As the plane descended over the late night lights of Tehran, I kept thinking of the lead-in passage in Rick Steves book when the pilot announced, “This plane is going to Tehran,” and nobody flinched! It was a packed plane, and immediately after the “raise your tray table” announcements followed “by decree of Islamic law, all women are to cover their heads prior to leaving the aircraft.” As the tray tables went up, so did the headscarves in unison. Man, all I can say is it is true what they say about 75% of the body heat escaping through the head, because already, this girl is HOT!
I must admit, I was a bit apprehensive as I approached the immigration line labeled “Foreigner” as I looked around and realized I was the only person with a navy blue passport. I passed through the line with no problem, but was greeted on the other end by a very friendly, smiling Iranian officer who said in very heavily accented, broken English, “WELCOME!! I am pleased to meet you!! Please come with me to get your fingerprints!” One by one, finger after finger, an hour later, and I was finally on my way.
The first thing I noticed was how overwhelmingly nice everyone was, exclaiming “WE LOVE AMERICANS!!” My taxi driver from the airport has a brother living in Portland, and one living in Birmingham, AL. He studied engineering at Oklahoma City — small world.
We arrived at the Englehab Hotel, a very nice four star, about 4:00am We are told not to get used to this luxury, however as most places from here on out will be in guesthouses, not four star hotels with bathrobes and slippers! No room was complete however without a copy of the Quran and prayer rug! There is even an arrow in each room orienting the faithful toward Mecca. Breakfast was included, bringing about one of the most bizarre impressions — sitting down to eat in a trench coat and scarf. I kept feeling like I should be dining outside!
Once the basics of money exchange were out of the way, I headed to the bazaar on foot to take in the daily routines of Tehran. A labyrinth of shops, spices, pistachio vendors, I wound around until my feet would not hold up any longer, then headed back to the hotel for a quick nap before the introductory meeting of our tour group at 6:00pm.
There would be 11 of us — 4 from the USA (2 from NYC, 1 from Canada, and moi) 2 from Australia, 2 from Romania, and 2 from Portugal, and our tour guide is from New Zealand, so a very eclectic group!
The obligatory orientation now out of the way, some went to bed, but I opted to go out to dinner with the very nice couple from Romania to a typical Iranian restaurant, down in a basement where people were dining cross-legged on a divan of sorts. All trenched up in my coat and scarf, I was grateful that my companions were willing to sit at a table! We had fabulous roasted meats (kebab) turkey leg, rice, with slivered onions, roasted tomatoes, and a delicious salty yogurt drink called “douq” that sounds terrible, but was quite delicious as a refreshing accompaniment with the grilled meat! People were smoking from the hooka (water pipe) but since the smoke got filtered through the water in the pipe, the restaurant was thankfully not smoky, but yet very atmospheric. On the way out of the restaurant, the waiter stopped to ask how he could learn to speak better English. With his dark hair and eyes and gorgeous Iranian features, if I had my books with me, it would have been tempting!
The dollar goes a long way buying 10,000 Rials, which got me half way across town on a buck. Dinner was $10, bottled water and Coke Zero about thirty cents. Internet is $3 an hour here in the 4 star hotel, so I am sure cheaper other places.
Fascinating place, friendly people — just eager to get out of the congested and very polluted big city with over 12,000,000 people, and what seems to be just as many cars!