San Diego: Anatomy of a Paella and More than a Walk in the Park

After our return home from Iran, we slowly adapted back to California living. To help us do this, we took a quick weekend trip to San Diego to spend a day with friends in the countryside. The highlight was a huge “paella cookout”, that became a super-sized version of a cooking demonstration.

ANATOMY OF A PAELLA

 

 

In a nutshell, you follow these steps (as shown in photos above):

1. Heat lots of olive oil in a large shallow pan.
2. Add and cook marinated boneless chicken thighs.
3. Add onions and garlic.
4. Add water, saffron and rice.
5. Add mussels.
6. Add shelled prawns, clams and frozen peas.

Here are a couple of tantalizing videos for you, about the chorizo sausage used (you might need to step up the volume):

 

 

And the fait accompli!

 

 

Try this at home, on the stovetop!

MORE THAN A WALK IN THE PARK

The next day, we took a leisurely, 5 mile walk to and from Balboa Park. It was filled with museums, outdoor sculpture, a huge plaza for people watching, yoga, and even a botanical garden!

 

The walk to and from included a couple of pedestrian bridges. I didn’t realize that the San Diego terrain, in true California coast style, not only consisted of water and mountains, but deep craggy canyons in the middle of the city. Creative connections between hills and over valleys provide pedestrians with interesting and sometimes challenging routes. As in San Francisco, the gridded streets from the map are deceptive and can often put walkers in a dead end or facing a steep, but fitful incline.

 

The Botanical Garden provided a calming respite from the city’s bountiful activities within Balboa Park. The families enjoying the beauty of the late Spring bloom reminded me of the parks we enjoyed in Iran.

 

And there were even a couple of interesting developer-architect buildings to ponder and appreciate through the streets of San Diego:

 

A Persian Perspective

You have been a captive audience. My reports on a short but intense nine-day visit to Iran may have solely influenced your thoughts and perceptions about present-day Iran, through my personal lens. To give you another perspective, and thus a 100% increase in view, here are various impressions in a guest post from Gee Kin (related travel partner):

My Iranian Visit, Four Takeaways

It’s OK to Go on the Go

This should not have been surprising. Both Zoroastrianism and Islam place a heavy emphasis on personal hygiene. In Iran, you benefit from the influence of both. Happily, in contrast to many other countries, public restrooms are not hazardous waste dumps.

Traffic Calming

You can walk out in front of a bus and live to write about the experience. At first glance, the traffic appears chaotic, with cars weaving around each other and jaywalking pedestrians. But after a while you realize it is chaos with rules and etiquette.  More importantly, the chaos is infused with concern for each other. This nurturing care is an Iranian quality we witnessed in many other settings. Everyone violates normal traffic codes, but no-one blames or hurts anyone. No honking, no road rage, no self-righteous indignation. Everyone participates in a harmonious dance of missing each other by inches. I was initially terrified to cross the roads. I quickly became comfortable walking out into oncoming traffic confident that drivers would not hit me. Not something I would try in the US, China, or anywhere else!

Cash in the Hand is Cash in the Hand

It’s not foolish to carry a large amount of cash in your wallet. Due to economic sanctions, foreign tourists cannot use traveler’s checks or plastic. Everything must be paid in cash. Every tourist is a cash cow, so to speak. I imagined herds of tourists with bulls-eyes on their backs and thieves waiting to pounce. In actuality, you are less likely to be a victim of theft or assault in Iran than in most other parts of the world. There was no obvious police presence in the streets. With assurances from our guide and other Iranians, we quickly became comfortable in the streets, even in predominantly male crowds.

Healthy Living

Stay calm, it’s good for healthThe sanctions and a drought that has lasted more than ten years have caused tremendous hardship for most Iranians. For the most part everyone is staying calm. Life centers on social gatherings with friends and family at each other’s homes.

There is less visible anger and stress than in the US. Iranians speak softer than Americans. You don’t have to shout in restaurants. Even their emergency vehicles weave through traffic silently! No sirens blaring –just flashing lights. Our hotel room in Tehran looked out on to a freeway, yet we could sleep soundly with the window open.

Victoria and I were jolted back to reality as soon as we arrived at JFK airport. We followed a sign directing us to where we needed to go at Immigration, and then an official was shouting at us from across the hall. He came running over, flapping his arms over his head, and turned the sign 180 degrees and told us we were in a prohibited area! Welcome to America.

BONUS VIDEO

Here’s an outtake of one of our favorite moments. It was taken late at night, around 10pm, outside one of the shops in Yasd. It sums up our experience in Iran.

Iranic Irony in Tehran Terroir

Iran can be considered as a country of contradictions. We certainly experienced many of them, but certainly not without challenging our own values and assumptions about what it means to be a citizen of the world, of one’s country, and about human beings and their treatment towards each other.

Iran currently produces no wine. But like wine, the struggle to survive, the endurance, and the flavor come from the people. As mentioned in earlier posts, the most remarkable takeaway was the unique character of Iranians. They are proud. They are animated. And they are a kind and gentle people.

Everywhere we visited, people were not only good to us, but good to each other. There is a high value on the family. In the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, there’s no jostling, little noise, and a graceful poise.

Naturally, as travelers in a foreign country, we notice the aspects that are different from what we consider normal in our own countries. But being in Iran has had a profound effect on how we think about human interaction.

Maybe it’s because life is tougher in many ways, and there’s so much misunderstanding about the country.  But there appears to be a genuine friendliness that is inherent in Iranians. Hospitality is in the DNA of every Iranian. There is an elegant flow in body language, facial expressions, and greetings to one another.

The newest gesture we learned is placing your hand over your heart to express many words:  “I’m thankful”, “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you“, “I’m happy that you’re happy”. It was an unfamiliar gesture of hand to heart.  We tried it out and found that it was a quite natural act to put your hand over your heart, especially meaningful between strangers.  We hope we won’t lose this stress-reducing contribution to the world. Our guide taught us. After studying his natural behavior, we wanted to do it too. These habits could certainly be considered by others, where the “in your face mentality” is the new normal.

The Iranian’s sense of history is profound. Had it not been for the depth of it and my obvious ignorance, I probably would not have ventured here. Indeed, it’s all here, in its raw, all-inspiring splendor. From the earliest settlements around 2,000 BC that predated the Greek and Roman civilizations to the latest shopping mall outside Tehran (complete with fast food outlets sans American chains), Iran is country that is proud of its history. It is one that has had to become self-sufficient. It is stifled by political, cultural and economic events.

This is a country of very handsome people. We stare at their faces, and see the lines of character and beauty that appear from nowhere. My imaginary pen draws each face, each feature, with love and affection. Clothing shrouds the natural beauty of the women, so exceptionally high value is placed on their facial features and how they manage them.

Within a very short duration of time, we were hooked on Iran. It wasn’t expected. It’s definitely not what the media world tells us. After a short overnight layover in  St. Goarhausen ( in second home Germany) and a few days in Manhattan, we have come back to recover our thoughts and perspective on Iran. Like our own, a country like Iran is full of contradictions. We wish the people well and a hopeful future.

Below are a couple of galleries of people and places that capture our fanstastic experience:

 

 

You can see additional photos in Instagram under vifongit.

 

Kool in Kashan

Midway between Tehran and Isfahan lies Kashan. One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Fin Garden highlights traditional Persian landscape design with fountains, channels and reflecting pools. These design principles trace back to the 6th Century and Cyrus the Great.

Local tourists love to visit these parks. On a particularly busy “weekend” Friday, the sites were crowded but the feeling was festive. Persians are courteous and never pushy, so it always seems like you are part of the public experience, not against it. Each person, including you, is entertainment material.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where large divans or platforms shaped like a huge sofa surrounded by a low back/barricade offered guests an alternative to traditional tables. The design defined a semi-private space, where groups or families could sit cross legged, enjoy the food, but not miss out on the activity outside their spaces.

The nearby town housed merchants who became wealthy from the textiles, carpets and tile produced in the area. Door knockers on a pair of entry doors differentiated men from women arriving by the sound of the knock. That was a pretty ingenious communication device!

The local bath house was an important community space and lavish design details encouraged members to use the club’s facilities!

I couldn’t help but to continue a few of my forays into people pictures. I was starting to get really comfortable doing this, again because the faces of the individuals are so engaging and CALM. Young girls may be a bit giddy, but overall everyone whose pictures I took were inviting, elegant and never intimidated or negative.

Below, here’s a video of the adorable little girl shown above:

(This post was created on April 20, 2018)

Isfahani Style?

Isfahan represents one of the great architectural cities of the world, and now I know why. The magnificent scale of site planning, building design and decoration are fully integrated. Many of the civic buildings surround what used to be a polo field and display the pride and beauty of Persia. (Yes, Persia and Iran is used interchangeably).

In the 16th Century, the Safavids defeated the Ottomans. During this triumphant period, Shah Abbas developed this square, which is the largest in the world. Islamic art and architecture flourished with distinctive elements. The public Mosque with twin towers dominates one end of the square. The architect’s signature is written on a tile discreetly placed to the side of the building. It avoids the front face and competing with the orientation towards Mecca. If only all architects were as humble!

After designing and building the Mosque, which is now a UNESCO World heritage site, the architect went away and returned after six months. He managed to convince the king that he was waiting to see whether the massive structure, with all its solid stone, brick and tilework, would cause settlement. (Yeah, right!!)

Everyone was relieved that it hadn’t, and the architect could still get his tea in Isfahan. Maybe the architect and structural engineer for the Millennium Tower in San Francisco were taking their sabbaticals before they got the bad news.

To the side is the private mosque, known as the Shah’s mosque. Daylighting illuminates verses on walls. As the sun rotates and casts light on various exposures, appropriate poetry is spotlighted naturally. The inside of the dome is also decorated with flecks of gold to cleverly simulate a spotlit tromp l’oeil effect.

This is only a glimpse of the many beautiful buildings with intricate floral tilework and awe-inspiring domes that are signatory to Isfahani architecture. The Shah’s Palace contained a music room with deep cutouts that made you feel as if you were inside a gigantic violin. And the Entertainment Center for the Shah displayed beautiful period paintings. While depiction of human figures was not allowed, these paintings represented non-Muslims such as Georgians or Indians. Some faces on the paintings were later marred or removed.

Persians enjoy strolling in the world-famous gardens built on the desert oasis and along the Zayandeh River. Sadly, the river is dammed to provide water to Yasd and farmers in the desert and as a result it runs dry. The Khaju Bridge that originally spanned the river is used as a leisurely stroll for Isfahanians. Local singers gather under the bridge to spar with other talented folk opera afficinados.  Here’s a short video of one of the talented regulars:

While I normally focus on historic architecture and museum artwork, this trip has engaged me in taking more photos of people in the streets. I have not been shy about asking for posed photos of strangers, because they are universally handsome and graceful in their poses and demeanor. You can’t help but want to capture some of this spirit that delights visitors to Iran and endears you to the people.

Where We Haven’t Been

Our itinerary, in case you missed it on the map and on the World Travels 2018 page of https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com, started in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. We are plying our way north to Yasd, Isfahan, and back to Tehran.

Apparently the hottest place on earth is in Iran. Fortunately, it wasn’t on the menu. We got the details from our guide as he drove us from Yasd to Isfahan. A year ago, he took a couple of people out to see sand towers that appear like high rises. He reported to the police before entering the desert and notified them that he and a tourist couple were entering the zone. If you go missing after an hour, they come to get you.

They each brought a bottle of water to drink. On arrival he began to feel faint and told the travelers that he had to leave right away. He found out afterwards that you need to drink water every few minutes in order to stay hydrated. Food shrivels once it hits high temperatures of 76 degrees C. (equivalent to 167 degrees!!)

Driving through in the car reduces some of the effect until you get out. Abdullah had the AC on but the wife insisted on having full effect of windows open. He tried not to think what would happen if his car broke down as he seldom saw anyone on the road returning.

The second time, he accompanied two male travelers who wanted to get their thrills as extreme sportsmen. Once they got in, they encountered a sandstorm, that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Fortunately, they were on the edge of it and after it blew past they were able to see what they wanted. They tried dripping water on the stones to watch how fast the water would be sucked dry. Others were frying eggs.

He has returned the second time to be ready to escort any of you for his third foray to a place that’s hot (literally) on the adventure trail. Sorry that this is only a second-hand story, but if you are interested in more, you can go to https://www.livescience.com/19700-hottest-place-earth.html for another great story about the Lut Desert in Iran.

Speaking of water and lack thereof, here’s a picture of the water bottle we recently purchased. Being a Muslim country, Iran does not allow liquor to be drunk or sold. This plastic bottle is shaped like a flask of liquor, or even worse, it makes me think of some toxic lighter fluid or cleaning alcohol. Its shape can’t be understood, but it seems to make sense for grasping (or gasping) purposes. Maybe drinking from cases of these will be part of the desert ritual as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner searches for those precious drops.

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Only 2 days left of blissful travel in a clean country with exceptionally kind and handsome people with a deep sense of their history and humanity.

Here’s a bonus video of delightful young, uninhibited girls playing in the evening. They capture the spirit of a safe and secure life. This was taken in a shopping area around 10pm at night. I feel far safer here than any country I have ever visited.

(This post was created on April 18, 2018 and edited April 22,2018.

Whys and Z’s in Yasd, Iran

Tower of Silence and Fire

At the Temple of Silence, members of the Zorastrian religion placed their dead at the top of a mound and left them to the elements and vultures to decompose. After that, they treated the bones with alcohol and burned the remains.

The Temple of Fire was built to commemorate the Prophet Zarathustra. As head of the Zorastrian religion, he professed kindness and goodness to all. What was more interesting and an “Aha!” moment for us, was that “Thus Spake Zarathustra“, written by Richard Strauss  and the theme song from “2001, the Space Odyssey”, originates from this prophet’s words and teachings. Zorastrianism was one of the first monotheistic religions in the world.

Zorastrians were also present in Hong Kong. I used to pass the Temple on my way to work and wondered who the members were. There are only about 200,000 members of the religious group world-wide, among which 80,000 or so are South Indians. Their presence in Hong Kong stems from the Indian population that lived there since colonial times. I can finally rest my curiosity  over who this group was and where they came from.

The Friday Mosque

As in all mosques, the mullah, or head of the temple, conducts the ceremony facing Mecca, while the worshippers are aligned in rows behind him. They are encouraged to attend the mosque five times a day in groups, but more importantly on Friday, the holy day of the week. The worshippers are called to prayer every day, including before sunrise and at sunset.

The twin minarets or towers of Shiite mosques come in pairs, like this one, or in fours on the corners of a square. These are over 70 feet high and the among the tallest in Iran. Sunni minarets have one, two or even three asymmetrical towers, so you can easily differentiate which sect of Islamic religion each mosque represents. The architect of this mosque built the first minaret, and commanded his top student to build the second one. The precocious student followed his master’s design, but built two double-helix staircases to the top inside instead of the single staircase in the first tower.

Ice House and Caravansery

The ice house was a clever way to provide refrigeration in the blaring desert heat. The dome over the pool where the ice was kept allowed heat to escape through the opening at the top. The space below where the water was originally kept is now empty, but it creates an acoustically perfect space. Our guide was barely whispering in the video below, but you could easily hear his song from wherever you were standing. (Please turn up the volume to full blast if you want to hear the song more clearly)

Heading towards Isfahan, we stopped at an authentic Silk Road Caravansery. The traders and their camels rested and recuperated here, and rest stops like this are considered one of the first hotels ever established! The camels were parked in the courtyard, traders used the rooms facing the courtyard, and the hired help hung out in the dormitory space on the outer ring of the courtyard.

Water was transported here from underground canals or wells. The pools provided cool spaces (literally)  to escape the heat. Washing and drinking water was stored separately from these submerged and naturally lit chambers. In this part of the world where drought is a daily worry, water was carefully stored and managed. Shops and local handicrafts are sold now in the courtyard. Our guide Abdullah, showed us his newly purchased solidarity scarf.

(This post was created on April 18,  2018)

Shimmering Shiraz and Perceptions of Persepolis

Tehran

After a few days of jet lag, weather changes, and internet hell, we resparked our curiosity and thirst for the unknown. We visited museums, mosques, and even a madrassah, but no mausoleums yet. The last three m’s were the order of the day for Islamic architecture during my visit to Uzbekistan, but there no indications of that being the same here.

At the Golestan Palace in Tehran, a World Heritage Site, the pre-Pahlavi royalty (within the last 150 years) displayed their wealth and were over-the-top ornate. Most of the public rooms including the ceilings were covered with intricate mirror mosaics and made you feel like you were inside the Hope Diamond.

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Interior with Mirrored Ceilings

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The exteriors demonstrated the integration of gardens and fountains that are
famous in Iranian architecture and design, as well as the intricate mosaic work and marble carving on doors and walls.

The National Museum of Iran contained some of the most precious relics of the ancient world. The statue of Darius I (Xerxes I, from which an opera is based!)  and a panel from the Achaemenid Period in Persepolis are shown below. For those interested, you can scale up the text included in the adjacent photos.

The bazaars in both Tehran and Shiraz contained endless boutiques in a Walmart-sized atmosphere with limited and inexpensive goods from copperware to aromatic spices.

Shiraz

We bonded with our local guide from Shiraz after he passionately described Iran’s native son and poet, Hafez. His elegant poems are beloved by all Iranians and transcend cultures. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Goethe were known to quote his poetry. It was enough for me to determine to read some when I get home.

As we stood in the garden of the tomb of Hafez, Abdullah, our guide, explained that Shiraz is known for its wine, women, and roses. Many of us will recognize the famous wine namesake that comes from this region.

In the evening light, Abdullah pointed out the abundance of young couples strolling in the park, with flowers intoxicating the warm breezes. Knowing a little or a lot about the poetry of Hafez is enough to start amiable conversations and the start of a promising relationship, Abdullah surmises (maybe from experience?)

While Abdullah waxed poetic, we observed that families were out selfying just like any other society, enjoying a delicious evening, and lingering among crowds of friendly visitors.

There seems to be tremendous respect for fellow humans in Iran. So far, we have found the urban environment remarkably quiet. We stayed on busy streets in two cities and found the traffic unusually quiet. Being highly sensitive to noise, I am finding the calm, lack of noise shattering to my ears.

People glide about the streets, smiling at one another with eyes and lips, and salaam each other without exception. I’m not sure our guide has coopted us, but we sense the immense pride and confidence in the people.

Persepolis:

Just outside of Shiraz, on a wide open plain, lies the ceremonial center of Darius. Before him, Cyrus the Great created and led an impressive empire. The wooden ceilings of buildings and both palaces of Darius and his son built around 518 BC were later razed to the ground by Alexander the Great (around 330 BC), but the massive stone structures with priceless carvings remain.

After just having seen the great empires of Rome, Greece, Inca at Macchu Picchu and Aztec in Teotihuacan, it’s hard not to be impressed by the volume and quality of artwork in situ at Persepolis. We could not believe how much of its splendor is still present for the whole world to appreciate.

Were it not from my earliest art history lessons on ancient civilizations and curiosity on its context and meaning, I would not have made this trip.

Everything begins to fall into place, as the pieces of the puzzle assemble. My scant preparation for this trip, thanks to Francopan’s Silk Roads, a New History of the World, captures the whirlwind tour through the rise and fall of Eurasian civilizations. Iran, and more fondly, Persia by the same name, stands prominently at the helm of the Silk Road.

The artwork at Persepolis chronicles the peaceful arrival and acceptance of the local inhabitants to the new ruler. Darius followed shortly after Cyrus (within 40 years), and while not a direct descendant, they were related. Although the local Medians were conquered by Cyrus and the Archimineads, he managed a peaceful settlement and was respected for his accomplishments as a capable ruler. Darius culminated the dynastic rule with his grandiose and impressive complex at Persepolis.

Within the ceremonial entrance and grand reception areas are magnificent stone reliefs of warriors supporting the king on his throne. Rows of roundheaded conquerees alternating with the conquerors proceed to meet the king, hand in hand. Offerings from 23 nations include food, treasures and animals from surrounding areas and those as far as India.

Other friezes demonstrate the high quality of craftsmanship that preceded the Greek and Roman periods revered in history. In a splendid exemplary frieze, a bull and cow signify the end and beginning of the new year.

The symbolic meanings of birds, rings and flowers stem from the ancient monotheistic Zoroastrian and Mithras religions. They did not have a concept of God as a human, but that he lies within each of us.

Individually the symbolism of the characters presented are less significant than the collective splendor of the human mind that is left behind for all of us living creatures today to ponder.

(This post is now formatted as intended. It was created on April 17, 2018 and edited April 22, 2018).

Carry on in Tehran

With all my worldly possessions-and a precious visa to visit in tow, husband Gee Kin and I have just arrived in Tehran, the capital of Iran. We left behind the globalized world of Starbucks, KFC and Macdonalds, to one with brewed tea, fast food chicken legs roasting on an open fire, and lamb kebabs with bread made with pebbles for dimples. We passed tantalizing corner stores filled with pistachios and dry fruits that you buy to take to a friend’s house. Hospitality means alot here, and we can already feel it in the air.

Having just completed a marathon flight in 19 hours (San Francisco-Washington DC-Vienna-Tehran, I was glad to hit the end of the day with a hearty meal of lamb stew mascerated at the table and mixed into a tomato based soup, chicken and lab kebobs, saffron rice, yoghurt dressing, a vinegar-based eggplant sauce on the side, and bread.

Everything is not so different at first blush. Getting through immigration was a breeze and easier than stateside! Tehran has about 9 million people living here, with the active daily working population at around 14 million. Iran is a country of 80 million, about the population of Germany. The mountains just outside of Tehran are over 5,000 m, so skiing is a big attraction for tourists, who normally come from Germany, France, and Italy, but more recently even from China.

Stay tuned for more to come in art and architecture in Tehran and Shiraz, our next stop.

(This post is now formatted as intended and was created on April 15, 2018)

Drawing Marathon

Last week’s challenge to draw 100 people in five days was exhausting but satisfying! It took a bit of planning, but I managed to stalk strangers at the following locations:

1. City College of San Francisco students;
2. UCSF Osher Mini-Medical School evening class;
3. Hollow Cafe on Irving Street, San Francisco with fellow artists Karen and Lorna (in sketches), and Farley’s Cafe on Potrero Hill, San Francisco
4. Sunset Library, Adult and Juvenile Divisions
5. BART late-nite transit passengers and SFO International Airport

100 People 1 Week Drawing Challenge

Budding sketch artists will tell you that stationary models are the best for sketching purposes. Subjects who move around are at free will to ruin your intentions! The worst were those at the airport, who were already crazed and erratic in behavior. The ones in classes were probably the easiest to draw. If you haven’t ever tried it, give it a shot! It keeps you focused and out of trouble.

In order to learn more about developing sketching techniques, I joined the San Francisco Sketchers. There are normally two to three meet-ups a week. The last three included drawing during the preparations for the Chinese New Year Parade, the Annual History Day at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, and a portrait party.

Last week’s portrait party hosted by author Julia Kay required us to draw each other in small groups of 4-6 sketchers. We started with a 30 second blind gesture using our non-dominant hand, then with the dominant hand. Portrait sketches, as the one you see in the header, were 10-minute sketches. Totally fun, especially getting to see other interpretations of you, as well as of others in the group.

I will continue to draw, especially during future trips. It gives you an entirely different memory experience and way of looking at things.

By the way, take a look at my newly posted world trip 2018 page (on the menu at the top) for details of my upcoming travels!

Real Time Creative and Independent World Travel