The world is a scary place. That’s what I keep hearing. I do however belong to the most dangerous, destructive species on this Earth, overwhelmingly dominant over any potential predator. So, why should I be scared?
Well, I am told almost constantly that I should fear greatly the other members of my species; those who are not like me. There are people whose job it is (apparently) to protect me from those other scary people, and they tell me on TV and the Internet that the best way to not be afraid is to stay with my tribe. I should be wary of those “other”, different, scary people, and celebrate the people like me because, as I am constantly told (for reasons that are never fully explained)… we are the best people.
I’m very fortunate though, or maybe crazy, because I am not actually scared at all of the “other”. I have no fear of blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, Asians, homeless people, zombies, ghosts… I’m also very lucky to come from a peaceful western country, so I am not afraid of terrorists coming to kill me, which is actually as likely as a plane crash or shark attack. Statistically I should be much more fearful of dying in a natural disaster, but the Internet keeps telling me to be afraid of those “other”, scary people, and to stay with my own kind. I should mention here; I’m not a complete lunatic and of course, some things do frighten me. I am a little scared of the Internet.
Anyway, I had a few days off work, so I took a quick trip to Iran.
Some friends, family and colleagues offered their thoughts (again) on my travels, which were not entirely unexpected. A number of these reactions to this mini-vacation might be condensed into something like, ‘Iran?! OMG… Why???’
When people ask me “why” I do things, my standard answer is generally, “Because I Can”, or “Because it’s There”. More accurately and truthfully though, I went to Iran because it was close to where I lived at the time, and the one-hour flight from Dubai was cheap. And… I thought it would be interesting!
Everyone is different I guess. Some people like to film themselves, dangling, one-handed from cranes atop skyscrapers, or surfing a tsunami. I think those people are a bit crazy, but to each their own. Some people think I’m a bit nuts too. I can say from experience however… if you get an adrenaline-rush from danger, or if you want to test the limits of your own capacity to survive in a desolate, unforgiving landscape and a hostile, unforgiving people… well, Iran will disappoint you. Of course they do have all that vast, rugged desert there. They have ski resorts too! I didn’t know that.
I had no prior knowledge of the city of Shiraz. I had heard of it of course, but before this I would have assumed it might be in France perhaps, maybe near Bordeaux or some other wine place. I had no idea about this ancient former Persian capital, famed for its literature… and its wine.
I’m not totally ignorant though. I had thought to do a bit of preliminary research, so as not to accidentally make any cultural faux pas. I’d been advised by a number of people, and the Internet, that the wearing of jeans in Iran, and possession of other evil symbols of the western capitalist enemy are strictly prohibited in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is, as it turns out, complete bullshit.
I had been told that the Persian women are strictly controlled by the oppressive regime. They are to be kept largely indoors and must remain fully covered when in public, so as not to show any hair, or commit other such immoral public acts of indecency, except… more bullshit.
I should mention, obviously, that this is a conservative Islamic nation, and just like everywhere, there are rules. (The UAE is also a conservative Islamic nation, and anyone who has been to Dubai in the last twenty years will tell you, Dubai makes Las Vegas look positively demure). Some people questioned me later that I had taken no photos of women in the streets (header Photo: AFP, 2020). This is not to say that they weren’t there. In Iran, it is illegal to photograph people without consent, and, well… approaching random women in the street and asking to take their photo is considered a bit strange in many cultures.
So, I arrived at my hotel in Shiraz and the staff were immediately helpful. They showed me where to get an Iranian SIM card (I wasn’t sure why they thought I needed that), tips on currency exchange, and directions to local restaurants and places of interest. I dropped my bag in the room, then set off for a walk to change some money and get a bite to eat.
At time of writing, the official exchange rate is 42,300 Iranian Rials to the dollar. The ‘real’ rate is closer to 50,000. Desperate for stable foreign currency after many years of crippling economic sanctions, the exchange rate on the street was significantly better than that offered by the banks. This made everything even cheaper than it already was. It was a fun kind of novelty to be walking around with millions in cash… for about ten minutes. Then I was completely baffled.
So, the smallest denomination bank note (100 Rials) was worth about US$0.002 and things got confusing. Then I learned that only the government talks in terms of Rials, but the people trade in the ‘Toman’, which just means all sums are divided by ten. There are still too many zeros though, so they often just leave those out anyway. For the following three days I attempted to pay far too much for everything, or far too little.
Anyway, I was alone and just looking for a quick snack, so I ordered a hot dog at the fast food joint around the corner from my hotel. There are no western franchise restaurants in Iran and the name of this place was ‘Fast Food’. The guy there was cool and he asked if I wanted a small hot dog, which I thought was weird. I ordered a normal one. Then I saw a burger being delivered to a table of young men sitting in the corner. I remembered seeing burgers like that in Australia, 30 years earlier (or maybe I was just much smaller then). I carried my hot dog in both hands, and my complimentary gift of alcohol-free beer (?) back to the hotel.
The hot dog guy was the first of dozens to ask me where I was from and if I was enjoying Iran. The Persians are proud of their country, and everyone I spoke to was very pleased to hear I was enjoying my stay. Vendors helped me out. They joked in good nature at my clumsy attempts to understand their currency. People politely asked for more money when necessary and, several times, they laughed while handing back extra wads of money I attempted to overpay. For some reason nobody seemed to want to rip off the clueless tourist. At least, not any more than I thought was perfectly acceptable. The clueless tourist tax is a global thing.
One of my favorite countries to visit has long been Philippines. It is a developing country facing its own set of problems, where guys with big guns guard the shopping malls. The Filipinos refuse to stop smiling for any reason, even when telling you that you should not go outside at night. Many countries are like that, if perhaps with less of all that smiling. I always go out for a walk at night.
Later that night I decided to try my luck and go out for a walk. The hotel doorman didn’t appear to have a gun of any size and wished me a pleasant evening. Mixed social company isn’t really a thing in public. Groups of men and groups of women were out walking, shopping, chatting, being almost aggressively non-threatening… apparently all the ‘Axis of Evil’ stuff was happening somewhere else.
It was getting late, but the absence of any sense of danger remained. I went looking for the famed Chah e-Cheragh Shrine, which I’d heard was beautiful. I chatted with some guys at a falafel stand, then I saw a large sign written in Farsi. It’s wise to know that the Persians are not Arabs, and they speak Farsi, not Arabic. This was of no consequence to me because I don’t speak either of those languages, but the sign had a big arrow on it which pointed down a dark alley, so I followed that. The next ten minutes was a random maze of dark alleys, but still… not a single maniac could be found.
Those alleys never seemed to lead anywhere, except back out onto another main road. Eventually I found the place I was looking for though, and was patted down by an armed security guard who apologised for having to do so. He said it was his job. Admission was free.
The funerary complex was serene. Then I walked into the shrine itself. It was indeed beautiful. Jaw-dropping would be another way to describe this place, the name of which in Persian translates as ‘King of the Light’. Looking up at the impossibly glittering mirrored walls and ceilings (of which my photos do no justice), I hadn’t noticed that I had now committed a cultural faux pas. Again, to put it another way, I had, I thought, monumentally f^#ked up. Here, at this very important holy site in Southern Iran, awestruck by what I was seeing… I had casually strolled into the women’s section. Not good. The three women sat quietly on the floor looking at me. I just stared back at them, frozen with embarrassment and at that moment, I did feel scared. The women smiled, then, softly and gently, as if trying not to startle a cornered animal, they very politely alerted me of the obvious and directed me out and to the men’s entrance.
It is easy to forget, as a westerner, just how simple traveling is for us. English is ubiquitous to the extent that we don’t notice it until it isn’t happening. All over the world people speak to us in our own language (except perhaps Japan), even the people our own politicians and media portray as an enemy to be feared. I have been more than fortunate to have traveled much of the world, where people talk to me in English. It’s a bit weird really, how we seem to know just how much these evil Iranians (for example) hate us, when they speak to us in our language and we know almost nothing about them.
I’ll tell you a secret from what I have learned traveling. The overwhelming majority of all people everywhere… are good. And we are all basically the same. We all want to work and build a better life, to laugh with our friends, to be intimate with our partner, to watch our children grow strong, to upgrade our phones occasionally, maybe catch a movie sometimes or read a good book, to take a day sometimes to do nothing at all, to secretly hope that someone will catch us on video that one time we do something awesome… yeah, we’re all pretty much the same. And that’s why there is no reason to be scared. Sure, there will always be people who aren’t wired right, but they really are so very few. So, be scared of the “other” in much the same way you should be scared of being struck by lightning. Not much at all.
One last bit of advice… wherever in the world you may travel, at least just learn how to say ‘Thank you’. And smile.
So, there you go. Shiraz is a historical and peaceful city, but… if you really want to experience pure adrenaline, or have a serious death wish, they’ve got you covered there also. Simply try your luck crossing one of the major city streets at the designated pedestrian (zebra) crossings. These are purely decorative.
Salaam, and merci.