The tourist wants a real experience. But only as real as she can stand and then she complains. The host says, sorry, but no one else complained.
The morning after our rat-or-snake-infested stay in the village of Naiband, Saeideh wanted to just drive away and not pay for the room. I said we owe ourselves the experience of complaining and seeing where it takes us.
We arrived at the home of the village chief Gholamreza Hassankhani and his wife Zahra in the new Naiband, a modern village down the mountain from the ancient Naiband village we stayed the night before.
The Hassankhanis had rented to us a room in a vacant home in the 1,000-year-old village. The rustling in the wooden ceiling kept Saeideh up all night who suspected rats or snakes.
Her anger rose again when we pulled up in front of the Hassankhani home.
“Look, he’s got a perfectly modern home. Why did he put us up in that old house no one lives in?”
“But we wanted the experience of staying in the old village, remember?” I said.
Around the breakfast sofreh on the floor, Saeideh explained why she couldn’t sleep all night.
Chief Hassankhani wasn’t impressed, however. “Sorry,” he said, continuing to spread cheese on his bread. “But I’ve taken other people up there and no one else complained.”
His wife Zahra, though, appeared concerned and apologized.
Saeideh said the village has a lot of tourism potential. But the basic comforts–bed sheets, clean toilet, rat-free ceilings–have to be there in order for the tourists to enjoy themselves and recommend it to their friends.
The chief nodded his head in agreement but added, “They keep coming. I plan to make a lot of money there.”
Zahra, though, offered us to stay in the modern house next time we visit as she gifted us a bread she had just baked. Then she put on her traditional clothing for us and said she was proud of all the bedding she’s sown “because you never know how many guests you might have.”
Outside, while we sat in the car, Zahra came to us and hit it up with Saiedeh. She said she got married at 17 and likes her husband because he takes care of her.
“We have sheep, goats, the milk, the yogurt, the kashk (yogurt extract), everything you need to live well. … He even bought me these bracelets.”
She promised to contact us if she visits Mashhad.
As we drove away, Saeideh thanked me for preventing her from running away in the morning because, as she said, “I got to know Zahra.”
I felt grateful for the lesson, an insight into the dilemma reality-seeking tourists the world over face: we want authenticity but only to the degree we choose to tolerate. We expect the host to provide accommodations acceptable to our requirements and, somehow, know our standards in advance, even if he might be a villager accustomed to sleeping under rat-infested ceilings.
In the end, despite the hardship and the indifferent response from the chief, we did get some authentic insight into the life of a kind woman named Zahra.
I told Saeideh I prefered that we not just see ourselves as tourists, but also amatur ethnographers.
“I wasn’t feeling like a tourist,” she said. “I was just really insulted. Nothing else mattered anymore.”