Well damn. I’ve never been able to take rejection well, so when I received news that Iran had turned down my visa application, I was crushed.
Unfortunately your visa was rejected.”
That was the email from the tour company in Tehran that had submitted my documents to the government on my behalf. What’s worse, is that I received absolutely zero explanation as to why I was rejected. Just a no. I’d been planning this trip for over year. I was devastated.
This is the part where I like to point out the irony of this all…
Think about it: I bet 99% of Americans, even if given an all-expense paid trip to Iran, would be like, “Oh, hell no.”
But then, there are a handful of travelers like me, going to untold lengths to visit these “crazy” countries like Iran: jumping through hoops to gather intel, fill out applications, wire money, send documents, hire guides, and pretty much “beg” to be allowed to visit a place most wouldn’t even consider going to even if they were invited personally by the country’s prime minister! I just find it funny. And I do realize that I am the weird one here.
I was really bothered by the rejection for so many reasons:
1) They gave me zero reason. I just think that’s sh*tty.
2) I’d been planning this trip for over a year. I even bought airfare which was non-refundable.
3) I was just a few weeks out from my trip. (Even though I applied five months in advance, they only give you an answer a few weeks away from your travel dates, which makes planning difficult.)
4) And this one may seem silly…but I’d painstakingly planned out this seven-country trip to make Iraq my 100th country. You see, hitting “100” was so special to me, and I really wanted “the big one” to be an “oh wow!” destination. I decided Iraq would be the perfect “crazy and insane” place to commemorate my 100th country! Iran would be #99, but if it suddenly got removed from the equation; well then that would bump up Iraq to #99 and Jordan would now be #100, and well, what’s fun about that? No offense Jordan. All seven countries on this 13-day trip were so carefully scheduled and meticulously laid out, with some very tight connections, and this Iran issue just messed it all up!
What took the level of frustration even higher, was that the friend that was joining me on this trip–also an American–was approved! She got a yes, while I got a no. Same dates, same flights, same hotel, same tour company, same guide. That just really infuriated me. What gives? A few travel experts later told me that I was most likely denied because I work in the media. I was required to send the Iranians a copy of my resume, which was filled with nothing but my high-profile radio and TV jobs, so yeah, that probably did it. Ugh.
I couldn’t, however, let myself feel too entitled. All I needed to do was remind myself of all the people from different countries that get rejected from visiting my country everyday, including friends of mine from Brasil. I’ve had many friends that just wanted a simple tourist visa and were denied. And given our current relations with Iran, including banning Iranians flat-out from coming here, how could I expect open arms from them? I get it, I really do. I was just sad. My intentions were true.
Where There’s a Will…
But I was determined to see Iran on this trip. Between having the perseverance of a salmon swimming upstream, and the patience of a two-year-old, I jumped right back in, convinced that not visiting Iran on this trip just wasn’t an option. I contacted another travel agency in Tehran to give it another go. I even emailed and tweeted The Ayatollah. No dice.
Luckily there was one last option. Iran has two visa-free islands just off the mainland. You don’t need a visa or pre-approval to travel to Kish or Qeshm islands. That would be my play. But which one? My studies showed me that Kish was definitely the more touristy and commercial choice of the two, so I’d choose Qeshm. I was referred to a guide named Simon on the island who agreed to show me around and help book my hotel and airfare.
Not-So-Fun Fact: Because of the US-Iran embargo, it’s next to impossible to buy anything from Iran using an American credit card or bank, including airfare and hotel. It’s like there’s a giant, invisible wall up. You simply can’t make transactions online like you’d do for almost any other country in the world. Americans are completely blocked. It sucks!
Luckily, Simon took care of everything, and without a deposit. Now that’s trust! What if I wouldn’t have shown up, and he had spent all that money on my plane ticket? Because of this, I liked Simon right off the bat. His willingness to help me, and his excitement to host an American was very welcoming and reassuring. I was still a little nervous about visiting a country whose relations with mine were so strained, but it was comforting knowing that I’d be hosted by someone so kind.
I would see Iran after all. Maybe not the mainland this time, but Iran would still be #99 and Iraq, 100. I was in business.
I Walked…I Ran
I had a nice week visiting Turkey and the Caucuses. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia were all beautiful and pretty tranquil places. But now I was headed to the chaotic Middle East; to a country our government defined as The Axis of Evil. It was a about to get real, and I felt the mood change as soon as I got to the departure gate in Dubai.
I had a pretty tight connection for an international flight and was so worried I might miss the only plane that day from Dubai to Qeshm Island. I’d only have one night in Qeshm, so if I missed this flight, it’s not like I could just go the next day. It was now or never. One chance.
Holy crap, I’d never seen a group of people slower to get off a plane in my life than after landing in Dubai; just my luck! When the “family of twelve that had never seen the inside of an airplane” finally meandered out the plane’s door, I scurried over to the transfer desk to grab my boarding pass for Qeshm. Again, more bad luck: the one guy in front of me at the counter was taking his sweet time chatting it up with the agents. They were done helping him, yet he was still standing there, asking for directions for the fourth time. I was trying my best to stay calm. When this clown finally got to steppin’ and I approached the two clueless Filipinas at the desk, the first thing they asked of me, was to hand over my “visa” for Iran. They didn’t believe me when I told them I didn’t need a visa to travel to Qeshm. Unbelievable! They looked about as confused as a Valley Girl trying to figure out a calculus equation, as they called someone on the phone for clarity. Finally, I was given my boarding pass and I hot-footed it over to my gate. Thank the Lord, my transfer was in the same terminal; I’d have been DOA if I would have had to exit security and transfer terminals. I’d make the flight after all. I was really going to Iran. I was so relieved!
After a quick stop at the restroom, where I witnessed folks washing their feet in the sink, it was time to board this crazy looking Avro RJ85 contraption, with its wings perched on top of the plane’s roof. The afternoon sun beat down on me as I walked out onto the tarmac and up the stairs into this weird little jet. I’d never flown Qeshm Airlines, and to me, flying on new and bizarre air carriers is always, oddly, half the fun. There was nothing too eventful to report during this weird flight, except it was jam-packed full, the landing gear made a few loud and uncomfortable noises retracting and extending, and I was pretty shocked that they passed out meals on a flight that was only 25 minutes long! What’s more bizarre, is that the flight attendants handed each passenger their “lunch box” as they deplaned; basically a “to go” lunch; like, “Here, take this food and leave.” Umm, okay.
And Iran…Iran So Far Away
Holy moly, I am actually in Iran! The flight was so quick, I really didn’t have much time to spend letting my mind wander about different Locked Up Abroad scenarios, which I usually do when heading somewhere on the State Department’s Do Not Travel List. We were up and down in less then 30 minutes, and before I knew it I was out walking the tarmac in what looked to be a pretty barren desert. Truth be told, I was moderately concerned that I might have some issues, even getting in to visa-free Qeshm. A fellow traveler suggested that since I was already on the Iranian government’s “no go” list, that this might raise a red flag even getting into a visa-free island like Qeshm. But others assured it wouldn’t be an issue, including my guide Simon, so Eastward, Ho I went! But sure enough, once I approached the immigration counter inside the airport, I was told to have a seat, and I wasn’t allowed to pass through like every other single passenger on my flight. Ruh-roh.
Luckily I soon saw Simon’s big smile and wave as he approached the immigration counter and talked to some men in uniform. From about 20 feet away, he continued to sporadically shoot me the universal “It’s all good” expression, as I waited in my seat against the wall like a benched hockey player. Once every one of the passengers from my plane had cleared, the immigration officer–along with Simon–took me into an office where I had another seat. I don’t know if I’ll ever know why I had to take this extra step, but Simon told me it had something to do with “registration.” While 1% of me let my imagination run wild and pictured myself being hauled off to some Iranian jail for committing crimes against the state, the reality was that it only took but about five minutes, as another guy (the boss, maybe?) behind a desk checked some documents and stamped me in with a smile. It was indeed, all good. Soon Simon and I were throwing my bags in his truck and on the road and on the way to dinner, in Iran…I was so excited!
Qeshm in a Day
Because of my insane travel itinerary, sadly, I’d have just one night in Iran. The original schedule (to the mainland) called for two nights, with direct flights in and out of Tehran, but it was a little trickier to get to Qeshm; forcing me to waste an overnight in Dubai to get to the island. Nonetheless, I was here, and I was going to make the most of it. By the way, in case you were wondering, you pronounce Qeshm like “Kezmuh” or “Kejmuh.” And it’s been so hard for typong a “Q” word, without placing a “u” after the Q!
My first impression of Qeshm was that it was a lot more desolate than I expected. I purposely didn’t do much research on Qeshm Island beforehand because I wanted to be surprised. I knew it was a small island and I was already heartbroken I wasn’t going to Tehran, so I avoided any online spoilers and just “showed up.” I was certainly wowed!
As Simon and I left the airport and drove down the highway, I was mesmerized by the desert landscape; it looked like we were on Mars. I wondered if the lack of “stuff” (buildings, cars, billboards, roads, etc.) was because we were just away from the center of town, or if the whole island would be like this. But before we got much further, it was time to eat. Simon pulled into a little inn and restaurant called Takhereh. He explained that the island was much different than the mainland: different landscape, different political/religious beliefs and different food! Seafood was Qeshm’s specialty, and that’s what we’d have.
We sat on beautiful rugs as the innkeeper brought in plates of shark, shrimp and rice; accompanied by some really good salsa and orange Fanta. Man, it hit the spot. I had passed on the airplane’s box lunch, so I had more than enough room to devour my whole plate. Simon and I talked, ate, and then had some awesome tea for the perfect ending to a superb first meal in Iran. The sun had set, and we’d have an early start tomorrow, so it was off the hotel.
Qeshm If You Can…
The drive home was chill. I kept waiting to see some signs of life, and I didn’t see much. Just a dark desert night. The sand glowed under the moonlight. It reminded me of my time living in Arizona and those hauntingly serene desert nighttime drives. And I don’t know why I got so sleepy, but about 15 minutes into the ride, it all of a sudden just hit me. Maybe it was my full belly, or the soothing Persian music Simon was bumping in the truck. Maybe all this travel had just beat me down, but I was wiped out, and we seemed to be driving forever. This island turned out to be a little bigger than I thought. But finally we arrived.
The Golden Beach Hotel was a cool spot right on the water. Simon made sure I was checked in okay before he left me for the night. The hotel consisted of a long bank of rooms and lots of concrete stretching from the accommodations to the water. There were playgrounds and several wooden cabana-type structures, one in which I saw a family having a late dinner. Other than that one family and a couple of other guests wandering around, the place seemed pretty empty. And a little weird. Not bad weird, just different. The property kind of felt like a “compound,” but one from one of those 1987 Nintendo games, like Metal Gear or Ikari Warriors. It’s hard to explain. I wandered around for a few minutes, enjoying the night breeze and buzzing off my “arrival high.” I kept thinking, “Holy crap, I’m really in Iran!” Being here was a big deal for me.
My room was fine, except when I turned the TV so the screen faced the bed, the cable ripped right out of the wall. There’d be no TV for me that night, but that was okay–the three Iranian channels didn’t seem like anything I would enjoy…or understand. I was beat anyway. Lights out, and I was out–in a matter of minutes.
Qeshmee Outside (How Bow Dah)
The morning came quickly. I dressed and headed for breakfast, inside the rotunda-shaped restaurant in the middle of the property. I picked at the buffet as I observed families all around me. The place was definitely more happening than the desolate night before. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was eating, but it was good and included lots of that thin pita-type bread stuff and some kind of orangey mush that might have been meat or eggs, I wasn’t sure, but it wasn’t bad. I even came back to the spread for seconds.
After breakfast I decided I’d take a walk to explore the grounds of this beachside resort, only to almost immediately spot Simon on the other end of property waving to me and calling out my name. Crap! I was late. My phone hasn’t adjusted to the local time, so I was way off…and behind. I hustled back to the room where I threw all my stuff in my bag and we hit the road. My flight would leave at 3:50 that afternoon, so we had less than a day to see the whole island. We were off!
My day on Qeshm Island with Simon was lovely. And as a male, I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “lovely” in my life; definitely not in any of my works. But that’s just what the day was, lovely. We spent our time trekking through various national parks that were nothing short of geological wonders.
First, it was over to Stars Valley. This place looked like another planet! It would be a great place to film an episode of The Twilight Zone or some film about aliens, or landing on Mars. Stars Valley was seriously cool, and like no place I’ve ever visited. (Can you believe I’ve never been to The Grand Canyon?) There weren’t too many other visitors there when we arrived, making it an even more memorable and special experience.
Naz is Like…
Next, Simon drove me out to Naz Island to admire the surrounding waters. But note that there was no bridge to the island. Naz Islands (there are actually two) are “tidal islands,” which means when the tide is in, these hills are islands surrounded by water; but when the tide is out, you can actually physically drive (or walk) to the islands. So we did, and had a nice little stroll around the island to admire the emerald waters in every direction.
We All Scream
One of my favorite parts of visiting new countries is seeing everyday life. I’m less of a fan of visiting the museums and more a “markets” and “malls” type of explorer. I’d rather see things the way they really are (everyday people, doing everyday things), than see things that are on display, being “presented” to me, as a tourist. So while I did absolutely dig the cool canyons and valleys that Simon showed me, I’m sure Simon was a little surprised to see just how excited I was to visit an Iranian ice cream shop. It wasn’t necessarily the ice cream that did it for me (but it was darn good); but it was more just the “doing something with locals” that floated my boat. We’d have minimal contact with the locals on this trip, so the ice cream shop stop meant a lot to me. In hind sight, I should have asked Simon to take me to the bazaar, but he was doing his best with our limited time, and I guess I could see a market anywhere–Stars Valley and what we’d see next, on the other hand, were really one-of-kind sights. It was my bad for staying on the island less than 24 hours.
Chahkooh! Bless you.
Next, it was over to Chahkooh Canyon. Like Stars Valley, this was another awe-inspiring natural wonder on the island. What I found most impressive was the long, sheer “cut,” that was sliced through the rock as if it was carved out by a machine–equipment using diamond blades or lasers. But it wasn’t made by any machine nor man…the almost precision-edged, straight line down center of the rock was simply the result of thousands of years of water and wind. The rocks were just stunning, including ones above that resembled the heads of animals.
Get Yo’ Drank On
On the way out, and against my better judgment, I drank a cup of water offered to me from a natural well. It was a hot day, and the cool water tasted amazing. The thought of drinking water from a stone well thousands of years old delighted me; a true Anthony Bourdain moment. But then I remembered how dumb it was to drink un-purified water from a foreign country. I’d seen it done a hundred times on Naked and Afraid, and it never ends well. It could have really ruined my week, but luckily no bad effects from this Iranian agua.
Then Iran Into Some Boats
Simon and I wrapped up the day by stopping by the ship yard to watch some old boats being worked on–the highlight there for me was actually seeing a fox walking around–and then visiting the mangroves. It was getting late, and we’d need to start wrapping things up if I was going to catch my flight out.
After the whirlwind half-day of activity after activity and sight and after sight, I’d worked up quite an appetite, so it was back to Takhereh for another scrumptious serving of that seafood before heading to the airport. We arrived in just the nick of time to board my plane back to Dubai, where I’d transfer on to Iraq the next morning. Simon was kind enough to walk me inside the airport, check me in, and make sure I’d made it on my plane okay. What a good dude.
While I felt a little cheated that I didn’t get to see the mainland (Tehran looks fascinating); at the same time I felt lucky to have seen a part of Iran that is a little less-visited, less crowded, and just overall different from most parts of the country. The food, landscape and even religion (they’re Sunnis) are different from the rest of Iran, so part of me was content with this standalone island visit, even if another small part of me is still a little sour about missing Tehran.
There’s no doubt Qeshm Island is one of the most geologically unique places on the planet! The parks are out of this world, the ice cream was yummy, and the water was beautiful. But I really owe my awesome experience to my guide Simon, who not only showed me a great time, and the best of Qeshm in just a few hours–but Simon made sure the logistics of getting in and getting out were taken care of and hassle free. From booking my hotel and airfare in advance without asking for a deposit, to making sure I could even just get past immigration, to carting me around an island with little public transportation options, Simon was my dude! I couldn’t have done it without him.
My only regret was that I didn’t have longer on the island. At minimum, I would’ve liked to stay at least two nights, maybe three–I missed going into the market and taking part in more of the locals everyday lives. It’s just that Iran out of time!
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