Part 2: Random acts of kindness by people made my Iran trip a memorable one

When we come back from our trips, its not just the places we visited that makes our memories special, its the kind deeds of strangers, the people and the city’s culture which makes a trip truly magnificent. And somehow we always remember how strangers went out of their way to help us when we really needed it in a strange new land.

In this second series, my friend narrates the beautiful memories that he brought back home from Iran, not of just places but people who were generous and kind and who went out of their way to make his trip a splendid one.

Here it goes: 

The first thought that crosses ones mind when they hear about travelling to Iran is how safe is it anyway. Right?

Although the apprehensions are quite warranted given its neighbors – Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan which are not exactly the most peaceful or ‘stable’ countries in the world. However, what US President Jimmy Carter had to say about Iran in 1977 still holds true: “Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troubled area of the world”.

The amount of frisking and checking in public places in Iran was visibly lesser than in India, perhaps suggesting lower terrorism risk-perception. Especially, security at domestic airports or Tehran metro seemed relatively less stringent compared to India. Of course, security at the Tehran international airport was at par with major airports in India.

Iranian Hospitality:

This brings me to the random instances of kindness that made my trip a memorable one. I was invited by a guy I just met at Tehran airport to his home in north Iran (Gilan province), not very far away from the Caspian Sea. Although not in my itinerary, I kind of made a detour as I did not want to let go of the opportunity. Although you can call it risky, but the greed to see something more than what I had planned for made me bite the dust. Needless to say, I had a great stay,  the family went out of its way to make me feel at home and the elder sister of the extended family even took a day off from her bank job and drove us to the nearby attractions of Lahijan. The traditional food and the ride to the mountain area is still afresh in my memory.

Iran certainly is not like any dystopian Middle-Eastern patriarchy where women are barred to venture out of homes without male companions or not allowed to drive or work.  Also, interaction between members of opposite gender does not seem to be a taboo, as I can attest from my own experience. One of the many female students who worked as staff (or volunteers) in Isfahan’s tourist attractions was kind enough to take interest in my expedition and actually showed me around the city in evening after completing her shift. Isfahan is a great heritage city and there is a saying in Farsi: ‘Isfahan, nesf-e- jehan’ meaning that Isfahan is half the world.

Besides being very generous to tourists, people are generally very polite and extremely well-mannered. Just a small tip to travellers from India; when you hail a cab, sit in the front seat. That is what seemed to be the norm there.

It was common sight to find posters commemorating heroes (often martyrs) of the eight year-long Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) at any round about. The war, also referred to as the ‘Arab-Iran war’ by Iranians, started when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran just a few months after Iran’s 1979 revolution, trying to take advantage of the post-revolution turbulence in the country.

Reminders to the revolution and the eight-year war are a common sight, especially in the capital city Tehran,often in the form of large murals over buildings. The huge cemetery of the war martyrs, Behesht-e-Zahra or ‘Zahra’s Paradise’ in south Tehran, was quite busy when I visited on a Thursday afternoon in 2014, some twenty six years after the war. Apparently, it is tradition for families to picnic at the gravesite and also to distribute food/sweets/candy to other people/strangers nearby. The cemetery was dotted with countless photos / posters of young soldiers, presumably all martyrs. The cemetery gave me the vibe that the revolutionary fervour is still quite alive. Of course, drawing too much inference can be risky because of three reasons – one, a war memorial will always display greater zeal or fervour than the average population; secondly, the period I visited was just before Nowruz holiday and might have distorted the number of visitors and lastly, other people besides martyrs of the war are also buried there.

How safe is it for women?

Owing to my limited experience in Iran as a solo male traveller, I am not in a good position to comment on how safe Iran would be for a woman traveller and you are advised to check other online resources on this subject. It is indeed true that there is a mandatory dress code for women in public, i.e. the hijab, with covering of hair (often by a scarf) being an essential part. The most common attire for women, as I observed, was jeans plus coat or jacket plus scarf.

This is the second part on my 2014 trip to Iran. The first part had dealt with planning the trip. The next and final part will dwell on some practical advice for travellers. However, due to my work schedule for the coming week, I would be able to post about it only on the next Sunday, i.e. 14th May 2017.

 

The Persian Story: Solo Trip to Iran

Iran, which boasts of tales of an era gone by, of modernity yet the uprising.  My friend took a journey which very few people can even imagine on their travel list.  We both have decided to not name him as the decision to post anonymously stems solely from the desire to avoid possible complications that might rise if he ever plans to visit USA.

Let him take you on his solo trip to Iran, an unchartered teritory, an unknown terrain for many of us.

Visiting Iran and why!

History, heritage, architectural marvels are good enough reasons to visit Iran. Additionally, if you want to impress your friends and crushes by undertaking a seemingly perilous journey without actually ever putting yourself in any danger, then Iran is the place to be. Moreover, you get to examine for yourself the western narrative of Iran being some sort of ‘evil mullahcracy’ which is apparently part of some evil axis.  Be rest assured, Iran is a very safe country to visit; the ‘Global Terrorism Index’ ranks Iran as the 47thmost affected country from terrorism, much below India (8th), USA (36th), UK (34th) and neighbours Iraq (1st) and Afghanistan (2nd). 

When to visit?

I visited Iran in March 2014 (solo male tourist), for ten days from 11th March to 21st March. These dates are important. March 21st generally marks the beginning of the one-week ‘Nowruz’ celebrations in Iran. Nowruz, literally ‘New Year’, is apparently the most important holiday in Iran, when families generally take a one-week break to travel, meet relatives and exchange gifts. For one week post 21st March, the entire country is in holiday and tourist places are very crowded; therefore it is generally advised to avoid visiting Iran during that particular week. However, my pre-trip research showed that the week immediately before Nowruz was a good time to visit (and I was not disappointed subsequently). Of course, you could choose an entirely different time to visit Iran; some of my newly made friends in Iran advised visiting the northern parts of Iran, which are generally mountainous and colder, in summer.

Planning the trip – hotel bookings and foreign exchange

I had planned to visit the three big cities of Tehran (the capital city), Isfahan and Shiraz. The famous ruins of Persepolis could be accessed through Shiraz. I advise you to book hotels before the trip, although searching for accommodation once you get there should not be an insurmountable problem. In case you land up in an Iranian city without any hotel booking, ask for ‘Musafir-koneh’, i.e. travellers’ inns if you want to save some money. I myself had stayed at such an inn for a night in Shiraz and realized that families (including women and children) also often use such inns. Otherwise, the slightly more expensive hotels are always an option. 

Regarding booking hotels before the trip, you need to do it over email. Remember, due to US and European sanctions on Iran’s banking system, hotels will not be able to accept payments by credit cards or wire transfers. So, in effect, booking a hotel in Iran essentially means exchanging emails and promising to stay at the hotel in return for extracting a promise that the hotel will host you. In 2014, I managed to book a hotel room in central Tehran, near Hassan Abad metro station for 27 US Dollars per night. 

This brings us to the question of foreign exchange. First of all, remember that international credit cards (whether Visa or Mastercard or Amex) will not work in Iran, due to the sanctions. Therefore, you need to carry cash to Iran, preferably partly in Dollars and partly in Euros. Do not worry about Reserve Bank of India’s restrictions over carrying foreign currency abroad, there is an exception for Iran (and some other countries). [http://www.quickforex.in/images/pdf/rbi-rule.pdf]

 My experience in 2014 suggests that most hotels, including the budget ones, accept US Dollars. However, that could be changing now due to Iran’s stated political decision to gradually ditch the Dollar. Nevertheless, converting foreign currency to Iranian Rials should not be a problem. I converted the first batch of my forex at the Tehran international airport, more formally known as IKA (Imam Khomeini Airport). For my solo trip for ten days, I took with myself foreign exchange equivalent to eighty-five thousand Rupees. It is better to carry some buffer because once you are in Iran it would be difficult to access your money back home.

 Flight

As per my understanding, flights to and from Iran in March tend to be more expensive due to Nowruz. I could manage a Mumbai-Tehran return ticket at around Rs. 28,000, booked at the Iran Air office in South Mumbai. If you are planning to fly from Delhi to Tehran, then I guess Iran-based ‘Mahan Air’ is an option. You might not be able to view Iran Air or Mahan Air flights in popular travel websites (like Makemytrip), again due to sanctions! It is advisable to directly call the airlines for enquiries. Besides, there are also other carriers, but they will most likely entail a stop-over. Remember, Tehran has two airports – IKA and Mehrabad; most international flights operate out of IKA.

Visa

I availed the visa on arrival facility at the Tehran airport. However, that was in 2014 and rules have subsequently changed; Indian passport holders are no longer eligible for visa on arrival. I regret I cannot provide much useful information on this crucial aspect of travel due to lack of experience with the new rules.

 

This is the first of a three part series on travel to Iran. The subsequent parts will focus on my experiences in Iran.

Things to do around Bali!

 

Although Bali is the congregation of all things old and new and has the most mesmerizing sunsets, it is an overcrowded city with tourists all over and evenings are all about traffic jams. But all said, you cant take the charm away from the streets of this city. For someone who loves solitude and beaches, I had kept only 2.5 days traveling around Ubud and Bali which I reckon isn’t fair. It deserves more.

But if you are someone who is looking to dive and visit islands and stare at the most magnificent sunsets, then you have to leave this hustle bustle city sooner than you want to.

 

Cost:

I had hired a car cum tourist driver who charged me Rs 3500 per day for 10 hours, there are people who can take you around for far cheaper. The ideal thing to do in Bali is to negotiate shamelessly.  I totally recommend my tour guide Budi, he took me to every possible place he could however off route they may be.

Five things I totally recommend:

-Bali Marine Safari Park and The Agung Bali Show

Have you ever been in a closed theater and witnessed a theatrical live performance with Parakeets, six elephants, tiger and some beautiful art work on a stage at the same time? If yes, then I envy you. If not, then please remember this is the most magical performance I have ever seen in my life and I totally recommend it. It’s a beautiful story with live music. The performance was enthralling.

It is part of the Marine Safari ticket and you should not miss it at all. The safari is nice but this takes the cake.  And be rest assured you will see every animal you have seen in your animal book but the best is the Tiger show and African Safari.

The entire tour takes up nearly four hours of your day.

Cost: There are three types of entry ticket , I opted for the one that costs Rs 4500/- per pax totally worth it.

-Canyon of Sukawati

Beji Guwang Hidden canyon is located in the village of Sukawati which is little far from Denpasar city but an experience you shouldn’t miss. I was looking for offbeat things to do in Bali and came across this canyon. It’s a rocky canyon with fountain hidden underneath the village. I didn’t see any Indian tourist around this place; in fact I was the only one hiking around the canyon that day. It is famous with thrill junkies and in case you are someone looking for safety ropes or easy climbs then this place isn’t for you. It’s all about climbing around slippery rocks and jumping into water and witnessing nature’s beauty. You must take a local tour guide else it can be a risky affair. My local tour guide was very nice and he helped carry most of my stuff (Do not travel with any baggage). It’s a two hour trail and it pushes you to go further than you can imagine you can ever do. There was this moment when I decided to give up but he motivated me to finish the trail and I am grateful to him. I sincerely didn’t know I could finish that trail and climb a slippery mountain to come back to my car. May be you will learn something new about yourself too, isn’t that’s why we travel?

 

Sunset dinner by Jimbaran

As waves come crawling on your feet and array of colours fill the sky, you can’t help but feel so calm and peaceful just to be there. After a long day’s travel it’s the perfect way to wind up your Bali tour as you eat the best sea food and stare at the ocean and flights taking off next to you. It’s the bliss part of travelling and makes you ponder over things you want to do.

-Temple Hopping

My personal favorite is Temple of Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge) which is located in Ubud. Although one can easily miss the entrance, this temple is centuries old and has a beautiful entrance. With pond on both sides and lotuses around it, it truly signifies what the Goddess stands for.

Tirta Empul Temple is also one of the most revered ones and you should carry your own sarong to take a dip in the holy water. It’s an experience you will cherish, quite unlike Indian temples, hence totally recommend it.

-Uluwatu and Tanha Lot

These are ideal spots to witness sunsets and hordes of tourists gather around in the evening, so I suggest try and reach before the roads jam up. Stay back after the sunset and listen to the waves crashing on the shore and see the bats fly home.  Also do not give a miss to Suluban beach underneath Uluwatu and you can find people trying to surf.

 

Apart from these there are places which one should visit if time permits:

Cycling around Tegallang Rice fields

Take a Volkswagon or heritage car and tour around (available on Viator)

The abandoned Planes in South Kuta

Devdan Show

Lunch by Mount Batur

 

  • None of the pictures have been edited to represent how truly beautiful the place is. Would love your feedback and let me know if I missed something great, which I should do in my next trip!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goa Diaries!

What is travel, if not to seek something new?

Goa is by far the most travelled city in India and rightly so, for its pristine beaches, cheaper alcohol and coconut trees adjoining the scenic villages. Goa’s old school charm can never fail to mesmerize you or liven up your soul.

Way back in August 2013, I attempted my first solo trip in India and after much mulling I had pinned on Goa. Since then Goa has become an annual affair, yet each time there is a new story to tell, a new beach to discover and a new sense of happiness.

These are my recommendations from my recent trip and kick starts my travel blogging journey.

Stay: We had booked a 2BHk apartment through AirBnB called Mesmeric Sunsets at Benaulim owned by a couple called Jolene and Sujit, although they don’t stay around the property, it’s a beautifully done house and I totally recommend it if you are looking to travel around South Goa. The Benaulim beach is just five minutes away from the apartment, which caters to the guests of Taj Exotica and other premium properties around it and we came across very few people on the beach, making it one of my favorites. The house has every amenity that one can ask for and is spick and span.

Cost- Rs 2330/- per night, minimum booking 2 days.

Clubbing: Even though news reports suggest that Goa’s partying scene is up for some major overhaul, we did manage to dance our way through the night. Off late Club Cabana at Arpora is the major favorite among tourists overtaking the old ones like Tittos. The interior of the club is well done with a rustic look, a pool to sit by and a closed dancing room where the DJ plays latest favorites. Even though the club was crowded, one can find their own sweet corner to chill. The dancing room is too chaotic but the music makes up for all the jammed space and sweaty faces.

Entry Fee: Rs 2000/- couple, Rs 1500/- Stag entry in a group

Saturday Night Market (SNM): Although we came across a rip off of the original SNM called Saturday Night Bazaar, I would still recommend the original one here.

The market isn’t just another flea market but culmination of live music, food stalls, edm and trance dance area and the higher you climb the hill the better it gets!

The SNM is open on Saturdays from October to April 30. There is no entry fee or parking charge, one needs to pay for stag entry at the dance level. We heard Electric Pulse, a Goan rock band play live music and then headed towards dance. There is no way one can miss local live bands play in Goa, their music is too good to be missed. Also, the flea market has some really good local artifacts. Bargain as much as you can but don’t strain them all.

Beaches: As you keep driving towards South Goa the world seems calmer, better and happier. There is no other way to express that feeling. Highly recommend all the beaches along the south till Polem.

Books: We came across a beautiful library nestled inside the lanes of Bardez called Literati, owned by Neha Kapur. The Villa turned into library not only boasts of classics and new collections but a beautiful collection of Antiquarian Books. I managed to grab a 1940 edition of The Three Musketeers.  Adjoining the book store is a small café and we totally recommend the chicken pizza and good reading time!

Goa is known for its beaches and churches and casinos, hence it would be too unfair to pick any one! To live it up , Go Goa!

Picture Credits: Mayank Mishra.