Tehran, my first and last impressions of Iran

As the plane was about to touch down at the Tehran airport, the flight attendants reminded all the women to put on their head scarves. I was so damn excited when I heard this, the moment I had been waiting for had finally come. Iran was such a mysterious place to me, the media paints such a negative image of it, but from my experience in Turkey, I had a feeling that this middle eastern country had much more than meets the eye. At the airport, I somehow managed to skip the queue for the visa on arrival after listing my couchsurfing host’s name on the arrival card. It was extremely lucky for me, as I forgot to get a copy of the mandatory health insurance needed for the visa. As I changed a bit of money at the airport, I was surprised to find so many different currencies available for exchange, unlike what I read on the internet where you can only change USD and EUR. There was even the Singapore dollar. To the city, cabs had a monopoly as there was no public transport plying the route. I passed my phone to a driver and R, my host, told him where to go. I had absolutely no idea where we were going.

When we reached R’s place, the cab driver made sure R came out to pick me up before leaving. I almost felt like I was a VIP guest, fully accompanied at all times. R welcomed me to his super luxurious apartment. The AC in it felt like heaven, especially in the crazy summer heat in Tehran, as I was covered from head to toe. R’s place was adorned with Iranian art pieces from all over the country, including a huge stone piece from Persepolis. And almost every inch of his floor was covered with beautiful Iranian carpets, which I would soon learn was the norm for Iranian homes. After a quick home cooked lunch, I explored the city a bit on my own while he worked.

The Tehran bazaar left a huge impression of me. It was packed on a weekday afternoon with more locals than tourists, and while I was wandering around the small alleys, I felt a hand grope my ass. i immediately thought, wtf, I’m wearing someething that is covering every part of my body and isn’t revealing my body shape at all, are men here that horny. This actually happened three times within a span on 5 minutes or so, and the last time it happened, I actually made eye contact with the culprit, who shamelessly gave me a wink. I think it was the same guy all three times and it left me quite disgusted. On hindsight, I have no idea why I even reasoned with myself that I was dressed appropriately. Groping a woman is unjustifiable no matter what she’s wearing. But oh well, you can’t change “tradition”.
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I gladly escaped into the women-only carriage on the metro. Before I came to Iran, I actually thought that it was a little over the top to have such a concept, but this came to be my respite from all the staring I got on the streets. At various stops, Afghan women, whom I think were refugees, would come on and sell all sorts of stuff, from hair accessories to clothes and random knick knacks. The most incredulous thing was that the locals were actually buying them, unlike how in Europe everyone just ignores these vendors.
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The Azadi tower was quite a sight, plain but imposing. It was about 40 degrees when I got there, and I took shelter under it. As it wasn’t too far from R’s place, I decided to walk back, and on the way, passed quite a few mechanic shops. Naturally, I attracted quite a few stares, but at this point, had grown a little immune to it. After a long day, R’s place really felt like heaven.

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That night, R drove us to a park near the top of a mountain, where he said that the youths of Tehran usually hang out at. As there isn’t much nightlife in the city since alcohol is banned, that park was an escape from the strict social norms. I saw couples cuddling in the dark, looking out at the city lights from the top. I almost felt like I wasn’t in Iran, especially when it started to drizzle, and then pour. R and I ran down the slopes to his car, and I was actually grateful for the rain to cool down a little. We stopped by his friend’s place for a tea and some Iranian sweets. Being in that setting reminded me of Turkey, where I would watch my host be with his friends, talking in a language I didn’t understand at all while smiling at what I thought was appropriate moments, and them trying to speak a little english to engage me. It somehow felt very comfortable.

The next day, I visited the first of many mosques in Iran. The mosques here redefined my definition of them. All were super lavishly decorated, both on the inside and outside. Women had to wear a long drape (can’t remember the term but I don’t think its a chador), which they can borrow at the entrance. I didn’t know this the first time, so when the guard followed me in asking me to go borrow it in Farsi, I thought that he was trying to trick me into paying an entrance fee and gave him a very annoyed look and just walked away lol. Thankfully, someone who spoke english explained it to me, and I gave him a very sheepish look. I was amazed the the walls of the interior, which were covered with tons of small mirrors which almost looked like diamonds. Men and women entered separate rooms to pray, and there were many qurans for people to read. I sat quietly in a corner, taking in the sights and escaping the heat.
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All attractions, except for some mosques in Iran have double pricing, where locals pay close to nothing or nothing at all, while foreigners pay about EUR 5. As I didn’t want to be doing this all the time, I chose to visit just the most prominent building in Tehran, the Golestan palace. It was really beautiful, and I like the intricate designs on the walls most. The whole compound was really green too, and I liked how despite it being the most famous attraction in Tehran, it wasn’t overrun with tourists.
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After a good two weeks around Iran, I returned to catch my flight back to Singapore. Came back to the oasis in R’s place after a 12 hour bus ride, where he greeted me with a super refreshing cold and sweet drink. We watched movies for a bit, and I had a quick nap. For me, couchsurfing definitely was the only way to travel the country. There isn’t much of a hostel culture yet, and hotels were rather expensive. Also, I think few countries have “outside” and home settings that differ so greatly, and couchsurfing really offered some insight to how people get around the strict laws there. It was my first time being in a country where facebook was banned, bur R showed me how to use a VPN to get around it. Also, it was such a relief to take off my head scarf at home, and I was surprised to learn that women at home even dressed skimpily. Despite that groping incident, I still maintain my love for the super hospitable middle eastern culture.

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