Friday, August 26, 2005

A day for the ages

As I promised myself, I rose around dawn and headed to Imam Square, the heart of Isfahan, if not all of Iran. It is the second largest square in the world and is surrounded by two mosques and ancient palace and a massive bazaar. I did not quite know the way into the square and simply bee-lined to the dome of a mosque silhouetted in the rising sun. The whole walk was a quiet one without the hectic traffic that is apparent even in Isfahan and I was able to cross the streets without having to look both ways on every step.

When I finally got close to the mosque, surrounded by walls of sand-coloured brick, and realized that for a moment at least I had this place all to myself I was dumbfounded by the fact that this moment was so far away from my thoughts at the beginning of the year and only started to crystallize late this spring. It was quite mind-boggling to stand at a place that I had only seen in pictures and finally capture it for myself. I eventually navigated my way through the quiet lanes of the bazaar and into the square itself. There were a few pick-up soccer games being played on the concrete and people carting away garbage, and watering the lawns.

Before too long, the themes were set for the day when I met a few Afghanis who were looking for a chance to practice their English. They were quite friendly and admitted to looking for tourists to help them brush up. Both of them worked and one of them had aspirations of heading home to teach. Before long they were shouldered aside by an Iranian med student who was keen to talk but also to get me to visit his father's shop. He added that the bazaar would be closed today because it was a Friday and he insisted that his father would be my best chance to buy a carpet. I politely turned down his attempts to set an appointment, I am on vacation after all, but let him give me his cell phone number. When the bazaar turned out to be open and thriving, I abandoned any thoughts of paying a visit. Having taken a few sunrise shots, I headed back to the hotel for breakfast. On the way back I found more soccer games, this time in the thoroughfares which were not nearly as convenient as the suburban streets where I played street hockey.

Hitting the bazaar, my attempts to buy sumac, the spice in the third shaker on the Iranian table, were proving difficult as the merchant tried to give it to me free. I insisted only to learn that he gave 250g instead of the 200g I asked for. More similar hospitality was encountered on my way to another mosque when a man stopped to offer a piece of bread. I took a handful and he biked off before I could pay. I learned that people are quite generous with their bread and water.

The first mosque I visited was probably the main mosque of Isfahan, Jafeh Mosque, which has a bit of history dating to the Iran-Iraq war, having been bombed by the Iraqi army. It has been rebuilt to some extent though the pillars inside are listing under the weight of the ceiling.

After a siesta and a bit of lunch we headed back to Imam Square for the late afternoon. The goal was to visit the Imam Mosque, trip across the square for tea at sunset and then find a place for dinner. Inside the Mosque I met another Afghani who was working on his English, who pulled Jack Richards' Interchange out of his pants to show me where he was with his English. Not my favorite textbook but it was good to see the enthusiasm for the language. We chatted a bit and he departed, leaving me to absorb the wonders of the architecture and the artwork of the building. Upon leaving the mosque, a fellow asked me where I was from and I told him Canada. He mangled the name of "Calgary" to my surprise and added that he met other people from there recently - from what I could tell another prof. We talked a bit and he turned out to be working for a carpet shop. (Damn it!) I decided to at least hear the guy out and I went in for a look before totally writing off the idea of buying one. He showed me several and served me a tea as well and I mulled things over, all the while keeping an eye on my watch and my plans for tea somewhere else for sunset clear in my mind. I came close and was quite tempted to buy one for $200 US but was wary of being taken in the deal.

I managed to get out and headed to tea at my prefered destination, which was crowded with fellow tourists clutching their Lonely Planet and making the same pilgrimage that I was. Before long a group of us, two Italians, a Dane and three Iranians and I, who was at leas 10-15 years older than the rest sat down over our tea and biscuits. I forgot my age for a while and felt as adventurous and excited as they did. We traded stories of our travels and experiences to this point in Iran and our lives and bonds quickly formed. Email addresses were exchanged, photos taken and when the climax of sunset passed and the time come to move on to something else we did not quite want to part ways so casually. Most of us headed on to another Lonely Planet recommendation and ate at a table with a clear few of the Imam Mosque. I finally had my long-sought dizi and found myself remaking future travel plans. Italy... China... here again South Africa...

All told this was the kind of day that every vacation requires. The scenery, the cameraderie and experiences came together with a sense of completeness that makes it hard to imagine not traveling more. It was an education, an invigoration and a memorable experience. I can see why so many people haunt this place waiting for the opportunity to present itself each day as the combination of like-minded people collide and share their experiences with one another.