Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.
Last March, I spent almost 3 weeks in Iran (I wrote about the Imamzadeh Hamzeh Mausoleum and there is plenty more to come) on what was the most wonderful, life-altering travel experience of my life. It was a moment of questioning everything I had been conditioned to believe about Iranian society (particularly coming from the UK), of reinforcing my belief that being nice to others is the only way to exist on this planet and that maybe it’s time to take a break from city life and move closer to nature.
Going through my photographs, I realised that I didn’t spend much time – only 4 days – in Tehran but, nevertheless, it had a profound impact on me. I arrived and almost felt scared to look at people in case I was perceived negatively. A few weeks later, after exploring central Iran and meeting dozens of local people, I returned to Tehran with confidence (and sadness at leaving).
A few months after my trip I went to India for an academic course, where I met an Iranian woman. As we talked, she said “this (meaning India) is what people think Iran is like”. I smiled because I, too, had been one of those people. I knew Iran would be architecturally-alluring (I’m a ceramic enthusiast) but, rather shamefully, I did not expect the advanced society I found – the openness, the diverse range of languages, the expansive universities and a consistent curiosity from everybody I met. It was just fantastic. And, as with all such surprises, it led me to question my own subconscious views about the world outside the West, but more on that another time. Who knew I would be able to find a sharp, fruity flat white in a cool, locally-run coffee shop? The streets are cleaner than most in my city (though plastic consumption is awfully high) and people are helpful, chatty and kind. From my first excursion alone to a ceramics museum and relaxing on my hotel room terrace with a view of the snow-topped mountain sipping Sencha from home to eating lavashak (dried fruit roll) for first time and strolling through the streets alone feeling safer than I do at home, everything & everybody I encountered made me look at Iran through new eyes, and what a joy it was to be there for Nowruz (Persian New Year). And fresh-pressed-before-your-eyes pomegranate juice costs 70p! In London, it’s £4-5, and tastes half as good.
I’m not going to write a top-5-to-see-in-Tehran after being there twice because that would be ridiculous (and it makes no sense when people do that). However, I hope to provide some insight into an extremely rich, intricate culture through the eye of an explorer with a thirst for knowledge and human understanding. My way in life is to be open, to look beyond the barriers society tells us we should have and to share this world through kind actions. As it turns out, the people I met in Tehran have a very similar way of life. I loved every moment of it. It’s important to acknowledge that ‘my’ Tehran doesn’t not match with what mass media portrays, nor am I suggesting that my blissful and enriching experiences are indicative of what local people may experience.
“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope
My rickshaw driver dropped me off at a small side road which was under construction. The smell was intense and, in this dreamy head of mine, I couldn’t imagine that the Taj Mahal was there. He didn’t speak very good English and my Hindi is non-existent so I just hoped my hotel had explained where I wanted to go and asked him to wait 2 hours for me. Not for the first time in India, I felt uncomfortable and scared. There was a police booth: an officer smiled at me and I kept looking at him hoping for some indication that I was going in the right direction. On the right, small shops with tourist trinkets and postcards depicting the Taj gave me some comfort. Sadly for the staff, an open sewer ran directly in front of the shops and they had to jump over it to enter/exit. I did not enter.
I walked over to buy my ticket and was immediately asked by a local gentleman if I needed a guide or someone to take my photos. I declined politely; he smiled and left me alone. Almost every guidebook I’ve read told me people hassle you non-stop in India but this certainly wasn’t my experience. A smile and a simple “no-thank” worked fine for me, and I didn’t feel harassed at any point. Tickets cost 1000 Rupees (approx. £11) for non-Indians and 10 Rupees for local people. Although this can negatively impact the chances of people from neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh being able to afford entry, it seems perfectly aligned with Western budgets, and I was mortified to hear some tourists complaining of being “exploited”. It was pretty calm there as it 5:50am but I was shocked to see the main area littered with plastic and other rubbish, and locals sleeping on the floor there (as there was little cover from the elements), presumably awaiting the start of their working day. Litter is a huge problem here, as in many developing countries but, I don’t know. I just didn’t expect to see the area surrounding India’s most famous site in such disarray. I keep questioning why I had those preconceptions? Should tourist areas be cleaner for foreigners? Trying to understand my own thinking is proving difficult. Despite what I had already seen, particularly in Delhi, this took me by surprise and served as a reminder that what we are shown (in our own countries) is not necessarily all there is to see. And, having now been to the Taj Mahal, I can say with complete certainty that every image I have ever seen of this monument has been edited (including my own on this very blog). At this point, I felt very confused. I had already had rather tumultuous 3-weeks in India, also known as the most challenging experience of my life since 2011, but this was supposed to be my saving grace. Why didn’t it match up with what I had seen all over social media and on blogs? Why aren’t people showing this? Why is my truth so radically different to what others have experienced? And why had I allowed myself to be conditioned in such a superficial manner? I felt disheartened once again.
Once passed the shambolic security, I was greeted by a huge sandstone gateway which had been inscribed with Quranic verses. For what felt like the first time in 3 weeks, I smiled a genuine smile. I hadn’t seen this structure before in magazines but it felt very familiar. Though this gateway was in poor shape, memories of shrines and mosques in Iran came flooding back. Just through its arch, a sliver of white marble caught my eye, and my breath. I marched through the arch; I had to see it. All of it. I walked through the gateway, looking up and expecting paintings and mosaics that adorned similar structures in Iran. Alas, it was not to be, but that was okay, for the Taj Mahal beckoned.
The complex consists of 4 buildings: the gateway, the Taj Mahal, the mosque on the west and the jawab built on the east for subliminal symmetry. People had told me that the Taj Mahal is unlike anything in the world. Every image I have ever seen looked dream-like, too perfect to have been created by man, let alone designed and constructed in the 17th century long before CAD existed. From a distance, across the gardens, the Taj Mahal looks like a mirage. A glistening, unreachable mirage. I just stood there with my heart racing and a sense of wonder consuming me. It was peculiar because in those first few moments I didn’t notice anything or anybody, it was just me and the Taj Mahal, and it was perfect. Against the powder-grey backdrop of clouds, the semi-translucent marble looked like a painting. An exquisite piece of that belonged in the finest art gallery in the land. I had to get closer, to touch it and pinch myself. Crossing the Persian garden, however, I rapidly left my dream world. It was impossible not to notice the discoloured and worn out paving and plastic bottles carelessly discarded but, as the water was perfectly still, the Taj Mahal reflected beautifully.
Maybe I should write a blog post called ‘I have this thing with mosques’. Ever since I went to Iran, I have been obsessed. And, true to form, though in a shocking state of disrepair, my favourite place was the mosque within the Taj Mahal complex. Boards covered with bird droppings, damaged yet beautiful tile works and formally elaborate calligraphy galore – it was so peaceful. There are 569 individual prayer mats and, if you plan to visit, it’s worth noting that the entire complex closes on Fridays (to non-Muslims) for prayers. With the white marble mihrab built in the direction of Mecca, the mosque is adorned with scripture from the Quran; even though it’s now rather dilapidated, its beauty is profound. It is rather unfortunate that people ignore the no shoes rule and use it as short cut, whilst shouting and acting like hooligans. Irrespective of what you believe, I feel it is important to respect the sanctity of religious buildings, if only to show respect to one’s fellow human beings. This is not a universal opinion. And the ‘guards’ don’t seem to mind. This is my favourite structure in (the small part of ) India I’ve visited (and the best place to view the Taj from).
Before entering, I walked round the upper area of the Taj Mahal, marvelling at the perfectly cut marble was cut and deeply saddened to see that most of the precious stones had been stolen. The symmetry is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or imagined. It is absolutely magnificent. A young, American tourist posed provocatively as her friend snapped away. Climbing up on the wall, she reclined, pulled her scarf back to reveal a halter top and bare shoulders. Her brightly-coloured dress, much like the rich, bold traditional colours women wear in India, against the white marble was picture perfect, except it wasn’t. I’m not one to lecture others on what to wear, however, I feel we must all observe etiquette and, after all, this is someone’s final resting place. I observed as the ‘guards’, and I use this term loosely, watched this young woman cavorting around. A few metres away, 2 young local teenagers sat on the wall talking calmly and using their mobiles. 5 guards walked over and aggressively ushered them off the wall because, you know, it’s a mausoleum, and deserves a particular level of respect. Apparently, this does not apply to tourists. I had the same experience in Harmandir Sahib – we were provided with a police escort around the temple complex and every time the police or our professors caught someone taking a photo of us (just as we were photographing locals) they would march over and force them to delete it. How many photographs of local people did I take? And how many did I ask permission first? Us versus them. Tourists/Westerners vs Indians. Why is this okay? I hated it. And, in fact, one women in group questioned this. There was no response.
British writer Rudyard Kipling described the Taj Mahal as “the embodiment of all things pure” and the moment I stepped inside the mausoleum, I felt that purity. For the first time in 3 weeks, and on my penultimate day in India, I felt a deep sense of spirituality. Standing inside the pitch black mausoleum (bring a flash light!) with the cool marble beneath my feet, I understood my journey to India and trying 3 weeks I had endured. It was a moment of clarity, of connecting with God and listening to, rather than fighting against my journey. The India I had imagined was nothing like the India I visited (it was worse). Planets apart. The life I had envisaged is nothing like the life I am living (it is better). Sometimes we need to leave our expectations at the door (or immigration control in this case). In that moment inside the tomb, I was myself for the first time since leaving my island. I stood there, barely able to see and filtering out the respectful whispers of other visitors, and I felt strong, free and focused. My life has shown me that there is a lesson in pretty much everything I experience – the good and bad. Maybe the trials, tribulations and crushed expectations of my visit will serve a higher purpose but for now, I remain grateful for those moments of serenity inside the tomb. Upon exiting, I walked round the back of the mausoleum again, which overlooks the Yamuna, the longest tributary river to the Ganges. Silence paired with serene river views. Bliss. Coupled with the visit to the mosque, this view made the trip worth it.
Walking out and up the hill, I saw my Rickshaw driver waving, trying to capture my attention. I smiled. He was a nice man and I felt safe with him. In broken English he told me about his daughters going to school and his life in Agra; I thought about how different my experience might have been if I had made more of an effort to learn Hindi, how I would have been able to better communicate with the people I encountered. Whenever I travel, I try to learn the basics such may I have, please, how are you and so on but, beyond that, particularly in a short time (and having been in India for academic purposes), it was difficult. As we drove back to the hotel, we passed 3 little school girls in blue & white uniforms: we waved and smiled widely at each other. They looked so cute, happy and welcoming. Outside a small house a little toddler in a t-shirt several sizes too small for him, and without any undergarments, fell over and landed in cow manure. He just got up and carried on walking around the 3 roped up cows. Whenever I think about India, this scene comes back to me; I think about the open sewers and the effects of bodily effluvia on the vulnerable, and I feel helpless, disgusted and ashamed. I switched off my video recorder, put my sunglasses on and cried. My driver asked me if I wanted to go to Agra Fort or other historical sites but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I mentally could not handle any more. He was surprised (and I think he thought I was penny pinching) that I didn’t want to do the tourist thing but know thy self, as I always say. Instead, I asked him to collect me later that day to take me to the train station for what was sure to be my last rickshaw trip in India.
Would l I return to India? Well, a few days ago I saw some photographs of Mumbai and thought I might visit. But, there are so many other places to visit first. There are entire continents I haven’t visited yet, and they take precedence over visiting a country that made me weep and question my sanity. Still, just last year I said I would never study French again but I just signed up for classes. What I do know for certain is that this trip renforced what I had learnt in Iran: question everything you’re told and presented with, and never take another person’s opinion for reality. It sounds obvious but ‘my’ India is nothing like the India I’ve read about. Would I recommend the Taj Mahal? Yes, absolutely. Go, marvel at a 17th century wonder and imagine a time gone by. Just be prepared for the realisation that all that glitters isn’t golden.
Shiraz is billed as the ‘capital of culture’ – a place of literature, which homes the tombs of renowned Persian poets, Hafez and Saadi. However, as I experienced, wherever you go in Iran, art and culture abound. Shiraz was heaving with young people embracing the wonders of their country, which was rather refreshing to see. The highlight of my trip to Iran’s sixth most populous city was visiting shrines which were unlike anything I had seen, and far exceeded my humble expectations. Although I’d only been in Iran for a week by the time I reached Shiraz, my visit to Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze (Imamzadeh Hamzeh mausoleum) served to epitomes the openness, humility and kindness I experienced in those first few days.
This is the tomb of Emir Ali who died while en route to aid Imam Reza – Shia Islam’s eighth Imam and a descendent of Prophet Muhammad – who is entombed in Mashhad, Iran’s holiest site. Here in Shiraz, the small entrance is attended by local volunteers whose smiles happily welcomed me. They have unenviable task of trying to help foreign female visitors into mandatory chadors (a full-length cloak) required to enter the shrine. After some rather intensive chador training, I still haven’t a clue! I was a little disappointed as I wanted to wear a black one (when in Iran…), but bed linen-style was the only option for visitors.
Covered in tombstones of the lost, the courtyard is a place of contemplation tinged with the beauty of Persian script. Centred, one can find the ablution fountain dwarfed by the shrine. Rich cobalt blue and turquoise tiles stylishly combined with canary yellow ceramics decorate the bulbous dome, and Quranic script elegantly provides words of meaning to the faithful, whilst gently mocking my inability to understand Arabic. However, I can now finally differentiate between Persian and Arabic script. Small victories!
Much to my surprise (and honour), I was permitted to enter the men’s section of the tomb. Removing my shoes, I stepped into the mausoleum and immediately my feet sunk into the plush Persian carpets; my eyes darted around as feelings of awe at the decoration, curiosity of both the tomb and prayer ritual, and fear that this foreign woman (with her bright pink nail polish) in the men’s section of a tomb in Iran (!) would cause offence. Two gentlemen momentarily looked up before continuing their prayers. I watched them intently. I was quite anxious about taking photographs of people; even after a week of being in Iran, I still carried the weight of being British with a camera and everybody potentially thinking I was a spy. It turns out, I have never felt safer or more welcome in any country I’ve had the privilege to visit, but that’s another discussion.
It was the first time I had seen a Turbah (a prayer tablet/stone used by Shi’a), and been this close to someone praying in such a manner. It’s beautiful. Once they had completed their prayers, both gentlemen looked at me, I smiled and they nodded in acknowledgement of my presence, and one walked around me to catch a glimpse of the video I was taking on my iPad, and gave me another nod, before leaving. No animosity or annoyance; peace, tolerance and one of my favourite attributes: curiosity.
Back out into the courtyard, my chador desperately tried to escape me as I made my way through a separate entrance to the ladies section. Here, local ladies prayed, rested and appeared in a meditative state. With their black chadors elegantly framing their faces and highlighting their hazel-coloured eyes, and covering them completely, much unlike my situation. I took photographs of the gleaming Venetian mirrored tiles, the use of green to accentuate the Emir’s tomb and felt at home with one of my real life staples – stained glass windows. I attempted to leave but a group of ladies, sitting in a private female-only area immediate outside the shrine, invited me to sit with them: they were eating a type of lettuce with lemon juice and, although I needed to go, I sat for a few minutes, munching away and feeling humbled by the warm-heartedness of these strangers. I said my goodbyes with a heavy heart. This is the Iran I ‘lived’.
Whilst the mausoleum’s architectural excellence, with its protuberant dome, abundant turquoise tiles, tiny mirrored collages and deep spirituality captivates one’s attention, it has nothing on the beauty of the human souls I encountered there. A real Persian highlight.
Halong Bay always seemed like one of those places other people go to. You know, those people who take extraordinary photographs, have Condé Nast Traveller raving about them, have seemingly never taken a bad photograph and who are so naturally at ease with everything they encounter within the world. The more I live, the more I realise these people don’t really exist; they’re just like you and me. Halong Bay seemed otherworldly in the most wonderful sense but fear still held me. Fear of the unknown, of fulfilling the words of caution others had ‘offered’ without experience.
Coming from a busy city I haven’t spent much time at sea or in the water in general. Occasionally I go swimming but then I get freaked out about germs, rush home and spend longer in the shower than I did in the pool! As soon as my bus pulled up at the harbour, I started to feel a little anxious. The moment I put the life-jacket on, I felt nauseated, sweaty and I just kept thinking about drowning. I just wanted to get on the main ship for some sense of stability though, secretly, my initial thoughts all related to getting back to dry land the following day.
I made my way onto the main Junk boat, and to my little cabin with comfortable little bed with crisp, cool white linen. The awe-inspiring views as the boat made it’s way through Halong Bay. Hundreds, no, thousands of islets surrounded the boat, giving me goosebumps – each one seemingly more lush than the last. It was a place of firsts: I kayaked around the islets, slept on a boat and, most importantly, realised that my dreams are all attainable. I wanted to push myself, to live outside of my neatly planned life of books, manicures and stained glass window ogling; to live what I read, to explore the impact of formal education, my beliefs and to confront my fears. The kayaking was a mistake; it was one step too far outside my comfort zone and something I will never do again. I couldn’t enjoy the view because I was too scared about dropping my oar and, naturally, the fear of my kayak drifting into the abyss as a result. Petrifying.
The adventure was only beginning. We docked at one of the islands for a little mountain climbing, as one does in sandals and a bikini… There, high-above sea level, in the company of ravenous mosquitoes I spent a good hour just staring out at Halong Bay’s beauty, patiently waiting for the sun to set. I soon headed back to my boat for a strong martini and the silence of life at sea.
I awoke feeling refreshed and calm. It turns out sleeping on a boat is a pretty blissful experience. I still recall my morning boat shower; it’s amazing how quickly we become desensitised to the seemingly-new and strange. Having survived the previous night’s shower, with surprisingly-good water pressure, the morning was a breeze. I stepped up on deck, sat down with The Economist and started to cry. It was a magical moment of feeling connected to our universe and myself. I hope I never forget that sense of possibility. Just me, my favourite magazine and nature’s beauty. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life thus far.
It turns out that my Halong Bay experience, my second and third days in Vietnam, not only opened my eyes to a new part of the world but also set the foundation for my entire trip. Vietnam welcomed me; its people exude warmth and curiosity, the food is spicy and delicious and everywhere you look, even in the main cities, there is an abundance of greenery. Once again, I realised that as expensive and exhausting as travelling is, nothing enriches your life more. I’ve only been to Vietnam once, so I am clearly not an authority on the country. However, people with lives vastly different to mine, citizens of country deeply scarred by war and Western greed yet with a culture of kindness, education and learning from history. People who affirmed that our differences exist to unite us, rather than divide. I have met never people who have experienced the horrors of war, mass rape, violence and oppression yet whom, astonishingly, show openness and forgiveness. I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat but first I think I need to visit other distant lands – China, Iran and India – which have long since been calling my name!