SYNOPSIS:  An introduction of Nicola.   A few notes on Noruz.  How to eat Dizi.  One final word on clothing.  Fires or fear?  My way or the local way?  Those are the questions.

Sale No Mobarak!  – Happy New Year!

It started tonight.  I have no idea why all this time I was told, or thought, that Noruz would start on the 19th.  Perhaps, there are a few starting dates?  There certainly does not seem to be a clear end for this holiday.  For the next few weeks, Iran will celebrate an ancient festival that goes all the way back to Zoroastrian times.  It is unique to Iran.  When I booked my flight to Beirut and back out of Teheran, way back in Ann Arbor, I had a Syrian operator on the line.  He was a nice guy who had a lot of good ideas and knowledge of the Middle East.   When I pointed out to him that travel might be difficult during Noruz, he was first surprised – what is that?  And then he rejected the notion as impossible – there is no such thing as another New Year celebration.  New Year is in January.  He is a Muslim and he knows that there is no New Year festival during March.  Guess what?  There is.  Interestingly enough, when I talked to the four girls from Ahvaz a couple of days ago and mentioned to them that Noruz is a very ancient festival, considered quite un-Islamic– they were not aware of the roots of this holiday at all!  One thing you could tell tonight was that the government was out in full force.  Police and army was everywhere, all day, even in little arch-religious Shushtar.  As I was happily posting yesterday’s blog last night, Nicola ran some errands.  She witnessed an arrest in the main circle of town.  Quite demonstratively, a young guy was hand-cuffed and put away.  She described it as a show of power; perhaps, something like setting an example for others?  It was clear who was in control of this day.

Because of this incident, we asked for a male escort back to our hotel.  One the way, the young man told us that last year’s Noruz took place in quite a different atmosphere.  Many people were having one of the traditional fire-jumping ceremonies which usher in the celebrations.  This year, there is fear.  In less conservative towns, perhaps even defiance.  Nonetheless, when we did our “good-buy Shusthar” walk across the dam behind our hotel to have one last look at the night-lit city, we saw about four fires burning along the shore.  Aside from a few fireworks going off later, the night was quiet.

Speaking of fear or defiance…  No, I am neither afraid nor defiant, but I have landed somewhere in between as far as my clothes are concerned.  I promise, this is the last time I will bother you with my clothes issue!  For so many days I tried to fit in.  Wearing the right color, wearing the right shoes, wearing something that blends in and pleases the population.  It does not seem to make a difference.  Therefore I have started to wear what I want, including my all red outfit.  I know, Sepideh and Nikki, you will gasp right now!   J  But it isn’t red-red.  It’s a brick-red, brownish red.  I am wearing the thinnest scarf that I have which came with that outfit.  I am no longer sweating and I can hardly feel my scarf.   In fact it often looks like I am not wearing one at all, but I am!  In other words I follow the letter of the law but don’t care anymore what the locals make of it.  I am different and I have to live with it.  Nicola is wearing a lot more of the “right things”:  Jeans and men’s shirts.  And she tightens a nice silk scarf in the front under her chin.  When I asked her how she can stand it, she shrug it off with a smile:  “If it’s good enough for her majesty, it’s good enough for me!”

There will be stares and some condescending remarks no matter what we wear.  And there will be lovely and friendly encounters as there have been all along.  There will be less of both, I expect, as I am traveling with Nicola now.  Two people are a very different, more common sight, and a more acceptable unit.  We are treated with a lot more distance now.

Speaking of Nicola.  Some of you don’t know who she is, so here is a bit of background:  Two years ago when I planned my Pakistan trip and wanted a travel companion, nowhere in my circle of friends or acquaintances was anyone to be found who would even consider traveling with me.  In my desperation I went to the internet.  That’s how I found Saeed, our wonderful travel agent in Pakistan.  He helped me to connect via internet with Nicola.  She had contacted him a few months earlier for long-term plans of traveling to Pakistan “someday”.  That was more than I had and so I emailed her.  We started to communicate.  It turned out that she was a retired police woman from London, very close to my age and a world traveler.  She seemed perfect.  Her timing was a lot more flexible than mine, so she was persuaded to join me over Christmas break two years ago for a three week round trip through Pakistan.

As a police woman she was not easily deterred by travel warnings or a country as off the beaten path as Pakistan.  And she probably knew that it would be hard for her at any later time to find a travel companion as well.  We met for the first time in a hotel room in Rawalpindi and we got along great for the trip.  It turned out to be perfect for both of our needs.

Quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves, half way through our trip, in the middle of a national upheaval.  That was after the shocking assassination of Benazir Bhutto during the election campaign period in December of 2007.  I think any other travel companion would have followed Saeed’s call from Islamabad to immediately return and to cut our trip short.  Against all advice, we ventured on with our wonderful guide and driver.  But even when they had to leave us, we decided to go on via plane to Sindh, at the time the most volatile province since Bhutto’s family was from there.  We made it all the way down to one of our main sights of the whole trip:  Mohenjo Daro, the capital of the ancient Indus River Civilization.  Nicola decided that all of her remaining time needed to be spent there.  I however, wanted to visit the Bhutto mausoleum, which was only 35 km away from us; yet it seemed at the time as unreachable as the moon…  One of the absolute highlights of the trip for me was to be able to press on and to make it to Bhutto’s grave as literally the first Western visitor who was not coming as an army-escorted head of state.  I will never forget the emotions this caused in me and in the locals at the site. 

Naturally, I approached her again this year to ask if she would be one of the three travel companions I was trying to line up for this trip:  One for Lebanon, one for Syria, and one, her, for Iran.  All three women first signed up and then serious issues; health-, work-, and family-related, prevented all of them from coming.  Hi Beth – I hope your operation went well!  And hi Barbara – I hope your assistant had a healthy baby!  I have been thinking of you both as I went along and hope that someday, you will be able to make this trip by yourself or with someone fun in tow.  For now, I hope that my blog filled in some holes for you.  Nicola, was focusing on the arrival of a new grand-child and her mother’s care needs.

When everyone canceled on me, I reconfigured this trip as a solo excursion.  Most people thought the idea of traveling to these countries was bad enough, but to consider going all by myself was insane!  I never felt that way.  My general philosophy is this:  If there are millions of people who can live a normal life in any given country then I can live and survive there, too.   In other words, I draw the line at serious natural disasters like famines or floods, and at war.  I will not travel to a disaster or war zone with a tourist or traveler’s agenda.  Yes, I considered going to Afghanistan, but at a time when military activities were very much restricted to the South and when Kabul and the North were accessible.

Nicola’s grand-son has been born four weeks ago.  Congratulations!  And she was able to set up her mother’s care with a lot of trusted people.  And so, here we are; a travel team of two after all, at least for the next 10 days.

Yesterday, we roamed around Shushtar again.  See Day 57.  And last night we had Dizi at the beautifully restored Mustafi House, a traditional Khuzestan courtyard villa overlooking the river and an ancient bridge.  Old Khuzestan doors have a peculiar feature I have not seen anywhere else before: They have two door knockers which each make a different sound.  One is for female visitors and one for males.  I think, in a culture where women have to strictly cover up in the presence of any unrelated male a feature such as this comes in really handy.

I had been curious about the Dizi dish for a while.  It is considered the cheap, poor folk’s food.  Quite a sad label for as interesting and tasty a dish we had!  A dark goulash type of meat and vegetables in a seasoned sauce was served to us in a metal can.  We were instructed to pour the solids into a bowl that came with a pestle and the liquids into a deep plate.  You now can soak bread in the soup while you use pieces of bread to pick up the solid parts.  We would have liked to eat the whole thing with rice.  We asked for it twice.  But the server simply refused to bring us rice.  This dish has to be eaten with bread!  End of discussion.  Some things you just have to do the local way, no matter what.

Good night.