So what does a North American traveller need to know before arriving? Let's start with one of the most important things - the coffee. It's Nescafe unless you can find a coffee bar in the larger centres and then you'll pay a lot for most likely Italian beans. Good coffee is very important to me and so I travel with my French Press and bring enough grounds to last for a few weeks. I'm running low so sure hope Jordan, my next stop, has some!
And the next most important thing - the food. It's okay, but not sensational. Rice with saffron is a staple, as is kebab - usually lamb or chicken, minced or chunks. Bread is similar to naan and in October, watermelon, apples and pomegranate are plentiful. Salad means raw cabbage, tomatoes and cucumber with feta cheese. They seem to think tourists like buffets and they're expensive. They do fill the hole, however, not my thing. I would prefer to eat on the street any day! The water is safe to drink everywhere and most cities have public water coolers so you can fill your bottle for free.
As for shopping, Iran is known for it's fine quality of shoes and so I went looking. Same story for me. The largest women's size available is 41, which I wear, however, their 41 is more like a 39.5 so...... No shoes! Traditional handicrafts are plentiful - stamped textiles, nougat that doesn't stick to your teeth, camel bone painted miniatures and copper ware. Semi-precious stones such as lapis, turquoise and rubies are mined in north east Iran and one can find other good quality jewellery that's cheap. Every city has a bazar and they are a maze of sensory overload- you can smell the spices before you see them - mint, cardamon and cinnamon! As far as 'normal' or western clothing? Well, I'd wait for another country to find that unless you're looking for a chador or fabric to make one.
Now what about this head scarf/chador thing? Women aged 9 and older are required to wear a head scarf in public and believe me, IT IS A PAIN!!! It's hot, it's blinding and it gets in the way. But, what is it about? Is it cultural or is it for domination and suppression? Or is it about respect? I'm not sure. Iranian men are very respectful, at least the ones I came across. They opened doors for women and let them go first in line ups. Walking around alone at night, I never felt uneasy. The headscarf and chador hide the beauty of women and save it for her husband. That's not to say they aren't beautiful with just their faces showing. More and more are wearing makeup and in some cases, lots of it. However, in North America, I think some women feel pressure to look a certain way that they no longer do and so they colour their hair and have botox and other facial and body surgeries (although nose jobs are popular here), all in the name of looking younger. Our women are inundated with messages to be thin: models and mannequins, our fashion role models, are often emaciated and so many of us work very hard to try and fit this 'ideal" image. Perhaps wearing a head scarf and or chador allows Iranian women to be themselves? I'm not sure.
Most of the country is desert and treeless mountains. Esfahan, however, is a particularly beautiful green city with many parks with pretty working fountains and large trees lining the streets and boulevards. However, Yadz, Shiraz, Kerman, Persepolis and Tehran all have lots to offer too. Visiting in October was great timing. It was perfect weather, although the head scarf makes it seem a lot hotter, especially combined with a hot flash! Nights cool off pleasantly.
The history and architecture are exceptional. Every mosque was different and not just slightly so. 17th century tile work is mainly blue, turquoise and white, whereas 19th century tilers also used yellow, pink, green and purple. Each dynasty had great decorating ideas and obviously lots of money. Civilizations were here well Before Christ so there is a lot to see and think about. Our guide was very proud of his heritage and told us lots of interesting facts.
Currently, Canadians are not allowed to tour Iran without a guide and there are quite a few tour companies available to meet those needs. Transportation is very modern and highways are good. We had to stop fairly often at police check points where they verified our driver's credentials as well as his driving log. Only once in 2 weeks were we pulled over by the police and fined - "they'll always find something" , our guide told me. A visa can also be complicated, depending on nationality. GAdventures took care of getting my 'number' which I presented at the Iranian embassy in Dubai (just because that was my first stop) and the next day I had my visa. It was cheap too, just $87. Others paid much more. The problem with obtaining the 'number' is that it usually comes just a week or two before your trip, so you have to plan for that when booking flights.
And last but certainly not least, the people. Who could ever forget the wonderful people of this country? They call out hello when you meet them in the street. If you're standing on the sidewalk looking at a map, they pull over, get out of their car and ask if they can help, even though they don't speak English and you don't speak Persian. They are super generous, inviting you into their homes and sharing their food in parks. Recently, Iranians have been through a lot - a revolution, a war with Iraq and they are now living in the middle of huge conflict, yet, I think Elizabeth Kubler Ross says it best: "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen." These are the people you will meet in Iran.
Presently only 30,000 tourists visit annually. Now is the time to come before Iran loses its beautiful spirit to hordes of visitors and you become just another tourist on a tour bus.