And when I say smooth operator, I don’t mean in a creepy lounge-lizardy, wide-boy sort of way either. Far from it! No, what I mean is that from first email contact to final farewell at the airport, Mohamed Shaif of Yamanat Tours (www.yamanat.com) was a smooth operator in terms of efficiency and organisation. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Yemen is probably a tad more unpredictable than your average holiday destination, so it helps if your tour operator isn’t.
When I’d sent out my initial email to a number of tour operators (see Do You Really Need a Tour Operator?), Mohamed had replied within hours providing a couple of itineraries, estimates, and a few suggestions about places that I’d never heard of that I might like to visit. He also suggested a browse through the Yamanat website picture gallery as it might give me a few ideas. As I hadn’t, I did and it did give me a few more ideas. You may wonder why I hadn’t done that first but I did try. Unfortunately my ‘Googling’ about all matters Yemeni had been minimal because me and the Omani Internet server were not getting on very well. It took so damn long for the server to access a website that it would die of inertia and disconnect. It had also been a ‘spur-of-the-moment’ decision to go to Yemen and I more or less left as soon as I could once I’d decided to go so I didn’t really have the time to deal with the time I would have to spend in the time-warp of Omani cyberspace. Nevertheless, I got there in the end and what a nice website it was. Now I’m no expert but I’ve been around the Web a bit and in my opinion there are some pretty badly designed websites out there and the travel websites are no exception. I like websites that are easy to navigate, informative, include a few good photos and if possible provide you with clues about the kind of people running the show.
I don’t tend to spend much time in tour company websites that have a ‘corporate’ look or that are over the top with the use of superlatives. I thought the Yamanat website had a bit more character and was more personal than those of the other tour operators who replied so I decided I’d at least book my hotel and an airport pick-up with them to start with. Then we’d take it from there. I’d already told Mohamed in an e-mail that I was a ‘budget’ traveller but if possible I would like to visit Marib, Wadi Hadhramawt and a few mountain villages and stay in funduqs where available. The suggested itineraries I received in reply all covered these destinations and fell within my budget. When we sat down together that first evening in Sana’a it was with a view to broadening the scope of my visit without things getting out of hand on the financial front. Unlike in neighbouring countries, bartering is not an Olympic sport in Yemen so I didn’t expect negotiations to take long. We studied maps and guide books (such as they are) and within a short time had come up with what I considered to be a pretty good arrangement. I’d spend a few days pottering around Sana’a and do a few day trips into the surrounding countryside with Mohammed himself. Then I was going off in a sort of circle with a driver to visit the desert areas of Marib, Wadi Hadhramawt, Wadi Da’wan, then Al-Mukalla on the coast, down to Aden, up to the mountains around Ta’izz and back to Sana’a. After a few more days pottering around Sana’a, Mohamed was going to take me the Haraz Mountains, down to Zabid via Al-Hudayda on the Red Sea coast, back to Ta’izz then Sana’a for some last days pottering. I could have paid slightly more to have an English speaking guide/driver but my decision not to have one wasn’t a financial one- it was to do with me enjoying myself. Although I’ve visited places in the past where if I hadn’t had a guide then I’d have been clueless about what I was looking at, I just didn’t fancy the possibility of being bombarded with verbal information on a daily basis. I do sometimes enjoy just sitting back and looking at the scenery – quietly. I don’t need to know everything about everything so I told Mohamed that I didn’t need a guide as such but I thought it might be sensible to have a driver with a grasp of basic English just in case. I’m not one of those types that think everyone on the planet should speak English as a matter of course. Believe me, I really do try hard with Arabic but I just end up sounding like I’m vigorously clearing my throat rather than producing coherent speech in any language. So I thought that with the help of an English/Arabic phrase book and a spot of mime, me and the driver would get on just fine. I do enjoy a challenge now and then! I left it in the hands of Mohamed the Tour Operator who, a few days later, introduced me to Mohamed the Driver. His English was marginally better than my Arabic but over the course of 10 days we managed to develop a highly effective system of communication between us. We even managed to crack a few jokes at each other. When you employ a driver in Yemen you’re actually paying someone to keep you out of trouble—someone who’s far more experienced at reading a situation than you are.
Mohamed the Tour Operator told me some real horror stories about Western tourists who hadn’t listened to advice and leapt into situations putting themselves and others at serious risk. So by the end of the first day I knew when it was OK to be friendly at a checkpoint and it was best to just be quiet. I knew when I should wear a headscarf and how to behave at a roadside shai stall. Drivers in Yemen have got enough to worry about without having to think about the possibility of their passengers behaving like prats. It goes without saying that you’ve got no choice but to trust your driver but your driver doesn’t have to trust you. If you gain the trust of your driver in Yemen then the chances are that you will have a much more interesting experience. That will only happen if you do as you’re told.
One thing I’m particularly grateful to Mohamed the Tour Operator for, was his quiet insistence that he was sure that I’d be better off in more conventional hotels in some places rather than a traditional Yemeni funduq. A funduq is technically a traditional tower house where beds are provided as mattresses on the floor. In reality the word funduq appears to cover anything from a flea-ridden qat den to a converted palace in Sana’a. So the Hotel Arabia Felix is just as much a funduq as the squalid covered back-alley full of decrepit charpoys in Zabid I had the pleasure of visiting – very briefly. So again, I left the hotel stuff to Mohamed the Tour Operator and consequently enjoyed a rich and varied experience of hotel accommodation in Yemen.
As for Mohamed the Tour Operator, well yes, he is also a very experienced guide however, on our shorter trips together his style was relaxed and informative but easy on the brain cells. He speaks excellent English and is a fount of information on all things Yemeni. It was obvious that he was respected everywhere we visited and in some places I was even given gifts for no other reason than I was with him. A word of warning though to the less speedy amongst you. Mohamed is really into the trekking side of things so when he suggests a short walk, before you set out, lay down your parameters clearly regarding speed, distance and maximum steepness of slopes. The only way I was going to enjoy his comprehensive knowledge of the flora and fauna was if he kept things down to what I would call a ‘leisurely stroll’!
If and when I get the opportunity to return to Yemen, I would have no hesitation in using Yamanat Tours again and I certainly recommend them to anyone thinking of heading that way.