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Published: December 11th 2007
The 3 Muskateers Yemen style.
Bombing of US Navy vessels, kidnappings of foreign tourists, tribal warfare including car bombings. This genre of headline had a lot of people asking, "why the hell are you going to Yemen?" I initially put these enquiries down to western ignorance to the everyday reality of this corner of the world. When residents of other Arab nations we have visited asked the same question, I'll have to confess some lingering doubts concerning the wisdom of visiting this country.
"So answer the question Yeatesy, why did you go to Yemen?"
Glad you asked but I'm not quite sure. Maybe I should simply quote Mallory, "Because it's there?" The question mark indicating there wasn't a lot of conviciton in that reply.
Photographically it looked amazing, the Old city of its capital Sana'a is a World Heritage site, it appeared to be the Middle East in its raw state and with a pseudonym of "Arabia Felix" (Happy Arabia), Yemen couldn't be all doom and gloom, could it!
That's enough of the "whys" and "becauses" prior to arrival, now for the meat and potatos of how we found Yemen.
Right now we are spending our final night in Sana'a, indicating we have managed to negotiate
Chewing qat is the social activity of Yemeni men.
Yemen without being kidnapped, blown up in tribal crossfire or coerced into any clandestine Yemeni terrorist cell. Avoiding these landmines is easy because such conceptions are a pile of sensationalist crap conjured up by over zealous western governments supported by a sympathetic media. A bigger security risk is arriving here via Yemenia Airlines. Their safety procedures must barely toe the line with what I assumed were minimum accepted standards, although I did enjoy the sight of the air hostess staggering down the aisle, arms fully laden as the plane was touching down - a balancing act that should earn her a spot in the Yemeni Olympic gymnastics team.
Outside the 4 walls of the arrivals terminal and western tourists adopt immediate celebrity status. Tourists are still thin enough on the ground for the locals to consider us something of a novelty. The Yemeni are the most effusively welcoming people imaginable, perhaps even more so than the Syrians.
Apart from that, another thing of which the Yemeni are particularly competent is breeding. The next time you hear a mother complain about the difficulties of raising 4 children, you have my permission to laugh in her face, then tell her to come
Old fellas discussing the inconsequential. Can you believe the price of qat these days?
back and speak to you when she has 24 to tend. When we met a Yemeni woman who wears that "badge of honour" I assumed it must be some type of record. That was until Ali the Customs Officer told me about his 21 brothers and 3 sisters! Raised the bid by 1!
You'd think with that many potential young Muslims running around there wouldn't be a lot of call for an Islamic recruitment plan. Wrong again! We've been approached a couple of times, most amicably, about the possibility of spiritual conversion. Nice try but they were barking up the wrong tree with these 2 infidels.
Yemen also provides great bang for your buck. Once you've arrived, this is a bargain basement destination. It's unadulterated Arabia, ruggedly beautiful and a simple travel pleasure. From the aforementioned Old City of Sana'a and its unique architecture, to trekking in the surrounding mountains and villages, on to the Wadi Hadramawt in the middle of the desert, replete with its incredible mud cities. We have barely scratched the surface but come away damn impressed.
Does that mean I would give Yemen my seal of recommendation? To the discerning traveller, an absolute MUST. Just don't
The old city at dusk
be put off by western travel warnings. Your main safety issue here is asphyxiation inside a "shared" taxi where the driver seems intent on getting his name into the Guiness Book of Records for squeezing the greatest number of people into a Datsun 180B. Other than that, fear not fellow travellers.
Yemen, a population of 23 million, a country 3/4 the size of France. Yemen has apparently the highest growth rate with 47% of its population under 15 years of age. That's no surprise given every person you speak to (taxi drivers, hotel workers, strangers in the street etc.) have 7+ children, many families 18 - 24!
Tourism is still in its infancy. The infrastructure is not really developed to handle mass tourism. Firstly, we needed to obtain a travel permit to travel around the country. Quite easy to obtain and it is apparently for our security not to hinder where we wish to travel. Deciding where we wanted to visit was quite easy, the hard part is getting there. There is no train or bus system. To travel anywhere, short or long distance is by either hiring a private taxi and negotiating a price, not overly expensive,
but at least 500% dearer than a shared taxi. The shared taxis's congregate in specific areas depending on the destination and leave once they are full. That means 8-9 passengers in a car that would normally hold no more than 5 passengers , but they are cheap. The taxis themselves are old and battered and should have been put on the rubbish heap 10 years ago. Travelling by shared taxi in the afternoon is an even more rapid journey as the local custom is to chew qat after lunch. Qat are leaves, stuffed into the cheek and chewed endlessly. Qat is highly addictive and apparently supresses the appetite and prevents you from sleeping. Men in the afternoon tend to look stoned and when they drive it is even more erratic than in the morning.
The other hazard for tourists is that there are few places set up as restaurants or cafes. The few that do exist are full of the local men - never the women, The women only eat in their homes. As a tourist we have constantly been invited into people's homes to share the family meal - on the floor around in a circle , no cutlery
Old guy who sold Penny a jawira - the ceremonial knife carried by most Yemeni men.
or plates, just hands (right hand) in the one pot or selection of dishes. Our first day in Sana'a we walked around the souq and came across a group of men sitting on plastic sheeting on the street who called us over to join them. No amount of polite "no's" or "no thank you" sufficed. The next thing we were plonked down amongst them and a large chunk of flat bread thrust into our hands. How do you explain to a group of Arabic men, who speak limited english (hello, what is your name, where are you from) who are gestering you to hook into the food that you are a vegetarian. No amount of sign language, or refusal was accepted, so the next thing I know I am dipping my chunk of bread into the pot of hot lamb stew. Gary looking on sympathetically and smiling. I managed a few gulp fulls, enough for the men to polish the rest off. It was a rather unique meal, sitting on the roadside, crosslegged on plastic, around a pot of lamb stew with 10 pairs of hands grabbing and chewing at once. Many other similar meals followed. I am definitely going
The unique architecture of the old city of Sana'a
back yo yoga when I get home, as sitting crossed legged is killing my knees.
Yemen has been a fascinating destination. Sana'a is the capital and according to legend was built by the son of Noah. It is also the main trading area for frankincence. The architecture is as it was hundreds of years ago, with its stained glass windows and mud coloured walls and white painted trims. Shibam to the east is a city made of mud bricks, 6-7 storeys high, nicknamed the Manhatten of the desert. It is such an interesting country, very much cut off from the outside world for many years. It is underdeveloped which is its charm. Walking though the souqs you see primitive daily life. In one doorway we saw a camel walking in circles grinding olives making oil that the women use on their skin. In another, the bread ovens and the smell of fresh bread baking.
It is a very photogenic location, with the men and children being willing subjects. The women very much against any photograhs - as if you could tell who they were since only their eyes are visible.
Yemen has been a short and sweet destination. I've enjoyed
No, it's not a nightgown.
the warmer weather, which brought us one hour closer to Australian time. We have less than 4 weeks to go and still 4 more countries to cover.
More images at: www.colvinyeates.zenfolio.com
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