Saalaam! Shoma Khoobi? (Hello! How are you?…In Persian)
There is so much to Iran than what the media portrays it to be. I found it be one of the safest countries to travel in the Middle East. I absolutely fell in love with its people. And who in their right mind doesn’t love the rich Persian architecture and history. I spent a month traveling across this spectacular nation and am itching to return. If you are one of those who have been planning a holiday to Iran, you will definitely be interested in these off-beat experiences that will make your Iranian experience a memorable one.
1) Experience Rich Iranian Hospitality
I don’t know how you do it, but you haven’t experienced Iran till you have stayed with a local in a local home and doing things that they do. You could try couchsurfing, do some volunteering, get yourself invited to stay with a local, try and dig up your personal connections in Iran or whatever. The goal is to stay at least 3 to 4 days with a local. And if you do, believe me that all myths about Iran will disappear out of the window.
You will learn that these people of Iran are totally connected with the Western world. They speak good English. They have all the internet connectivity. They have access to satellite television. They harbor a dream to go and settle outside their home country. They do a lot of things that are not permitted by their religion and such things are not a rarity, but is common practice and knowledge within the local community. In case you are wondering, you will not know any of these if you stayed in a hotel and visited the tourist hotspots and you will think of the locals as an uptight bunch of people.
You have to find a way to know these fun-loving people at close quarters. You have to celebrate with them. You have to dance with them. You have to enjoy with them. You have to eat with them. You have to smoke with them. You have to drink with them. If you want to know poets, Iranian history, Iranian public affairs, Iranian civil war (the local’s perspective) and much more, you have to spend time with these beautiful people. There is no better way to pick up the Persian language than in the company of locals. And once you know some Persian, Iran becomes a totally different country for you.
And for all women travelers to Iran, this experience will help you see the typical conservative women of Iran in new light with no Roosari (Head Scarf), Chador (black dress draped across body) or any of the restrictions that their religion enforces on them while in public. I got to experience this and now, I have so much respect for all of them. And just so you know, they are drop dead gorgeous!
2) Enjoy the Atmosphere of an Iranian Tea House
An Iranian Tea House is akin to a bar in the West. This is where all the action takes place in the night. The only difference being, it is difficult to locate such local tea houses unless you are friends with a local. But, if someone invites you, do leave your fears aside and grab that opportunity to navigate through dark alleys and remote corners to a place bustling with action.
You will mostly see men here, but women travelers are very much invited. It is not taboo for women to frequent such places. This is a place to indulge in some tea, hookah or sheeshah (the tobacco pipe), some music, some poetry, Iranian history and lots of meaningful story exchanges. I made innumerable visits to such tea houses during my Iranian holiday and I absolutely relished the whole experience.
3) Don’t Fear that Approaching Local
Some travelers will find it threatening when random strangers approach them. This is common practice in Iran. Locals love to befriend strangers, strike conversations with them, practice their English and their other foreign languages with them, invite them home for a cup of tea or a meal, add them to their whatapp, instagram or facebook and basically do a lot of things that travelers to the Middle East will be wary of. But, if you can keep your fear aside, you will love these meetings as they will offer so much insight into Iran and also get to share a piece of your culture with the people of this country.
This is how I got invited to dinners, tea houses and local homes. This happened almost everywhere with me. To be honest, this interactions are much more if you are a big Westerner with blonde hair. Be it bus stations, inside buses, on famous bridges, in restaurants, in markets, at parks and at almost every single place where there were locals.
While these interactions are fun and insightful, keep an eye out for the genuine thug who uses similar methods to initiate a conversation. These could be tourist guides, market salesman who make commissions when you buy something at the market or genuine fraudsters. If you are smart, you will identify them quickly. Thankfully, I identified all the con men quickly and had conversations only with genuinely interested and kind locals.
4) Relish the True Flavors of Persian Food
Iran is not just about Kebabs and Saffron. There is so much more to its food. Just thinking of the freshly baked Barbari bread with cream cheese makes my mouth water. Iranian cream cheese and peynir (cottage cheese) were things I totally indulged in (I am a vegetarian). And I did the same with their faloudeh ice creams, gaz and other shirni and thick yoghurt. The Sangak bread is the one that you want to carry on your long journeys. Sunflower seeds and watermelon seeds make for great companions and also for conversation openers on long bus rides.
Even though I didn’t eat any of their kebabs or meat, the people I was with, they absolutely enjoyed the kebabs, the camel meat, the meat curries with Iranian rice that was dressed in saffron, the thick meat based soups and so much more. Actually, the aroma of these foods was pretty enticing, but my vegetarian roots came in the middle. Whether you are a meat-eater or a vegetarian, you will love the Persian food.
5) Get to understand Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism used to be one of those powerful religions back in the years. Today, it is practiced by a fairly small number spread across the world. If you are in Iran, you have to trace the roots of this fairly unknown religion. You could start with the famous Persepolis and weave your way across Shiraz, Yazd and Abyaneh, the so-called hubs or pockets of Zoroastrianism in today’s Iran. In this path, you will either come across people who still follow this ancient religion or people who have embraced Islam, but still follow the principles and culture of Zoroastrianism.
Either ways, you will learn so much about their religion from them and this will help you appreciate some fine history.