“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Iran December 2008

This December (2008), I had some free time so decided to check out the skiing scene in Iran. There are several ski fields near Tehran: Shemshak, Dizin, Darbanshar, Touchal. I also decided to try out www.couchsurfing.org as a surfer instead of a host. Great way to see the real Iran!

I took a tour --at 6am a bus picked me up at the house I was staying in North Tehran. It's a good thing I wasn't sleepy as the loud boppy music that was coming out of the speakers was young and vibrant, just like most of the people on the bus. I would say what a way to meet gorgeous Iranian men -- ride the ski bus, except, oh well, they were all under 20! The bus driver was clapping and energetic (singing) bus and sometimes it seemed as if the bus drove itself --alarmingly, we passed two accidents!

The ski fashion was interesting. In most of the world, everyone is wearing snowboarding fashion, but in Tehran, it didn't matter if you wore ski racing gear from the 70s or now -- it's all fashionable and costs money! Ski suits I haven't seen since my childhood were common.

Half way, of course I needed to go to the loo. Have you ever tried squatting in ski boots? I wasn't impressed.

Many people asked me what the condition of the equipment was like. Well, it wasn't like Georgia. The lifts look they were built in the 1970s - no wonder they shut down one day a week for maintenance! The conditions were fabulous (at first). A beautiful sunny day with lovely powder and no trees, just like NZ. However, they also don't feel it necessary to supplement their feelings of inadequacy by having a million snow makers. They say there's never not been snow, so no worries! There were a few too many pomas, though, and I have quite forgotten how to ride them! I guess I'm just being lazy and not challenging myself. When did I become so cautious?

Anyway, with cheap prices and beautiful skies, how can I complain. However, after lunch, the weather moved in, and even in the antique cabinas -- it snowed inside! Door were held shut, but barely. I was amused to see how the snow stuck to all the hair gel on the men!! I guess where it's an expensive sport, it's about fashion and not talent -- perhaps like the japanese were in Queenstown when I was learning to ski. For example, I was quite impressed with the fashion daring of the ski suit that was all white with checkers and white with alternating colored stripes! However, the conversations I had were interesting: One handsome young thing said: How long are you staying? Another: Don't ever go shopping by yourself. Another: I want your blonde hair and white skin (sad!), etc, etc!

One of the best experiences I had while I was there, however, was the night of the winter solstice. In Iran it's called 'Shab Yal dar' (longest night/milod birth). It was so interesting to discover that their calendar is solar and based on zodiac (12 Angels of Ancient Iran). I also discovered that when I insisted on pronouncing Iran as the sound in Arabic, I was actually wrong. Iran = Ayran = not Ir but ay.

Anyway, the wonderful opportunity to go and spend the longest night with elders and recite poetry was truly magical. I was shamed in the lack of poetry I have memorized. While they are reading from ancient Farsi scripts (sometimes even in a competitive game where the end must be beginning of next quote). It was so amazing to also discover the historical connections. Farsi = there is no 'p' in arabic so it was actually parsi = Persia = Persepolis. The Parsis in India were the Zoroastrians. Iran included Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, so all speak Parsi in some way, so I was delighted to hear some of the Azeri on the street: e.g. beli (yes), yeni (new). They also don't call it Armenia but 'Armentistan'.

Iran was wonderfully cosmopolitan with French, Swiss, American, Turkish and other connections becoming immediately apparent. They are incredibly educated, and have a strong heritage. In the family I visited, 4 in family of 15 spoke English: how many in my family could show the same variety by speaking another language or more than one? The 94 year old uncle quoted me poetry in English and I couldn't even remember one poem from high school!

I did a little bit of touring in Tehran as well, because the weather wasn't so hot for skiing after all -- I went up the ski field that overlooks Tehran and was half way up when the wind increased and they asked us all to go down again.

There were some interesting old photos in Golestan Palace downtown. I was fascinated to see the Armenian women with tall hats and mouth/nose covers -- not just a Muslim tradition? Especially amazing was the photo of the Zoroastrian tower of silence with decaying bodies inside. What an amazing practice! There were also lovely images of musicians with neat shoes, and elaborate clothing all trimmed neatly with hats and traditional women making butter in a skin.

I took the metro everywhere, usually going into the special women's carriage. I thought it was interesting to imagine that Tehran in it's essence, seemed to me to be a cross between Syria and Korea, or maybe I was just imagining it!? However, in neither of those places did I have to wear the frustrating cloaks and layers that Iran requires! Then again, why is world so fascinated with jeans, anyway?

I ended the day with a trip to the Gem Museum. Never have I seen so many gems in one room. If you wore them now, many people would think them gaudy, ostentatious and over the top... I don't even buy fake stuff that looks like that, but I suppose to have the gems and look rich was the whole point.

Photos: The decorations at Golestan Palace. Me with the topled Shah's boots at his old palace. Views of Tehran from ski field.
NB: I finished writing this on January 5, 2010.

Monday, December 22, 2008

From Tehran

And wouldn't you know it.... Facebook is blocked in Iran. Why am I suprised? What I'm pissed off about is that because I've been out of the "controlled" zone for 6 months, I've forgotten all the web proxies to get around it! Oh well...

What a great place this is! As I always do, I've been debating back and forth about whether I'd like to live here, but of course there are too many reasons on both sides, it would have to be for fate to decide!

I would love: the welcoming, friendly Iranians, the gorgeous Iranian men, the majestic Taborz mountains on the skyline, the sheer size (many places to explore), the four ski fields within driving (or taxiing) distance (FOUR!! And two go from telecabinas within the city!), the four seasons, the chic modernity, the well-dressed locals, the eternal search for good shopping, the narrow windy streets, exotic places like Persepolis, Shiraz and Esfahan within travelling distance, the fascinating Persian history and language.

I wouldn't love: the aggressive men, having to be bundled up all the time (I thought I wouldn't mind, but after whole days wearing a headscarf, I just want to TAKE IT OFF), the lack of cafes and restaurants, religious prudishness, having to search for the shopping, the sheer size of the city, the traffic, the narrow windy streets, that I've already exhausted most of the interesting muesums, the tiny international school (only 100 or so kids!) and the lack of many nationalities, the one hour trek to the airport, streets and streets of bland rolling suburbia, the insults towards Arabic as a result of the overt nationalism.

Um... and probably lots more but I can't remember them now.

I'm going to sign out now because it's time in the internet cafe, and I'll write more later! (Lots to say!)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Myanmar: To go or not to go?


'The Dirty List' was published this week with a list of companies that have relations with the Myanmar junta government. It's an interesting assortment of companies, large and small, predictably with many from China and Thailand, but other big companies as well. While I don't really want to comment on companies and corporations going to Myanmar, other than to say that they are certainly in many other disreputable places without receiving criticism. Practices of corporations may not necessarily be good in their home country, and may well be very good in their host country and it is not good to generalize them all.

One interesting criticism that Myanmar travellers often receive is that they should not travel there because travelling there is helping the Myanmar junta. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is one advocate of this argument.

First of all, I honestly believe that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for so long that she may not necessarily be the best expert on matters in her own country, and she is certainly restricted in seeing the full picture by her advisors and the government.

Secondly, I think the advice not to travel is very limited. I think that needs clarification. I wholeheartedly agree that the large tour agencies that offer package tours where the tourists see nothing but their tour bus and 5 star hotels (which are very government influenced) are not advisable. However, I truly think that cutting a country off from foreign witnesses allows the problems to prevail. Independent travelers are a necessity in a place like Myanmar. Getting to the out of the way places means that people are seeing and witnessing and contributing in ways that get directly to the people.

I lived in Myanmar for three years as a teacher, so all those axes that should fall, will. But education, regardless of whether it is the poorest villager or the richest businessman's son is about awareness, and if we are to ensure that future generations of Myanmar leaders are not the corrupt madmen of the present day, then we need to make them aware, not only of their own country, but of the world, and human nature, and people and compassion.

I would never want to sanction the Myanmar government in any way. However, the situation is far more complex than the black and white that foreign groups often portray it. Many of the so-called "government-owned" properties are in fact owned simply by rich Asian businessmen who may have made deals with the government for permission (and this is done everywhere). That doesn't make me any more willing to put money in their pockets, but it does affect the overall issues. Yes, the people of Myanmar are some of the poorest and most needy in the world, but politicians will be politicians wherever they are, and corruption exists in most places, so it will never be eradicated. What areas can we improve on and affect? Health, education. The UN chooses to have a presence in Myanmar to aid the people, and we can support the people through them. Yes, the Myanmar government charges ridiculous prices of foreigners for its sights, but so do many places in the world. Yes, there are fees and charges hidden into many costs in Myanmar, but for just as many fees you pay to the government, you are at the same time contributing to a real person's need to make a living and support his/her family.

I have felt sad when friends or associates of mine have chosen not to visit Myanmar for fear of aiding the government. Every one of them would have been independent traveller, and would have maintained their contributions to the junta's pockets at a minimum. Thankfully, very few people that I know would come on a package tour, and I recommend all those that are considering that to look elsewhere for such pursuits. It is a truly beautiful country with a long-suffering, gentle, welcoming, friendly Buddhist populace. I cannot recommend experiencing a trip there, and meeting and helping those people that you can, any higher.

Court Documents via Facebook??


The world is constantly evolving!! Apparently it is now legal to find someone on facebook and issue them with a court order and it is binding if other methods of contacting them have failed. An Aussie couple that were avoiding their house payments and court dates, were told they'd lose there house.

When I first read the headline, and I was disgusted with Australia (but it was a bit sensationalist and written to shock), but now that I've read the article, I actually agree. If someone is being difficult by not leaving a forwarding address and ignoring other contacts, then they deserve to lose their rights. Of course if there is a legitimate reason for their being out of contact, then it should be able to be appealed, but that's quite unlikely if they're using Facebook constantly.

What next in this modern evolving world??

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Iran, Dubai, Oman and beyond!

This Friday, I'm flying to Tehran to try and see what the skiing scene is like in Iran! I've heard it's good and cheap, and honestly, how many people do you know who say that's what they did for their weekend? It's quite exciting. I have to remember to get some ID photos taken that have a scarf, and let's hope getting a visa on entry is hassle free (and possible)! I'm not sure how well I'll deal with skiing in a skirt, but hopefully the dress code is more lax on a ski field! Lovely Iran - here I come!!

After that, I'm going to join my family in Dubai for yummy Christmas dinner! On Boxing Day, we'll pile into an SUV convoy and drive over into Oman. I'm excited to see the turtles, the beautiful canyons, the desert, the cities and of course the warmth (it snowed in Baku this morning!). I'm probably going to go down to Salalah if I can for the last week, then have a couple of shopping days in Dubai at the end. What fun!


I spent our long weekend last week on a very quick trip to Scotland to visit Sam. I only had four days, and one of those was spent entirely in travel. Still, what fun!!

I arrived at noon and Sam patiently waited while I spent a small fortune in the super Glasgow shops! We spent an evening on the town going to places like her local pub The Islay, ABC Club, Buddha Bar, but missed out on Nicensleazy and other exciting places! What great live music! What delicious cider! :)

On Sunday, I made poor Sam get up early so that we could catch the train up to Loch Lomond (1 hour away). Thankfully, the entire time I was there I had spectacular (if crisp) clear weather. Loch Lomond reminded me so much of Central Otago! I can see why the Scots felt so at home there! The beautiful tree-less mountains of brown tussuck-like stuff, covered in a nice dusting of snow was just like the hills behind Cromwell, not to mention Cecil Peak across from Lake Wakatipu! Gorgeous! They even had their own 'Maid of the Loch' steamship just like the Earnslaw! We missed the train back by seconds, but enjoyed some country time. Sunday night saw us in the church that has been converted into a bar/nightclub. The founders must be turning over in their graves, but it was wonderfully modern and a sense of today! Great use of space!!

While Sam prepared for her presentation on Monday, I took the train 1 hour to Edinburgh to explore that majestic touristy city! I spent pounds on Princes St, wandered the Castle, had my ears split open by the 1pm cannon, admired the Scot crown jewels, and wandered the Royal Mile! A lovely last dinner in the Islay with Sam's mates that was supposed to be Christmas Dinner, but needed pre-ordering!

I love the bookshops, the clothing, and the amazing thing was the Scots themselves!! I never really thought about it, but they look similar. There really is a typical 'Scot' look, and now that I've seen it, I recognize it in my Scot students here in Baku. It's hard to describe, but seems to be wide high cheekbones and large eyes, but there is also a smaller narrow-face, pointy pixie look. An English colleague mentioned that she can often tell a regional English as well, such as Cornish. Because I come from such a poly-glot NZ/Aust/USA background, everyone is distinct, but it is just fascinating to see a place with a 'typical' look!!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Reading the news

I was reading The Economist on the plane home today and it had an article about Iraq ('Well, is it victory or humiliation?' Nov 29-Dec 5). It talked about Iraqis deciding for themselves when America would leave. They mentioned that America would not be getting the bases it wanted. I never even thought about them wanting that, but of course there have interests in the area and that would be a perfect way to protect them.

As for America invading Syria and Iran from Iraq, I don't doubt that they have done that but they will do that while they have control of the area. It's all about multiple agendas. I don't know if I agree with them when they say that the Iraqi Sunnis have rejected al-Qaeda but they seem to think so although they do say that Iraq 'remains violent and fractious'.

The most interesting part however, was when they mentioned the connection or non-connection with Iran. Although Shias are close to Iran, Iraq's Shias and Sunnis share an identity as Arabs that may encourage them to resist an Iranian takeover of their politics. When America departs, a lot of Iraqis will want Iran to butt out too. Very perceptive! It's so easy to focus on the bad that America is doing that we often forget about the other parties to the issue. Poor Iraq!!

I often think that if Myanmar didn't have such a lazily corrupt government/dictatorship then it might descend into similar sectarian violence. Purely hypothetical of course, but it does make you think.