While I felt relatively confident Sana’a was safe, I wasn’t so sure about the rest of the province. The agency I was dealing with assured me the areas around the capital were safe as well. To leave the capital, you need permission from the tourist police and the idea is that if you are trying to go to an unsafe area, they simply won’t grant the permit. Going without is not an option, as you won’t make it through the Army checkpoints that block all roads in and out of Sana’a. The checkpoints were serious operations; at the first one, they even called the HQ to confirm my permit was real. They were also packing heavy. The couple of dudes with AK-47s didn’t seem too menacing, but at every checkpoint, if you looked to the sides, you could see pick-up mounted heavy machine guns or armoured vehicles with different sorts of chain guns or small caliber cannons. In other words, forcing a roadblock can cause severe lead poisoning and that has limited the movement of armed tribesmen into Sana’a (since I was going out of Sana’a, I guess that didn’t help me).
Just as I was starting to feel safe, my guide casually mentioned: “In the villages, some people will want to practice their English, ask you your name, where you’re from. Tell them you’re from Turkey.” Hum… Not a good sign. This was actually one of several fake identities I adopted that day!
Our first stop was Wadi Daharh, or rather the top of the cliff overlooking the Wadi (Arabic for “valley”). The cliff is lined with little shaded areas with benches and the place is a very popular destination for Friday family picnics or wedding pictures. The valley below used to produce all sorts of fruits, nuts and other agricultural products. Now, nearly all such trees have been uprooted and replaced with qat, the mild narcotic that 70-85% of Yemeni men chew on a daily basis. Qat leaves need to be consumed the day they are taken from the tree, so this is a major daily activity. The leaves are collected in the morning and start selling in town around noon. By early afternoon, most men have purchased their bag and most activities stop. The problem is not so much the health effect of qat, but the economic cost of sitting with your friends, chewing it, 4, 6 or 8 hours a day, everyday. Essentially, Yemen has a morning-only economic output.
While some movements within the country push for its elimination, it is difficult to imagine how the country could turn away from something which has become so prevalent. Farmers can harvest qat 5 times a year (vs one for fruit trees), and they get a guaranteed daily income from it. I was told that when people involved in transport and resale are counted, 4 million people rely on qat for a living, out of a population of 25 million.
Continuing our little tour of the countryside, we stopped at one of the major local attractions, the rock palace of Wadi Dhahr, a five story palace built on top of a rock by the King of the time, in the 1930’s. For years now, it has been a tourist attraction, although sometimes it is closed and used to host official foreign delegations for meetings or lunches.
While the architecture includes fairly intricate details, the rooms are all quite small for a palace. Sultan or not, if you want to build a palace on a rock, you can’t make it bigger than the rock!
Royal washroom (shot through a glass plate). Glad I didn’t have to use it, as I would not have been sure what was to be done where!
Seeing me pull out the big DSLR camera, these local tourists decided to pose for pictures of them at the palace (it was hard to stop it, I must have shot half a dozen different scenes). They probably will never see the shots, but they seemed happy watching them on the camera’s small screen.
My driver had no intention of picking up hitchhikers along the way, but these guys seemed happy just to stand on the bumper for their short trip. Unfazed, my driver just went along as if they weren’t there, driving at a speed which probably would have killed them had they fallen off. Oh well, “Insha’Allah!”
Arriving at the village of Tuhla, I assumed my first fake identity. My guide informed me that before the revolution, this used to be a super touristy place. He said we would be hassled by touts trying to get me to visit their souvenir shops, and that they could talk to me in many Western languages. He said: “Just tell them you’re from Djibouti and you’ll buy things when you come back with your family”! OK, I did, and the first guy I tried this on started talking to me in French. Good thing I speak French. They were not that bad for tourist shop owners, but since I was the only tourist in town, I got all the attention. The shops were not even open, but they opened a few for me. Seeing I wouldn’t even go in, they gave up after a while.
This cistern at the entrance of the village was built centuries ago to contain rain water. For decades now, residents have had running water in their homes, but they still use the cistern water for their animals and for laundry, to save on the water bill (even in villages they have water meters).
Another village, another cistern, with a mosque on its edge (the three white doors). Here in Hababa, I was Turkish. Of course, the first guy I mentioned this to was very keen to discuss Turkish politics but luckily, he spoke no Turkish at all and accepted my complete ignorance of the Arabic language! I thought it was all quite silly, but I suppose in the unlikely situation some tribesmen decided they needed something from the Government and were looking for a hostage, they might have passed on a Turk and looked for a better target. I just can’t see “Lone Turkish tourist kidnapped in Yemen” making much headlines in Western media. What can I say, not all hostages are created equal. As I am writing this, three “tourists” were captured downtown Sana’a just this week, but they really weren’t tourists; two were students who had been there for months. Most of the kidnap victims have been people who can be targeted, like expats and diplomats. Almost all have been released unharmed, but it is still a danger to keep in mind.
The village of Kawkaban, on the edge of the cliff.
I usually try to take pictures of the places I visit in a way that showcases them at their best, but I thought I would display one unfortunate reality of Yemen (and most parts of the Middle East which I have visited). There is garbage everywhere in the villages. Most have no sanitation plan of any kind, some try to pile most of the garbage just outside the village. The only good thing is that there is no rotting organic waste in the garbage. While that gets thrown on the ground like everything else, the goats eat it all (including all the paper), leaving only plastic and metal.
Kawkaban overlooks another valley, where the village of Shibam is located. Just as anywhere near Sana’a, there are water shortages everywhere. The problem is exacerbated by private wells. The Government owns about 2,000 wells, which provide water to the area (the water is metered). However, an estimated 5,000 private wells also tap the same water. So, if you can afford to have a well drilled, and the operation of a pump, you get free, unmetered water. Looking at this picture, do you see any hint that someone might have such a well?
We stopped in Shibam for a late lunch. Three of us in this massive room designed to host busloads of tourists. The hotel/restaurant was built just a few years ago and has been mostly empty since the revolution.
I am not going to pretend I like the style, but this is a nice illustration of the economic realities of Yemen (and other poor countries). A lot of work went into making and painting the shapes that adorn all the walls and ceiling, but the light fixture is a piece of junk you would find in a “Dollar store”. Things are expensive, people are not.
Like anywhere I’ve been in the Middle East, all businesses have a picture of the Big Man. The problem here is that this is the wrong “Big Man”, the President deposed by the revolution! Yemen has divided loyalties for sure.
My bodyguard/driver (left) and my guide, with enough food for 10 (2-3 more dishes arrived later). I’m not sure how my bodyguard’s pistol would have helped against a dozen AK-47s, but luckily, we didn’t find out, although we came close!
On the way back to Sana’a, we arrived at a roadblock. Unlike the 10 roadblocks we had already gone through, this one was not manned by the Police or the Army, but by local dudes with AK-47s (pretty much every man has an AK-47 in Yemen, although they are not allowed in Sana’a). This was my first and only time not feeling quite safe. Sure enough, they were looking to take a “hostage”, but this requires a little bit of explanation.
In most parts of the World, taking a hostage is a pretty serious thing, but not so in this area. The local tribe, which is very ancient – their name even being mentioned in the Koran – asked my driver for his license. They wanted to see his name to determine which tribe he belonged to. Had he belonged to the tribe they had an issue with, they would have “captured” him. Then, his tribe would have been contacted and he would have been held until the issue was resolved. These issues are village-level stuff and usually get resolved quickly, without the Government’s involvement. This has nothing to do with Al-Qaeda taking a hostage and demanding the US military leave Saudi Arabia. This is detaining someone from another tribe until some stolen goats are returned.
A few months ago, at such a roadblock, some tribesmen decided to detain a driver taking two tourists around the same area. The driver told them they couldn’t detain him, as he had to drive the tourists back. The tribesmen held him anyways and asked him where the tourists were staying. They then loaded up the tourists in one of their own vehicles and drove them back to their Sana’a hotel, over an hour away! This strange practice appears to be tolerated by the authorities. The roadblock was certainly not discreet, it was in the middle of the highway. My guide said the Government only gets involved if someone complains, things get violent, or a foreigner gets held, which rarely happens.
Just to clarify something, my comments are very area and time specific. There are parts of Yemen where getting taken hostage is a very different – and very bad – thing. You have to do a bit of research about where you intend to go, and there is always a small risk of kidnapping or other such violence. Given that on average, around 250 people are killed in traffic accidents PER MONTH in Yemen, the most dangerous part of my visit was, by far, the driving around, not the terrorists!