To Iran, With Love

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’.

Sarah Van Riemsdijk, planning her next adventure.

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.”

A spectacular mosque in Iran. Even more amazingly, in the middle of the ceiling, a peacock was created so the illumination from a window creates his tail. (Photo/Sarah Van Riemsdijk)

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.”

Susan Farewell (right) and her daughter Justine Sellgson last fall, at an Omani mosque.

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.

15 responses to “To Iran, With Love

  1. Sharon Cribari-Saccary

    I love this. If people took the time to research done of the middle east countries maybe the perceptions would change. Clearly President Trump has not. I know a family for 30 years and they live here but have family ties in Iran they are wonderful people.

    • Bob Stalling

      You know a wonderful family that lives here so the ban is unjustified?
      Maybe you should research the reasons for Iran being on the list.
      Hint…. “perceptions” is not one of them.
      Good grief.

  2. Daniel Craig

    Just another promotion for your own personal business gain. Iran is a hostile country. They burn American Flags constantly in the streets.

    Who is really misguided here.

    • Kathryn Sirico

      I cannot agree more with Daniel and Bob. I have travelled all over the world and there are reasons far exceeding “a great trip and exposure” to visit. What about those that take one wrong step and we never see again or every string is being pulled (rightly so) to get them back to the US. Good God Do NOT encouraging people to put themselves in harms way.

  3. Iran is “not in an active state of war” ??
    I’m sure Sarah is a very nice woman, who must live under a rock. As Ms. Sirico before me stated you’re anxious to get people to jeopardize their lives so your business can thrive. And by the way, there are many other ways to bash Trump.

  4. Dick Lowenstein

    “Not in an active state of war”…..surely you’re joking. The theocratic regime has its own own troops in Syria, as well as supporting terrorist proxies, like Hezbollah and Hamas. The Iranian people deserve better than they’re are getting, but any money spent in Iran bolsters the mullahs who actually run the country.

  5. Jamie Walsh

    Is the Burka included as part of the travel package or is that provided by the Mullahs as a welcome gift?

    • Jamie Walsh

      By the way…never set foot in the Middle East and I am aware of the incredible architecture, food and culture….but promoting travel to a region without explaining the risks associated or that their oppressive regime crushes the innocent Citizenary of Iran seems to me a bit irresponsible. Additionally, any country wanting to wipe another “country off the map” no matter how “beautiful the people or place maybe…will never get a cent from me as long as oppressive regimes remain in place.

  6. I’m sure Iran is a beautiful country with many welcoming people, but to pretend traveling there doesn’t come with some serious potential risks is irresponsible.

  7. Tom Duquette, SHS '75

    While your sense of adventure is admirable your trust in foreign governments is overly optimistic and naive. The only way I’m going back to the Middle East is if it’s just like my last trip there; riding in the back of a C-17 Globemaster III with my fellow travelers all wearing camo, body armor, and armed to the teeth! As for tourists, sure one day you’re a welcome guest and the next a political hostage of an unstable regime who has to be rescued by SEAL Team 6 after months of captivity. Be careful out there.

  8. From Obama’s State Department

    The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Iran. This replaces the Travel Warning for Iran of August 5, 2015, to reiterate and highlight the risk of arrest and detention of U.S. citizens, particularly dual national Iranian-Americans, in Iran. All U.S. citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and carefully consider nonessential travel.

  9. Eleanor Sasso

    I have dear Iranian friends who ‘escaped’ 20 years ago. I have heard the bone chilling stories first hand.
    Women and young girls are in constant danger of being raped (especially by mullahs) and forced into marriages with old men. The society is forced to live as in the dark ages. The people are in a constant state of oppression and wanting to revolt. This is a merciless theocracy that needs to be overturned by the brave citizens of Iran. They don’t want any outside interference.
    How can anyone in good conscience promote travel to Iran , when they chant ‘death to Israel, death to the US ‘ and burn our leaders in effigy?
    This is a dangerous place and should be avoided at all costs… say my Iranian friends!

  10. Joni Usdan

    Seriously! Ridiculous to advocate for tourism to Iran now – of course there are wonderful sights and wonderful people – but theyre also the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, – which is why we need to sanction the shameful and corrupt theocrats until they stop taking hordes of poticial prisoners, beheading innocent people, impoverishing their people – imprisoning (or worse) women for removing their hijabs. the iran deal had no real accountability on their aide. Lets be honest. ,,just a one way pass for their evil government. This whole concept is so naive. What do you think otto warmbiers parents would recommend – hes the amazing student tortured and then killed with by kju regime in n korea – he was delivered back to the us brain dead when all he did was go as a student but hung “western” posters in his dorm so he was accused of being a spy and murdered. There are countless prisoners in iran who committed no crime, most of them iranians. Stay away until the dictators are gone !

  11. Catherine Almolla

    Visitors to Iran are overwhelmingly delighted by their travels. That´s partly because there is a purity to the experience, unsullied by the presence of obnoxious and ignorant hordes of “package holiday” tourists.
    Personally I am grateful that the people that do visit Iran are high class, educated and curious.
    What a delight they are, they will always be welcome.