For 'Trip of a Lifetime,' Americans Try Sunny . . . Iran?

All his friends back home in Reno, Nevada, thought he was crazy. But since Trygve Inda was determined to travel to Iran, they asked him to bring back "Down with USA" postcards and pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

His arrival at Iran's border was somewhat "awe-inspiring," he recalls. "We don't call Iran the 'Great Satan,' but the common perception in America is that Iran is a place of darkness where Americans don't want to be." But instead of stern looks and trouble at the border, the guards giggled and laughed with amusement when they saw his US passport. They waved him through with welcoming smiles.

Also a surprise: "I've seen a few 'Down with USA' signs, but you really have to look," he says during an interview in the capital, Tehran. "They aren't on every street corner."

Iran may not be at the top of the list for most American tourists, and the collective memory is seared with images of the US Embassy takeover of 1979. But the intrepid few who have come so far rave about the warm reception and their constant surprise that the popular perception of Iran in the West barely resembles anything they experience here.

"This has been the trip of a lifetime," writes one American woman in a tour guide questionnaire. She and several other American women booked their trip through the largest travel agency in Tehran that handles US groups, Caravan Sahra. "Thanks for being so fun and cheerful and taking such good care of us," she wrote.

Cyrus Etemadi, a director of Caravan Sahra, says that the first handful of Americans tourists since the 1979 revolution visited in 1994, but then visas dried up. Then last year, after the election of moderate-reformist President Mohamad Khatami, tourist visas were issued again.

And as news spreads, Mr. Etemadi says, more and more Americans are making the trip. His agency has in the past year hosted more than 300 Americans, most of whom wanted to see first hand the centuries-old Persian history.

"People receive so much negative propaganda about Iran," he says. "But when they come here they see that the opposite is true. People invite them into their houses for tea, or to their table to eat."

INDA can confirm this hospitality, though his trip - several weeks all around Iran by land, solo - is one of the most ambitious. When he first arrived in one remote outpost, he wanted to let his father know that he was "safely" in Iran. Asking to send a fax to the US "raised eyebrows," he recalls, but nothing more.

"I never felt threatened or unsafe from people," Inda says. "It's one of the safest countries in the world, more than anywhere in the West."

Iranian tourism officials are reportedly producing 3 million English-language maps, and are working to streamline visa procedures. Still, travel in Iran is not exactly like a weekend in the Bahamas. A new regulation means that Inda had to have a guide with him at all times - this helped get through periodic military checkpoints, but was tough on his budget.

Driving on Iran's highways was sometimes a hair-raising experience, too, in part because his car didn't have seatbelts. "At home I don't drive across a parking lot without my seatbelt," he says. "But I guess if you got hit, the way some people drive, it wouldn't matter if you had a seatbelt or not."

And for women, there is the requirement of the head scarf and Islamic robe called the chador. Western women often don't care to wear it, though most respect that it is local custom in the Islamic Republic. A Swiss charter arrived last year with everyone wrapped head to toe in black.

"That's too much," says Fereshteh Ghasemi of Caravan Sahra. "Mostly, a long blouse and scarf is enough."

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