July 30, 2008

The great gift.

I came back from Yemen with much more than a window. Marianne and I remained friends after I returned to the U.S. and she to Holland. When on a trip to Versailles, (he lived in France) she met my brother and I am happy to say that they got married a few years later and this September little Fleur, my niece turns 5.

Just because of the picture here and because when I tell the story people often think that Marianne is Yemeni, but she is not. She is Dutch and was a fellow traveler on my Yemeni journey.

July 29, 2008

Fadl on market day.

A favorite pastime in the Arabic world is to fadl, to talk or to gossip and catch up with the news. The men in the picture seem to be having an intense fadl.

Maybe they knew that I had found a window and was lugging it along with me on my travels. If so, I am certain that they were asking each other why someone would drag trash all across the world.
In Shibam, as I was taking a picture of a goat I saw a pile of wood and part of it was a traditional window like they have in the houses all over Yemen. I bought it for $ 25.00 and a blue plastic tarp for $ 1.50.

It was a headache. The driver would sometimes throw it well out of the way hoping it would be forgotten, but it never was and the next morning someone would hand him the large blue parcel again and scowling he would pack it on top of the Landcruiser again.
We once lost a couple of parts and I sort of shrugged without interest but a fellow traveler combed the beach where we were camping until she found them.

Leaving the country the parcel remained closed. The customs had no interest. It entered the Netherlands, and no one looked up. I left Holland again and with me came the window. By now, a warm attachment had developed between my window and me. From Yemen to the Sonoran desert. From a garbage heap to my bedroom wall to remind me of the possibilities one always has even when you think you don't.

July 27, 2008

Guns for sale.

I don't want to leave the impression that traveling through Yemen is without its dangers. It appears to be very macho to be in possession of a firearm, and in particular a Kaleshnikov. Every now and then, out of sheer happiness or something else I would rather not think of, someone will shoot in the air.
I would always wonder, what goes up, must come down, and it might come down on my head, however it always seemed to turn out alright. At least for me, I returned without a bullet lodged behind my ear.

The desire for weaponry must be a modern version of the jambiyya, a knife Yemeni men wear on their belts as part of their outfit. The jambiyya handles are made of horn from goats, cows, giraffe and the most valuable ones are made from rhinoceros horn.

Now that 'modern' times are catching up with Yemen, her craftsmen are are losing interest in making janaby (plural for jambiyya) and that is not the only art they are losing. Also traditional carpentry, polishing agate and onyx and silversmithing are rapidly disappearing.

It happens everywhere, not just Yemen. It seems to have to be the way that we lose skills and knowledge as one generation takes over from the next. The arrogance of the young and the indifference of the old.

July 24, 2008

Arabian Nights.

There is magic too in Felix Arabia. It has it's beauty in its land, its people and also in the refined taste that can be seen in the houses and windows.

We often marveled at what we saw. The fish on the beach, glittering like silver, ready to be sold; the scent of myrrh in the marketplace; a glimpse of dark eyes behind a veil and also entering a room like this one.

It was unexpected and we still had to sleep on the floor but the evening light played through the different colors of glass in the windows and it made us forget a long and hot day
in the landcruiser as we entered this other world.

July 21, 2008

A quick peek.

In the cities many people in Yemen live in coverings such as this. All the doors probably lead to separate 'apartments'. Partly due to the use of khat, which requires much time, leaving little left for work there is an air of poverty. Most people seem to do well enough though and don't look hungry. What is poverty in our eyes, does not necessarily mean the same to others.

Yemen produces excellent coffee and ranks 46th in the world's production. The coffee is earthy, complex, pungent and somewhat bitter to the taste. The coastal city of Mokha is where the word mocca comes from.

Yemen has some oil and also exports dried fish, but other than that the land has few resources.
Adding to the 22Million Yemeni population are many Somali refugees arriving in small fishing boats on the shores of Aden and Bir Ali, where they are automatically given political asylum.

Nearly half of girls at primary school age do not go to school. Two out three women are illiterate. Women are allowed to drive and vote, and careers in nursing, medicine and business are open to them. It is not the law that women are veiled in Yemen and many younger women cover their head but leave their face unveiled.

Yemeni Arabic is different to Arabic spoken elsewhere, and in addition women have their own dialect
to insure more privacy and to avoid being understood by the men!

The country made the news recently regarding child brides, a reprehensible custom from the dark ages.

Cardamom is used to flavor tea (shay) and coffee (qahwa). This makes coffee especially good. I like my tea simple and straight and prefer rooibos.

You will find eggplant, honey, good raisins, beans, onions, carrots and much more in the marketplace (such as a Kaleshnikov or two).

If you want to take a picture ask: Mumkin akhud sura minak? Usually you are rewarded with a big smile. Men should avoid taking pictures of women. Children will approach you saying, 'sura, sura' (picture, picture).

Travel to Yemen is often not recommended because of the very high threat of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, tribal violence and general lawlessness. Travel in the Saada region of northern Yemen is strongly discouraged because of the risk of violent civil unrest.

This was also the case when I visited Yemen (including Saada), but I noticed nothing disturbing however the month after I returned several tourists were kidnapped.
Local tribesmen and not Islamic groups kidnap tourists to make demands on their government. The kidnapped tourist are released by the tribesmen after their demands have been met and return unharmed. Most freed hostages said they were well treated and fed by the tribesmen, who kept them in homes and allowed them to write letters and even call their families on cellular telephones.

Everything we do, and in particular travel, requires thought and planning and finally a decision. There are several places in the world that I would not dream of going at the moment.

Yemen is exotic, unique and absolutely stunning. It has lush green valleys between soaring mountains; clean beaches with not an umbrella in sight. It has gorgeous coral reefs and is enclosed by the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea and in the north by Saudi Arabia.

I did not see any fast food places that are truly ubiquitous these days. There is no McDonalds in Yemen! I do not see groups of tourists following their guide's waving arm, from the one interesting sight to the next. Unlike Egypt which has so much to offer, I do not see Yemen being destroyed by the multitude of tourists in a similar way. Yemen is too sparse. Yemen requires too much effort. Yemen is not a pretend travel destination. Nothing is fake or ready-made for the tourists and perhaps the warnings of kidnapping will protect this country a little while longer and leave the magic of travel for future generations.

My room for the night.

So you thought I was making up how rough the journey was? These are rope beds. I can see my sleeping bag, little backpack and my bag on the bed I chose. I am sure I must have slept on the other one because the legs of 'the chosen one' stand at awkward angles and I am fond of a good night's sleep. I was probably just using the other one as a closet to avoid getting sand fleas and little crabs in my belongings.

July 17, 2008

Carry your cash in your ear.

A good idea
if you have no pockets. Carry your coins in your ear!

July 10, 2008

Shopping and Food in Yemen.

There is something special to walking around in a town that appears to have remained in biblical times. If it were not for the enormous heaps of colorful plastic items sold in countries such as Yemen, and the plastic shopping bags strewn all over the countryside in areas, then yes, it all looks biblical: old testament. The vendors with their wares sitting in front of the shops and the scribes with a line of clients waiting for their letter to be read or written makes it all quite amazing.

For lunch we probably often had Saltah, although I sometimes could not recognize it as such outside of Sana'a. Saltah is really quite good. It is a concoction of onions, tomatoes, some eggs and some meat, potatoes and fenugreek in a Madr (a special bowl). I remember enjoying it a lot in Sana'a but later while traveling around some peculiar ingredients seemed to have found their way into the Madr. Perhaps it was regional, but it sometimes looked like freshly mowed grass and it was just as difficult to digest. Come to think of it, it probably was grass. In a country where there is no grass it must be considered quite a delicacy.

Of course we didn't live on digestives, hard boiled eggs and sweet pastries alone. There was rice and lamb, minced meat dishes (highly likely lamb), roast lamb, grilled lamb, lamb chops, and lamb regular, medium or large. I like lamb and even mutton. But it was just that walking by the butcher shop fronts managed to put me off lamb. The flies, the eyes and especially the smell was slightly off-putting. But when hungry, really hungry, then lamb is a welcome guest on one's plate, so I ate a fair portion of the cute woolly creatures while in Yemen, Jordan, Syria and other countries in the Middle East.

I only had problems once in Yemen and that was once again, not from the food, but from tea. In all my travels I have only been really miserable three times. Portugal, at a hair stylist (English, you would think it was safe) where they served a complimentary cup of tea. Egypt: on a French ship, where I thought it would be fine to drink tea. Yemen: in a hotel (a reasonably civilized one) where I had a cup of tea. The water was not sufficiently boiled. It's not that the water is bad, just that foreigners are not used to the types of creepy crawlies in any water but their own and so the foreigner is out of luck for a couple of days after something as innocent as a cup of tea. This is where the hard boiled eggs and the digestives come in very handy.

I browsed many markets over the weeks and besides the Birthday Cake Mosque Clock, I returned home with myrrh and a wooden burner, which everyone always turns upside down because you can't make head or tail of it, if you don't know what it is. I bought kohl from the salesman in the picture above, in a very utilitarian container, some silver trinkets and sweet water pearls not from Yemen, I would think and a window. Yes, a window.

July 5, 2008


You get to know your traveling companions well if you are with them day in day out. I usually shared a room with J. She was a little older than I, and loved to mother, which was nice for me because I was still feeling very forlorn at times. I was more or less paired with her because we were both noisy sleepers. Marianne, a light sleeper would wake if J. and I sawed down some trees in unison during the night. J. and I were not very good at setting up our tent either and didn't mind if it sagged a little in the middle.

Marianne on the other hand was always there if I needed her. She had lost her husband a year earlier than I. She knew intuitively when I was having a hard time and would comfort me. Even though she was not my roomie, she was the one I felt most comfortable with. When she laughed she had pixie-eyes.

J. and I got along well. J. often had a queasy stomach or something else bothering her. My health is rather robust, and I don't always have much understanding for little ailments. I now understand J. much better because I am now about the age she was then, and I also have more complaints than I did 10 years ago.

In the Middle East pastries are usually readily available and if we were in a town that had a pastry shop, J. and I would always buy some and make tea in our room and have a little party. That always perked her up.

Sometimes one is entirely oblivious of what one does. Only after several weeks did J., in moment of annoyance and home-sickness, tell me that I never turned off the light in the room when we went to sleep. She was probably right. We would go to our beds, or our portion of the floor, whatever the case may be and I had assumed that she wanted the light on for her frequent bathroom visits. I however, would turn the other way so that the dim light (it usually wasn't much light though in some cases it was a fierce bright bulb dangling from the ceiling - feast or famine) fell on my book. It takes me about 5 minutes before I fall asleep, if that, and after that would have no idea if J. had had her last potty stop. Now knowing she felt I was not holding up my end of the bargain, I would turn off the light if I was last, (which was never) and read by the light of my little torch. That didn't work for J. either, because then she had to turn it on when she needed to make one of her nocturnal visits to the little room. I just let it be.

At last some luxury.

After eating dust and a variety of peculiar looking dinners and sleeping on the floor or in a tent we arrived at Tarim and a hotel, although basic, offered quite a bit of luxury: beds!
The old colonial hotel of Qasr al-Qubba even had a pool of sorts. We did our laundry (not in the pool) and hung it out to dry on the roof of the hotel and settled in. Marianne, one of my fellow travelers had a whole ritual. In every place we spent the night she placed little candles and sticks of incense that she would burn to remove any foul or musty smells which most places had. If you peered through half-closed eyes it made a rather nasty little room look acceptable. I think we even found a little bottle of something to drink which made a nice change from bottled water.

The hotel, which resembled a frosted cake looked more South East Asian and we discovered that many Yemeni from this area had emigrated to Indonesia and Singapore and had brought the style back home with them. We stayed two nights in preparation of our journey through Wadi Hadramout and made the most of it.

July 4, 2008

Khat Market.

Every day our driver had an important errand. Even more important than buying bread and water for the day, was the purchase of his daily quota of khat. It's not as if this stuff comes in discreet little baggies. Often it looked more as if someone had done the seasonal pruning of the ficus tree. The leaves still on the branches made for a voluminous purchase and there wasn't all that much room in the Landcruiser, with us and all our luggage in it.
The smart little bunches you see in the photos are not the norm. We must have just made pictures at the equivalent of A.J.'s or Dikker & Thijs (depending in which part of the world you live). Mostly we would stop in a village and someone would appear with a donkey or bicycle
that was laden with a bushel of khat and the negotiations would start. Knowing that this might take some time (by now we had experience) we would wander in the sewerless place and buy hard boiled eggs (if available), digestives (if available), bright colored sweets (always available), anything else (hardly ever available) or make some pictures of a goat or anything that was willing to act as a subject.

By noon the temptation became unbearable and as soon as we reached our destination the driver would chuck the bags out of the car and head for the communal khat room. There would always be a gathering of men and they would fill their mouths with the green leaves, looking like hamsters, and popping in more and more as they ground down the the wad they had in their mouths.

Khat has a sour taste, not displeasing but certainly not worth all the effort. Apparently it is mildly stimulating, because our usually stoic driver would become quite chatty. Needless to say nothing would be done for the rest of the afternoon until dinner time, so we had lots of time to rest and see the sights, which weren't always dismal. Often we would find ourselves in a beautiful region especially in Wadi Do'an where we stayed in Bayt Bukhsan.

July 3, 2008

Not all too different from home.

There is a lot of waiting involved in travel. In Yemen this can be due to a number of things. The driver might be purchasing food and water or khat, or fixing a flat tire. Sometimes it's because there is nothing much else to do but wait. Funnily enough my surroundings were often not so different from those at home. Perhaps the vegetation was a little different but I found myself in a desert once again.

There were some interesting women in the group and boredom really wasn't an issue because there was always something to talk about and even though we were in each others company all day and every day, there was always something to do or discover. Some preferred hiking, while others would walk around in the little villages we encountered along the way learning about how people live in this part of the world. There was time for a extremely sweet cup of tea or to find a pastry shop. Lounging about with a book or soaking your feet when there was a chance were also popular pastimes.

I am sure that I need not explain the role of women in the Muslim world, but normally it is not hard at all to make contact with them if you are a woman too. We didn't see many women in Yemen.

On the other hand I am positive that the men at times did not see us as women at all. How could they when we were unsexily revealed in every way? Nothing left to the imagination, with our short hair, hiking boots, in our pants and shirts and with our independent ways.

One thing bothered me. In the markets, where there were mainly men you would hear a whinny, as if from a stallion. This must be the Yemeni equivalent of a wolf-whistle but knowing you were in a country where the females are kept in seclusion it seemed to be a sign of disrespect rather than admiration to snort and whinny at women.

The Portal.

It could very well be that I read too many adventure books as a child. I was a voracious reader and still am. I had all the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton that would take me on fabulous adventures but there were many other books that offered me a chance to live in another world for a little while. I remember "The Little White Horse" by Elizabeth Goudge so well because I reread it many times and it was magical every time.

As an adult my travel allows me to escape to mysterious worlds that always amaze and fascinate me.

The door in the picture can hardly be called anything but a portal, an entry-way into Yemen.

In our ramshackle Landcruiser we made our way from Sana'a by way of the Temple of the Moon and the Bilqish Palace to the desert. If the names in our itinerary do not transport you and want you to crack your whip like Indiana Jones then a beach resort vacation is your best bet. To each his own.

Of course there is much to be said for comfort, so a beach resort isn't such a bad idea, especially when you are sleeping on the floor of a house that has no shower or bath. There were many nights that we had a communal room and we all just rolled out our sleeping bags on the floor and went to bed unwashed or washed at a tap outside, just cleaning hands, feet and face. These houses are the hotels in the rural areas. It wasn't as if we had much choice and even the hotels in the cities were very basic.

When I left the U.S. I had no idea that I would be going on a rough trip so I hadn't brought anything in the way of gear. Days before my departure for Yemen I bought a thick sleeping bag which served me well. I had a double layer of down under me so that I didn't have to touch the grimy carpets on which we slept. Although we didn't complain (much) we would of course have preferred a clean bed with crisp white linen sheets but then it wouldn't have been quite the same.


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