Jan 7, 2017
By Ema Barnes
A skeptical Vacation to Amazing Iran
I had a week off near the end of my first month in Dubai, where my room and board had been prearranged by the university at which I was studying and most storekeepers spoke English. SkyScanner told me that the cheapest country to fly to was Iran, which meant that I should obviously make my first solo travel be a trip to a country American media abhors. However, of my year abroad, I’m so thankful for Iranian people for defying stereotypes and being the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.
Though I initially ruled a vacation to Iran out—American media bashes the Islamic country on a near constant basis and acts as though its people are all evil—the idea sunk into my head. Iran, the home of Persepolis, the remnants of the Persian empire—when else would I have another chance to go there? I checked to see if with my New Zealand passport I could get a visa, and five minutes later, had booked a flight from Dubai to Esfahan.
Sitting in a meeting less than an hour later, I started sweating at the idea. What had I gotten myself into? Had I just thrown away money on tickets I wouldn’t use? There was no way I could go to Iran! I spent the rest of the evening learning that very few hotels in Iran will take advance bookings outside of the country as they cannot take foreign payments or forge connections with companies like Visa and MasterCard.
The end of the month came, and, armed with a travel guide checked out from my university’s library, printed out maps of Esfahan, and a reservation confirmation in stilted English from the hotel I’d managed to procure using PayPal to pay, I cautiously tied a headscarf over my head and boarded a plane.
I presented my Kiwi passport at the Esfahan customs and handed over six crisp American twenty dollar notes to pay for a two week visa. I promptly told the one English speaking immigration officer that I also had an American passport, and my hand jumped to my mouth—why had I told him that? Iranians supposedly hated Americans!
Instead of kicking me immediately out of his country, this intimidating looking Iranian dressed head to toe in military uniform asked me if I had Facebook. Of course, I said, but didn’t one have to have an illegal VPN to have Facebook in Iran? He winked at me.
Iran marked my first stay in a hotel by myself. I woke up to see gorgeous mountains through my window that reminded me of Jackson, Wyoming, but with a great feeling of trepidation and loneliness—without Facebook, everything familiar seemed very far away. With a deep breath, I put on the hijab again and took off to explore. I could do this.
I’d barely been walking ten minutes when a friendly middle aged man approached me. Though I was cautious at first, he turned out to be extremely hospitable, wanting to show me some of his city in exchange for practicing his English. He wanted to know what colloquial phrases like “24/7” meant and he showed me the best places to eat.
The Esfahan office of tourism was home to the sweetest ladies who welcomed me in and insisted on feeding me while they called the one and only hostel in Shiraz and booked me a bus ticket. On a piece of paper, they wrote both the pronunciation and the Persian letters of the address I needed to go to. They gave me their phone number so I could call if I needed more help getting to Tehran.
Though I’d been terribly excited about the architecture and the history to Iran, I never would have guessed that my favourite aspect of Iran would be the generous and kind people who were all so excited to hear I was kind of American and who all wanted to practice English with me.
I’m so thankful that I chose Iran as the first place to travel to alone, because now every time I freak out about going to a country where I don’t speak the language or I haven’t figured out the subway, I remind myself “It can’t be any scarier than Iran”—and ironically, Iran was probably the place where I felt safest. With this mentality, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to speak to people I might not have otherwise talked with and to travel everywhere I can afford.
On a daily basis I remember how welcoming Iranian people were and how proud of their culture they were. Inspired by them, I have become a more open minded person.
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About the Author
Ema Barnes studies English in Political Science at a small Maryland school, but proudly calls New Zealand and California home. She studied abroad in Dubai and in Morocco, plans to teach English abroad after graduation, and hopes to one day work in publishing.