Our minder/guide, Seyed, made sure we ate in comfortable (i.e., high-end) restaurants, generally in hotels. Restaurants used Kleenex rather than napkins; there was a box of tissues on every dining table. Because Iran is a tea culture, the coffee at breakfast was Nescafe-style instant. Locals assured me that tap water was safe to drink, but I stuck with the bottled kind. Iran is strictly “dry” — absolutely no booze or beer in public.
From a productivity point of view, it seemed as if the country were on Valium. Perhaps Iranians are just not driven as we are by capitalist values to “work hard” in order to enjoy material prosperity. I heard that well-employed Iranians made $5,000 to $15,000 a year, and paid essentially no tax. (Taxes are less important to a government funded by oil.) While the Islamic Revolution is not anti-capitalistic, the business metabolism felt like a communist society: There seemed to be a lack of incentive to really be efficient. Measuring productivity at a glance, things were pretty low-energy.
I couldn't help but think how tourism could boom here if they just opened up. There were a few Western tourists (mostly Germans, French, Brits, and Dutch). All seemed to be on a tour, with a private guide, or visiting relatives. Control gets tighter or looser depending on the political climate, but basically American tourists could visit only with a guided tour. I met no one just exploring on their own. The Lonely Planet guidebook, which is excellent, dominated the scene — it seemed every Westerner in Iran had one. Tourists are so rare, and major tourist sights are so few and obvious, that I bumped into the same travelers day after day. Browsing through picture books and calendars showing the same 15 or 20 images of the top sights in Iran, I was impressed by how our short trip would manage to include most of them.
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You are reading "All the Little Differences in Iran", an entry posted on 22 March 2010 by Rick Steves.