Jomeh, 6th of Khordad 1390/Friday, May 27, 2011
Let me start off by saying a big Tavallodet Mobarak to Sadra. Happy Birthday!
Today was easily the most eventful of my trip. Lots to discuss, but first let me recognize this day wouldn’t be possible without Sadra’s cousin Vahid and future brother-in-law Reza. They went above and beyond showing us around town and to them I say my dearest thanks.
We woke up late in the morning. I guess we were exhausted from company the night before. While eating breakfast, Sadra got a call from Reza, who arranged to come over and take us out. What taking us out entailed, I had no idea. Reza drove us around the larger part of Northern Tehran. Now I don’t really think you can grasp the size of Tehran as I am writing about it. I myself have a hard time understanding that I haven’t even yet ventured into the middle part of Tehran. The population of Tehran is 9,110,347 (wikipedia) and is without doubt the largest city in Iran. Consider that this nearly ten million people are the ones that live in the city itself and not in its outer suburbs/metro area. As a comparison consider New York City’s urban population is 8,175,133. So I when I say we drove around some of the Northern parts of the city, to me this is like driving around at least a few Denvers. It helps, that like Denver there are huge mountains due north that help give your inner compass some kind of direction and perspective as to where you are. Without said mountains I wouldn’t have a clue to where I was in relation to anything. Like I mentioned earlier Tehran is not laid out in a convenient grid pattern. There appears to be zero order to them, like the chaos of cars driving on top of them.
Driving around with Reza was fun as I got to see, in my opinion, a lot of the city, though really it’s only a fraction. We got some ice cream at Reza’s favorite shop. They made me a perfect chocolate shake, so thick you couldn’t drink it through a straw. Delicious.
After some more driving we went and had shisha (hookah for those in the states) in what seemed like a little oasis in the middle of the city. Now I’m having trouble describing the place. It would be easier posting a photo, but it seems my internet doesn’t like me to do that. So for now just imagine green plants everywhere, at your feet, above and around you and lanterns in small corners above and below you. Small streams of water come from several directions. An enchanted little forest if you will, found in the middle of Tehran. Stone paths lead you to two different common areas. In the center of the first area, a large fountain with takhts (beds) lined in a square around it. Each takht is raised about a foot off the ground with decorative rugs on top in different colors. Pillows follow the frame of the bed on three corners, providing nice support for lounging on. A hooded tent sits atop the takht supported by posts, completing the look. Families, groups of friends all sit in their own takht and socialize over tea. Some order food, while others just stick with shisha. The sound of the water drowns out the noise of the city and the overall feeling is best described as calming.
Chai (tea) is a must in Persian culture. When guests come over they must have chai, whether they want chai or not. It’s non-negotiable. A fun Persian cultural tidbit to note is the concept of tarof, a word that has no English translation. To tarof is to refuse food or drink when you’re a guest at someone’s home because you don’t want the host to go to any trouble over you. After the first refusal the exchange back and forth from the guest and the host, until finally someone, usually the guest, concedes and must eat or drink something in order to make the host happy. So whenever you’re at someone’s house as a guest you’ll often hear the word tarof.
Back to Chai. Persians do this thing, which I suspect other cultures do, where you take a sugar cube and hold it between your teeth as you sip your tea. The hot tea melts the sugar in your mouth and sweetens it as you drink. I have yet to master this traditional way of drinking tea. Much more practice is needed, which shouldn’t be a problem as there is tea ready to go in my home 24/7.
After shisha, Sadra, Reza and I returned to the khoone (house) for some lunch. Once he left, Sadra’s cousin Vahid came over to show us around Tehran as well. I didn’t know what I was in for, but I knew as soon as the car turned on and Enrique Inglesias began crooning through the car speakers we were in for a good time. Quick side note. Iranians LOVE Enrique Inglesias. So driving around in a car through Tehran listening to an Enrique CD that had been played so often it skipped frequently added a whole new layer to our already authentic Tehran driving experience.
Vahid is an expert Tehran driver. He drives without hesitation, which is necessary when you’re driving through a street with five lanes of traffic when there are lines only painted for two. I felt like I was in Fast and Furious Six Tehran Nights (Which, I think would make an excellent addition to any Fast and Furious franchise as the ridiculous stunts they pull out for each movie is standard driving behavior in the streets of Tehran. Also the added drama of dating a hijabi girl would add a new level of exotic and push it towards an inevitable Oscar.) Vahid did things with his little Peugeot, I didn’t know were physically possible in this world. You know the scene in Harry Potter where the two-decker bus for wizards is driving through London and magically stretches itself super thin in order to fit between two lanes of traffic? A totally normal occurrence here without the flick of a wand. Everything about driving here is odd to me: adding additional non-existant lanes on the curbs, reversing in the middle of the road, ignoring traffic lights, purposely going the wrong way on one way roads, babies holding the steering wheel for parents enjoyment. Thankfully new laws require citizens to wear seat belts while driving. That is of course if your car has seat belts. (Sadra and I were in a taxi the other day where their was a belt, but no buckle for the seat, thus defeating the purpose of said seat belt.) Not to make a big thing about driving in Tehran, but it really is an experience for any foreigner. It has all the thrills of a roller coaster, but without the added security of knowing that the ride will end with you perfectly safe.
The best driving story of the day is a tie between Vahid purposely driving the wrong way on a one way street to get to the entrance of this park. Then having to reverse all the way up a steep hill to get out on to a regular street. All of this while Sadra’s saying sweetly “Don’t worry Laura, we’re not driving the wrong way on a one-way street.” Second is Vahid reversing down hill on a heavily trafficked street in order to do a U-turn all in order to avoid traffic going uphill. Mom and Dad don’t worry, Vahid’s a professional. 😉
Perhaps in a little taste for the ironic, Vahid took Sadra and I go-karting. This was super fun and somewhat concerning as there were no seat belts in the go-karts themselves. The first round through I kicked Sadra’s ass, but as can be surmised the rest of the Iranians on the track whipped our butts. We can’t compete with their first hand Tehran driving experience. During one of our runs on the track I tried cutting Sadra off and ended spinning out, losing the edge entirely. Consequently the worker on the track gave me a lecture in Farsi I have no clue about as I don’t speak Farsi. After each break in the sentence I just nodded my head and said “Bale” (yes). It was too noisy to explain that I couldn’t understand him as I don’t speak Farsi.
Afterwards Vahid helped me discover my new favorite past time in Iran: trying to catch stray kittens in parks. Vahid took us to a park he thought was pretty cat friendly. Since the kitties are fed by the people picnicking in the park, these kitties are not hugely afraid of humans like many strays you see here. There were kittens galore in this park. Those of you who know Sadra and I can only imagine how enthusiastic we were. After seeing several pairs of kittens we stumbled on three black kittens without their mom. One was so cute and friendly that it kept coming back to me. She would even sit on my leg as I squat down. And before you say “Laura stop torturing the kittens of Tehran.” I’ll have you know that this kitten was purring the whole time. Sadra and I took turns holding the kitten until a little girl showed an interest in the kitten. We gave the little girl the kitten to hold and it was like love at first sight. She didn’t want to let the poor kitten go. Another girl walked by curious, but fearful of the kittens and cautiously looked from a safe distance. That is until the other little girl holding the kitten began chasing her while holding the kitten. Eventually I got a hold of the kitten and placed her safely with her siblings next to a tree they started to climb. The little girl was not satisfied and ran to join them yelling back to the girl, who was scared of the kittens “Azizam naya mikhoratet” or “Honey don’t go, he’ll eat you!” Talk about your cuteness overload for the day.
Following our kitty park outing, we decided to end the day at Baame Tehran or the Roof of Tehran, appropriately named for it’s perspective overlooking the entirety of Tehran. Located on the side of one of the mountains facing Tehran, it is a bit of a hike to get to the top. However with a 30 cent bus ride to the top, pesky and inconvenient hiking can be all together avoided. Before you get to the edge where the million dollar view of Tehran is, there are a few fast food places to satisfy the hunger you built hiking, or in our case driving, all the way to the top. To my surprise in the Islamic Republic of Iran I found corn dogs, possibly one of the most American foods I could possibly think of. Who would have guessed. As we reached the top we found the most pleasant view of Tehran so far. Words really can’t describe the city lit up at night so here are a couple of pictures to give you an idea.
All in all a very busy, but very enjoyable day. I am lucky to have some of the best tour guides showing me the city they love.