Iran, The First 24 Hours

November 2, 2015
Iran, the first 24 hours

When entering a country for the first time there is usually a window—say 24 hours—when you become a child again. Not in the sense that you cry and want your toys, but in the way that your senses are turned wide open to new and unknown surroundings.

The mind fires quickly to register every new sight and smell, every noise, every taste. This unique combination of sensory stimulation is something you’ve never experienced before in your life.

When a child experiences something new, its attention for that novelty overrides everything else. But after that experience has been repeated a few times, the senses dilute into a world of the known.

This is known as habit and routine in the grownup world.

As an adult, travel is one of those ways to get back this childlike feeling. And for me, I find it most intense during the first 24 hours in a new country.

It’s that initial raw moment of discovery where there is only the, “now,” and it’s an adventurous and amazing, “now.”

This is why I love traveling so much…

Some countries awaken the senses more than others. Iran is one of those countries that awakens you and demands that you become a student from the very moment upon landing.

There is no avoiding the classroom in Iran; as a foreigner you are forced to learn about a place that is full of surprises and paradoxes.

You are forced to see a truth that has been manipulated and skewed for you in a simplified one-dimensional story that has little to do with reality.

This was my primary reason for coming to Iran. I knew the story was rich and complex, and I knew I was never going to know the truth unless I experienced it firsthand.

Here are my first observations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, my first twenty-four-hour hit of travel dopamine…

The driving is mad. Not mad like India, but it ranks pretty highly on the chaos meter. Mopeds ride on sidewalks to get around traffic, lanes don’t mean anything, and the traffic moves in a swerving-like flow with people and mopeds slicing through the little cracks of space left in between cars and trucks.

The police presence is low. At least compared to what I was expecting. I haven’t seen the religious police and only a few normal cops for that matter.

If genuine smiles are an indicator of happiness… then Iran has one of the happiest populations.

Nose jobs are popular. The upper middle class and wealthy love to have their noses done up. They walk the streets proudly showing off their big white nose bandages.

My first night in Tehran.

My first night in Tehran.

After a few conversations with young people, I’ve learned that many people are quite in tune with the world. They know the politics of the U.S. better than most Americans. This is because U.S./Iranian relations affect their lives more closely. One threatening sound bite between the two countries can cause the Iranian currency to devalue against the dollar, and bread prices shoot up the next day.

Being American is a very good thing here. It surprises me how pro-American this place is. Really, in all honesty, people are excited and happy to hear that I’m American. “America good,” is a common phrase. I’ve received hugs, a heartfelt handshake from a government official, an offer for a meal, and warm smiles. This treatment might come to all travelers, but when the word “American” enters the conversation, the level of hospitality and enthusiasm increases.

Iranians don’t like Arabs. I knew about this cultural and historical rift beforehand from spending time in the Arab world, but I had no clue it was this bad from the Iranian side.

I can’t speak for all Iranians, but in my initial conversations, they hate everything about the Saudis. Two guys told me they like Israel more than Saudi Arabia.

Cinema in Iran

Homosexuality is not as underground as I thought it would be. I was hit on by two guys—on separate occasions—on my very first night. The hotel receptionist told me, “man sex really good in Iran,” while giving me a wink followed by a perverted hand gesture. He then knocked on my door minutes later to inquire about the functionality of my key. After that non-problem was figured out, there was a very odd moment of him standing in front of my door. I said goodnight and closed it in his face because he didn’t move.

Talking poorly about the government or politics is normal behind closed doors. Surprisingly people feel confident speaking negatively about the current administration out on the streets with me.

Hospitality is king. People will go out of their way to help you out. They will buy you things, they will give you their number in case you need them, and they will walk you down a street to show you the way to a bus stop. They will give you their time, and their smiles.

Of the 70 plus countries I’ve traveled to, I’d have to say Iran is in the top three in regards to genuine hospitality.

My new friends in Iran

My new friends.

Religion is not in your face like I thought it would be. Iran is a religious country, and all women need to cover their heads with a hijab, but many people here don’t practice or believe in Islam, or any religion for that matter.

Many people are surprisingly in tune in Tehran. They know their government is bullshit, and they don’t believe in the propaganda.

There is a huge heroin/drug problem here. There is one park in south Tehran that is full of junkies.

There are many laws in the books that function in theory but not in reality. Facebook is blocked, but you can just get a VPN (virtual public network) at a store, and download it on your computer or phone, and search for whatever you want online. Satellite dishes are outlawed, but ubiquitous. Officials know a substantial percentage of the population drinks, but they don’t stop it if it’s behind closed doors.

A student told me that the government is unable to enforce all of the laws because if they did, over half of the country would be in prison.

Christians are allowed to produce alcohol here for their own consumption.

I’ve been told the party scene in Tehran is happening.

Tehran feels safe, it’s one of the safest big cities I’ve been to.

American and his Iranian friends

The gap between rich and poor is massive.

The air quality in Tehran is horrible.

I’ve met two Iranian women in their twenties who have spent most of their lives in the UK and America but have decided to move back and live in Tehran because they like it better.

Each sound in Tehran is there just to drown out the next one that’s a decibel lower. On some streets, there are hundreds of layers of sounds.

Rich kids up in the hills in north Tehran with BMW’s and Mercedes are bored, and are most likely coming down from some sort of narcotic high, or soon to be working up to another one.

They have this odd custom called ‘ta’arof,’ when someone offers you something, you should refuse it to show respect. They will then offer again, you should then refuse. And roughly around the 3rd repetition of this, if they offer again… this means it’s real and it’s time to accept.

The government pays for sex changes. Yes, you read this correctly.

Iran must be the birthplace of elevator music.  In the few elevators I’ve entered, cheesy music starts once the doors close, and stops once they open.

The infrastructure is in good condition, and the roads and highways in Tehran are in better shape than most of those in California (which isn’s saying much).

An incredible blitzkrieg of information came at me in these first 24 hours.  In a way, part of my world has changed in a very short time.  I’m now crossing the street with the flow… and I feel my ta’arof is improving.

Peter Santenello in Tehran, Iran

Relaxing over Tehran…

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