By Anne Erdmann
Iran? That was the first reaction of just about everyone who heard I was planning my April 2013 vacation to that country.
Reactions ranged from "You're crazy!" to "You're doing this for a vacation?" to "Why on earth would you want to go there?" In this article, I'll attempt to show you why. My three-week trip there was more rewarding than I ever imagined it could be.
Because Iran has historically been a crossroads between East and West, just about everyone seems to have left their mark on the country in one century or another. So one reason to go is the country's rich, fascinating history.
Some of the oldest cities in the world are in Iran, still in use, with architecture and living styles that don't seem to have changed for centuries. Another reason is Iran's fantastic scenery: snow-capped mountains, the lush Caspian coast, the starkly beautiful deserts.
But what I found the most fascinating, and rewarding, about Iran was the Iranian people. Behind most of the pretrip questions I was asked was the underlying thought, sometimes expressed and sometimes not, "Is it safe for Americans to go to a country that hates us so much?"
To my astonishment, as an American in Iran, I was treated like a rock star. Most Iranians can't easily leave their country, and in many cases I was the first American they had ever met. Iranian culture has a deeply ingrained tradition of hospitality, and again and again I was welcomed with heartfelt warmth.
Any trip to Iran should include Tehran, the capital and huge beating heart of the country, with a population of about 12 million. Other attractions included the Caspian coast, the desert cities of Yadz and Shiraz and the beautiful city of Isfahan, as well as numerous smaller towns and archaeological sites.
One of the historical highlights of any trip to Iran are the ruins of Persepolis, established about 515 B.C. by King Darius.
Persian architecture is noted for its use of blue and turquoise tiles, and mosques and shrines are usually beautifully decorated. Calligraphy is an important Persian art as well, and many buildings were adorned with lovely examples.
For those who enjoy exploring different cuisines when traveling, Iran is likely to provide you with tastes you haven't experienced before. Persian cuisine uses unusual seasonings such as sumac and za'atar (a type of thyme) and makes good use of the country's produce such as pomegranates and eggplant.
As a female traveler, I was required by Iranian law to wear hijab, or covering, which consisted of a manteau (a loose coat or overgarment) and a head scarf. Women, even tourists, must wear this at all times in public, which means that it can be taken off only in your hotel room.
While having to wear hijab was annoying (and hot!), I chose to think of it as an opportunity to experience what life was like for Iranian women every day. Most Iranian women, like Western women, want to look their best, and many expressed their individuality by wearing colorful head scarves, makeup and stylishly cut overcoats. More traditional women might choose to wear an all-black chador, but doing so was not required.
Here are some practicalities. Americans cannot legally travel independently in Iran and must travel with a tour or guide. After considerable research into tour companies that take Americans to Iran, I traveled with MIR Corp., a Seattle-based company that specializes in Central Asia and the former Soviet republics (http://www.mircorp.com). A visa is required and must be applied for well in advance.
Costs once in Iran are extremely reasonable, usually less than $1 for a cup of coffee or a glass of juice. Spring and fall are the best times to travel, as winters are quite cold and summers extremely hot. In particular for women, who have to wear hijab, summers are to be avoided.
Most younger people speak at least some English and were thrilled to have a native speaker, especially one with an American accent to practice with. To meet people, all you have to do is make eye contact and smile, and most of them will come over to speak with you.
Despite the logistical difficulties, Iran was an exciting, rewarding destination, and one that I would recommend highly to anyone who enjoys off-the-beaten path travel.
Anne Erdmann lives in Champaign, is a geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey and has traveled to more than 80 countries. She also is the second-ranked competitive crossword puzzle solver in the U.S. Crosswords also are very popular in Iran.