A Redhead in Iran


Jun 6th, 2018, 09:03 PM
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A Redhead in Iran

I visited Iran with a very small tour 'group' in late April and early May. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to visit many amazing countries all over the world and have enjoyed almost every one for various reasons. The Iranian people were probably the most welcoming, friendly and thrilled to have a silly American visiting their homeland of any people I've met.

"Weren't you scared? Did you ever feel unsafe? Why would you go THERE?" were some of the most common questions I got before I left on my vacation. No, I wasn't scared and I never felt even remotely unsafe (other than traffic-wise and that's a whole different topic). As for why go to Iran, because it's incredible. The history is just simply ridiculous (it's one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world); the architecture is stunningly beautiful (Persepolis, the square in Isfahan and all of the mosques with decorations ranging from simple and elegant colored glass and stonework, to extremely fancy mirrorwork on every inch); and the people are incredibly welcoming. The question isn't "why would you want to go to Iran" but "why wouldn't you want to go to Iran"!

The Practical Stuff

This section will be for the practical stuff. It's generally not exciting, but it tends to cover some of the most important questions for someone considering a visit to this ancient land.

Visa and the tour group - Americans (and I think Canadians and Brits) are required to visit with a tour group. We're simply not allowed to just ask for a visa on our own, someone has to be responsible for us. I researched various tour companies and tours offered, finally settling on Key2Persia based out of Shiraz (yes, I highly recommend them). Once I picked out the tour I wanted and asked a few questions, I added a day to the beginning of the tour so I would have more time in Shiraz. Aliye with K2P handled everything from there, all I had to do was arrange for my flights and trip insurance. A note on insurance: be SURE to confirm that your insurance will cover a visit to Iran. They are specifically excluded from many/most insurance policies. I found a great policy with Nationwide and confirmed that they would cover Iran. Due to the political situations in both countries, I wanted to be sure to get a policy that would allow me to cancel for any reason just in case everything went sideways in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Aliye collected my documents and information (passport copy, resume, list of all social media profiles, etc) and submitted everything to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and my job was to try to sit still and pretend to be patient. It took a couple months for Aliye to get the approval letter. Once she had that, I filled out the actual application for the visa and sent that with the approval, my passport and a photo to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC. There is an "Iranian Interests" section there that handles all of the business that would normally be handled at an Iranian embassy or consulate, which we don't have in the US. Their website is daftar.org. It took a couple weeks to get everything back without paying for expedited service. Give yourself lots of time, but the visa process is quite easy.

My tour 'group' was all of two people and a wonderful guide, Kurosh. There were supposed to be four tourists in the group but the French couple backed out a couple days before the trip. The other tourist was an American around my age who has been living abroad for years, named Matt. I could not have gotten luckier in travel companions than I did with these two. The other people in a group can really help make or break a group trip and they were both wonderful. By luck and amusement, Matt happens to be another redhead. This meant that we really stood out and we both understood the need for a slight delay for sunblock throughout the day. Such as small group gave us a level of both flexibility and approachability that would not be possible with a larger group. Kurosh was knowledgeable and passionate about showing us his country, and we were both extremely interested to learn. If he didn't know the answer to one of our questions, he would find someone to ask to get us the answer.

Money - Credit and debit cards do NOT work in Iran, at least not those issued in the US. I don't know about those issued from other countries, but check into it carefully if you get to go and plan accordingly. I took everything I needed to pay for my tour, my spending and in case of emergency in US $50's and $100's. I felt that most things were fairly budget friendly in Iran. Not cheap exactly, but not expensive either. I exchanged USD for Rial/Toman at the tour agency office as there was a bit of a hiccup at the time with official exchange offices being closed for awhile.

The official currency is rial, but everyone except tourists uses toman. 1 toman = 10 rial and is just a different way to refer to the same bills. The current exchange rate is about $1 USD = 42,000 rial = 4,200 toman. When making purchases, verify toman vs rial if you're not 100% sure which is being used. There were many times I would go to pay for something and would essentially just hold my wallet open and the shop keeper would laugh at me and help me select the proper amount. Learning the look of the Iranian numbers is extremely helpful, but not really necessary.

Flights - Surprise surprise, there are no direct flight from the US to Iran. However there are tons of flights to Doha, Istanbul, Paris, and many other major hubs in the larger region. I flew from my local airport to Chicago, to Doha and then to Shiraz. I returned via Tehran to Doha. Flights do seem to arrive in the middle of the night and leave extremely early in the morning, so definitely consider that in planning your lodging dates. Everything was booked on a single ticket and I had no questions when I returned to the US. There's no concern with tourists visiting Iran, though who knows what will happen with the various sanctions and such in the coming months.

Qatar is a wonderful airline and Doha is a great airport to spend an overnight. I had about 9 hours in Doha in the middle of the night so I chose to stay at the airport and doze off in one of the quiet rooms on a lower level near the gates. There are quiet rooms scattered around, some are gender separated and some are mixed. The quiet rooms are wonderful! The one I spent the night in was a room with about 20 lounge chair-beds and was for women only. It gives you a place to lay down in complete quiet, out of sight and pretty private feeling. Best free airport sleep ever!

Food - I can be a picky eater at times (I'm not a fan of very spicy food and tend to favor simple dishes) and I never had a bad meal in Iran. The 'worst' meal I had was merely okay, rather than scrumptious, delicious and drool-worthy. I ate a lot of chicken kebabs because they were all just a tiny bit different but all very good. One dish that I want to learn how to make is called dizi. It's basically an awesome stew in a single serving crock. You pour the liquid into a bowl and eat that with chunks of bread. The solid parts of the stew are left in the crock and you use a masher to mash those up, and eat those on chunks of bread. So much goodness! It's not a fancy dish of any kind, but it's insanely good and extremely filling. Americans tend to get a lot of guff about our portion sizes, but Iranian portions of food were enormous! After the first couple days Kurosh started asking for smaller portions for me since I simply couldn't eat it all.

Clothes, headscarves, etc - Clothes were one of the biggest concerns for me leading into this trip and that seems to be normal for female visitors to Iran. I never want to offend by wearing inappropriate clothing in another country/culture, but I've never been legally required to be covered like this so it made me nervous. ALL women are required to wear a headscarf at all times outside of a private home or a hotel room. We're required to wear clothing that isn't tight to the body, must wear a top or jacket long enough to cover our butts over pants, and must have long sleeves. That's the general legal requirements. Now... the actual standards for tourists are fairly relaxed but be prepared, use common sense and don't push it too far.

Women must wear a headscarf, but it doesn't have to be tight and doesn't have to cover everything. I started off with mine carefully only showing a tiny bit of hair above my forehead. By the time I left the fabric was pinned down at the top of my head somewhere above my bun/ponytail and then ignored. One trick that worked well for me was snap clips and tiny magnets. I would put a snap clip where I wanted the front of the scarf to sit on my head, drape one layer of the fabric over it, which was then held in place with a magnet. Flipping the fabric over the top of the magnet then hid the magnet and kept the scarf in place but still out of my face all day. I used infinity scarves for the most part as I despise having anything tight around my neck and am a complete klutz about having something draping on me. Our guide told me a couple days into the trip that I was allowed to take the scarf off in the car. That makes a huge difference in comfort when you're traveling between cities.

I ordered my shirts (various long sleeve, light weight, tunics/dresses) on Amazon for the most part and that worked extremely well. I aimed for shirts that would hit me somewhere around mid thigh, be fairly loose through the body, and be lightweight. Those were paired with simple yoga/workout pants and I had no problems with dress code or weather. A lightweight long cardigan added a bit of extra coverage when I needed to hide any hint that I have a female body. Walking sandals were my favorite option for comfort. Pushing my sleeves up most of the way to my elbows was completely fine as I was a tourist, but as soon as we were on headed into a mosque I pulled my sleeves down to be respectful.

Again, the expectations for tourists are more relaxed than for the locals but don't push it and use judgment based on where you are (tourist site vs conservative small town). I often asked Kurosh for guidance if I wasn't sure (such as "do I need the cardigan here, or am I okay like this").

More will be coming soon (the places, the people), along with eventually a link to photos. Please ask any questions you might have and I'll try to answer them or direct you to better sources.
Iowa_Redhead is offline  
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Jun 6th, 2018, 11:47 PM
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Looking forward to hearing the finer details about your trip and appreciate you sharing your journey.
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Jun 7th, 2018, 03:54 AM
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Fascinating! Looking forward to more. I love your description of figuring out how to work with your head scarf!
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Jun 7th, 2018, 06:46 AM
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Looking forward to hearing more.
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Jun 7th, 2018, 07:12 AM
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What an interesting place to visit. Thanks for taking the time to write a report. Looking forward to more.

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Jun 7th, 2018, 07:50 AM
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Rick Steves visited Iran a few years back and it is a place I would love to go. I can't afford to. I realize cost is relative but it's too much for me. I am so looking forward to your report and thanks for posting, I know these things take a lot of time.
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Jun 7th, 2018, 07:59 AM
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Oh this sounds interesting! Can't wait for more!
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Jun 7th, 2018, 09:08 AM
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Looking forward to more!
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Jun 7th, 2018, 11:00 AM
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Thanks so much for sharing your adventure!
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Jun 7th, 2018, 11:42 AM
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Oooooh - Thank you Iowa Redhead for writing this!! Very interesting. I had a junior high school friend who was the daughter of the ambassador to Iran back in the late 60s and early 70s. Tehran was her favorite place to live. I look forward to reading your future installments.
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Jun 7th, 2018, 03:07 PM
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Interested to read more. Thanks for sharing/
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Jun 7th, 2018, 04:26 PM
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Joining the party too. Iran is on the short list of places I hope to visit sooner rather than later.
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Jun 7th, 2018, 04:57 PM
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Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Looking forward to more!
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Jun 8th, 2018, 05:26 AM
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Canít wait to read more! Thanks for taking the time to write.
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Jun 8th, 2018, 05:53 AM
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Iowa, you mentioned the people being some of the friendliest and most welcoming.

Reading that brought back memories from 1979 (the Iranian Revolution) when a young family moved in next door to us. They were a husband and wife and two girls ages 4 and 5.

They were from a very wealthy family in Tehran and on vacation when the revolution broke out so they couldn't go home because his father had been a general in the Shan's army.

They were in fact, the best neighbors we've every had. Very warm, loving, kind, smart, funny, and the wife was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She literally took your breath away. The husband was a dead ringer for John Belushi.

Ah, I miss them!!
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Jun 8th, 2018, 06:24 AM
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Great start IR--can't wait for you to continue.

Did you find that it was hard to remember to put on the scarf if you left your room? I feel like a lifetime of not covering would make it hard to remember to cover after, say, taking a nap in your room then stepping out to dinner. Not that you'd forget for long but more in the way of stepping out into the hall and then *forehead smack* "Oh yeah, scarf." And your magnet tip is one I had never heard and very clever.
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Jun 8th, 2018, 10:25 AM
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Fabulous report! Looking forward to the next installment
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Jun 8th, 2018, 05:51 PM
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Joining on also, and looking forward to the rest!
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Jun 10th, 2018, 10:53 AM
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I found this recipe for Diza, does it sound similar to what you had?
Abgoosht (Lamb Chickpea Soup) | The Persian Pot
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Jun 10th, 2018, 10:53 AM
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oops, I mean Dizi
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