A June 1995 trip
to Tehran by Esteeve
Quote: Iran is a magnificent place to visit. It is full of things that contradict many of one's perceptions of its people and politics. I travelled to Iran in 1995 and visited Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Chaloos. As and when time permits, I will post additional entries and pictures of each.
Prior to arriving in Iran I had read of a favorite Iranian pastime of sleeping outside at night to beat the summer heat. My Iranian friend in New York had told her family of my interest in experiencing this pastime and without prompting from me, they asked if I would indeed like to try sleeping outdoors in the night time air. The only difference would be sleeping on the rooftop rather than the courtyard. The family broke into laughter in unison as the question was asked, thinking it so funny that an American should want to sleep on the roof.
I gladly took them up on their offer – after all, I hadn’t travelled all that way to simply eat, sleep and eat like an American.
The majority of Iranian households do not sleep on beds with thick mattresses but rather on a bed roll that can be stored during the day to make room for other activities. Given Iran’s long history, a four post bed with a thick mattress is a relatively new arrival in Iran. A bed roll is only an inch thick but I slept soundly.
The house in which I stayed was located in Tehran’s south-east and from the rooftop one could see the Alborz mountains, at the foot of which sits Tehran’s posh northern neighborhoods. Iranian rooftops are generally flat and are used for both sleeping and eating. I only wished I had had something like it back home.
Though during the summer Tehran is hot during the day, in the evenings one can feel a wonderful, cool breeze rolling across the Tehran plateau from the mountains, a breeze just cool enough to compel one to cover up with a thin cotton sheet. If one is not sleepy one can stare at what few stars manage to shine brightly enough to break through the shell of pollution that usually encases the city’s skyline. But do not expect to see much more than that when gazing at the heavens. When surveying the city itself, it is a massive and sprawling city.
If one’s eyes are sharp enough you will observe during the night a number of large flying insects flying about – I had initially thought them moths but soon realized they were sousks (cockroaches), very large ones. Coming from New York I had seen from time-to-time relatively small roaches around my apartment and only large ones crawling from below the city’s surface once night fell. The Iranian variety were enormous but since Raid has not had any chance to make any inroads into the Iranian market, I suspect Iranians will continue to treat them with the same indifference with which they treat a number of daily inconveniences they face.
Sometime early in the morning, perhaps around 5 a.m., I heard the tape-recorded call to prayer trumpeted from the local mosque throughout the neighborhood, seconds ahead and behind the tape-recorded call to prayer of mosques in adjacent neighborhoods. Moments later I was sound asleep again.
Once the sun had broken the horizon and the horizon fled the sun, the neighborhood began to stir – first the neighborhood rooster. Then the various but melodious songs sung by men selling salt, antenna repair, et cetera, as they pushed their carts or rode their bicycles down the narrow kuche (alley). These latter were a pleasure to listen to – it mattered little what they were selling but the rhythm of their singing advertisement was quite enjoyable.
When the sun had risen a bit higher it soon became impossible to stay out on the roof without an umbrella – that was usually a signal for one to roll up the mat and head downstairs for a breakfast of fruit, fruit and more fruit. Before heading downstairs, I often looked around at the other rooftops in the neighborhood and saw other families moving indoors as well but more interestingly, a number of families throwing blankets over their satellite dishes or pulling them indoors. Others had constructed small sheds that resembled outhouses on their rooftops to house their dishes in order to avoid detection by occasional overhead helicopter inspections by the authorities.
If one does have the chance to travel to Iran, sleeping outdoors in the summer is something I highly recommend. There is something strangely comforting about sleeping under the night sky and waking to the sun’s first rays. It is an aspect of life which I suspect fewer and fewer Iranians take part in, partly due to pollution but also due to the arrival of air conditioners.
Usually mostaqim (straight ahead) will do the trick.
In order to hail a taxi anywhere in Iran, one must stand by the roadside and as taxis slow down and roll by, you must yell out the direction in which you wish to travel. If the driver is going in that direction he will stop. If not, he will continue rolling on his way looking for other passengers.
For the foreigner unaccustomed to the Iranian procedures of hailing a cab, one might consider practicing by shouting out places that almost no taxi will go, just to get the hang of talking to moving vehicles.
Most of the taxis only travel along the main routes throughout the city and are not willing to stray from the beaten path. It just isn't worth it for them to do so -- unless you are willing to pay for what it would cost five passengers going in your direction. If you are unable to find a taxi willing to go to your destination, much like metro systems around the world and similar to changing subway trains, you will have to change taxis at every major meydan (traffic circle) and each time you will need to hail another taxi in a similar fashion.
Upon hailing a taxi, if you are the only passenger, or one of two, the driver will crawl along the road honking at potential passengers standing by the roadside. If he does spot some passengers, you quickly find your already tight space becoming even tighter. For a New Yorker, the first time this happens, one is a bit shocked and befuddled that complete strangers are jumping into your taxi. But after a few times and after you yourself jump into near-capacity taxis, it ceases to be a problem.
The experience of riding in a taxi in Iran is not to be missed. The cars most often used as taxis are the Iranian made Paykan, which are no larger than the Japanese econoboxes of the 1970s and no more powerful than your average John Deer lawn mower.
It may be argued that the taxis, which I suspect present the most opportunities for people to find second or third jobs, make a significant contribution to Tehran's pollution problems. However, until the much talked about and not nearly finished Tehran subway system becomes a reality, these taxis effectively take the place of an elaborate metro system; they go along all main roads and routes.
Three passengers in the back and two in the front passenger seat is the rule, not the exception; well, actually one in the front passenger seat and the second person performing a balancing act of sitting half-on the seat and half-on the gearbox.
With all of the weight, it is amazing that these Paykans have survived for so many years. They move like molasses and often I feared that adding another 600 pounds of dead weight in the form of five fare-paying passengers might drive the cars into a long past-due retirement in car heaven. No such fate has befallen them. For all the complaints one might have about the Paykan, the most important thing for its owners and for that matter the nation, the majority of which drive these just slightly less than limousinesque wheels, is that it runs.
Coming from New York and accustomed to paying $1.50 just to sit in a behemoth and odor-enhanced yellow Chevrolet taxi, even when traveling with an Iranian friend, rare was the occasion that our combined fare was more than the basic New York rate. When taking a taxi from the ancient ruins of Persepolis back to Shiraz, a 60 kilometer ride, the fare for two people was 800 tomans ($2.60 at the official exchange rate).
Of course, I was cognizant of the fact that for the average Iranian, the amount I spent on taxis was not a mere drop in the bucket, and had I not been traveling without an Iranian, I'm certain that the fares might have inflated as soon as I squeezed myself into the car. But as their normal rates stand, they are reasonable and occasionally negotiable. Even if the fare is reasonable, many passengers still feign objections to the quoted rate and it seems that almost no ride would be complete without a good deal of haggling.
The insides of most taxis are as basic as can be, complete with nonexistent window handles. On few occasions I was requested to close the featherweight door more gently, because my arm is accustomed to heaving closed the heavier doors of American land yachts, cars the size of which would have difficulty passing through the narrow kuche's (alleys) of Tehran without snagging the hood ornament or a chrome bumper.
While entering the other lanes, most drivers appear not to pay attention to whether they cut off on-coming traffic and expect others to look out for them. If anything, Iranian drivers must be extremely attentive when at the wheel, especially at night when many drivers operate without headlights or only use their tiny fog lights. Some of those who do use their headlights have tinted them with either a shade of purple or green.
However, with all of these dangers a driver must face on any given day, I saw only one or two accidents. I suspect that because most cars in Iran have a top speed of 60 mph, and because drivers must be especially attentive, fewer serious accidents occur. And for all the times in a day when a driver may be cut off by an inattentive driver, rarely do drivers become agitated or come to blows with one another.
They take it all in stride.
(This article previously appeared in the November 1995 edition of the netzine, The Iranian which can be found at www.iranian.com. Prices mentioned refer to a US$/Toman exchange rate of 1:300. Since 1995 the toman has further depreciated and travelers should anticipate paying a higher amount.)
What is Darake? It is an area in the north-eastern part of Tehran which consists of a village and numerous trails into the mountains above. The trails are what draws the crowds, though for various reasons. They lead into the mountains and all along the trail are fast moving streams and waterfalls created by thousands of years of melting snow, making its way down to the base of the mountains to where Tehran lies.
The trail is extremely popular among Tehranis, especially younger ones. Only infrequently do the komitehs venture up into this area and knowledge of that fact leads a number of young women to gather in the more secluded parts of the trails, dispense with their roohsaris (head scarves) and enjoy the sunshine. For many of them it is a place where they may catch they eye of a potential suitor and pass a phone number.
For those not interested in that, ignore that paragraph.
Along the trail are several chaikhanes (tea houses) where one can rest, sit on a rope bed, and sip some piping hot tea. What to eat with your tea? Well, besides a number of common Iranian nibblies one will find an abundance of shahtoot, or mulberries. The shahtoot are large, plump and delicious. You will of course eat them using your fingers, turning your fingertips a shade of purple.
On your way up the trail you will come across a number of Afghan workers leading mules up the narrow paths, each mule saddled with fully loaded burlap sacks of shahtoot. Clearly shahtoot are the fruit of preference in this area, though it should be said that Iranians love just about any kind of fruit.
When you have had enough of hiking you can stop just about anywhere along the trail, position yourself on some of the large rocks that lie beside the stream and dip your feet into the ice cold water. It is extremely cold water but exhilarating.
It is best to start out for Darake early in the morning, before the sun rises too high in the sky. If you go early and on a Friday (everyone's day off), you will find that you are not alone. You will see hundreds of Tehranis taking a break from city life and will doubtless get a chance to meet and speak to many of them.
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