The Amazing Hospitality of the Iranian People

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I had heard Iranians would be hospitable. Every account I read online by travelers who had been to Iran raved about their warmth and humility. My guidebook spoke glowingly of their generosity and advised that I pack a suitcase of gifts to repay their acts of kindness. Still, I could have never imagined just how magnificently hospitable they would be.

During our two-week trip, Jorge and I visited four major cities– Tehran, Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan—and a sprinkling of smaller towns and villages. In nearly every place we visited, we would meet at least one Iranian, by chance– on the street, at a gas station, on a plane—who after a brief conversation, would insist on taking charge of us during our entire stay in that city, no matter the inconvenience.

The Iranians we met would treat us to lunch at their favorite restaurants. They would usher us through the labyrinth of dank corridors at their local bazaars and bargain hard for us when we spotted an item we liked. They would invite us to their homes to meet their families, shower us with candies and compliments, and beseech us to spend the night. Twice our hosts missed work on our behalf. Many others dropped their plans– from one moment to the next—to wander with us around their cities. And no Iranian we met—no matter his age or background– ever let us pay for anything.

Here are the stories of a few of the Iranians we met:

Ali and Najme

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Before I even met Ali, I was bowled over by his hospitality. A mutual friend introduced us over Facebook. We had hoped Ali, who lived in Tehran, might offer some advice for our upcoming trip to Iran. Instead, without the slightest hesitation, he insisted that we stay with him for as many nights as we liked in the Tehran apartment he shares with his wife, Najme.

When Ali detected a conflict with this plan—he and Najme would be returning from a two-week road trip the same evening we were scheduled to land in Tehran– he convinced an ex-coworker of Najme’s to host us in her home for that night instead. Then, in a last-minute, unexpected turn of events, we were bumped from our flight to Tehran and switched to another that would arrive 12 hours later, at just past 2:00 in the morning.

Not wishing to disturb anyone at that hour, especially on a weeknight, we resolved to stay in a hotel for our first night. But Ali would not hear of it. When I called to inform him about the delay, only hours before we were scheduled to land in Tehran, he was adamant that we not stay in a hotel and instead take a taxi from the airport straight to his apartment.   He and Najme would be returning from their road trip that same evening at midnight—perfect timing to receive us in their home in the early morning hours.

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Sheepishly, we arrived at Ali’s doorstep at 4:00 a.m. and were greeted by Ali himself, a tall, grinning man in silk pajamas who hauled our luggage to the spare room in his apartment. The next morning, I awoke to muffled voices and the shuffling of feet outside of our bedroom door. I looked at my watch and saw it was already 10:30 a.m. Startled by the late hour and certain that our hosts should probably be at work, I sprung from my cot.

In the kitchen, I discovered Ali and Najme busily preparing our breakfast—an aromatic spread of fresh flatbread, tomatoes, cucumbers, salty cheeses, sesame paste and date syrup and pistachio, rose and quince jams. In a corner, a gleaming stovetop samovar piped cheerily as it brewed our tea.

I thanked my hosts profusely for their kindness and then asked with alarm, “Don’t you have to go to work?”

They smiled graciously and brushed aside my question. “It’s nothing if we miss work for a day.”

Rather than go to work, Ali and Najme devoted the remainder of that day to meeting our every need– helping us locate a store that would sell us a SIM card for our cell phone (and then refusing to let us pay for it), feeding us a savory lamb stew and slew of sweets from their road trip to southern Iran, lending me clothing that would conform to the Islamic dress code, and answering my many questions about life in Iran.  It made no difference to them that we had never met before or that– until the previous day– they had not known we would be staying with them.

We parted ways later that day at the airport counter for our flight to Shiraz, teary-eyed and sentimental to be leaving our new friends so soon. Upon our return to Tehran, at the end of our trip, we spent three more wonderful days with Ali and Najme—this time, exploring their favorite haunts in Tehran, sampling the infinite delicacies that can be made from a pomegranate, meeting Najme’s family— and continued to be astonished by their boundless generosity.

Amin

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On our flight to Shiraz, we met Amin, a timid stranger in a rumpled suit, who glanced at us furtively from the window seat next to Jorge, before summoning the courage to speak to us. “Excuse me,” he ventured. “Do you have a place to stay in Shiraz?”

Jorge and I looked at each other with amusement. On our previous flight, from Istanbul to Tehran, our seatmate, Robby, had made the same inquiry, and then tried to persuade us to stay in his spacious Tehran apartment, rather than with Ali and Najme.

However, Amin had a different plan in mind. Once he heard we had already booked a hotel, he did not press the matter any further. Rather, he gently interrogated us about what we would like to see and do while we were in Shiraz, and then announced:

“Tomorrow, I will pick you up from your hotel and treat you to lunch at my favorite restaurant. Then, I will take you on a tour of the city.” Beaming, he handed me his card for his wallpaper business and instructed us to call him as soon as we had returned from our morning tour of Persepolis.

“That’s so kind of you, but don’t you have to go to work?” I asked, startled by the proposal.

“It’s no problem if I miss one day,” he said, reassuringly.

For the next two days, Amin dropped all of his obligations. Each morning, he picked us up from our hotel in a large silver SUV and drove us all over Shiraz, unveiling its palaces, gardens and the tombs of its great poets. As promised, he treated us to lunch at his favorite restaurant, a dark, cavernous establishment where we lounged on cushions on a raised platform layered with luxurious rugs. Amin ordered every typical Shirazi dish on the menu— slow-cooked lamb, tender eggplant smeared with tomatoes and lentils, buttery rice with a crispy golden crust— and then refused to touch any of it, insisting instead that we eat it all ourselves.

When he came down with a severe migraine headache, he left us only temporarily, placing us in the care of his niece, Mahsa, a tourism student with excellent English. Later that night, Amin called to report he was feeling better and available to show us Shiraz’s monuments at night, if we would like. No matter that it was already well past 10:00 p.m. and that he planned to rise early the next day to show us more sites.

During our final morning, Amin introduced us to the city’s ancient bazaar, a labyrinth of passageways and caravanserais brimming with spices, jewelry and rugs. In a courtyard rimmed by jewelry stalls, I spotted a bracelet I adored—a thick silver band embedded with red and turquoise stones. Amin, sensing my interest, asked for the price and then argued ferociously with the jewelry seller until he had agreed to lower it by half. Today, that bracelet is my favorite souvenir from Iran. Every time I see it, I think with gratitude of Amin and all that he did for us.

Mahla

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We met Mahla at twilight at a lone desert gas station, the midpoint on our bus journey from Shiraz to the oasis city of Yazd. As Jorge and I descended from the bus groggily in search of food, I scanned the crowd for someone who might speak English. Among the chador-clad mothers and grandmothers who hobbled off the bus, their husbands and children hanging closely by their sides, I spotted an elegant young woman, impeccably dressed in a formfitting manteau with flower trim and matching blue headscarf.

“Excuse me,” I called, rushing towards her. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” she said, turning to me with an attentive smile.

“Ah, great,” I continued, relieved. “My husband and I are going to buy food, but we are worried the bus might leave without us. Did the driver say how long we would be here for?”

She looked at me quizzically, having understood the first part, but not the second. “You want to eat? The food here is not good. I will go with you.”

Grateful for her assistance, even if she had not answered my question, I asked for her name.

“Mahla.”

Mahla led us to an empty diner to the right of the convenience store, where two men looking bored out of their minds stared vacantly at a TV screen. In a firm but polite tone, she informed them that we wished to order. Startled, they handed her a menu, which she scrutinized with a pained expression until she had selected a kebab dish that she deemed to be acceptable. As we waited for our food, Mahla told us she was a law student at Shiraz University on her way to Yazd to surprise her mother for Mother’s Day. She gave us her phone number and promised to take care of us during our visit to Yazd.

Though Mahla was only 21—over a decade younger than us– she exhibited an air of composure beyond her years. Upon our arrival in Yazd, she located a taxi for us and bargained skillfully with the driver until he agreed to lower his rate.   The following day, she whisked us to a large, airy restaurant trickling with fountains, ordered for all of us and then discretely paid the bill, despite our efforts to persuade her to allow us to treat her instead. Later, she accompanied us to the best shops for buying Yazd’s famed sweets and termehs (silky, intricately embroidered fabrics used as table runners and cushion covers), counseling us at every turn with her expert judgment.

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That evening, we met Mahla’s family, after Mahla’s mother—delighted to hear of us—invited us to their apartment in a squat three-story building near the city center. We were greeted effusively by Mahla’s parents and two brothers, especially her mother, a tiny, jovial woman, who hugged and kissed me excitedly before ushering us to a spacious living room, richly decorated with wall-to-wall Persian carpets and ornate cushions. There, we were treated to endless rounds of sweets, fruit, nuts and tea, while we chatted and laughed and took selfies together.

We closed the evening with a midnight dinner served on a lustrous red cloth on the carpet and, when it was time for us to leave, Mahla’s mother begged us to spend us the night.  Touched by yet another remarkable gesture of generosity, we declined regretfully, but promised to return some day.  We left their home amazed once again by the extraordinary hospitality of the Iranian people.

Ehsan

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We met Ehsan unexpectedly, amidst the crumbling mud brick fortresses and wind towers of the ancient desert city of Nain. We had been searching aimlessly for a rooftop from which to appreciate Nain’s domed mosques, which loomed all around yet were invisible within the maze of arcaded corridors and connecting courtyards that comprised the city’s street level. I had hoped a local might guide us to such a rooftop, but the chador-wrapped women and brooding men I passed on the street shook their heads apologetically when I approached to ask if they spoke English.

Crossing an empty courtyard, we noticed a white car swoop into a parking spot only a few feet from where we stood. A clean-cut man with curly hair and a crisply ironed shirt emerged quickly. He was about to hurry towards one of the nearby alleys, when he suddenly turned and flashed us a radiant smile. I smiled back. Seizing the opportunity, I asked in English whether he knew of a rooftop from which I could photograph the city.

“Hmmmm,” he said slowly, pondering my question. “No, I don’t.” Then, he paused. “Do you have a leader?”

We shook our heads, indicating we did not. “Leader,” as we had learned from other Iranians, meant “tour guide.”

He hesitated, glancing uncertainly in the direction of the alley where he had originally been headed. Then– apparently resolving that his errand could wait— he turned towards us brightly.

“Come with me,” he said. “I will take you on a tour.”

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And, with that, we climbed into the white car and our new friend—Ehsan—drove us all over Nain and the surrounding villages, introducing us to its many castles and mosques and even to a cave to meet a famous rug-maker.  At dusk, Ehsan excused himself temporarily to pick up his wife and two year-old daughter and then returned for us, taking us to the family’s garden house, where they grew pomegranates and raised goats.

If he was supposed to be elsewhere, he never admitted it.  Like so many of the Iranians we met, Ehsan had brushed aside his own plans, from one moment to the next, to show us his city and yet never made us feel we had caused him any inconvenience.  For that, and for all of their generous acts, we will be forever grateful– and in awe– of our Iranian friends.  Iranians are without a doubt the kindest and most hospitable people I have ever met.

Iran: Police State?

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I never thought that Iran would be dangerous in the way others assume it to be. That is, I knew that, unlike other countries in the Middle East, it is plagued neither by civil war, sectarian violence nor terrorism.   However, I did imagine it to be a police state where any slight misstep could have drastic consequences.

I had read about Iran’s dreaded morality police. I pictured them stalking the streets, ready to pounce any woman revealing too much skin or couple holding hands. In a country that forbids so many mundane acts—from using Facebook to touching someone of the opposite sex—I feared I might unintentionally break a law and incite the ire of the authorities. Only I—a dual citizen of the U.S. and Uruguay traveling on a Uruguayan passport—would likely wind up, like the American hikersin prison on charges of espionage.

To protect myself, I resolved to be as vigilant as possible. I had a seamstress make me several loose tunic-style shirts—known in Iran as manteaus—that would comply with the Islamic dress code. I rehearsed wearing a headscarf so that it covered every wisp of hair and inch of skin below my chin. I warned friends I would not be using Facebook or updating my blog during my trip so as not to access any websites blocked by the government. I promised myself I would refuse any illegal beverages and dodge any questions about my political views.

I also decided it would be prudent not to advertise my U.S. citizenship, especially while traveling on a different passport. When I contacted Iranians through the website Couchsurfing, as a way to meet people once I arrived, I made only indirect references to my nationality, saying I lived in Colombia, but had grown up in the U.S. One Couchsurfer, ecstatic to hear I had any link to the U.S., begged me to bring him an American flag in my suitcase. Horrified, I shunned his request and worried he might be a spy for the Iranian government.

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Reality set in once I arrived in Tehran. As I walked off the plane with my headscarf snugly wound around my hair, I caught sight of the snaking line of foreign tourists at the first immigration checkpoint. Nausea overcame me as I pictured the interrogation to which I might soon be subjected.

Trembling, I joined the line and watched with surprise as each foreigner passed mechanically through without any unusual questioning. When it was my turn, the immigration officer, jaded and sweaty, only looked up at me for a moment, apparently amused to discover a passport he had never before seen. He chuckled to himself and let me pass.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Only then did I become aware of the Iranian women gliding through the second immigration line. A few hobbled by in full-body black chadors secured by a wad of fabric between their teeth. However, many others flaunted bright-colored manteaus with tight sashes and headscarves that hovered airily around their necks, exposing lustrous locks of hair. Their faces glistened from thick layers of makeup, their feet adorned with outlandishly stylish shoes. These women exuded confidence. If their outfits violated the dress code, they did not seem to notice or care.

Their complete tranquility bewildered me. Shouldn’t they be terrified of breaking the law?

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Once in Tehran, I broached the topic of illegal activity with my Iranian hosts, a married couple introduced to me over Facebook by a Colombian friend. How is it, I asked them, that they have Facebook accounts? Isn’t Facebook illegal in Iran?

The husband laughed. “Everyone in Iran is on Facebook. Even the Supreme Leader!”

Now I was really confused. “Aren’t they afraid of getting caught?”

“No, of course not!”

When I asked his wife to preview the manteaus I had brought with me—each several sizes larger than necessary to ensure they would be wide enough to conform to the dress code—she laughed at me too.

“These are too conservative!” she cried out. “Why didn’t you bring something tighter and more fashionable?” I blushed, recalling the women at the airport.

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As the days passed, it became increasingly apparent to me that the rules I had been so concerned about obeying were regularly flouted by Iranians.

Despite the prohibition on satellite television, nearly every home we visited during our two-week stay streamed in foreign television channels via an illegal satellite. The preferred channel among the families we met was a Persian-language version of MTV broadcast from Los Angeles. Our hosts— among them timid chador-wearing mothers and grandmothers— seemed unfazed by the wild dancing and glittery halter-tops of the women on the screen.

Our home visits also revealed another common form of illegal activity: drinking alcohol. Many Iranians were eager to share with us the wine or arak they had prepared in their basements or procured from a smuggler. When I questioned them about the risks of consuming alcohol, they shrugged. Sure, sometimes people get arrested for it. But, then, the next day, they are let go. It’s not a big deal.  I thought back to my college days, when most of my friends under 21 drank without fear of arrest and wondered whether perhaps it was not so different.

Then there were the dozens of Iranians we met with I-Phones. While the Iranian government does not prohibit Apple products, U.S. sanctions forbid their importation into Iran. And yet, often, it seemed that, everywhere I looked, there was an Iranian texting or talking on his I-Phone or photographing with an I-Pad. Most had the latest models and ridiculed me for my outdated phone.

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Contrary to what I had imagined, I noticed no secret police lurking in the shadows scrutinizing my every move and saw no one get arrested. I was never questioned or even asked for identification by a police officer. The only time a police officer did approach me he asked if I felt safe and then walked away.

Still, I kept my promise to be as cautious as possible. I tried not to advertise my ties to the Great Satan, as the Iranian government calls the U.S., and, when politics came up in conversation, I would hold my tongue, despite my intense curiosity to ask Iranians what they thought about the political situation.

It was not until the end of our trip that I summoned the courage to ask some new friends the questions I had most wanted to know.

“Is it ok to talk about politics? Is it very sensitive?”

“Of course!” one replied. “Everyone talks about politics. No subject is taboo here.”

“What about the Couchsurfer who asked me to bring him an American flag? Do you think he was a spy for the government?”

“No!” another scolded me. “Iranians love the U.S.  I’m sure he genuinely wanted the flag.”

Then, he paused and said: “Why didn’t you do it? I would have done it. When I traveled to the U.S., I brought back a LGBT flag.”

I was stunned. In a country where homosexuality is punished by hanging, my new friend had no qualms about smuggling in a rainbow flag in support of gay rights.

In Iran, the surprises never end.

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Cartagena, Colombia

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Ten years ago, I traveled to Cartagena for the first time, ready to be dazzled. My friends in Bogotá, where I had been living for the previous year, raved about the colonial charms and glamorous nightlife of this Caribbean port city, promising I would love it.

On that first trip, Jorge and I arrived at sundown in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and massive traffic jam. As our bus crawled slowly through the outer limits of the city, I gazed through my rain-stained window and beheld my first sighting of Colombia’s most beloved tourist destination: a jumble of tin roofs sinking into a slosh of mud and litter. Children jumped with glee among puddles of garbage, while their parents huddled beneath blue tarps watching morosely as the rain flooded their shops and homes. The sight of such overwhelming poverty in the city of which Colombians were so proud jolted me.

Our arrival at our hotel proved equally unsettling. Priced out of the lodgings in the walled city, the heart of Cartagena’s colonial attractions and internationally acclaimed hotels and restaurants, we had booked a room in the nearby grungy enclave of Getsamani. It was dark by the time we arrived and, as we scanned the street nervously for the entrance, prostitutes in tight glittery dresses called to us, while drunken revelers planted firecrackers that exploded in our path.

Startled, we quickly identified and bolted towards the entrance of our hotel, only to find ourselves in a neglected courtyard with a swimming pool of rancid green water. At the pool’s perimeter, a few strung-out French tourists, collapsed on lounge chairs, stared at us vacantly. The owner of the hotel stumbled towards us in an unbuttoned shirt and led us to our room. For US $70 a night, far more than I had ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, I had expected a minimum level of luxury. Instead, we encountered a sterile, windowless room, empty save for a plastic-covered bed that radiated under a terrifying fluorescent bulb.

By the time we reached the walled city– the destination I had so eagerly anticipated— I was rattled and hungry. The colonial buildings and plazas bled hazily into the night and I hardly noticed them. I could think only of finding a place to eat. Jorge and I quickly spotted a few trendy restaurants where we might be introduced to the thumping Cartagena nightlife we had heard so much about. However, the prices shocked us. We literally could not afford to eat at any of them. Embarrassed, we ducked into a local fish joint for a greasy meal of fried mojarra and plantains and then closed our night by sharing an outrageously expensive cocktail at a rooftop bar. There, we commiserated over our failure to enjoy the city of which we had heard so much.

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For years, when my American friends would tell me excitedly that they wanted to visit Cartagena, I would feign enthusiasm and encourage their plans. I did not want to dissuade them from traveling to the only city with enough name recognition to bring them to Colombia in the first place. However, the image imprinted in my mind during my brief stay endured. To me, Cartagena was over-rated and over-priced, a playground for rich Colombians oblivious to the grinding poverty outside of the walled city.

Last November, Jorge and I returned to Bogotá to live. Many of my friends and family in the U.S. promised to visit me in Colombia and all of them wanted tips for where to stay and what to do in Cartagena. I felt ashamed of how little I could offer them, given that my own trip ten years earlier had been such a disaster. Grudgingly, I resolved to return to the city that had so thoroughly disappointed me, purely for research purposes.

This time, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of our first visit. I allotted a hefty budget for our two-day stay and reserved a room in the Alfiz, a boutique hotel in the walled city. Still, I was haunted by memories of my previous visit, and when the taxi pulled up in front of the two enormous unmarked wooden doors guarding our hotel, I fully expected to find another hellish drug den lurking on the other side.

To my surprise, we stepped through the doorway and discovered a paradise of shady palms, bright red flowers and trickling fountains. An arched passageway radiated from the patio and led to a series of tastefully decorated and shadowy rooms, all wonderfully cool. A receptionist greeted us with a bright smile and refreshing glasses of fresh passion fruit juice. She ushered us to our room, where a plush bed and rustic Jacuzzi awaited us. The hotel felt deliciously luxurious. I wanted nothing more than to lounge in a poolside hammock I had spotted on the second floor and savor the pleasures of this lavish oasis.

However, before long, we were hungry, and– as the Alfiz did not serve lunch– we had no choice but to venture into the walled city in search of food. To my amazement, the walled city was not at all as I remembered it. The streets were gloriously clean and inviting, with imposing churches and joyful plazas brimming with drummers and dancers. White and purple flowers burst from Spanish colonial buildings, each façade meticulously preserved and freshly painted in bright yellow, turquoise or orange. Tourists from around the world swarmed the streets, happily exploring art galleries, Garcia-Marquez themed bookstores and delectable pastry shops. Yes, it felt like Disneyland—in its artificial perfection– but it was beautiful. I was enchanted.

That night, on the way home from a heavenly meal at Cocina de Pepina, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in authentic and carefully crafted dishes from the nearby city of Monteria, Jorge received a call from a friend offering us two tickets to an outdoor concert taking place that night at a plaza near our hotel. We accepted and, a few hours later, took our seats in front of a stage set up before the illuminated façade of the majestic cathedral of San Pedro Claver. A trio of musicians from Romania appeared from the cathedral’s glowing red door and lifted their violins. The melody they played, a haunting tribute to the Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase, rose, slowly and exquisitely, from a whisper to a booming pitch, infusing the plaza and night sky with its melancholy beauty.

As the music swirled around me, I fell into a state of rapture, overwhelmed with love for Cartagena. I understood suddenly, how wrong I had been to dismiss this city. Yes, it is expensive and neatly packaged for tourists, and it no doubt masks the reality of most who live in this country. Yet, when taken for what it is, Cartagena is extraordinarily magical.

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How to get there: Fly direct from the U.S., or via Bogotá, to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport, which is a quick 15-minute cab ride from the walled city.

When to go: Avoid the rainy months (April, May, October, November) and peak times for Colombian tourism (Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Holy Week). Try to coincide with one of Cartagena’s many renowned arts festivals, including the Hay literary festival and International Music Festival, both of which take place in January.

Where to stay: There are many fabulous hotels in Cartagena. The Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa are both supremely elegant, with a long tradition of catering to wealthy clientele. In more recent years, a collection of similarly lavish but more intimate boutique hotels—including the Alfiz, Casa Pestagua and Casa San Agustin— have sprung up in refurbished colonial houses in the walled city. For those seeking a boutique experience on a tighter budget, Hotel Monterrey in the walled city and Allure Chocolat in Getsemani are excellent alternatives.

Where to eat: My top recommendation is Cocina de Pepina, a casual eatery in Getsemani that specializes in authentic cuisine from the Colombian city of Monteria. For a more sophisticated but similarly delicious dining experience in the walled city, try the seafood restaurant Carmen in the ultra chic Ananda Hotel.  Finally, be sure to visit Pasteleria Mila for the most delicious pastries and desserts (as well as a range of lunch items) in the walled city.

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Into the Puna

Exactly one year ago, I traveled to the Puna, a desert in northern Argentina, with my husband, Jorge.  In January, when I returned to San Francisco, I took a travel writing class at Book Passage in Corte Madera with the fabulous Don George.  Don enjoyed the essay I wrote on the Puna so much that he decided to include it in Lonely Planet’s 2014 anthology, “The Innocent Abroad“, which was published this month.  Here is the complete essay:

Campo de Piedra Pomes, La Puna, Argentina

We drove for hours through a vast frigid desert littered with silver rubble and scraps of ancient lava. A solitary dirt path stretched before us endlessly. It snaked past incinerated volcanoes cloaked in black ash and mountains of red earth before dissolving into a tidal wave of purple peaks bobbing in a metallic sea. A fierce sun clung to every rock, mountain and grain of sand, causing my vision to blur and my temples to pulsate. There was a sinister quality to this place that permeated my body to its core.

We were in the Puna, a high-altitude desert in the extreme northwest of Argentina near the border with Chile and Bolivia. Along with the Atacama Desert to the west and the Bolivian Altiplano to the north, the Puna comprises one of the driest regions on earth, a place so hostile to life that it is frequently compared to Mars. I had come to this region drawn by the visual spectacle of otherworldly landscapes and had chosen the Puna, in particular, because it is by far the most remote and least visited of the three border regions. Now that I was here, I felt deeply unsettled. I cringed at the glaring monotony of the surroundings.

And yet, the Puna beckoned to me. At every turn, I would spot a dozen stupefying images that I wanted desperately to capture on my camera or describe in my journal. This bleak land was stranger than I could have ever imagined and every scene that horrified me fascinated me in equal measure. My curiosity propelled me forward.

Red and Silver Mountains, Puna, Argentina

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My journey to the Puna began a world away in Salta, a bright and vibrant city with pleasant palm tree-filled plazas and lively cafes. There, as I lounged with my husband, Jorge, on the terrace of the elegant finca where we were staying, I fantasized about our journey to the Puna. The Puna had become the focal point of our two-week vacation to northwest Argentina after I had chanced upon a photograph of its hypnotic clay-colored dunes a few months earlier on the internet. I was immediately captivated. I imagined myself with Jorge driving through the windswept dunes in a jeep, exhilarated by the magical solitude of the desert, exploring a place that few had ever seen.

Once in Salta, I immersed myself in a book about the history of the Puna. An ancient plateau of hard crystalline rock, it had originated at sea level. During the Tertiary Age, with the formation of the Andes, the Puna erupted to its present height of 13,000 feet. Indigenous peoples settled in the Puna long before Spanish colonists arrived, including the Incas, who asserted their control over northwest Argentina for roughly sixty years. The book interspersed this historical account with spectacular photographs of dazzling salt flats and pink flamingos, both legacies of the Puna’s maritime origin, as well as volcanoes, lava fields, and undulating expanses of sand. I marveled at the exotic beauty of it all.

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Meeting Kurdish women in their homes

Baking bread with Ayten, Gollu Village, Turkey

While walking along the streets of Southeast Turkey, Jorge and I encountered men everywhere. They were our waiters, our hotel clerks and our taxi drivers. They were the denizens of the teahouses, bakeries and kebab shops we frequented. They were the ones who we negotiated with when buying carpets and ceramics.

If we were lost, for even a moment, a man would appear out of nowhere to guide us graciously to our destination. And even if we were not lost, we were constantly chased down by grinning men eager to share with us the one English phrase everyone in Turkey knows (“Hello! Where are you from?”) and then invite us for tea at their shops or houses.

Women, on the other hand, were noticeably more discreet. We rarely saw women and, when we did, they were heavily cloaked and dared not look our way. When I had my camera out, men would gesture to me from afar to indicate they wanted their pictures taken. Women who saw my camera would hold up their hands to conceal their faces.

It was not until we had the opportunity to visit Kurdish families in their homes, which we arranged through a local company called Nomad Tours, that we interacted with women for the first time. To see women in their homes was to see women in the sphere in which they reign. I was stunned to find confident, outspoken women who looked me in the eye and answered for their husbands and brothers.

The first home we visited was in a rural Kurdish village of about twenty families near Sanliurfa. There, we stayed in the home of Ali and Ayten and their five children. Ali and Ayten were both extremely welcoming to us. But whereas Ali generally hung back, smiling sweetly and saying nothing except to tell the occasional joke, Ayten made it clear that she was in charge.

Ali and Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Upon our arrival at the house, we found Ayten crouched on a stool with her purple headscarf milking sheep, while her children stood by ready to follow her orders. Ayten then proudly showed us her garden, where she grows eggplants, tomatoes, almonds, pomegranates and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. She told us about the intricacies of bee-keeping and carpet-making, for which she is regarded as an expert by her community. In fact, Ayten is revered by women in her own village and the neighboring villages for her leadership and competence.

Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Over our meals, which we ate while seated cross-legged on carpets, Ayten was the first to speak. She told us about the food (for dinner, bulgur she had dried and ground herself and, for breakfast, cheese, yogurt and bread she had prepared from scratch that day) and about the family’s routine. When we timidly asked about topics that might be sensitive, such as arranged marriages and education for women, Ayten did not hesitate to answer our questions directly. She even boldly tested out her English on us (“Welcome! This is the bathroom”).

Breakfast with Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

The following day, we met a few more women Kurdish women while visiting a camp where nomads live.  We found the camp by driving along a main highway near Siverek and stopping when we saw tents on the side of the road.  Two young women, both strikingly beautiful with large eyes and dazzling smiles, greeted us warmly.  They did not seem in the least perturbed or scared by the fact that we had shown up uninvited.  They were trailed by several chubby, curly-haired toddlers.

Nomad Camp near Siverek, Turkey

The women invited us into one of their tents and laughed merrily as they told us about their lives.  They had come to this region with their families only for the winter to graze their animals.  The rest of the year they live in Erzurum, a city in northeastern Turkey with a much harsher winter climate.  We were shocked to learn their ages—only 12 and 15!  They exhibited the poise and maturity of women at least twice their age.

Kurdish nomads, Siverek, Turkey

When we peppered them with questions about marriage and education, they did not bat an eye.  They had both dropped out of school (presumably due to responsibilities at home), which they now regretted.  They were in no rush to get married and would choose to marry whomever they liked once they were older.  For now, they cooked and cleaned and cared for the children of their older siblings.

Kurdish nomads near Siverek, TurkeyBy meeting Kurdish women in their homes, I discovered that the women of Southeast Turkey are not universally submissive or shy.  The women we met, in fact, were as self-assured as the men who regularly ran up to us on the street.  However, in a society in which men and women occupy distinct social and physical spheres, what you see on the street is only half the story.

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

I was not prepared for the allure of Hasankeyf. My guidebook had called it a “heartbreaker” and I had seen the photos of its famed minaret and stone bridge. Yet, I had not expected much from this village strewn with rubble from a forgotten civilization—a story so commonplace in Turkey that it loses its wonder after a while. I reserved only an afternoon of our two-week trip through Southeast Turkey to visit the ruins of this ancient city.

Jorge and I arrived at 1:00 p.m. and, from the moment we stepped off the bus, I was taken by the tranquility of Hasankeyf. The main street of the village consists of a collection of teahouses and kebab shops perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the Tigris River, the site of the stone bridge I had seen from the photos. I peeked through one teahouse and felt a rush of cool breeze. Around me, old men on low wooden stools sat sipping their tea, their faces glowing from the warm light that emanated from the waters below.

We wandered beyond the main street and bazaar and reached the perimeter of the village. There, we discovered two steep cliffs with caves carved into the sides and large boulders littered between them. The cliffs narrowed into a gorge, which we followed along stairs and ladders built into the rock. Out of nowhere, a young man from the village ran up to us and offered to show us the way to the top of the mountain. We followed him and, as we ascended the gorge, verdant mountains spiraled around us.

At the summit, we beheld the most spectacular sight: a vast city of caves, complete with a mosque and castle, spread across the top of the mountain that faced us. Our guide told us that this was the old city of Hasankeyf, where 5,000 people had lived in caves until the 1960’s when the government forced them to relocate to a new village by the river. This old city remained perfectly intact, tantalizing in its proximity.  Officially, it was closed to the public, but our guide told us it would have been possible to visit if we only had more time.

Our bus was scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m. Realizing we had less than two hours left in Hasankeyf, we rushed down the mountain, still bewitched by what we had seen. At the foot of the mountain, we entered an open air café, facing the castle of Old Hasankeyf, where men sat cross-legged on large flat cushions drinking coffee and smoking. There, we met an an American journalist and learned about the construction of the dam scheduled for 2015 that will flood Hasankeyf and force its residents to resettle once again. This time, the ancient city will vanish.

We had heard about the dam before coming to Hasankeyf, but had not understood the scale of the tragedy that was about to unfold until we had seen the city for ourselves. We left on the 6:00 p.m. bus, as planned, but were so captivated by Hasankeyf that we changed our itinerary and returned the following day. Even after a second day of exploring this city and talking to its residents, we felt we had barely scratched the surface of this fascinating place. Hasankeyf is one ancient city in Turkey you must visit while you still have the chance.  Though the construction of the dam is currently scheduled for 2015, residents told us it likely won’t be built for a few years, which means you still have a few years to see this city before it disappears.

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Leaving for Turkey

Kas, Turkey

In 2011, I visited Turkey for the first time. It was love at first sight. From the idyllic beaches and Roman ruins of the southern Mediterranean coast to the ancient cave churches and dwellings of Cappadocia to the bustle and energy of Istanbul, Turkey enchanted me. I was struck by its beauty, its rich history and the gentle generosity of its people.

I was also intrigued by the social and political tensions that were hinted at nearly everywhere we went. Repeatedly, I heard guides, innkeepers and waiters grumble about Prime Minister Erdogan and the religious affiliation of his political party. They accused the governing party of wanting to turn their country into a Muslin theocracy like Iran. They feared losing their individual liberties and way of life at the hands of a religious government.

The Turks I encountered represented the liberal, progressive half of this society. They drank raki, wore bikinis on the beaches I visited in the south and danced wildly in a gay pride parade I stumbled upon in Istanbul. They were proud of being Turkish, but identified strongly with Western values.

I wondered about the other half of this society, the religious, conservative Turks of whom the liberal Turks were so suspicious. I had only one brief glimpse into this other world. On an all-night bus ride from the southern city of Antalya to Cappadocia, we made a stop at dawn at a bus terminal somewhere near Konya, a city known for being deeply religious. All of the women were draped in loose dark clothing, their heads covered by scarfs. They rushed by me silently, small children clutching their hands. Men engaged in hushed conversation sat low to the ground drinking tea. No one spoke English. There was a calm restraint in the air, a heavy feeling of holiness. I was mesmerized. I did not want to board the bus.

Now, three years later, I am once again on my way to Turkey. This time, I am skipping the beaches and splendor of the coasts and devoting my time to Southeastern Anatolia, one of the most conservative and overlooked parts of the country. I am drawn by ancient Arabic cities, ruins of lost civilizations and the opportunity to explore a more obscure side of Turkey. I will spend the night in a Kurdish village, drink tea with nomads in a tent and visit the spectacular snow covered head statues of Nemrut Dagi at sunset. This will be a very different trip.

View from the 13th Floor

Bogotá, Colombia

Perched on the thirteenth floor of the Gran Manzana apartment building in Bogotá, I can see and feel the life of this city.  Tall brick buildings hover over and stare at me through rows of flashing windows.  I stare back.  Some windows reveal little, shuttered by drab curtains or gauzy hammocks.  Others expose shadowy apartments containing unmade beds and lonely plants.  A man in a bathrobe across the street and several stories down gazes in my direction.  I look away, landing on a top floor, a penthouse with red Chinese lanterns that wave in the wind.

Below me, the traffic along the Carrera 13 ebbs and flows, the hum of moving vehicles occasionally shattered by the roar of a truck or the sudden clamor of honking taxis.  The currents of this wide avenue, lined with elegant leafy trees, rush south towards the mountains that tower over the eastern edge of the city.  There, La Macarena, my first and favorite neighborhood, rises with pride from the carpeted green slopes.  With nostalgia, I make out the same bull-fighting stadium and climbing brick towers– designed to mimic the mountains behind them– that greeted me when I arrived here ten years ago.

Other parts of the scene are unfamiliar.  Where Carrera 13 meets Carrera 7, a pedestrian path lined with carefully planted flowers and shrubs leads to a large glass box, the entryway to a brand new subterranean bus station.  Passengers, eager to avoid the chaos and grime of the traditional bus system, flock to this station and happily wait in line to board the fleet of red Transmilenio buses that will transport them through an underground tunnel.  They do not seem perturbed by the fact that, after a only block of zooming through this tunnel, they will emerge onto the traffic clogged Carrera 7 side by side with the same buses they had been hoping to avoid.

Nearby, new apartment buildings with green exteriors laden with plants echo the flowers that decorate the entryway to the Transmilenio station.  Pedestrians wearing surgical masks pass by quickly, hardly noticing the burgeoning jungle around them.  Only the thick cloud of smog hanging low to the streets concerns them.  Bogotá, with all its contradictions, continues to tug at my heart.

The New Bogotá

Transmilenio, Bogota, Colombia

I landed at El Dorado Airport in Bogotá at 5:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but full of anticipation.  I had heard many accounts of the great changes Bogotá had undergone since I left this city, eight years ago, and I was eager to see them for myself.  The first surprise would be at the airport.

Bogotá’s airport, I discovered, had transformed from a single tumbledown terminal into a giant greenhouse flooded with light filtering in through expansive windows.  Inside, it gleamed with silver, from the escalators to the rafters to the shiny conveyer belts spinning merrily in the baggage claim.  At each checkpoint– first at Immigration, then at Customs—the jumbled masses of the past had disappeared, replaced by short lines and calm efficiency.

Outside the airport, an ample roadway hummed with multiple lanes of orderly traffic.  There, my husband’s family waited for me at the designated place for a curbside pickup, a shocking innovation for an airport that until recently ejected its passengers into a chaotic lot milling with taxi drivers and panhandlers.  Even the pickup zone had an air of grandeur and modernity.  Tall columns imposed order and supported a second story with its own roadway and orderly lanes of traffic.

As we drove from the airport towards the heart of the city, a cloud of smog engulfed us.  Soon, we merged onto a large artery clogged with traffic.  Gaudy buses of all shapes and sizes, from stunted blue minivans packed with passengers to enormous half-empty clunkers bursting with festive colors and loud Salsa and Vallenato music, wheezed by on the verge of collapse.  A bright yellow river of taxis inched along slowly, honking impatiently as they attempted to bypass the buses.  Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia.  Ah, this is the Bogotá I know!

In the midst of this maelstrom, slick red buses emblazoned with the logo “TransMilenio” whizzed by in their own lane, stopping to pick up passengers at compact boxes of translucent glass similar in style to what I had seen at the airport.  This was the city’s attempt to combat the snarl of traffic, a rapid transit system that functions like an aboveground metro.  Yet, a lane away from the fleet of evenly spaced red buses, the throng of vehicles lingered.  As I would discover repeatedly during my ten days in Bogotá, impressive as the city’s evolution may be, the past is never far.

Back in Bogota

Bogotá, Colombia

This past week, I returned to Bogotá, a city I lived in from 2004 to 2006.  In the following entry, I reflect on my first visit to Bogotá, ten years ago.

Ten years ago, at the age of 22, I arrived in Bogotá for the first time.  It was the summer after my college graduation and I had come for a three-month internship.

Almost everyone in my life cautioned me against going to Colombia.  Their fears were based on a vague perception of drug lords and violence, stereotypes which I dismissed as misinformed and exaggerated.  Entranced by romantic illusions, I imagined Bogotá in my own way: an exotic metropolis high in the Andes, a place where people led festive, spirited lives despite the volatility of the social and political forces around them.  The very fact that so little was known about Colombia intrigued me.  I yearned to discover it for myself.

As my departure neared, however, my excitement gave way to panic.  Soon, I would be in the actual Bogotá, not the Bogotá of my imagination.  Had I been naïve to believe I would be safe there?  Panic set in, tainting my optimism, and by the time I caught my first glimpse of Bogotá, I viewed the city through a prism of fear.

From the air, Bogotá appeared cold and wintry, a sprawling checkerboard of deep green forest and red brick veiled by low and heavy clouds.  Not quite the land of eternal spring described by my guidebook.  The road from the airport to the apartment where I had rented a room appeared equally dismal, a blur of concrete streets and smog from passing buses.  Each bus was packed with passengers, silent and sullen, their faces pressed against vapory windows.

Once in the safety of my apartment, I crept into my bed and avoided leaving my room.  During my first two days in Bogotá, I left my apartment only once.  The streets were nearly empty, except for a few beggars slumped along cracked sidewalks.  I walked past them quickly and entered a nearby marketplace, a maze of tattered makeshift stands manned by indigent vendors who watched me with suspicion.  Quickly, I bargained for bloodied chicken bones and soiled herbs, then nervously rushed home to prepare a broth.

On my third day, I had no choice but to explore more of the city.  My internship would be starting in a few days and I had to meet with my supervisor at the government office where I would be working.  I awoke early and emerged from my apartment to discover Bogotá transformed.  The gray clouds that had draped the city since my arrival had disappeared and a brilliant sun shone in their place.

In this new radiant light, I noticed for the first time the charms of my neighborhood: the oranges and blues of the faded colonial architecture and the bright handmade signs of the quirky shops and art galleries.  In the city center, site of my new office, I marveled at the cobblestone streets bustling with lively street vendors.  I then ascended into the deep green mountains that tower above Bogotá and traveled north along a lovely forested thoroughfare with views of the city below.  From that day forward, Bogotá slowly unveiled itself to me, surpassing the expectations I had dreamt up for this city before my arrival.