Words and Images by Mark Woodland
When I’m asked about interesting travel destinations and I mention Iran the reaction is often, “you went to Iran?”. Granted it is not a typical country for Americans to visit. So how did this happen? Well I have a friend and coworker that has always wanted to go, but he knew getting a visa wouldn't be easy. He mentioned this to an Iranian we met at a conference and they said we just needed an invitation to a wedding in Tehran. It turns out they had a relative getting married in a few months, and with typical Persian hospitality we were invited! Our visas were approved and we booked the trip.
I would describe Tehran as Istanbul meets Madrid. Traffic was way up there on the white knuckle scale. Why they even paint lines on the road is a mystery. It was interesting when our driver took a detour up onto the sidewalk to get around slow traffic. Thankfully no pedestrians were harmed.
Many of the women were in full burqa; although some wore colorful head scarfs and had to be careful to keep any hair from peaking out. It reminded me of when we started our decent into Tehran. Before the seatbelt sign came on we saw ladies getting scarves out of their bags from the overhead bins. This was to prepare for passport control and then onto the streets of the city.
The first night in Iran we had a fantastic Persian dinner with live music. We didn’t have a lot of time in Tehran before the wedding, but we did get to drive by the former US Embassy and discreetly took photos without stopping. The wedding and late night feast was a wonderful experience. Our generous hosts had arranged for us to get to see more of the country; which meant meeting before dawn to catch a flight to Shiraz.
At the time of this trip in 2004 we were surprised that at the airport there was no x-ray screening for in-country destinations. Shiraz was hot and dry and we struggled to fight jet lag and the effects of the late night wedding. After a nap we hit the streets and one thing that stood out was the nice parks with people relaxing on the grass or just strolling along.
Many times people would stop us and ask if we were Americans. Guilty as charged... Everyone was very friendly and we had to decline many invitations to tea given our tight schedule. More than once during our encounters a man would lean close and whisper that they didn’t like George Bush, but then quickly add that they also weren’t happy with their own leaders. Our tour guide (and gov’t minder) was friendly and we tried not to give him any trouble. A short bus ride from Shiraz took us to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire. It was once known as the richest city under the sun and was built by the Achaemenid King Darius I (550-486 BC) and his successors.
The watchful gaze of the Ayatollah was everywhere.
Our next destination was Esfahan. Here we spent time at the huge 17th century Isfahan Royal Square and enjoyed views of the Siosepol Bridge as well as strolling across the Khajou Bridge.
The trip was too short and my heart goes out to so many inside and outside Iran who want to see a change in their country. It is obvious that most people just want to have a “normal” life without being oppressed. Given the recent crack down on protests it looks like it isn't going to be easy.