General Letter: July 28 th .............................
Hope everyone is well and having a great summer. I am just back from the mountains near the Caspian Sea, in the northern part of Iran. I had no internet access there, so that explains the silence on this end. I believe I’m going to be successful posting pictures in my Picassa Google account. We have managed to get some sort of meager upgrade of the internet connection at home (Tehran), so I hope by the end of the day I can get 40 or so pics posted. The connection is very slooooooow, but at least it is a connection!
As I have mentioned, I went north to work with a fellow, Farzin, who runs a trekking and guest house business (www.caspiantrek.com). I intended to help him take care of the guests, both at the house and on the trail. But, basically, I was looking for a way to get out of the city and see more of what is left of traditional Iranian rural life. Unfortunately, there is not much left, but after years of biking and trekking Farzin has managed to find the isolated pockets that remain. The beauty, proximity to the Caspian and temperate climate of the north has attracted Tehranis fleeing the city, who have literally trashed the countryside and built ugly Bollywood movie style villas on nearly every accessible mountain side road. Development also brings new roads and hotels into majestic untouched areas. This has destroyed the local cultures, wildlife and wiped out wilderness areas. Then there is the rape of natural resources. Unfortunately, these problems are the same world over; it is just hard to experience them repeated anew.
Both Reza and I were able to explore the pockets, thanks to Farzin. He is adamant about supporting local food producers and craft folk. So a focus of our travels was good eating. We enjoyed a wide variety of breads, milk, yogurt, cheese, kashk (tastes like drained yogurt mixed with soft cheese), butter, meats, fish, jams, honey, vegetables, greens, and fruits produced/raised by our neighbors. One of my favorite treats was fresh aromatic garden greens, which people eat mixed together like salad. These mixtures can include fenugreek, parsley, coriander, tarragon, scallions, radishes, watercress, basil, dill, mint, garlic buds, baby hot peppers and leeks.
I was also able to help prepare food for our guests with the neighbor cook. We ended up becoming good friends and Reza and Her husband also enjoyed each other. I learned to make a few northern specialties. One is Mirza Qasemi made with roasted mashed eggplant, garlic, onions, eggs, tomatoes and kashk. It is a big favorite of everyone. It is eaten with rice or bread. We also canned a sour paste made from wild cherries, which is used like tomato paste and made jam from wild black berries. What I really wanted to learn was how to make was this wonderfully tart orange rind jam from something resembling Valencia oranges. Time/opportunity ran out.
As hard as I tried, I could not find any knitters, except one of our guests. She was a beginning knitter, knitting a scarf from rug wool (nice colors, but texture like steel wool). She said she could not find any other pure wool in Tehran (nor could I), but I have seen a couple rural women wearing hand knit sweaters. Since it is very hot, it is not really sweater time. I have seen amazing patterned felted rugs, called namads, in rural mountain homes. We were able to visit a village family, who had a thriving pottery business. They made jugs from huge 4 ½ ft jugs, with 2 handles on each side, which two people rock back and forth to separate butter from milk, to small salt containers for the sofreh (table cloth placed on the floor around which people sit and eat).
The highlight of our travels was a trek to the high mountain pastures of the seasonal pastoral nomads, who were tending a herd of milk cows. There were other nomads tending sheep in the more elevated pastures. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to visit them too. The nomads (men) were living in a stone-based, plastic roofed tent about 40 ft long which was split in half with wooden rails. On one side lived the men, on the other the calves. The calves had to be periodically separated from their Moms, so that they would not consume all the milk. From the milk the men made butter and yogurt, which was so good that people hiked 1 ½ hours from the villages below to buy. We dragged a good supply down the mountain too.
It was hard to get good pictures because there is always a lot of mist and fog. The mountains block the dampness, which blows south from the Caspian. The vista is so expansive, and the mountains so high, that my camera could not capture the actual visual perspective. The majesty of the mountains draws the eyes upward and one forgets to look down. Gazing downward fills the eyes with carpets of many tiny colorful wildflowers, covering every available bare space and stone crag. You almost hate to take a step and crush such beauty. We also came across one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. Reza was so impressed that this is the first thing he talks about when telling trip tales. We hiked to the base of the fall and looked up a porous rock faced wall, which reached upward about 80 ft. In every small rock crevasse there were baby ferns, delicate spongy mosses, and minute flowers. Over the rock and vegetation fell many small lace-like streams and sprays of glistening water. It was like looking at a thousand miniature waterfalls collected together in one giant sized forest bouquet