The outfit is nothing to write home about, so I’m hijacking this post to talk about Avengers: Endgame instead. The title is actually an obscure reference to Goose, the cat/Flerken in Captain Marvel – I’m wearing a cat brooch after all. I’m still wondering why they renamed him “Goose” instead of keeping the name “Chewie” from the comics. Probably now that Disney owns both Star Wars and the MCU, they don’t want the two confused, plus “Goose” is a nod to Top Gun, which is appropriate for a film about a fighter pilot set in the 80s/90s.
Anyway, let’s move on to Endgame. In short: it’s good. OK, slightly longer: it’s really good. It’s everything a Marvel fan can hope for in a film that is 11 years in the making. And yes, it is a film for Marvel fans. I can’t imagine any casual viewer can watch it and feel the same emotional impact. But as for those who have been with Marvel from the start, you’d laugh, you’d cry, and you’d cheer your heart out. I especially love all the callbacks and payoffs of details set up in other films, which make the whole thing (and I mean the whole of MCU, not just this movie) very cohesive and well thought-out. And it’s a very focused film too, despite its 3-hour run time. Unlike Infinity War, which has to set up so many new dynamics, Endgame is very much a film of the original Avengers – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. It is their swan song, and as painful as it sometimes is, it is the send-off they (and the fans) deserve. We have a new generation of superheroes now, but I’m not sure that the success of this phase of the MCU can ever be repeated. It truly feels like the end of an era.
It’s an OK month of reading – I enjoyed some books and was disappointed by others. I’ve also realized why I’ve been reading so many non-fiction books lately. Between my two jobs, script reading and teaching, I have to read so much crappy fiction writing that I can’t enjoy novels anymore. At least non-fiction doesn’t make me angry, unless it’s terribly written.
Anyway, on to the books:
The Big Necessity by Rose George:
This book is about toilets. When I picked it up, I was hoping for a history of toilets (hey, what can I say? I’m interested in all aspects of history), but this is more about the current problems in the world of toilets and sanitation all across the globe. Yet I wasn’t disappointed, because it is strangely fascinating to read, especially when you realize how many people in the world don’t have access to toilets (in fact, indoor plumbing in Vietnam is still relatively new. I still remember visiting my grandmother in the countryside when I was about 10 and being told to “just go in the nature.”) It really makes me think about my privileges. 4/5
A Million Years in a Day by Greg Jenner:
This is another “historical everyday life” book, sort of like Ian Mortimer’s “The Time Traveler’s Guide” series. It follows the tasks of a normal day – such as brushing one’s teeth, showering, eating, etc. – and looks into the development of those activities throughout history. It’s a great idea, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The book supposedly follows 24 hours in a day (or, more exactly, 15 hours, from 9 AM to 12 AM), but for some reason, the author decides to skip the entire afternoon and go straight from 12 PM to 6 PM. There are also two chapters on alcohol and two on time, which, even though they talk about different things (one chapter is about champagne and the other is about alcohol in general; one chapter is about time-keeping in general and the other is about the development of the clock), feels very repetitive to me. Also, the author is a writer and consultant of Horrible Histories, but some of the jokes feel a little try-hard. 3/5
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke:
I picked this up because the title caught my attention. It’s about a man who accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson’s home near his house when he was 18 years old, and 20 years later, somebody starts burning down writers’ homes all over New England, which forces him to confront his past. Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the book is a total letdown. Mostly it’s due to the characters, who are either feckless or selfish or both. The main character is the worst of all. And then there is the writing, which tries so hard to be funny and profound, and ends up anything but. 1/5
I got so angry reading “An Arsonist’s Guide” that I decided to read some poetry just to forget it. I’ve read Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” before and loved it. The poems in these two collections are more philosophical and obscure in their meanings, so I didn’t enjoy them as much, but some I still quite like (“Clearances”, in “The Haw Lantern”, is an elegy to Heaney’s mother and very moving). I also love how Heaney managed to describe the most mundane details or activities of everyday life in rural Ireland in such beautiful language (like “A Lough Neagh Sequence”, which is about eels and eel fishermen.) Maybe I’m just biased because I love Ireland. 3.5/5
What did you guys read?
As I mentioned in my “Overview” post on Iran, the dress code is one of the things that stress people out about visiting Iran, but it’s actually quite simple. All you have to wear is a headscarf (no need to worry about covering up all of your hair) and a top/jacket/coat that cover your butt and with sleeves past your elbows (the men have to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants as well.) Other than that, it’s anything goes – skinny jeans (and other tight clothes), heels (or sandals in the summer), and bright colors are all allowed.
You may have heard of the “morals police” going about admonishing people for not sticking to the dress code, but I only witnessed one instance on Tabiat Bridge, in which a local girl was gently reminded by a security guard to fix her headscarf, which had fallen down. As long as you don’t walk around with your head bare, you’ll be fine. The ladies in Tehran are especially stylish; I felt a bit underdressed with my travel wardrobe!
Travling during the winter, like I did, definitely makes covering up easier, but I imagine that in the summer, the scarf and long shirts would actually be cooler than baring it all (as anyone who lives in a hot climate know, you should cover up in the heat.) That being said, here is what I packed for my 10-day trip:
– Tops: 4 thermal tops (I get cold easily), 1 turtleneck top.
– Bottoms: 3 pairs of tights/leggings (for layering under my jeans), 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of fleece-lined pants.
– Outerwears: 2 turtleneck sweaters, 1 cardigan (these are all long enough in case I had to take off my coat), 1 waterproof coat.
– Shoes: 2 pairs of boots (one lightweight for city walks, the other for more vigorous hikes.)
– Acessories: 3 scarves (they are harder to keep on my head than I expected! Bring a hairclip to fix them to your hair if necessary.)
I did feel relieved to take off my headscarf upon boarding the flight home, but I never felt any pressure from having to dress a certain way while in Iran. Don’t let it deter you from visiting this wonderful country!
Shiraz is my favorite place in Iran for three reasons. One, the hotel, Niayesh, is easily the biggest and fanciest place I’ve stayed in during the whole trip. I booked a single room, but I was put in a huge room with a king-sized bed, and, get this, separate bathroom and toilet. If you’ve seen how tiny the bathrooms in Iranian hostels are, then you’ll appreciate the sheer joy of not having to put away the toilet paper every time you shower (to keep it from getting wet).
The hotel also has several restaurants, and it was here that I got to try dizi – a stew of mutton, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, and tomatoes. I wanted to try it not just because it’s traditional, but also because it’s so fun to eat. First, you pour the tomato sauce from the stew into your bowl and eat that with the flatbread. Then you mash up the stew itself and scoop it up with the rest of the bread. It’s good and very filling!
Two, I spent the longest time in Shiraz, so I actually got to know the city. Actually, I had just as long in Tehran, but in Shiraz, I wasn’t so exhausted that I couldn’t remember anything. Also, the sights in Shiraz are well incorporated into the “everyday” part of the city, so it feels harmonious and graceful.
I arrived in Shiraz late in the evening after my Persepolis tour, so I decided to take it easy. The next morning, I headed out early to beat the crowd to what is easily the second most famous attraction in Iran, after Persepolis – the Nasir-al-Mulk Mosque, aka the Pink Mosque, so named because of the pink roses on the tiles used to decorate it.
It’s best to visit the mosque from 8 to 11 AM, when the sun shines through its stained glass windows, so I was there at 7:30. Turned out I made the right decision – a Chinese couple was there before me, and another couple arrived just after me. Still, I managed to grab a couple of photos before the place filled up. It would’ve been nice to just sit there and watch the windows lit up, but alas, that’s the way it goes with popular destinations.
After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, I went to a couple of historical houses nearby – Naranjestan Qavam and Zinat-al-Mulk. They’re not as big as the ones in Kashan but better preserved, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. There are also museums attached to them, so you can learn more about the history of Shiraz.
Later, I headed to Vakil Bazaar, the main bazaar of Shiraz. However, thanks to my genius sense of direction, I ended up lost. That’s when I got to experience the third reason I fell in love with Shiraz – the kindness of its people. As I was wandering up and down the main street looking for the bazaar’s entrance, I ran into an elderly gentleman who spoke English. I asked him for direction, and he not only showed me to the bazaar but also spent the rest of the afternoon taking me to other sights in Shiraz – the Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holy Shrine (which is not as famous as Shah Cheragh, but it allows photos while Shah Cheragh doesn’t), Hafez’s tomb, and the Citadel.
Oh, and he insisted on treating me to lunch as well. Having read about taroof, a complex form of Iranian etiquette in which people may offer to pay for you (but it’s just their way of being polite), I tried to refuse, but he kept insisting, so in the end, I accepted. At least he let me pay for tea and snacks afterward!
As we walked around the city, we talked about his family (he and his wife were both teachers, now retired), about Vietnam and Iran, and the culture and history of Shiraz. It was the best time I had in Iran. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an email address or any kind of social media, so I don’t know how to stay in touch with him, but I’ll never forget him.
And that makes for the perfect ending for my trip, because that’s what Iran is all about. The sights may be marvelous, but what’s more wonderful is the kindness of its people. From little things like the family sitting next to me in a restaurant in Kashan who reminded the waiter to take my order and the old lady sharing her trail mix with me on the bus on Yazd, to the grand gestures like this gentleman I met in Shiraz, it is what stays with me and what will bring me back to Iran.
I missed last month’s book reviews because it was my turn to host SIA, so here is my reading for both February and March:
Reflections (Indexing #2) by Seanan McGuire:
This is the second book in the “Indexing” series (read my review of the first book here), and it continues to follow Agent Henrietta “Henry” Marchen and her team as they try to stop fairy tales from taking over their world while Henry continues to struggle with being a Snow White. I enjoy the world and the characters, as usual, but I still have the same problem with this book as I did with the first one: the villain’s motivation is not clear. They want fairy tales to manifest in the real world, okay, but why? What would they achieve by doing that? For example, are they trying to pull off a heist by pulling a “Sleeping Beauty” and making everybody fall asleep? No. The only answer the book seems to offer is that they are nuts, but I think that’s a bit lazy. 3/5
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux:
Considering how much I love train traveling, I’m a bit surprised it took me this long to read this classic travelogue about a train trip from London to the Far East. However, as I read it, I began to understand why. It’s not a humorous travelogue, and I’m used to Bill Bryson’s more relatable travelogues with his self-deprecating humor. I find this boring and the author seems so full of himself. More importantly, the author doesn’t seem to enjoy his journey in particular (as opposed to Bill Bryson’s books, he always finds something nice or at least funny to say about the place he’s been to.) And if he doesn’t, then why should we? 1/5
Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy:
This claims to be a biography of Elizabeth I focusing on the latter half of her reign, but I think a more accurate description would be “The Events in the Latter Half of Elizabeth I’s Reign”, because that’s what it is. Most of it focuses on the men around her – Francis Walsingham, Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex, as well as the kings of France and Spain – and how their actions affected the Queen. It delves into the men’s motivations and desires and feelings, but as for those of the Queen, there is very little. It seems that the author is so afraid of making mistakes in his conjectures about the Queen’s thoughts and emotions that he decides to do none at all. It’s well researched, to be sure, but it is not a biography of Elizabeth I. 2/5
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, illustrated by Golbanou Moghaddas:
This book takes a look at some of the weirdest and most wonderful animals in nature (one for each letter of the alphabet, except there are two “X” animals and I’m not sure why) and discusses how they can help us to better understand our world. Some of the analogies are definitely reaching (for example, what does an axolotl have to do with racism?!) but it’s still fascinating to read. The beautiful illustrations help, too. 4/5
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Madj:
I picked this up before my Iran trip but didn’t get a chance to read it before I left, so I decided to wait until after I got back and see how the book measures up to my own experience. Subtitled “The Paradox of Modern Iran”, this is an attempt to present the modern Iran society in a nuanced and balanced way. The author is an Iranian who grew up and currently lives in the US, so he certainly can understand both worlds; I only wish that he is a better story-teller. The book is a bit too political for my taste – not in the sense that the author tries to force his political views on the reader, but rather, it discusses politics and politicians a lot; I’m much more interested in the parts that describe everyday life. Plus, the author is really fond of long compound sentences. Sometimes I had to reread the beginning of a sentence (going back about half a page) just to remember what it was about! 2/5
I took the bus from Isfahan to Yazd (170.000 rials for a 4-hour ride; the staff at Ragrug Hostel booked the ticket for me.) The view along the way was unremarkable as usual, and I dozed off a little, until I was woken by a drop in the temperature and realized we were driving through snow-covered mountains.
The joke was on me. I’d planned my North-South route to get away from the cold, yet so far Tehran had been the warmest. But a bigger joke was waiting in Yazd. See, Yazd is a desert town. It being winter, I didn’t expect scorching heat or anything like that, but what I definitely didn’t expect was a flood. That’s right, this desert city was flooded!
Thankfully, the old town was not flooded, but the rain was relentless and my mood was dampened considerably. So instead of staying a full day and leaving for Shiraz by bus the next afternoon like I had planned, I decided to take another transfer tour from Yazd to Shiraz via Persepolis the very next morning. I was going to Persepolis anyway, and as it lies between Yazd and Shiraz, this would save me a long bus ride (the transfer tour was 40 euros including a guide). My hostel, Tarooneh (a very nice, family-run place), organized the driver/guide for me, and since I had to leave quite early, the owner even brought breakfast to my room. So considerate!
That gave me just an evening in Yazd, and it was raining cats and dogs. No matter. I headed out anyway. Yazd’s old town is a bit like Kashan’s – all winding alleys and mud walls – but larger. And it was quiet, which was a nice change after the hubbub of Isfahan.
I went to all the usual sights – the Amir Chaghmaq square, the Jameh mosque, and the Atash Behram fire temple. I don’t know if it was the rain or not, but they didn’t leave much of an impression on me; mostly they were just shelters from the rain. It was pretty awe-inspiring to visit the fire temple, though, considering the fact that its sacred fire has been burning for over 1500 years.
Funnily enough, my fondest memory of Yazd is a little thing. As I trudged back to the hostel in the rain, I suddenly came upon the best smell in the world – bread baking. It was from a small bakery where a group of locals were waiting to buy the freshly made bread, and when I indicated with my camera, they all invited me inside to take photos and watched the bakers at work. How nice of them!
The next morning, I got picked up at 7 and driven through an imposing mountain range, all covered in the fluffiest, most pristine snow I’ve ever seen – it was gorgeous.
The tour includes three stops – Pasagardae, the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis, and Persepolis. Pasagardae, frankly, can be skipped – it’s just a tomb and some ruins, nothing to write home about except it works as a built-up to Persepolis.
Naqsh-e Rustam is much more impressive – four tombs cut high into a rock cliff, believed to belong to ancient Persian kings, Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. It blew my mind to think how long it must’ve taken to finish them.
Finally, after a quick lunch, we arrived at the climactic conclusion of the tour – Persepolis. From the entrance, you walk up to the terrace and climb the stairs to the Gate of All Nations, just as the delegates of ancient times would when they arrived in Persepolis to see the King (Persepolis, which existed from around 500 BC to 300 BC before it was destroyed by Alexander the Great, was more of an administrative/ceremonial complex rather than an actual city for people to live in.)
The place is absolutely huge, and a guide is highly recommended so you know where to go and understand the story behind the ruins. For me, the most remarkable thing about Persepolis is the patience and the precision it took to complete all those buildings (my guide, the aptly named Darius, said that people today lack patience to make such art, which I think is absolutely true). To touch the carvings really feels like you’re touching history.
Another thing is that all the buildings used to be painted brightly back in the day. It may look dignified now with the weathered stone, but what I wouldn’t give to see it in all of its original, colorful glory.
After my transfer tour from Kashan, I arrived in Isfahan (or Esfahan) early in the afternoon. Despite being a big tourist destination, the city has no affordable hotel/hostel within walking distance of the center. However, the hostel I stayed at, Ragrug, offers free transport to the center, so it’s perfect.
As usual, after checking in, I immediately headed out to see the sights. My destination was the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, one of the biggest squares in the world, and its surrounding buildings – the Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar (there is also the Ali Qapu Palace, which I didn’t check out.) The scales and the details of the mosques are just stupendous – I must’ve developed a crick in my neck because I couldn’t stop gawping up at their domes. It was like looking up at heaven.
The bazaar was good for souvenir shopping – I was especially impressed by the silver and copper shops!
Unfortunately, I arrived just a day before a big national holiday, so everywhere was insanely crowded. I wanted to stay until nightfall to see the square lit up, but the crowd became too much for me, so I pushed on to the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, one of the 11 historical bridges in Isfahan. The walk took me through a pedestrian street lined with shops and hipster food and coffee trucks parked in the middle – I had dinner on the go from one of these trucks. The crowd was pretty thick here, too, but at least I could keep moving and people-watch.
Eventually, I emerged into a square thronged with traffic overlooking the Zayanderud River. Somehow, I managed to reach the bridge, which was super crowded as well. Though the bridge was lit up beautifully and I was happy to see water in the river – most of the recent photos of the bridge showed the river dried up – the crowd was stressing me out. So after snapping a few photos, I went back to the hostel and called it a night.
The next day, per the suggestion of the hostel staff, I avoided returning to the city center because a) it was going to be even more crowded, and b) everything was closed anyway. I briefly considered going to the Armenian Quarter to see the Vank Cathedral (Iran isn’t all about the mosques, you know), but after Tehran and Kashan, I was feeling a bit burned out on architecture, so I decided to have a “nature” day instead.
In the morning, I went for a walk on Sofeh, a mountain about 10 km outside the city (I wouldn’t call it hiking, because the paths up the mountain are paved). Although it was drizzling, it was great to get out of the city and away from the crowd.
Then, in the afternoon, I went on a desert tour organized by the hostel (15 euros/person). The sky was clear when we headed out, but as we approached the town of Varzaneh, it started pouring. Ironic, isn’t it? Here we were, hoping to see a scorching desert, and it rained!
We decided to press on anyway, and it turned out to be a really nice outing. We had some interesting discussion with our guide about life in Iran, about their frustrations in the present and their hopes for the future. It was a great way to get to know the country better.
And the scenery was pretty awesome too. First, we went to a salt lake – it must be really striking in the summer with all the salt crystals coming up, but even in the rain, it still looked impressive, in an alien kind of way.
After that, we headed to the sand dunes. The vastness and emptiness of the landscape is astounding and really makes you feel insignificant (in a good way).
On the way back, we stopped to see a “cow well”, which is a well where the water is drawn up by, you guess it, a cow (actually, it’s a bull), to irrigate the nearby fields. The really fun thing is that the trainer sings to the cow to get it to move – how sweet is that?
Our last stop was a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed some fresh fish – and I mean super fresh, as we watched the cook catch them from the pond where the fish were raised.
And that wrapped up a really fun day and also my time in Isfahan. There are still a lot of places I didn’t get to see in the city – it’s not called “half the world” for nothing! – but I hope to return one day.