The Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is one of the few active volcano systems on earth. In fact isn’t just a volcano, it is a super-volcano capable of the most massive eruptions known to man. The last such eruption wiped out a chunk of North America about 170,000 years ago and while geologists predict the next one is at least 10,000 years away, whats 10,000 years in the Earth’s timescale! So I had been hankering to get to see the park before it exploded again.

The park is an earth lover’s delight. Despite having seen the beauty of South America with its awe-inspiring scale, Yellowstone turned out to be unique and amazing. The landscape is gorgeous with multi-coloured rocks, hydrothermal bodies, lodgepole pine trees and their very own big five of the wild life.

We spent 5 days in the park, divided between the south – heart of the geo thermal wonders: hot springs, geysers and the like, and the north which is good to spot some wildlife. Since were were three families with five kids between 1yo and 9yo, we splurged on the stay with 2 nights at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the South and the Grand Canyon Lodge in the North. Accommodation within the park closes almost 6-8 months in advance, so book early.

South Yellowstone: stunning landscapes and geysers

The Old Faithful Lodge is a short walk away from the namesake geyser, which is called so because it will explode every 45 mins, give or take 10. The next eruption time is put up near the visitor complex and we headed straight there after checking in. The Old Faithful is amazing to watch, starting off as a small bubbling fountain and rising to the sky. Staying close by offered us the chance to watch the eruption multiple times and at different times of the day.  Being on the side of the sun at sunrise and sunset offers a nice rainbow view on the opposite side. There is a boardwalk that takes one to watch a number of other smaller geysers in the area and is worth a visit, though little ones have to be constantly monitored not to end up in hot water.

A nice vantage point to watch the Old Faithful
A nice vantage point to watch the Old Faithful

The geyser eruption

There are a number of hot-springs and geysers in the area

Kabir enjoys playing with a stick, oblivious to the Old Faithful right in front of him!
Kabir enjoys playing with a stick, oblivious to the Old Faithful right in front of him!

The other big attraction in the region is The Grand Prismatic, a short drive away from the Old Faithful. While ariel views of the basin are breath-taking, even a walk on the walkway around is beautiful. The boardwalk is pram friendly, but if your toddler is anything like mine, one who wants to run around at freewill, he will need constant monitoring. The ground off the boardwalk may look solid, but is merely a thin crust at a lot of places, plus the water rivulets are boiling hot. It gets quite windy, so best to take off hats, stoles etc that might fly away. We saw many a wise men who had chosen not to pick up their hats that had flown off.

A view of the Grand Prismatic from eye level
A view of the Grand Prismatic from eye level
The kids walking along the boardwalk surrounding the Grand Prismatic
The kids walking along the boardwalk surrounding the Grand Prismatic

It’s top view looks like a colourful eye and is worth a hike up the close by hill. The park intends to open a proper viewing point by August 2017, but in June, Mohit had to hike up a narrow and steep trail. The best time to get there is between 11am and 2pm when the sun is high up and all the colours are at their brilliant most.

There are a lot of artist references in the naming of the attractions and for good reason, the landscape is unpredictably gorgeous and colourful. From the Artist’s Paint Pots to Yellowstone River to Mammoth Hot-springs.

The multi-layered steaming hot rocks at Mammoth hot-springs
The multi-layered steaming hot rocks at Mammoth hot-springs
The viewing point at the top of the Artist's Paint Pots
The viewing point at the top of the Artist’s Paint Pots
The Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River

We ended our Day 3 with driving down to the Yellowstone Lake for a fabulous view a quiet dinner.

North Yellowstone: the wildlife

We moved to Canyon Lodge on the next day and from here on it was all about driving around to spot the wildlife. The Yellowstone big 5 comprise – the bison, bear, elk, bighorn sheep and wolves. Like any wildlife, they are best spotted in the early morning and evening hours.

We first drove out to the magnificent view of the Tower Falls, followed by some ice-cream and then drove around with a picnic lunch in search for the bears.

The gorgeous Tower Falls
The gorgeous Tower Falls

The trick here is to keep driving around with your eyes peeled till you find a bear or a bear jam. Yes, the long line of cars which have stopped on the side of the road because they spotted a bear. Sara was clearly better at spotting the animals than we were. We saw 2 bears, a coyote crossing the road, big-horn sheep from a long distance and an eagle nest.

The lone bison
The lone bison
Spot the bear. They are tough to spot. This was a baby bear which looked more like a wolf from the distance
Spot the bear. They are tough to spot. This was a baby bear which looked more like a wolf from the distance

The elk and the eagle’s nest

The one where we spotted the bear and started a bear jam
The one where we spotted the bear and started a bear jam

Alas, no wolves though we did drive out to Lamar valley where one has the highest probability of spotting one. Elks and bison were far more easily spotted grazing around.

There were very many great nooks for a nice picnic lunch and we stopped by a stream to enjoy the view.

Our picnic by the stream
Our picnic spot by the stream
Tempted to dip our toes in the water
Tempted to dip our toes in the water

The landscape changes so dramatically between the north and the south of the park. Thick pine forests and snow cover most of the north. The region sees its fair share of forest fires and one can spot the burnt pine needles from a distance. But seeing the new shoots right among the burnt trees made me feel the power of the earth, its resilience – it will survive, we wont.

Normally I’m amazed by the vastness of the universe, this was one of the places I was moved by the power, beauty and resilience of the earth.

~~~

Things to keep in mind while in the Yellowstone National Park

Animals and safetyWhile driving around to spot the animals is a great idea, the par does advise one to stay 100 yards away from the big animals like bears and wolves and 25 yards way from all others including bison and elk. Keep children under safe watch

Preparing for the weather: though temperatures seem fine in the shade, the sun can get really warm in summers and sunscreen is a must. Keep an extra layer of clothing  – like a light jacket and tights in the bag for the evenings which get quite chilly. 

Food: we found the food option in the par very limiting. There was either the the visitor complex and its fast food area with the same burger type options everywhere or the sit down diner places where one had to wait 45 mins in line before being able to order. The other choice was cold sandwiches and salads from the souvenir shop. We did pick up fresh fruit everyday. Warm milk was another challenge, cold milk was available everywhere, but no heating mechanism was available outside or even in our rooms. 

 

 

NASA: Kennedy Space Center, Florida

“The sky calls to us” – Carl Sagan

Says the wall outside the visitor complex of the NASA launch pad, Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, the very place which launched the first man on the moon.

My holiday isn’t complete unless I get to see the milky way, this was way better. We spent a day at the KSC understanding what really happens at NASA, admiring the height of American achievement at the Atlantis Space Shuttle showcase and giving the kids (and ourselves) a chance to get up, close and personal with rockets, science and astronauts.

The day started with the 90 minute bus tour of the entire complex that showed us the actual vehicle assembly building where the rockets are assembled, the launchpad for the shuttles all the while explaining what goes into getting to space. We stopped off first to watch the history of the NASA space program and its progress over the years, followed by a visit to Saturn V.

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Right outside NASA!

The introduction was all about how the ‘man on the moon’ mission came about along with the speech from Kennedy, followed by  the actual control room from where the first successful shuttle to the moon was launched, to live the ‘race to the moon’. With a countdown timer running on the side, the relevant controls lighting up in front of us and the realistic sound and light effect of a rocket launch, I could feel the euphoria the team must have felt at the time of the real launch and almost felt like standing up and cheering at the launch.

The control room from where the Saturn V was launched
The control room from where the Saturn V was launched

The exhibit closes with one walking into a large area displaying Saturn V, at 363 feet long, the largest rocket ever built. We spent close to 2 hours exploring the place – the rockets, moon rocks, exhibits one could walk through and feel like an astronaut in and lunching at the cafe. The food court here was a lot cheaper than the main visitor complex.

The magnificent Saturn V
The magnificent Saturn V

 

Under the belly of Saturn V
Under the belly of Saturn V

Next on the list, was a visit to the Space Shuttle Atlantis building. Along with the magnificent shuttle was American marketing prowess on display.  One cant fail to be impressed with the full scale 184-foot space shuttle stack, including external tank and two solid rocket boosters, right at the entrance.

The entrance to the Space Shuttle Atlantis
The entrance to the Space Shuttle Atlantis

Inside, we saw an IMAX movie presenting the context, followed by a short 360 movie view of the rocket,  closing with a a large screen with a picture of the Atlantis Space Shuttle…and then the screen lifts to reveal the beauty itself, the real spaceship suspended mid air with its cargo doors open. A showcase that is awe-inspiring as intended. We spent close to 45 mins admiring the ship and the multiple interactive exhibits that allow kids to feel like they are navigating a spaceship!

The Atlantis
The Atlantis

 

After making our way back, we went into the IMAx theatre to watch a movie about Mission Mars. The queue gets long, so getting there early would help. The way out lead us to a number of interactive exhibits simulating some space experiences including an air slide, a transparent tunnel suspended 20 feet above the ground, space toilets etc, which the kids really enjoyed.

What do you call a poop floating in space?                     A gastronaut
What do you call a poop floating in space? A gastronaut

 

We had limited time and had to head back after about 5 odd hours, but the place deserves at least a full day. The two other attractions we would have liked to visit were the Rocket Garden and the book signing by a real astronaut. Older kids are likely to enjoy the space shuttler simulator immensely.

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The Rocket Garden

Even without an engineering background I was much fascinated by the detail that goes into exploring beyond the earth – from the sheer energy required to propel a rocket into outer-space to the nuts and bolts of the launch pad. A trip to NASA is guaranteed to inspire awe and amazement. I left with a renewed feeling of wide eyed wonder at really  how amazingly expansive the universe is, and how, despite all our breath-taking achievements, we’ve only gone so far…. and the sky calls to us.

~~

Planning Tips with kids

  1. Plan to spend at least 7-8 hours at the centre, we were there for about 5 hrs and missed the astronaut meet and greet, rocket garden and space shuttle simulator
  2. Get there early, queues start lengthening after 10 am. Also, do the Atlantis Space Shuttle and Saturn V in the beginning to avoid long wait time.
  3. Use the loo; eat a snack before getting onto the bus tour since it is about 45 mins long and there may be long queues for boarding
  4. Try the space dots ice-cream 🙂
  5. Strollers are available for a nominal charge at the ($6) near the start of the Bus Tour, but if you get your own, parking is also available.
  6. While there is a children’s play dome with a NASA themed play area, we found the exhibits far more interesting and a better use of the limited time!

3 Weeks In The USA

Our big trip this year was planned for the US. Unusually enough, it did not involve any sporting event. I was really keen on getting to the Yellowstone National Park before it blows up and staying inside the park needs one to make booking about a year in advance, before any sports event dates were declared!

This trip, all of three weeks had us trooping across the US starting with Florida for 4 days, followed by a cruise to the Bahamas for 4 days, a day at NASA, onto Yellowstone National Park for another 4 days then a day in Vegas, a day driving to the Grand Canyon, a day driving back to Vegas and finally 2 days in Orlando exploring the parks.

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Much debate happened around whether we should do Disneyland right at the beginning of the trip or at the end – start with a bang for the kids or end with one? Finally, given young Kabir still naps in the afternoon and takes forever to get over jet-lag, we decided to push Disney to the end so we wouldn’t all be cranky.

The days in Florida were spent with friends in Davie at sun-kissed beaches between Davie, Ft Lauderdale and Miami, with a fantastic Peruvian lunch thrown in <Close to 15th and Collins, is Chalan by the sea. Do try the Saltado house meat dish and the fish in garlic sauce>.

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Enjoying the clear blue skies and gentle waves on the beaches of Florida
The Miami Post Office,  apparently barely used
The Miami Post Office, apparently barely used
Cute outdoor cafes with a strong Latin American flavor
Cute outdoor cafes with a strong Latin American flavor

 

The ariel view of the state pretty much shows water bodies everywhere but I was surprised to hear that there is a piece of news every other week about a croc being sighted in someone’s house or a lake nearby! The friends we stayed with, got to see lizards of every size pretty much every week in their back-yard. So my greatest disappointment was not getting to see a croc lazing about on the road.

So while the first week was very relaxed with lazing at the beaches and cruising, the last few days were very hectic what with driving all day for 2 days, snatched tourist moments at Vegas and just about a sunrise and sunset caught at the Grand Canyon, followed by really long days at Disneyland and Universal Studios. In hindsight, we should have cut out the Vegas and Grand Canyon leg, and spent 2 additional days at the parks; or, swapped the dates for the cruise and the parks.

We drove around pretty much on every leg, except of course the cruise. The US is a great place to drive and park. Every car is given about 3 cars worth of parking space! My Indian parking sense really wanted to yell at people to move over and make space for each other rather than keep driving around in circles waiting for someone to vacate a spot so you can actually get off at a viewing point.

Flights are best for long distance travel. We flew from Orlando to Yellowstone West, then to Las Vegas and then Back to Orlando. Flying Delta was a good experience the service great but no inflight entertainment, unless one downloaded their app in advance. United was not entirely pleasant. I wasn’t too positive about them given the recent news and my personal experience did nothing to dispel the notion. They had no blankets, little and disappointing food and generally irritated staff.

I didn’t quite know what to expect a US trip to be like, in the Trump era, but there is nothing worth mentioning. The VISA and immigration formalities were no different than when I visited 10 years ago. I may have felt more visible signs of intolerance, but it could well have been confirmation bias.

Well, more on each leg in the following blogs.

 

Cruisin’ With Kids and Toddlers – Carnival Liberty

Our next big leg after Florida was a short 4 day cruise to the Bahamas on Carnival Liberty. This too, was with our friends from the US (with kids aged 5 and 1.5). I wasn’t quite sure about how the experience would be, since holiday for me means being outdoors for most waking hours and cruise means being pretty much in the hotel, gigantic as it may be, all the time. It turned out be be a mixed bag.

The fun parts:

We boarded from Port Canaveral, Orlando at noon, choosing to do an early check in so we could enjoy a good lunch and pool before the rooms got allocated. Having done our research, we’d packed a day bag with swimwear and sunscreen and most essentials that the kids would need, as it takes about half the day to get the bags after the check in. So lunch was followed by hitting the  fairly empty pools directly.

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There was a good kids club called Camp Ocean, where one could leave kids above 2 years for almost the whole day. With enough activities to do, the kids stay occupied; the camp team takes care of meals for the older ones and gives the parents a phone on which they can call in case the child needs the parents. We were happy to leave Sara and Kabir for a couple of hours. But mostly they spent time with the kids of the friends we were traveling with.

There were a number of really fun activities for the kids – the pools, the water slide, Father’s Day card making, Camp Ocean activities, Harry Potter quiz, build a bear (entirely missable and expensive), and some others. The highlights were Dr Seuss story reading session which was done very well and the Dr Seuss breakfast (@USD 5 per person). In both cases the kids got to meet the characters, be part of the story, dine on green eggs and ham while being served by Thing 1-82! To be honest, I enjoyed this part as much as the kids did.

The stage is set for The Cat In The Hat
The stage is set for The Cat In The Hat
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Real Green Eggs & Ham!

The evenings were spent on the deck watching a kiddy blockbuster with popcorn and hot dogs. The kids quite enjoyed the movie, and i enjoyed watching the sunset from various parts of the deck which chasing Kabir around the ship.

Gorgeous sunsets that lasted almost an hour
Gorgeous sunsets that lasted almost an hour

Our cabin was quite spacious, complete with a small wardrobe, fridge, TV, and bunk beds for the kids. We pushed one of the suitcases under the bed which gave us plenty space to move around. The window-sil was made into private spaces by the girls and the little boys spent their in-room time climbing up and down the bunk bed.

This is our space
This is the girls’ space

 

And this, the boys'
And this, the boys’

Food and drink was always available in plenty. We dined mostly in the informal dining area at meal times and picked up snacks as and when needed. There was ice-cream, tea and coffee available round the clock free of cost which made all of us quite happy. Dinner tables were reserved for each room in the formal dining hall which had good food including an Indian dish on the menu and the deserts were to die for. One could order breakfast in the room all day, which gave us a plentiful supply of fruits and snacks for the kids.

The Disappointments:

So I did get the feeling of being indoors for way too much time on the first 2 days that we were at sea, and even on the days that we docked at Nassau and FreeportI felt we had too little time to really explore the islands. We’d manage to get off the ship by 1030 and had to be back by 4.

There was absolutely no cell-phone connectivity and the internet packages were very expensive @40USD for the 4 days for non streaming connections and @16 USD for whatsapp only.

The water-play was very limited. There were 2 stamp sized pools and 4 coin sized whirlpools. There was no water play area, only a water slide where they did not allow kids to go in the lap. So while Sara thoroughly enjoyed it, Kabir couldn’t really go. Also, they had this weird policy of not allowing babies in diapers into the pool! It seemed that drunk adults in the pool were more likely to cause disasters than little kids.  While we had started toilet training Kabir before leaving, it’s hard to keep up on vacation and we did put him in with a swimming diaper on, making sure it wasn’t visible.

In the formal dining area, there are only 2 dinner slots – 630pm and 830pm, so one couldn’t dine there in between, which made it difficult.

Despite calling themselves family friendly, there is no supply of any baby products on board. So if you run out of diapers, formula or wipes – you’re on your own. Even warm milk was a challenge. Most of the milk available was cold, and one could order hot milk as part of dinner or room service, which made other milk times quite difficult.

If, the kids were older, i think we would have enjoyed a lot more. All the pools were visible for the main deck, so putting the kids in the pool and lounging on the deck with drinks or dropping kids at the Camp ocean for an evening out is very much possible with kids above 5.

Would I do a cruise again? I did enjoy seeing the stars on open waters, and with more docking days, it would have been nicer. Maybe Alaska.

~~~

 

Airport Review – Munich & Frankfurt

The Munich Airport has been given a 5–star rating by SkyTrax and with good reason and Frankfurt Airport boasts exclusive kids’ experiences. Shweta Markandeya agrees.

Here is her review from having traveled through there with her young daughter.

Play areas and open areas available for kids – everyone wants to stretch their legs during a lay over, and open spaces work very well. These don’t necessarily have to be “play areas”, but any safe, cordoned off area where the kids can toddle around with tolerance for their antics. Installation art, exhibits and a clear view of the airplanes landing and taking off can keep kids and parents engaged for quiet a while. Munich Airport’s award winning Terminal 2 (which serves Lufthansa & partners) has a clean and open design and installations and local shops that kept me and my daughter engaged on a 10 hour lay-over.

The Frankfurt Airport has unusual play areas located conveniently near the gates, a place to rent a stroller if you need one, and yummy food options with big and small portions.

Not your average play area - Munich airport
Not your average play area – Munich airport
Not your average play area Frankfurt Airport
Not your average play area – Frankfurt Airport

Availability and location of family rest rooms – Separate and roomy family rest rooms are a boon, especially for families with multiple kids and very young ones. It is a pain to change diapers or breastfeed a baby in a normal ‘loo’. A family rest room provides a dry space to change diapers and a clean and private space to feed the baby. Both Munich and Frankfurt airports have baby changing rooms. Germans are also very accepting of the fact that mums need to feed their babies, so breast-feeding in public is not a problem at all.

Mommy down time at Frankfurt Airport
Mommy down time at Frankfurt Airport

Preference for families in immigration and security – no one likes endless queues, but taking a squirming, frisky 18 month old through an immigration or security line is a pain for all – the baby, parents and everyone around. German airports score on these counts for immigration and transit security checks. The staff is trained to divert families to a separate queue. What is also helpful are hub airports and allied airlines that don’t through check in the stroller, but allow you to pick it up during transit – after all that’s one of the reasons why you are lugging the stroller!

Most helpful of all was the general attitude of the airport staff as well as the staff in restaurants and shops. At the Munich airport, all the shop staff was welcoming and usually had some kids activity book to offer the little shoppers

Shopping fun Munich airport
Fun being German

Some ideas to keep little ones occupied at the airport, that work for us

  1. Books – always a hit with all ages
  2. Activity books and sketch books
  3. Read up on airplanes and aviation, and watch the various systems in place
  4. Read the signages and the floor maps, and have a little game of treasure hunt
  5. Watch the planes take off and land

**update from the backpacking mama**

The German Airports have recently been a little difficult for Indians with a couple of cases of random checks based on racial profiling. I know of 1 person who missed his flight due to the checking and received no support from the airport staff. I would recommend reaching significantly early.

~~

After 10 years of climbing the corporate ladder in investment banking and corporate strategy roles, Shweta decided to call it quits and just “chill” with her now 5 and a half year old daughter. When not wandering on foot, she wanders in her mind by reading, writing and planning yet another trip! She de-stresses by running and sipping her glass of Riesling. She lists Greece, Northern California and Prague as her favourite destinations – she’d be happy to run a book cum coffee shop in Oia!

 

Munich Airport Facilities

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Frankfurt Airport Facilities

https://www.frankfurt-airport.com/de/faszination-airport/kids—family.html#map_copy

 

**update from the backpacking mama**

The German Airports have recently been a little difficult for Indians with a couple of cases of random checks based on racial profiling. I know of 1 person who missed his flight due to the checking and received no support from the airport staff. I would recommend reaching significantly early.

~~

After 10 years of climbing the corporate ladder in investment banking and corporate strategy roles, Shweta decided to call it quits and just “chill” with her now 5 and a half year old daughter. When not wandering on foot, she wanders in her mind by reading, writing and planning yet another trip! She de-stresses by running and sipping her glass of Riesling. She lists Greece, Northern California and Prague as her favourite destinations – she’d be happy to run a book cum coffee shop in Oia!

Top Tips When Traveling To Iran

**

A follow up from the lovely piece on Iran from Fabian, incase you do plan to go there

**

Things you should know before you head to the country as a tourist.

1) It helps if you can speak or understand Farsi, or are travelling with somebody who does. Compared to most countries, the prevalence of English is a lot less amongst the average person, and this includes broken, half-gesture-quarter-funnyface-quarter-mutualfrustration English. You may think this is not that different from a lot of non-English-speaking countries, especially the rural areas, but even in such places you are likely to scrape by using basic words. In Iran, it was sometimes difficult to explain ‘sandwich’.

Also, except for roads and the tourist spots, the signage is all Farsi.

Our suggestion: Do keep a handy list of essential items and services you may require, or keep a translation app at the ready. It also helps if you know Urdu or Hindi, because once you account for it being a different language, it’s amazing just how many words you can understand (and through it, sentences).

2) Iran was also the first country we had been to which almost completely ignores the Georgian calendar. Except for official and international stuff, they just use the Persian calendar. It was astounding how often people had to stop and think for a moment to remember it was ‘September’ or ‘2016’.

It was doubly surreal for us because that is the same calendar the Parsis follow in India (for religious purposes), and which nobody knows about except the Parsis. Here, everybody did.

3) Things aren’t cheap as you might expect. Thanks to the sanctions, Iran’s inflation has been running fairly high, and while there are some bargains to be had, foodstuffs in particular are at par with more expensive countries.

Also, we were regularly and insistently informed that it’s cheaper to buy Persian carpets outside the country, so sadly our Aladdin fantasies didn’t come to fruition.

4) The cabbies don’t use meters. Be prepared to bargain. It was like being in Dilli or Bangalore, except the drivers don’t scratch so much.

5) If you’re going to be eating out, and you’re a vegetarian, be prepared for finding one option in main courses (if you’re lucky). If you’re a vegan, givvup only. Although it’s possible to live just on the fruits (oh yes!).

6) US dollars beshht (although pounds and euros come close). All major currencies are changeable officially, of course, but if you’re stuck without local money and need to exchange some/make an urgent payment, it helps to have some dollars handy.

7) The inter-city buses are quite good. There are flights, but not so many, and the trains run on some bizarre schedule of their own. The buses, however, are the lifeline for those without personal transport – they are relatively cheap, are airconditioned, have reclining seats, and you’re served a full snack-kit at least once. Unfortunately, they do insist on playing at least one film during the journey, and there’s no real way to mute the sound.

8) Women do need to be dressed in a certain way. If you’re travelling from India, you can get away with wearing kurta-pyjamas/ salwar-kameez – although it will mark you out as a tourist immediately.

**

Seema and Fabian Bhatia-Panthaki are the new parents of twin canine girls, whose demands mean long-distance travel is now a luxury. This Iran trip may have been their last joint foreign outing for some time to come. To keep their scampering scamps in the manner they have become accustomed to, Seema works in the field of International Development, while Fabian functions as an editor. 

Iran Unshrouded

You likely have some nascent impression of Iran, probably aided by the occasional report that pops up in the media when something big happens in the country. The Revolution of ’79. Religious orthodoxy. Persepolis (the city, the graphic novel). Sanctions. Its nuclear ambitions.

Before our visit, we read a lot of current-news stories and followed a few blogs about the country to get some idea of what to expect. Despite this, we imagined that all the years of wars, sanctions, and religion would have resulted in mid-level infrastructure and a conservative public culture.

But the country turned out to be quite different. Yes, it lives up to some clichés, but it belies many more.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

A lot of Iran is unpopulated, hardscrabble terrain – either mountains or semi-arid scrubland – and dotted with lots of small towns and very few villages. And, most strikingly, few farms. But at least the highways were awesome.

The big cities however are a different scene altogether.

For starters, they’re quite modern. The buildings are well-designed, well laid-out, and spacious. There are swanky shops everywhere that stocking international brands (with an almost-zero presence of malls and hypermarkets, which made shopping that much more interesting).

Who needs ugly malls when you have bazaars like this (Teheran)
Who needs ugly malls when you have bazaars like this (Teheran)

Public transport is widely used (if not as widely available as it should be). There is new construction everywhere, but there are far fewer ugly-glass monstrosities than you would expect, and far fewer high-rises as well.

Most startlingly, the roadworks were some of the best we had seen anywhere in the world. Seriously, anywhere. Mostly because they’re well-thought out and, well, typically Persian – graceful flyovers, benches everywhere on proper pavements with ramp access, little drain-lines across alleys and roads running downhill to carry off excess water. As a bonus, the actual roads are also really good.

Proof that urbanisation and beauty are not mutually exclusive
Proof that urbanisation and beauty are not mutually exclusive

And most importantly, there’s an attempt to green whatever open space is available. You certainly learn to value plants and trees when you have a water crisis and desert all round. The riverbed in Isfahan was completely dry when we visited, yet the city somehow managed to cultivate lush gardens that looked like they were rained upon every other day.

Dry river bed in Isfahan
Dry river bed in Isfahan
Lush gardens of Isfahan (despite the drought)
Lush gardens of Isfahan (despite the drought)

And yes, there were lots of women wearing the full chador, but they were outnumbered by the number of women with gold-painted fingernails, leggings, floral Manteaux, and translucent headscarves. Fashion seems to have become the primary form of rebellion for women – to assert their identity, confidence, and a love for all clothes light and bright. It seemed that the future is at least orange and will expand to prints and other colours. With the election of the current government, women have become bolder and more willing to take fashion risks. The standard uniform for young Iranian women consists of tight jeans or leggings, multi-coloured sports shoes, an unbuttoned manteaux, and a headscarf casually flung over your head. Tops layered with cropped tees (yes, you read that right) have also started to pop up.

The manteaux is no longer that long, austere, shapeless coat designed to slaughter your inner temptress – it can simply be a long shirt dress, sometimes made risqué by its flimsy material or lace insertion that lets a viewer see what lies beneath. Or it can be a fitted trench coat style jacket.

Yes, most men are bearded, but these are beards that look like they were groomed for a fashion show in Milan. And yes, alcohol is officially banned, but there’s a thriving underground market and who needs it when there’s Istak Lemon. Besides, much as we hate to sound prohibitionist and pro-government, but not having to worry about leery and rowdy drunks made evenings in public places a far more enjoyable experience. And yes, there’s non-stop propaganda on state TV, but everyone has satellite dishes and is instead watching BBC and CNN on their giant LED screens.

Astonishingly, the thing that struck us most was that five days in, we realised how relaxed everybody – including ourselves – were in terms of worrying about the possibility of a public terror attack. For the first time in a long, long time, we found ourselves not looking over our shoulders, not scanning for exit points or keeping tabs on suspicious-looking characters, and not being subconsciously tense in expectation of such an event. And it wasn’t as if there was a heavy security presence. The whole thing was particularly surprising given all the chaos going in neighbouring Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

It was truly a moment of staggering realisation, that this country that is seen as such an unsafe zone was in fact the only country we had been to in decades where we were most at ease.

Yes, a lot of this is nascent liberalisation grown over the last few years, and Iran does remain quite conservative overall. And there was a sense that the momentum could shift back any time if the old guard feels too threatened, but Iran felt like it was at the cusp of a cultural shift.

What it needs is a lot more people from a lot more different countries and cultures to keep touring it and interacting with the person on the street. It’s the only way to break down the decades of distrust and misinformation, and perhaps encourage more of them to fight more for their liberties.

If you have ever dreamt of visiting the country, or were planning a trip, don’t give in to the fear – just go. Because a country is not its government.

Iran in pictures

A regular evening at Nashq-e-Jahan (Isfahan)
A regular evening at Nashq-e-Jahan (Isfahan)
They sure love their gardens (Tehran)
They sure love their gardens (Tehran)
Zoroastrian Dharamshala - Shiraz
Zoroastrian Dharamshala – Shiraz
The intricate designs true to Persia
The intricate designs true to Persia
These gorgeously intricate designs
These gorgeously intricate designs

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Seema and Fabian Bhatia-Panthaki are the new parents of twin canine girls, whose demands mean long-distance travel is now a luxury. This Iran trip may have been their last joint foreign outing for some time to come. To keep their scampering scamps in the manner they have become accustomed to, Seema works in the field of International Development, while Fabian functions as an editor.