Sunday, October 19, 2008

Intrepid in Iran – On the road to Persepolis

Continued from Intrepid in Iran: Day 1 - Getting there

* Tall, stocky, blue eyes and impressive whiskers. That was Shaiky Bhai, our taxi driver, who spoke less than a dozen words in English, but who could expertly maneuver a vehicle with one male passenger in front, and 4 tightly wedged female passengers in the back. He convinced us to abandon our original plan of checking into our hotel and then going to the bazaars. “It’s Eid,” he told us in Farsi, “not a single shop will be open. It’s better if I take you to Persepolis instead.” Seeing the empty roads and shuttered shops en route to the city, we agreed to his plan.

* Ask me anything you want to know about Shiraz, Shaiky Bhai offered. I was keen to know if the famous Shiraz wine had any connection with the city. But when Heeba mentioned the word ‘sharaab’ (alcohol), even the unshakeable Shaiky Bhai sounded scandalized. Note to self (I jotted in my diary): 1. Avoid mention of alcohol while in Iran. 2. Consult online sources.

* We stopped at a restaurant before hitting Persepolis, and decided to sample some of the fine Iranian fare we’d heard so much about. Every single eye in the packed restaurant was on us as we entered. Did my headscarf slip? Is my costume ok? I did a rapid scan. All seemed fine. Then it struck us, that perhaps it was that invisible sign above our heads – TOURISTS AHOY! With our headscarves and tunics, I thought we’d done a good job of blending in, but the swivelling heads in the restaurant told us otherwise.

* We took off our shoes, positioned ourselves around the sofa bed, and waited to place our orders. Heeba had recommended the authentic Iranian stew. The waiter ruefully informed us – no stew, but do try the rice and kebabs. No problem, we thought, we still have 3 more days to try the stews. We piled our plates with juicy red tomatoes and pickled vegetables and waited. The rice and kebab dish turned out to be just that! Plain rice and grilled kebabs. The rice was flavoured with tiny stands of saffron and oodles of butter. It certainly was delicious (as all butter-laden fare usually is) but made one incredibly sluggish as well. The thought of catching a quick snooze on the sofa-bed was tempting, but we had a date with history.

* 512 B.C. 512 B.C! I couldn’t help marveling that I was standing amid ruins that were really that old. Even in its crumbling state, it seemed magnificent. Now known as Takht-e-Jamshid, Persepolis was originally built by Darius the Great and his heirs over a period of 150 years.

The walls still held exquisitely perfect etchings of humans, of beasts, of enchanting tableaus involving kings and visitors from exotic lands. Even the graffiti scribbled by vainglorious visitors had a certain aura, the oldest one dating back to the early 1800s.

Gaurav, Sonya and me climbed to the top of the mound where one of the emperors had been interred in a tomb. The view of the palace complex from the top was spectacular. If only we could watch the sun set over the ruins, we thought. But visiting hours were ‘8 – 17’ only, as the board at the entrance informed us.

* By the time we headed back to our vehicle, I was hot, tired and sorely uncomfortable. I had re-adjusted my headscarf at least 500 times, and I was one step away from itching my head like a primate. Compounding the discomfort was the dual layer of clothing I had donned. I couldn’t wait to reach the hotel and excavate myself from all of it.

Coming next: Mind your language

Friday, October 10, 2008

Intrepid in Iran: Day 1 - Getting there

* “I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you, but you’ll need to cover your head and your butt,” wrote Sonya in an email, a week before our proposed trip to Shiraz in Iran. I was about to mail a droll reply about how my low-rise jeans weren’t all that low, when she sent me a link to the dress code for tourists in Iran.

The idea of a dress code for tourists in itself seemed remarkable. And then the thought of wearing headscarves and full-sleeved, butt-covering tunics felt a bit archaic and chauvinistic, even. Gaurav, the sole male presence in our 5-member troop, attempted to console us by declaring, “I totally understand. Even I can’t wear my cutoff trousers.”

* Apparently, no one in Dubai covers their butts. I combed every store in Lamcy Plaza and could barely find a top long enough to disguise the (rather unmistakable) fact that I have a butt. I somehow managed to cobble together a wardrobe for the 4-day trip. But when I reached the airport, 4 pairs of eyes zeroed in on the two exposed inches of denim-clad gluteus maximus. When clenching or shirt-tugging didn’t work, Sonia pulled out the ‘emergency robe’. My first thought was that it looked like a bathrobe. But it did an admirable job of not only obscuring my posterior, but also every other non-linear shape neck below.

* “What happens if you don’t wear the proper attire in Iran,” I timidly asked Heeba, the American-born, Dubai-based Iranian in our group. “You go to jail,” she said, with utmost seriousness. “You must understand, it’s not a custom, it’s a law.” I pulled the bathrobe around me tighter.

Anachronistic, chauvinistic or whatever else Iran may be, I had made the choice to visit. And I didn’t have to agree with the rules, I decided. I just had to go along. So when the plane touched down at Shiraz International Airport, like every other female tourist on the flight, I patted my headscarf into place and disembarked.

* ‘Iranian Cultural Heritage Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation would be highly grateful if you could kindly fill the following form and hand it over to the officials’ – read the flimsy yellow flyer we were handed at the airport. One of the few perks of being an Indian travelling to Iran was the Visa On Arrival status. But this form seemed a bit too informal for an officious document.

Apparently, it was. On filling of yellow flyer, one was handed a handwritten slip with visa fees, which had to be paid at another counter, following which another more officious-looking form had to be filled and handed over along with passports for the visa to be processed.

“How much time?” we asked the polite but harried staff on duty. “One hour at least,” he said, with an excessive emphasis on the last two words. “Maybe they’ve never had so many tourists visiting,” whispered Heeba.

* I expected to see beady-eyed, long-bearded officials skulking around the airport, looking out for inappropriate attire or manners, but most of the staff – all male, incidentally – seemed unconcerned, a bit bored, even. They didn’t even raise an eyebrow when a gaggle of kids from the French tourists’ troupe proceeded to knock down the stands while playing a boisterous game of tag. A little reassured, I sank into the airport chairs and nodded off a bit.

Two hours later, and just seconds before the next international flight arrived into Shiraz, we were handed our passports and visas.

* WELCOME TO SHIRAZ, said the banner just above the exit.

Coming next: Day 1 - The ruins of Persepolis

Monday, October 06, 2008

Absolute Lee turns FIVE

5 years ago, on a slow day at work, I hopped onto the blogwagon. I picked the first name that came to my mind, 'Absolute Lee'. And since rediffblogs insisted on a tag line, picked the second thing that came to mind, 'About the girl-next-door with the mind as wicked as the boy-next-door'.

Unlike most blogs at that time, mine wasn't an online diary. Nor was it a place to vent feelings or other personal stuff. I was doing a writing course at that time, and Chapter 1 started with the injunction to write everyday. The blog seemed like the perfect place not just to explore writing but also to track my progress. The focus of the blog was on experiences, stories from everyday life. A quotidian chronicle, as one of the early blog friends described it.

I had started the blog when I was on a sabbatical from advertising, and was exploring a career in freelance writing. But when that didn't work out, and I hopped back into advertising, and moved to Dubai as well, the blog tagged along like a bit of excess baggage. I willed myself to keep it going through trying times. Even with long absences and lack of motivation, I couldn't bring myself to pull the plug, as it were. It was a comfortable place to come back to every now and then. And once in a while, I could even surprise myself by posting every day, like I did last August-September.

Recently, having joined a Writer's Group in Dubai and trying my hand at fiction, I find I enjoy it immensely. It's still raw and 'work-in-progress', but it's also stimulating and the feedback from the group is gratifying. Writing the blog all these years, has helped make the transition to fiction a lot easier, I feel. People in the Group comment about the 'voice' in my writing and one has even described it as 'creepy but endearing'. (Another way of saying girl-next-door mind as wicked etc.??)

Thanks all of you for being around, for your comments, and for making this a fun hangout.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

To Persia, and back

Over three years in the UAE, and until four days ago, I hadn't visited a single country in the Middle East. So when a couple of friends mentioned heading out to Iran during the long Eid break, I leaped at the opportunity.

We travelled to southwest Iran, to the city of Shiraz in the Fars province. And what a marvellous trip it was! Unlike anything I've ever done before (but then I say that about all my journeys.) Will post vignettes in the days to follow. Stay tuned.