An American in Sana’a, Yemen

Almost a week has passed since I arrived home, a marathon of flights, train ride and car voyage. I walk through my ordinary life as if it’s the dream, my travels feeling more real than my everyday routine here in the United States.

Yesterday, I loaded a compact disc of Yemeni music (purchased from the musician at our hotel in Old Sana’a, Arabia Felix) into my car. I opened the windows and the sunroof and played the music loudly, My mind drifted to Yemen, that evening ride into the city from the airport. The music was loud, our host’s English soft and my ears clogged from the plane.

On the road, we found ourselves beside a caravan of vehicles celebrating a wedding. They drove with their four-way flashers, honking and carrying on. Later in our trip, our guide asked us about American weddings. He explained what he had seen in movies and we verified that that was correct. We get a license from the government, say vows in a church if we want a religious wedding and then have a big dinner for family and friends usually with dancing.

These are the conversations I remember from Yemen. They usually happened on rooftops with a spectacular view as the backdrop. We compared our cultures and our countries, even our jobs.

But this piece should delve into the tourism. My companion and I each purchased the guide published by Yemen Tourism, “101 things to see & do in Yemen,” offered by our hotel. Our guide led the way, but the book makes it much easier to remember the names of where we visited. I was recovering from a broken hand so there are few notes on what occurred during this trip.

My chronology may not be perfect, though I suppose careful examination of my photos would reveal the proper order. Memory is more fun. We drove through the outskirts of Sana’a, the landscape a sea of greenery and beautiful beige mountains with those distinctive sandcastle buildings. Gingerbread houses made of sand. Like other parts of the developing world, formal garbage collection doesn’t exist and people use as much of their trash as they can. Plastic and food wrappers (often emblazoned with images like Bert and Ernie or Spongebob) form islands of trash along the streets. Yemen had the usual contingent of stray cats and lots of dogs.

We walked through one village, where our tour guide translated some of the Arabic graffiti. Lots of children, some with shoes, some without, some dressed like mini-adults in robes and tailored jackets. Girls in dresses while their mothers, if out, wore head-to-toe black with only the eyes showing. One pair of boys asked us to take their picture, so we did, and we showed them the results on our screens. They were delighted.

We visited Dar al Hajar (the Rock Palace), an amazing structure atop a breathtaking rock, which once housed the imam and his four wives.. While we imagined life in this tower at various points of time— seeing the bedrooms, the food storage, the grain mill, classic colored glass— from the windows of our perch we could watch the village below. Laundry hanging on one rooftop, a man harvesting khat/qat/ghat, people playing drums and dancing in the courtyard.

We also went to Bayt Baws, an ancient Jewish settlement deserted when the Jews there emigrated to Israel. Amazing to see from a distance, even more breathtaking from the narrow rocky paths within. People, I suppose you’d refer to them as squatters, live there now. While the climate in Yemen is delightfully temperate and not as humid as Djibouti, I found myself struggling through Bayt Baws. I supposed at the time that I was a touch dehydrated, but then my breathing started giving me trouble. My companion pointed out that the asthmatic sensation I was experiencing was probably altitude sickness since we went from the lowest point in Africa to 2200 meters above sea level.

From here, we returned to the old city and the suq. The meandering passageways of this market contained everything from food to clothes, black robes for the women and craftsmen. I saw blacksmiths, silversmiths, carpenters, those who made jewelry, souvenir sellers, coffee and spice dealers… everything.

After freshening up at the hotel, we headed into modern Sana’a for lunch. We ate at a large restaurant where the food was on display and one merely had to select a dish. I think my companion M and I would both say that the food delighted us. He had chicken with a saffron rice unlike any saffron rice I have ever tasted. You could taste the saffron flavor and a note of clove that really made it come alive. Yemen is a hand-eating culture, so it is expected to wash your hands before and after the meal. Luckily, with my right hand (the eating hand) out of commission, my meal came with a plastic spoon. My chicken had an incredible blend of spices, including curry and just tasted so perfect I could not even try to discern the ingredients.

The restaurant spanned several floors. It had an outdoor terrace, some curtained booths for conservative families needing to maintain their privacy and on the top floor a communal eating area with lots of windows. Golden upholstered seats complemented the rich purple striped tablecloth that the staff covered with plastic for easy cleaning.

We had another round of travels through the suq, where our guide lavished us with gifts: a keychain, coffee, and a scarf. I don’t think I’ve removed my scarf since I received it, but that could be due to the difference in temperature between the United States and Djibouti.

We sat with the men in a coffee house. We were the only white people there and I felt awkward as the only woman, but no one cared. The laughter and discussion continued despite our appearance. We sat together on benches, everyone crowding together as someone else came. Definitely my favorite moment of the day. Sipping piping hot sweetened tea from a small glass.

Our final stop took us to a rooftop in Old Sana’a of what our guide referred to as a business hotel. We took the elevator to the eighth floor I believe, removed our shoes and entered a lounge. We climbed out a window and found ourselves on a narrow terrace with only a couple bricks between us and the drop. We chatted out there for quite some time then went to the restaurant. M and I were stuffed from lunch, so we had juice and water while our host had french fries. We watched the sunset over Sana’a while someone smoked hookah beside us and a woman asked what had happened to my hand.

At that point, we returned to the hotel and rested before our return flight to Djibouti.

M wanted to know what I thought at various points during the day and I told him he’d have to wait. I knew between the altitude sickness (and a bloody nose), and I’d stumbled in the suq and scraped an elbow, and a child had kicked a ball into my broken hand, that my initial impressions of Yemen were emotional. But at one point, as I sat in a hotel courtyard waiting for my companion and guide to return from a rooftop, I watched the everyday rhythm around me and couldn’t believe my good fortune.

The men sat in a small room chewing qat and smoking cigarettes, their shoes on a mat outside. The woman of the household stepped out in her long black robe, jeans poking from the hem, and returned later with a shopping bag. A boy appeared in the gate, a man encouraged another boy into the street with a ball, the universal parenting maneuver of “go outside and play.” An older man with a can hobbled to a table, a young child, at the elder’s bidding, retrieved a beverage for him.

Universal.

Tourism is a blend of meeting people, sharing the sameness, and allowing another place to show its beauty and its treasures.

(Our visas and travel arrangements via Arabian Voyages Travel, www.ArabianVoyages.com)

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