New friends nar­row the Persian gulf

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL -

Our read­ers share tales of their ram­bles around the world.

Who: David Pur­cell (the au­thor), his wife, Linda, and their friends of 25 years, Ji­mand Diane Hun­ing, all of the Dis­trict.

Where, when, why: The four of us have an affin­ity for the Mid­dle East that comes from its be­ing just so very dif­fer­ent from home. Pre­vi­ous trips only whet­ted our ap­petites for the re­gion and we found our­selves want­ing to re­turn, but to some­place new. To the ut­ter dis­be­lief of our friends, we chose Iran. With the help of IranEx­plor­ers.com, we worked out a 19-day itin­er­ary that took us to Tehran, then south to the cities of Kashan, Yazd, Ker­man, Shi­raz and Is­fa­han. Along the way, we spent nights in a 400year-old car­a­vanserai; tiny Abyaneh, one of Iran’s old­est vil­lages; and a fam­ily-owned and -op­er­ated ho­tel-restau­rant-mu­seum-farm com­plex in the moun­tains near Ba­vanat. We trav­eled by van with an Iran Ex­plor­ers guide and driver. (Iran re­quires Amer­i­cans to have a guide.) We went in April and May, a com­fort­able, although busy, time of year.

High­lights and high points: Most tourists go to Iran for the ar­chi­tec­ture of the cen­turies-old mosques and lav­ish palaces, the breath­tak­ing tile work, the tran­quil gar­dens, the ru­ins of Perse­po­lis and, yes, the car­pets. Th­ese things en­ticed us, too, and we were never dis­ap­pointed. But they rarely get star billing in our mem­o­ries of Iran or the sto­ries we tell our friends. That is re­served for the Ira­ni­ans them­selves. We were warmly greeted ev­ery­where, even swarmed at times, by Ira­ni­ans of all ages. Once they determined we were from Amer­ica— not Ger­many or Italy or some other West­ern coun­try— we in­stantly be­came rock stars. Our pho­tos can now be found on lit­er­ally hun­dreds of Ira­nian cell­phones. Peo­ple thanked us for com­ing to Iran and told us of their hopes for peace and bet­ter re­la­tions be­tween our coun­tries. We al­ways felt wel­come. We al­ways felt safe.

Cul­tural con­nec­tion or dis­con­nect: The night we ar­rived in Is­fa­han, we strolled with our guide through large, beau­ti­ful Royal Square, a UNESCO World Her­itage site. Like ev­ery out­door public space we vis­ited, the square was full of peo­ple en­joy­ing them­selves. As we walked by, one group called out to us, ask­ing where we were from. When we said Amer­ica, they re­sponded, “We love you. We love Amer­ica.” Mo­ments later, at the far end of the square, we saw signs ad­ver­tis­ing a rally that had taken place that morn­ing. The signs, although writ­ten mostly in Farsi, said in English, “Down with U.S.A., Down with Is­rael, Down with Ale Saud.” Our pre­vi­ous 15 days in Iran taught us not to be alarmed. Th­ese slo­gans are familiar to all Ira­ni­ans, and al­most no one pays at­ten­tion to them.

Big­gest laugh or cry: As we ap­proached Shazdeh Gar­den, an­other UNESCO site, in the town of Ma­han, we saw fam­i­lies pic­nick­ing on the lawns lead­ing up to the en­trance. It was Fa­ther’s Day, and a lot of peo­ple were out. From a dis­tance, one fam­ily mo­tioned us to join them where they were grilling kabobs. Af­ter an ex­change of pleas­antries, they asked us to have lunch. Be­cause, in our ex­pe­ri­ence, this was as likely to hap­pen at home as pigs are likely to fly, we were stunned and deeply moved by their gen­er­ous of­fer of hos­pi­tal­ity. We had some of the most amaz­ing grilled chicken, which we ate in­side folded pieces of de­li­cious, warm flat­bread.

How un­ex­pected: Iran was full of sur­prises, ex­em­pli­fied by nine women who de­fied our stereo­types of life in an ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive, cleric-dom­i­nated Is­lamic repub­lic. We saw and talked with them off and on dur­ing our three days in and around Ker­man. The women are friends from north of Tehran, near the Caspian Sea. Twice a year, they leave their hus­bands and chil­dren be­hind and travel, this time to Ker­man, in a van driven by a man they hired for the trip. Sev­eral times we passed them on the high­way, packed into their van, wav­ing their arms in the air and danc­ing in their seats. I just know the mu­sic they were groov­ing to was good and loud. There were no head scarves to be seen. We saw them an­other time, late one morn­ing, in a tea­house, again danc­ing in their chairs and singing along to the live mu­sic. A few of them smoked hookahs. At some point, they asked Diane and Linda what they talked about when they got to­gether with their Amer­i­can girl­friends. Diane and Linda an­swered, and the women replied, “That’s ex­actly what we talk about, too.”

Fond­est me­mento or mem­ory: We came home from Iran with just a few me­men­tos— a cou­ple of tiles, some saf­fron, a hand­painted camel-bone box, an an­tique lock shaped like an an­i­mal. Our most pre­cious me­men­tos, how­ever, are not phys­i­cal ob­jects. They are mem­o­ries of the peo­ple we met — the bak­ers who showed us how they make flat­bread, then gave us sam­ples; the no­mad women who in­vited us into their tent and of­fered us warm goat’s milk; the hard-work­ing la­bor­ers at the henna fac­tory who pa­tiently an­swered our ques­tions about their work and their lives. We trea­sure, too, the e-mail ad­dresses we brought home, in­clud­ing those of our won­der­ful driver, Me­hdi Ha­jikhani, and awe­some guide, Ashkan Shi­razi, whom we hope and ex­pect to be life­long friends. There are no me­men­tos bet­ter than that. We look for­ward to an­other trip to the Mid­dle East, next time to north­ern Iran.

ASHKAN SHI­RAZI

Above, from left, Diane Hun­ing, Jim Hun­ing, Linda Pur­cell and David Pur­cell at the Gate of All Na­tions in Perse­po­lis. The friends of 25 years ven­tured to Iran, where they re­ceived a rock-star wel­come. Top, the Bridge of Thirty-Three Arches in Is­fa­han.

DAVID PUR­CELL

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