Experiencing Iran in 2019

Michelle Retzlaff
Some uncommented video impressions

I’ve been working with psychedelics for about 1.5 years now. At first mostly out of curiosity, now mostly for personal development and introspection. My journey to Iran felt very much like a psychedelic trip in the first few days: an experience that you have no idea what to expect of until you do it for the first time. And then once it has begun, feels awe inspiring but also quite natural. And it turned out to be a very similar kind of work too: a work towards love and unity and crossing thresholds.

It all started with a “crazy” idea: I want to go to Iran some day because most people wouldn’t even consider visiting, a country that seems dangerous and is even featured in Tony Wheeler’s “Bad Lands”*. When I first heard about it, I also thought it’s basically impossible to visit as a woman unless accompanied by your father, brother, or husband. All this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I mentioned the idea to an equally travel (and psychedelics) lustrous friend, and she recommended the Yomadic Iran tours to me. I looked it up, was instantly excited about the description on the website, and booked for April 2019. That was in September 2018 — the tours sell out well in advance and there are only a handful every year.

In the months between booking and the start of the tour, I almost cancelled on multiple occasions — it still sounded risky, could potentially keep me from traveling to the US in the future, and seemed too much money spent on a short, potentially ego driven experience (to just check off another country from the list). But I did have an intuition about needing to go — about life-changing encounters waiting to happen.

Needless to say, I ended up going, and it turned out to be an incredibly exciting, fun, educative and — dare I say — transformational experience.

The Itinerary

The tour started in Tehran on a Sunday — we visited the Azadi tower and had a luxurious dinner at the best restaurant in the city. The following days, we visited the “bomb wall”, the former US embassy (now “Museum of Espionage”), Golestan palace, wandered the bazaar, took the metro, visited a shrine.

Aydenah mountain village

Heading south, we visited the Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom, considered the second most sacred place in Iran. We walked through Fin Garden and a former family residence, atop the rooftops of the bazar in Kashan, explored traditional (including naturally air conditioned) houses and a bath house in Kashan. We spent an afternoon in Aydenah, a 2500-year old village in the mountains.

In Esfahan, we watched the locals at the square while munching on falafel, visited two mosques and the palace, and had the luxury of watching the locals go crazy over the rare occasion of water in the river and under the bridges. We learned about Persian carpets and had a late-night dinner at a local fast-food outlet called “Kentucky” (it was as American as it sounds).

Esfahan square
Esfahan bridges and the locals hanging out at sunset

Next we headed to Meybod, Narin fortress (estimated to be about 2000 years old), and a traditional pigeon tower.

In Yazd, we enjoyed rooftop dinners, the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, and watched the traditional martial arts workout Zurkaneh — one of our group members even participated!

One night we spent in a traditional Caravanserai in the middle of the desert, surrounded by mountains and with a clear starry sky. We had lunch with a true nomad family and visited Persopolis (about 2500-year old ceremonial capital).

Arriving in Shiraz, we checked out cool and almost hipster coffee shops, hit the bazars and tea houses, visited the Nasir-ol-molk mosque, a military store (some Revolutionary Guard swag anyone?), another beautiful Persian garden, a local supermarket (because that’s a cultural experience!), and the tomb of the great poet Hafez.

Overall the tour was 12 days and ended in Shiraz in the south of Iran.

Kashan rooftops
Fars Gate in Shiraz

Safety

Iran is quite probably safer than your home country. People are generally friendly, helpful, and honest. They usually won’t even charge you more just because you’re a tourist. There is close to no violence or crime, and especially not against visitors. Iranians want to give you a wonderful experience and are extremely hospitable.

The most dangerous part of Iran is the city traffic. Tehran traffic is insane — 95% of cars are severely dented, they drive in six lanes where three are marked, and as a foreigner you’d be at a complete loss making a left turn or even just crossing the street as a pedestrian.

On a side note: Close to the start of our trip, the US government declared the Revolutionary Guard, the military of Iran, a terrorist organization. An estimated 11 million Iranians work for the RG — including airport security staff and the keepers of many state-owned museums. Imagine millions of your own fellow citizens being declared terrorists — for no good reason at all. Does that really say anything about the country?

The most dangerous thing I saw while I was in Iran? A few guys from our group played an impromptu soccer game with the local kids — and there was an excited little girl running around with a pair of scissors among them, the scissors pointing away from her. This was it — I’m not joking.

Not once did I feel unsafe or my belongings in danger of being stolen. I didn’t even feel ripped off or treated unfairly in any situation.

Abbasi Great Mosque in Esfahan
Imamzadeh Saleh Shrine in Tehran
Nate from Yomadic in Kashan

How to prepare for a trip to Iran

Now knowing the experience, here is what I’d recommend for preparation:

· Apply for a visa upfront but choose to pick it up in Tehran if possible (doesn’t apply to British/American/Canadian citizens) — you might not even get a sticker or stamp in your passport.

· Install a VPN before you arrive and stay updated as to what works in Iran (NordVPN worked perfectly in April 2019). Many sites are blocked by the government (Facebook, Twitter, news sites) or blocked by the companies that run them due to economic sanctions (AirBnB and others).

· Buy a mobile SIM card at the airport — 5 GB cost about 6 USD, the mobile internet is great (20 Mbit/s even with VPN). Wi-Fi is omnipresent, but often excruciatingly slow. You can buy as much data upfront as you like — topping up later is more difficult.

· Traveling to the US afterwards: If you are eligible for ESTA (the US visa-waiver program for many nationalities), it will be easy to get a B1/B2 visa after visiting Iran as a tourist — just state that as the reason and the embassy staff will likely approve the visa right away with an annoyed bureaucratic look on their face.

· Bring cash in Euros or US dollars. Other major currencies are harder to exchange. Don’t exchange too much money at once — 50€ can easily last you a few days if accommodation is paid for. I only spent about 200€ in the 2 weeks I was there, including many gifts (and a lot of saffron). Breakfast, lunch, transport, entry fees and hotels were paid for by the tour company though.

· Ladies: bring a headscarf and a long cardigan/blouse/shirt (must cover the butt and ¾ of the arms) in your carry-on. You’ll easily find more suitable clothing there and can learn from the locals on how to dress. Other than that, expect to be treated with the same respect (or more?) as in any Western country.

Death to kalle-pache ;)

Encounters

The most important preparation though: Open your heart and mind to the experience and the people of Iran — locals will regularly approach you and chat with you — to wish you welcome, learn about you and your trip so far. They almost never want to sell you and they will definitely not want to harm you. 99% are genuinely interested in you and welcome you as an open-minded tourist to their country. They are also aware of their image in the world and love you all the more for visiting.

On a bridge in Esfahan, I witnessed locals singing in call and response — in such a communal, social, respectful atmosphere (check out the video for this scene).

We also need to have a chat about Islam. From what I learned and observed, religious practice in Iran is about community, honesty, respect, and humility. The value of family and community certainly stands strong in Iran. And I think this plays a major part in why this economically challenged and politically isolated society holds up so well and practically radiates love and peacefulness.

Time for integration

After two weeks in Iran, my heart is full of love and my world view has shifted just a bit more. Iran taught me once more that reality is not what it seems and certainly not what we learn on the mainstream news. So what else is wrong that we take for granted? What else is just fear-instilling propaganda and societal stories? And are they really serving us?

While I loved experiencing the unique and masterful architecture and beautiful landscapes, the people and encounters have really blown me away. And as with psychedelic experiences, I feel that this Iran trip needs integration — a conscious effort to take the learnings and growth back into everyday life and make them last. For me this means to show up with just a bit more love and openness in my life from here onwards.

Returning to Europe, the reverse culture shock has been mild, but I do feel some anxiety about moving to the US for the summer. All of a sudden, it feels like a much more dangerous place.

Go while it’s secret

I highly recommend visiting Iran — and rather sooner than later. Tourism or the political and economic situation may change. If you are at all interested, go while you have the chance (and also while it’s so affordable).

I could also not imagine a better first experience than going with Yomadic — Nate, Phillipa, and Vahid have carefully crafted the tour while staying flexible, attract an amazing crowd of young and interesting travelers, and have so much love for the country that it turns into a spectacular, intense, fun experience. I also loved having their expertise to help understand the cultural nuances and I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere near this level of learning and understanding as an independent traveler.

I however will for sure return to explore more :)

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Michelle Retzlaff

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The journey of location independence, entrepreneurship, and creating my best work.

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