If there’s one word to describe my trip to Iran, it would be ‘unprepared’.
I usually plan my trips in detail, research where to go and how to navigate everything. I’ve been wanting to go to Iran for quite a while, but I never put much action and research into my thoughts. So when I finally decided to book my flights to Tehran I decided to ‘wing it’, getting a quick glimpse of some photos and articles I could find online.
Knowing that I can get a visa on arrival, I booked my first night in a hostel, downloaded a basic VPN and got some cash out – at least I did something right.
That Time I Spontaneously Went to Iran…
My research about the weather in Iran concluded a few brief conversations with friends who visited a year before. Apparently, they were dying of heat. As I came from a sunny Mexico and after Iran was going to Morocco, the vision of the heat didn’t bother me. I bought two thin tunics, a pair of polyester dress, leggings and sandals.
Imagine my reaction when I left the airport in Tehran in my fancy sandals, only to discover that it’s been snowing a day before. My room in a hostel didn’t have any heating either, so I was shaking all night.
The only thing that was coming to my mind was a group of penguins and their hugging technique to stay warm, so I tried to message my boyfriend (now-husband) to tell him that I wish he was there, realizing that my VPN only works for about 5 seconds and then stops – second fail on the first day of my trip.
Meeting Creepy Dolls
The next morning, I teamed up with M. – a Dutch girl from a hostel and embarked on an adventure to the grand bazaar of Tehran. In my sandals. Thankfully, it stopped snowing, but the cold rain didn’t stop my toes from going numb.
Iranian shops are actually quite scary. If you were ever scared by the ‘Annabelle’ doll, you might want to take a deep breath before going to Iran. Each store or stall at markets presented their visitors with a collection of the creepiest dolls and mannequins one can find.
They would surely scare many American kids, particularly after dark, with their messy hair and weird red faces, but to Iranians, it was something absolutely normal.
The minute I started taking photos of them, shop owner were getting interested in knowing why.
‘Are you a fashion designer?’ one asked.
In my mind, I asked myself a question that even if I was, the last thing I’d do would be taking inspirations from creepy street dolls. ‘No, I just like your dolls.’
Failing in Fashion Department
While we managed to get me some new shoes, socks, and a sweater, I decided to pick up a few new scarves to at least pretend to look fashionable.
Iranians sell a ridiculous amount of pashmina headscarves, and they all look very attractive. On my first day in the country, I got a green one, a pink one, and one blue with a pattern. This was probably not the best idea I’ve had.
My friend and I were trying to attempt to blend in with locals, but it turned out not many women wear bright and colorful scarves. We stood out a lot, especially at the mosque.
Before going to Iran I never even tried a headscarf. I learned something from a YouTube tutorial, but my scarf kept falling on my face the entire time. By the end of the day, it was making a giant knot on the top of my head. Unless I needed to go for a Halloween party as Samara from The Ring, I was failing miserably in the fashion department.
All of it was nothing, however, until we reached a mosque in Tehran. Every woman needs to wear big long hijabs that are available to borrow at the entrance. Local women have quickly realized that neither I nor my friend knew how to handle it. They all smiled and dressed us like little innocent kids who can’t dress themselves properly just yet.
Where Are You From?
Having a big bag stuffed with cameras didn’t help the whole thing almost falling off a few times. Luckily, the moment it started falling, a local woman managed to quickly grab the material and put it back where it belonged on my body.
‘Where are you from?’ one woman asked me after she asked to take a photo together. But before I managed to open my mouth, ready to say that I live in California in the US, I heard Michou screaming my name.
‘Look behind you’ she said.
When I turned my head, there it was. A giant freaking poster saying ‘Done with the USA and Israel’ right in front of us.
‘Shall we stick to Holland?’ M. suggested. But before I agreed I decided to ask some questions and turned to the woman whom I took a photo with.
‘What do you think about this?’ I pointed at the poster. ‘Do you really dislike America?’
The woman made a grim expression. ‘No we don’t. We love American movies and I’d like to meet Americans. It’s just what the government says, but we don’t listen.’
I soon learned that I didn’t have any right clothes for any occasion in Iran. When locals invited us for a birthday party, we asked what should we wear. Without giving us even a short glimpse at my blue sweater from the market, my friend’s blouse sticking out of it and completely mismatched leather jacket on top of everything, the cousin replied that what we’re wearing is fine. Which was absolutely not true.
We showed up at the house, and after removing shoes and scarves we realized that both women and men were changing their outfits even before saying hello. Women all looked like well-made ladies from a hi-end nightclub in London, in branded dresses and perfect make-up. Men were wearing suits with perfectly ironed shirts and ties.
My friend wore no makeup, and both of our hair looked like a mess. We were totally out of place. After asking us about our lives and Instagram accounts (Instagram is super popular in Iran as it’s one social channel that’s not blocked), everyone dragged us to dance. I am actually a dancer, but Iranian-Kurdish dances are no-joke and everyone took the steps very seriously trying to show us how does the dance go. And we miserably failed.
Around 7 pm the guests cleaned up the cake, vacuum all carpets, washed dishes, changed into their baggy outdoor clothes and by the time it got dark everyone was out of the door. I guess if you’re not getting wasted you can have fun and make it home for dinner.
Outdated Lonely Planet Guide
Since we couldn’t google any information and the lack of wifi stopped us from using Google Maps directions, we were destined to find everything in a Lonely Planet Guide to Iran. The guidebook proved to be useful on most occasions despite being outdated. Apart from a small fact that every time we tried to check the schedule of our bus rides, the only missing direction was ours.
As a result, quite often we ended up arriving at our destination at a wrong time. One time we got to Sanandaj at 3 in the morning, only to realize that absolutely everything, including our hotel is closed at night.
Luckily, after banging on the door for a while a nice man woke up and let us in. Despite a reservation that a previous hotel made for us, he had no idea who we were.
Two women traveling alone is still a strange occurrence, leave alone in a country like Iran. In non-touristy places, locals were either squeaking from excitement, shouting ‘Yay tourists!’ as loud as they could, or asking us if we could speak English to their kids. As foreigners on top of being females, we received, even more, attention in non-touristy places.
A friend of the cousin of a co-worker of my Dutch companion arranged us a trip to a small village. It’s totally normal in Iran that random people arrange your entertainment. The two cousins didn’t see each other for over a decade, yet the one living in Iran decided to ask his friend to help us get to where we wanted to go.
The same way as it’s completely normal for foreigners to accept the offer and hop into stranger’s car who got your phone number from someone else who knows you. I’m pretty sure that if something like this occurred in America, everyone and their mother would be calling the police and reporting a kidnapping.
Navroz in Kurdistan
Anyway, our trip to the village of Armitsar for a big celebration of Navroz – Iranian new year, celebrated very colorfully (which we found out about later) in Kurdistan. Both dressed in our quite unflattering and by the time dirty clothes, we watched local women getting changed into fancy colorful dresses. Some of them told us that they made their outfits themselves. And yet, there was I who can’t even sew a button.
Despite our unattractive appearance, we managed to make some friends who took care of us. If I met someone from another country on a bus going to a place where no foreigners have been in a long time, I probably would have bought them a drink. But since in Iran no one drinks, at least not in public places, we got a giant piece of kalana instead.
Kalana is probably one of the heaviest things I ate and the worst enemy of any diet. It’s a very thin bread made in front you on a hot plate, that’s later soaked, and by that, I mean REALLY dipping wet, in butter and sprinkled with green onions. While it’s not the healthiest of all dishes, it looks green enough thanks to these green onions and it’s delicious. That’s all we needed.
But kalana wasn’t all we got from the Kurdish girls. From the moment we introduced ourselves to them, they acted like protectors of the crown jewels, with the jewels being us. We were escorted to the bathroom, handed food and drinks and asked if we needed anything. It was so freaking nice, that I couldn’t get over it for a while.
We spent hours talking about our lives in London, California and the Netherlands, and their lives in Iran. Out of all questions, one of the strangest ones we received to our answer that we’re from Europe and lived in the Netherlands was ‘why are you not fat?’.
‘Dutch people aren’t fat’ I replied quickly. There are many things I can say about living in the Netherlands, but I honestly have never seen a fat Dutch person. Tall maybe, but not fat. Turns out in Iran people claim to see fat Dutch people on TV.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ one of the girls asked me out of the blue.
‘Yeah, I do. Do you?’ I asked, completely forgetting how insensitive I could have been as Iranians technically aren’t allowed to date freely. But to my surprise, almost every girl quietly replied ‘Yes’ with a smile.
‘We date, just in secret.’ The girls said to us. ‘We do the same things you do on dates’. I wasn’t entirely sure what do ‘we do’ on dates, but I didn’t dare to ask whether they have sex or not.
Appearing on Kurdish TV
No matter how many Kurdish girls we befriended we still stood out. The national TV arrived on location and began to interview people, and they spotted us – two lost foreigners aimlessly walking around. Through our new translating friends we found out that the TV decided to interview us. It didn’t matter what do we say, as long as we show our faces.
Five minutes later we were completely surrounded by crowds taking photos of us and asking us to take a selfie. While I found it quite funny, considering the fact my Dutch friend hated being on camera, it was an entertaining experience at least.
After visiting a pink lake in Mexico I wanted to see another one after finding out that there’s one in Iran. Getting there involved a giant detour to the northern town of Tabriz and renting a driver to get to this lake.
Imagine my surprise when I found out upon arrival that the lake isn’t actually pink or red, but actually quite dry and nasty. It turned out that the color was only present at Lake Urmia temporarily, but the proper Iranian pink lake is actually in near Shiraz, in the southern part of the country.
While my trip was incredibly spontaneous and eventful I enjoyed it a lot and can’t wait to return to Iran! 🙂
Monday 24th of June 2019
Love to hear how kind and open the people are there. Despite U.S.-Iran relations being tense, the Iranians I know are all very outgoing and friendly.
Tuesday 11th of June 2019
Maybe not planned, but this trip definitely didn’t lack adventures. Great story! I hope you’ll go back to Iran and finally find that Pink Lake.