TEHRAN — As an adventurous traveler, I had fearlessly gone to South Africa, Vietnam, and Cuba without much worry. But when it came to Iran, I approached things differently. With no diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, and a presumed lack of enthusiasm in Iran for Westerners and Americans in particular, I decided it would be best to sign up for a tour rather than go alone.
So it came as a surprise after staggering off the plane in Tehran at 1 a.m. and inquiring of my guide, "Where's the tour group?" that he replied somberly, "You're the tour group."
I wondered if I should just get back on the plane. But I decided to stick it out - and I'm glad I did.
For one thing, there was my guide. Hassan, the curator of the Archaeological Museum, was professional and very knowledgeable. And the sights we toured were beautiful. Just outside of Shiraz, our first stop, we visited the incredible Persepolis and climbed among Iran's most wondrous monuments built by Darius the Great (550-486 BC). Nearby, we stood before the four Achaemenide kings' tombs carved out of the cliffs. Our tour of Isfahan included a visit to the very long Naqsh-e-Jahan Square (Imam Khomeini Square) before we headed back to bustling Tehran, the capital. I wore shorts (the tour company -and Hassan - said it was fine), but women must be covered from head to toe.
Along the way, Hassan may have decided I was a very strange American tourist. He couldn't understand why I didn't want to see every last mosque, bazaar, and carpet shop. I did want to see those places, but I also wanted to see how Iranians lived. So we made a deal: I would sightsee with him in the morning, and after lunch I would explore on my own.
During my solo time, I went to the movies to sit with Iranians. (I couldn't find a theater with films in English or with English subtitles. The Animation Film Festival was the next-best thing.) I went to malls and bookstores. I read English-language newspapers to see how the government saw the world, then I asked people if they believed what was written about in the newspaper. They spoke in English and were sometimes critical, but always looked around before commenting. I visited synagogues and talked to the congregants about how their lives were progressing. I always felt safe traipsing around. Iranians are very, very nice people.
I also took a lot of pictures -surprisingly freely - of unusual signs, women wearing chadors (the shroud-like garments that cover all but the face), the separate entrances for men and women, and the "Down With USA" signs at the old American Embassy. All of which I couldn't have experienced had I been in a group.
I walked through cities with no destination in mind, poking my head into shops, smiling at people, hoping I'd receive a smile in return. I found that Iranians tend to be reserved in public, but I learned that behind closed doors the rules change: Some drink and even use drugs. It seemed from my informal poll of about 30 people that life under the shah was no picnic: The economy was better, but freedoms were stifled. After the revolution, there has been more freedom, but the economy is a mess. Neither government seemed to inspire much enthusiasm.
The trip went smoothly -until the last day. As I was boarding the plane I snapped a picture of an intriguing-looking sign: "Duty-Free Caviar." After I hit the shutter, I felt a hand on my arm, and a man who appeared to be a security official led me to an office. (I discovered later that generally you are not allowed to take pictures in foreign airports.) Another serious-looking official wanted my film. I thought about not giving it to him, (a crazy thought, as I had only taken five pictures) but reluctantly rewound it. They collected my passport and went into a back room. I looked at the clock: Ten minutes before my flight left. A few minutes later, they returned, handed me my passport, and off I ran to the plane.
When I landed in London, the first thing I saw was the same "Duty-Free Caviar" sign - right next to one that read "No Photography." This time I kept the camera in the suitcase and thought instead of the past week: a lot of kabobs, pleasant weather (temperatures in the 50s and 60s in February), and nice people and sights. A super way to spend a week -and it was particularly funbecause I did it (almost) alone.
*For more information: Persvoyage Tours, (888) 455-7377 or www.persvoyage.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society