Notes on the Iran/Persia Conflict: A Travelogue -- Part One: "Tourist" is not a Dirty Word.

Few countries are as historically important as Persia. Not Iran, Persia. True, the area was to some extent called "Aryan" or "Iran" on and off for millennia for the last two and a half thousand years, it's been Persia, and that's what most of the people consider themselves, Persian. They speak Farsi (Persian), not Irani, but that's a discussion for later. For now, let's discuss why anyone in their right mind would travel half way around the world and back and spend a quarter-year's salary (minimum wage) to go there for two weeks.

Before the 9/11 attacks, there was a company called "Now Voyager" which specialized in what were then called "courier flights." Back in those days, it was cheaper for a company to buy a plane ticket and use the luggage space than to just ship the packages. So they would sell the seat to some poor fool who just needed a change of underwear and a small knapsack that fit in the overhead bin for up to 90% off, and viola! You could spend a week in Hong Kong, or London, Paris or Rome, for almost no money. Then there were other ways to get across the Atlantic cheap, and for a thousand bucks, you could go clear around the world...and I did.

I became an inveterate tourist, and still am. It gets me mad when someone says "I'm not a tourist, I'm a traveler!", as if something was crass about the idea of seeing someplace for the first time with one's eyes and mouth open in wonderment. Tourism is an honorable activity, going back thousands of years. Hell, the Crusades were fought to protect tourists for crying out loud. Allah himself, through the prophet Mohammed (allegedly) demanded that his followers go to Mecca to see the sights there at least once in their lives.

God himself, you can't get a better endorsement than that!

Some countries are harder to get to than others. Take Cuba for example. It's illegal under most circumstances, and I went there under a special license just before the Bush administration decided to suspend them. Other places have "State department advisories" against them, but that doesn't mean that you're not allowed to go there, however there are some countries that just won't let you in. Libya for example refuses to issue visas, and even when they do, they don't always honor them. That's a very hard nut to crack, and I'll do it some day.

Global Exchange is a lefty group promoting things like "fair trade" and Hugo Chavez. One of the things they do is tours of places whose governments hate our guts, or have a leftist bent, Venezuela, for example. Propaganda tourism. (The late Spalding Grey did a brilliant description of this in his Monster in a Box) They're pretty much the only people who've managed to get regular tours of NORTH Korea, and one of the few who organize jaunts to Iran, although one of their "delegations" was too loud in her advocacy, and the company got banned for a year. So poor people bitching is not on the agenda for this trip, which is fine and dandy with me. The main problem was the expense and that you had to be accepted.

I obviously WAS accepted, and after about six weeks of waiting, the Iranian interest section gave the okay. The visa was expensive, and because it took so long we had to pay the special overnight fee as well (the Iranians took three days anyway), and there were lots and lots of dos and don'ts, especially when it came to dress. The Chador and all that. Global Exchange spends a lot of time and money getting off the blacklist, and they didn't want to get back one, which is completely understandable.

Even with the isolation of luxury hotels and a bus tour, we seven tourists managed to make contact with quite a few ordinary Persians, as well as Azeris, Turkmen and indigenes. (I also got two small rugs, it's friggen' PERSIA for crying out loud). My knowledge of the people is cursory at best, but it's far better than what we get out of the media. I'm not going to talk about the dynamics of the group or anything like that because that's mostly irrelevant (Mexican lawyers, college sophomore Marxists and minor movie stars) just what I saw and read about while I was there.

I love Persia and hate Iran, and by the time I'm finished, I hope you know why.