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Since I’ve been home, a lot of my friends have been asking me what Eaman and I did in our spare time for entertainment during our trip. (Does eating count as entertainment? It does to us.) We rarely had TV, and even when we did, we were less than thrilled to watch The Big Bang Theory (in Argentina), soaps (in India) or wildly histrionic love-song music videos (all of Asia). We did have WiFi almost everywhere, so yes, a lot of my free time was (happily) spent blogging and, when he managed to pry the iPad from my blogging fingers, Eaman caught up on the news.
But during most of our down time, we were reading — and not just guidebooks. Reading fiction and nonfiction, short stories and memoirs, magazines and newspapers. It was such a nice change of pace to dig into some literature during those long bus rides and before bed, a treat I rarely got to partake in in New York because I was usually too exhausted by bedtime.
Here, a rundown of what we read*, what we thought and, sometimes, what we learned. The list may stack up as short or long, depending on your own proclivity for reading, but keep in mind, blogging (and the laborious photo editing that comes with it) took up a lot of time, and Eaman was busy reading his issues of Entrepreneur magazine cover to cover.
That said, let’s share! (I took a lot of reading inspiration from fantastic travel blogger Jodi of Legal Nomads fame. She has a really stellar two-part post on her favorite on-the-road reads.)
Chay, or tea, is a religion in Iran. And if I had to pick a capital for tea in Iran it would definitely be the picturesque city of Lahijan in Gilan province, where the first successful attempt at cultivating tea took place in 1900 thanks to the Iranian consul to India sneaking in 4,000 tea plants to Lahijan from India.
Chay is such an important part of socializing that in Iran, when you’re in someone’s home, office or carpet shop, you’ll definitely get a piping hot glass of it. But get ready for more than just one cup. Most Iranians will typically drink at least four cups of tea per day — with breakfast, after lunch, after the afternoon nap and after dinner — and in a very particular way. The unspoken rule is to drink the tea black with a bowl of ghand (sugar cubes). The ghand is usually placed in the front or side of your mouth before sipping the tea. (Your dentist may not recommend this!)
Magical floating teapot and cup in a Lahijan park.
As I got off the plane in Tehran, I realized my experience in Iran was going to be different this time. Unlike my previous three visits, this time I was on my own — no mother, uncle or aunt to step in and show me the way. This was exciting. Not only was I going to see and learn about many new-to-me areas of Iran, but I also knew I had a task at hand (while having some fun, too, of course).
The typical image most conjure up of Iran is probably nuclear bomb-hungry terrorists riding on camels in the desert with AK-47s, searching for new killings. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s the amazing hospitality of the people, lush Vietnam-esque scenery, ridiculously delicious food, ancient sites, exquisite handicrafts and a lot more that unfortunately, people may have never heard about.
I want these posts to be about not just Iran, but any country we may have preconceived negative notions about simply because of what the media tells us as well. (There’s a lot more to a country than its political news!) I want these posts to help you dig deeper on such so-called taboo places, and possibly even travel there and discover a hidden gem for yourself.
Let’s get started!
The journey began with meeting up with my mom in Iran’s capital of Tehran for the first two days before we parted ways — me to go backpacking solo, she to spend the rest of her visit in Isfahan. We hung around the northern part of Tehran, had some good food and people-watched. I unfortunately don’t have pictures to show, but I will say this: People were so fashionable — as if they had been transported from Manhattan’s SoHo to Tehran!
It was difficult to choose from the thousands (literally) of photos we took from the trip, but on our last night together in Delhi, Eaman and I carefully selected our favorites, ones that encompass, culture, food, love and beautiful scenery. Here they are for you in chronological order to give you a sense of city-, country- and continent-hopping. I have a feeling I will be clicking back to this post a lot; I’m getting a bit sad/nostalgic already.
I’ve been home for nearly a week while Eaman backpacks through Iran, but before we parted ways, we had a long conversation about this past year, what we’ve learned, what we would’ve done differently and what everything has meant to us. We’ve had these dialogues pretty often and usually spontaneously throughout our travels, but this was the first time that we could step back and really mull over all the time spent together.
So what did we learn?
The day we departed back in September 2011 on the left and the day we ended the trip together just a week ago on the right. Tried to get the exact same pose. Mixed results, but the same clothes!
When Eaman and I saw each other at the end of our 10-day meditation retreat, we were so eager to tell each other everything. We had been separated (by gender) and had taken a vow of silence, so, to finally be able to spill the beans was a pretty big deal. I let him tell me everything first and then I told him all about life on the other side of the center. And truly, we could not have had more different experiences. Seeing as how they were so different, we thought it made more sense to each tell you about our own experiences. But first, a little background. I’m going to go ahead and assume the questions people will ask us about the course because they’re probably the same questions we had about it ourselves.
I couldn’t really take pictures and didn’t even have my camera, but this photo of the pagoda at our center, called Dhamma Sota, will give you an idea.
It might’ve been a little more poetic to end our trip together in some terrible hostel after a crazy bus ride and getting cheated by rickshaw drivers. But we closed it out in beautiful Delhi homes, eating at exclusive social clubs and being treated to massages.
We actually didn’t do a lick of sightseeing in Delhi. (Our time there was focused more on the meditation course. Plus, why sight-see when, unlike so many places we’ve traveled to, we had friends through which we could experience the city?) But what we failed to learn about Delhi, we made up for with some valuable lessons and new role models in the world of hospitality. Let me share some background:
Scenario #1. We were hosted by our lovely friends Kavita and Shantanu; she’s from the U.S. and he’s from Delhi, but they only recently came to India from D.C. after he got transferred to Delhi for work. They were gracious enough to let us stay with them — in our own luxurious room — for a couple of days before our meditation sitting, which was a treat in and of itself. Then they had to go and up themselves by feeding us with awesome food, letting us use their driver to get around town, and hiring a beautician come to the house to give us facials and massages. And they let us stay in their home once again after meditation, even though they were out of town. Above and beyond much?
Dinner at the beautiful Lodi, The Garden Restaurant.
Through good times and bad, we’ve learned a few things about traveling on the cheap in India and would hate to withhold the juice.
1. Thou shalt not lose thy patience. India has required more patience than any other country. From pushy salespeople to conniving rickshaw drivers to complete lacks of efficiency and organization in some respects, we were constantly tested. Fortunately, India has also turned out to be one of the more rewarding journeys for this very reason.
2. Though shalt bargain for everything. It’s not just about bazaars and taxi rides, we bargained especially hard for hotels, which wasn’t as common of a practice in SE Asia.
3. Thou shalt get a mobile. My uncle hooked us up with an Indian phone in Bangalore and at first, I hesitated adding another item to my backpack, but this phone has been a lifesaver — whether it’s to call taxi drivers we’ve hired or to book hotels, who generally didn’t respond to emails.
3. Thou shalt wear closed-toe shoes. India can be dirty. Protect yourself.