Iran is not your typical destination. It’s still shrouded by a lack of information – and a lot of misinformation.
Last year I decided to visit the country with Intrepid Travel, a decision I’m so happy I made, because it influenced a lot of how much I ended up loving Iran. This wasn’t just any old trip; it was a rich experience, full of local interactions and a lot of interesting history.
You’ll notice I’ll refer to my guide a lot, Nadia Badiee, as she was the face of Intrepid Travel during this trip and the person who, in the end, made many of my most memorable experiences in Iran possible.
A healthy mix of the typical and the unexpected
My Iran Adventure tour included most of the highlights you shouldn’t miss in cities like Shiraz, Tehran, Yazd, and a few others. Even if the tour was just the highlights, I would have been satisfied with it, but it went beyond by adding a few unique and unexpected experiences.
Some of them, like the night we spent at the stunningly beautiful and historic Zein-o-Din Caravanserai, were pre-planned by Intrepid; while others, like our lunch meal with a Zoroastrian family in Yazd, happened on a whim when Nadia called some of her friends and they invited us over for lunch. Not only it was a delicious lunch, but we spent a good time chatting and learning about Zoroastrianism in Iran.
This is one of the cool things of having someone who knows well the place and its locals. Opportunities like these, where you get to interact with them at a deeper level, are more prone to happen.
Having my own historical and cultural narrator
Do you remember seeing the Pop-Up Videos show on VH1 back in the late 90s? If you didn’t, the show basically played popular music videos. But the cool thing was that throughout the video, comic book-like bubbles would pop to give you relevant fun facts about the video, the artists, and how it was made. I always loved watching it because it was so entertaining.
Well, my experience in Iran was like a real-life pop-up video, thanks to my guide, Nadia. A guide can make or break your experience, and in this case, Nadia not only made my trip the high-quality experience Intrepid is known for, but she also made thousands of years of history and culture so easy to understand and entertaining that even now, months after my trip, I still remember most of it.
It wasn’t about just remembering, but also about understanding the significance that history has in their culture, and the relationship it has with each place we visited.
Feeling comfortable and safe with everything we were doing
Let’s be honest, Iran is not the most liberal country in the world, and there are many things that back home may seem insignificant, but in Iran, they could be taboo or frowned upon.
The very first day I walked around Iran, before meeting Nadia, I was a bit afraid of telling people I was American. I didn’t know if they’d have a negative reaction, or if that would be safe. But, once I met Nadia, she reassured me that it is totally safe to be open about being an American in Iran.
Along the way, she ‘educated’ us on ‘Iranian etiquette’ to make sure we respected the local culture, while still being comfortable. She took us to places I would have never seen by myself, for fear of intruding. And, she made sure everything flowed smoothly and securely.
Iran is not a dangerous country, but we go there with so many preconceived notions that it seems a dangerous destination; sometimes our guide’s work is to also break those mental shackles we bring with ourselves to allow us to enjoy the destination as it’s intended to be.
Man Farsi nemi farhmam
I may look Iranian, as many locals told me, but my looks don’t come with a developed Farsi language. About a dozen times, I replied with a polite “man Farsi nemi farhman” (I don’t speak Farsi – written phonetically), only to get giggles back or a puzzled look. Why? Many locals thought I was the guide and Nadia and the others were my tourists.
It was a fun way to interact with the locals and Nadia was happy to play along with it, but more importantly, she translated everything for us. She bridged that gap that often exists between travelers and locals. She even took her time each day to teach us one new word in Farsi to understand the basics and say hi, thank you, you’re welcome, and so on.
Which brings me to… Tabalodet Mobarak!
(By the way, I’m sure I’m butchering the phonetic spelling, but that’s how they sounded to me!)
A better birthday experience than I expected… Tabalodet Mobarak!
That means happy birthday in Farsi.
I decided to spend my birthday in Iran, and if you’re thinking that’s an unusual destination for a birthday, you’re right. Drinking alcohol is illegal and the country isn’t known for its partying scene (which, basically doesn’t exist in those terms).
But I didn’t care about that. I wanted a cultural experience, and I got it! Out of pure coincidence, Nadia’s birthday was the day before mine, and both happened during the tour, so we decided to celebrate together.
Just for fun, the whole tour group had a photo session dressed in ancient traditional Persian clothing. We had one of those photos printed on our cake (as we do for little kids birthdays in the US – but apparently this is popular among grown-ups in Iran).
For the celebration, we went to one of Tehran’s trendy speakeasy tea shops (the equivalent of a speakeasy bar) and celebrated our birthday there by doing the customary birthday dance while holding a knife in one hand. Not the safest dance of my life, but one that I’ll never forget.
Like with everything in life, some of the best moments happen unplanned, and even though Intrepid Travel has a professionally planned itinerary, it leaves enough wiggle room to allow those magical, unexpected experiences to happen naturally.
Ready for the experience of a lifetime with Intrepid? Visit Iran on one of their local-led tours.
(All images by Norbert Figueroa and taken on Intrepid’s Iran Adventure trip.)