In a town whose residents have the means and curiosity to travel to unfamiliar places, Sarah Van Riemsdijk stands out.
The Westporter — she moved here in 1982, owned the Camp Atlantic children’s clothing store, then lived abroad and returned “home” a few years ago — has made more than 20 trips to the Middle East.
Some of her most memorable trips were arranged with Susan Farewell. Another longtime native — and, like Sarah, a passionate rower with the Saugatuck Rowing Club — she owns Farewell Travels, a travel design firm that customizes itineraries for people who want more than the same ol’, same ol’.
One of the last places Sarah had not gone was Iran. She and Susan planned that journey for winter 2017. But in the aftermath of President Trump’s inauguration and travel ban, Sarah’s visa never came through.
No reason was given, beyond being “frozen in the pipeline.” She never recovered her airfare.
But she tried again. The visa pipeline was unfrozen, and last fall Sarah headed to Iran.
“It was spectacular,” she says. “The beautiful architecture and art, the cuisine, the welcome from the Iranian people — it was one of my favorite trips.”
Sarah hoped to return this fall. But because Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal — and the Supreme Court then upheld a travel ban that includes Iran — Sarah is doubtful she’ll receive a visa.
“It’s such a shame,” she says. “The Iranians have been so welcoming. Of the countries affected by the ban, Iran is the only one not in an active state of war. This seems strictly punitive.”
Sarah notes that many Americans have misconceptions about the rest of the globe.
After 9/11, she says, tourism from the US dropped drastically. Americans stopped traveling even to Morocco — 2,000 miles from Iraq and Afghanistan. “That would be as if something happened in Florida, and people overseas decided not to see the fall foliage in Vermont.”
Tourists also stopped heading to places Tunisia, Oman and Qatar, which had nothing to do with the attacks on America. Their economies — and our reputations — suffered, Sarah says.
And, she adds, many Americans still don’t know enough about the Middle East.
“That comes from fear — and not looking at maps,” Sarah says. “The Emirates are totally safe. Iran is more than safe.”
Her admiration for Iran is palpable. “The marriage of design and architecture; the mosaics, the textures — it’s a remarkable travel experience,” Sarah says. “I couldn’t take my eyes away.
“The Persian Empire was staggering. Walking through those cities is like being in a museum.”
Farewell notes, “My clients are sophisticated and intelligent. They want to travel to these places. They want to see as much art, architecture, history and culture as they can. And while they can.”
She cites the example of Syria, where so much rich history has been destroyed, and where Sarah had “a wonderful time.” No one can travel there now.
Yet Susan too hears Americans “lumping many different countries together. They’re fearful. But they miss out on a lot.”
“Anyone can have an opinion on whether our travel ban is good or bad,” Sarah says. “But one of the effects is, it knocks the hell out of the joys of travel.”
She’s undeterred, though. She loves the Middle East — especially Iran.
She plans to return.