Americans in Iran 2011: Planning, applying and waiting…

It’s May 2011 and our next trip will be to Iran. Ignoring the propaganda and the fact that it could take months to get a visa we begin the visa application process and the trip research. It was now or never and we’re going for it. The trip will be at least 14 days which isn’t a whole lot but enough to get a feel for the country.  The itinerary will need shortening and compose a realistic travel budget and itinerary.   Some amazing things will unfortunately be put back on the wish list. This fairly quick trip will be more a best of Iran opposed to a full tour with no limits and a loose vicarious plan which is usually how we roll.  The classic central Iran itinerary that takes us from Shiraz to Tehran is perfect for 14 days by land.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Morning in the center of Esfahan

Traveling with a U.S. passport to Iran requires a guided tour.  Americans have a history in the area so it’s understandable that the government wants to keep tabs on us and we have to do it.  Finding a knowledgable local guide who will not make us feel as if we were on a short leash and hopefully compatible in personality is first on the to do list.   Reading other travelers blog posts, checking out Thorntree posts and Google searches lead me to finding Pars Tourist Agency which is a small but well-known tour agency based in Shiraz.  Zehra is very organized, patient and good at getting back to me despite the time change and how the weekends start on Thursday and end on Saturday.   They ended up putting together a customized tour which included all the attractions we wanted to see and within our budget.

The Somewhat Short List of why we decided to go to Iran:

1. UNESCO sites Iran full of them and we’ll be able to see a good chunk of them in two weeks – plus the flight isn’t that long – just 13 hours.

2. Politics aside The middle east has always a political hotbed so stayed informed, avoid any political discussion and enjoy the scenery

3. Low hustler level It’s not like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco where many rely on baksheesh to supplement their low wages (which is actually a Persian word) .

4. The US Dollar Woes For Americans, the dollar is still going down and the required tour and it’s prices just always go up and never down

5. Angry Israel It has been pretty trigger-happy recently and who knows when they will put their threats to action and each day there is something new like today (Nov 2) on Al-Jazeera

Travelling to Iran was always in our thoughts especially when we went to other areas of Asia and the Middle East.  Ancient history, architecture and modern culture is usually the draw to the places my husband and I visit.  The most influential were visits to the Persian designed Taj Mahal, Xian, Jordan and Syria. They are all connected to the former Silk Road and Iran has links to them all. We wanted to see and experience a different side of the region and dig deeper into how the traders along the Silk Road influenced and  shaped the lands they once journeyed through. I wanted to see where were the great battles were fought, learn more about the area’s history and see in person what in terms of physical structures (caravanserai, forts, and ancient cities to name a few) and various forms of art still remain today.   Additionally, I like to find answers to questions like did the travelers and warriors of those periods still have a place in present Iranian society?  How did the past influence today’s society?

If Rick Steves did it then why can’t we? He said himself that he regretted not travelling to neighboring Iraq when he had the chance. I personally want to see what goes on  in Iran – politics aside? How do people live and how will the receive me even after they find out where I’m from.   There are many questions that I hope to find answers to and some will have to remain unanswered until I return in the future.

Egypt’s baksheesh industry..will it survive?

The people who are benefiting the least Mubarak leaving office sooner than later are his police forces and political allies.  They are the ones who ask for the baksheesh even if they don’t do anything helpful or even help someone cross the street safely in Downtown Cairo. Some took to the streets and were taking part in Pro-Mubarak demonstrations in Cairo today. Anderson Cooper and his crew got attacked by members of this crowd while reporting. It included men on camels and horse back seen in the photos above who usually come in handy when tourist go to see Abu Simbel and visit Giza.  They seem to just be as useful as those police cars that have a doll placed in the front seat to deter people from speeding on US Highways. When I was there a few years ago an officer said it was ok to climb one of the pyramids in Giza for a little baksheesh that it.  If only Zahi Hawass was there to witness.

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It is now a requirement for foreign travelers going down to the Upper Nile near the border to Sudan to be escorted by a Egyptian military convoy.  I just felt like a speeding line of sitting ducks but what do I know. A higher ranking officer of the tourist caravan target practice group.  Our driver seemed to know him since the officer had left his rifle in the van. Opps…probably didn’t have any bullets in it because he knew he would start running if anything started going down. Our he driver throw it to him like he was in a movie like he was in a Dirty Harry movie.  Kind of like giving a high five..catch yeah later.

Egypt needs its tourism since it historically it makes up around 10% of it’s GDP and employs 12.6% of Egyptians. In May 2010, Reuters projected that Egypt was recovering from the global economic crisis and fore-casted a steady growth of at least 2-5% this year.  It’s surprising on how much more money the Tourism industry makes than the revenue generated from the Suez Canal.  I’m not an economist but things are going to get pretty bad in the country if this mess doesn’t clean up soon.   The peak travel season will be soon coming to end in May.  Let’s hope its only a few months lost, not too much is destroyed and the people of Egypt are in a better place economically and politically.

Cairo and it’s baksheesh and sheesha

It’s hot and almost too hot, smoggy and as always, the streets are filled with cars, horse and buggies and motorbikes.   Taking the camera out and trying to capture what it’s like to walk around Cairo is the last thing I think about doing.  Just want to get around without loosing a body part or my life.  Something as small as a distracting camera could put me that much closer to being in harms way.  Getting hit by any one of the reckless drivers of Cairo was not in the plan.  Here, like many places of the world (Beijing and Hanoi are a couple of good examples) there are no rules, cars disregard anything smaller than them (people and animals included), the traffic lanes are not recognized and it’s every man, baby, horse and old lady for themselves.

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