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)

Arriving in Sana’a, Yemen

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I recently spent the day in Yemen. Not something your average American would contemplate doing these days. It’s not even something simple to do as the embassies here in the United States won’t issue tourism visas. In order to go, you have to find a travel agency to sponsor you and do the paperwork for entry visas and receive your full visas upon arrival at the airport.

We visited Sana’a, Yemen, as a break from our travels in Djibouti. Our host was Arabian Voyages Travel (www.ArabianVoyages.com). We literally spent a day. An unfortunately timed day as an American drone strike had happened about 48 hours before coloring some Yemeni opinions about Americans and our foreign policy.

My friends used words like ‘courageous’ and ‘brave’ when discussing my plans. I wondered if ‘naive’ and ‘stupid’ might be a better fit. The Yemen day trip was completely the brainchild of my traveling companion who thought 1. a week in Djibouti could get monotonous (he was wrong, I think I could stay there forever) and 2. I needed to see old Sana’a, one of the oldest living cities in the world inhabited for about 2500 years (he was right).

Air Yemenia proved to have the smoothest flight out of the multiple plane trips I took that week. I have issues with my ears and the pressurization of aircraft and Air Yemenia caused me the least discomfort. Plus, they provided a light meal service on a flight only 45 minutes long. Those flight attendants really hustled.

Our entry into Yemen went smoothly, and our guide, Mohammed, met us at the airport door. It was about 11 p.m. so I don’t think the reality of culture shock had set in, though the difference in language intimidated me. In Djibouti, one hears French, Arabic, Somali and occasionally English. Yemen was the first place I ever visited where I did not speak the language.

We climbed into a small white taxi, listening to local music as we drove through Sana’a. Mohammed passed us each a bottle of cold water as he and my companion discussed our visit, the recent drone strike and kidnappings. It was during that car ride that it was suggested that if anyone spoke to us, we should claim to be Canadians. Just in case. We were also not to go anywhere alone, as the travel agency would vouch for our whereabouts upon exiting Yemen.

My companion had warned me that Yemeni’s never sleep. Sure enough, even at such a late hour, the shops of the city were lit. Haircuts were in process. Groceries being procured. It was probably more fully alive than Manhattan would be at a similar hour. We drove into old Sana’a and the electricity was out. The old buildings became an unlit maze connected by narrow streets. We entered a gate, walked through a courtyard, and found ourselves at a quaintly lit reception desk.

From there we climbed stone stairs of unequal height to what would be in the United States the fourth floor. The door to our room resembled a cross between something from a castle and a submarine as we and to step up and duck at the same time to get inside. We opened the windows and shutters to get some air. A single fluorescent bulb powered by a generator lit the room. Even with such dim lighting, the room gleamed with high ceilings and stained glass windows. The car headlights from the street below danced on the ceiling in a kaleidoscope pattern.

I collapsed into bed. My traveling companion picked up the English language leaflets on Islam for nighttime reading. He read some of it aloud until finally the light went dead, some unseen figure had declared bedtime.

We could see nothing but darkness and shadow from the window. I finished my water from the car ride and stared at the missing view. The sounds of life out there matched those of any other city and I knew in the morning there would be an amazing view upon waking.

Our first wake-up call came with the early call to prayer. I had grown accustomed to them in Djibouti but here… It sounded like the mosque was right outside our room. My traveling companion closed the windows, as it was not quite dawn, and we went back to sleep.

When the sun bathed our room, we stirred. I again stared out the window. The buildings, so old, stood like sandcastles decorated with icing.

We dressed (I fashioned a hijab) and went down for breakfast in a different courtyard. The meal consisted of local bread (like a cross between a pita and an English muffin), a couple varieties of cheese, butter, jam, tea, and yogurt with the best, richest, most vibrant honey I’d ever eaten. The other patrons of the hotel were European. A family including two children. I’ve forgotten whether they were Slovenian or Armenian or something else.

If I had been nervous about visiting Yemen, it faded.

More about our tourism later…