Jordan 1 – Amman

Amman is the capital of Jordan, and has been continuously occupied since 6,000 BC. It is the starting point for our two weeks tour organized through On The Go tours (OTG), that will cover Jordan, Israel and then Egypt.  As we stepped off the plane from Tehran to Amman, we were greeted by the OTG rep before immigration, and he walked us through the entire Immigration and Customs process, and had us in our hired transportation in record time.  One thing we discovered through these countries is that the OTG company reps are exceptional in their service at every step of the way, and always exceeded our expectations.  More on this later.

Guess how big that hand in the upper image above is?  Seems massive in that image, doesn’t it.  The hand actually is large, but only about 2 feet (0.6 meter) from finger to wrist. This last remaining remnant of Hercule’s Hand at Citadel, in the Temple of Hercules, is an excellent example of why we often include people in our photographs of monuments.  The people help to provide a sense of scale.

We missed sunrise on our first day in Amman, because the government turned down the OTG application to give us access to the Citadel, before it normally opened at 8:00 AM, well after sunrise.  Instead we saw the Roman Theater landmark, which is nearly intact. Unfortunately, we just missed the dawn light as we roamed around searching for an alternative location.

Later that evening, our driver drove around some hillside roads, looking for a good site for us to capture the sunset, after finding that the King Abdullah Mosque had unexpectedly closed before sunset.  We ended up in the location shown above — where we also happened do discover two wild camels grazing, which provided a nice foreground for the city.

During the day, we walked around the old city, which was hilly with narrow walking paths, and filled with vendors of all sorts. The local herbs and spices market in Amman caught our eye. This was our first real chance to interact with Jordanians, whom we found friendly and willing to pose for us.  The man center-right is grinding a spice, and invited me to come in closer and see the machine in action (this was a photograph by Evelyn, and you can see me photographing the internal workings of the grinder behind him).

Enroute to Jerash, we visited Mt Nebo, a Christian religious site as it is where Moses is said to have first seen the Promised Land, which God told him he would never enter. Madaba is the site of a church that supposedly has the oldest known map of the world still in existence, as tiles on the floor (lower row), as well as where most of the Christians in Jordan occupy. We had our favorite schwarma sandwich and fries from a hole-in-the-wall store in Madaba.

We also made a side stop at a mosaics factory, where we watched how they make highly detailed mosaic designs on pots and plaques.  The work is of exceptional quality, but our suitcases are already loaded beyond capacity, so we had to be content to only watch the skilled workers.

Iran 8 – Kashan – the last stop

Iranian Local: I love you! (while making heart with his hands)

Me: I love you too (chuckling, then asking if I can take a photo — he warmly agreed, and he and his friends posed for the next several minutes for us)

After some more discussion, it turned out that this man was actually Afghan. Though born in Iran, he moved to Afghanistan with his father when he was a teenager.  He was back in Iran visiting his cousin, whom he then introduced to me, though the cousin did not speak any English.

He then declared “I have a lot of American friends!”  Since he lives in Afghanistan, I asked “Are they all soldiers?” to which he replied “Yes! Very nice people!” Surprisingly, this was the second Afghan man we met in Iran, both of whom opened with “I love you!” and both of which were highly impressed with Americans.  Once again, not the response I had expected…

The Persian language used in Iran is graphically very flowing and pleasing to the eye.  Surprisingly, there were many Persian signs that also included the English equivalent, and thus were easy to understand, as shown above.

Others were less clear.  Upper-left here is on one of the charity boxes that are spread through every town.  The red sign upper-right reads “restroom.”  The middle-left is a sign over a “Zolanvari Carpet” store while the middle-right is a “Shiraz handicraft” store and the lower-right declares a “Parnian bag” store.

This quote is from the Iranian leader about Hijab: The Iranian women Hijab is not an obstacle, they are active in social and scientific activities as well as in their personal life. Such “words of wisdom” from the Supreme Leader are spread throughout all the cities.

You have probably noticed a common theme in these blog entries on Iran. The people are warm, friendly, almost always smiling, and appear genuinely glad to meet Americans — usually their “first Americans.”  In two weeks, we occasionally met someone who was camera shy, but nobody ever waved us off with any sign of anger.  Most of the time, they were glad to have us take their photograph, and often laughed when we showed them the result on the camera LCD.

We almost never photograph young children unless their parents are nearby. In every case we did so, the parents would encourage their children to say hello to us (sometimes the only English they appeared to know), and to smile. The parents then always thanked us for taking photographs of their children, even if they could only say it in Iranian and body language.

The group in the lower-right here shows the Afghan man in the center who told me that he loved me at the start of this post.

We started photographing hands somewhere along this tour, finding them interesting and a way to sometimes get a shy person to open up for portraits.

I would like to close Iran by noting again that it was Mehmet Özbalci of Fantastic Photo Tours who arranged this, and convinced us to join him on this Iran adventure.  It will definitely remain in our memories as one of the most enjoyable two week tours we have taken.  If you ever have the chance, please make an effort to come here yourself.  If you do, then we both strongly recommend Mehmet as your guide to this culture, as well as many others. (We have already arranged to join Mehmet for Myanmar next year — stay tuned for details!)

Iran 7 – Kashan (the real story)

Happy mistake when the camera was moved while shutter still open.

Iranian Local: (after opening pleasantries and surprised that I am an American.) My English is good because I studied hard, expecting to go overseas to study.

Me: You did not go?

IL: No. We discovered we could not afford it after the collapse of the Rial (the local currency).

So what is the real story of the impact of the continued American sanctions?  I cannot speak for any government plans to create a nuclear bomb, as I have no direct knowledge.

From our experience though, I can say that the government does not appear to be hurting in any obvious way.  There also does not appear to be any desire to overthrow the current government.  Thus, from all appearances, the sanctions has completely and absolutely failed in its stated goals.

On the other hand, the local people have been hurt in ways that no American can begin to comprehend. Their life savings have completely disappeared. As a direct result of the American sanctions, the Iranian currency has collapsed. In 1979, the Iranian Rial was on par with the US Dollar. That is, 1 IRR = 1 USD.  Today, 1 US Dollar equals 135,000 Iranian Rial. So, if that happened in America, and you had $1 Million in 1979, you would have $7.40 today.  Think about that a moment…

Some of that can be blamed on the religious revolution of 1979.  However, the Rial collapsed another 66% in May 2018, within one month of Trump’s withdrawing from the Iranian treaty and his desire to start a war.  In the US in the 1980’s inflation reached 13.5% and American savings were being wiped out. Imagine if that inflation were 300% instead, and created by a single external country intentionally?

Despite that, we never once met an Iranian who blamed Americans for their problems. They did blame the American government — along with their own. They never held any animosity towards us as American people though, and in fact, welcomed us openly.  They also appear to be almost universally smiling and happy as they walk around town or play tourist in their own country at the same monuments we visited. We felt safe the entire time we have been here.

I am pretty sure Americans would not be as welcoming to foreign tourists if the tables were turned…

We went again to the Naqshe Cehan Square for the morning blue hour (in other words, another day rising well before dawn!

The photograph at the bottom is actually from the hotel we stayed at in Kashan — a centuries old home of a wealthy family converted into hotel.  It had twists and turns, and half a dozen fountains like this one shown.  Stairs were steep and frequent, and this was clearly not a place for an elderly or mobility-impaired person to stay.

We also visited another bath house, mosque and garden, continuing to collect images of unique and beautiful architecture.

In the afternoon, we drove to Qom to photograph the holy shrine dedicated to Lady Masoumeh Fatima. This is considered one of the most holy shrines in Iran.  Photography is normally not allowed in this shrine at all, after the this site was bombed recently.  However, our guides negotiated to allow us to use our cell phone cameras (though not SLRs).  This was considered a major concession, since even the local Iranians are not allowed to take photographs of any type.

Iranian Mullah (upper-left): You are the best ambassadors to Iran. We hope you will take photographs, tell stories, and explain to the world that we are peaceful and not like what the Western newspapers say.

And that pretty much sums up the attitude we found everywhere we went in Iran.

Iran 6 – Isfahan

Iranian Local: Are you married?

Me: Yes.

IL: Where is your wife?

Me: Over there (I pointed to Evelyn on the next rooftop, shooting a different set of images from where I was pointing)

IL: So, you are divorced?

Me: No. We have been married 46 years.

IL: Then why is she not here at your side? (discussion continued about no need for two cameras shooting the same scene, etc. He could not understand how a wife would not always be at the husband’s side.)

This was one of many conversations that opened up the different ways of looking at the world between the Iranians and ourselves.  Many (but definitely not all) Iranians we met assume that the wife should always be at the husband’s side if outside the home. We have a much more “both are equal and independent” view, but neither is necessarily more “correct” than the other. It does drive home how much our views of the world and society are primarily a reflection of our own neighbors and friends.

Yes, we got up twice before dawn for these photos above in Isfahan, the third largest city in Iran… Once for the Sio So Poi Bridge (upper-left and lower-right), and a second day for the Naqshe Cehan Square. Mehmet takes us to places to take the best photographs — sleeping and eating are totally secondary on these trips!

At Meybod, we photographed the old castle, and the fascinating pigeon tower (center, lower-left and lower-center). This was a tower originally filled with pigeon food to encourage over 4000 pigeons to roost.  Their waste was then collected daily and used for fertilizer in the surrounding fields.

Mosques are everywhere, and all are colorful and full of interesting patterns.  The one in the middle image above was being repaired, which was fairly common throughout the country (actually throughout the region, as we also saw that in other countries too).

We were served lunch by a local Iranian family in their home. Afterwards, they demonstrated how the man of the family uses his loom to make kilim, a flat woven rug, while the elderly woman who owns the house showed her skill at weaving carpets. The loom is located in a cave, where the temperature remains fairly constant throughout the year, and throughout the day, acting much like a wine cellar in that regards.

We had some free time to wander around Naqshe Cehan Square, where we were able to photograph Iranians enjoying their day off, walking or sitting around the large center fountain, or riding a horse carriage around the park.

As we leave Isfahan, here are a few random images of the people we met, and sometimes talked to.  Smiles always greeted us, never a wave-off for our cameras.

Iran 5 – Yazd

Iranian Local: Where are you from?

Me: America

IL: I told my sister your accent sounded like an American!  I have never met an American before.

Me: Then how did you recognize my accent.

IL: I watch a lot of American TV. (Discussion continued about her being an electrical engineer for a city power company. She installed a VPN, so can access YouTube and watches American TV shows over internet, despite government trying to stop most internet access.)

Me: (noticing that she did not cover her hair in my presence) Are you Muslim?

IL: No, but I have to pretend to be. If you are not Muslim, you are not allowed to work for the government (the power company she works for is government owned).

Me: May I ask what religion you follow?

IL: If there were a god, there would be no Middle East. There would be no Ayatollah. There would be no Trump…

We spent two evenings in Yazd, which is also known as the city of wind catchers.

We rose well before dawn to drive to the Amir Chakhmag Complex to photograph the images shown above. Saba and Mehmet worked out a deal with the owner of a coffee shop/gallery to use their roof top at 4:00 AM to photograph the “blue hour” before the fountains were turned on, which would have destroyed the reflection.

We stopped along the way to photograph the Tomb of Persian King Cyrus (top left) and later another ancient village constructed from adobe with wind catchers.

We also stopped at the Towers of Silence and the remains of the ancient Zoroastrian burial site.

We photographed the Dowlatabad Garden, which had more beautiful stained glass windows.

We had dinner at a small rooftop cafe, where we photographed the Yazd skyline at sunset.  This is where I had the conversation with the woman summarized at the top of this post. We talked for over an hour, while I periodically turned to click the camera shutter, then continued the conversation.

Our Iranian guide was quite proud to state that Iran has religious freedom, because 2% of the population is not Muslim.  I suspected from the moment that she made that statement that it was probably not really true.  This woman was the only Iranian to openly state this, but I had the definite feeling from other conversations that a larger number of people only pretend to be Muslim in order to survive in the current society. This is probably the hardest idea that is foreign to my beliefs for me to accept.  I do hold a strongly held belief that the government should have zero relationship to religion, be it Muslim, Christian or Hindu.

Yazd has a peculiar architectural structure that I have never seen before — a “wind catcher.”  This is an Iranian developed structure that provides natural ventilation to the home in hot climates.  The tall columned structures above (bottom image) catch the wind, regardless of the direction it blows from. The wind is directed down through internal shafts, where it blows over a pool of water, and then through the home.  This provides a natural air conditioning, developed centuries before the electrical air conditioners mostly used today.

We had a chance to wander through the bazaar today (top two rows), where copper items for the home are in abundance (middle).  As always, we also like to watch people (lower row), and saw one group of friends peddling around in a foot-powered four wheel cart while laughing and having a blast (lower-left).

Finally, as evening approached, we attended a traditional local workout session at a wrestling gym. Two dozen men spent an hour in rigorous exercises, to the music of a drummer who also chanted (middle-right). Towards the end, after an exhausting hour, they picked up massive weights (middle-left and lower-right) and tossed them like they were pillows.  (I tried to lift one, and with both hands, could barely manage it!)

Iran 4 – Shiraz Two

Iranian Local: What do you do? (he meant as a job)

Me: I am retired.

IL: Are you unemployed?  I am sorry to hear this.

Me: No, retired. I worked for 45 years, and can now enjoy my life without having to work any longer.

IL: But you are not old enough to retire! (discussion continued, where he guessed I was 50.  When I told him I was 69, he said that was the age of his grandfather, who could barely walk at his age.)

A major stop late in the afternoon in Shiraz was to Persepolis,  a UNESCO site dating back to 500BC.  This was the capital of the Achaemenid empire for more than 200 years. The parks generally open after sunrise and close before sunset, so it’s always a dilemma for photographers.

Probably the most fascinating part of Persepolis are the numerous bas relief images still in excellent shape, depicting life during the reign of the builders of this city.

It took quite a lot of negotiating by both our guides to get us into the Holy Shrine of Shah Ceragh.  This was described to us the Iranian version of Mecca, and is considered one of the most holy mosques in the country. (Read the linked Wikipedia site for the lengthy explanation of why.)

Though initial negotiations included getting a license to bring our cameras onto the site, that was rejected upon arrival. (In other words, just as in Ecuador, anything can change at any time…) Further discussions between Saba (our Iranian guide) and the religious leaders resulting in our being able to use cell phones, but no other cameras.  This was actually a major concession, as the Iranian people themselves are not allowed to photograph inside the walls of the shrine at all.

The last nomadic tribe of Iran is called the Qashgal. We had a chance to visit with them this afternoon and join them for lunch. We watched as they made carpets on their loom (middle-left), made bread for lunch (middle), demonstrated how to make doogh (a thirst-quenching yogurt drink spiced with mint), stoked coals for a hookah (lower-right) and then smoked it (upper-right).

We all sat on the floor of the nomadic tent, first sharing tea and eating our lunch. A local tribesman then arrived to play his instrument for us (lower-middle and lower-right).

Upper-left is Saba, our Iranian guide.  Below her, in the lower-left is Mehmet, the tour organizer and guide (and the man we followed in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka and several other countries). Gabriel, Michel and Tim (upper right) are all ready for lunch. As typical of Iranian meals, by the time we finish with appetizers, we’re generally too full, but continue to overeat out of politeness to our hosts.

Iran 3 – Shiraz One

Iranian Local: Are you Alemany?

Me: (think for a bit, and realize he is asking if I am German) No, American.

IL: Really? Not Alemany? How did you get here?

Me: I flew from New York.

IL: Welcome to Iran! (discussion continued about the beauty of Iran and where we have visited so far, and what I thought of the country)

One of our first stops in Shiraz was at the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, most commonly known as “the Pink Mosque” and is considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Iran.  One room is intended for praying and meditation, and has a complete wall of stained glass.  Early in the morning, the sun shines through the glass, turning it into a stunning kaleidoscope of color. Many tourists stop to take selfies when the color lands on their faces.

We stopped by the side of a road in a village to photograph a no name castle. Saba, our Iranian guide, helped provide some color and scale in the upper-left image.

In the afternoon, we visited the Zinat of Molk, which included a mirrored room and another room with a stained glass wall facing the morning sun.

The Vikil Mosque in the same area provided the fluted columns for a series of images (right column), including another modeling session with Saba (center-right).  We then walked to the Vikil Bath, another renovated Bath House complete with mannequins showing life in the 18th Century.

We finished this area by spending some time at the Vakil Bazaar after lunch. This is a bazaar where locals actively go, and we find our group as one of the few tourists.

Iran 2 – Kerman

Iranian Local: Where are you from?

Me: America.

IL: But where are you from NOW?

Me: America.

IL: No, that is not possible. Americans are not allowed to come to Iran. Where did you come from? (discussion continued, and he was amazed to discover that it is legal for Americans to visit Iran)

Kerman plays an important role in Iran, as it was the capital several times in its history. We visited the ancient Rayen castle (above) in Kerman.  The foundations are still mostly intact, showing the tiny size of most of the adobe homes 1000 years ago.  Despite being built a millennia ago, it was still occupied until late in the 1800s.

Another stop in Kerman was the Juma Mosque, built in the 12th century.  It has been destroyed many times due to earthquakes and war, but always reconstructed after each loss.

The Ganjali Bath was a rather interesting look into the social life of the 16th Century.  It has been reconstructed, complete with wax mannequins in typical form of the day. (The girl middle-right is an Iranian tourist. Her mother prodded her to model for our cameras.)

Our next stop was another old Bath House, this one converted into a restaurant.  This was the first of many times that we saw hookahs being smoked by so many people (upper-left).  Only tobacco is used in the pipes, as all alcohol and recreational drugs are forbidden in the country.

We went into the desert to photograph the kalutes (middle-left) at sunset.  Lower-left shows our tour guide heading off towards another shooting point, while the shadows of the rest of us gather on the top of another kalute as the sun lowers.

Whenever we travel, it is the people that we usually remember the most.  That will be true of Iran too.  We had expected the Iranians to be shut off, unwilling to talk to strangers, let alone Americans.  Instead, at least once an hour during every day when we were walking, someone would come up and ask (often in very broken English): “Where you from?”

Our travel group was actually quite diverse. Our tour guide is Turkish. One of the other couples is German and Belgian, but now living in Portugal, while another is Malaysian, who became Australian citizens after completing studies at the university in Melbourne. And of course, we are American. The immigration agent kept asking Evelyn where she was from, despite showing her American passport and even started to talk to her in Chinese.

Whenever we replied “America” to Iranian people, the response was sometimes disbelief that Americans were allowed to travel to Iran. In every single case though, it always then went to “Welcome to Iran!” with a broad smile.  If we happened to be sitting, or just standing around waiting, the conversation often continued much longer.  They were, of course, interested in how we liked Iran, but topics went much further.

To my surprise, Trump or the American embargo was only mentioned twice in all our discussions with Iranians.  In one case, the elderly man was vehement “Trump is bad. The Ayatollah is bad. All governments are bad. People are good. People love each other. Why can’t all governments leave us alone?

When we turned our cameras towards children (lower left), the parents were always nearby, encouraging the kids to say “hello” and to “look at the camera.”  Even soldiers would hover when they saw our cameras, ask questions about America, and then ask to have their pictures taken (middle and middle-right).

The woman in red (lower-right) was our Iranian guide, Saba.  She is one of the best guides we have had in any country we have visited so far.  In addition to always being happy (did I mention that almost all Iranians seem happy?), she was full of knowledge, and often would translate our photographic requests to local Iranians who spoke no English.  She also frequently modeled for us, and you will see her in several of the photos from this week.

Iran 1 – Tehran – Welcome to Iran!

Iranian Local: Why are you photographing this building. It is “just there” and nothing special.

Me: It is a beautiful building. (I show him the LCD from my camera of one of the images above, and he gasps in surprise).

IL: But still, why photograph it?

Me: To show my friends how beautiful Iran is.

IL: But why not just bring them here in that case?  (Discussion continued, but he could not understand that it was expensive for a foreigner to come to his home, which he could drive to in an afternoon).

Forget most of what you think you know about Iran, and join us for the next two weeks as we explore the country.  As expected, it is beautiful and has a long history.  What we did not expect was the extreme openness and friendliness of the people. Everywhere you look, people are smiling and apparently happy.  When they discover we are Americans, the response is always (without a single exception) joy at meeting “their first American” and a big welcome to their country.

The building in our first story-block above is the Azadi Tower, built in 1972 by the last Shah of Iran, to celebrate 2500 years since the founding of the Imperial State of Iran (which ironically, came to an end 7 years later when the Shah was deposed).

We soon discovered that Iran went through a period of fascination with mirrors in their history of mosques and mausoleums. These were interesting to look at, but very hard to show in photographs. Above is the Mosque and Mausoleum of Imam Zadeh Zayid, with his body enclosed in a mirrored chamber (lower-left).

As we arrived in Tehran, there was a street fair in the median of the road in front of our hotel. This was the end of Iran’s New Year’s festivities.  There was a group of 15 people dressed all in pink, riding pink bicycles around the area (middle-right), who turned out to be promoting a new bicycle rental business in town. There were mascot-sized men in costumes from local TV programs getting their photos taken (middle-left). There was an Iranian version of Santa Claus (the black face and red suit upper-right), and a kids’ drawing wall (lower-left).

There was even a Storm Trooper from Star Wars.  When one father handed his child to the trooper, the child started crying… obviously he knew that Storm Troopers were the Bad Guys!

We visited the Golestan Palace while in Tehran.  Inside were some rooms almost completely mirrored.  Walking around was our first experience with the local Iranian people, and began to be surprised at their willingness to have us photograph them, and their eagerness to talk in English to an American.

We briefly visited an archeologic museum, which did have some interesting displays.

When we went to an exchange booth to convert dollars to Iranian Rials (IR), we were shocked. When we handed the teller $200 USD, he returned 27 Million Rials to us! (upper-left).  Devaluation of the currency has been extreme, but more on that later.

Sri Lanka 9 – Galle

Galle is best known among photographic circles for the “stilt fishermen.” These are subsistence fishermen who sit for hours on stilts in the shallow surf, casting their lines for palm-sized fish.  There used to be hundreds of men making a living this way, but the tsunami of 2004 killed off most of the fish, and they are only now starting to return. There are a couple of spots along the coast where men sit on stilts solely for the purpose of charging a fee for photographing them. Our guide took us to the last group of men who actually fish for a living.

We visited this site three times — twice at sunset and once at sunrise.  The scenes above were mostly taken as long exposures, giving the dreamy image of the ocean as the surf ebbs and flows.

While the stilt fishermen were the reason for visiting Galle, we did some other exploring around town.  While most of the group visited an old fort, I decided to watch a cricket game instead (upper-left), since I had never seen one before. We visited a small cinnamon-making demonstration where the owner also showed us how to make frond roof thatches (upper-right and middle-right).  We also had a chance to witness people repairing a colorful boat (middle-left), and fishing out of small outrigger boats (middle and lower-right).

This brings us to the end of our Sri Lanka tour. As always, Mehmet Özbalci put together a first-rate trip, even though this was advertised as a scouting trip, where he was exploring the best places to go for future tours.  Tomorrow we fly to Tehran, Iran, where we will again follow Mehmet for another two weeks.  Stay tuned!

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