30 April 2008

The Frankincense Trail to the Yemen

If I won't be doing a Road to Damascus post, the Frankincense Trail will have to suffice. And I'm not making it up, either--after the Silk Road (check), the incense trail through South Arabia is the next most famousest. Sad to say, it's a bit boring. The destinations, however, more than make up for it. So jump on your camel, beg Allah's mercy, and join me as we travel 3000 km from Muscat to Sana'a...

After the red deserts of Dubai and the craggy crags around Muscat, I was hoping for some "killer" scenery on the 12 hour bus trip to Salalah. I wasn't disappointed--the entire thousand-plus kilometer journey was through one of the flattest, bleakest, deadly-hottest deserts I've ever seen (and I've seen, basically, them all). One passenger literally melted when we got off at the lunch stop. His ticket was refunded to his family (company policy). Salalah, I am told, is the place to be in Arabia in July, when a light monsoon blows over from India to make the place as green and misty as England (and boy do they love it there!). April, one of the best months everywhere else on Earth, is not in. The only notable thing that happened was a nice shopkeeper asking me, incredulous, why I was going to Yemen. Didn't I hear about the recent fighting/bombings in Ma'reb (on my route)? Just like the US State Department's travel advisory warning Americans against all non-essential travel to Yemen, however, I brushed his concerns aside (just to be clear, all my travel is essential thank you). When I asked him, "What is Yemen like?" he said first that Oman is better and second that it's totally different, for example, it's poor and dirty and some of the taxis don't even have doors! Hearing this, I knew which country I was going to prefer.

I woke up at 5 am for the second day in a row (feel the impact, readers) to board the second leg bus to Seiyun, Yemen. Like the first bus, it was frigid when I boarded, but at midday, they turned down the A/C, making most of the journey sweaty and uncomfortable. Why? At the border post, the true differences between rich and poor Arabia became immediately clear. Pristine conditions on the Oman side. A truck waiting to give the strung-out Yemenis their qat fix (more later) on the decrepit Yemen side (I changed my money in a shack-shop thing). Still, the Yemeni officials were the nicest I've ever met--far more considerate than the British customs officer who wondered, aloud, why the hell I and all the other Americans felt it necessary to celebrate the millennium in London. I think he would benefit from sensitivity training. In Yemen. Also--and I am a connoisseur of such things--the Yemeni visa sticker is the most gorgeous there is, bar none; it's big, it's green, it's got a shiny star as a security device: it clearly eats up 10% of their national budget, easy. Armed once again with my overpriced permission to cross the frontier, we proceeded through another deadly and deadening landscape to Wadi Hadramawt. Remember that a wadi is like a canyon, or, more accurately, a dry river bed. Hadramawt is a big, complex on and looks like a fjord, just in the middle of a desert. Much of this wadi's floor is under cultivation, so there were some splashes of color to break the monotony of beige as we decended into it: mostly date palms, crop fields, and female goatherds dressed all in black but with a distinctive high, straw hat. They looked like the mage character from Final Fantasy. There's something else you should know about Wadi Hadramawt: IT'S ONE OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR PLACES ON EARTH. Did you hear that?

Muslim countries are not as popular among backpackers as the Buddhist, Christian, or even the whatever-the-hell-India-is ones. Alcohol can be difficult to find, beach parties (and beaches... and parties) are typically nonexistent, and--this is the deal breaker for the guys--you can't run around boning everything that moves. But it's too bad more of them don't suffer these hardships, because there is much to appreciate in these dry (and dry) places. Of all the countries I've been to, Yemen is so far the closest to that imaginary land of authenticity where everyone is still authentic for which (mostly annoying) travelers are often looking. The people are more tribal than nationalistic, the men still wear huge ceremonial blades in their belts (which stick up from them exactly like an erection so I'm not even sure it's "symbolic" at this point), mud brick is the construction material of choice, and the women dress like ninjas. It's also got authentic tribal violence committed sporadically by authentic warlords who authentically don't want to be ruled over by the state and who sometimes authentically kill foreigners because, like the xenophobic people of most authentic societies, they authentically hate them. In many ways, it's the Mexico of Arabia (or the Bolivia, given all the qat chewing), except for the aforementioned lack of alcohol, beach parties, and the walking bonable. It is definitely poor. It is definitely dirty. It is definitely cheap. It is definitely chaotic. And I definitely felt at home right away.

Back to Wadi Hadramawt. I wish I had weeks! Realistically, it's just too hot to enjoy at the moment, but I am eager to return in "winter" when it's bearable. Even at 110 degrees F, though, it is just a wonderful place--like another world. The wadi itself is huge--its rocky tendrils reach and fan out for hundreds of kilometers into the high plateau that stretches all the way from the Empty Quarter to the coast. The settlements are almost invariably comprised of mud-brick apartment buildings. Big ones. Bigger ones than there should be. It sometimes looked like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, except in the desert and much, much dirti... er... cleaner. Seiyun, the Wadi's city, has plenty of these, too, and also a lovely, white Sultan's palace (former Sultan--Yemen is presently the Arabian peninsula's only democracy) that shines against the night sky in a way that reminded me instantly of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. My principal reason for stopping at Seiyun was to visit Shibam, a UNESCO mini-city of tall mud-brick apartment blocks, many incredibly reaching 8-10 stories or more and most centuries old. It was so incredible, in fact, I actually took photos. Three.

The final leg of my journey to Sana'a (I never actually bought frankincense, by the way, or myrrh) was to be yet another 12 hour bus marathon across harsh and unforgiving landscapes. This time, however, harsh and unforgiving tribal militants would be thrown in for added excitement. Most of the time, this route is closed to foreigners, so the travel gods were smiling on me (or, uh, not) that I was allowed to go. I had to get a permit, though, and ten copies of it to hand over at the innumerable (OK, ten) checkpoints along the way. Naturally, I chose the night bus. We were never stopped, a video of my post-kidnapping decapitation was not uploaded to YouTube, and I still have all those damn permit copies. Yemen dangerous? Pfft.

I arrived in Sana'a at 4:30 am. I sat and drank tea until six, which I deemed a proper enough time to contact my local Couchsurfing host... who never answered his phone, not even three hours later. So. I hoofed it. Sana'a is reputed, like Damascus and Varanasi and who knows where else, to be the oldest city in the world. Legend says, and this is the trump, that it was founded by Shem! Like, Shem the son of Noah Shem! Can't beat that! Unlike its rival claimants, too, it still looks like an ancient city. As in the wadi, most of the buildings in Old Sana'a are tall, mudbrick apartment blocks (or family houses, actually). Here, though, they are decorated to look exactly like gingerbread houses. The foundations are stone, and these are the really old bits (at least a thousand years give or take a millennium). Higher stories rise in brick... and rise, and rise. Imagine that, imagine 14,000 of these magical ancient buildings together, really, and you may have some inkling of what Sana'a is like. It's hard to believe such a place exists on Earth. I'm here right now, and I still don't believe it.

Anyway, from six in the morning until about nine, I wandered--with my big backpack--around and among and betwixt just about all of these gingerbread houses on steroids looking for a hotel. This was no problem, because Sana'a is higher than 2000 meters and the mornings are chilly. I was somewhat taken aback that I couldn't find a hotel, though. Delightfully taken aback in a way, but I did want to dump my bag somewhere, and I sure had that post-12 hour bus trip through the desert at night, really want to take a shower feeling going. Finally, defeated, I climbed to the top of one of the more expensive options I *did* find, to the cafe, and found sitting there my savior: a Japanese man with a copy of the Lonely Planet pages for Sana'a. We chatted amicably, I told him about the insane Japanese guy I inevitably discovered was traveling across Yemen by bicycle, and he was only too happy to let me copy them for myself. He even directed me to the cheapest hotel in town (the usual Japanese flophouse that seems to exist in every city on Earth) that was not listed in the increasingly upmarket and disappointing LP. Who ever said I was wasting my time learning their ridiculous language? Miraculously (oh ye travel gods!), the hotel itself had a copier and even--gulp--did it for me for free! Tourism has not taken hold here, people.

Much of the rest of the day I spent weaving in and out and around and among and betwixt the buildings of Old Sana'a some more. For lunch, I ventured to try the "must-try" local specialty: salta. Not just a city in northern Argentina, salta is a spicy stew that you eat by scooping it up with torn pieces of naan-like flatbread. I don't know exactly what went into my stew, but I know it had emotions, so chalk yet another beast up to my international culinary experimentations. Must-try my ass, by the way, though the guys who ate it with me apparently paid for it, too. What nice people, these Yemenis, when they aren't engaging in communal violence!

Following my salta feast, I wandered some more and eventually decided to visit a museum I'd read about, one of the ancient houses opened to let tourists see how beautiful they are on the inside, too. This is when my luck took a decided turn... for the even more amazing. Even as I walked into the third floor family room, a Yemeni woman (whose face, bizarrely, was showing), greeted me. Startled, I looked around a bit, then came back and wondered if her brothers were waiting in the next room to stone me if I answered her. In the end, they didn't stone me, shoot me in a stadium, or set me on fire, because they weren't even there! They were a figment of my imagination! So I did end up talking after all to a Yemeni woman (my first conversation with any Arab woman anywhere, I think), and she eventually invited me upstairs (like, way way upstairs) to another diwan (great view) where she and a few of her colleagues were gathering to talk and chew qat. Even her hair made an appearance at this point. Totally certain that I was being set up for an honor killing, Nawal put me at ease by shoving qat into my mouth. OK, now we get to the part of this post where I tell you what "qat" is. Well, it's a leaf. And the Yemenis spend most of their lives chewing it (hence the depressed economy--qat is illegal everywhere else in the world, for the most part, though strangely not the UK). I guess it's some kind of very mild drug, but I can't tell you what the effects are because I didn't feel any. But this was another must-try thing in Yemen, so I gave it my best, even though I almost choked at the first, bitterest-of-bitter taste and never got the hang of storing the wad in my cheek without swallowing it. I swallowed leaf, stem, juice and all but at least figured I'd earn a better high for my ineptness. No such luck. But we ended up chewing for hours, they for far more hours than I could certainly tolerate. We were there so long, I heard the Muslim call to prayer from the neighboring mosque twice. I think they're still there. I left when I finally got bored of not being able to understand Arabic. But I left with an entire Sana'a social network. If I ever come back here for language study, and I am seriously considering this (note the now-defunct poll results agree), I already have people to practice and hang out with. And on the top foor of that really cool rich person's traditional six hundred year old house. Really, I want to know: how do I do it? I sure don't think I deserve having these things happen to me. Right place, right time? Down to the second?

Pity that North and South Yemen reunified in 1990 (you heard, right??), otherwise I'd have gotten credit for visiting two remarkable countries instead of just one. Ongoing civil unrest ensures that I've still got a shot, though. My only question is, will it count if I was there when they were still unified? Ditto all those breakaway provinces in Armenia and Georgia: unofficial, non-recognized nation states, here I come!


Anonymous said...

A dishonor killing under these circumstances would be extremely unlikely to happen. There is such a wonderful tradition of hospitality in the Arab world.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

The Steve said...

Who are you people??

金太郎 said...

まさか家のエレベーターでフ ェ ラされるなんて思ってなかったよ。。ww
「ここでフ ェ ラさせてくれたらもっと報 酬あげるよ♪」

Anonymous said...

The STOP HONORCIDE! campaign was launched on Mother's Day 2008. The goal of the campaign is to prosecute honorcides to the fullest extent of the law. We want honorcide to be classified as a hate crime and we advocate for every existing hate crime legislation to be amended to include honorcide.