"Iran turned out to be the best trip of my life."
|"There is no bad angle to Isfahan!" Photo courtesy of ©Mandy Tay|
Finding a tourist in Iran is like finding Waldo on Copacabana Beach on New Year's Eve. It's for this reason that I accost any foreign tourist I see in Iran and bombard them with questions- Where are you from? What cities are you going to? Are you having a good time? and most importantly- Why-oh-why did you come to Iran when you could have been sunbathing and sipping a fruity cocktail on some Greek island? Even I don't know if I would visit Iran if I weren't Iranian. But there are plenty of people who have visited or dream of visiting. And thanks to this blog and the never-to-be-underestimated power of social media, it's easier than ever to connect with these people. So when the lovely My Persian Corner reader Mandy Tay wrote me a line sharing her amazing video capturing the beauty of Iran in such a way that I'm sure most Iranians have never even seen, and told me that traveling to Iran two months ago turned out to be the best trip of her life, I had to know more. Thank you, technology, for now allowing me accost people via internet with my million questions.
Tell us a little about yourself.
|Photo courtesy of ©Mandy Tay|
I am a Singaporean photographer and trailer producer for a TV station in Dubai (MBC). I am of Chinese ethnicity but born and bred in Singapore. I arrived in Dubai 2 years ago after working in Hong Kong for 4 years. I've been taking photographs since I was 12 years old and always known that this was what I wanted to do since I was 15. I was lucky to have parents who supported me all the way. I speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese (the language they speak in Hong Kong), some Arabic and a little bit of Persian (the kind a 4 year old speaks).
With all the bad press about Iran, what made you decide to visit?
Iran has always been on the top of my list. I've always wanted to come. My father is also a traveler (and a crazy one too! His stories would fill a book), and he was working in Azerbaijan, so he knows the region. I'm grateful to him to have cultivated an open mind and to be adventurous enough to travel on my own.
Foreigners are usually required to visit Iran with a tour group, so could you give us some logistical info? Did you go with a tour or friends? Where did you stay? How did you travel from city to city?
I'd always wanted to visit the countries around Dubai ever since I arrived here. Iran was on the top of my list, but it was only when I had the opportunity to come with a friend that I finally booked the ticket (less than 2 hours before the flight). I'm so glad to have done it though. Iranians are famous for their hospitality, but once you get there you will see that it's still an understatement. I was so well taken care of...I felt like a pet! My friends would ring up their other friends to take care of me in the next city, so I always had people making sure I was ok wherever I might be. It was also the first time I used couchsurfing not as a host but as a surfer, and it was a fantastic experience. I had such a good time with my hosts...his parents even offered to drive me all the way from Isfahan to Shiraz. When I got to Shiraz, I spent such a lovely time with my hosts' extended family (especially the little girl you see at the end of the video). I felt like a part of them, too.
I took buses between cities. They were very comfortable and cheap. I felt perfectly fine traveling alone.
IRAN IS MAGNIFICENT. I'VE NEVER FELT SAFER IN ANOTHER COUNTRY.
|"In a hidden corner of the Grand Bazaar in Tabriz, this carpet maker welcomed me and my friend in and said, "Come any time. This place is yours." Photo courtesy of ©Mandy Tay|
What cities did you visit? Which was your favorite and why?
I visited Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. Shiraz had the most beautiful sights, but I enjoyed Tabriz the most. It's not the most touristic city, but that's probably why I liked it best. There were so many pretty stories I could tell from there. My friend and I were looking to buy some water in the bazaar, and the shop we approached had Coca-Cola but not water. Before we could leave, the shop owners offered us both a cold drink of water from their own fridge. It was a very small gesture but absolutely spontaneous and so lovely.
Also in the bazaar, we saw a man helping an old guy to push a heavy cart. My friend saw it and told me that this is how it goes in the bazaar...people would rope in and help whenever someone needed assistance. After going through the tougher part of the slope, the man left the cart and after 1 minute, so did the old guy! Even the older man was helping...it wasn't even his cart!
The story that took the cake was the mullah we met outside the Friday mosque. I took a photo of him, and my friend started chatting with him, answering his curious questions about this Asian girl. Later I realised he was asking my friend if I would like to marry his son!
IRANIANS ARE FAMOUS FOR THEIR HOSPITALITY. I WAS SO WELL TAKEN CARE OF.
How was the food? Did you eat anything crazy like kaleh pacheh?
I loved the food! The moment I came back to Dubai, I immediately sought out an Iranian restaurant and ordered koubideh, kuku sabzi, and faloodeh so I could somehow "extend" my Iranian experience through food. I even took a friend from Hong Kong to try Persian food yesterday. Faloodeh is my absolute favorite. I had to have it at least once a day! In fact, I even tried to make it at home recently, and I failed miserable. So if anyone has any recipes, please send them forth! I don't usually like jams, but the rose jam was unbelievable. I tried looking for it but didn't have time to get it when I was there. Dafe bad! [Next time.]
You mentioned that going to Iran turned out to be the best trip of your life. Why?
Iran was the best trip of my life because of so many reasons. But mainly because I can't imagine not ever having been to Iran now. It was such an amazing place, and I met so many friendly people. I'd often find women with a surprised smile on their faces looking at me (I must have been quite obvious as the only Asian girl around for miles), and I would smile and say "Salaam" to which they would respond with shrieks of delight. This happened maybe 6 times a day! Even when I was in a friend's car, I would find women in the car next to ours looking excitedly and smiling at me, and we would wave. It was great. One even asked me, "Nihonjin deska?" (Are you Japanese?) in a restaurant as I was passing by her, and I replied, "Na, Sangapour!"
|"The parking attendant asked my friend where I was from, and he joked that I was from Africa. "Be careful," my friend said. "She understands every word we say!" Photo courtesy of ©Mandy Tay|
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Iran?
The biggest misconception about Iran is that there are a ton of terrorists here! My friends (especially the ones who worked in TV and film) offered to "Argo" me out when in fact I've never felt safer in another country. I reckon Iran is actually a lot safer than Europe since there are practically no tourists and hence, a much lower number of petty crime targeted at tourists. When Iranians saw me, they would usually ask my friends where I was from. My friends would tease them that I was from Africa and that I understood Persian! I did try to learn Persian though, and I am still learning (especially from your blog!). I whimpered "komak" [help] when my friend's car was being towed. It didn't help matters, but everyone had a good laugh. When I was in Iran, I knew enough Persian to at least break the ice with locals or to tell my friend's mother that my mom didn't know that I was in Iran! I didn't let her know because a mother will always be a mother (they would worry), and my mother is not a traveler like my father. I did this video partly to show her that her daughter was in Iran. It was a complete anti-climax. She didn't even know where was Iran was!
I JUST NEED AN EXCUSE TO GO BACK.
What was the thing that surprised you the most during your travels?
I was really surprised to find that there are a lot of similarities between Iranians and Chinese. For years my friends and I thought that only the Chinese knew what "heaty" and "cooling" foods were- we had tried to explain it to the Americans and Europeans to no avail. I was surprised to find that the Iranians were familiar with the same concept.
What was your best memory? Your worst?
There are so many amazing memories. I can't pick one! When I was in Isfahan, my friend took me to visit Chehel Sotun. We kept missing the opening hours, and it was the third time that we went, and it was closed again. When we headed back to the carpark, my friend saw his best friend. Neither of them were from Isfahan or knew that they were in the city. His best friend was leaving the very next day, which made this chance meeting all the more amazing. I told my friend later that this carpark surprise was way better than Chehel Sotun. You can see this encounter in the video.
Another time was when I leart afiat bashad [bless you] and was waiting for my friend to sneeze. When he finally did, I forgot how to say it and was kicking myself for missing the opportunity. It didn't last long though. He sneezed 10 minutes later, and the reaction to my afiat bashad was priceless.
Is there anything that you would recommend future travelers must do/see/eat/try/etc? Or any advice?
I'd recommend the same itinerary but on the reverse. Shiraz and Isfahan have more tourists, and it'd be nicer to head from south to north. I think it's always a better idea to travel from a place with higher tourist traffic to one that has less, no matter which country you're traveling to. And please have plenty of faloodeh and the Persian ice cream on my behalf. Koubideh rocks, too.
I'M STILL LEARNING PERSIAN FROM YOUR BLOG!
Favorite Persian word?
Tell us a little about the beautiful video you made.
I've been so overwhelmed with the responses to my video. I have had people messaging me and telling me how much it means to them. To be honest, what I have done is merely try to distill this amazing experience into 2 minutes as a small thank you to my friends in Iran and share it with the Iranians (especially those who are in exile and miss home) and the people who have misunderstood it for too long. Iran is a magnificent country, and everyday I am thankful to be one of the lucky ones who have experienced it.
Any plans to go back?
Of course. I would go back in a blink. I just need an excuse. I'm only 2 hours away by flight!
What a silly question. Just as she states at the end of the video, be zoodi barmigardam, I'll return soon.
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