It’s been nearly three months since the cold and snowy morning we walked across the border between Iran and Turkmenistan to the collective sigh-of-relief of our friends and family. Our three weeks in one of the world’s most polarizing and misunderstood countries (á la “The Axis of Evil”) were, and will likely continue to be, the absolute highlight of our trip thus far. However, it’s been extremely difficult for us to sit down and write about our time in Iran. As some of the few Westerners who travel to Iran, and even fewer Americans still, we’ve felt a certain level of self imposed responsibility in our representation of the Iranian people who were so generous and hospitable to us.
But to be perfectly honest, its impossible to truly encapsulate our experience. We could never write about our time in Iran eloquently enough to do justice to this incredibly beautiful, nuanced, and complicated country. What you will read in our Iran Series is our attempt to describe some of our experiences and hopefully make you question the images of Iran you see portrayed in Western media. Unfortunately, you won’t have the opportunity to read our best or funniest stories about the people we interacted with, the stories that would make you ask, “WHAT?! IN IRAN?!” There is a huge distinction between public and private life in Iran, and we would never want to get our guides or any of the wonderful people we met in trouble by betraying the sanctity of what they do in their own homes or behind closed doors. Please feel free to ask us in person though, we would love to rock your world-view.
We first began talking about traveling to Iran over 5 years ago, driven by the desire to visit one of the world’s oldest civilizations and an astounding 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The time was finally right, and with the help of good ole’ Rick Steves we selected a tour company and began the daunting process of applying for a visa. Americans (as well as British and Canadians) are required by the Iranian government to travel “at all times” with a guide. Unfortunately, this makes travel in Iran artificially expensive in what is otherwise a very budget friendly country. However, this requirement is treated as more of a formality than a rule, and after our scheduled sightseeing we were not only allowed but encouraged to explore the streets of Iran on our own. This free time gave us access to Iranian daily life that we did not think was possible as Americans, and it was during this time that we were able to freely interact with whomever we chose.
As so few Americans have traveled to Iran since the 1979 revolution, we were often the very first that many had met. Talk about a responsibility to represent your country! After a hearty “Ahh, USA!,” we were greeted with their best wishes for our visit, explaining to us that the Iranian people welcome us despite what the government may say. This is something that we heard over and over… “We are not our government.” It’s a sentiment that we also hoped to instill in those we met. We were invited –and regularly joined— friendly people on the street for tea, a meal, nargile, an exchange of emails, photos, and some baby holding sessions. It was almost like being a minor celebrity, though we never tired of speaking with whomever we could.
Personal interaction is truly what made our trip so exceptional. So seldom when we travel do the local people interact with us, or vice versa, beyond transactions involving an exchange of money or services. We have never experienced so many people coming up to us just to talk, to shout “WELCOME TO IRAN!” to us as we walked down the street, or to go out of their way to show us that they are different than the way they are represented by their government and by the media in both the East and West. The most beautiful and ironic part is that it is because of these negative misrepresentations made to keep us apart that so many people went out of their way to interact with us during our stay, ultimately bringing us closer together. It’s something that I think you can only truly experience in regions with a history of conflict or political turmoil, which might help explain why we travel to some of the more “non-traditional” tourist destinations.
While our trip carried with it some considerable risks, most essentially the lack of a US embassy in the event of an emergency, we ultimately felt that the potential dangers associated with our visit did not outweigh the incredible opportunity to push ourselves as travelers and explore a region we have dreamt about for years. Beyond seeing archaeological sites that have been at the crossroads of history since antiquity, we hoped that through our visit we could move beyond contentious international relations and seek out authentic face-to-face experiences with people like us— and that is exactly what we experienced in Iran.
We’re not sure how many posts we’ll do on Iran, but expect at least two more and plenty of photos. Since Iran we’ve traveled along the Silk Road through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, followed by Dubai, Sri Lanka, Spain, and now Morocco. Now that the daunting task of tackling Iran is underway, we will hopefully return to a more regular blog posting schedule.