We got a bit of sleep on the plane. On arrival at Khomeini Airport in Tehran, the customs lines were short. However, as Americans, we have to be fingerprinted. The customs officer is exceedingly polite and even apologizes for having to take our fingerprints.
The representative from Caravan Sahra meets us as we leave baggage claim. He is a very outgoing and knowledgeable guide and speaks excellent English.
We check in at the Howeyzeh Hotel. The hotel has faded from its glory years before the Islamic revolution, and is a bit threadbare. However, the staff is very welcoming and pleasant. After a short incident requiring toilet repair, we head down to meet our guide. A man on the elevator asks where we were from. When we say “America', he replies "George Bush gone now--I hug you!" and hugs George. In the lobby, we meet the guide and set off for a brief tour of the sites.
Of course, as first-time visitors and Americans, we were a bit apprehensive about how we’d be received by Iranians. So, of course, the first place we drove past is the former US Embassy, site of the hostage crisis.
The walls of the embassy are covered with anti-American slogans and drawings, such as the Statue of Liberty with a death’s head.. The driver pulls over while we snap photos and laughs with us about the incongruity. Although there is, of course, a small minority of Iranians who are genuinely hostile to Westerners, aside from the inevitable wise-guy teenager, no one was openly rude. Quite the contrary; we received overwhelmingly warm welcomes from Iranians, who typically would greet us with “You’re from America? We love Americans–welcome to Iran”. We later discussed the anti-American and anti-Israeli rallies so often shown on Western television, in which hordes shout ‘Death to America”. The Iranians explained to us that there are not many opportunities for a big party, so that many people join these rallies simply for a bit of rowdy fun. When American tourists have wandered into these rallies, they have been greeted by ‘Hello! Welcome, we are glad to have you” before the death chants continue!
Our first stop is the National Museum of Iran. The pre-Islamic history section preserves ancient Persian antiquities including pottery vessels, metal objects, books, coins etc. It is in a handsome building designed by Andre Godard, a French architect, early in the twentieth century. The main entrance of the museum is built in the style of Persia's Sassanid vaults . There are some interesting paleolithic, Parthian, and Achemaenid exhibits as well as a 1700-year-old body that was perfectly preserved in a salt mine. Overall, however, the museum is rather sparse on exhibits, as the best bits of Iranian heritage are on display in the West (mainly the Louvre and the British Museum). Unfortunately, the Islamic Museum is not yet open to the public.
We visit a Zoroastrian 'Fire' temple. Zoroastrianism is accepted in Iran, as are Christianity and Judaism, which all pre-date Islam. These religions are officially recognized as a religious minority group by the government, and are allocated one seat each in the Iranian Parliament. In fact, there has been discrimination against members of these religions, although at present things are not too bad. The Faravahar symbol is proudly displayed above the temple. It depicts a bearded man above widespread feathered wings. Many Iranians wear the symbol as a sign of their pride in their Persian heritage, regardless of their faiths.
The Zoroastrian priest is very welcoming, but wants to make sure that we explained to our friends that Zoroastrians are not fire worshipers. For more about their religion, see this link.
We return to the hotel for a nap, then leave our room. We take notice of our first experience of the all-pervasive Iranian hotel elevator musak. When we reach the ground floor, a recorded voice recites “Lah-bee” in a bored sing-song.
Off to explore the neighborhood. Tehran is a sprawling, unattractive, and very polluted city but has many trees, which help soften it and bring some life. There are deep water gutters with frequent small footbridges along each road; falling in is a real danger.
We walk around the American Embassy and the nearby Teheran Garden. This is interesting because of the normalcy of young courting couples and teenagers hanging out and smoking cigarettes, clearly without much fear of being discovered by the religious police. The women were pushing the envelope on Muslim clothing restrictions, wearing tight jeans, short fitted jackets, high heels, and elaborate make-up--many were very elegant. People played badminton, backgammon, and used exercise equipment, and there was a children's go-kart track.
For dinner, we go to a traditional Persian restaurant the guide had recommended, the Ghazakadeh Sonnati Aban. It was in a lovely old building, beautifully decorated with wall hangings, objets d’art, and a parrot. The food (an eggplant dish for me & zeresh polo--chicken on barberry rice for George) was tasty. In Iranian restaurants, only forks and spoons are used; we saw how dextrous other diners were at using their spoons to dissect their food. At the end of our meal, an ancient man in traditional costume proudly offers us samovar-brewed tea served in hand-painted glasses.
En route to the hotel, we stop and buy some of the pistachio nuts for which Iran is well known. We have our first important lesson in Iranian currency. The official unit of currency is the rial; there are 10,000 rial to one U.S. dollar. In spoken language, prices are often given in the unofficial unit ‘toman’–10 rial equal one toman. As the unit isn’t spoken, until one is familiar with prices, it’s hard to tell whether toman or rial is meant–does something cost 10,000 rial (one dollar) or10,000 toman (ten dollars)–a big difference! We are confused at the nut vendor and overpay, but learn our lesson and are careful for the remainder of our journey.
Another confusing factor for us is that Iran uses modern Arabic written numbers–very different from the ‘Arabic numerals” used in the west! Fortunately, Persian paper currency displays both types of numbers. Owing to the embargo, Western credit cards and automated teller (bank) cards cannot be used in Iran. We brought U.S bills and exchange them as needed at the hotels. Fortunately, Iran is very safe, and we do not worry about being robbed while carrying cash.