Took me 3 years to finish this book because I kept putting it off in favor of more interesting things. The truth is, it was too real and required so much of my brain power, that I needed my entire will power to see it through (as I typically read books for leisure and not necessarily learning). This book made me think a lot so I wanted to save the notes I wrote down on my little notebook and asked my brother to type (haha). He had time because of the lockdown. I’ve not put an effort to summarize this book as I think it would be a lie to pretend that I’d be able to summarize all the ideas it put forth. Every single statement I saved here is worth a separate conversation altogether.
The bed creaks
an undulating rhythm
Rising chests and sinking limbs,
one on top of the other
fighting for a single soul
Struggling to get out of binding ropes
A moan is stifled
but it gives way
Far too strong to be silenced out
The earth shakes
and a few stems fall,
but they were not roses
While finally reaching the summit was exhilarating, it was the memory of darkness slowly descending upon the forest as April and I climbed the final steps together back to Timpohon Gate that was the most memorable for me. Definitely a trip that made us realize “you win some, you lose some”. In this case, we reached the summit but didn’t make the cutoff time for the Via Ferrata (consequently forfeiting the money we paid because we had underestimated Mt Kinabalu/overestimated ourselves). And in addition, because of twisting my left knee, I had to ask someone to carry me for the last 1.5 km of the trail before the 1 km mark. Not only was it embarrassing, but it also felt like a personal defeat. But walking the final 1 km together with April, even at a snail’s pace and in pain, was what felt like the real achievement. A lot of respect and gratitude goes to our mountain guide, Alfred – and the rest of the guides and community in Mt Kinabalu that keep the park clean.
On another note, Mount Kinabalu’s summit was definitely breathtaking.
In keeping up with tradition, I am again dedicating a post to mark the beginning of this year and remember the year that had passed.
There are numerous things that come back to me as I remember last year.
I went somewhere late January to pursue adventure, and either of the two – love or closure. I never was able to determine which exactly was it. But by the end of that trip, I definitely secured the former, and as for the latter two, it felt for a good while that I got neither. There is difficulty in explaining it out of context, but if you can imagine an experience where you both fall in love with a person even more while simultaneously realizing how impossible that love is – that was what it felt like. I left that place in tears. I cried a full day, which conveniently equated to the entire journey back, if you don’t consider the fact that it meant I cried in the bus, in the airport, in the plane, and in the cab. The strange thing was that it mostly wasn’t for the failed love story, but for the profound confusion that it left me with.
I tried to write about it over the entire course of the year, to salvage the adventure I had there which was truly remarkable and worth writing about. I even tried to write about it now, but ended up deleting it. In any case, as a result of that experience, my positivity when that year began had to be set aside because I felt I had given away too much of myself. If I didn’t find those pieces again, at least I had to replace them. Only then would I have anything to give.
On one hand, this left me slightly callous, more cautious, less feeling, a little bit jaded – in a lot of ways too independent. On the other hand, my deliberate creation of space around me allowed me to rediscover and pay more attention to the relationships that mattered. I made time consciously for people I wanted to be with (including myself), and things I wanted to accomplish. There weren’t any big goals achieved last year, but there were numerous small goals that I wish to celebrate – rekindled friendships, strengthened relationships, newfound friends, new hobbies, new places, consistent exercising, a good year at work. In less abstract words, everyday phone calls to my dad, spending more time on relationships I had previously neglected, forging new friendships, getting into sports climbing, my first trip to Europe and the Middle East, traveling with good friends, sticking to a 7am swimming habit, working on both my strengths and weaknesses at work, and everything else in between. In truth I wasn’t able to do everything that I had set out to do when the year entered, nonetheless it was a year worth celebrating.
In spite of this, there are numerous shortcomings I became more aware of. My lack of long-term plans, how I’ve left my faith obscurely defined, shutting people out of my life as a defense mechanism, and being more self-centered rather than selfless. I am thankful that somehow despite all of this, I managed to overcome what I thought was the slow disappearance of my belief in love. I was in fact still able to love my friends, my family, other people. Imperfect love, but love nevertheless.
Yesterday, as I stood in the room of a person who I could call “lolo” (grandfather) yet truly wasn’t quite anyone to me – a distant relative, we’ve had limited past interactions perhaps less than a handful of smiles exchanged in this lifetime, I was gripped by the sight of him. He was my father’s distant uncle, his daughter requested for a visit in my dad’s capacity as a nephew and a doctor. He’s been confined in bed for 6 months, protein wasting is evident with his lack of muscles, missing dentures, and weakened strength. He was in good hands with his family, he had everything he needed. It was simply a consequence of old age. Yet the sight painfully reminded me of life wasting away, of my mother during her last few months, of the fact that my parents – our parents – are approaching the end of their lives as well. In a decade, maybe more, perhaps just a few months even. I thought I knew death better already after writing the book about grieving my mother, but it surprisingly still made me physically uneasy. I saw in his eyes the pure happiness from a simple visit. It made me realize that only company could console you in your dying days, yet perhaps it was also company that mattered the most in your living days. It made my first few days of the year spent in the company of my family feel more precious.
This year, I want to feel more again. To be softer, but still a little bit reckless in the spirit of adventure. To be more resolute, and to acknowledge my dependence. I want to buy those tickets to follow my heart, and those tickets to come back home. I want to continue the cycle of this life’s ups and downs – losing and rediscovering myself again and again.
I apologize to anyone I’ve hurt or offended. To relationships I’ve allowed to fade or fall apart, perhaps there’s a chance of reconnecting in the future, or perhaps just wishing you well is for the better. Most importantly, my wholehearted gratitude goes to the people who have filled my year with great memories, life lessons, opportunities of growth, and genuine affection. I will leave you all unnamed, but know that every small thing matters to me.
In turn, I hope you’ll also be able to recognize and appreciate the small things that I will try to do for you.
Negros Oriental, Philippines
If I learned to love
My patches of hardened skin
The slight kink of hair that I took trouble smoothing
An imperfect smile in certain angles
Flesh and folds in the wrong places
Half-baked thoughts that bore no wisdom
Words I have regretted saying
Parts of my heart that I have shamelessly given
If I learned to love all of those,
Perhaps then only can I be whole.
You once asked me, “don’t you think there’s a reason why we met?”
I’ve long deleted our conversations, but words can have a way of staying. Some stubbornly stain your consciousness indefinitely, even when they no longer carry any meaning or feeling. Until one day they take the form of your current reality. And then, they go away.
I used to believe in “things happen for a reason”. But no reason can ever justify the magnitude of atrocities in this world. So I no longer did when you said that. I’ve since told myself that we make things happen. For the things we didn’t want to happen, we make them our reasons. And so, to finally answer your question, “maybe not, but you might be the reason for everything else”.
After all, not all stains leave a bad mark.
“Tin is going to Iran. Stop her.”
My dad found out about my plans to go to Iran through my brother. I had plotted to make my dad think that I was going to tell him news along the lines of me having a boyfriend/me running away with a man/me being pregnant. The plan was then to take all the worry away by letting him know I’m just going to Iran to travel. My brother, ever weak in getting hints, failed to get on board with my strategy and told my dad about it before I could. “I would think he would be more worried if you travelled to Iran than if you actually had a boyfriend LOL”, he answered me over text when I confronted him about his misalignment. “Whatever”, I replied. When I finally called my dad to tell him the news I’d been holding back for a few days in suspense, he already knew it and berated me for a while on the phone. Just a minute perhaps, and he finally said “Just make sure you join a tour group.” I was surprised that that was all it took and thought he’s finally learned to accept my taste for adventure although I did feel a tinge of guilt that I was making him worry. In reality I bought the tickets months beforehand but wanted to spare my dad the sleepless nights knowing how he was. But I couldn’t not tell him either – so it was before my birthday or never. Roughly two months before the trip. At least he’ll have to forgive me on the 1st of October.
That was the end of it, or so I thought. Until I realized my dad had launched a campaign behind my back with all my aunts and uncles. The first line on this blog post was the only clue I got that this was about to start – he sent that to our extended family chat. Soon enough, my aunts and uncles and cousins started sending me messages to dissuade me from going. There was war, was I crazy, I was tempting fate, was I testing God, I was wasting my life, etc. I tried to tell them as much as I could that “It’s just a vacation, relax”. “Why not go to Dubai? To Europe? There’s tons of other places other than Iran?” And that was exactly the reason why – why would I go to all those cliché places? It was hard to explain that those places didn’t interest me at all. And that I wasn’t traveling to go on a holiday, I was traveling to experience something different and write about it. I wasn’t naive though – I did read the news. I did worry when that oil tanker exploded, and the Saudi oil plant got attacked, and new sanctions were imposed. But it was hard to let go of that dream when I already made the decision months ago . I just had to take that calculated chance. And being calculative was what I thought I was good at.
Although I had already tried lessening planning on my last solo travel, I felt the burden to ensure my safety in this trip, if only for my dad. Otherwise I could have allowed more room for uncertainty. But my dad was on fire and I had to douse that fear with a detailed itinerary. As Ray told me “Just when your dad thought nothing else could beat India, you come up with Iran”.
I started planning a month before my trip although I bought my tickets 5 months ahead. I built my spreadsheet by first deciding on the places I’ll cover (the most difficult part because there were so many beautiful places I had to choose from. I cried a little inside when I took off Qeshm island and Kurdistan from my list), my accommodations, and lastly deciding whether I was booking tour guides or not. All of this I did mostly within one entire Saturday locked up in my room with just muesli for breakfast/lunch/dinner. The rest of the time leading up to the trip was spent tying any loose ends. But going to Iran wasn’t something routine, I had to worry about the visa (potentially getting banned from USA and Israel), the dress code, and any other special nuisance that I could potentially run into. For the visa, I could get it on-arrival or pay for a visa authorization code through someone based in Iran to get a pre-approved visa. So the next step was to look for someone to do that. I had no Iranian friends, and I knew no one close who had Iranian friends. It meant that I had to crowdsource for information on See you in Iran’s Facebook (the most popular Facebook group for traveling to Iran – it’s equally filled with both genuine travelers and tour guides constantly offering services through DMs and friend requests), scour through multiple conversation threads, and read reviews/stalk people to assess if they were a good choice or not. This was how I “virtually met” Aryani, another Filipino who had been to Iran and offered to get her friend, Baba Abi, to get me the code for free. Aryani also kindly gave me a lot of advice for my trip, and I’m extremely thankful for her unconditional help. While it was really nice of them, as I wasn’t that keen on inconveniencing someone I didn’t know, I thought to look for an alternative option myself. Apart from that, patience wasn’t one of my stronger suits. There were too many choices so a systematic search was impossible, I just went with my intuition and luckily I found Amin from TasteIran. I used TasteIran to get the code (for peace of mind and because I did not want to face the possibility of getting denied entry). When I first filled out their application form and got reverted to a page to make payment without the standard “https”, I decided not to pay. “This might be a phishing website”, I thought. I gave it up and decided to maybe just ask Aryani’s help, but then Amin texted me that I had an incomplete application form and that I could complete the payment using the link he sent. Amin called me “Tankeh”, my middle name, because I had erroneously auto-filled the form with my middle name as my first name. I corrected him that my name was Christine, and being skeptical and at times too honest, I told him flat out that the payment site didn’t seem secure so I wasn’t comfortable putting my credit card details. Naturally Amin tried to assure me that it was secure. “How do I confirm the visa code I get from you is real?” I risked being rude but I just had to ask it. Amin kindly told me that foreigners can check the code at the official Foreign Ministry of Iran’s website. I ran a quick search and judged it as true, so I planned to just monitor my credit card bill for any other strange transactions and decided to continue with payment. When I finally met Amin in Iran, he recounted this conversation we had as something so funny for him – and that he was actually travelling in Nepal at that moment with his wife, Hanieh, preparing to sleep for an early trek. He decided to pursue my application because I was of course a potential client, and thank god he didn’t give up even when I asked those things. I didn’t plan on getting them as a tour agency, but Amin was so helpful and always responded to my Whatsapp messages. So when it was getting too late to make my own detailed itinerary for each city, I decided to make my life easier and just go for them to get individual tour guides in some cities. Their mission was to provide unique local experiences through sustainable tourism and upon inspection of their website and reviews, it felt genuine enough. That was to be confirmed in Iran, but in any case it was good to support their tourism industry, and I knew I didn’t know enough about Iran to think I can do without guides in some places. If I got conned, well that was part of the risk. Amin kept calling me Tankeh even after I corrected him, and I only decided to correct him again that it was Christine when we finally agreed on a plan – my reinforcing my correct identity signifying my decision to trust him. I got Iranian insurance from them (it was another requirement, and it had to be from an Iranian company) as well as an Iranian debit card (DaricPay). Amin allowed me to dictate the tours that I wanted, he never tried to hard-sell anything to me and that was why I found it easy to trust him. I emphasized that although I wanted tour guides, I valued my independent experience. That was why I booked all my accommodations and transport separately. He helped me book a couple of bus tickets and a plane ticket, things that definitely saved me time. Just to add variety, I decided to get an altogether different tour guide in Tehran – Ali. I also found Ali from the See you in Iran FB page, and when I tried talking to him he seemed indifferent enough to whether I’d get him or not. Always a good sign, so I decided to arrange my Tehran experience with him. When that was all set (not without a lot of questions and answers between me and Amin and Ali, bless their patience), I proceeded to plan what to wear as it had a more restrained dress code than India, and what to bring as tokens for the people I’d meet (I settled with chocolates and Abi, Aryani’s friend who I agreed to meet even if I didn’t get the code from him, had made it easy for me by specifically requesting for 40 packs of Mi Goreng – Indonesian instant noodles. I got him 20 packs lest the Iranian immigration think I was going to sell them for profit). That necessitated me to carry a suitcase, otherwise I risked breaking all the noddles before reaching. “A backpack and a suitcase, there can’t be anything sillier than that?”, I thought to myself initially. I was aghast at the idea when I first realized I had to do it, but soon enough it made so much sense. I’ll leave the suitcase at Tehran, and come back for it to put all my shopping inside. I wasn’t leaving Iran without pretty Persian tiles. After that, I started building my Persian playlist to set the tone of the video I planned to make. I wanted to determine the feeling I’d go for before I started filming – although I never do film consciously. If anything, I just wanted a good offline playlist while on the road. To my surprise, Persian music sounded a lot like Indian music – and so I loved it immediately. It had more of an old world vibe to it though, which made it feel more timeless. I was getting in the mood to go to Iran.
My departure for Iran was not at all smooth. Something at work came up and I had to push back my entire trip by two weeks, involving the repurchasing of 1 flight and the rebooking of another. A week before my trip, my grandfather passed away. I went home for 3 days, but it was difficult to have to tell my relatives that I couldn’t stay until the burial of my grandfather. I knew they largely disapproved of it, and considered it disrespectful. But my grandfather was 90 years old, he had lived a full life and I have done what I could for him while he was alive. I was faced with a decision of mourning with my relatives the way that they expected me to, or taking an opportunity I knew might not open up for me again – and this I realized was what growth pains felt like: making a decision out of your expected character that you’ve outgrown, and owning up to the consequences. I chose to go because life had to go on. There was nothing I could do for my grandfather at that point. I had paid my respects, and there were other ways to celebrate his life. And in truth, I didn’t go home for my grandfather, I knew he was in a better place. I went home for my father, because I knew he was the one who needed it the most. And somehow I knew that even when my dad tried to dissuade me, some part of him actually approved of me going. He would tell all my relatives about my incredulous travel plan asking them to stop me, but he almost sounded like he was bragging about how much I dared to go there. That was exactly what my mother’s death taught me, that life is short – that we should go for our dreams while we can. That was what my dad told me years ago, when my mom had her 2nd cancer recurrence. He took me aside one day and told me that he wanted me to live my life, implying it could potentially be short if I ever had cancer. He probably doesn’t remember that, but that conversation never left me. My dad did tell me though that I took an unnecessary risk and that risks were for noble things. I told him I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was just being myself. I was trying to live the way I wanted to but couldn’t before, the way I might not be able to in the future. I want to go to places to be able to write stories – it was something I was passionate about. I knew it was painful for him to worry given my preferred destinations, but I had to live my own life and face my own risks. Mamoti if you’re reading this, I hope you understand. And thank you for understanding.
In addition to both of these, my flight was again unceremoniously rescheduled by Oman Air just 2 days before my trip, this time due to technical issues. I had to buy new flight tickets for my SG-KL leg because of this. My workload was at the heaviest point right before I left, I had been getting off work late everyday for the last 3 weeks before my trip, something uncharacteristic since I started that job. I monitored the news every single day leading up to my departure, and right at the morning I was about to leave, I woke up to a forwarded article from my dad that an earthquake had occured in Iran the night before. To top it all off, I also had a slight fever and a fully-developed sore throat. It was enough to make me have second thoughts for awhile. I texted Amin and Ali, just to get their affirmation that everything was okay – because earthquakes happen anywhere in the world and Iran sat on top of major fault lines after all. After calming myself down, I headed to the hospital to get medicine before I went to the airport. Luckily there was time. I wasn’t going to give up this trip – not at this point, not after all that trouble.
When I reached KL, I looked around for ladies wearing hijab to mentally rehearse the style I could use when I got to Iran. From my research, I knew women in Iran had a relaxed way of wearing their hijabs, leaving a good portion of their hair exposed and it almost was a hair accessory sometimes. But all the women in KL wearing hijabs wore them to the full extent with their entire hair covered. I took note of that difference at that point, but it was only when Flo, an Austrian I met in Yazd told me, that “that was the difference. In countries like Malaysia, the women had a choice if they wanted to wear the hijab or not. In Iran, they didn’t have that choice”, did it make a lot of sense.
My connecting flights at KL was something I had to repeat when I come back from Iran. I only had a two hour interval between those two flights when I was coming back, there was no other better flight option so I bought that after the 2nd reschedule. But as I made my way between the two separate terminals and considered the time I needed to get out of immigration, get my luggage, and check-in again before counters closed 45 minutes before the departure, it became clear that there was a high chance I would miss that last flight. True enough, I almost missed it by a few seconds.
(Some names have been changed if I judged the content possibly implicating)
My flight had 3 legs – SG to KL, KL to Muscat, Muscat to Tehran. I met my first Iranian gesture of kindness at that last leg, when I sat beside Foroozan. She was just a bit older than me and was coming back from a work trip from India. She was in the field of robotics. Perhaps a start-up, I thought to myself. She was busy trying to tell me to make sure to get a sim card in the airport and take the yellow taxi (something I already knew of course, but I sincerely appreciated the confirmation). She gave her number in case I had any questions. The one thing I asked her was if I had I put on my hijab okay right before we deplaned. She raised her hands to signal that it was perfect.
I landed in Tehran 4 AM, received my visa (55 Euros) with no issues and no visible mark on my passport, and got reunited with my unsightly backpack and suitcase combination. I was physically tired by then – I still had a slight fever, endured almost a whole day of travel, and my throat hadn’t gotten significantly better. I proceeded to the MCI simcard counter, which in retrospect I almost regretted because I could have just gone to the Iran Cell counter and saved myself the next hour of going back and forth the whole airport. The lady who was in MCI gave me a simcard as usual, but it didn’t seem to work. She spoke minimal English, and after 20 minutes of waiting for it to get “activated”, she concluded that I needed to get it registered. But I knew that was only for people who were staying in Iran for more than 30 days. Because I couldn’t explain this in Farsi, I went to three different places trying to ask them about my activation problem. They couldn’t solve it either, so they also concluded that it’s probably worth trying to register it because it was an iPhone. Fortunately, a really kind lady from the airport accompanied me throughout the entire registration process that took half an hour (it involved going back to the arrival area and going to the immigration police). If I wasn’t with her easily cutting lines, I could only imagine how long more it would have taken me. The registration process earned me a sticker on the last page of my passport. I was alarmed seeing the Farsi on it, but hoped that I could peel it off after. (I was able to peel it off at the end of my trip, but not without leaving a bit of a mark.) After that entire ordeal, my phone still didn’t have any signal. I went back to the MCI counter without making an effort to conceal my exhaustion and disappointment, asking the lady why it still wasn’t working after registration. She finally retrieved the document she wrote on earlier and asked me to confirm the number and that was when I saw she had written 7 instead of 9. She started smiling and called her boss, who came a few minutes later. He told me using as few words as possible and with a quick hand gesture that the it was the lady’s fault – to which we all laughed. I didn’t have energy to be pissed over the mistake, I was just relieved that I was finally connected. I didn’t want to leave the airport without internet.
I got out and looked for a literal yellow taxi. I approached the first one I saw and the driver eagerly approached me as well. He asked for 2,000,000 IRR, and I whipped out my now-connected phone to convert. “60 USD, you must be kidding me”. He insisted I got it wrong, and I didn’t understand it at this point. I tried to get away from him but he continued to hound me (typical anywhere in the world). I was still confused with the conversion rates, so I took out the slip of paper I got earlier after I exchanged 50 Euros in the airport. I got an unexpected thick wad of rials from the money exchanger, and I eventually figured out that he was right, it was just ~20 USD. It was still substantially more than what I expected, but I was too tired to argue when he started getting my suitcase from me, and then I got scared because another taxi driver started shouting at him. I couldn’t understand what was happening and as he already had my suitcase, I felt helpless stopping him. I asked him what was the problem, and he acted as if there wasn’t any. I resigned my fate to luck and agreed to get in his taxi. I assumed the other driver was scolding him for jumping the line. I wasn’t that friendly with him because I was upset at the entire conversion confusion and the shouting, and a few minutes later he stopped the car somewhere. He got out of the cab and returned with each of us a small cup with hot liquid and a bottle of water, I grudgingly forgave him for the earlier encounter. “Chai?”, I asked. “No, 3-in-1 coffee”, he answered. He told me to stir and I felt a thick layer of powder below. I shouldn’t have listened to him because upon comparing my sip before and after, that thick layer of sediment turned out to be sugar. He brought me to my hostel without any further incident and I was relieved I was finally in the first detail of my itinerary. It was almost 7 AM when I got to Arian Hostel and checked in with Habib. I was immediately happy with the place. Persian hostels, as I would learn later, always had this characteristic of being colorful with tiles, ceramics and tassels and vibrant with all sorts of plants, with a blue pond right at the center. This was exactly my personal style preference. I fell in love with Iranian architecture and interior design during my stay in Iran, I told my dad we needed that in our next home. I didn’t have time to rest though as I had to meet Milad from Daricpay (the Iranian debit card) in an hour. I took a quick shower, prepared Baba Abi’s noodles to leave with the front desk as he was picking it up while I was away with Ali that day, and left my suitcase with the front desk as well. Daricpay made it so easy, they met me on my first day to hand my card and charge it with money on the spot. As I was still not sure about its utility, I only charged it with 600 Euros and decided to keep a substantial part of my money as either IRR or Euros. It soon became clear though that I could virtually use that card anywhere, except for taxis and perhaps splitting bills between other people. Iran was basically a cashless society, almost like Singapore and definitely way ahead Philippines. Milad even gave me a welcome pack filled with some Persian snacks and a small bottle of saffron. He tried to teach me numbers in Farsi, and explained to me the reason why I was confused with the conversion. They followed a different rate inside Iran, inconsistent with what Google used, and so while Google said 1 Euro was 46,000 rial, it was actually a little more than double that (125,000). He also tried to help me with my Snapp – their version of Uber/Grab, complete with food delivery, etc – which I couldn’t figure out although I had downloaded it. He repeated the download, but couldn’t turn it to English. I told him it was alright, I’ll try to manage without it. I had a bit of time to lie down once Milad left, although Ali arrived within a few minutes as well. My day exploring Tehran was going to begin.
Ali was a few years younger than me. He was a full-time tour guide with a specialty in mountaineering, although previous to this he was an engineer. He apologized for being 10 minutes late, which I told him was unnecessary. I was actually thankful that he was, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to rest a bit. I don’t remember the name of the first place we went to, partly because I had no sleep at all and had a slow register, and partly because I was only mildly interested in the place itself. What interested me was the constant view of the snow-capped mountains in the streets of Tehran, and the stories that Ali told about himself and his everyday life. Ali was very friendly and we got along easily. To be honest I wasn’t sure if he would be, because he sounded sparingly enthusiastic when texting, and never acknowledged my efforts to use simple Farsi words (Amin on the other hand encouraged me with my every use of salam and kheyli mamnoon, and slowly taught me other things like khubi, khubam, chetori, and khahesh mikonam). Ali was very helpful though whenever I texted him prior to our meeting, and he gave me his honest opinion on my itinerary when I was first building it – that was why I felt confident in choosing him. I found out later that he was a vegan, which surprised me because indeed as he narrated, it wasn’t easy at all to be vegan in Iran. He didn’t like wasting food, he gave away whatever I couldn’t finish to whoever we could find in need. There were also beggars in Tehran, much like any city. They were from the rural areas who tried to go to the city in the hopes of finding jobs. As we walked along, I realized how Tehran looked a lot like Europe more than Asia, but at the same time distinctly different. Most men wore suits, regardless what their job was. Buildings looked opulent, this was clearly a place of long-standing richness in culture and wealth. When Ali and I passed by a bakery which I remarked smelled good, Ali insisted we go inside and that he’d buy some pastries for me to try. I wasn’t that hungry then (bloated from airplane food) and was reluctant to have to finish whatever he would buy, but I indulged him as it was a chance after all to taste some local delicacies. Ali insisted on paying for it, even if I reasoned that I wanted to try using my DaricPay. He told me it was in return for being late this morning. We went to Golestan Palace next, and that was how I first learned about the successions of their latest ruling dynasties from the Safavid, [Afsharid, Zand], Qajar, Pahlavi to the Islamic Republic. Golestan Palace was magnificent and lavish – it was from the Qajar era, that ruled up until 1925. Walking around the palace interior and grounds allowed you to imagine the lifestyle the ruling family enjoyed at that time – the marriage of traditional Persian style and Western influence threw you off by surprise, but at the same time looked masterfully integrated. After Golestan Palace, it was finally time to go to the Tehran Grand Bazaar – markets were always my favorite. The Grand Bazaar was one of the largest bazaars in the world, and true enough it seemed never-ending. You could find everything there, both for tourists and the locals. Getting lost was also something you can be assured of. It was a maze of shops that snaked on and on, with almost 200,000 vendors. Ali allowed me time to look at beautiful Persian rugs (although I did not buy yet at this point as I thought I would have the chance to go back at the end of my trip), and soon he brought me to the other parts. My favorites were lunch at the famous Moslem restaurant (I had a singular focus on eating authentic kebabs when I embarked on this trip), and the Haj Ali Darvish teashop which in contrast to the size of the Grand Bazaar was one of the oldest and smallest tea shops. The rest of the time, I spent ogling at all the different things they sold, walking through the dense crowd, and trying to keep myself going despite the physical exhaustion. Ali was great company though and I was never bored talking to him. Over lunch, he told me about how Iranians were addicted to nose jobs, a fact that surprised me as Iranians already had beautiful noses in my (or even the world’s?) opinion. Ali got excited pointing to me people who had a nose job, clearly he had an eye for it. I did notice during my entire trip that the number of people recovering from a nose job was quite apparent in crowds. I bought some pistachios, saffron and dried roses from the bazaar. Saffron particularly excited me because it was exorbitantly priced in Asia. I felt like buying everything, but I was under the illusion that I could do a shopping spree later on in this trip so I resisted. The only thing that I immediately pounced on was when I heard an old man playing Persian classical music and selling the CDs – I knew I had to buy it then and there for my dad.
I had a bus at 6 PM that day to Kashan, so we had to head back after the bazaar. I got my things from the hostel and Ali offered to accompany me to Azadi Tower on the way to the bus station. I considered his suggestion apprehensively because it didn’t seem like there was enough time with the traffic. Ali was confident that there was, so I trusted him. I really wanted to see Azadi Tower – it was a powerful landmark from photos, and not any less in person. Hanieh told me I could have gone up the tower, but I didn’t have enough time then. The Snapp we got literally just went around the roundabout in the monument’s circumference twice, just enough time for me to take some photos. Ali brought me to the bus station as well, and I thanked him there because I had truly enjoyed my time with him despite my exhaustion. He hugged me goodbye and I recalled my Dad’s message after sending my photo with Ali not to allow “any Muslim man to touch me because it was not allowed in their culture”. Of course that was just my father being himself, but I was ready to break a lot of misconceptions.
It was pretty easy to use the buses in Iran, although you had to be patient that nothing was in English, not even the seat numbers. I hadn’t slept for 48 hours at this point and I was easily knocked out in the bus. A few Iranian girls helped me figure out the bus seats and they looked on curiously, asking why I was traveling alone. I was asked this question a number of times during my trip, and naturally this usually followed with what my age was and if I was married. Sometimes they asked me what the problem was. It didn’t really bother me as it was out of pure curiosity, but there were times I did mull my answer a bit longer. “That’s just the way it is”, was my usual reply. The girls gave me oranges and made sure I went down the correct stop.
I arrived at Kashan at around 9 in the evening. I slept immediately, I had no energy to brave the cold with a shower. As a consequence of that and my body clock still in Southeast Asia (the time difference to Singapore was 4 h 30 m), I woke up at 5 AM to take a bath. After my shower, I saw a light from the kitchen and peeked inside. An old man was there and he seemed to be preparing breakfast. At Arian Hostel, the lady there told me there was no need to wear a hijab indoors. So I went inside the kitchen without my hijab to ask for water and hopefully make small talk. I wasn’t sleepy anymore. The man smiled at me allowed me to sit across him from the table. He was slicing tomatoes and cucumbers. I asked him if I could have water and he encouraged me to take a cup and fill it in the tap. From the way he responded, he didn’t seem to speak English. I was taken aback for awhile since I had not assumed you could drink water from the tap in Iran, but I was so thirsty and I didn’t want to be rude so I filled my glass and drank it. I anticipated over the entire day a stomachache developing, but it never did. I kept drinking from the tap henceforth and was extremely impressed this was possible there. When I asked Leila, my guide when I was in Shiraz, about this, she told me that yes tap water is safe to drink, but not in all places. Due to some dams built and ground waters getting exhausted as an alternative to now dried-up rivers, some ground waters have been infiltrated with salt water and industrial waste. She gave me the impression that the government didn’t necessarily ensure safe drinking water for everyone.
I went back to my room to fix my things, at around 6 AM I heard roosters crowing. 7 AM came and I already wanted to go out and explore before the sun got too high and hot. As I stepped outside, I soon realized Kashan was considerably more conservative than Tehran. All the women I encountered in my morning walk were wearing black chadors – a full-length cloth to cover themselves except for the face. It was different from the niqab, which covered everything except the eyes – something I didn’t see much in Iran. I thought about me entering the kitchen without my hijab this morning, I wondered if I had been disrespectful. I tried to apologize when I came back to the hostel, but Zahra the owner, told me it was alright inside, especially since I was a foreigner anyway. Zahra wore her hijab the whole time though, she grew up in Kashan and I supposed she was just used to it.
Kashan was an ancient city populated with traditional houses. Outside, you would see mud-thatched walls that bordered earthen lanes. But once you entered the houses, their courtyards never failed to tantalize. Being a country with four seasons, they capitalized on this by making “four-season” houses which basically meant each face of the house (North, South, East, West) was optimum for a certain period of the year. They would then have a courtyard in the middle, with the characteristic blue pool, surrounded by bottled plants, flowers, and every other odd colorful thing that brought life to the place. I didn’t get a guide for Kashan and it was easy enough to walk around. I spent the day exploring traditional houses which continued to impress me, as well as traditional bath houses. The Agha Bozorg mosque would be my favorite in Kashan though – it was devoid of tourists when I got there and there was something so serene about it. I was at first daunted to enter when I passed by it in the morning. I saw it from afar and started walking towards it, but I felt ashamed not having a chador, and worried that they didn’t have chadors inside for rent. But as I walked back to the hostel after all my exploring, I knew I had to try to get in again. It turns out that they did have chadors, and it was definitely worth the second try.
Since I went out at 7 AM, I was already ready to eat lunch at half past 11. I scoured the streets for a photo of kebabs and found a restaurant situated at the basement of a building. There was nobody else inside (perhaps I was too early for lunch), and the guy at the counter barely spoke English. That didn’t daunt me in particular as some of the items were written in English, albeit with Persian words. I said beef kebab, but he didn’t seem to understand what beef was. He mumbled a couple of choices that I didn’t understand (perhaps he was talking about different types of beef kebabs), so I suggested “lamb kebab” instead. He affirmed lamb kebab and went back to the kitchen to get it prepared. The kebab was good, as usual. They always served the rice with olive oil and small slice of butter slotted in. I never opened the butter.
I planned to be at Isfahan that afternoon, so I went back to my hostel (Kashan Green House Hostel) to ask their help to book me a cab. It was roughly a 2-hour trip and Zahra readily helped me get a taxi. I had an hour to kill, and I spent it talking to her. She and her husband turned out to be renting that place that they converted to a hostel. She designed the place herself – it was simple but dainty. She told me her husband was in Turkey for holiday. I asked her why she didn’t go, and she said she liked traveling but she preferred to stay that time. They were a very good-looking couple and Zahra was a very pleasant girl. She told me they got married when she was 18. They still don’t have kids because she didn’t want them yet, though they had been married long and she was already in her mid 20s. It was good to know that she had a choice.
My taxi soon arrived and I bade a new friend goodbye. Along the way, the driver pulled up a petrol station and filled up the tank. An hour after, he pulled up to another petrol station and asked me to get down. “CNG, please get down otherwise *explosion sound*”. I got down and asked him, “so you use gasoline and CNG in your cars?” “Benzene and CNG”. “Benzene, isn’t that’s toxic?” I alarmingly thought to myself. It turns out that although benzene is used as an additive in their fuel, they seemed to call it “benzene”. I still don’t understand it fully, if it’s a consequence of the sanctions that they need to use benzene, but it was something new to me. I wondered if it was that that I kept smelling – there was something that constantly irritated my nose in Iran.
I got to Isfahan a little past 4 PM. When we reached the guest house I was staying at, the taxi driver taught me that the two door knocks were different. One was for women, the other was for men. So that the person inside would know. Esi opened the door to let me in and helped me to my room. He later told me he couldn’t tell the difference between the door knock sounds. There was no other guest that day except for another woman traveler from Hong Kong, but she was out. I was really planning on just collapsing in bed, but I thought it would be polite to do a bit of small talk with my host first. I took off the hijab and long coat I wasn’t used to, and changed to my down jacket. It was getting cold. Esi asked me if I wanted tea or coffee, which was standard practice everywhere in Iran. Tea, and sometimes coffee, is always offered. Coffee is however not endemic to Iran, and I only drink coffee as a desperate measure to stay up, so it was always tea for me. I asked for tea and I settled in the nice interiors – “lucky find” I thought to myself. I already anticipated the place to be prettier than the rest of my accommodations – this was precisely the reason I decided to stay here. I thought it was a homestay, but it turned out to be more of a boutique hotel. Esi gave me my tea and we started talking. He leased the place, a traditional house, that he renovated into its current state. It took him 3 years to secure the property after deciding on it, he talked about all the travails that he endured to get to this stage. Previous to this, he was a commercial diver who did the repairs in oil rigs – something that really amazed me. You can meet a load of doctors and lawyers in your life, but definitely not commercial divers. I didn’t offer the information that I dived too, my license and hobby were nothing compared to his. He was passionate on staying in Iran and hoping that the country’s economy would improve, he felt it was too late for him to move to another country even if most of his family were abroad, that was something he could have done when he was much younger. Because of that I thought he was much older than me, but as it turned out when he asked how I old I was, he was surprised we were both 31. The Iranian diaspora was a constant theme across the whole country. Thanks to a multitude of reasons, but more recently because of the repercussions of the revolution, a lot of Iranians, especially the more educated and affluent ones, have left the country. The fact that the less educated were the ones left made the situation more dire, but not hopeless. Some people stayed like him. Esi ran the hostel with his mom and sister. He also had a dog named Jessica. I couldn’t resist asking, so I did. “I thought Muslims can’t own dogs?” “Maybe I’m not the real one”, he told me. But I did notice a number of people owned dogs, even publicly walking them in the street. “Where did you buy her?” “In the pet shop”, he answered me visibly amused with my line of questioning. I was embarrassed and I apologized for my ignorance, asking was the only way I could learn. Esi was able to install an English version of Snapp on my phone. He offered to help me install a VPN, but I declined the offer – I didn’t want to unblock my Facebook and have to answer messages. I ended up talking to Esi until the sun had set, and Elaine finally arrived. Elaine was in her 50s but she looked very vibrant, and very Asian. She asked me where I was from thinking I was Chinese, I told her I was from Philippines. She was surprised, “Philippines? That’s very uncommon”. “What’s uncommon, I’m sorry?”, I asked her. “Philippines don’t usually travel alone”. “Oh”, I replied. I thought she meant it was uncommon to meet Filipino travelers. She used an interesting hand-written and hand-drawn guide made by a Taiwanese who once traveled to Iran. She held what looked like a printed or photocopied copy of that, it seemed to me that she was more of a traditional traveler. Esi told me that he always had to draw a map of her in the morning, because she didn’t like navigating using her phone. I was impressed that she traveled alone at her age. I wasn’t sure though if I wanted to be that person. We talked awhile more, and Esi asked if I wanted to order in dinner. I declined his offer because I wasn’t really hungry. “I think I’ll just stay in, I’m quite tired”. I didn’t feel like going out that night alone. A little while later, he said he was going out for dinner and if I wanted to join in. He asked Elaine as well, but Elaine was tired from walking the whole day. I suddenly felt like going out, I suppose I just didn’t want to do it on my own. It was cold and I was new there, and it was also a good opportunity to take a stroll outside with someone closer to an authentic local rather than a tour guide. It turns out that Esi had only moved to Isfahan 2 years ago. He was born and grew up in Tehran, which notably was more progressive thinking a district relative to Isfahan. Isfahan was still largely traditional, so it was something a bit new to him as well. He brought me to a popular tea shop (Azadegan tea house), which for the sake of describing was probably what was considered proper hipster there. The design was very vintage, but it was also very fancy and alluring that it was no surprise a lot of young people were there taking selfies. We sat across two girls doing just that, and Esi told me “It’s a disease”. I laughed, that was true, although I wasn’t someone who didn’t use social media at all either. I asked his help to order me anything that was made of vegetables. I had something made of eggplant which was good, but forgive me because in this travel a lot of food names had really escaped me. He got kebab and I resisted asking for some, I’d had enough meat over the past few days. After dinner, we walked around Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It was also full of shops, but not as congested as the Tehran Grand Bazaar – the walkways felt more spacious. It was beautiful at night, although it was a place difficult to capture on camera. It had too many disparate elements, the only way to see it was to be there. The choices at Isfahan piqued my interest even more. Esi gave me time to look at a few shops, I couldn’t wait until tomorrow and I could shop with my guide Elli, who I knew was a girl – I was uncomfortable shopping with a guy and I didn’t want to make him wait. I did not hold back from buying a few postcards however, I could write them tonight and send them in the morning. We walked back to the hostel and by the end of the night, we already talked about a lot of things. I also shamelessly asked about how it was to divorce as a Muslim, something my dad had ingrained in me involved simply saying “I divorce you” three times for Muslims. Esi said it was done in court, just like any other place. He talked about what it was like to be in our generation in Iran – people were reluctant to start families because of the economic situation. He told me that he believed in God, and that was all. That some Muslim practices being imposed now were for a time before. I echoed his thoughts, because that was exactly what I felt many a times. That not everything being taught as doctrine was applicable to the current day and age.
When I got back to my room, I felt a familiar sensation. There were many kinds of love, and I acknowledged this as one of them. I was past the age of being giddy, and the fact that I knew it wasn’t a possibility, I pulled my thoughts back to understand instead why I felt like I was falling in love. It was only later that it came to me…that I fell in love with people just as I fell in love with places. I fell in love for what they stood for where they were, not because they were something I wanted to be with forever. Just before going to Iran, I had written about reaching that elusive state of indifference to love. But having remembered what it felt like that night, I realized I missed the feeling of those butterflies.
The next morning was my first TasteIran tour. Amin gave me Elli’s contact number as my guide in Isfahan and I woke up early to get a start at 9. Elli arrived promptly and we proceeded back to Naqsh-e Jahan Square. That was where the palace and mosque we were visiting were. I told Elli that I had been there last night, and she asked me where I ate. She was disappointed that it was at the tea shop she was planning on bringing me, but that I didn’t need to worry she could think up another one. “So what do you prefer, a fancy one or a local one?” “Definitely a local one”, fancy places meant little to me. Elli was very easy to get along with as well. She was a few years older than me, and she easily made me feel like a younger sister. “Do you want me to help you with your headscarf?” I was pleasantly surprised that she asked, and I said yes. She was the only one that did that, even if I had 2 other female guides. Indeed, I had been struggling with it. She tied it up nicely and somehow it stayed put longer when she did it. What I loved about Elli was that she didn’t make me feel like a tourist. She treated like a friend that she was simply taking around her city. Of course she told me about the history of the places we visited, but in the same way she told me about her life and I really appreciated that. She was separated from her ex-husband, but because it hadn’t been formalized as a divorce, there were certain things she couldn’t do – like leave the country without the ex-husband’s permission. She had lived a couple of years abroad when they were still together, which I felt was why she had a broader world view.
The first place we went to was Ali Qapu Palace. Elli explained to me the illusion of the number of floors, and how the art was all stucco – plaster, not tiles. It was beautiful, as with most places in Iran. The most amazing part was the music room, which featured an intricate style of plastering that enhanced the acoustics of the room. After that, we went to Shah Mosque, which took my breath away. That was where Elli told me about Shia Islam. The way Elli, and other people I asked, have explained the difference between Shia and Sunni always seemed to give me the impression that it wasn’t substantial enough a difference to warrant the tension between those factions now. But the seeming split between the two has been largely political. As they explained, Shia and Sunni Muslims live together in some parts of the world. But I remembered how one of my colleagues, a Sunni Muslim, remarked to me days before I left for Iran that Iran was majorly “Shia – that’s the wrong teachings. Sunni is the correct one”. Although I don’t claim to understand where that sentiment came from, and I didn’t feel like engaging with him when I heard it, it was probably similar to what some Catholics and Christians felt. Largely the same teaching, but still some see the other as incorrect. That was essentially one of the things that I disliked about some people who used religion to foster exclusivity. There was something so calming about being inside Shah Mosque. The ceilings were high, the courtyard was huge, the tile work was mind-blowing, the architecture was a masterpiece – you could feel its soul just as much as a beautiful cathedral.
After the mosque, Elli brought me to a shop to try an Iranian dessert made of starch and topped with date or grape syrup. I couldn’t help citing its similarity to taho, the soybean dessert we have in the Philippines. It was too filling for me though and I felt bad I couldn’t finish it. Elli was very conscious of her plastic use and brought along her own utensils. I loved it that Ali was a vegan and Elli was an environmentalist. I’m not sure if she forgave me for not finishing my serving, but at least she allowed me not to finish it.
We went to a ghalamkar shop next, and that was where I blew most of my shopping money. A ghalamkar was a style of making a tapestry – using colored stamps. I bought a few pieces and at this point I had already bought other things. Elli was pleased I loved the shop as it was her personal favorite as well. The owners were so nice, they even allowed me to try stamping on my own. The shop was run by 3 brothers and their father – their art was a family heritage. Elli asked one of the brothers to recommend a local place for lunch and he took us to an unassuming stall in the square. It looked very basic and Elli sounded a bit worried that I might think it wasn’t impressive. But that was exactly what I hoped for – a nondescript place serving the real deal. After lunch, we walked around some more and I ended up buying a bit more (in my defense it wasn’t that much!), but Elli soon started remarking that she worried for me every time we entered a shop. I told her to relax, who knows when I’ll be back in Iran. I needed to buy these things, I’ll worry about carrying them later.
The next stop after the main square were Isfahan’s bridges. We visited three different bridges, and Elli told me that I was lucky to visit with the water now flowing. A few years ago, it was all dried up. I felt lucky, because the water definitely brought life to the bridges. People sat there, looking at the view. Some of them had a small picnic going on. I somehow understood why it was special to Isfahan – it hosted its own life. Elli told me that it was better at night, some people played music, the lights gave a different vibe, it was the equivalent of a night life. This was a city where you couldn’t drink legally, or dance in public legally – but it didn’t feel sterile at all. Of course it would be great to have certain liberties, but the current beauty and character of the city was so strong that not even religious impositions could hold it back. Elli and I made a slight detour from Amin’s expected schedule as we decided to have tea at one of the beautiful cafes built within one of the bridges. By that time, I was very comfortable with Elli. I asked Elli if she would ever consider getting married again if she fell in love with someone again. She told me probably not, she valued her freedom now. And that I was lucky to be single at my age, living independently and making the most of these years. I understood where she came from because she told me her story, but at the same time you always wonder what other possibilities feel like. I discovered that that day was especially difficult for Elli, she received some bad news that morning and I didn’t even know it until our day together was almost ending. The fact that she was still able to be a great companion and that I had no idea what she was going through was something that I felt extremely grateful for. But I felt relieved when she told me that being with me helped her go through the day – and that was perhaps one of the sweetest things I heard during my trip. After all, it isn’t commonplace to gain a friend.
Amin soon called us both to check if I was on my way to the Persian bath. Amin highly encouraged me to get that experience, and because it sounded exotic enough to me, I didn’t hesitate saying yes. I didn’t bother looking up what was to happen inside a Persian bath, but as it turned out it was a very distinct experience. Men and women were separated, and much like other spa places you had to remove your clothes. But while in typical spas where this was usually done a bit more discreetly and comfortably, I was lying on a tile bench or on the tiled floors of the bath house as another lady gave me a bath, treating me as if I were a baby. She meticulously scrubbed almost every inch of me (something I realized later on wasn’t such a great idea). That aside, the bath house was beautiful. It consisted of multiple rooms connected with tiled corridors, and populated with central pools of hot water. The lady who gave me a bath didn’t speak English, but she constantly asked me “Okay?”, to which I’d say “khubam“, not sure if that was an acceptable use of that phrase. In a futile effort to make small talk amidst the very awkward situation of her staring down at my breasts, I pointed at my stomach and said “kebabs”. She understood it and laughed – I was pleased my joke worked. At one point, she started singing Persian songs, which was pleasant to listen to but made the situation even more comical to me. When we were finally done with all the scrubbing (thank god), she stood me up and I told her “kheyli mamnoon”, which was supposed to be “thank you very much”. I hadn’t used that phrase earlier so it resulted in her ecstatically kissing me and saying “khahesh mikonam“, which to my understanding is “you’re welcome”. A long time in the jacuzzi followed, which was perhaps my favorite part. She washed my hair and face after, although that resulted in my hair getting intensely tangled – using a conditioner wasn’t included in the Persian bath. The last stage was sending me to a pool. I stayed there, waiting for the lady to come back to tell me it’s over, but the wait seemingly took forever. I wasn’t particularly interested in lingering anymore so I got out of the pool and started finding my way along the bath house corridors – naked. Fortunately I was able to locate the piece of cloth they handed me earlier and proceeded to find my way out. The lady was waiting outside and eating, she offered me rose water with basil seeds and fed directly into my mouth a small bite of what tasted like a falafel wrap. I somehow felt weirdly infantilized, but I was impressed with the service so I gave them a substantial tip. When I got back to the hostel, Esi remarked that I was shining. When I looked at the mirror, that was the only time I realized my skin was bright red, even my face – I felt abraded everywhere. The cold weather made it worse and my skin became progressively rougher by the day. The lightweight lotion I brought didn’t help. I still think it was an experience unlike anything I’ve had before, but I’ll probably skip the scrubbing if I ever went back.
The next day, Elli had offered to accompany me to the Vank Cathedral and to a bookshop after. Because I felt comfortable enough with her, I told her yesterday that I really wanted to buy a novel about Iran – prose, because I wasn’t a big fan of poetry. I had bought a book by Hafez in Kashan, but the truth is I found it difficult to appreciate the pages. Elli enthusiastically volunteered her time even if she had work later that afternoon and I was happy I had someone to go out with that day. Otherwise I would have probably spent it in the hostel as I was scheduled to leave for Varzaneh by 12 noon.
I felt a strange cloud of sadness as I prepared to leave Isfahan, but I couldn’t change my plans. I sincerely hoped it wasn’t the last time I’d see Elli and Esi.
In my desire to stay in Isfahan longer, I tried to delay the pick up time with Mohammad. He insisted it wasn’t possible because I had a sunset tour scheduled that day, so I acceded. Although I tried not to use my headphones whenever I was in a taxi as I didn’t want the driver to think I was shutting him out, I really wanted to drown myself in my playlist in the drive to Varzaneh, and so I did. Around midway, the driver made a stop. He came back carrying an ice cream and chocolate bread roll for each of us. This was another thing that constantly happened everywhere I went. Random people would offer me food almost all the time. Especially taxi drivers, they were the sweetest. No amount of “No thank you” and hand gestures dissuaded them from offering me food – sometimes it confused me whether it was taarof or not. Taarof, in my limited understanding, is supposed to be typical Iranian courtesy of refusing payment, or offering anything for free, but this is simply out of courtesy and should not be taken advantage of. The problem at that moment was that I can’t eat ice cream as I’m lactose intolerant. The driver again didn’t speak English. And not only did I not want to be rude by not eating the ice cream, I wouldn’t be able to escape eating it because it was definitely going to melt under the desert sun. Before going to Iran, my aunt sternly warned me that her Iranian friend herself emphasized I would run into communication barriers because of the language. I didn’t see that as a problem, and it was never a big deal, until then. I opened the wrapper hesitantly – it was saffron ice cream. This would be worth a fortune back home. I nibbled on the ice cream sandwich slowly, feeling my stomach gas up with every bite. I was already half-way when I noticed the ice cream was peculiarly solid even after some time. It was then I realized it probably had a high gelatin content, and I could have actually spared myself from eating it – too late. Thankfully, we reached Negaar Guesthouse with some time for me to use the bathroom before embarking on the tour.
Negaar was hosting several big European groups. They were very nice, although the disproportion made me more aware that I was alone. Luckily there were two white guys who befriended me. At first, I was apprehensive getting too friendly with them. When Jeroen learned I was Filipino, he paraded all the Filipino insults he knew. It turns out that he had a Filipina girlfriend before and she had taught him things like “maduming baboy”, and “sasakalin kita”, apart from the other cuss words. “Typical white guy behavior”, I thought to myself as I faked a laugh for courtesy. I of course had judged Jeroen too fast, but I would only realize that later. Mohammad (the owner) and Aminn (the manager) soon introduced me to Saji who would be my guide for my sunset tour. Saji was mild-mannered and friendly, cracking jokes every now and then. The way they did tours at Negaar was to have Saji as an in-house guide and contract a local taxi driver to drive. “We have around 30 drivers in Varzaneh, and we help them by hiring them”, Saji explained. We left Negaar at 4 PM towards our first stop, a Zoroastrian water temple. Zoroastrians respected the 4 elements: fire, water, earth and air. Saji explained that the temple we were going to was important because they built it after the people found water in that area. As I explored the simple temple, I saw from that vantage point that a police car blaring their siren pulled up beside our taxi. Saji looked out the window and spoke to them in Farsi. I asked Saji what the problem was, and he pointed the flying drone to me. “They’re looking for the person flying that drone”. “The person can’t be far from here”, I said. The policemen waited for me to get down the temple, probably to visually confirm that I wasn’t the drone pilot, and proceeded to make their way in search elsewhere.
Our next stop was the salt flats. The salt was from an ancient lake that had dried up. Like other salt flats, it had the characteristic hexagonal honeycomb shapes that formed because of the repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles. There was nobody in sight, but I knew the place we went to was an enclosed property because we entered through a gate, albeit without a fence. It was a gate that stood in the middle of nowhere. “Is this owned by the government?”, I asked Saji. “The government gave the rights to a company, and they’re the ones operating the salt mine here”.
After the salt flats, it was finally time for sunset in the desert. “Next stop is sandboarding”, Saji told me. “Sandboarding?”, I asked hesitantly. I wasn’t aware that the tour included sandboarding – not that I didn’t want to. I struggled to remember whether I had been to a desert before, but it was only later that I realized why I felt I had been. Ladakh was a desert, but it didn’t have a lot of sand dunes. Varzaneh wasn’t a big desert in terms of area, but it was mesmerizing enough to me. I had underestimated the effort needed to climb the height of the dunes and the weight of my boots added to the required strength. I stopped several times to catch my breath, while Saji simply walked up leisurely. I would learn later that the high season had just ended and Saji was terribly exhausted from the back-to-back sunrise/sunset/desert overnight tours he led for the past few weeks. When we finally reached the top, Saji taught me how to sit on the board. He asked me to hold the board at the back, but as I wasn’t wearing gloves this resulted in the back of my hand getting heavily abraded with the silicon in the sand as I slided down. As if the abrasion from the Persian bath wasn’t enough, now it was definitely closer to the full extent of my body. I hesitated for awhile before I allowed Saji to push me down. My reflex was to scream, but this resulted in all the sand flying into my mouth. Going up twice took the air out of me, and so I told Saji I was sitting on top of the dune for the rest of the sunset. I blew out bits of sand as I sat there entranced with the sun’s closing dance. The gradients were unbelievable, I could see six distinct bands. Sitting there in the midst of the desert, it came to me why I pursued such experiences. I wanted to feel small in this universe. So small that I could easily be taken aback by the remarkable beauty I sometimes forget the world is. This was what a lot of people described as “feeling alive”. It was the feeling of being inconsequential.
I decided to sandboard one last time – conveniently back down to the car. As the last rays of light left the desert, the sky displayed a range of color changes. Soon enough, the entire place was pitch black and stars started appearing. It was getting unbearably cold so I told Saji we could start heading back even if the moon hadn’t risen yet. Driving back in the darkness, you could see the lights from the town in the distance. Saji was preoccupied with looking for electric razors on his phone as I enjoyed the view with my headphones on. When the moon finally came into view, Saji asked our driver to stop the car. I got out and stood in the cold for awhile to bask under the moon’s reflected light.
It was dinner time when we got back to Negaar. As I didn’t have anyone else to talk to, I joined Jeroen and his friend. As it turned out, they were volunteers there. They worked for free and in return got free food and accommodation. It was a good arrangement, and they told me about the websites that I could use if I ever was interested. Franco (I’m conveniently calling him that although I don’t remember his name, just that he was French) was busy with his mobile phone. He had reached past 30 days in Iran and because he failed to register his simcard, he had lost connection. Jeroen told me Franco had an Iranian girlfriend, and I asked him how it was. Franco narrated how he always had to book two rooms because it wasn’t allowed for Iranians to stay with the opposite sex if they weren’t related. Jeroen was very amiable, while Franco was more of the reserved type. Jeroen constantly joked with the locals and had a lot of fun calling Aminn “baboy“, which was the Filipino for pig. I wondered if Aminn had any idea what that meant, but they all seemed to enjoy the banter. I sat with the guesthouse personnel that night as they joked about getting drunk from Iranian non-alcoholic beer. Jeroen constantly teased them with topics I would personally hesitate joking on as someone unfamiliar with what Iranians thought were humorous. I realized that they were actually pretty chill. Jeroen ribbed Saji that they were sleeping together that night, and Saji gamely carried on with the joke of getting intimate. I was thankful I was alone and had that opportunity to get to know them more. Mohammad told me he was also the same age as I, and I told him how amazing it was that he was running his own business. “Running a business in Iran is nothing. You know how much we got this property for? Just 5000 euros”. The renovation had costed more, but Mohammad continued to downplay his achievement. “Compare that to being a dentist here in Varzaneh, which is basically in the middle of nowhere, you could probably earn 1500 euro a month”. Dinner that night was fesenjan, a meat stew made with pomegrenate and walnut paste. When I first saw the black stew, I remembered the Filipino “dinuguan”, which is pork stewed in pork blood. Naturally that would be impossible in a Muslim country (or not). I ate the fesenjan with rice, and it was pretty good although it was too sweet and rich for me to keep going. I used the yogurt to neutralize the sweetness. Jeroen advised me to put on everything I had for my sunrise tour tomorrow. “That time is probably the coldest hour in the desert”. I was ill-prepared for subzero temperatures so I asked Aminn if he possibly had an extra thick jacket. Fortunately he was able to lend me one, and I am forever grateful for that because it really did save me the morning after.
It was that night at Varzaneh that I dreamt of my mother. I fell asleep with my headphones and the lights on. In the dream, we knew she was dying, but she still seemed fine. I kept hugging and telling her not to leave us and that I loved her. As my mom looked into my eyes and told me that “The best way to never leave you is to die”, I woke up. The dream was so vivid, it left me crying. I cried out for the sensation of holding her. But I was also happy that she visited me. Perhaps it was to tell me that yes, she really was with me.
As we drove through the darkness to the caravanserai in anticipation of sunrise, the changing landscape gave me the feeling of sinking into the ground to be one with the earth. Aminn’s jacket kept me warm, along with the 5 other layers beneath it. I also wore 3 layers of pants, necessitating the top layer to be my loose pajama. I’m always terrible with the cold. There was nobody else that morning at the caravanseri, we had the whole place to ourselves – me, Saji, and that day’s taxi driver, Hafez. The plan was to build a fire and wait either beside it or inside the car until the sun had risen to make it warm enough to have breakfast at the rooftop. I had plans on filming the sunrise, of course. I got to work and took my tripod and camera up. Because I had six layers, my core felt warm and I underestimated the actual temperature. When I started setting up my camera, that was when I realized that it was painfully cold – the wind made it especially worse. It was so cold that my hands literally started feeling sharp, stabbing sensations. I was trying to convince myself to get through setting up and quickly go down back to the warmth of the car as I fumbled with my gear. After I thought I had successfully started the timelapse, I went back down to the car and only then did I realize that my toes were numb as well. I felt them thaw back to life as I huddled myself in the car seat. Caravanserais were ancient roadside inns where caravans traveling along the silk road stopped to rest and get supplies. The one we went to could hold as much as 150 people and 600 camels – it was pretty large as it was in the middle of nowhere. Caravanserais within cities were typically smaller. As you walked inside, there was again the characteristic courtyard. In the middle was a well still with water, and everything surrounding it were now empty rooms and corridors. I went out a couple of times to look at the sunrise in progression, I could feel it getting warmer. I thought about how strong an element the wind was in contributing to the cold, and on the other hand how formidable an element the sun was in extinguishing that cold.
When the sun was considerably up, all three of us went up the rooftop to start the breakfast. Saji and Hafez prepared the set-up, while I collected my camera on the other side of the roof. I was heartbroken to see that my camera’s autofocus hadn’t functioned properly and had only collected two shots over the entire time lapse. I was slightly upset because this was the only reason I carried my tripod for, but I didn’t really bother about it for long. Watching the sunrise alone was enough. What followed was perhaps the one of my best breakfast experiences ever. Saji prepared a tahini and sugar-like syrup, while Hafez laid out the sangak (Iranian bread), homemade butter and cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrot jam – and most importantly the hot chai. “Is that honey?”, I asked Saji as he continually poured the syrup into the tahini. “No darling, it’s molasses”, Saji jokingly replied. It was a sublime experience eating such a simple but filling meal, bathed under the sun’s direct light on top of that stone and brick structure with nothing but the barren desert and mountains in sight. I took out my phone to play my Persian playlist – it did come handy after all. Music transcended any language.
After breakfast, we drove to several more sights (a dormant volcano, water reservoirs, salt lake, a waterfall, and an ox mill). Going up the volcano involved a little hike, and I had to sit down when we reached the summit to catch my breath. I asked Saji whether he made good money as a tour guide. “It’s better if you work for yourself”, he answered. After this season, he’s decided to work as a freelancer at Isfahan instead. I wished him well with his new journey. We sat there for awhile, and surprisingly I didn’t really mind the sun as I usually would.
I took off some of my layers as the day progressed. By 11 AM, we were back at Negaar. There was some time to kill so I sat around the dining area with a book. Some local tourists had arrived, and upon seeing me they kindly offered me pomegranates. I was anticipating lunch and wanted to avoid eating too much, but again I couldn’t decline. I attempted to open a pomegranate with difficulty, and quickly realized I shouldn’t have done that in front of them. The old man who handed me the fruits sliced open two for me, and now I had to finish all of it as they sat at the other table. Aminn didn’t help by offering me more apples, but at least I felt comfortable enough with him to decline those. I asked Aminn how he found his job there at Varzaneh. He laid down a tray he was holding and told me “You know in Iran, it’s difficult to find a job. So when you have one, you love your job.” He had mixed feelings about it though, he said it was great when you met new people, but it was painful always having to say goodbye. I guess that’s always how it is in the tourism industry. You make many friends, but in return you need to say a lot of good byes. I joined the staff again for lunch, and Jeroen told me about his many travel experiences. He’s spent time in many countries learning languages, martial arts, and other things. I asked him how long more he planned to go on. “I don’t know, I’m sort of feeling that I need to settle down soon”, he said. “You mean you feel the need to travel changes over time?”, I asked. “Yeah, it does get less and less over time.” I wondered about my own sentiments for traveling. I never really felt the need to see the entire world, to score as much countries as I can. What I felt was more of an urge to go to places I could seek out stories. Strangely, for some reason, there was nothing on my mind for after Iran. Despite my trip not yet being done, I felt like I needed to go back one more time before I’d say that was enough. After lunch, it was my time to say good bye to all of them.
I took a taxi from Varzaneh to Yazd. I booked a dorm room at Yazd Restup Hotel and was welcomed by the owner, Mo. Mo was an extremely jolly fellow. He would never text Salam, but instead use Salaaaaaaaam. Restup was quite a big property with a considerable capacity compared to the other places I’ve stayed at in Iran. I picked a bed in my assigned room and started looking for a heater. It was getting progressively and unexpectedly colder and my body, ever averse to the cold, couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t locate the heater in the room and so I started taking out more clothes for the night. Flo soon went inside the room and introduced himself. He was a few years younger than me and was a UX designer. There was a characteristic calm that accompanied his presence by the way he talked and the way he moved. He sat cross-legged in the bed across mine as we talked first about our backgrounds, and slowly about politics, literature, traveling (naturally), and of course our impression of Iran. Like most European travelers, Flo had been to a lot of places as well. “What brought you to Iran?”, Flo asked me. “I don’t know. It was never a plan until this year. India used to be my favorite, but not anymore I think”, I answered. “India is my favorite as well. If you can travel in India, you can travel anywhere”, he replied. I told Flo India lured me for its rich culture and history – a stark contrast to my life in Singapore which was convenient, safe, and comfortable but as well as sterile, routine and predictable. Iran, on the other hand, was also rich in culture and history, but incredibly safer than India. Despite that, most people perceive Iran as a dangerous place. “Iran’s a special place. Only the good type of traveler goes here”, Flo concluded.
Flo soon announced that he was ready to go to dinner and if I wanted to come along. I didn’t really have plans to eat, but he said he knew of a nice place just down the road. I accepted the invitation and we went out to ask the other people checked in if anyone was interested to join us. A familiar face suddenly arrived – it was Elaine. She was so tired, apparently she had been looking for the hostel for 45 minutes. Her phone died and everything looked different in the dark. I was impressed she even found her way back. As she frantically narrated to Mo how she got lost, Mo told her to calm down and consider going with Flo and I for dinner.
It was a quick walk down the road and we soon got in a bathhouse-looking restaurant. It was one of the coziest I’ve been to in Iran – you took your shoes off and sat on one of the partitioned sections of the circular hall. On top of the high ceiling was a dome with glass balls, and through them we saw the full moon. Flo jokingly laid down on the entire area – it seemed a good place to sleep. We ordered a generous amount for dinner, and of course chai. Elaine never stopped pouring chai on our cups, and asking for a refill whenever it ran out. Flo and I had to empty our bladders twice over the course of dinner. It was Hong Kong etiquette. As dinner unfolded, Elaine, Flo and I talked about various things – and mostly about our own lives. I discovered that Elaine was actually a serial traveler. She went to China on her own when she was 15, spent 8 years in Europe working to travel, and almost got married to 4 different men in 4 different countries. Traveling was in her blood. As I sat there listening to Elaine’s amazing stories, I wondered if I wanted to be that person. It seemed like the dream, yet I felt like the prospect scared me. While there was something magical about traveling solo – in that you’re never alone with all the new people you’re bound to meet, I wasn’t sure how long I’d feel that way. I felt the same way as Aminn, the good byes were painful. Transience was two-faced, it amplified unions but intensified separations. Nevertheless, I gained new respect for Elaine. Judging from her spirit, traveling seemed to keep her young.
We ended our heavy dinner with several rounds of hookah, as I told Flo I was keen on trying it. Elaine insisted on declining in the beginning, but soon after she tried her first smoke, she was hooked. She eagerly took the pipe whenever I passed it after my turn. I think she enjoyed it far more than Flo and I.
The next day was my Zoroastrian tour. In retrospect, this was my least favorite day in Iran. Zara treated me like a tourist, and I felt the difference with being with Elli. She would break into Farsi Dari (their dialect) whenever she saw someone she knew. I asked her if she knew the entire community since she seemed to know at least one person in every stop, and she confirmed my observation. “It’s a small community, and we have frequent gatherings so we know each other.” Zara was the one who told me about the big news that day. “They raised benzene prices to three times higher today.” “That’s terribly unacceptable”, I said surprised. “It’s a consequence of the sanctions”, Zara explained. That probably explained her long chats with a lot of people we encountered. She was nice though, and always answered my many questions. “Do you have a boyfriend?”, I tried asking. Boyfriends and girlfriends in Iran weren’t something openly accepted, but of course the Iranian youth has caught on with modern day love. “Yes”, Zara smilingly replied. They had met in the tour leading school that Zara attended, but they were based in different cities – somebody would have to decide to move, most likely her to Tehran she said. Zara was a Zoroastrian herself. Yazd was the birthplace of Zoroastrianism (one of the oldest religions in the world), but Zara shared that most Zoroastrians were already in the US/Canada due to migration over the years. She would have liked to go to the US herself if given the opportunity. Apart from treating me like a tourist, the tour involved two museums – something I’m honestly not fond of (save for modern art and art-science). I even fell asleep in the short film screening at the Markar Museum. But I took in what piqued my interest, such as the fact that Zoroastrians had women priests, they emphasized good deeds, good thoughts, & good words, and that their belief generally evolved around respect for nature and other human beings. I remembered Esi’s opinion that he thought Zoroastrianism was probably one of the best religions. It was easy to see why. We also visited several Zoroastrian towns, and I found the cyprus tree markers quite ingenious. Each town had a differently-shaped cyprus tree that towered from a distance to help travelers then to identify the place. I wondered though how long it took for the trees to reach a visibly-useful height. “Does anybody still live here?”, I asked Zara since the villages seemed largely unpopulated. “Most of the younger generation have moved into the city, but our parents still live here”. After the towns, we visited a tower of silence – this was where they brought their dead, and this unique practice only stopped 80 years ago. According to Zara, long time ago, there were a lot of wars and they couldn’t put up with burying their dead. So they built these open towers, where they left the bodies of their dead for the vultures to consume. The leftover bones were dissolved using a concocted acid – leaving the tower ready to use again. The idea seemed eerie, though the place didn’t particularly feel scary. Perhaps at night? I forgot to ask Zara that bit.
After the tower of silence, we went to another guesthouse run by another Zoroastrian. It was the very dainty Nartitee. They had a pomegranate garden in their backyard, which contributed to the serenity of the property. That was where I discovered qottabs, a Persian pastry that I took particular interest in. They offered me some with tea, and I shamelessly ate more than 5. I posted it on my Instagram story, and some of new Iranian friends volunteered the addresses of where I could buy it. I saved the addresses thinking I had time later in Shiraz, but as it turned out I wouldn’t have that chance anymore. I was scheduled to have lunch at Nartitee, and was joined by a middle-aged Iranian couple who had long been based in Australia. It was their first time to be back in Iran after 20 or so years. They were driving on their own in Iran for 2 months, visiting places they were never able to before. As our conversation progressed with the delicious lunch at Nartitee, the woman gradually told me the reason why they left the country. They were Baha’i, a religion founded in Iran quite recently (1863) – it encompassed and welcomed the distilled values from all religions, and essentially was seen as something that challenged Islam. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of that religion.”, I hesitantly admitted. “You can read about it online”, she offered. “It’s difficult to be Baha’i in Iran”, Mo explained to me later that day. In fact, the couple had narrated to me how a taxi driver made them get down the vehicle when he learned they were Baha’i. The woman told me about the challenges growing up as a Baha’i in Iran. “My religion taught me that men and women are equal, but this is different to what is taught in Islam. What I learned in school was different to what I learned at home. It was difficult growing up here, that was why we had to leave.” Baha’i people, as I read, were persecuted in Iran, which explains the mass exodus to places like Australia and the US. The woman willingly shared a lot about their belief system, and I sat there listening genuinely interested. What she was saying was probably what most of the youth believe now – that there is no one true religion as long as we had a personal relationship with God. She emphasized how Baha’i didn’t restrict themselves to a singular text of teaching – it evolves over time to ensure that it was always appropriately current. I had a long discussion with the woman about their beliefs (most of which I found easy to agree with), and she thanked me for being open to hearing about it – that was the essence of their religion. They didn’t want to encourage anyone to convert, but just to promote peace and harmony among all religions.
After lunch, Zara drove me back to Restup. All the other guests were out, and it was just me and Mo. I had a bus trip to Shiraz that afternoon and I was just killing 2 hours until then. I asked Mo if he was a Zoroastrian, and he answered “No, I am Muslim.” “Oh, I’m sorry, Flo told me you were Zoroastrian”, I apologized. “Ah, no”, Mo said with a smile and without any trace of bother. As there was nothing much to do and no other guest, Mo had time to tell me about his life. He used to be a taxi driver, until he met a serious accident and his wife forbade him to return to being one. He then decided to rent the current property, renovate it and run it as a hostel. Business was challenging with the sanctions, they only operated at full capacity for a few months a year, and there were barely any guests at other times. I saw a motorbike lying at the corner of the hostel and I asked Mo if it was his. “It is, but a rich boy is buying it. A motorcycle costs a lot, I can get a large amount of money for it. He’s waiting for me to finish the repair – but I don’t want to finish”, he said as he glanced longingly in the direction of the bike. Mo was obviously sentimental over the bike, but the money would help. In all the places I stayed at, they told me about how it’s been a slow year since the sanctions. Back in the day, there were a lot more tourists and business was good.
I soon had to leave, and Mo helped me get a taxi to the bus station. There wasn’t any English in the station again, but I found my way by asking around. It was a 6-hour bus to Shiraz, I would arrive by midnight. I sat beside a lady, who at first seemed not particularly friendly. I fell asleep immediately in the bus, and she woke me up to tell me in actions to put on my seat belt. She tried helping me locate it, but we couldn’t. I thanked her for her concern. Around midway, we made a 20 minute stop. I went down to buy water and nothing else as I was still full from lunch. The lady opened a lunchbox with rice and kebabs. She picked up one of her 2 kebabs and insisted on me taking it. I felt bad having to take it, but she wouldn’t accept no as an answer. I smiled and took it, and she offered me some bread. This has always been my general experience in Iran, their generosity to strangers was always overwhelming – I would never go hungry there. My only wish was that I had brought more things I could give away. Sometimes there was something I could give, but more often than not due to my limited luggage space, I was always only at the receiving end.
When I arrived at the hostel a little past midnight, Hamid was there in the front desk like he told me. He was falling sleep while standing though, and even mid-sentence while talking to me. I found it a little funny, but of course held back my laughter. He gave me a room which was a bit more expensive than what I had booked because he was too tired to bring me to my original room in a separate building. I didn’t feel too well when I got to Shiraz. My skin had become even rougher, and I developed some sort of painful inflammation in my armpits. I tried to self-diagnose using Google, but I couldn’t figure it out. (Thankfully my skin had normalized when I returned to Singapore, my body was definitely made for the tropics.) I downed a few pills for fever and my throat, and dozed off within a few minutes.
Morning came and Leila, my tour guide, arrived while I was having breakfast. She arrived at 8 AM, but I thought we were meeting at 9 AM. Thank god for my habit of waking up early, I was able to wrap up breakfast and packing within 10 minutes. My only objective in Shiraz was to visit the famed Persepolis and Necropolis, and of course the photogenic Nasir ol Molk mosque. Leila would accompany me to Persepolis and Necropolis, but I was to explore Shiraz on my own tomorrow. Leila drove her own car, like Zara. I had asked Zara in Yazd why most cars in Iran were white. “Does it have something to do with religion?”, I inquired. “Oh that’s a good question, it’s actually because of the sun to avoid getting the car too hot.” Predictably, Leila’s car was also white. We had not reached far from the hostel, when Leila miscalculated and forced the car in between a truck and the pavement. As a result, her side mirror got nagged, popped out and dropped. She was talking to me about Shiraz at that moment, and I felt bad that I possibly distracted her. She got out the car to pick the side mirror up and talk to the truck people, but of course they insisted it was her fault. “This is always what they say, it’s not their fault.” I had thought that it wasn’t the truck’s fault either, but I kept that opinion to myself. “Is it expensive to get this fixed? We could go to a repair shop first”, I offered. “With the sanctions now, all you can get are copy parts from China, not the original. It’s cheaper but it doesn’t last”, Leila explained. I also had in mind the benzene price increase yesterday, and I just decided to give her a larger tip. “I have a feeling this isn’t going to be a good day”, Leila correctly prophesized. I silently wished she was wrong. We drove back with just one side mirror to Leila’s city, Marvdasht. It was the nearest city to Persepolis. She picked up a friend there, and her friend took over the wheel. Over the drive, she had arranged with her friend to get the car repaired while we were going around Persepolis. I wondered about the coincidence that her friend didn’t seem busy today and was readily available to do this for her.
When we reached Persepolis, I was asked to leave my bag. It was an added measure they had because of the common practice of looting pieces of rock from the structure – done over the years by foreigners mostly. Big chunks of the ancient palace now sit in renowned museums outside Iran. The Persepolis site was simultaneously underwhelming and overwhelming. So much of it had been destroyed by Alexander the Great, and both prominent and common thieves. Yet if you dared imagine the structure from what was left, it was no doubt intricate and beyond opulent. Surely it was an architectural wonder during its time. I decided to rent a 3D VR glass that recreated the site when you put it on. It didn’t really do it, but it wasn’t a waste of money either, sometimes it made imagining easier. To be honest, I wasn’t that fascinated about Persepolis as much as I was asking Leila about her opinion on other things. Leila was born Muslim but didn’t believe in any religion any more. She was frustrated with the government and the way things were being run. “They impose all these rules on us, yet they live the way they want with all their children in the best schools in America.” She talked about the consequences of the sanctions on medicines – most people just died if they had cancer. Some people got sick because of inferior quality medicines that are not only fake but toxic. Water tributaries were being reverted to industrial use for the government’s benefit but to the people’s detriment. Factories can’t upgrade their machines for higher efficiency and less environmentally-damaging technologies because the sanctions have prevented importation of these as well. It was difficult to believe in anything anymore. Iran’s situation reminded me a lot of Philippines. It wasn’t directly comparable of course – but the brain drain, the never-ending projects with budgets corrupted by politicians, the disregard for the life of the poorer factions, the unfulfilled potential of both the people and the resources – they were akin to each other. I felt Leila’s extreme disappointment, but somehow I also felt that Iran and the Iranian people were surviving as gracefully as they could amidst all their problems. Even with all that political and economic isolation, they were able to sustain themselves. The people earned so much respect from me. Although Leila remarked she hated the counterfeit and questionable products from China, she also said “I like the Chinese government. They just let their people do their own work and now they’re all getting stronger with their economy.” One could argue that Chinese rule couldn’t be simplified this way, but I saw Leila’s point. All she wanted was a government that supported the people, and thereafter she was willing to do the rest of the hard work.
After Persepolis was Necropolis, which was where Darius the Great was buried, along with the other kings of the Achaemenid empire. Leila pointed at the tomb of Xerxes, which was scaffolded for restoration. “Look at that, they said they’ll start the work years ago after the budget was signed off. But it’s still not done – it’s like this in Iran.” “Money for the government, and cancer for the people”, was what Leila said when I asked about a petrochemical factory emitting fumes from afar. The last thing on the itinerary was lunch with a local family. At first I thought we were going to some random local village, but I then realized we were going to Leila’s home at one of villages at the outskirts of the city. Leila’s father owned around 200 sheep – it was their main livelihood. His three sons helped him out, one of them as full-fledged shepherd while the two of them because it was tough to look for a better job. When we reached their home, Leila’s mom was making butter from sheep milk. While Iranians traditionally usually use the animal’s skin, she was using a metal container, shaking it back and forth to make the butter curd. She fished it out using her bare hands, with the rest of the milk to be consumed as dhoogh (buttermilk). I could smell the fresh butter as I watched her do it. I entered their simple home and I realized that my earlier proclamation that all Iranian houses seemed to be elaborately-decorated was not necessarily true. I was blindsided by the manicured side of Iran. Not that Leila’s home wasn’t nice, but it was plain and simple, nothing fancy adorned the place. Leila showed me a beautiful carpet that she had weaved herself. “Back in the day, every girl in the village would make at least 1 carpet in her life. One carpet would take about 2 months to make, and there was nothing else you’d do during that time.” As lunch wasn’t quite ready yet, I sat in the living/sleeping room with Leila’s father. Neither of Leila’s parents spoke any English. I sat in front of him and smiled, and he graciously smiled back. We were soon served tea and I started drinking it as I usually did – without sugar, from the cup. I watched Leila’s father as he took a sugar cube, dipped it into the hot tea, and placed it in his mouth. He then poured the tea into the saucer, and drank from there (this cools the tea quickly because of the higher surface area). He looked at me as if waiting if I would follow suit, and naturally I did. I did as he did, and he said something to Leila in Farsi. “What did he say?”, I asked. “He said you can stay here and be his fourth daughter.” I smiled to indicate a “yes”, but mostly an “I would if I could, but my own father is waiting for me”.
Lunch was then served – it was a rice dish with lamb, traditional bread, and the butter and dhoogh that Leila’s mom just collected. It was simple yet delicious. I tried not to take too much meat, but Leila’s parents kept insisting. I ate two servings because it was both good and I wanted to show them I really liked it. After lunch, Leila’s father dipped his hands in the butter and used it as lotion. I thought to myself that it was brilliant idea, because my lotion was doing nothing for my dry skin. I helped Leila wash the dishes, I volunteered to do the soaping as I didn’t want to waste water. After that, Leila took me out to meet her brother. He had just come back carrying 3 newborn lambs. We shooked hands, and he called me “Philippines”. He took me and Leila for a short motorbike ride to where the sheep were grazing. His wife and 2 adorable daughters were there as well. Leila had narrated to me that they had married young and that they were cousins. I asked her if she really meant first cousins, and she confirmed it. When I met Amin in Tehran, I asked him about this as it was not practice where I was from for health reasons (higher possibility of offspring getting genetic disorders). He said it was true, that was completely acceptable, although perhaps not as common in the cities. After reading a bit more on it, there has been studies showing that this risk is low for first cousins. Leila was in her late 30s, she explained to me the same thing as Esi, that it was hard to get married nowadays with the bad economy, and most people lived with their parents. I asked her if she doesn’t have plans of getting married anymore, she struck me as very independent and responsible towards her family. “I want to, I just haven’t found someone to marry”, she told me with a laugh. I smiled and agreed with her, “same here”.
Leila encouraged me to take a nap after lunch. I wondered why she didn’t want to bring me back yet. I wasn’t in a hurry though, so I lounged beside her father in the living/sleeping room again. He was lying on his side, listening to his radio. I inspected the radio thinking if it was possibly vintage, until I saw the usb port. Leila was particularly busy on her phone, and she suddenly told me “The roads are blocked in Shiraz, my friend said it’s dangerous to go back now. They’re throwing stones on cars that try to get in”. I asked Leila if it was because of the benzene price hike, and she said yes. She told me we’ll just have to wait awhile until hopefully the situation calms down and she would drive me back. I didn’t mind waiting rather than endangering both of us. I seemed to have lost the signal on my phone permanently, so I busied myself with deleting bad photos I had on my camera. I particularly enjoyed sitting there with Leila’s dad anyway, I felt like we shared some affinity even if we couldn’t talk to each other. He had a problem in his knees, and Leila narrated that he needed an expensive injection every now and then. He can’t walk that far anymore, that’s why his son has taken over most of the shepherding responsibilities. I guessed it was osteoarthritis, and I could definitely imagine how expensive that was. Leila’s mother on the other hand had an eye patch over one of her eyes. I asked Leila what the problem was, and she told me she had recently had an operation to allow her to see clearly again (I surmised it was for cataract), but her eye continued to feel pain every now and then. Evening came, and Leila’s brothers and sister arrived. There was no hope of getting back in the city that night so I had to spend the night there. “That’s completely fine. Thank you for letting me stay here”, I reassured her. Only Leila’s youngest brother, Ebrahim, spoke English other than Leila. He taught me all their names, and after that suddenly asked me “Who am I?”. Fortunately I remembered, Ebrahim was something I could imagine the spelling of. Leila busied herself slicing potatoes and onions for dinner. I offered to help, but she refused and insisted she was fine. I sat with her family as they ate some “organic white pistachios” according to them. It looked more like mung beans to me, and as I tried biting into one it was as hard as a raw mung bean as well. “Don’t eat it”, Leila warned, “they don’t care about their teeth”. Leila’s parents shook their head and hands to prevent me from trying, but their children coaxed me to try. I took one again and tried to crack it slowly. I opened it and saw a miniscule soft seed within and judged “there’s nothing inside”. “You’re right, Christine”, Leila laughed. Ebrahim’s other brother grabbed one and opened it for me. He placed on my hand another of those tiny seeds and insisted that I was holding what they were eating. He urged me to eat it, but I was aware he had that in his mouth just awhile ago. “What the hell”, I thought. I popped it in and it still didn’t seem worth the effort to me.
Ebrahim asked me what my interests were. I knew he was into music when Leila introduced them, and I told him I was too. He asked about me, and soon enough gathered the confusing fact that I lived in Singapore, whereas my family was in Philippines. “Do you love your father and your brother?”, he inquired. I was taken aback by the question and said, “yes, of course”. “But you left them in Philippines?” “Well, not exactly. I work in Singapore so I need to live there.” “But you chose to leave them?” I stopped to think for awhile. I could explain my reason in a more complicated way, but I guess if you simplified it, the answer was “yes, I guess you could say that”, I slowly admitted to myself more than to him.
Our dinner was the leftover from lunch, and mashed potatoes mixed with caramelized onions. It was a simple yet gratifying dinner. After that, I went to the kitchen to offer my help washing the dishes. “Oh no, there’s no water. we can do that tomorrow”, Leila countered. Water was only turned on for several hours twice a week, but Leila’s mom forgot to fill the tank today because she wasn’t aware that the water was coming that day. Leila had also showed me a dry canal this afternoon, pointing to it and reminiscing “This used to be a stream. There was a huge tree at this corner, and all the women in the village would wash their dishes and laundry together. It was one of the best memories of my childhood. But it’s been dry for 15 years now, the government diverted the water to factories.” The night was young, so we all went to Leila’s other brother’s house to watch television, drink tea, and eat more pomegranate. I dreaded getting pushed to the brink of having to use the bathroom because it was freezing cold outside, and it was a squat toilet. I could pee in one, but I wasn’t confident in doing heavier deposits. Leila’s sister also showed me long videos of a wedding they attended (they were dancing in the video and wearing traditional dresses), as well as videos from their yearly ritual of giving the sheeps a bath in a running stream. It was only when we they changed the channel to BBC Persian did I understand the full extent of the protests. Streets and petrol stations were on fire, roads were blocked in a few cities in the country, the military had allegedly open-fired on the people (the reported death toll was 200), and internet was cut off by the government. My first thought was if this was on the world news already, my dad would be worried sick if he saw this. I asked Leila if this has happened before. “The last time they raised prices was 12 years ago. They’ve cut the internet before, usually it’s back by the next day.” It took a week for the internet to be restored, and in fact in some places like Leila’s, it took 2 weeks. When she finally received my messages and replied (I was back in Singapore by then), she didn’t forget to emphasize the resulting economic damage taking away the internet brought.
I was warm sleeping under two blankets at Leila’s home. In the morning, we had breakfast together and again, I had to go through the inevitable parting. I gave Leila’s parents some gifts, and when Ebrahim and I said our goodbyes, he told me he hoped to see me in Philippines one day. He didn’t say Singapore. I felt really grateful for Leila and her family, for their accommodation and warmth. Leila’s brother accompanied us in the drive back to Shiraz. As I sat in the car, I thought about how far I was from the danger of the protests, but at the same time how near I was to the actual problem, because I was with the people.
When I got back to the hostel, Hamid reprimanded me why I didn’t text or call him that I wasn’t going back last night. I apologized and told him I didn’t know I could still text or call, and that I slept at a village. He was worried because the situation was volatile yesterday, and he didn’t have my Iranian number to check on me. Whatsapp is also how people usually communicated in Iran, and I retained my Singapore number for that. I took a shower and told Hamid I had a flight back to Tehran that day. “I can’t promise you we can get a taxi, but I’ll try.” As I was eating breakfast, I talked to Hamid for awhile, I felt bad I wasn’t able to really stay at the hostel that long. He told me knew Manny Pacquiao and Batista, they were famous Filipino wrestlers. “Is that so? I didn’t even know Batista was half-Filipino”, I replied in amazement. I told him I hoped the situation would get better soon for everyone. “The politics in Iran is not normal. If you want to change this system, some people must die”, he replied as he went to the next bead in his misbaha (Islamic prayer beads).
As it turned out, Hamid couldn’t find a taxi for me. But he came up with an alternative. My colleague can just bring you to the airport on a motorbike. “Is it safe?”, I asked in concern for his colleague, because the prospect of a motorbike honestly excited me. “Yes, no problem, don’t worry”, Hamid reassured me. It was great I was traveling with a backpack so hitching it on the bike was no problem. Mooriah was the one who drove me to the airport. He was several years younger than me, and I thought he looked more like an Indian than an Iranian. A good-looking Indian, for that matter. The original plan was for Mooriah to find me a taxi just a bit farther out of the central area, but he ended up driving me the entire way to the airport. I sensed he was expressing interest in me, by way of his conversation and when he placed my hands inside his jacket pockets to make them warm. But his lack of English and my lack of Farsi, prevented us from communicating properly. And in any case, he was just a boy, and I was not a girl anymore. I told him to take care on the way back and thanked him with an additional tip.
Amin got in touch with me as I waited for my flight to Tehran. I asked Amin a favor to help me top up my credits because I didn’t know how to check my balance and I wasn’t sure how many more messages and calls I could make. Amin immediately sent me some credit, and gave me instructions what to do upon reaching Tehran. We were scheduled to meet that night, but it seemed like he was implying I would sleep over with him and his wife as well. “You mean I can stay at your place tonight?”, I asked. “You’ll be with us for the rest of your trip in Iran”, Amin confirmed. I was touched by their generosity. Leila told me Hanieh was so worried for me and kept calling her to check on me. I told Leila I was completely fine, and not worried. I wasn’t scared or upset at all that all of this was happening during my trip, that I wasn’t able to see Shiraz because of it, or anything else. I was taking the entire experience in, the only emotion I felt was sympathy for the Iranians and a frustration that I couldn’t really do much and will mostly have to watch how this entire situation unfolds. I tried texting my dad to tell him I was fine, but international text messages didn’t seem to get through either. I couldn’t call him as well, although Ali and Elli (who constantly checked on me) insisted that I should be able to. By evening that day, I was finally able to call my dad and naturally he was upset. I reassured him that everything was fine and that I was in good company, and he insisted that I stay indoors and get to the airport immediately. I missed my dad at that moment, he was always so concerned for me. Nobody was as invested as him on checking on my safety constantly. “I still have a full day here tomorrow. I’ll be back in Singapore soon, don’t worry”, I reassured him.
I went back to Arian hostel first to get my luggage and kill some time before I took a cab to Amin’s home. I paid for a night’s stay in exchange of them graciously allowing me to leave my suitcase there. Tehran’s roads were also closed yesterday because of protests, but everything looked artificially calm when I got there. I saw the military manning the still-operating petrol stations, and there was a long line for those. I texted all my new Iranian friends to check on them, including Esi. Surprisingly, he told me he was also in Tehran and if I wanted to meet him. I had planned to meet Baba Abi the next morning. He was the one I brought the 20 packs of mi goreng for. But I also really wanted to see Esi one last time, so I apologized to Baba Abi and hoped he understood.
I got to Amin and Hanieh’s home a little past 7. Finally, I was meeting the person who helped me make this entire trip possible. The person I’ve constantly bugged with every other question I thought of. I was really psyched to meet them both. TasteIran was a start-up they, as a couple, started just over a year ago. Amin had a PhD in IT (well almost completed) and MBA background, while Hanieh had extensive experience in the tourism industry. They both loved traveling as backpackers, and it felt absolutely right for them to work on something they were both extremely passionate about and completely capable of. They employed a few other people in their company, but Amin was mostly responsible for the website and transactions, while Hanieh was in charge of the content. They were both extremely welcoming and friendly. I excitedly told them about the last few magical days I’ve had in their country and how extremely fortunate I felt for ending up in Iran. Amin also had a lovely surprise waiting for me, they had ordered a box of qottab for me. “Oh my god, thank you!”, was the only thing I could keep saying. But Amin had his eyes on the qottab as well, he invited me to open it, and of course I did. He helped himself with some, apparently qottab was a specific specialty in Yazd, and that they went through an agent to get this. Amin got a few, and Hanieh advised me to keep my stash before he got any more. I did (haha, sorry Amin! :D). Their home was decorated very gaily, with numerous handicrafts adorning their walls and furnitures. Hanieh was especially fond of local traditional dolls, and she proudly showed me her entire collection. Amin and Hanieh were just around my age, but they somewhat felt like my adoptive Iranian parents. I loved Amin’s sense of humor, and I enjoyed listening to Hanieh’s strong opinions. They were a great couple, and I felt grateful for the turn of events that allowed me to meet them in person and even stay at their home.
After breakfast the next day, I met up with Esi and his two friends. His friend has his own place, and they were all clearly part of the more affluent population. But they weren’t condescending at all about it, as a matter of fact they were all quite down-to-earth and welcoming. In addition, they had impeccable taste in music which was always a good sign. We drove up to Lavasan, just an hour away from the more central area of Tehran. Esi likened the properties there as an equivalent to Beverly Hills. We stopped by a river outside the town and the three of them lit a fire in vain. It didn’t last long – clearly I was with city boys. Despite their general high spirits, I also felt their grudges for the political and economic situation. Even they were not spared from it. We were all the same age, but with different concerns and different liberties.
I thanked Esi for letting me hang out with him and his friends that day. I wanted to joke that I’d rate it 5 stars for an authentic local experience, but it wasn’t the time for humor. I wished him well when I said good bye, I knew there was little possibility we’d meet again. But all I needed was that second chance to tell him what I felt, and that was enough not to have any regrets.
I went back to Amin and Hanieh’s place and spent the rest of my time in Tehran showing them my photos and all the souvenirs I bought. I was proud to tell them how pleased I was with all the assistance they gave me, and for going out of their way even. I was starting to miss everything about Iran already.
If you had read this entire post, it’s quite clear that Iran had not left me lost for words. It was an incredibly gratifying choice, not just for the sights but mostly for the people. And everything I learned not only about them, but about myself. During my stay there, I hardly knew what date it was. The only thing that reminded what day it was were the birth control pills I took every morning for my PCOS. I never felt worried for my safety, even at night. But of course, it was like any other place I did meet a handful of people who could be described as rude, their government screwed them up, there were unaddressed social and economic problems. But it was nothing like the Iran everyone else warned me about. I don’t blame them though, Iran’s real story has been locked up within their borders as a result of the sanctions. Whether the political problem is the responsibility of their ruling government or foreign nations is arguable. What was inarguable was that nobody ever regrets visiting Iran. While every country has their own problem, including my own, knowing people in Iran has definitely made me more concerned and invested with what could unfold in the near future – I sincerely hope that it doesn’t involve the sacrifice of more lives. But of course, one hopes for real change. I thank God/Allah/Ahura Mazda or whatever else title this entity holds – the great source of energy in this universe – for giving me a wonderful lesson in the form of my experience in this country. I’ll be back, Inshallah. (Don’t worry Mamoti, God’s will isn’t always a yes)
Tehran Grand Bazaar
Golestan Palace, Tehran
Azadi Tower, Tehran
A rooftop inside one of the opulent traditional houses in Kashan
Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan
Tabatabaei House, Kashan
Khaju Bridge, Isfahan
Me and Elli in the nondescript local restaurant with great food
Elli liked this photo of her that I took at the Shah Mosque
Elli’s favorite Ghalamkar workshop
Ali Qapu Palace
Music room walls at Ali Qapu Palace
Entrance of the Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Naqsh-e Jahan Square at night, Isfahan
Zayandeh-Rud River, I was lucky it wasn’t dry anymore when I visited, Isfahan
Khaju bridge, Isfahan
Salt flats at Varzaneh
That’s me after sandboarding
While waiting for the sunset at Varzaneh
Saji and Hafez on top of the caravanserai for breakfast
Me and my many layers, but without Aminn’s jacket already
Me, Flo and Elaine
The moon through one of the glass balls on the roof, Yazd
Tower of silence, Yazd
The stone sculptures at Persepolis depicted many nations, but they were all men. This is supposedly the only female depicted in the entire complex – a lioness
Persian tomato omelette which I absolutely looove
Amin and Hanieh of TasteIran (I wasn’t able to take a photo with them so Hanieh has kindly provided one)
P.S. I spent 2,700 USD for my 10-day trip, including the flights and all the rebooking. If you subtract my flights, it was 1,500 USD. Shopping and tipping (or more like money that they actually deserved) also included, though I would have spent more for Persian rugs if I had the chance in Tehran.
This is what it looks like.
I sat comfortably at Soup Kitchen downing the last few spoons of my Tangy Tomato and Basil. It was at a busy mall basement and the after-office crowd crawled all over the place. As I stared ahead into nothing in particular, a man caught my eye. A frail, old man who tightly clutched a worn-out shoulder bag. He looked agitated – disturbed in fact. He constantly looked left and right with a purpose I couldn’t quite discern. I wondered if he was trying to ask for money, but he never did make any suggestive gesture to anyone. I followed him with my eyes, trying hard not to blink lest I miss an act of begging. He shifted his position to a few meters away every now and then, and soon enough he had walked to somewhere out of my view. I finished up my plate and took out from my wallet all the cash that I had left to place it somewhere I could easily reach. As I walked towards the direction he went, I observed that he continued to do the same. I wanted to ask him if he had a problem, but I was scared he might not understand English. I lingered around somewhere near, casually observing and just waiting for the tiniest sign that he was there to ask for help – still he never gave one. Something told me he needed it, but I needed a sign that he welcomed that help. I felt frustrated at why he didn’t make it easier – people usually held signs if they wanted to ask for money. But then again I thought to myself, I don’t always give those people money. It seemed futile so I walked away to buy something that I had intended to buy after eating. The thought of him didn’t leave me, so I tried to look for the old man again after my purchase. After searching a few places, I found him. It was strange to keep walking around so I decided to stand a few meters away from him. I watched him as he stood near some kids with their mom. He smiled at the children and I wished that perhaps the mother would give him something so that I could follow suit. But after they bought what they were in line for, they simply walked away. I stood there paralyzed by my irrational fears. I was afraid to insult him if he didn’t need money. I was afraid he might be crazy and make a scene if I handed him the money. I was afraid I’d be embarrassed if he didn’t take the money. After a few minutes, he started walking towards me. That was my chance – I looked at him, ready to fish out the cash and hand it quickly. As he walked towards me from the crowd, we held each other’s gaze for a few seconds. But he ended up simply walking past me. I gave up after a few more minutes of hanging around and walked away. But a sense of failure haunted me as I retreated from the situation with my newly purchased hundred dollar eyeshadow palette, my thousand dollar phone, and what not. It wasn’t the same feeling as failing an exam. It wasn’t the same feeling of making a mistake at work. It wasn’t the same feeling as offending someone. It was the feeling of failing as a human.
And I’m not writing it to get any kind of sympathy which I clearly don’t deserve. I’m writing it because it’s one of those failures which are better not learned through experience. May this serve as a cautionary tale of what this kind of failure looks like.