Imagine waking up one day, quitting your job, packing a suitcase and jetting off to a remote part of the world without a backward glance. That’s exactly what American husband and wife, Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott, did seven years ago and they have yet to go home. Having visited more than 80 countries since their departure, the couple sponsors their by now extremely extended trip by sharing their experiences along the way on their Uncornered Market blog and social media channels. Readers can follow the couple’s insights on anything from where to travel, different world cuisines, the transformational power of travel or simply able to enjoy some incredible photography.
The pair’s latest adventure took them to Iran, where they spent two weeks travelling around on a small group tour with G Adventures and a week on a private tour of the country. Audrey spoke to IranWire about how the country defied all her expectations:
What was your overriding impression of the country and its people?
We felt very welcome in Iran and were impressed by the level of hospitality shown by ordinary Iranians that we met on the streets, in markets, anywhere. Additionally, the ancient sites, the architecture and the deep history.
Where did you visit during your trip to Iran?
We spent the first two weeks on a small group tour with G Adventures where we visited Tehran, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Ahvaz and Susa, Shiraz (and Persepolis), Yazd, Esfahan, Abyaneh and back to Tehran. Then we had a private guide for a week where we visited Rasht, Massouleh, Ardabil, Tabriz, Kandovan and the St. Stephanos Church near Jolfa. Then we took the 60-hour train from Tabriz to Istanbul.
What was it like to wear the Islamic headscarf or hejab? Did it conflict with any of your own personal beliefs or opinions and, if so, how did it affect your experience traveling there?
I have no problem wearing a headscarf or hejab to be respectful of local customs. When traveling through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan I occasionally wore a headscarf to protect myself from the strong sun and to fit in better with local women. I did similarly when traveling through Egypt or Jordan. What was different in Iran from my previous experiences of wearing a headscarf was that in Iran I did not a have choice and it was this that bothered me a bit. It didn’t really affect my experience traveling in Iran, but when I spoke with Iranian women who complained about the required hejab I was more understanding and appreciative of the choice I have at home.
Your post, “Traveling to Iran as Americans: All You Need to Know” mentions that many Iranians were surprised to learn that Americans can obtain a visa to Iran. In your view, how much do ordinary Iranians know about people in the United States or other countries?
We met quite a few people who had relatives in the United States or Europe and their knowledge of people in these countries was quite high. Even for those who had never traveled or didn’t have relatives abroad, we found that people were curious and had read quite a bit on the Internet about the United States.
When you continued your travels, and eventually went back to the U.S., what was the most commonly asked question about your time in Iran?
“Was it safe for you?” Many Americans only see Iranians when they appear on the news, and this is usually during demonstrations or political speeches. They don’t realize that there is a whole other Iranian world outside of this. So we would surprise American friends and family when we joked that Iran was the place that we felt most like rock stars because of the kindness and attention we felt. We told stories of being invited to tea by strangers or people buying us gifts.
You’ve written that most people you met when traveling in Iran were friendly, and even invited you into their homes. Did you encounter any aggression, rude comments or critical remarks about the U.S. or because you’re American?
The only time that we felt aggression towards us was in a market in Ardabil. We were following our guide through the market to find his favorite restaurant for lunch when an Iranian military guy started following us. I don’t think he knew we were American, per se, but just that we were western tourists. He asked us for our passports and what we were doing there, but our guide jumped in and essentially yelled at him that he had no right to demand our passports as we weren’t disturbing anyone. The military guy backed down and walked away.
We didn’t receive any rude comments or remarks about the U.S., but we did have discussions with people about how the actions of the government (ours and Iranian) don’t always represent the views of the people.
When talking to Iranians during your travels, were there certain topics you tried to avoid? Did you ever discuss politics, sanctions, censorship, or were these taboo subjects?
We never brought up politics or sensitive topics first; we’d always let Iranians introduce those topics. We did discuss politics, censorship, Iran’s laws on homosexuality (with a transgender Iranian), CIA, religion and many other topics. This usually happened when we were on our own and our guide was not with us. We were surprised at how outspoken people were with us. Perhaps people felt more free to talk with us about these topics in English.
One of the photos on your site shows you in a mosque in Shiraz. What towns or areas were more religious than others in your experience? Did you come across anybody from one of Iran’s religious minority communities, such as Baha’is, Christians or Sunni Muslims?
Probably Shiraz and Isfahan were the most religious places we visited, but we didn’t feel that they were extremely religious. We have heard that Qom is much more conservative. We didn’t get into many discussions about different religions. But I thought it interesting that when we stopped by an Armenian church in Isfahan it was also being visited by an Iranian Muslim school group. We also met a Jewish Rabbi who mentioned to us that the Jewish populations in Iran have shrunk considerably over the last decade as people felt more insecure.
Did you meet any Iranian Americans when you were in Iran?
We met an Iranian-American who lives in California at the Shiraz bazaar. She was visiting family and shared stories about how she is viewed as Iranian in the United States (not always pleasant, as many people are prejudiced) rather than her experiences in Iran.
What was your favorite place in Iran? Do you have one memory that stands out for you?
Our top three places: Shiraz: Beautiful mosques and sights, and we found the people to be incredibly friendly and warm; Persepolis: Impressed not only by the engravings and ruins, but also the history and multiculturalism of the Persian Empire that we learned about while there; Northwestern Iran, especially Tabriz and the Armenian Monastery.