By Laura Lee Huttenbach
A mother-daughter cruise to Iran.
“You know, honey, I was thinking it would be fun to go on a cruise together,” said my mom. I looked up from my computer screen. My hair was unwashed, my body covered in stray highlighter, my eyes droopy and bloodshot. I’d been writing for days. A cruise? Sparkly blue Caribbean waters and fun fruity cocktails with miniature umbrellas made me forget about my work. “I know you don’t have any money,” my mom continued, “so I’d be willing to pay for most of it, and it would be my birthday present if you came along. What do you think?”
“Of course, Mom! What a great opportunity for us to bond.” She smiled. “Where did you say it went again?” I asked.
Mom shifted her glance to the floor and pushed a piece of hair behind her ear. “It’s going to—uh, do you know where Persepolis is?”
It sounded familiar. “Mm, Persepolis,” I said, racking my brain. “Oh how delightful. Is that the Greek Isles?”
“Not exactly. Persepolis was the capital of the Persian empire.” Persia? “It’s in, uh, Iran.” She mumbled the last part about the country.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I swear I thought you just said we were going on a cruise to Iran.”
“The cruise is going to Iran. There are some great ruins there.” Is the whole country not in ruins? Suddenly burkas and Ahmadenijad elbowed away my visions of pristine beaches and piña coladas. We’d be visiting Shiraz, not drinking it.Maybe they made tan-through burkas?
In summer 2001, my family had taken a cruise to Alaska aboard the maiden voyage of a vessel called The Spirit of Oceanus. The ship was small, accommodating 120 passengers, and the cruise line, Cruise West, organized academic lectures and daily outings. The dress code was casual. The food was delicious. We learned a lot and got a good sense of place. It was perfect for our family.
In 2008, when my mom received news that the same line was organizing an around-the-world voyage on the same vessel, she was interested. The “Treasures of Persia” segment caught her eye. It left from Mumbai, India with ports-of-call in Bandar Abbas, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. From Bandar Abbas, there was an optional flight to Shiraz and a day trip to Persepolis. She had to go. But she also had two bad knees and needed help traveling. “Who could I convince to go to Iran with me?” she wondered. And that’s how I got the invitation.
There’s a couple things you need to know about me to understand my reluctance to accept this invitation. While I adore traveling, cruising is not my means. I’m a backpacker. I’d spent the second half of 2006 traversing the east coast of Africa by bus, train, donkey cart, and other local public transport. I visited places that required more time and patience than money. My interest was cultural, which was a good thing, because that was all I could afford. I was dirty at least four of seven days and wrinkled all the time.
I like to push the envelope and avoid places that Travel and Leisure recommend. Zimbabwe had been one of my favorite countries. I learned to distinguish between a nation’s people and politics. But Iran? There wasn’t a day that passed without an article about the country’s nuclear proliferation and deteriorating relations with the West. I’d never been to the Middle East, and, as an independent woman, I didn’t really want to.
I told my mom about my concerns. “I’ve always wanted to go to Persepolis,” she said. “I’m gonna go with or without you.” There it was. I could join my mom, or I could worry about her for three weeks while she was on the trip.
“Could we at least wait a little while to see how things are closer to departure?” I asked.
“The price will go up,” she said. “And it might be a popular leg.”
“You really think a cruse going to Iran is going to sell out?” I asked. “Is Tehran supposed to be lovely in the spring or something?” We booked our tickets that afternoon, in late-October 2009.
Packing my bags, I’ll admit that I enjoyed folding more than two pairs of pants and four shirts for a fifteen-day vacation. I brought jewelry and accessories, even makeup. Maybe, I thought, there’d be another crazy son or grandson accompanying their parents on the cruise. I was going to look cute in case.
My mom and I boarded the plane to Mumbai on April 3rd, 2010. Our thirty-hour trip was relatively uneventful. Our layover in New York was too long, our layover in Paris too short. But we made our flights and were relieved to set foot in the Mumbai airport at midnight on April 4th. It wasn’t until I saw the same red suitcase pass three times on the carousel that I began to worry our bags hadn’t made the Paris flight. Then I heard the Air France representative calling our name. “We’re the Huttenbachs,” I told her.
“Oh, welcome to Bombay,” she said. “Unfortunately, your luggage did not make the flight. But don’t worry, everything is scheduled to arrive tomorrow night on the same flight.” My mom and I looked at each other.
“You see,” I said, “that is actually a big problem. We leave tomorrow afternoon on a cruise, so we won’t be here to collect the bags.”
“That’s no problem,” she said. “We’ll just send them to your first port-of-call.”
“That may be a problem too. Our first port-of-call is three days away, and it’s in Bandar Abbas, Iran.”
“Iran?” she said. “Did you say you’re going on a cruise to Iran?”
“I know,” I said. “Don’t ask.” She told me they didn’t have any partner airlines with service to Iran, so they would have to send the bags to our next port-of-call in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, on April 11th. I did the calculations in my head—seven days without our bags—no retail stores aboard the ship, and something told me that Iranian fashion wouldn’t suit my tastes. The bus was picking us up from our hotel the next morning at noon. We were supposed to do a quick day tour, then board the ship.
That night, staying in a luxurious room at the Trident Hotel (known for scenic views and 2008 terrorist attacks), I opened the fancy bar of facial soap in the bathroom and rinsed my shirt and underwear in the sink at 1am.
Our wake-up call rang promptly at 8:30am. “Ready for some shopping?” I asked my mom. I negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to the West End Mall, which didn’t open until 10:30am. We were supposed to be back in the lobby at 11:45. We killed time and money at a few tunic shops, and we were the first customers inside the West End at 10:34. We threw on more tunics and button-downs and other conservative apparel that didn’t fit but we bought anyways.
I carried our bags downstairs to the lobby and left my mom to hold the bus while I went to find one more clothing item—a long, loose skirt. A lady from reception grabbed my hand and took me to a store in an alley behind the hotel. I bought a skirt and another tunic for my mom, then ran back to the bus. Everyone was already on board and looked at their watches as I entered the vehicle. “We’ve been waiting for you,” said the tour guide.
Walking to the back of the bus with my head lowered, I offered a mumbled “sorry,” which no one accepted. “I got you another tunic,” I told my mom, taking the seat next to her.
“Oh it’s pretty,” she said. “Everyone’s upset that you made them wait.”
“Whatever,” I said. “They’ll get over it.” The couple sitting in front of us turned around and gave me a disparaging look. I’d never blown a first impression so fast.
Fearing the next stop, I shrunk in my seat and quietly tried to think of an excuse to stay on the bus. Our itinerary gave the following description for our destination:
“Equally unforgettable is our stop at the Dhobi Ghats. This timeless tradition, unique to Mumbai, is an open-air laundry where over 200 dhobi families work to soak, pummel, and wash the city’s garments before they are hung out to dry, are ironed, and returned to residents across the city.”
We were going to slums to watch local people wash laundry?
Acknowledging that there’s only so much I can do to blend in with local people as a tall, blonde, young American, I do my best to respect customs and get to know people without the filter of Nikon lens. This visit embodied everything I never wanted to be or do abroad—scenic poverty. Elderly white people carrying cameras worth more than the nation’s per capita GDP stomped through the slums and zoomed in on scars and calluses and crying babies and beggars with bugs crawling across their face. We followed our fearless guide who shooed away crippled grandparents with her umbrella. Everyone silently confirmed their Indian stereotypes and plastered sympathetic expressions under their floppy hats and sunscreened faces.
A pregnant woman shoved a handbag in my face. Instinctively, I pushed it away and said I wasn’t interested. But I looked again and saw it was beautiful. “How much?” I asked. It was just over two dollars, but I knew that meant it was worth fifty cents. I started to bargain but realized that my cruise status stripped me of any bargaining credibility. I gave her some rupees and took the bag. She ran away before I realized the zipper was broken. In that moment, getting on the bus, I hated everything about our trip.
Our second stop on the Mumbai city tour was Mani Bhawan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home from 1917 to 1934, and the place where he conducted his first four-day fast to restore order in the city. I broke away from the group and tried to coax some inner peace from any breaths that Gandhi may have left behind. Observing his few earthly possessions, I thought maybe I had overreacted to losing my luggage. I mean, I had a shirt and did I really need—Ohmygooossh. I left my shirt and underwear hanging in the closet. I was wearing a long-sleeved, orange shirt that I’d brought in case the plane was cold. It was about 100 degrees outside.
At the museum, I had become friendlier with the guide. “You’re not going to believe this,” I told her as we were leaving Gandhi’s home. “But I actually forgot my only shirt and underwear at the hotel.” After a bout of laughter, she offered to go back and pick it up. I politely declined. “I think everyone’s already ticked enough with me,” I said. “Better not rock the boat any more.” I smiled, proud of my first cruise pun.
“Why don’t we put it to a vote?” suggested the guide. “I will explain the situation to the passengers, and they can vote if they would like to pass by the hotel on the way to the ship.” I hesitated, and she grabbed the microphone. “Can I please have everyone’s attention?” she said. “I am talking to your fellow passenger here, Laura Lee, and she and her mom have lost their baggage, and she has left her only shirt in the hotel. Would it be okay with you all if we made a stop by the hotel so that she can collect her shirt? If it is okay, please raise your hand.”
Everyone raised their hands. Then, “And if it’s not okay?” Nobody moved. I loved democracy in India. The hotel staff was more than amused but gave me a key and sent me upstairs. I thrust my shirt in the air as I re-boarded the cheering bus. “It’s dry now,” I said.
We had three days at sea before we arrived at our first port-of-call. I modeled the trendiest Indian fashions. I had my daywear tunic, then paired it with a belt and earrings for evening time. Listening to the rhythms and content of cruise passengers’ conversations reminded me of a travelers’ poker game. Everyone was trying to up the ante on whatever destinations were on the table:
“Oh you didn’t make it the Easter Islands when you were there? That’s really a shame. You must get back sometime soon—they were to die for.”
“Yes, I thought they were nice—but really, the Maldives are where you want to spend a couple days. I haven’t seen anything like it.”
“I’m not much of an island person. Surely you’ve taken the cruise to Antarctica? No? Stunning. There aren’t words.”
When the table turned to us, we would apologetically offer our only cruise experience—Alaska, on the same ship, with the same company. They tried to console us. “That’s, um, always a nice little excursion.”
“Oh, Mom, you’re forgetting our Egyptian cruise on the Nile!” I said. She gave me a dirty look.
“Oh, you’ve done the Nile cruise—Aswan to Edfu?” chimed in a passenger. “That really is lovely. What line did you go with?”
“We took a felucca,” I said.
“One of those ancient Nubian sailboats?”
“Yup, we had a great time.” Actually my mom hadn’t forgiven me or my sister for that one yet. We had to pull over in pastures to use the bathroom. And, one night, I was scared to go alone and made her go with me. Walking down the plank with a headlamp on her forehead, she swore she’d never travel with me again. Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought that up.
“And I went to Africa,” I said, trying to change the subject. This really stirred people up. They couldn’t wait to swap safari stories.
“Which national parks did you visit?”
“What time of year did you go? Did you catch the Wildebeest migration—was that in October?”
“What hotels did you stay in?”
“I hope you ate at that Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi—they even served gazelle—wasn’t that delicious?”
“And the lions—did you see them hunt?”
“Or the tigers—oh, wait, maybe that was in Cambodia—where was that when we saw the tigers again, honey?”
I shook my head. I spent nine months in Africa and never saw a lion. I could talk about public transport, the people, the history—but of the wildebeest migration I knew nothing. My mom, in all her diplomacy, encouraged me to educate people about the way I traveled rather than judge the way they did it. For the most part, other passengers were open to my stories and admired how I saw the world. They didn’t consider changing their ways but at least considered they weren’t the only ones.
I also realized that, despite our shoddy cruise resume, we were joining the upper ranks by going to Iran. Most people on board, it seemed, were looking forward to bragging about how they’d been to Iran more than actually visiting Persepolis.
Interspersed with lectures by the foreign affairs specialist they had on board, the cruise organized other random seminars, like “The Manicure: Jack and Tiffany will discuss the complex and fascinating history of hand care, the culture and personalities behind it. Tiffany will be demonstrating how to achieve perfection with nail maintenance.” I was getting a glimpse at how the other side traveled, and I couldn’t wait to report the incident to backpackers. But in the meantime, I had clean nails and was pretty dang stir-crazy. I devoted free time to perusing new state department warnings on why not to go to Iran.
We were supposed to dock in Bandar Abbas at 4:30am on day four of our cruise. I was up by 4 a.m., waiting for bombs and tear gas to be thrown on deck. I expected Ahmadinejad to welcome us on the loudspeaker: “So you came anyways, silly? It’s off to detainment you go.” Instead, we docked quietly and efficiently. I walked the plank ashore as attractive custom agents smiled and nodded respectfully. We handed them our passports, which they held for the duration of our trip. A twenty-foot neon-green banner rippled in the wind with “Welcome to Iran” written in red and white, their flag’s colors. Seventy-five cruise passengers, including me and Mom, boarded two tour buses and proceeded to the Bandar Abbas airport.
A fellow cruise passenger had loaned me my outfit for the day—a long pink skirt with the side slits safety-pinned shut, a baggy, long-sleeved white tunic, tennis shoes, and a bright green and purple-striped scarf around my head and neck. Based on my appearance, I don’t think any Iranian women envied my western sense of fashion. Headscarves were compulsory for women, and we had to be covered to the wrist and ankles.
We boarded a 50-minute flight to Shiraz, in the southwestern part of Iran, about 300 miles south of Tehran, the capital, and across the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Some 250 miles to the northwest is Iraq and some 500 miles to the east and northeast are Pakistan and Afghanistan. Shiraz is home to the UNESCO world heritage site of Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire, built during the reign of Darius I (the Great) beginning in 518 BC. Before him, Cyrus the Great did some pretty cool things too.
He conquered much of Turkey, modern Pakistan, and finally defeated the Babylonians. Instead of killing everyone there, Cyrus demanded that the Jews be released. He issued an edict, which according to Herodotus in The Persian Wars, Cyrus promised he would “respect the traditions, customs, and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them . . . I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign.” I wasn’t familiar with this Iranian history.
After Darius, Kings Xerxes I and II and Artaxerxes I, II, and III all added their opulent polishing to the capital city. But in 330 BC, Alexander the Great came through and burned the city down. Historians argue whether Alexander intentionally torched the complex or if his drunken revelry got out of control one night.
The ruins of Persepolis were still impressive. The monumental staircase gave me an idea of its grandeur (if only I’d thought to download trumpeting to my iPod), and the columns and gateways towered over us. The carvings in the limestone were precise and detailed. It was an overcast day with pleasant temperatures in the 60s and 70s.
Domestic tourists flooded the ruins. Our visit coincided with the final days of No Ruz, the Iranian New Year, so everyone was traveling on their holiday. And we were visiting on the Muslim holy day, a Friday, which meant it was the weekend and no one had to work.
Women looked at us from under their veils or scarves and smiled warmly. They would put their hands together in a prayer positions and nod towards us. We would greet them with “Salam,” and they would say, “Which country?”
“Ah—good country! Welcome. We hope you like Iran.” Then some would ask if they could take pictures with us. People would shake our hands, and a few women even hugged me after posing for photos. I got email addresses and people wished that we could stay longer in their country, so they could invite us over to their homes for tea or picnics.
Iranians love picnics. Cars pulled over on the sides of roads, and families spread their blankets or carpets. Food was placed in the middle. Everyone removed his shoes and sat together in a circle. The terrain behind them was mountainous and dry. Sprinklers watered wheat fields. Watermelons spilled out of pick-up trucks and roadside market stalls.
Our next stop was the mausoleum of Hafez, a revered Iranian poet born in Shiraz in 1324. His name means the “One Who Can Recite the Quran from Memory,” and Iranians make pilgrimages to his grave. He is among a handful of highly-honored Iranian poets, in the company of Omar Khayyam and Rumi (founder of the whirling dervishes Sufi order).
Iranians crowded Hafez’s tomb, crying and praying as they touched the vault. As our guide read aloud the verse carved into the marble gravestone, others mouthed the Farsi words. Then, she turned to me. “Please,” she said, “I have brought the English translation of Hafez’s words. Could you read it to us?” She handed me a piece of paper.
Crowds grew as I read the verse, and the paper shook in my hand. Even though few in attendance could understand my version of his words, everyone clapped when I finished. I wish I could remember the poem, but my nerves effectively impaired my memory. I don’t know of an American poet who holds such a place in our national psyche.
As Mom and I descended the steps, a twenty-year-old girl approached us. She was a student at a local university, studying English literature. “I’m very happy that you are visiting,” she said. “You are American, no?” We nodded. “You see, Hafez is a very hard poet to understand because of his mystical and formal use of the language. But he is very important to us, like Shakespeare.”
“Yes, you’re right,” I said. “Shakespeare can be hard to understand.”
“You are beautiful,” she said, fixing my crooked headscarf.
“I also think you are beautiful,” I said. And she was. She had big, friendly, almond eyes, high cheekbones, a bright smile, flawless porcelain skin and long black wavy hair pulled in a low, loose bun.
“Why do you have to leave so soon?” she asked. “You need to return. You should marry here.”
My mom interjected before I could respond. “No, she cannot marry here,” she said. “She would be too far away.”
“Oh, yes, I understand,” she said. “I am staying in dormitories at the university and am seven hours by bus away from my mom. I miss her too much. There is no one like a mom.”
Our guides signaled that we had to cut our conversation short because we were the last ones. We shook hands. She wrote her email address on a piece of paper. “Let us remain friends,” she said. “I hope we can see each other again.” Then we walked back to the bus. Other passengers recalled Iranian warmth and hospitality. One lady held up a muffin. “I was asking a family if I could take a picture of them while they picnicked,” she said. “The mother told me that I should instead sit down with them and share their food. I told them I didn’t have much time, so the father gave me this muffin.”
The next stop on the tour was a traditional Iranian restaurant. We had rice shish kebab of chicken, lamb, and fish for the main course and a variety of salads for appetizers. We ate locally-grown olives and tomatoes and pickled everything (including crabapples) and roasted garlic and barley soup. I drank a non-alcoholic pineapple beer because alcohol is illegal. Mom and I left dinner a few minutes early to get some creamy soft serve chocolate ice cream next door. It seems trite and stupid, but just knowing that Iranians love ice cream made me relate to them in a way I had never known. After we finished our cones, the bus drove us to the airport. We slept peacefully on the boat that night while docked in Iran.
“You can leave your headscarves on the ship,” the cruise director informed us. “It’s not compulsory in the United Arab Emirates.” Fresh on the boat from Iran, where revealing my ankle was forbidden, I had trouble believing the instructions in Abu Dhabi. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and walked off the ship.
The United Arab Emirates are located in the Persian Golf, sharing land borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman. The word “Emirate” comes from “emir,” meaning “ruler” in Arabic. In 1972, six independent emirates (states) united to form the country of the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi as the capital and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan as the President. The main industry, of course, is oil. The UAE has the world’s third-largest reserves, and 90% of those are in Abu Dhabi. Dubai has the rest.
“We are going to a Women’s Handicraft Center,” our local guides told us. I was surprised that our local guides were from Germany and Yemen. Of the 5.5 million UAE inhabitants, 4.5 million are foreigners.
Up until the discovery of oil in 1958, the main industries in Abu Dhabi were camel herding, date-growing, fishing, and pearl diving. Abu Dhabi has become the “Manhattan of Arabia” within the last fifty years. The Women’s Handicraft Center was an attempt to represent women’s work before development made it largely irrelevant. It seemed the region had rounded up the old women who were either resistant or apathetic to the modernization and put them together here to socialize and make their crafts.