“I love it here,” said the old American lady, “this is the 3rd time I have visited.”
I was shocked, and so was my friend. Why? Because we were in Esfahan, a city of Iran: not your usual tourist destination for Americans or any Westerners for that matter. The elderly lady was just one of a group of about fifty pensioners, all enjoying a sumptuously prepared lunch at the Abbasi hotel in downtown Esfahan, one of the plushest hostelries I had ever come across. The immaculately dressed flunkies, deep piled carpeting and gilded decorations both shocked and surprised me. I had never expected to encounter such elegance and sophisticated surroundings in Iran: but perhaps I
had been naive. It is so easy to build up an inaccurate picture of a place through negative media misconceptions.
My friend was a native Iranian from Esfahan. We had met at university in the UK a year previously and he had invited me to visit his home. My mother had advised against the trip but I was too curious and inquisitive to turn down such an invitation. A brief visit to the Embassy got me a visa stamp in my passport and the days quickly passed. A connecting flight via Istanbul took me to Imam Khomeini airport, just outside Tehran and then onwards to Esfahan in central Iran (a road trip of about 4 hours).
We had run into the elderly Americans on just my 2nd day in the city.
Our conversation with the American ladies continued all through lunch and we decided to take in the
sights of the city as a large group. The Persian proverb calls Esfahan “half of the world” due to its abundance of palaces, mosques, minarets and boulevards. Viewing the city as a tourist, it was hard to disagree. My friend pointed out some attractions: the medieval Lotfollah mosque with the sun glinting off its` beautifully decorated turquoise dome; the magnificently immense Imam square (once a polo pitch), around which shaded arcades concealed artisans diligently continuing their ancient crafts; Chehel Sotoon palace, with its slender and tall wooden columns. The historic bridges of Esfahan which criss-cross the ancient Zayendeh river brought our whistle-stop tour of some major attractions to a close.
We said goodbye to our new American acquaintances and my friend even received an open invitation to visit Texas from one lady: something I saw as a kind of cultural breakthrough. We then jumped into the back of an anonymous looking taxi and I began fumbling in vain for a seatbelt (there were none). Our taxi quickly sped off and mingled with the rapidly flowing torrent of vehicles heading out of the city proper.
“Are you OK?” asked my friend. I winced in reply. Driving around Iranian cities is not for the
fainthearted. At breakneck speed, our driver dodged and weaved through an impossibly dense herd of cars, trucks and motorbikes, constantly jabbing at his horn as he did so. Horns blared in our ears this way and that as my sweaty palms gripped the seat in front ever tighter.
“Don`t worry,” my friend re-assured, “all taxis are like this.”
As the journey continued I started to actually admire the skill of the driver. At one point, he effortlessly took a roll of impossibly numbered notes from another passenger (sharing taxis in Iran is the norm) and proceeded to count them in one hand whilst steering with the other. His dexterity was admirable. Glancing at other cars, I noticed vehicles with missing or damaged wing-mirrors: visible evidence of the realities of driving in an Iranian city. Our taxi-ride finally came to an end and I staggered from the car relieved.
“Careful,” warned my friend, pointing to a deep ditch which separated the pavement from road. “That`s a jub,” he continued, “for the water when there`s been a storm.” I was thankful for the warning, as the jub could easily have gobbled up my ankle, sending me on a potential trip to the local Iranian A&E, something I wasn`t too keen on doing, despite my sense of adventure.
We proceeded to the family pad where a Persian meal was being prepared for us. As we stood on the porch I took in another deep breath: there was certainly no pause in the cultural or social experiences for the casual Western visitor. I was glad I had made the trip. Maybe I would
return again, just like our new American friends.