Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. You can use the search function in the upper left corner of this screen to look for particular destinations. You can also simply scroll through the more than 100 postings. Or you can click on one of the terms below to find postings on a variety of topics and destinations.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mexico: Baja California Sur, Mostly Uncrowded in May

The beach at Balandra, near the northern tip of the Pichilingue peninsula in Baja California Sur. Note
the two people at the top of the rock. Beaches such as this near La Paz were uncrowded during our May
2016 trip, and almost everyone at these beaches appeared to be locals or vacationing Mexicans.
 
 In May 2016, after the San Diego celebration of daughter Katy's marriage to Ali, Jane and I headed south. We flew Alaska Air from San Diego to Los Cabos at the southern tip of the Baja Califonia peninsula. May is not quite the high season in Baja California Sur. While Cabo San Lucas seemed about as crowded as it could be and San Jose del Cabo was also pretty busy, we got discounted hotel rates in Todos Santos and La Paz. Their high season is months earlier, when whales are giving birth in the warm waters.
     La Paz is not nearly as big a tourist destination as Cabo San Lucas or even San Jose del Cabo. At restaurants in the city, many or most of the other guests are likely to be Mexican, and you'll see few gringos at the beaches north of town. Souvenir shops are few and far between, even along the waterfront. For some people, La Paz may offer what seems like a more "authentic" Mexican experience, while Los Cabos has an international ambiance. There is no subtlety in Cabo San Lucas: the focus is on booze, sun and separating visitors from their money. Parts of Cabo San Lucas, with its Luxury Avenue mall and stores like Cartier, could be mistaken for Miami. San Jose del Cabo is more charming, but almost all the people shopping, eating and drinking are from El Norte.
The rooftop pool and bar area at Hotel Guaycura in Todos
Santos. The house margarita (a classic lime margarita)
can be recommended. 
    We picked up a rental car (be prepared to pay for mandatory insurance in Mexico even though the rental company may not tell you about it in advance, as well as to have as much as a 2,000-U.S.-dollar hold placed on your credit card) and drove the hour or hour and a half to Todos Santos, where we stayed one night at Hotel Guaycura (click HERE for its website) in the central historic district. Guaycura also has a restaurant and beach club a few miles away on the Pacific Ocean.  We had our first dinner in Mexico at La Casita (click HERE), a few blocks from our hotel. We can heartily recommend the ribs if not the cactus quesadillas. On the way back to the hotel we stopped for a drink at the Hotel California, which is much more touristy than the Guaycura.
   
Early morning on a Monday found the streets of
Todos Santos very quiet. 
     Todos Santos is a picturesque small town that seems totally dependent on tourism. Lots of shops and places to eat and drink. The Pacific beaches a short drive away are said to be nice if not terribly safe for swimming, but we didn't get over to them. After one night in Todos Santos, we drove northeast to the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) side of the peninsula and the city of La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. La Paz, which has more than 200,000 residents, is on its own little peninsula, jutting north into the Gulf of California, giving the city a west-facing waterfront and nice sunsets despite being on the east side of Baja.
      We stayed farther north on the Pichilingue peninsula at a sprawling resort called CostaBaja (click HERE). It's a golf, sailing and fishing destination (we do none of those), but it's also an excellent base for exploring the beaches even farther north as well as going back south into the city. We stayed there three nights, had two dinners in La Paz, and spent two days visiting the beaches at Balandra and Tecolote, the latter of which has a great view of Isla Espiritu Santo, a desert island known for its sea lions, other wildlife and many bays. Boat excursions to Espiritu Santo are popular, but we settled for a distant view.  In La Paz, we had one dinner at a lively tourist place on the waterfront called Tailhunter (click HERE), where anglers are invited to bring their catch in to be turned into dinner. The second-floor balcony has a great view of strollers on the Malecon (seaside promenade) and sunset views of La Paz Bay.  A second dinner was a few blocks from the waterfront at Las Tres Virgenes (The Three Virgins; click HERE), a fine-dining establishment that serves probably the best food in town and offers a lot of Mexican wines, many from the celebrated Guadalupe Valley.  Our third and last La Paz dinner was at a sushi restaurant at CostaBaja.
The hotel building at CostaBaja. The resort, just north of La Paz
on the Pichilingue peninsula, includes an 18-hole golf course,
a shopping area with several restaurants, a beach club, a marina,
 condos and private homes. In May 2016 our large room with
a balcony was only 95 U.S. dollars a night, and the
hotel seemed almost empty. It's a short drive from here to
nearly deserted public beaches.

Balandra Beach has no food concessions, just beach umbrella and kayak rentals. Tecolote Beach, above,
has a handful of restaurants. We had lunch twice in the largest one, whose high thatched roof is
visible here. Like Balandra, the beach was nearly deserted midday on weekdays in May. At Balandra,
the water is amazingly shallow (like six to 12 inches) for maybe a hundred yards out into a cove. At
 Tecolote, the water gets deeper much closer to shore, and there is a view of Espiritu Santo island.
Balandra, where no food is sold, has a much cleaner beach; Tecolote has more litter, though
the water itself seems just as clean.
   
Walking in the warm and shallow water at Balandra where we rented kayaks
for an hour of paddling around the cove. One attraction here is a large rock
that the sea has eroded so much that it now resembles a mushroom. We saw it
from our kayaks, but it can also be  reached by walking around a rocky headland. 
That's the Luxury Avenue mall on the left, overlooking
the marina at Cabo San Lucas. The marina is surrounded
by a promenade lined with bars, restaurants and tour
companies, all of which seem to have people accosting
passers-by with sales pitches. There's probably as
 much English spoken here as Spanish. 
The Mexican flag flies over the main square in San Jose del Cabo.
On Thursday evenings the square hosts a large art market and
the many galleries in town stay open late. 
     We had driven mostly on Mexico 19 from the airport at San Jose del Cabo, to Todos Santos, and then all the way to La Paz. That route took us west and along the Pacific before crossing the peninsula. Our next destination was San Jose del Cabo and we mostly took Mexico 1 along the eastern side of the peninsula. GPS  and most guidebooks will tell you to take Mexico 19 again; the reason is that Mexico 1 is a serpentine mountain route with hairpin turns and low speed limits. Nonetheless, it was nice to see new scenery.  All of Baja Sur, by the way, is pretty much desert. Loads of cacti, dry gulches and dead-looking weeds.
Rooms at Casa Natalia in San Jose del Cabo overlook a courtyard.
Farther down the courtyard is a small but pleasant swimming
pool. Between the street and the courtyard are the hotel lobby
and its bar and restaurant. Tip for getting a room here: ask
for a room above ground level for a good bit more privacy.
     In San Jose del Cabo, the last two nights of this trip were spent at Casa Natalia (click HERE), a charming inn on the town square. The location could hardly be better, though it required finding street parking for our rental car.  On our one full day in Los Cabos, we drove over to Cabo San Lucas (via the "corridor" of resorts that connect the two towns) hoping to rent kayaks to paddle out to The Arch, a rock formation at Land's End, but the kayak rental person said the harbormaster wasn't letting kayaks go there because of high winds. If you want to browse souvenir shops for items you might also find at Pier One or Amazon, or if you want to drink yourself into an early-afternoon stupor, San Lucas is the place for you. We headed back to quieter San Jose.
     Both of our two dinners in San Jose are worth mentioning. One was at La Pesca (click HERE for TripAdvisor listing), a fish restaurant a short walk south of the square on Boulevard Antonio Mijares, the same street as our hotel. We shared a tuna tartar appetizer (sauced tuna chunks and pineapple; absolutely excellent) and a red snapper that was roasted in savory sauces. Again, wonderful. Our other dinner in San Jose was at La Lupita Taco and Mezcal (click HERE), where a long list of interesting tacos are offered individually. Not surprisingly, there's also a good list of mezcal-based cocktails along with a longer list of mezcal brands.  The evening we were there, a band was setting up in the open-air garden, though when we left around 9 the live music still hadn't started.  Still, a lively and pleasant place and, as at La Pesca, very good food.
     There's more to Baja Sur than the ostentation and alcohol of Cabo San Lucas, the cafe life in San Jose del Cabo, the charming streets of Todos Santos and the beaches around La Paz.  It's the climate. It was hot and dry while we were there, and it was cold and rainy at our home in Maryland. For my money, that's the best reason to visit.
   

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Iran: Notes for the Prospective Tourist

     Our three-week March 2016 trip to Iran was not a typical vacation.  We spent the first week or so traveling and seeing sights, four of us (me, Jane, daughter Katy and new son-in-law Ali), and the rest of the time with Ali’s family in Mazandaran Province, between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea.  The purpose and highlight of our trip was Katy and Ali’s amazing and wonderful wedding celebration in his hometown. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking about Iran as a tourist destination – and how odd it was that one U.S. travel magazine, Travel & Leisure, had just listed Iran as a hot destination for 2016.  We encountered no other Americans. What appeared to be a small German (or German-speaking) tour group was at our first hotel in Tehran, and indeed the only other foreign tourists we spoke with were two German men and two Austrian women at a desert lodge hundreds of kilometers from anything. Iran is not so much a hot destination as one waiting to thaw.
     (For a detailed account of our trip along with links to hotels and restaurants, please scroll down to the previous posting, "Iran: A Unique Three-Week Adventure," or click HERE.)
     Here are some issues that might concern international tourists in Iran.

This little shrine in Esfahan (a.k.a. Isfahan)
probably isn't on many tourists' must-see
lists, but there were about 100 people
there when we stopped by to see how, when
one minaret is shaken (by a burly man who
pushes against the wall), the other one also
shakes. The shaking has been done daily for
centuries and the building still stands.
We were fortunate that the phenomenon is
explained in English, below.
.......
Women’s clothing: My wife and daughter knew in advance, of course, that they’d have to wear headscarves and loose-fitting clothing. What they didn’t know was how hot the clothing could become and how aggravating the scarves could be. Even while eating, women are expected to keep their scarves on. And it is scarves – I don’t think we saw a single woman wearing a hat.  Everyone says the standards are being relaxed, and some women put their hair in topknots and cover only from the topknot back, leaving a good bit of their hair exposed. Beneath the shapeless coats and capes it’s clear that a lot of Iranian women are wearing skinny jeans and tight sweaters.  But the scarves and shapeless coats remain, and I suspect a sizable number of Iranian women are perfectly fine with the requirements.  What I found weird, however, was the number of women who dressed head-to-toe in black, making themselves resemble Death in  “The Seventh Seal.”
Alcohol: Streets in Tehran and other cities look lively, with brightly colored and flashing LED and neon lights adorning all sorts of buildings, from auto parts shops to plumbing supply stores.  Even the new mausoleum for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini looks like an amusement park or a casino hotel at night. So you get these visual clues that there’s a wonderful cocktail bar nearby, always followed by the reality that you’re in Iran.  I think the population would love for this prohibition to end. One restaurant in Iran served water in what looked like whiskey flasks, and sparkling grape juice is often bottled to resemble sparkling wine and served in wine glasses. But you have to be prepared to do without.  On a poignant note, one man in his early 20s who has never left Iran, asked me what wine tastes like. “Is it really good?” he asked.
Currency: The Iranian rial comes in denominations at least as large as one million, which is handy because that one-million note is worth only about 33 U.S. dollars.  At this writing, Iran is still not allowed access to western banking networks, meaning that Americans cannot use their credit or debit cards there. The ATMs are for Iranians with local bank accounts. So Americans have to arrive with a good bit of American cash and then exchange it for rials. Change a thousand U.S. dollars and you get a huge stack of paper currency that you then must carry around with you unless you buy a plastic cash card at a bank, which is not the place to get the best exchange rates. Prices in stores may not be in rials; they may be in tomans, which is a notional currency (a calculating device, not a real currency).  One toman is worth 10 rial.  So you see something priced at 5,000. That’s likely to be 5,000 tomans (because you can buy almost nothing for 5,000 rial), and you pay 50,000 rial, which is about 1.5 U.S. dollars.  Handing a clerk a credit card would be so much simpler.
The northern part of Tehran abuts the Alborz Mountains. City streets narrow and become pedestrian-
only walkways lined with produce stands, cafes and hookah bars. Eventually the walkways
become mountain trails and then rock-climbing routes. This part of Tehran is called Darband.
This picturesque place in Shiraz is a reminder to take TripAdvisor
 ratings with a grain of salt. It's Shapouri Garden Traditional Restaurant,
highly rated in TripAdvisor and set in a beautiful garden that
is an attraction on its own.  We went one evening around nine,
prime time for dinner in Iran, and the place was empty. The menu
looked like fast food, but the prices looked like fine dining.
We left without ordering. Beautiful building, though.
Toilets: The most common bathroom fixture is the hole-in-the-floor squat toilet, even in modern airports, restaurants and hotel lobbies. We also saw them in private homes.  Most public bathrooms are a series of stalls with squat toilets, although I was told that sometimes the women’s restroom would have one western-style toilet.  Every hotel we stayed in, however, had western-style toilets in the rooms.  I don’t know the reason for this preference, but it’s clear that the squat is more popular than the throne.  All toilets are equipped with handheld bidet hoses, but remember to carry your own toilet paper.
Language: English is widely spoken at hotels and restaurants and is used in some street and traffic signage.  English is not so common in shops. Restaurant and hotel bills and receipts are likely to be in Farsi with Farsi numerals, which are not at all like the Arabic numerals used in most of the world.  I wish I had made a list of the Farsi numerals to carry around for reading price tags. Another language-related problem is the lack of consistent English-language place names. Esfahan (the spelling used by Lonely Planet) is also Isfahan (my son-in-law's preference). Qa'emshahr, Ali's hometown, is also Ghaemshahr. Road signs are not consistent.  I noticed one street in Tehran spelled one way on one corner and another way at the next intersection. 

Freeway through the Alborz Mountains between desert-dry
Tehran and the rain-rich provinces along the Caspian Sea. 
Road safety: Iran records 92 traffic deaths per year for every 100,000 vehicles on its roads. This compares to a rate of 13 in the United States and a rate of 43 in Mexico. You’re more than twice as likely to die in a traffic accident in Iran than you are in Mexico.  We were in taxis and private cars a great deal in Iran. Drivers who seem cautious by Iranian standards frequently straddle the center line, even in the face of on-coming traffic. A roadway divided into two west-bound lanes might have three cars abreast headed west, often with only inches between them.  I’m often astounded by how close drivers in some parts of the world (Central America, Southeast Asia) come to actually striking pedestrians, but in Iran it seemed worse.
Ascend into to Iran's royal past ... at the Golestan Palace in Tehran. 

Picnicking in Iran often involves tents, whether for shade,
rain protection or simply a private place to nap, I don't
know. This hookah-smoking party was just off the beach
at Babolsar on the Caspian Sea.
Sight-seeing:  Guidebooks and websites will point you to such obvious places as the Golestan and Niyavaran palaces and the Jewels Museum in Tehran, the square in Esfahan, and Persepolis near Shiraz. Don’t be surprised if your ticket prices are as much as 10 times the amount charged Iranians. Also, be prepared to walk – the Niyavaran palace complex is huge and some of the buildings are up a fairly steep hill, and the tombs that overlook Persepolis require clambering up a steep and rocky path. Be aware that signage and on-site brochures may be only in Farsi. You may find buildings even in the Golestan complex looking rather shopworn. Iran has preserved a lot of its pre-Islamic Revolution past, but it’s not always taking great care of it. An exception is Persepolis, where authorities seem to have struck a good balance between preservation and tourist access.  If you’re interested in a Caspian Sea beach resort, be aware that due to restrictions on apparel, beach resorts in Iran aren’t like beach resorts elsewhere. Also, at least in Babolsar on the Caspian, the beach was awash in trash, not attractive for swimming or even walking. One thing happened repeatedly in parks, at Persepolis and other places: Iranians asking to have their photo taken with us. Many people, apparently, had never seen Americans in person and wanted to document the encounter. Others also wanted a chance to use their English.
Infrastructure: Iran seems to have reliable electric and Internet service. The Internet was out for part of one day at our hotel in Shiraz, but we encountered no other problems. We stuck with bottled water in Tehran, Mesr, Esfahan and Shiraz, although we did eat salads and other foods that we generally avoid when traveling. We drank tap water in Qa’emshahr and Vaskas without any ill effect.  Iran also has a good highway system (unfortunately beset by what I see as reckless driving) and good domestic air service with a number of carriers. Again, Iran’s isolation from the international banking system makes things more difficult for tourists – you’ll probably have to go to a ticket counter to make an airline reservation. 
Environment: Most of Iran has been in drought for years. You’ll see dry riverbeds and trickles of water that once were usable rivers. As a result of drought, there is a lot of dust, much of which seems to stay in the air, joining with thick air pollution in cities to cover outdoor benches, parked cars and everything else with a thin, gritty coat of grime. Add to this a major problem with litter along major roadways as well as city and village streets, and one could get the impression that Iran is a dirty country.  Indoors, however, is another story, with restaurants, hotels, shops and private homes kept immaculate.  And even outdoors, city parks are usually extremely tidy and well-tended, and are often adorned with interesting modern sculpture.

The lobby of the Zandiyeh Hotel in Shiraz is adjacent to the hotel's small garden
 with fragrant plants such as night-blooming jasmine. The lobby was crowded in the evening
with guests (and non-guests, I suspect) taking advantage of free wi-fi.
Hotels: Other than having to be prepared to pay the bill in cash, a guest's hotel experience in Iran is pretty much what one would expect anywhere. Sometimes the front desk staff would be helpful, sometimes not. Most large hotels in Iran seem to date from before the 1979 overthrow of the shah. We stayed in relatively new hotels – the Aramis in Tehran, the Hasht Behesht in Esfahan, the Zandiyeh in Shiraz, and then in the Mashad Hotel our last night in Tehran – and all were decent enough. The shower in our room at the Aramis leaked and flooded the bathroom floor. This isn’t seen as a problem in Iran where bathrooms are often wet rooms with the shower nozzle simply on a wall and the drain in the middle of the floor. Hotels (and private homes) have plastic clogs for people to put on when entering a bathroom to keep their feet dry. However, we requested and eventually got another room with a shower that did not leak.  The Hasht Behesht, an apartment hotel, had sturdy shopping bags to give guests who spent too much time in the bazaar. The Zandiyeh has an expansive and beautiful lobby with free wi-fi. It was the only place we stayed, however, that made guests pay to access wi-fi in their rooms. The Mashad was right around the corner from the old American Embassy, and our room had a view of snow-covered mountains. The most interesting hotel we visited, however, was the Barandaz Lodge near the desert oasis Mesr, about 400 kilometers east of Esfahan. We ate and slept on the floor, rode camels and climbed sand dunes. One note: hotels may require that you leave your passport with the front desk for the length of your stay, so it’s advisable to have photocopies of your passport and your Iranian visa to keep with you.
The Shahrzad restaurant in Esfahan, easily the most elegant
restaurant we visited in Iran, and the food was excellent.
Restaurants: Iran does not seem to be an eating-out culture, and most restaurants are more like fast-food places with kebabs and other simple fare. And even though tea is clearly the national beverage, and bazaars and markets sell a wonderful variety of flavored teas and infusions, restaurants and cafes seem to offer only plain black tea. And don't expect to while away afternoon hours at a sidewalk cafe sipping that tea. Most places with sidewalk seating aren't places you're likely to be interested in. TripAdvisor, however, can help you find the few fine-dining restaurants, but don’t take the ratings too seriously. Read the comments. Also, familiarize yourself with Persian cuisine; there are a lot of Persian recipes and food discussions on the Internet. Even restaurants that have English-language menus are unlikely to have enough description of each dish. Beef and even steak, for example, are usually chopped or ground and at best taste something like Salisbury steak.  Lamb, however, is often still on the bone and almost always a good bet. Fesenjoon and dizi, two traditional dishes, are also good bets. And to drink?  That sparkling grape juice isn’t bad.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Iran: A Unique Three-Week Adventure

Not many Americans have been to Iran lately, and those who do go are usually restricted to group tours or have to hire a government-sanctioned guide.  Those rules didn’t apply to us for our March 2016 visit. We were sponsored for a family visit by our new son-in-law’s brother. That meant that we didn’t have to have an itinerary, we didn’t have to pay for guides, and that our experiences in Iran would be vastly different from our usual tourist-trail trips. This was much more than a sight-seeing trip ... we met lots of wonderful people, we experienced every-day life in Iran, and we made many new friends.
Katy and Jane, on a Tehran
sidewalk in the required
headscarves and
shapeless coats. 
        First, though, we had to obtain visas.  The brother in Tehran went to the Foreign Ministry office and obtained visa authorization codes for Jane, me and daughter Katy. (Son-in-law Ali, an Iranian national, didn’t need a visa.) We had filled out applications giving the purpose of our visit (our bridal couple’s marriage celebration), our father’s names, our professions, etc.  When we got the visa authorization number (one number for all three of us), we went to the Iranian interests section of the Pakistan embassy in Washington, where it took five or six hours to be seen, pay the $90 fee for each visa, and get them pasted into our passports. (Last year, we had to leave our passports for more than a week at the Tanzanian consulate to get visas for Tanzania, so Iran isn’t too bad on this front.)
      We flew to Tehran on March 10 from Washington Dulles on Austrian Air via Vienna.  Arriving in Tehran late on March 11, all the women put on headscarves before leaving the plane. I had the impression that the scarf-free flight crew didn’t even disembark in Tehran. We were met by Katy’s new brother-in-law and his family. They had flowers for Katy. We also were met by Afshar (I doubt the spelling is right), who would be our personal driver for our first week in the country. His car, a battered Peugeot-made yellow taxi, would eventually take us all the way to Shiraz, about a thousand kilometers south of Tehran.  
    Afshar took us to our hotel, the Aramis (click HERE for website), where we stayed three nights. We arrived in the days prior to Nowruz, the Persian new year celebration. The Persian year begins at the precise minute of the spring equinox, and in 2016 that was on March 21. Iranians take about two weeks to celebrate this holiday with street and home decorations, family visits, gifts and lots of food. To us it seemed like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July rolled into one.  During our first days in Tehran, the city was packed. Every street seemed like New York’s Canal Street during the evening rush. Every sidewalk seemed like Times Square or Rockefeller Center at Christmas.  When we came back to Tehran at the end of our visit, the city was almost deserted, with little traffic, nearly empty sidewalks and many shops and restaurants closed. Why? Because the population was still away visiting relatives in other cities.  Even with most people and cars gone, the city’s air still seemed quite polluted.
A mannequin sits on one of several types of thrones displayed at Tehran's Golestan Palace.
Mirrored mosaics decorated walls in several buildings in this complex that dates to the 16th 
century. The last shah, the one deposed in 1979, had his coronation ceremony here in 1941.

The Tabiat or Nature Bridge crosses a major highway to connect two parks, one a super-modern sculpture park
and the other a pleasant woodlands with winding paths and, interestingly, a distant view
of something called the Holy Defense Museum, complete with a missile seemingly
ready to be launched.
     
Jane, Ali, Katy and me on the Nature Bridge.  The skyline
of northern Tehran and the Alborz Mountains can be seen
in the distance despite Tehran's near-constant smog.
The Aramis, though in a very busy part of this city, wasn’t near the bazaar or any other attractions that we wanted to see. Fortunately, Afshar was there to drive us to the bazaar, which was so crowded that the four of us had trouble staying together. We left the bazaar with a few purchases and found breathing space in the courtyard of a mosque.  Nearby was the Golestan Palace, a park-like complex of palaces and other royal buildings dating back to the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736). Its uncrowded grounds and buildings were a great respite after the bazaar. Lots of beautiful mosaics and stonework, along with the Persian love of mirrors and excessive decoration.
         The next day we visited the Tabiat (Nature) Bridge, a 2,000-ton three-level pedestrian bridge crossing a major highway to connect two city parks, Ab-o-Atash and Taleghani. The bridge offers amazing views of the city and the Alborz Mountains from its winding, interlocking walkways. It has a coffee shop, a restaurant and beautiful little gardens. It was designed by Leila Araghian, an award-winning Iranian architect.
       We started the longest leg of our Iran road trip on Monday, March 14, heading south/southeast to the desert oasis Mesr.  Unfortunately, none of us had looked at a map to see just how long a trip this would be.  It turned out to be almost 12 hours crammed into the little yellow taxi driving through featureless desert, with time out for a truck-stop snack during which one member of our little party fainted, possibly, it was ventured, as a result of fumes in the car.
Midnight at the oasis: The courtyard at Barandaz Lodge as seen from a roof terrace.
A couple of young men from Germany are in the lounging and dining alcove.
      
Our room at Barandaz Lodge. Sleeping on the floor
isn't so bad. 
 When fairly late in the evening we reached our destination, the mud-brick Barandaz Lodge (click HERE), dinner (tasty camel stew) and our rooms were waiting for us. During dinner the innkeeper told us that a government cleric would be visiting but that we shouldn’t be afraid. When the cleric arrived, he went to great lengths to tell us we were all welcome in Iran and that he hoped we enjoyed our visit. We saw him the next morning in a small pickup truck heading out perhaps to check on the action at some other inn.
We ate and slept on the floor, not at all unusual anywhere in Iran, and enjoyed the clean desert air. The next day we all rode camels over the sand dunes and had lunch, where we met a couple from Esfahan, which happened to be our next destination.
Here we are riding camels, accompanied
by two very young camels. It's much
appreciated that camels kneel to make
it easy for riders to get on. 
       Only four hours away, the man who was driving his own Peugeot 206 told us. We were on the road for maybe 20 minutes when he passed us. Four hours for him, maybe.  It would have been probably six hours for us had the throttle cable not broken, causing us to wait two hours or so on the side of the road before someone from a nearby town could come with a new cable and install it. At least we didn’t have to be towed.
         We arrived in Esfahan, often as not referred to as Isfahan (even highway signs are inconsistent on the spelling), around nine.  Here again not having a map posed a problem. Afshar’s approach was to constantly ask pedestrians and other drivers how to reach our hotel.  Unfortunately, few people know where everything is in their own towns, and our hotel, Hasht Behesht (click HERE), apparently isn’t well known despite being rated No. 1 on TripAdvisor. We could walk to everything we wanted to see from our hotel. Esfahan is the prettiest and most pleasant city we visited. It has the world’s second-largest public square, beautiful arched bridges and a busy but not-too-crowded bazaar. It also has at least one excellent restaurant, Shahrzad (click HERE), which was recommended by the Esfahan residents we met out in the desert, and a great breakfast/hookah place near the bazaar, Azadega Café (click HERE), which looks like the world’s funkiest junk shop. We had breakfast there twice, seated well away from the old men smoking hookahs. If you've clicked on the links, you know we relied on TripAdvisor in Iran. We also used the 2012 Lonely Planet guidebook.
Horse-drawn carriages offer rides around Esfahan's Naqsh-e Jahan ("Image of the World") square, also known
as Imam Square, which is the second-largest public square in the world. (Tiananmen in Bejing is the largest.)
The square, which dates to 1602 when Esfahan was the capital of Persia, is totally surrounded by uniform
 buildings with covered walkways and arches. The mosque that you see is Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah,
which was used only by the women of the shah's harem. The interior is basically one rather small
 room, covered floor to ceiling in dazzling tiles, with the niche for the prayer leader
especially beautiful. It was the only mosque we entered in Iran. 
        After two nights in Esfahan, we put our faith in Afshar once more and headed for Shiraz, the city where wine is thought to have originated. Of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran makes sure that wine is no longer available. Our arrival in Esfahan prepared us for our arrival in Shiraz, once again driving in circles and asking directions. Ali later would amuse us by mimicking the way Afshar shouted his questions at innocent pedestrians and drivers. Eventually we found our hotel, the Zandiyeh (click HERE), a new and quite posh hotel. When we realized that our window looked into an air shaft, my wife called the desk to ask if another room was available. The woman at the desk asked her to put “your husband” on the phone. She explained that the front desk could just as well speak with her but was unsuccessful in getting another room – the hotel was full. Judging by the busy lobby, most of the other guests were Iranians, many with children in tow.  The large breakfast buffet was much better than that at the Aramis in Tehran.  We ate one dinner and one late lunch in a wonderful little café near the hotel called Qavam (click HERE).  Ali knew and the rest of us came to know that this was truly Iranian home cooking. Another dinner was in a basement restaurant, Kateh Mas (click HERE), just outside the bazaar, complete with live (and loud) music and a salad bar.  Before going to Kateh Mas, we were seated at the restaurant Shapouri Garden (click HERE), which is in a beautiful old villa surrounded by wonderful gardens. People pay just to visit the gardens. However, after seeing the menu, mostly fast-food kebabs, we left. Shapouri, highly rated in TripAdvisor, is a warning not to take those ratings too seriously.
The remains of Apadana Palace at Persepolis. Bas-reliefs depict delegations coming to
meet the king, Xerxes I, dressed in elaborate robes and bearing gifts. Xerxes I (519-465 B.C.)
built the palace. Some think that Alexander the Great burned Persepolis in revenge
for the burning of Athens by Xerxes I, who is known as Ahasuerus in the biblical
Book of Esther.


The Hall of 100 Columns, with the Apadana Palace
in the background. Note how tiny the people appear
among these gigantic columns.

The reason for going all the way to Shiraz was to visit Persepolis, the captivating ruins of the capital of the ancient Persian empire.  It’s about an hour outside the city, surrounded by mountains and desert. The ruins, covered by sand for centuries until being excavated in the 1930s, are in amazingly good shape. The city, built by the dynastic successors of Cyrus the Great (580 to 529 B.C.), was destroyed in 330 B.C. by Alexander the Great, who, had he not conquered Persia, might be known simply as Alexander. The buildings were made of stone but the roofs were made of wood. Alexander’s forces set a fire that consumed the roofs and destabilized the columns, pillars and walls, many of which collapsed.  As is seen in much of modern Iran, there was an emphasis on decorating every surface. Standing figures bearing arms were carved into door posts, rows of soldiers are seen following a king on walls, and camels, lions and other animals are beside you on stairways. Signage around the site is in Farsi and English, making Persepolis understandable even if you knew little about it before arriving.  Some foreigners, and this was the only place in Iran where we saw many other international tourists, had hired English-speaking guides, but they seemed to merely recite what was on the signs.
The Gate of All Nations, almost as impressive today as it must have been in the fourth century B.C.

 
      
        One of the site’s many highlights comes as you enter through the “Gate of All Nations,” which apparently was built as a series of grand arches, one of which still stands almost intact. The “All Nations” refers to Persia’s 32 or so conquered countries, which stretched from Ethiopia and Egypt to the Indus River at the height of its power.  The symbol of Cyrus (known as Kourosh in Farsi), a king with the wings of an eagle, can be seen all over Iran in inexpensive as well as fine jewelry, in china decoration and here at Persepolis. The symbol along with what is thought to be Cyrus’s guiding principal (“Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”) is reproduced in various languages on everything from high-quality silver tea trays to T-shirts. Cyrus, by the way, is often credited as a pioneer in recognizing human rights thanks to the way in which he administered his vast empire: I am Cyrus. King of the world. When I entered Babylon... I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land... I kept in view the needs of people and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being... I put an end to their misfortune. The Great God has delivered all the lands into my hand; the lands that I have made to dwell in a peaceful habitation….”  Persepolis, by the way, was not built by slave labor. One part of the site revealed 38,000 or so clay tablets bearing the names, jobs and wages of workers.
        The next day was the last with our taxi driver, Afshar.   He first took us to the Garden of Paradise (Barh-e Eram), a Unesco-listed botanical park surrounding a Qajar-era (1795-1925) villa. Most signage was in English as well as Farsi. This being during the run-up to Nowruz, the park was packed with Iranian holiday-makers, many outfitted with selfie sticks.
     
The villa at the heart of Bahr-e Eram, a
Unesco-recognized botanical garden in Shiraz.
After the park, we were off to Shiraz’s very modern airport for our flight back to Tehran. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed. And delayed again.  After waiting a few hours, our son-in-law was able to get us on another plane to Tehran. While we were waiting, I got up to walk around and a woman asked Jane if she could sit by her. Jane nodded “no” and the woman instead sat nearby.  Later the woman came by with two small boxes for Jane and Katy, who wasn’t there at the moment. Each box held a ring, apparently from a shop at the airport. She wanted to welcome us to Iran and for us to think well of Iran.  I’m willing to bet that nothing like that happens at any airport in the U.S.
       Upon arrival at Tehran’s domestic airport, we were again met by Ali’s extremely helpful brother. He drove us all to Qa'emshahr in Mazandaran province, where the four of us stayed very comfortably in a furnished and modern two-bedroom apartment loaned to us by one of our son-in-law’s sisters and her husband.  They were there to greet us when we arrived well after midnight.  The house was stocked with fresh fruit, candies and cookies, all for us. Iranian hospitality is a wondrous thing. The traditional Nowruz items – a miniature Koran, goldfish swimming in a bowl, a grassy planter, nuts and fruits – were set out on a table.
   We spent the next 11 or 12 days here getting know Katy’s new in-laws, a large and very friendly family. Ali’s parents and a couple of his uncles live in Vaskas, a nearby farming village. We spent almost every evening at his parents’ comfortable, marble-tiled house, especially the five nights of dancing that preceded the wedding. The actual farming is outside the village. His father grows navel oranges, sour oranges, sweet lemons (a lemon with a mild sweet taste that can be eaten like an orange), kiwi fruit, sugar cane (he makes a wonderful molasses-like paste that’s used in sweets), and rice.  Katy’s new mother-in-law seemed to cook nonstop, assisted by her three daughters, other relatives and a very nice neighbor from across the street.  She must have served dinner to a hundred people the evening before the wedding, organizing it like a field marshal with her grandsons and others forming human chains to get trays of food to all the guests.
Family portrait. Katy holds two of her four new nieces. Ali's father is
at far right. Ali's mother is at far right in back row; beside her is
her other son, Ali's brother and now our friend, with his wife and
his 12-year-old daughter. Just right of Ali is the oldest of
his three sisters. This is on the front porch of Ali's parents'
very comfortable house in Vaskas. 
  
        Most meals were eaten on the floor in one of two large and comfortable sitting rooms.  Lunch is the main meal: saffron-drizzled rice, crusts of rice from the bottom of the pan (Iranians cook rice halfway with water, then pour it off and finish it dry, with the rice on the bottom of the pan sticking, browning and becoming even more delicious), soup, yogurt with spinach, fresh salads, and multiple main dishes that might include chicken fesenjoon (chicken cooked with a pomegranate and ground walnut paste). Or duck prepared the same way. Or braised beef.  Or lamb or chicken or chopped-beef kebabs. A favorite of mine was abgoosht, a stew made with lamb or beef. The broth is drained from the stew and served as a soup. The remaining meat and veggies are then mashed into a thick paste that is eaten as a separate dish. Individual servings of this are called dizi in restaurants.  We had it a couple of times in restaurants, but the best was at home in Vaskas.
A fireworks walk was part of the wedding
celebration for Katy and Ali. As they walked
along this path, fireworks were set off in sync
with their steps. The wedding, which was at a
wedding salon (which in the U.S. would be
called a banquet hall) was preceded by five
nights of dance parties at Ali's parents' home.
        We left the Qa'emshahr/Vaskas area only once during our time there, and that was for a quick trip with one of Ali’s cousins to see the Caspian Sea at Babolsar, a seaside resort complete with high-rise condo buildings and fast-food restaurants. It was a cool and overcast day, not ideal for hitting the beach, but the litter strewn everywhere along the seaside would have kept us out no matter the weather. We did, however, see some fully-clothed people in the water. Women can’t wear bathing suits unless they’re at a women-only private pool.  We also stopped in at a small museum in nearby Sari, the capital of Mazandaran province, and drove deep into the countryside to visit a huge dam.  On the drive we sang along to a CD the cousin had compiled for the ride: Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and others.
This meal with Ali's  many cousins, aunts and uncles was our last dinner in Vaskas.
 It was at the home of one of Ali's uncles and was yet another splendid example of Iranian
hospitality. You may notice that almost everyone has a small plastic bowl of greens.
These were at every dinner: undressed fresh arugula and other herbs that are eaten
by the handful or added to other dishes.  Katy took this photo. 

          We finally left Qa'emshahr on Wednesday, March 30, for Tehran, where Jane and I spent the night at the Mashad Hotel (click HERE) while Katy and Ali stayed at his brother’s apartment.  The hotel is around the corner from the old American embassy where more than 60 U.S. workers were taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979.  They were released Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. (Reagan, of course, went on to befriend the radical Iranian government when he violated U.S. laws to sell it weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.)  The fence surrounding the embassy complex still has anti-American murals from those days. Tehran residents today seem ashamed of the hostage-taking and want reminders of it erased.
        We spent our last day in Iran touring the city with one of Ali’s friends and his wife. We had hoped to visit the famous Jewels Museum, which contains the Peacock Throne of the shahs, but it was closed.  Instead we went to the Niyavaran Palace Museum, home of the Pahlavi shahs, in a large park-like setting in northern Tehran in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. They lived regally but not quite on the scale of Louis XIV. After a final goodbye dinner at Katy’s new brother-in-law’s apartment, we left for the airport and our 3:50 a.m. flight to Vienna.  We were at Washington Dulles by early afternoon Friday. Katy and Ali flew on to San Diego, and we were home on Tilghman Island in time for dinner. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Africa: Sands of the Kalahari

These photos were all taken in the Kalahari Desert, where we stayed at Kalahari Plains in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This camp is one in the Wilderness chain of safari camps (click HERE for the Wilderness website).  We met fellow guests who were staying at a string of Wilderness camps. The company has its own fleet of small aircraft to pick up guests at airports and to shuttle them between camps. It's also known for stressing local culture. At Kalahari Plains, we were met by a number of the women employees singing a cappella in either Swahili or a local tribal language. There was also "dancing Bushmen" at one dinner, and the bush walk (see photo below).  
       For more photos from our early 2016 Africa trip, keep scrolling and hitting "older posts" when you get to the bottom (before the canal boat photo). Click HERE for a written account of the trip, along with links to Kalahari Plains and all the other safari lodges and camps we visited. 
Northern black korhaan.

Black-backed jackal.

Black-headed heron.





Some watering holes look a lot like mud puddles. . 


This was our introduction to kudus, We later saw these antelope
alive and well elsewhere in Botswana.

An oryx, also known as a gemsbok.


Adbim's stork.

Southern giraffes; in Tanzania we saw
Maasia giraffes. We were told there are seven
different types of giraffe. The southern
giraffes' color is a bit more muted than
that of the Maasai. We saw only those two types.




Hartebeest.



Our canvas-walled cabin at Kalahari Plains. We slept every night
under the stars on the raised deck. The staff put mattresses on the
floor for us and made up very comfortable beds. No dew, so
everything was dry when we woke up.


One night at Kalahari Plains, dinner was served outdoors. The bonfire
is a ritual at most safari camps. Everyone sits around and chats before dinner.



This San Bushman, an employee at Kalahari Plains safari camp, traded his
 usual clothes for traditional Bushman attire (no idea if anyone still wears loincloths
in real life) to take us on a walk in the bush. Here he's demonstrating
how to make a simple snare for trapping small game.

Black mamba snakes aren't always black.


Our guide guessed that this black mamba was more than two meters long.