Sunday, March 31, 2013

A few random things you may or may not know about Iran:

- Iran has, (in my opinion), the best inter-city bus system in the entire world. Buses are frequent, on time, clean, fast and unbelievably cheap- for a traveler. The average 7 hr bus journey costs less than 5 dollars, and that is for one of the pimpin' luxury "VIP" buses, which only have 3 seats across (as opposed to the usual 4). They are complete with a water cooler, carpets on the floor and free cookies, juice and various other snacks. Standard buses (which are still good by North American standards) are even cheaper.

- During Nowruz, it is completely normal to see familes (with very small children), out in the street until the wee hours of the morning, eating ice cream, smoking Ghaylun (sheesha pipes), drinking tea, and generally having a lovely time. It is completely antithetical to the western mentality of sending children to bed at 8 pm, and it seems kids here are all the more well behaved because of it.

- The biggest, best, (and by that I mean a foot long and loaded with mayo, spicy sauce, pickles, cheese and potato chips, on a soft baguette bun), hotdogs in the world are to be found in Shiraz, Iran. I kid you not. I am a hotdog expert.

- It may have taken a few weeks, but I have finally got used to the currency here, the Iranian Rial. The confusing part is that everything here is priced in Toman's, which is like the Rial minus one zero. So 10000 tomans = 100 000 rials. (Which itself equals about 3 dollars). This means that when you go and exchange 100 American dollars, you become a millionaire, in Rials. 3.5 Million to be exact. The average dinner costs about 10000 tomans, a bottle of water is about 500 tomans, taxis about 5000 tomans and my hotel room here in Isfahan is 30000 tomans (less than 10 bucks). It is probably the cheapest country i've ever traveled, and the best part is that prices here are fair, there is very little "foreigner pricing" and generally speaking, nobody tries to rip you off.

- Tehran is tied with Beirut as the nose job capital of the world. I havent yet been to Tehran, but Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan are all crawling with many a bandaged nose. It is somewhat bizarre, and concerning that people here view plastic surgery as such a normal thing, but I suppose it's just another form of body modification akin to the ever-present North American tattoo.

- Carrot juice mixed with vanilla ice cream, as a float, is the most delicious thing you would never ever think to combine. Mmmm. It takes away some of the guilt, knowing you are getting all that Vitamin A with your sugar and fat dosage.

- Twix bars become that much tastier when you realize that to get to Iran, they had to be smuggled in. Twix bars, Red Bull and a petite Bahman cigarette. Heavenly.

- So-called "cultural differences" become completely irrelevant when you realize that cool people worldwide listen to similar music (I'll never forget my Shirazi late night sing alongs to Leonard Cohen's "famous blue raincoat"), watch the same films and T.V shows (from "Californication" to "How I Met Your Mother"), and spend their time obsessing over the same things (relationships, love, general restlessness with what to do with one's life), regardless of language or where they were born.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Happy New Yearrrr

Last night I had the extreme pleasure of participating in the Iranian event of Charshanbe Suri- or, more simply put, the evening before Nowruz (Iranian New Years) where people get crazy and make fires and jump through them -despite the governments disapproval of such wild things.

It was way too much fun and, as a traveler, I feel so lucky to have been able to participate in it.  Symbolically, I think jumping over the fire is supposed to represent burning up your bad habits of the past year, and being purified in the flames. I jumped over four, so hopefully all my past bad habits are fully cleansed! It was crazy and chaotic and awesome - fires burning on every other street corner, the smell of smoke everywhere and people setting off fireworks constantly (and often way too close to my now-ringing ears). The whole event has a slight element of danger and chaos and naturally, I loved it.. Charshambe Suri is a festival that goes back to the pre-Islamic Persian empire, and I think has its roots in Zoroastrianism. As I said, I think the government technically has made the fire celebrations illegal, but people thankfully do it anyways, and the party I went to was a private one, held in a garden outside Shiraz (many people in Shiraz own garden properties outside the city). This particular party had a DJ and tons of people, outdoor dancing, drinks (woo!), and was as much fun (if not more - actually WAY more) than any new years eve I've had back in Canada.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Random Iran notes

Every day in Iran, I find myself making a mental note of something interesting that I want to write a blog entry about, something important and fascinating and culturally or politically significant...but unfortunately my brain is often an untidy mess of notebooks and moleskins, scraps of paper tossed around amidgst sequins and glitter and various when I finally have a chance to sit down and write on here, the only memo in my head I can seem to find says three simple words, scrawled on a napkin: "I LOVE IRAN". (Which is all fine and good and true, but doesn't really make for riveting writing).

These whole past 12 days in Shiraz have felt like some crazy dream, and I can't believe I haven't left the city yet, but I have met such great people that I seem incapable of leaving. I know I will go to Yazd soon, after Charshanbe suri, and Nowruz, but I am in no hurry (besides my visa expiring which I think I can easily extend). I don't want to ever leave!  Even with the little annoyances and things you take for granted back in Canada -like the lack of easily available alcohol, or having to wear the hijab every day and my hair being constantly flat and static-y as a result. Even with all the rules and restrictions of Iran, I am having a ridiculously fun time. People here are so genuine and friendly and the family I am staying with is so openminded and cool, I really can't say it enough. It is completely unlike any stereotype westerners might have in their heads about Iranians, and it is really so amazingly great.

Last night me and Nariman and his sister and a whole bunch of his friends went to a really interesting restaurant, the Haft Khan complex (built by a famous Shirazian architect to resemble Ferdowsi's seven stages of houses, after a famous Persian book, "Shahnameh"), and I had such a fun time, constantly laughing....I think back to Canada, and I know that in a similar social situation there, me and my friends would only have that much fun if we were drunk. There is something almost amazing about the fact that the things I've been doing here (playing charades and silly games like truth or dare that normally REQUIRE one to be drunken); the ensuing hilarity and silliness have been totally sober. (Which isn't to say I couldnt reallly go for a cool pint of beer right now, or that as a result of no alcohol in cafes, I have become legitimatly addicted to sheesha and cheap cigarettes). But is is nice that my experiences haven't been clouded at all, or in any sort of haze. I'm sure I will remember them stronger as a result. People here have a great sense of humour and laugh almost constantly....maybe that's why I feel so at home? (Because I am constantly laughing about something, it seems).

I don't really know what else to say. My brain is a mishmash of thoughts and smells and sights and tastes; jasmine flower water on ice, Orange trees in the frontyard that smell so strongly, perfuming the air; watching Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" with friends and laughing hysterically at his similarities to Ahmadinejad; swearing at the slow internet but not really caring that much because it is actually more fun to talk to someone face-to-face than on facebook; driving around Shiraz, with its insane drivers and endless U-turns; late evening pomegranite juice and foot long hot dogs, staying up until sunrise watching youtube videos and laughing and talking endlessly, learning hilarious curse words in Farsi and all the translations and awkward sentences of trying to express oneself in a culture so different, yet so seemingly the exact same as me.

Monday, March 18, 2013

I haven't written anything in ages, not because i don't have amazing things to write about, but because I am too busy experiencing things and enjoying myself in IRAN.

Right now I am staying with my friend Nariman, from Shiraz, in his families house. At this particular moment, I am lazing on the bed while he is next to me playing guitar and singing songs in Persian. It is too awesome. His family is so cool, and openminded and generous, and I feel so comfortable think I just met him a few days ago, haha. The real joy of travel is these things - meeting amazing people, and getting to know them. Not just big sights and the tourist draws.

Anyways, I am going out now with him and his friends to the Hafez tomb, then probably for sheeshaaaaa, but i thought id write in this little split second moment, a little slice of life.


Monday, March 11, 2013


I am sitting at the courtyard teahouse of my hotel in Shiraz, trying desperately to get the internet to work. Facebook, and Blogger are both blocked in Iran, but of course young people find ways around this, by using proxy servers and other sneaky methods (which really makes you wonder why the government bothers trying to control and censor things - people ALWAYS find a way. duh). The problem with using proxys is that it takes much longer to load pages and is painfully slow - thus making it impossible to inundate EVERYONE with incessant facebook posts and photos, which I very much want to do because I LOVE Iran so far!

The closest comparison I can make with another country that I have visited would be Syria - similarly somewhat cut-off from outside American influence (though even more so here), really awesome friendly people, a strong couchsurfing community and the rather otherwordly feeling that comes from being one of very few North American tourists. I have met a few other travelers though (including 2 Aussies both named Ben), but no other Canadians, and no other females at all. Us wanderers have all instantly stuck together and explored Shiraz, which is a very beautiful city - The city of Poets, Roses and, at one point, Wine. (Which I am determined to find!)

Last night my very cool Iranian couchsurfing artist friend Mohsen described Shiraz as being a very "sensual city" which made me laugh (I'm sure the mullahs and Imams here wouldnt appreciate such descriptions, bahahah), but I'd have to agree with him. Everything smells like rosewater, fruits, tea and sheesha, and there certainly is a haunting poetic feeling to the city, with its many gardens and beautiful tombs of famous poets (Hafez and Saadi included). The Eram Garden was especially beautiful, with its many orange trees, gorgeous plants, various flowers and cute teagarden serving sherbet. We met some hilarious young women there too, who kept complimenting me endlessly (which feels strange given how absurdly gorgeous Persian ladies are!) and kissing me on the cheek and taking many photos while shrieking gleefully. While the male travelers were certainly getting a sort of attention akin to some sort of Traveler-Beatle-mania, it seems I am even more of a draw - perhaps because they can publicly grab my hand and show affection, or maybe its some  playful amusement at my blue eyes hiding underneath my awkwardly draped leopard print hijab.

Besides the beautiful gardens and tombs and many sights, the people here are the real draw, and their friendliness and hospitality is somewhat surreal. Even people in the street who sometimes appear to be glaring at me - the second I say "hello" their faces soften and they repeat with enthusiasm, "Hello!!". Especially the younger men and women, who will go out of their way to sit and have tea with you, talk with, discuss anything and everything. The people i've met on couchsurfing all seem very cool too, eager to show us the beauty of Shiraz, and have even invited us to stay with them for Nowruz (the Iranian new year). I cannot even keep up with the amount ot couchsurfing messages I am getting - literally dozens of people all wanting to meet and show me their city! It is really quite clean and orderly here (after the chaos of Ethiopia, it seems I really appreciate clean and functional), very safe, and super easy to get around from city to city. Apparently the inter-city buses here are extremely luxurious and spacious and CHEAP - about 5 bucks for a 10 hr overnight journey. !! As well, tourists are treated really good, and I havent been ripped off once yet. Sweet.
After visiting Persepolis a few days ago (which was a m a z i n g), our taxi driver invited us to his house for dinner, and we ate delicious rice and chicken made by his mother, with him and his wife. It was amazing- I have never had a taxi driver invite me to his house before! I really can't say enough good things about Iran, seriously. It is such a shame that American media has created such a bad stigma for such a great country full of such nice people. The president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, no more accurately represents the people of Iran, than Stephen Harper represents me back in Canada. Everyone that I have spoken to here dislikes him greatly and views him with varying degrees of contempt.

I really wish I could upload some photos (I have SO many amazing photos, ahhhhhh), but that will have to wait until I (hopefully) find a better internet connection.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

something about staring at a computer screen while smoking sheesha makes me feel totally dizzy.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Despite all the big, grandiose sites that one sees while traveling - the Petra's, the Pyramids, the ancient rock-carved christian monasteries of Ethiopia, for example- , it is often the more mundane day-to-day tasks that can be the most memorable. Simple things like doing laundry, or buying train tickets, can put you in strange, hilarious situations with local people, and sometimes half the fun is in these little everyday journeys, not just the grander destination. A perfect example of this occurred today, as I finally made it to the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an attempt to get my tourist visa. Located in south Hezbollah-controlled Beirut, and a good round-a-bout 15 dollar taxi ride away from my hostel,  the efforts I am making to get this visa surely speak to how excited I am and how much I want to visit Iran -but the whole experience itself makes for a damn good story too.

The imposing outer beige walls, guarded by a man with a machine gun, became friendlier once through the initial gate. A quick search of my bag, (as the x-ray machine seemed to be more for decoration than actual use), a gentle smiling reminder to don my headscarf, and a helpful man showed me the way to the correct building inside the compound. I opened the door and found myself in a little doctor's office-like waiting room, where there sat a woman in a long black manteau and hijab with her adorable little girl, and a very traditionally dressed Shia man who could have been Ayatollah Khomeini's long lost twin brother. If only I could have taken a picture! It was priceless. As I sat awkwardly with my scarf draped over my head, staring at the water cooler, the man behind the glass tapped and beckoned me over. After much searching through stacks of disorganized paper, frustrated looks on his face, he managed to find my reference code faxed from Tehran and handed me the application form to fill out. Once completed, (and ugly little head-scarfed passport photo attached) I was told I had to go to a specific bank in Beirut, an Iranian one, to pay the 50 Euro fee (Euro's, not American dollars, which is all the rest of Beirut accepts), and bring back a receipt. So I had to take the taxi, yet again, to this particular bank across town, then back to the embassy, put my hijab back on, and hand over the receipt. Fairly easy, just a lot of running around, and I think my driver was growing pretty fed up with everything Iranian at this point.

Now, after all is said and done, my application is being "processed", along with my passport. I have been told to return on Monday to pick up the visa, "Inshallah" (god willing), which makes me somewhat nervous as this saying is often used to described something that is likely to never happen. After all this effort and expense, I better get it! Though nothing is certain, the man behind the glass held his hand to his heart and said "welcome" as I left, so I have a fairly good feeling. Everyone there was actually very helpful and kind, I just hate my passport not being on me, and rather in the hands of some Iranian bureaucrat!

Ah well... it's in God's hands now, I guess (God is an Iranian bureaucrat?). I hope he approves, and in the next week I find myself on a flight to Shiraz.

The extraordinary tomb of the legendary poet Hafez, in Shiraz

Friday, March 1, 2013


I suppose it's only logical that in a city where everyone seems to drink non-stop and stay up all night, exists the worlds greatest hangover breakfast.

After a night of mixing too many drinks whilst out on the town in Beirut, (Almaza beer, local wine, Gin and Tonic's, what have you), nothing quite cuts through the blistering headache and cavernous stomach upset of the morning after, than Lebanon's finest breakfast invention: the Man'ouche.

Plain Zaatar Man'ouche. 
*I found this photo on the internet because I ate my own Man'ouche
 too quickly before I thought to take a photograph.

Somewhat akin to a very thin pizza, but usually folded over into a half-moon shaped pocket, this crispy delight is most often filled with a mozzarella-like cheese, and a generous sprinkling of Zaa'tar, which is a delicious Levantine spice mix of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and sumac. It is cheesy, slightly greasy, salty yet not too heavy on the stomach. It is the perfect hangover breakfast, if I do say so myself.

Couple one of these bad boys with an orange juice and a strong cup of black coffee, and you will be ready to face the day! (Which incidentally, for me today involves going to the Iranian embassy to attempt to get a tourist visa).

The Man'ouche shall give me strength! Yalla!