This past week, I took a trip to Iran by myself using my New Zealand passport, spending 2.5 days in Esfahan, 2.5 days in Shiraz, and 2 days in Tehran.

So. How was Iran?

More than a few times in this past week, I’ve told people that just because two countries’ governments can’t get along doesn’t mean that their people can’t be friends. I befriended a Russian while walking to an Iranian mosque, spoke Spanish with an Iranian-Ecuadoran when we got lost, and explained agnosticism to an Iranian Shi’a Muslim all in the span of an hour. And the world didn’t end.

We’re all human. We’re all people.

And honestly, I saw more generosity and friendship expressed during one week in Iran than I did in three summers of working national parks, where every person only cares about their vacation being the best possible.

Iranians love foreigners, and especially Americans. They’re so excited to hear about life elsewhere, but at the same time they have a furious pride to them–they were delighted to hear that I loved their country, and thanked me profusely when I told them that I thought their people were sweet and generous–a fact.  I learned very little about Iranian politics this past week. I learned less than I presumed I would about Iranian culture, also, mainly because I spent a lot of time answering questions about myself. I kept my tongue to myself and only had political discussions only with a couple of younger people.

I’m already missing having tea ten times a day (well, at least three…) with saffron infused rock candy added for sweetness and a dose of good conversation. I think that Americans can learn a lot from Iranian culture and sharing. I paid for tea once, when with other foreigners; every other time, someone was buying it for me in exchange for nothing but my company.

Of all places in Iran, I probably had three favourites. I loved Nasqh-e Rostam for its history and for its beauty, but Imam Square in Esfahan stood out because of its beauty and, more importantly, because of how no matter what time of day, there were always people hanging out, having picnics, talking and greeting each other, and generally just relaxing. Similarly, the Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh in Shiraz, open 24 hours, stood out to me as being a place of community, a mosque with people of all ages doing everything from praying to playing tag.

I preferred Esfahan and Shiraz to Tehran, which felt more busy and less homey–there wasn’t as much distinguishing it from any other city in the world. Esfahan was my favourite place and I could very easily envision life there–it really is half of the world. But I loved how in all the cities there were playgrounds everywhere and green spaces in the middle of streets or city blocks. At night, there were fairy lights all over, especially on the fountains in the middle of almost every roundabout. The cities are naturally beautiful, but Iranians take pride in them and take them to the next level.

I loved the fresh fruit and vegetables that were available on every street and the nun freshly baked and sitting on the curb eating fresh food. I loved the strange soup and the delicious falafel I had from small shops on the street. I loved the fresh juices and the ice cream made with real fruit.

In a few years, I can see more and more people travelling to Iran. As it stands now, it’s so authentic. It feels real. Having lived in San Francisco, in Dubai, and having worked in national parks with tourons (tourist-morons) everywhere, I can kind of sense the difference between what’s authentic and what’s put on to attract rich tourists. Yeah, a lot of historical buildings are overpriced and definitely geared towards tourists, but for the most part, Iran is authentic. It’s a home for many people, and it’s not a place to get transient people to spend money. I haven’t found that type of authenticity anywhere else I’ve been. Iran, so far away (had to slip that in)–physically and in culture–from the Western world. And yet there wasn’t a time that I didn’t feel completely safe, even wandering the streets alone, even as a female, even as a US citizen.

While I want everyone to be more openminded in regards to all people, I can’t help but want Iran to stay a secret and to stay as it is. I almost don’t want them to lift their visa requirements on US and UK citizens. I want to be able to return in ten years and find it the same way. (Well, maybe with ATMs that take Visa cards, but.) Getting a visa was as easy as filling out a form and flashing my Kiwi passport.

But I do really hope that people can stop basing judgments of people on portrayals of their governments in the media–especially countries where democracy isn’t quite as democratic as in other countries. Americans are fully responsible for the election of their politicians, yet they don’t hold themselves individually responsible for each choice made by those people. So they shouldn’t fear Iranians just because their government has views on the nuclear deal that aren’t in line with American interests.

It’s kind of a given fact that I tear up upon flying pretty much anywhere, but I was particularly sad to be leaving Iran and especially its people. I’m not ready to wear a headscarf forever and to live under a Supreme Leader, but I’m definitely more in love with Iran than I was before I left.

Milad Tower, Tehran.