down in the fishpond area approached me and started a conversation. I began to respond, but didn’t get far before Mehdi interrupted and not-too-gently suggested that the young man move on. I didn’t object, even though I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I learned later that Mehdi was concerned that the man might have been an undercover policeman trying to lure me into a conversation. I think he was being overly cautious, but maybe I’m naïve. I had already decided to avoid commenting on Iranian political subjects. I was willing to offer my opinions about my own government, but not theirs. So in my view, no harm, no foul.

Throughout our time in Iran, and Syria too, we found that many people wanted to at least say “hello,” and ask where we were from. The interactions were fun and not substantive. Americans are not often seen in this part of the world, and when we told them we were Americans they seemed genuinely happy to see and meet us. After that first day at the fishpond Mehdi didn’t attempt to shoo the people away.

The Tomb of Hafez, placed here in 1773, is in a garden with pools. Hafez is a folk-hero in Iran, loved and revered and more famous than a rock star. For many people visiting Hafez’ tomb is a pilgrimage. I don’t think at the time we had a full appreciation of how important a person Hafez is in the day-to-day life of Persians.

Before and after lunch we visited two Shiraz gardens, the Afif Abad Garden and the Eram Garden. They were – fine. At the time I can’t say my interest level was very high, especially because the day was cold and rainy. We were to find that the weather in Iran in April was much colder than we had expected. On many occasions we wished we’d have packed some warmer clothes. Looking back at my pictures of the gardens I think I should have enjoyed them more. They are lovely.

I was also coping with an eye problem those first couple of days in Iran. On our flight to Frankfurt I’d left my contacts lenses in, even though I knew I’d be sleeping on the plane. By the time we reached Frankfurt my eyes were bothering me a lot, so I removed my lenses and changed to regular glasses. Good idea, bad result. With glasses I had terrible vision. Couldn’t read the signs in the airport. So I went back to contact lenses. I was able to see, but in the process I further traumatized my eyes.

For as long as I can remember I’ve flown with my lenses in. Somehow, this time it didn’t work, didn’t work at all. So in Tehran and then in Shiraz, to give my eyes a chance to recover I went back to glasses. I could see well enough to function, but as we made our way around Shiraz my eyes were a distraction.

When we set up our itinerary we chose to eat breakfast in our hotels and have our other meals in restaurants, where the food is generally better and less expensive. It was a wise decision. Mehdi would decide where we’d eat lunch and dinner. Not all the restaurants were wonderful, but I’d attribute that more to what’s available in Iran rather than to Mehdi’s culinary prowess. While we tried many new dishes and enjoyed some of them, if gourmet food is really important to you I wouldn’t recommend Iranian restaurants as the place to satisfy your gastronomic needs. There are many delicious Persian dishes, but most are available only in private homes.

I’m usually not hungry in the morning, but after a few days of sampling various breakfast buffets in our hotels, I settled on a breakfast that satisfied me. Eggs if they were available, a roll or bread of some sort, cucumbers, a slice or two of soft white cheese, yogurt, olives (sometimes), and fruit if it looked fresh and appealing. We had been led to believe that we’d have trouble finding coffee. In fact, I can only remember one breakfast where coffee was not available. Often it was Nescafe, not wonderful but acceptable. Sometimes it was freshly made and very good.

Our best lunches and dinners were often stews, khoresht, accompanied by white rice. The khoresht might be primarily eggplant or fish or meat. We were shocked at the volume of rice that was consumed at each meal. Both Mehdi and Mahyar seemed to have no problem finishing their huge mound of rice; we couldn’t begin to eat that much. The rice is steamed in a way that leaves it fluffy with separate grains, not sticky as in some parts of Asia.

We loved Tah-deeg, a golden rice crust created at the bottom of the pot. Tah-deeg can be plain or made by spreading lavash (Persian bread) or potatoes on the bottom of the pot. However it was made, I never met a Tah-deeg that I didn’t like.

We were also fond of Fesenjan, a casserole type dish with a sweet and tart sauce made from pomegranate and ground walnuts. Fesenjan is cooked with either chicken, duck, lamb or beef and, like other stews, is served with rice.

Mehdi suggested we try Tahchin, a special stew made with chicken or one of the other meats, but we found that it was hard to find a restaurant that served it. When we finally located Tahchin I wasn’t as fond of it as he was.

Another hard-to-find dish was Dizi. Eating Dizi is a two-part process. Part 1 is to strain the cooked solids (chickpeas, white beans, lamb, onions, tomatoes, limes and assorted spices) and then drink the broth that remains. Part 2 is to mash the solids into a paste and eat them separately. Dizi is traditionally cooked in stone pots. I thought Dizi was more interesting than delicious.

We had a dish (I don’t know the name) with eggplant and chunks of yogurt or cheese that was delicious. As we traveled from city to city I kept trying to find it again, alas without success.

What was always available was kebabs – chicken (usually too dry), lamb or beef (usually too tough) or minced (usually too bland but often the best of the evil assortment.) In more than one restaurant the only thing on the menu was kebabs. My previous experience with kebabs in India and the Middle East was invariably positive, so I was surprised that the Iranian version was invariably uninteresting.

Also, bread was always available. We had a variety of local breads – some very thin, some thicker, some oval, some round, some plain, some with different seeds or flavors. I’d say we enjoyed the bread in Iran but didn’t fall in love with it.

I liked Doogh, a yogurt drink that we called Lassi in India. I had it for the first time at our Tehran lunch at the Saei apartment, made freshly by Mrs. Saei. Later, I saw that bottled Doogh is easily available. Not surprisingly, it is bland and not nearly as tasty. Since alcoholic drinks are not allowed in Iran, water was our drink of choice with meals. We wondered how we’d do on a wine-free diet for 16 days. It was less onerous than I might have imagined. We most missed having a glass of wine in those free hours before dinner, when sitting around with a glass is a pleasant bridge between the day’s activities and dinner.

Mahyar loved to drink non-alcoholic beer. I’ve had non-alcoholic beer that is drinkable. This liquid (it has nothing to do with beer) is noxious. Almost all of it is flavored – a mango flavor, an apple flavor, a spice flavor – each more disgusting than the last. There is one that is made plain, no flavor, but it doesn’t help. Still disgusting. I had a couple of small sips during our travels. My opinion didn’t change.

Sandra has a sweet tooth. She can’t pass a pastry shop without stopping, at least to look. From time to time she’d graduate from looking to buying. Always, she’d buy more than she or we could eat. So over time we collected a stack of boxes, each holding one of the delicacies she couldn’t resist. They were usually too sweet for my taste. An exception was Gaz, Persian Nougat made from the sap of an exotic Persian plant and mixed with various ingredients including rose water, pistachio and almond bits, and saffron.

One day we had Faludeh, a sort of frozen sorbet made from thin starch noodles and rose water. It came in a little cup with a spoon. I ate mine quickly. We were walking around and Sandra wanted to eat hers slowly to lengthen the savoring process. She didn’t realize that it would melt, so she was left with half a cup of milky fluid that didn’t resemble Faludeh.

Ah, but I digress. Back to our first day in Shiraz. We ate lunch at Soofie, a large and very well done restaurant. Like many restaurants we were to see, Soofie was artistically pleasing, with mosaics, stained glass, pictures and metal and glass artifacts of all kinds. In addition, a small fountain added to the atmosphere. The food was pretty good – rice and small meatballs + rice and fish.

Our main event in the afternoon was a visit to the Ali Ebn-e-Hamze Tomb and Shrine. We learned that these shrines, some of which are quite extravagant, are places where believers come to be blessed by being in at least the psychic presence of a holy person. They may want help in having a wish or prayer answered. They may want to give thanks. They may want to express their grief. Shrines are places where people can express their emotions.

I don’t know why this man Hamze is celebrated. As the nephew of the 7th Shiite Imam he seems an obscure figure to us. But whatever the reason, this shrine is quite extraordinary. Inside is a large green-tinted space with walls covered by dazzling mirror work and stained glass windows. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or put off by the garishness of it all.

From the shrine we went to the Old Gate of Shiraz, called the Qur-an Gate, because when it was built in the 10th Century it housed two old copies of the Koran. Travelers passing through the gate were thought to have received blessings from the Holy Book. We climbed up a hill overlooking the Gate to a nearly abandoned outdoor tea pavilion. Remember, it was rainy and cold. We sat inside one of the tent-like structures, partially open and partially covered and, appropriately, had a cup of tea. Then it was back to the hotel for a well-earned rest.

We ate dinner at the Palm Garden, another large restaurant. From the street we walked along a pathway through a garden filled with private cabanas for small groups, most of which were empty. In the back was the main dining area for larger groups and people like us, also mostly empty. The kebabs were lousy. The live traditional music was very enjoyable.

And with the end of Day 1 I'll conclude Part 1. More to come soon . . .