Qeshm Island, Iran; December 25-29 2016

After the long saga procuring flight tickets between Dubai and Iran's Qeshm Island (see previous travelogue), we were a bit nervous that yet another chapter could unfold when it finally came time to check in, especially when the two parties in front of us were both turned away. But check-in went smoothly, and after the short flight we again found ourselves in a line where we didn't quite know what to expect: Iranian immigration at the Qeshm airport. We thought things were going well when the official stamped our passports, but then we were sent off to a holding area without our passports and without explanation. Our concerns were allayed somewhat when the pilot, flight attendant, and a few others waved and smiled as if it were all very normal. But the defining moment came when an unmarked door near the holding area opened and out popped a small exuberant 30-something man who announced "I am Assad! From your guesthouse!!" (More on Assad and his wonderful family and guesthouse in a moment.) With Assad on the scene things took on a new character -- soon he was in possession of our passports, we were fingerprinted, some other undisclosed paperwork was taken care of, and we were on our way. It turns out Assad wasn't quite brand new to helping Americans with their arrival: his first-ever American guest had arrived the previous day.

One of the biggest questions we had (and got from others) about spending time in Iran is how Jennifer and Emily would need to dress in public. To be completely safe, we had purchased inexpensive abayas in advance: the long black robes that can be seen throughout the Middle East. They turned out to be unnecessary much of the time (not to mention hot and impractical) -- we just needed to dress in long pants, long sleeves, and with shirts "long enough to cover the butt." We also needed to cover our heads when we were out, although even that wasn't as strict as we thought it might be: it was okay to have some hair showing, for example, and when nobody was around we could uncover briefly for photographs (photo 1).

Part of what convinced us to come to Qeshm was the incredible run of glowing reviews on Tripadvisor for Assad Bed & Breakfast, one of a handful of guesthouses on the island. Just like the enthusiastic reviewers, we found the accommodations to be basic but clean and perfectly adequate, while Assad and his family were extraordinary hosts making for a terrific overall experience. We filled our days with Assad-guided visits to many interesting sites around the island, including two different spectacular canyons (
photos 1 and 2), a salt cave, a bird-watching boat tour in a mangrove forest, another boat trip to nearby Hangam Island with its lovely secluded beaches (photo 3), a boatyard with traditional vessels under construction (photo 4), and a picturesque fishing village (photo 5). On the last day we paid a short visit to the main city, on the opposite end of the island from the guesthouse. Given how rural everywhere else we'd visited had been, we were surprised to find a bustling, modern metropolis.

Back at the guesthouse Assad's wife was in charge of the excellent meals, and his 11-year-old daughter was in charge of charming everyone with her card tricks and excellent English, which she (along with Assad) had learned entirely by spending time with guests. Assad has a delightful demeanor and a wry sense of humor that we never tired of. Perhaps we could have lived without the after-dinner Bollywood channel Hindu soap operas dubbed in Farsi, but even that tradition added to the charm in its own way. As an official home-stay, the B&B is required to ensure that guests experience the host's way of life, which included eating meals cross-legged around a plastic sheet on the Persian carpet (photo 6, Assad and his wife on the end), sleeping on thin mattresses in a tiled furniture-free room, being served the same food they would eat normally (authentic, delicious, and no problem for Emily the vegetarian), using a squat toilet (sparkling clean), and, it seems, watching Bollywood.

Assad's biggest problem is managing the increasing number of guests as his reputation builds; he doesn't have the heart to turn people away. The other guests whose stays overlapped with ours were a fun, varied, and well-traveled group: the other American, a woman graduate student from Chicago; an intrepid Dutch family including adorable eight-year-old twin boys and a hardy 77-year-old Grandpa; a Canadian-Iranian single guy who kept the party lively; and a young Dutch-Polish couple who have been long-term traveling for two years with no end in sight. Corny as it sounds, as we shared meals and toured the island together we truly became like an extended family (photo 7).

As for Iran the country, of course we barely scratched the surface in visiting just one small island. Putting aside the dress and behavior requirements for women, our experience was an entirely positive one, mirroring that of most visitors: the Iranian people are incredibly warm, genuinely curious and hospitable, and their explicit goal with Americans is to show us their gentleness and generosity. They succeeded!

After bidding goodbye to Assad at the airport, where Jennifer made the enormous faux-pas of trying to give him a hug (unrelated men & women aren't even permitted a handshake in public), we flew back to Dubai, with a few hours to kill before flying on to Muscat in Oman. On arrival in Dubai we were surprised when Alex -- and Alex only -- was sent into the immigration holding area; his eavesdropping suggested the issue may have been our many entries and exits from the United Arab Emirates over the past ten days, with one of his stamps not being legible thereby leaving a suspicious unmatched pair. Once he was allowed through we still had time to shun the skyscrapers and glitz to visit one of Dubai's more traditional neighborhoods, with its buzzing "souqs" (alleyways of shops all selling the same type of merchandise, e.g., gold, spices, perfume, or dresses as in photo 8) and the biggest fish market we've ever seen (photo 9).

Next: On to Muscat, Oman, where we'll have a day to visit the city before we embark on our nine-day outdoor adventure organized by Oman Trekking Guides.

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