Meeting strangers in Esfahan

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Middle East » Iran » West » Esfahan
July 6th 2010
Published: July 6th 2010
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Chang and I arrived in a hot Esfahan in the middle of the afternoon. We entered Kavan bus terminal to find out the departure times from Esfahan. But if you don’t read Farsi (which is in Arabic script) things are difficult to find in Iran. Luckily we immediately saw a desk manned by young women with headscarves and copious amounts of makeup. She spoke decent English and helped us on our way. However, outside the terminal were the wolves - otherwise known as taxi drivers. Surrounding us as they jostled with each other and shouting out English words whilst trying to grab our bags; my guard was immediately up. This time I kept quiet and watched Yang do the talking. One guy started off by offering 5,000 Tomans (5 dollars) to our hotel before adding “very reasonable price”. This was way too much and I didn’t like the aggressive nature or his lying jackal of a face. We walked away before finding out that if he didn’t have any decent English he was fluent in curiously learned guttural Anglo-Saxon. After We eventually got a taxi for 3,000 Tomans (2 dollars) but as we were riding along the short distance to our hotel, we read in our Lonely Planet that the taxi drivers in Esfahan had a bad reputation from our bus station but that we should ‘laugh’ at 3,000 Tomans. Bugger.

We were dropped off on busy Chahar Bagh Abbasi street which was packed with late afternoon shoppers and strollers. Gawping is not a good look anywhere and behind a chador is perfectly menacing. But a Chinese-looking man and a white European walking together must have looked rather strange as it provoked a mass of double-takes, idiotic grins and oblivious stares.

The first hotel we were dropped off at had rooms with grubby walls and no air-con - just a cooling vent, and for the price was not worth it. We walked further up to Tourist Hotel and Chang managed to bargain with the owner for a shared room at a reduced price. God knows the hotel wasn’t full.

We took showers, changed and went out in the hot early evening air for somewhere to eat. Almost immediately we were accosted on Chahar Bagh Abbasi street by a young man who asked us where we were from, where we were going where had we come from - the usual pitter-patter for a tourist in Iran. So we got talking and the Farsi word for England - ‘Engeeleese’ usually causes young people to gasp. I’m constantly surprised at the cultural reach of the English Premier League around the world - this friendly 20 year old who spoke excellent English regaled me with names of English clubs, English players (John Terry (boo), Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney etc.) To add to the excitement the World Cup was being played and England versus Algeria was that evening so many of the matches was being watched on TV.

As we stood on the steps of the hotel restaurant he asked if he could meet with me later. However, Chang was noticeably silent and cagey around this guy plus I’m naturally hesitant with overly friendly people who are also (in my eyes at least) just a little too forward. But probably more than anything else I was worried that I was committing to some kind of agreement that he show me around the city. So I told him our hotel and despite his persistence told him to leave his details at the reception so I could contact him if needed. This was my first dealing with legendary Iranian friendliness and we ended on good terms.

We then entered the Abbasi Hotel and through to the huge courtyard where there were outside dining and a teahouse at the rear. It was fascinating to see the great, the good and the rich of Esfahan sitting at tables in family groups (singles and bf-gf don’t happen here). Despite the stares, the loose headscarves and garish makeup we grabbed ourselves a seat and simply took it all in. We didn’t order any food in the end as it was overpriced and thought we would find somewhere else. We didn’t and ended up getting lost and simply walking around the parks of Esfahan which were full of picnicking locals - in the dark. Back in the hotel I stayed up late to watch England play the worst football I’ve ever seen against Algeria.

The next day was for exploring Esfahan - or in rhyming Persian ‘Esfahan nesf-e jahan’ - ‘Esfahan is half the world’ - as it was known back in the sixteenth century when it the Iranian capital under the Safavid dynasty. Chang and decided to do a walking tour but even at 10 am it was very hot in the sun. First stop was the Chehel Sotun Palace completed in 1647 by Shah Abbas II - Chehel Sotun meaning ’40 pillars’. The Great Hall contains walls of frescoes depicting court life and some of the battles against Uzbeks, the Indian Sultan Mahmud as well as Ottoman Sultan Suleiman. Afterwards we walked to Imam Square or Naqsh-E Jahan Square (pattern of the world) - the second largest square on earth which contains the Ali Qapu Palace - 48 metres tall and six stories tall. In the corner is also the wonder Imam Mosque - richly blue tiled mosaic designs which was completed in 1629 and is considered one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. As we wandered around we were separately approached by young Iranians who asked where we were from and basically wanted to practice their (very good) English on us.

We then sat underneath the shade of a tree in the square as I tucked in to my lunch - or rather the breakfast I took from our hotel. Breakfasts aren’t great here in Iran, lunch is seen as the main meal of the day, so I’ve been stuck with flat bread (lavash), feta style cheese, jam and tea. Just then we heard a voice in English and two young Iranian women had stopped and asked us where we were from. We replied with the usual, although Chang had developed a rather annoying habit of saying he was from China because he didn’t think people would have heard of Singapore. We got chatting about why we were in Esfahan so I invited the two ladies to sit with us under the tree and out of the sun.

To protect her identity we’ll call her Fatima and she was an English teacher in Esfahan. Despite the jarring strains of learned American English we managed to have a pretty good conversation which bordered a lot of the time on flirtation (from her side). From the start she proudly stated that not only was she single but that she lived alone in her own apartment and hated having to wear the dreaded scarf. I learned that the living alone part is pretty much non-existent for women in Iran; Women live with their family until they marry their husband and if they go out it is always with a female friend or their husband, rarely with another man. Having your own place creates suspicions that you are either a prostitute or of questionable morals. The worlds we live in eh? We talked about Iran, my travels and what she and her cousin did in Iran. But she was pretty intent on going somewhere else, specifically her apartment. So that’s what we did, Chang scuttled off and the three of us got in a taxi to her apartment in an affluent suburb of Esfahan.

It was all a bit cloak and dagger waiting outside a shop and then entering her apartment building - but I was nervous for them as well as for myself. I took my shoes off at the door and walked into a Persian carpeted living room. Once inside the girls instantly took off their headscarves and the arse covering coats and what an interesting contrast - they no longer looked like generic Muslim women covering up themselves but well, actual individuals; revealing cleavage and all. I realised then that private and public life are two very different things in Iran. We sat around looking at photo albums of her family while her cousin made us lunch of chicken nuggets, fresh melon, dates, fresh orange juice and tea. It was great fun to sit and chat, take photos of each other and talk about our respective cultures.

After lunch as is tradition I was asked if I wanted to have a sleep; so I did. The girls got me a pillow and then retired to their own room. After a nice couple of hours sleep I left to go in a taxi and we arranged to meet again later that evening. Fortunately Fatima had a spare mobile phone which she didn’t use so she very kindly gifted it to me so we could stay in touch.

Back at the hotel I had a shower, chatted to Chang and then tried to top the phone up with credit. However, I wasn’t having any luck in the street with vendors as I was either frequently pushed aside by conscript boy soldiers in their big boots or confusingly the vendors were asking for more than the actual credit. I hate getting ripped off and it was far too busy so Fatima eventually called me to arrange to meet at the Zayandeh River. I had told Fatima about my ‘Ahmedinijad jacket’ that I had, or rather the stone coloured jacket that I had bought in Australia second hand and was remarkably similar to the one the president of Iran took to wearing. They would recognize me by my wearing that - much to their amusement.

We took a long walk beside the river, crossing the historic fairytale bridges, most of which date from around early 17th Century but one (Shahrestan) dates from the 12th Century. I tried my best to ignore the stares of the locals who were curious as to why two Iranian girls were walking with a westerner. Fatima was fed up and embarrassed by the attention but I also think proudly defiant towards the society and the government that enforces these outdated silly social mores. We parted at sometime around 11 pm and as I walked back along the river I passed many families with picnics, children playing badminton and women using the public exercise machines; All very incongruous but wonderful too. Night time is the right time to socialise and congregate in Iran.

The next day I said goodbye to Yang who after only a day was leaving Esfahan to go to Shiraz. I was in a fair bit of discomfort as all the walking from the previous couple of days had made my tendonitis flare up and I couldn’t walk very freely. But luckily Fatima had invited me to stay with her so I packed my bags at the hotel and got in a taxi to her apartment. The rest of the day I rested my foot and in the evening we walked to a local kebab restaurant, one of the best in Shiraz and had a meal. The next day I was off again, my foot feeling much better, Fatima accompanied me to the bus station and after a fond farewell and a promise to meet in Shiraz I got the bus south to the desert town of Yazd.

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6th July 2010

Hey John, Just read your latest travel blog. Good to hear you made it to Iran and are continuing your travels! Eric
10th July 2010

Thanks Eric, I'm currently in Tabriz and waiting to head to Armenia. Iran has been great but I'm ready to move on!
16th August 2010

What a charming travel story
John, we hear so many negative things about Iran, it was refreshing to read you post about such a warmly human interaction you enjoyed while in Esfahan. Good luck! Guerry
20th August 2010

Thanks Guerry. I think you'll find that nearly everyone who has been to Iran has nothing but praise for how open and warm the locals are. I highly recommend it as a holiday destination (if you can be bothered with the visa process). Best wishes
22nd September 2010

salam ax hay khili ghasanghi endakhtin / aghe miseh chantaro brai man email konin mersi .

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