Living with the locals

Our ride to Yazd bus station arrived promptly. Iranians are very punctual, if not 5-10 mins early. We enjoyed the cool of the early morning once we’d found our bus. Passengers started to get grumpy when 9am came and we still hadn’t left (it was supposed to be an 8:30).

IMG_1233A young woman who was studying in Yazd had sat opposite us and we’d been chatting to her as she spoke good English, she’d made a deliberate beeline for that seat in a relatively empty bus so we knew she was keen to engage. She told us that the driver was saying it not his fault he couldn’t go, that there was some problem with the company that they couldn’t understand but it was something to do with accidents and the company being temporarily closed. The men on the bus headed off to the company’s office. At 9:30 the driver appeared with a handful of money and tickets and we were off.

The bus slowly heated up, helpfully a digital temperature display at the front of buses allows you to monitor the extent you are being roasted. When it reaches the high 20’s and there is no air circulating it stops being enjoyable. The journey took 4.5 hrs. When we got close to Esfahan, Farnoosh, the student Emma had been talking to leaned across and said that she would like to invite us to her house. We accepted and then she said she’d already phoned her mother and told her that we didn’t have a hotel reservation and that she had said we could stay. Iranian hospitality is legendary, so after the protests that that is too kind and her instance, we accepted. We stayed on the bus after the main terminal to another terminal where her brother, Joseph, picked us up.

IMG_1257There are certain practicalities that kick in when you’re stood in a strange family’s lounge. Including where is the bathroom, where are we sleeping and what next. We’d been ushered in with ‘you are home now just relax’. Of course we were on best behaviour, we left our headscarves on until told to take them off, we weren’t sure if for that purpose we were considered family or not. Both Joseph and her older sister spoke some English so that made it easier. Out came the tea. Most Iranian sugar you put in your mouth not in your tea, and different regions have different sugar (sugar sticks are best, or sugar on a string, both of these you swirl around in your tea). Esfahan’s regional sugar is like clear yellow discs that you put in your mouth. After tea came lunch. It was 3pm.

IMG_1297Eating Iranian food is something of a Russian roulette. It has some really strong flavours unlike any we’ve encountered before; many are something of an acquired taste. Lunch was laid out on the floor with the whole family. They seem to think we need feeding up as no sooner had we managed to clear our plates than more was being piled on. So if you’d had to force it down the first helping then you were out of luck. Marie had to refuse the fermented yoghurt drink, she was worried about what it might do to her insides.

They asked if we’d like to visit their aunt as she has an old house that she has been renovating so we could go and look around and it is close to Naqsh-e Johan Square, the main tourist attraction. We readily agreed. Joseph dropped us off. A laid back guy with a
wicked sense of humour he was also a good driver and he liked dance music which made Marie very happy.

We were welcomed to her aunt’s place and were showed the house. It reminded us of the historical houses in Kashan. Afterwards we took a seat in the courtyard and were given tea, date cake and fruit. Iranians constantly eat! The aunt’s friend rocked up, she had no English but you could tell she was a real character. Then the aunt’s son arrived and finally Farnoosh’s older sister. The son got the fire going, eventually….

IMG_1303The shisha pipe was brought out for us. Between a bit of Farsi from the phrasebook and the English our hosts had we had a pretty good conversation. They also discussed our desire to travel to Shiraz via the Zagros mountains. The consensus seems to be that we’re crazy in that we want to do things differently to most people (likely meaning why can’t we just take the bus down the highway like everyone else). People seemed to think that it was not possible but aunty liked climbing and she knew the route we wanted to take. A couple of phone calls ensued to another cousin that was into mountains and later that night the name of a guy that might be able to sort us out was sent through. Our basic map clearly shows a road but all the reference was to going off road. Which just made us want to be able to sort it out more.

IMG_1312We thoroughly enjoyed our couple of hours at auntie’s place. When we left we walked with our 2 hosts to Naqsh-e Johan Square. We walked around it in the dark and explored some of the bazaar under the arches, they bought us the local ice cream to try at 9:30pm at night. We bought our adoptive parents some expensive sweets for letting us intrude. When we were done Joseph came and collected us for the 20 min drive home. We got back to find that they had bought us a local dish for dinner – it had the texture of a bowl of mozeralla cheese, all stringy, but it tasted nothing like it. We were ready for our beds so ate slowly and protested that lunch was not long ago but they still kept plying us with. After dinner came ‘the where are we sleeping’ discussion, long story short the daughters share a room with bunk beds and the oldest one was adamant that she would sleep elsewhere so we should take her bottom bunk. Emma took the floor, Marie the bottom bunk and Farnoosh the top.

IMG_1315We found out that the sister had slept with their mother and dad had slept in the living room. So we felt bad for inconveniencing the family, but such is Iranian hospitality they wouldn’t have it any other way. Dad and Joseph left for work so breakfast was just with the women of the house. The 2 sisters were to be our self appointed tour guides for the day. After breakfast we protested that we would find a hotel for the night as we had imposed on them enough already. They wouldn’t have any of it they kept saying it was our home and that they wanted us to relax. We realised that if we pushed harder and insisted they would be offended that we didn’t want to stay with them. So we graciously accepted that we’d be with them until we left Esfahan.

We caught a local bus, they cost almost nothing but unless you can speak Farsi and know the routes you can’t use them, which means they are only used by locals. We got off to change buses but then the decision was made to take a taxi instead to our first destination; Si-o Seh bridge.

IMG_1221At 298m long with 40 arches it is an impressive site. It spans the Zayandeh river which is dry for 9-10 months of the year now, a visible sign of Iran’s water issues and an emotive subject for the locals. For the first time we saw religious police, they had based themselves at the end of the bridge. We walked its length and then walked back underneath examining the dry broken crust of the riverbed as we went.

We walked the streets to get back to Naqsh-e Johan Square so we could see it in daylight and visit the mosques. First up was Masjed-e Jameh mosque which contains 800 years of Islamic architecture and at 20,000 square metres is the largest mosque in Iran. Then we went onto Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah which has very precise design and tile work.

IMG_1215We were picked up by the father on his way back from work to head home for lunch, which we had at 3pm. The father is a gentle school teacher but put him behind a steering wheel and he is totally different! And he listens to Iranian dance music.

Mother had again made us Iranian dishes to try. We got word from the guy who was looking into organising us a driver for our mountain trip to Shiraz. He had come up with a couple of options which included exactly what we wanted to do; a day and a half’s journey over the 540km mountain route. Our fixer (Farnoosh) went back and forth clarifying details for us. We did some sums to check we could afford it and then locked it in. We’d leave at 8am the next morning. We needed to change some US dollars into Rials so that we could pay for it but before shops re-opened we had time to shower and get a bit more organised.

IMG_1340When the time came to leave the father said he’d take us rather than us taking a taxi. We’d looked up close money changer’s and with our 2 tour guides headed off into horrendous traffic to find it. It took a while but we were successful. With that done the father then took up to Sapeh park which is at the bottom of the mountains behind their house. It is well lit and a popular picnic spot with city views. We spent a good hour slowly wandering round it before we got picked up again for dinner. They had it early again for us, at 9:30. Before we went to bed they gave us a gift each of a framed local tile and said that they would miss us when we’re gone. Emma’s Farsi has certainly improved, as has their English.

Observations:

  • The pollution is bad is Esfahan, but not as bad as Tehran where it has now reached 3 times the safe limit and schools have been closed.
  • Lots of women made a beeline to talk to us in Esfahan. We think possibly because few tourists are not in tour groups and also being women they are more confident to approach.
  • Iranians like it hot. There is a dearth of aircon and they sit in coats when its 25C+.

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