Travel begins with a question. The curious seeker's mind often remains unsettled as there is always another hill, another sea, another path.
Such is the state of Nancy Duff who recently visited her 60th country. And for many, it seemed like a strange choice. "I just have a curiosity about things," she says with a grin, " and I definitely had a curiosity about Iran."
Nancy said she was intrigued by some Iranian students she met at Murray State, but she'd never considered a visit to their nation until a few years ago. In January 2014, the Joint Plan of Action took effect, freezing parts of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions. For the first time in decades, relations between Iran and the west warmed, and Nancy jumped on the opportunity to go.
"I went through a tour company out of California who has been doing tours to Iran for 15 years. Overall, there had not been much of a demand, however, until recently. I was able to book a trip with 15 people in the group, many of whom had been last November."
Nancy shared her excitement with others, but her enthusiasm was met with resistance. "I told people I was going to Iran, but I got such negativity that I stopped. They thought it wouldn't be safe because in their minds Iranians are terrorists and want to kill Americans." Nancy was not deterred, however, and continued planning her trip.
Preparing the proper paperwork to travel into Iran is not difficult, but the process is slow and can cause a bit of anxiety. "Since we have no direct relations with Iran, the visas go through the Pakistani consulate. And, since so many people are going to Iran now, they have a hard time keeping up with all the applications. I got mine the day we left! It was nerve-wracking. When the Fed-Ex truck showed up, I was out there waiting!"
With all the necessary paperwork in hand, Nancy left Paducah for Iran with three questions in mind. "Just like with any trip I've taken, there were things I wanted to find out for myself. One, were the Iranian people as friendly as I had read? Two, what is the architecture like? And three, what is the food like?”
Once in Iran, she quickly discovered the answer to her first question. "They are by far the most welcoming people I've encountered in a foreign country. My experience supported all I had read. They truly like the American people very much. They don't like our government all that much, but they distinguish between the people and the government. I don't think we do that as much."
The highlights of her visit centered around interaction with the Iranian people. "I like to integrate and talk. One of my favorite times was during a free afternoon when my roommate and I went to buy some fabric for some quilters who were going to be staying with me in Paducah. We went to the market and got the fabric and bought a cake for the group. It was a struggle sometimes to communicate, but we were doing the things that an Iranian would do. They were very accommodating people."
On another day, the group stopped along the side of a road to see a Nomadic wedding. "They saw us there and wanted us to come join them. I think they took as many photos of us as we did of them!"
On a different occasion, Nancy noticed a lady in a park who kept looking over their way. "I saw her glancing at us, and before long, she came over, shook my hand, and kissed me on both cheeks. She didn't speak English, but I think she was simply saying 'Welcome to Iran.'"
Women's fashion surprised Nancy. "You see these young women wearing headscarves, and they put them as far back as they can on their heads and still get them to stay there. I am not sure exactly what their rules are for dress, but we wore mid-thigh tunic tops and scarves out of respect."
Nancy's photos reflect women dressed in vibrant colors and patterns and shops showing off fashionable and elegant dresses. One store proudly displayed an array of women's lingerie, many in bright, fluorescent colors and whimsical designs.
"The women seem fairly free. They were out, walking around like anyone else. They work, wear make up, and some even get cosmetic surgery, which surprised me.
"The women who wore the chadors (black, full length body coverings) intimidated me, however. I had a preconceived notion about them, and I was afraid to talk to them. I thought they wouldn't want to talk to me or have anything to do with us. I'd talk to anyone but them. I suspect I am wrong about that, and if I go back to Iran, I'd change that. I did see some of them shopping for black fabric in the market, and I wondered why they took so long. It's just black fabric! But I discovered there are different blacks, different fabrics, and some patterns to choose from."
When it came to the architecture, Nancy was overwhelmed. "I don't know a lot, but I do know if I think something is beautiful. The mosques in Iran were incredibly pretty. They were more delicate and intricate than similar ones I'd seen in Egypt and Turkey. The exteriors seemed to be more precise in their detail."
Nancy was most impressed with the Shah Mosque in Isfahan. Constructed in the early 1600s, the vibrancy and detail of the tile work are still stunning as visitors are bathed in golden yellows and rich blues. An elaborate honeycomb pattern draws visitors in to look around and up at a swirling array of geometric art.
When it came to the food, Nancy did admit that there was not a great variety. "I got a little tired of kabobs and saffron rice. It was good and filling, but I didn't take to it like I would, say, Mediterranean food. I did try saffron ice cream, which is popular. I still prefer chocolate!"
Of all the trips Nancy has taken, she considers Iran to be one of her favorites. "I don't know if I'll ever get to go back, but I would like to. I still have a yearning to learn more about Iran. I just skimmed the surface.
"The people are what made it special. They are different than many of our preconceived notions. What we've seen in the news is not what I felt there. There are some things that still perplex me. It is a complex country. But through travel and sharing our experiences, maybe little by little we can become more understanding."