The tourist wants authenticity, but not the discomforts of authenticity. So the tourist gets angry when she experiences the reality of village life in Iran.
This is the lesson we learned in the village of Naiband (also spelled Nayband, Nay Band), after we fell in love with its architecture and the children who guided us through its streets.
A week after our first visit, on the way back home from Kerman, we accepted an invitation to stay overnight in the village.
It was the vacant home of the mother-in-law of the village chief. Gholamreza Hassankhani, his wife Zahra and son Mostafa walked us up to the home through a maze of darkened alleys in middle of the night. They asked us to join them for breakfast the next morning at their home in the new Naiband down the mountain.
Things looked pretty rough. No running water. Toilet was smelly. No sheets, just some quilts on top of a Persian rug.
We were too tired to care. We just wanted to crash. Last thing I remember 13-year-old Mostafa excitedly telling us he’s determined to go to college.
In the morning, though, Saeideh was not a happy camper. She said she couldn’t sleep all night because the wind kept slamming the door. Then she started hearing rustling noises in the roof packed with tree branches.
“It was a mouse or a snake. I was petrified; my left side and my back is still in pain.
“I can stand sleeping without sheets. I can stand getting water from a bucket. But I can’t stay up all night listening to rats commuting over my head,” she declared.
I stepped outside and took a look at the toilet. It looked rougher than the night before.
And the water supply was not appetizing.
Ok, Ali, you wanted to stay in a village. This is life in a village, I reminded myself.
I went for a walk by myself, back to the lookout tower we visited with the frantic children a week earlier, when we were high on travel and naive about life in Naiband.
I considered the dilemma: as tourists we want authenticity. We want to do real things with people different than ourselves, and not just the hotel staff and tour guides.
But at the same time, we’re intolerant of when the real people have different living standards than ours.
I remembered what British lecturer and Persian gardens expert Penelope Hobhouse told my father when he was considering developing a hotel in Iran:
“Whatever you do, make sure the bathrooms are up to Western standards,” she emailed him.
Essentially, we’re asking people to give us a tolerable, pasteurized version of their reality. No, don’t stage it. That would be terrible! Don’t insult my intelligence (like the time our Kenyan tour guide got some Masai villagers to spontaneously dance for us–after we gave them $60 USD). But package in the bedsheets and sanitary toilet–merci beaucoup!
Stay real but not too real. It’s a ridiculous request–but fulfilled countless times everyday the world over.
It suddenly occurred to me I also instinctively shoot to create pretty pictures. And avoid shooting reality of, say, flies and piles of manure in otherwise picturesque alleys.
I knew Saeideh was angry when she said she wanted to leave without saying goodbye–or paying for the room. This from a woman who once drove us back to a hotel we had stayed at and forced me to hand over to the doorman a spoon I had nicked.
I told her that instead of leaving we owe ourselves and our hosts the trouble of giving them our feedback and hearing their response.
The village chief’s response wasn’t exactly sympathetic.