Note:  Sally  Brew lives in the Bay Area.  She learned of our  trip when we gave a program in Palo Alto.  traveled to Iran a few years ago and found Iran to be a wonderful  country with amazing architecture, warm and friendly people.  These are email messages which she sent back to the USA during her trip.  They confirm our experience, and add some special insights as well.  SN

Iran 1: Took flight yesterday from Venice, arriving in Iran at 1:20 am. Nothing happened unusual. Took time to go through customs because of long lines. No one looked at my pack. I was met by Wilderness Travel person and taken to hotel. Today we went to a carpet museum and the Crown Jewel museum…real national treasures. Tehran is not a beautiful city (expected that)..smoggy, crazy, motor cycles weave in and out..pedestrians try to get across through traffic. Our guide led us through..much horn honking..not sure why crashes don't occur.

Nothing military is evident..police don't seem to have guns...saw more guns in Venice airport then here. People smile at us and are interested that we are Americans..seem very friendly. Went by former American embassy where there are signs about the Satin (USA).One sign shows the American flag with bombs coming from it. These signs have been here a long time and I don’t think anyone pays any attention to them. I assure you all that this city seems no different than some other cities I have been in..busy, but nothing at all scarey. > Iran 2: We're now in Kerman..flew today from Tehran. Spent last 2 days driving back and forth to Caspian Sea. We got in very heavy traffic coming back so the entire day was about 14 hrs. of driving!!! Thurs. and Friday are the Iranian's weekend so we were in weekend traffic. Traffic police are very evident to control the wild driving, but there are simply too many cars!!

Two interesting comments about our drive: our bus driver had to check in on the highway and was given a disc to measure his speed. He could only go 40 miles/hr. for part of the time. The disc was turned in later on the highway and checked to see how fast he had gone from point A to way to try to control the traffic. We made another stop and our leader went in with the bus driver. We asked what that was all about and he was at first reluctant to tell us. Turns out that our group has a code number registered with the police to protect us. They know where we are going, which hotels, our route..and who our guide is. If something goes amiss they will know where we should be. They don't want anything to happen to tourists in Iran. I think they need the tourist business. They track all tourists with guides to PROTECT that should be a relief to all of you.

Today we went to a bazaar (colorful and busy) and saw some mosques that were very old. This city is on the edge of a desert, but not unbearably hot. Surrounded by brown mountains..quite beautiful. We have been in quite elegant, very western hotels. I am becoming quite used to seeing the women in their black clothes and head scarves. The young tend to let scarves go back on their heads. I think the younger generation is clearly changing some of the women's clothing. The people continue to be friendly. I guess we do look like tourists and those who can speak English ask where are from. They obviously really like to hear we are from America. They like Americans..and in our short conversations we all agree that our governments create the tensions between our countries. We certainly have many misconceptions about Iran..really no signs of soldiers or police with guns.

Some of their traditions remain which indeed seem silly. We had to enter the airport through the women's door, yet when we boarded the plane men and women go through the same door. Women ride in the back of public busses, but in taxis men and women sit together..and so it goes. It is very obvious that Iran is a very SAFE and interesting place to travel. Its history is a very important part of world history.

Iran #3:  We are now in Shirez. Tomorrow we go to Persepolis which was built in 500BC at the beginning of the vast Persian Empire.  Once again I find how ignorant I am about the Middle East and the Persian Empire which dominated the world for so many centuries. Today we saw the tomb of Cyrus the Great. At Persepolis we will see the palaces and vast area that Darius, leader after Cyrus died, built which was destroyed by Alexander the Great about 300 BC. (How real that history seems today although it all took place thousands of years ago!!) The last few days we have been in Yazd where the Zoroastrians dominated for many years. We saw the towers where they would place their dead to be eaten by vultures and the fire that they have kept going for 700 years.

We stopped in to visit a family in Yazd. Typical of many homes, they have no furniture but sit on rugs and pillows on the floor. The only furniture was a stand with a TV on it. The room was quite large and faced out on a air. Other rooms were built around the court. We saw wind tunnels in Yazd through which cool air comes down into the houses, but now being replaced by air conditioners

Houses, including newer apartments, are plain, built with brick which is covered by brown mud (or something the same color of mud) Thus villages are very interesting..all one color of light brown..simple rectangular shapes and small domes.(I assume this type of architecture is common in the deserts of the Middle East). We visited a water museum which showed us how the water is brought into the cities through wells (in place for centuries) and long canals.  Since we are in desert towns water is very vital. However there are gardens and greenery so the water systems seem to work.. Today we saw a mosque built in the 1300's with the tile decorating it in front still beautiful and fresh.

Young people continue to stop to talk to us. They are very eager to try their English. Most are university students. They eagerly ask us why we have come to Iran and do we like Iran. They all would very much like to come to America, but that is impossible. They like Americans...and we all agree that the problems lie with our governments. They have such a conservative government (controlled by the mullahs), so there simply isn't the freedom that we enjoy. The mullahs are concerned about Westernization taking over again as during the time of the Shah.  However with over 70 % of the population under 30 the government is going to have increasing difficulty appeasing the young.. Jobs are hard to come by and then there are the Islamic laws (which are the government laws) such as head covering and boys and girls can't talk to each other on the street..only in homes. Newspaper information is restricted to the conservative line. However many of the young women wear their scarves with much hair showing and their tunics or coats are getting shorter and actually some are quite tight. They wear jeans under their short coats and tennis shoes. Also the young have access to the Internet and Western movies (shown in their homes). The young people we talk to have no trouble criticizing their government.

To me, it is very clear that I must help to change attitudes towards Iran. Really not sure from where we've gotten all the negative ideas we have. I am as safe here as any place in my travels.  People smile at us..and say "hello"  A few other American tourists are here as well as German, French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch tourists. The only police I see are traffic police.  They do stop our bus to check our speed and to make sure we are tourists as they have in their make sure we are safe!!! The biggest danger is the traffic..really wild!!

Iran 4:  Now I am in Isfahan Indeed this is an incredible city with so much history. Magnificent mosques, palaces. and a grand square built by kings and rulers beginning in the 1500’s. Today we went to Armenian Church. Strangely refreshing to see vivid paintings, such as Jesus on the cross and other Biblical scenes, after seeing so many mosques decorated with blue tiles, geometric designs, and Arabic calligraphy. The history of the Armenians in Iran is another story of the tolerance of the Iranians over the years for other religions (but maybe less true today).

We camped for 3 days in the Zagros Mts..not green at all...all a desert environment. The amazing thing about this part of the world (which probably includes most of the Middle East) the landscape is so barren, but over the centuries the Iranians have figured out how to irrigate in the desert so the towns have gardens and greenery...often called Paradise Gardens. In the mountains we met nomads who were packing up to move to villages for winter. They make their livelihood by tending sheep and making rugs. They do migrate as nomads do. They were very hospitable to us and invited us into their tents and offered us tea. Always amazing to me to see people living off the land (such as I saw in Mongolia) One reason that they return to villages now is that the children attend the government sponsored schools.

Last night as I sat in the Isfahan Square two young women stopped and asked if they could talk with me. They are English majors at the university. They wanted to practice their English and ask some questions about America. We had a delightful time discussing their government (they don't like but little can be done about that), some politics (not interesting to them), scarves (they don't like, but it is the law), the freedom young people have in America (they are 22 and still living with parents) a rising drug problem with young men (there is no entertainment for young people in Iran), seeing boys (they go hiking in the mountains to get away from the morals police and to meet boys…also talk to boys at the University.) They were so wistful about the freedom young people have in America. I doubt that they ever have had a date. Their parents really control their lives until they get married. Marriages are still largely arranged in Iran

Some thoughts on my first day back from 17 days in Iran…

The airport experience both arriving in Iran and returning today… absolutely  no hassle…on leaving had to go through women’s side in security..but then walked out the next door with men to plane. As I got on the plane, of course, I saw immediately that the stewardesses had no head scarves..and I could see their hair.  Upon settling down, most all the women on the plane took off their scarves.  Somewhat sadly I removed my scarf and long cover-up shirt…I was now like the rest of the world.  The experience of seeing women covered in chadors..creating seas of black was time in the Islamic world was over. When I got off the plane in Munich, obviously I saw women in a variety of fashions..tight jeans and shirts, variety of hair styles…for a moment I  felt somewhat overwhelmed and a small longing for the simplicity of the Islamic world where women all appear the same in their black clothes and chadors.

Of course Iran has been in the news over the nuclear issue. Since most of the people we talked to really didn’t want to discuss government and politics I never really discussed their feelings on the issue.  I did read the English version  of the Iran Daily in which references are made to US and European bullying…and President Ahmadinejad condemning foreign powers which keep the Iranian nation from gaining technological know-how which creates scientific apartheid. Historically I can somewhat understand why Iran is playing the nuclear game.  Since about 500 BC, Persians have been proud of their country. Persia has survived invasions and destruction from forces such as the Mongols, Timberline, Ottomans, Arabs, the British and the Russians.  Through a delicate balance between kings and religious mullahs Persia has survived.  Naturally they want to be a great power again to be taken seriously. The nuclear game gives them a means to get the world’s attention. I only hope that Iran and the rest of the world can come to a negotiated solution to this problem.. We drove by the nuclear facility yesterday…inconspicuous buildings naturally surrounded by barb wire, anti-aircraft guns and watch towers (which I think were not manned.)

Other bits and pieces from the Iran News.. “new wave of extensive air raids of Zionist regime against innocent Palestinian people” President Ahmadinejad stressed importance of preserving the current culture of sacred defense, saying this will be the strongest cultural and spiritual asset of the country in its bid for greatness..” I think newspapers are only pro-government so the readers are inundated with words about the great Satin and the Zionists. Enough about politics for now..

Other sights…little girls coming out of school with school uniforms of manteaus which are long..and in pink, blue, or gray.. wearing white or yellow scarves..actually they look like miniature nuns, but not in black. One of our group, who looks somewhat like an Iranian, was stopped in Isfahan by the morals police because her bangs were showing.  Unfortunately with the new conservative government the morals police may start cracking down on scarves too far back on one,s head which is blatantly done now. Cheryl said three men in police uniforms and three women in chadors approached her,.but they were polite. I think we would see more women in shorter and non-black coats/tops (with jeans underneath) on the streets, but women who work in gov’t, banks, hotels, and other businesses must wear all well as university students in classes..I don’t think the government will allow changes in clothing in the near future…too much a part of the culture, as well as their religious beliefs. However we know that when the women are in their homes, they wear all sorts of modern and colorful clothing. So the black is just when women are out in public.

Obviously on the trip we saw mosques, palaces, paradise gardens, and monuments.  The mosques, especially in Isfahan, are magnificent with endless geometric designs on the blue (generally) tiles, swirls of flowing Arabic calligraphy as part of the designs (messages from the Koran) spectacular high domes somehow held up by careful mathematical calculations, and soaring minarets. The palaces from the 18th century in Isfahan demonstrated architecture well suited to a hot climate. Open court is in the middle with a pool of water, rooms built around the  center with open arches room leading to next with no corridors, domes, gardens on the outside,  silver pieces decorating walls and domes which give a sense of coolness, latticed windows that let breezes in but sun out. Water flows in the gardens along the walks…all lovely and very different from the dark, closed palaces in Europe.  Houses that people live in now, are plain on the outside in monochromatic beige  (as are the palaces) but beauty is inside with vivid green, red,  beautifully designed carpets and pillows. (Never did find out how many houses actually used furniture vs sitting on the floor to eat and conduct daily life.)

Another observation is that people set up tents along the roads and in parks for outings. They spread carpets out, put the food on the carpet  and gather around eating. The parks can be full of families sitting on their carpets eating and enjoying being outside. The negative of this is that debris is everywhere in the parks..plastic bottles and paper,..quite unattractive. Iran is a family oriented society so this is a common means for a family to do an outing.

I forgot to write about our experience of going to a nomad wedding. We  camped in the Zagros  hopes we would see well as to enjoy the mountains. Indeed we came upon a nomad wedding which we joined.. They welcomed us to join them and immediately offered us an orange drink. The wedding goes on all day. When we arrived young men were dancing in a circle. The men, waving an handkerchief in each hand, danced rhythmically to the music of a horn and a drum. The women had colorful skirts and scarves (reminding me of gypsies)… typical of the nomads. Nice to see women not wearing the black chador.  The women also joined in the dance. The music seemed repetitive, but the dancers were totally engrossed.  Children gathered around us to have their pictures taken. They delight in seeing the digital images. We only stayed for several hours and never saw the bride or groom who  will arrive later in the day..Obviously this was an event for the whole village.

The nomads in the Zagros mts are sheepherders. Near our camping spot we met several families. They were in the process of moving over the mts. to a settled village because of the cold of winter and the children needed to be in school. Cars transport them. We met one dignified couple at their tent. They delighted in posing for us. He insisted on holding his long rifle used for hunting.  Obviously their belongings are meager. The floor of the tents are carpets. Two handsome sons were there in neat western type shirts and pants. Their parents had the traditional nomadic clothes..the father had a vest that had a pattern like piano keys on the back…and bloomer type trousers.  After our picture taking, one of the sons pulled out his cell phone and took a picture of us!!! The life of the nomads will surely come soon to an end. Grazing land is harder to find. The government generally has urged them to settle, but that brings up the old issue of herdsmen and farmers dispute over property.  We were invited by several other families into their tents..The women dressed up one of the women of our group in wedding clothes, much to the merriment of all..a very nice experience.

Another fun experience occurred during one of last days when I was walking in a garden.  A group of men dressed in business suits went by and then somewhat agitated one said something to me.  The others were listening intently. I finally figured out that he was saying American..Do we like them? I assured the anxious group that we did indeed like the Iranian people..and they said they liked us..just problem with politics..With some relief the group went happily  on their way. Another personal encounter was at our hotel.  A man, who appeared to be a lower level staff came up to me and said “Katrina! Katrina.  With a sad face he brushed his cheek and said “black”.. Katrina’s pictures have clearly had a huge impact around the world. Also one realizes that around the world we all share the same information about tragedies.

On my own I went via taxi to see the martyrs’ cemetery in Isfahan. I had read of these very large cemeteries where the dead of the Iraq- Iran war are buried to honor them as martyrs. As many as one million Iranian men died in that war. The cemetery has rows of graves with the picture of the young man who died…and Khomeini’s picture is scattered among the graves. Posters of the martyrs with backgrounds of flowers or guns are on the streets in all the towns along with the omnipresent posters of the scowling   Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, kindly looking, bespectacled Ayatollah Khameini (who is currently the religious leader). In fact the posters of the two Ayatollahs are everywhere, hotels, banks, businesses, etc.

Our guide had fought on the front line in the Iran-Iraq for 6 years. Another one of our guides had fought 3 years in Afghanistan against the Russians and 3 years against the Iraqis. (Made me think of the lovely chapel and statue I had seen in Kiev put up my the Russian mothers who had lost their sons in Afghanistan. Makes wars seem so senseless!!) Because of the Iran Iraq war (which Saddam started) the Iranians have no love for the Iraqis. We did the dirty work for them in getting rid of Saddam. The Iranians are Shite and Saddam and his group Sunnis.  Also Iran is Persian and all the other Muslim countries around them are Arabs..another reason why Iran sometimes stands alone in Middle Eastern politics.  They have proudly defended themselves successfully against the Arab invasions over the centuries.

The landscape we drove through on our long bus drives was desert surrounded by rocky, craggy mountains. Surprisingly in this desert environment, the irrigation ditches put in hundreds of years ago, provide water for verdant villages and many gardens. In the hot endless desert landscape one sees vivid green farmlands growing rice and corn. In the city open ducts with flowing water go along the sidewalks  which does provide some coolness.

We were told that an Iranian woman who had been one of two Muslim women who had summated Everest this summer would be with us at the camp.  I was very anxious to have the opportunity to talk to her about her experience as well as about her being a woman in Iran. However we never met her because she was involved in the fourth Islamic Games for Women being held in Tehran.  When we arrived in our hotel on our last night we found the lobby full of teams competing in the games.  Forty young women from about 30 countries competed in the games which consisted of events such as running, tennis, basketball, and ping pong. I saw teams from Iraq,  Kyrghistan, Russia, Afghanistan, and Azerbajan. They wore warm ups, but all had a scarf on their head. One can only imagine how difficult it must be for these young women to practice their sport in their country. Neverless they were typical of any young female athletes, full of spirit and having fun.

Driving in Iran is quite exciting. The cars and motor cycles weave in and out missing each other by inches. Often on the motorcycles are children, friends, women. If one is in the right lane and wants to turn off on a street to the left, you simply cut across all the lanes of traffic and trust they will stop to let you through. When a car from a side road wants to come into the traffic, they just simply cut in.  In heavy traffic four lanes turn into six lanes, or two lanes into four.  One just squeezes in between the cars. If you miss your exit, no problem, you just back up on the highway to make the turn. Our bus would make a u-turn in the middle of the traffic and naturally created a long line of cars as we made the turn. Horns are used to let drivers know you are coming by so they better move over. Pedestrians also weave in and out of the traffic hoping the drivers will stop. We actually just saw only a few fender benders so I think they have their own unwritten rules for driving. However traffic police are very prevalent. handing out tickets for some reason.

I went to Iran for a number of reasons all of which I feel were satisfied. Indeed I learned more about Islam..and I saw a Middle Eastern country. I wanted to see what it felt like to be told to be completely covered and to wear a scarf (which I did accept)  and to observe the women.  Also I hoped in a very small way to be an ambassador for America. Groups of Germans, English, Dutch, Japanese, French are traveling to Iran, but so far few American groups I wanted to see if Iran was really an axis of evil. The only police we saw were traffic police. To my delight, I found the people welcoming, hospitable, friendly and smiling at us. So many times when I sat down on a bench or wall, young men or women would come up to ask about our country. As we walked through the bazaars, we would hear “Hello! Hello! How are you!” Again and again I heard how the Iranians loved Americans and welcomed us to their country. (At the end I felt very special. No where else in the world could I sit down and have friendly people eagerly come up to talk to me!!) The Iranians have pride in their country and I think they are sad that Americans are not coming. In a small way perhaps our being in Iran helped to show we are all simply people. As I left, I felt that I was leaving a friend who had taken us in for 17 days to share the beauty, culture, and heritage of their country which at one time was the great Persian Empire.