Written by HELEN001 on 19 Sep, 2006
So is it risky then?Well, although you’re not guaranteed to be kidnapped in Yemen, you could be. Kidnappings of foreigners had, until recently, dropped off over the last few years, partly because there were so few tourists and partly because the government decided that kidnappers…Read More
So is it risky then?Well, although you’re not guaranteed to be kidnapped in Yemen, you could be. Kidnappings of foreigners had, until recently, dropped off over the last few years, partly because there were so few tourists and partly because the government decided that kidnappers would be sentenced to death. However, things have livened up again since December 2005 when a party of Germans were kidnapped then released unharmed. The following day a party of Italians were kidnapped in the same area and they too were released unharmed after a few days. This week, four French tourists were kidnapped from their convoy and it is thought that the kidnappers are from the same tribe that carried out the earlier kidnappings. Apparently this week’s kidnapping is because the Yemeni Government haven’t yet released the prisoners they’d promised to release as part of the terms agreed regarding the release of the hostages from the earlier kidnappings. Still with me? If I’ve got the story right, which in Yemen is not easy, then the prisoners being held by the government are tribesmen who got a bit over-enthusiastic over some ‘blood-feud’ issues during the ‘lull’ in kidnappings. Kidnappers in Yemen are walking a very fine line. If the kidnappings escalate and foreigners start being killed then foreigners will just stop visiting. Tourists in Yemen are a finite resource. The few Yemenis prepared to talk about the current kidnappings all said they felt embarrassed by them. Earlier kidnappings often involved demands for the tangible, like the provision of medical care or a school or two. At that time, whilst most Yemenis were unhappy about the kidnappings they could understand the kidnapper’s motives. On the other hand, these current kidnappings are viewed slightly differently. This tribal ‘blood feud’ stuff is nothing to do with foreigners and we should be left out of it. It’s OK to kidnap each other, which happens an awful lot in Yemen, but you don’t involve foreigners in tribal business. Every one of the people I spoke to apologised to me for their country’s bad reputation.The problem some prospective visitors to Yemen have isn’t lack of knowledge about the risk; it’s the impossibility of making an accurate decision about the degree of risk they consider acceptable. Yemen is a country where the internal security situation seems to be in a constant state of fluidity. There’s no way any travel advice website can keep up with the situation in a country where, despite appearances, tribal law is still the dominant social system for the majority of the population. It is not unusual for soldiers, police officers and government officials to abandon their posts and go AWOL if the tribe needs them. Kidnappings have been a feature of inter-tribal disputes in Yemen for years and even the government has been known to use this more traditional method of removing obstacles on occasion. So yes, there’s a greater risk of being kidnapped, or of getting in the way of a kidnapping, than at home but if you should happen to get kidnapped then there’s a high probability you will be released unharmed It’s your decision really. If you choose to go against the advice of your own government and your travel insurers then do so with the assumption that if the sh*t hits the fan, you’ll be on your own. I did meet a few travellers in Yemen to whom the ‘restricted’ areas of the country were like a magnet and their whole rationale for visiting these areas was to have an ‘authentic’ experience. It is not hard to find ‘guides’ in Sana’a who can arrange this level of authenticity if that’s what you’re after. However, the majority of the few tourists in the country seem to opt for the ‘officially approved’ yet equally authentic experience involving convoys, police check-points and armed escorts. Depending on where you are in Yemen the armed escort business is either in the hands of the army or a bunch of heavily armed guys in the back of a Toyota pick-up. The level of security provided for me ranged from a 14 year old clutching a Kalashnikov asleep on the back seat to the entire cast of Platoon standing at a respectable distance in a circle around me facing outwards while I had a pee in a wadi. The kid with the gun wanted R300 for his services whereas the heavy mob cost nothing and they had their own transport with a very very menacing looking machine-gun arrangement on the back. I assumed the second scenario to suggest a much greater risk of something happening to me than the first but this is based purely on my own somewhat subjective observations rather than any knowledge of the criteria used by the Yemeni security services to determine the precise level of vigilance required from an armed escort. However, based on some note-swapping with other travellers, I could be so wrong. Maybe you just get what’s available at the time. I met a convoy of Italians who’d travelled the same stretch of road I’d covered the day before with the ‘babe in arms’ and they’d had two fully uniformed, armed and very much awake soldiers in each vehicle. So who knows?Personally, I think the riskiest thing in Yemen is the number of Kalashnikovs casually slung about the place, particularly in the more rural areas. For some of the predominantly male tourists I encountered, having your photo taken whilst holding a Kalashnikov, was also a bit of a highlight. Sometimes it was the army escorts who handed over their guns, other times it was the guys in the pick-ups who provided the photo-props and in some places you had to practically beat off the hordes of 8 year-olds prepared to pose with their Kalashnikovs. I realise the gun culture in Yemen is authentic but so to are the 35,000 gun related crimes, including 2000 or so deaths, that happened between 2001 and 2003. I couldn’t figure out if these tourists had either failed to spot the distinctive billboards placed at regular intervals along the roads showing a machine gun inside a red circle with a red line across and the words Dar Al-Salaam Org. written in English or whether they had seen the signs, but failed to get the gist of the message. The Dar Al-Salaam Organisation to Combat Revenge and Violence is an NGO set up in 1997 that aims to mediate in matters of tribal law and so prevent the use of arms as a means of settling disputes. In almost every instance where the organisation has been involved so far, disputes have been successfully settled through negotiation rather than armed confrontation. This year, with their massive budget of US$2000 they have launched a publicity campaign which they hope will eventually lead to an increase in mediation practises and a reduction in the number of people carrying guns. Bit of an uphill struggle in Yemen where there are enough guns to arm every man, woman and child more than twice over. I fail to see how their cause can in any way be helped by foreign visitors who pay to be photographed prancing around with a Kalashnikov. While I consider the risk of being involved in a gun related incident in Yemen to be a tad greater than at home in South West Scotland, I personally felt at most risk whenever I was within firing range of a Kalashnikov photo shoot involving tourists doing Rambo impersonations. I could be wrong but I sort of assume that the Yemenis have got a better idea of how to handle a Kalashnikov than your average Westerner. This is probably because carrying a gun is neither a game nor a novelty to them. Whereas to our lot, act as if they’re playing with toys. I reckon the risk of being shot by another tourist is particularly high during the early morning convoy tea break stop on the road from Sana’a to Marib.And don’t think for one minute that it’s just kidnappings and Kalashnikovs that make Yemen a bit more of a risk than South West Scotland. There’s also the ‘qat’ factor to consider. There are lots of people in who Yemen chew qat in the afternoons and there’s lots of these people who chew qat in the afternoons who’re responsible for potentially dangerous things like cars, guns, gas stoves, guns, welding kits, guns, blowtorches, guns and planes. The place is enough of a health and safety nightmare before you even begin to factor in what the effects of chewing copious quantities of mildly narcotic leaves might have on top of the risk of kidnapping and Kalashnikovs. If chewing qat produces the same effects in everybody as it did in me then I’d like to think that the air traffic controllers in Yemen are all abstainers. So yes, I’d say it’s risky but I’d also say it was worth it.Close
Written by HELEN001 on 09 Nov, 2006
About 15 years ago I worked on a research project in a UK airport asking arriving and departing British passengers to point out on a map where they had come from or were heading to. Mostly holidaymakers, the passengers had all arrived from or were…Read More
About 15 years ago I worked on a research project in a UK airport asking arriving and departing British passengers to point out on a map where they had come from or were heading to. Mostly holidaymakers, the passengers had all arrived from or were leaving for European destinations. I was gob-smacked at how many people hadn’t a clue, not only about where they were heading for or had arrived from, but also at the number who couldn’t identify the whereabouts of Britain on the world map either. I couldn’t really understand how people could neither know nor even care about where they were.
It wasn’t until my trip to Yemen that I came to realise that this isn’t necessarily a bad state to be in. Of course, I should’ve seen the signs driving through Western Sahara back in February this year and we temporarily mislaid our map for about 36 hours. I assumed later that my difficulty in coping with this crisis was due to the mysterious fever I’d had since Mali and never considered for one moment it might’ve been symptomatic of a deeper psychological issue. Well you wouldn’t, would you? So I wasn’t unduly concerned when I couldn’t find a map of Yemen before I left Oman.
My regional guide book to the Middle East said I’d get a map in Sana’a and it even listed a couple of retail outlets. Well, if ever proof was needed that a guide book is already two years out of date by the time it’s published, this was it. Neither of the two suggested shops sold maps and neither did they look like they ever had – one was a ‘fashun’ shop and the other an electrical hardware store. After much good natured, animated debate between Mohamed the Tour Operator, the electrical retailer and numerous passers-by, I then went on a tour of Sana’a that you won’t find on any suggested itinerary. An office stationary suppliers shop in the southern outskirts of town was followed by an equally logical visit to the shop in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel. Then a dash across town, via a small stall in the suq near Bab al-Yaman, to a closed airline office, out to the airport and then back to somewhere near the centre of town and the house of a mate of Mohamed’s who might’ve had a map. It was a great afternoon – dead interesting and sometimes very funny. If you really want to see a place then set yourself the task of trying to find something almost impossible to find. I think I’ll call it ‘random sightseeing’.
My state of maplessness the following morning was temporarily forgotten because I’d overslept and was trying to deal with the fact that both Mohamed the Tour Operator and Mohamed the Driver seemed to be taking it quite badly. I’d had no idea they were so big on punctuality in Yemen so I was suitably apologetic as I was bundled into the front passenger seat of a gleaming white Toyota Landcruiser and driven off at considerable speed through the morning traffic. Of course, it’d never crossed my mind either that we were going to do anything other than set off and drive to Ma’rib with maybe the occasional stop for a police check-point or a cup of tea. It wasn’t until we were free of the built-up suburbs and into the barely hanging together shanties of the outskirts of Sana’a that Mohamed the Driver spoke.
‘We wait.’ he said as we pulled over by to the first of many police check-points bristling with soldiers and guns. Next to us, on a piece of litter-strewn waste ground by the road was a fleet of parked-up 4WDs and a bunch of bemused looking tourists sitting on a pile of rubble. It took a few seconds for everything to fall into place. It wasn’t just going to be me and Mohamed cruising through the countryside – the road from Sana’a to Ma’rib was convoy country. Tourist vehicles have got to be at the check-point for 9am whereas the army can turn up whenever it dam well pleases apparently so I too sat on the rubble to wait.
There’s a small shack where you can buy water, but you can forget about a cup of tea. Eventually the army turned up dressed in what I’d call their winter gear and after a lot of vehicle arranging we were off. Because we had the space we got our very own pre-pubescent soldier who promptly wrapped his blanket tighter round him and went to sleep on the back seat hugging his gun. Sweet. I can only assume the vehicle arranging had been for the benefit of some officer-type who we’d left back at the check-point because the minute we were out of sight over the brow of the first hill our orderly convoy degenerated into something not unlike the Paris to Dakar rally. And it was the army who started it.
The rear escort vehicle shot along the convoy and started racing the lead escort vehicle at which point all the tourist drivers started to join in. Once we got off the straight and onto the spectacularly winding mountain road things calmed down a bit and that’s when it happened – I started to get twitchy for a map. Mohamed the Driver didn’t have a map. After I’d looked up the word in the Arabic/English phrase book he’d looked at me as if I’d insulted his professionalism at the mere suggestion that he would need a map. He’d tapped his head and announced ‘All in head OK? No problem.’ No problem for him maybe but I wanted a map and it was becoming something of an emotional crisis for me. I’d never travelled without a map before. I wasn’t worried about being lost – I was worried about not knowing where I was, which is completely different. OK, once you’re over the mountains and you’ve had a cup of tea at Kalashnikov Corner the landscape is featureless gravel plain but I still needed a map. So on arriving at the hotel in Mar’ib and discovering they had maps I was in the land of two paradises! Or I would be once they could find the keys to the glass cabinet containing these rare treasures.
I spent the afternoon being convoyed around the sights of Ma’rib and looking forward to spending the curfew curled up with a map. They were still looking for the cabinet keys when I returned to the hotel AND when I went out a few hours later for dinner. When I asked about the curfew I was told, ‘No problem. No group is OK’. Whatever that meant I was up for it, especially when I was introduced to my personal army guard – he was well fit, gorgeous, charming, spoke excellent English and was 24 years old – the same age as my son in fact. We had a great dinner sitting on a mat outside a roadside café. Even though I was wearing a black Omani abaya and a headscarf I must’ve been slightly obvious sat amongst the all-male clientele. But everyone was dead friendly and offered me pieces of bread, which is what you do in Yemen when you have a guest. There wasn’t much point in worrying about what ‘could’ happen so I just relaxed. When I told the soldier I was an English teacher he asked for some help so, back at the hotel where they were still looking for the keys, me and the soldier settled in the lounge with a pile of dictionaries and some notepaper. An elderly gentleman with a walking stick wearing white robes and headscarf came in and walked slowly towards us. The soldier stood up smartly and introduced us. He was a very important local sheik and head of a very important local tribe and the amount of deference with which he was treated by the hotel staff and the soldier seemed to confirm this. He settled in a large armchair at the table with us smiling.
Once the English stuff was done with we got on to discussing the army, modern art, girlfriends and global politics (as you do!). The soldier had a great sense of humour too so it was a really good evening. I learnt loads of interesting stuff about Yemen. The Sheik never spoke a word – not for the whole two hours or so we sat in the lounge. Before we all went our separate ways in the lobby the Sheik grasped my hand and spoke to the soldier in Arabic. The soldier turned to me and said, ‘He said to tell you that you must not worry and that your God will always know where you are.’ Given that the hotel staff still hadn’t found the map cupboard keys this seemed like the wisest way to approach the rest of my trip round Yemen.
Written by HELEN001 on 15 Oct, 2006
It’s not really called Breakfast Alley but everyone I asked seemed to have a different name for it or else they hadn’t a scooby* so don’t go asking people for directions to Breakfast Alley, okay? Head south from the Post Office in Midan-at-Tahrir along Ali…Read More
It’s not really called Breakfast Alley but everyone I asked seemed to have a different name for it or else they hadn’t a scooby* so don’t go asking people for directions to Breakfast Alley, okay? Head south from the Post Office in Midan-at-Tahrir along Ali Abdul Mogni Street for about 150m until you see a huge fruit juice bar at a T-junction. Hang a right onto Qasr al-Jumhuri Street. If you want a good Internet café then the Ebhar Net is just up the next right-hand street next to the Al-Dubai Restaurant which serves excellent roast fish and other good value local dishes. If you don’t want the Internet or roast fish then carry straight on for a few metres to the next right-hand turn instead. You will find yourself looking into a wide but dingy passage overshadowed by the architecturally uninspiring rear walls of 3-4 stored once modern buildings and the facade of the somewhat scary looking Aden Port Hotel. At ground level, on both sides of the alley are several sort of outdoor cafes and I use that term loosely because we are not talking the table service, co-ordinated patio furniture with sun brollies, cappuccino cafes of a European capital city here. No, this is more battered formica, rough planks of wood, corrugated metal sheeting and, first thing in the morning, a cluster of sleeping people you have to walk round to get into the alley. Instead of a fountain or statue, the centrepiece here is a large leaking water tank perched about 5 feet up on a framework made out of bits if metal and wooden poles tied together with wire. It all looks a bit grim to be honest but trust me, this is the place to come for breakfast in Sana’a. This is where the soldiers from the President’s Palace, the kidnappers, the shop keepers, the policemen, the qat sellers, the homeless and presumably the lucky guests from the Aden Port Hotel all come for breakfast because they know the food is great.
Well OK, I didn’t try every café but they were all doing a brisk trade and the smells were good. You can get omelettes with everything and other egg meals, beans, sandwiches, damn fine pancakes and a squillion different types of fresh bread. And as for the spicy shai, it was some of the best I drank in Yemen. Not only can you have your shai served in a glass, but you can order a double which is served in a large-sized, recycled condensed milk can complete with the jagged metal lid still attached so you can fold it back over your drink to keep it warm. Despite the scrap-yard décor, the cooking areas are clean, the food is cooked in front of you, it’s good value for money and, if you’re lucky, you might get cutlery. Let’s face it, does anyone really need haute cuisine and sun brolly first thing in the morning?
* clue (Scooby Doo=clue)
Written by HELEN001 on 04 Oct, 2006
It’s not that I thought I’d waltz out of the airport and straight into a world of ancient Yemeni architecture without coming across some style of suburbia first and it’s not that I thought that Sana’a didn’t have any suburbs - I just wasn’t quite…Read More
It’s not that I thought I’d waltz out of the airport and straight into a world of ancient Yemeni architecture without coming across some style of suburbia first and it’s not that I thought that Sana’a didn’t have any suburbs - I just wasn’t quite sure what to expect. From what I knew of the economy of Yemen I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to come across too many gleaming shopping malls or fusion Arabic-Italianate white-walled villas common in the spotless suburbs of your average Gulf Peninsular capital city. One glance around the arrivals hall at the airport was enough to confirm this – it reminded me of an airport in up-country Burma in 1980. I’ll admit that in Sana’a, air traffic control was a bit more advanced than a bloke up a tree with a pair of binoculars waving a bed sheet but it was all a bit dated and shabby looking.
This was pretty much my first impression as we drove through the suburbs from the airport into town. Most of the small shops and many of the residential buildings looked like they had been modern, once. In gap spaces between them were the supporting skeletons of new concrete buildings or the rubble of old concrete buildings. Suburban Sana’a looks a bit like it’s being built and demolished at the same time except that the building and demolishing have been temporarily suspended for the time being. The style of the buildings is a curious mix of concrete brutalism and faux-traditional with features such as decorative stucco and modern qamariya (semi-circular stained-glass windows) adorning the facades of obviously contemporary buildings.
Towering over the suburbs is an enormous mosque, still under construction, surrounded by a forest of cranes and crawling with the ant-like figures of the workers. I think its official name is the Sultans Mosque but most of the locals kept calling it ‘The Presidents Mosque’. I was surprised at the number of Yemenis I met over the course of my visit who openly expressed the view that Sana’a needed another mosque like it needed a hole in the head and that they’d rather the money was being spent on something useful like health or education. Although nobody got themselves particularly worked up about political issues, I did detect a mild feeling of dissatisfaction with the President so I was curious as to why there were posters and photos of the guy everywhere. And I mean everywhere. He smiled down benevolently from shop walls, car rear windows, at the camel working the sesame mill, on the metal workers in the suq, while you were eating your dinner and, in one case, in a ladies washroom.
I gather this display of support is seen of as a type of rudimentary insurance policy – the belief is that if you’ve got a pic of the Pres then you’re less likely to get hassle from the authorities. Quite what form this hassle takes nobody could really explain but if there’s ever a coup in Yemen there’s going to be a lot of photo burning going on. Anyway, I digress – with the exception of the mosque; the only other buildings that appear to have had any serious money invested in them are to do with the military. The walls around some of the bases are pretty impressive and if I was Yemeni I think I’d consider joining the army if I thought I’d get access to the new state-of-the-art military hospital if I needed it. As you get closer to the centre of Sana’a there are still no glitzy shopping malls but there are a couple of very modern, in your face, office buildings. Probably nothing you couldn’t see in London, Delhi or Dubai but oh, so incongruous rising above their grimy, dilapidated neighbours.
If, after a few days of the wonderful architecture in the old city you should find yourself hankering after clean lines and minimalism then the newly completed Sony office block is a good example. Of course, it’s the old city of Sana’a that’s in the books, on the postcards and on your mind as you head into town so you can be excused for giving the suburbs more than a cursory glance. However, do not dismiss them altogether. There are many great mysteries out there I can tell you. I can completely understand why someone might want to buy a bottle of water, some mangos or even a photo of the Pres while they’re stuck in traffic but why do the street kids also try to sell you elasticated bandages? Is it just by some weird chance that Sana’a has a suburban street where the only goods for sale are either wedding dresses or car exhaust pipes?
These and other questions will give you something to occupy yourself with on those long drives across the more monotonous bits of Yemen. There is in fact a stark contrast between the old and the new city of Sana’a. Although the old suqs are busy they are not claustrophobically so and there is little of the frantic bartering that usually typifies a Middle Eastern market. With over 30,000 people living within the walls of the old city which covers an area of 183 hectares, you’d think it would be heaving with humanity but it isn’t. I know it sounds cliché but away from the suqs, Sana’a is an oasis of calm. I was bowled over by the areas of allotment gardens in the middle of town all overlooked by the hundreds of differently designed windows set into the facades of the old city houses. Instead of the usual neatly clipped lawns and ornamental trees of a small city park, there were neat squares of spring onions, garlic, herbs and beans with the occasional date palm tree dotted about.
I think they should do that in more cities. Although archaeological evidence indicates there has been a city on the site since at least AD2000, most of the present day houses are around 400 years old give or take a few. The golden brown mud brick tower houses, decorated with stained glass windows, brilliant white stucco patterns and intricate fretwork, are just stunning. Of course staying in one of the handful of these houses that is now a funduq is one thing but actually living in a tower house is another. I was reliably informed that there is nothing in the slightest bit romantic at all about the state of the plumbing and sewage systems in the buildings and lugging three kids and two bags of shopping up all those stairs can be a woman’s worst nightmare.
I was only carrying a camera and a bottle of water up to the roof of the Taj Tahla Hotel and I was struggling. Mind you, it’s easy to forget that Sana’a, with an altitude of 2250m is quite high and whilst you’re unlikely to die of altitude sickness, you might feel a bit iffy during your first few Sana’a stairway ascents. Once you get your breath back, it’s all worth while. You watch a deep red sun setting over the mountains while the city turns deep gold and some bloody tourist starts banging on about how the water tanks and satellite dishes ruin the view. Yep, Sana’a is another one of those places where some tourists would rather the natives trailed up and down to the well all day and listened to the communal radio at night just so the holiday photos look good.
I thought the water tanks and satellite dishes blended in quite well actually. I guess the locals are used to coming across the odd foreigner in a deserted winding back alley, standing still and gazing up at the front of a building because this is how I spent a lot of my time in Sana’a and nobody seemed particularly bothered. But that’s probably because there are so few of us touristy types about at any one time. Sana’a is one of those destinations that trouble me when I write about them. If I, and others like me, rave about how wonderful Sana’a is to such an extent that the place ends up knee-deep in tourists then it’s no longer the wonderful place it was in the first place. Mind you, so long as there are people out there who’re convinced that Yemen’s national sport is kidnapping and the country is infested with al-Qaeda operatives then this will not become an issue. So go now, while it’s safe!
Written by HELEN001 on 22 Sep, 2006
Do you really need to use a tour operator to see the country?No, you can arrive at the airport, find a hotel, work out an itinerary using public transport, book your own tickets, arrange your own travel permits, maybe attempt to pre-book accommodation and set…Read More
Do you really need to use a tour operator to see the country?No, you can arrive at the airport, find a hotel, work out an itinerary using public transport, book your own tickets, arrange your own travel permits, maybe attempt to pre-book accommodation and set off hoping that the army don’t either chuck you off the bus and send you back or make you stay on the bus for another god knows how many gruelling hours. Just because the police give you permission to travel doesn’t mean that the army have to. I really don’t think this is an option for tourists short on time or patience.You can also arrive at the airport, find a hotel, work out an itinerary using the internal airline network, book your own tickets, arrange your own travel permits, maybe attempt to pre-book accommodation and set off hoping that unlike most information about Yemen, the internal airline schedules will prove to be reliable enough for you to get a taste of the country. I admit that Yemen has a few stretches of mind-numbingly featureless landscape but they are few and far between. The country has some of the most diverse and stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen and that you will only see if you travel through them and not over them. This option is best for tourists who’re either limited for time, don’t want armed escorts or have agoraphobic tendencies.Or you could hire a vehicle and ‘do it yourself’ but then the army get involved again and you’re supposed to have a guide and frankly driving in Yemen is like a martial art that takes years of mental and physical training so it’s not for novices and that includes novice travellers as well as drivers. I was told that as soon as a boy is tall enough to see over the dashboard of the Toyota pick-up he gets to take his turn at driving. That seems to be somewhere between the age of 8 and 10 I reckon which by coincidence seems to be when they get their first Kalashnikov. I personally would only recommend the 'self-drive' option to people with loads of time and who posses a deep and unwavering belief in existentialism.If, on the other hand, you have a couple of weeks and you’d like to see as much of the place as possible then it really has to be a tour company. I’m sorry – I realise this might be a blow to the independents out there but I couldn’t see any other alternative. I think you’ve just got to accept that a trip around Yemen is going to be a bit of a compromise. I certainly knew it was going to be for me as a female travelling alone. There’s little enough reliable information about travelling in Yemen and none that I could find before I left that gave specific advice for women travellers. What to wear, what not to wear, what you can do, what you can’t do – that sort of thing. I only had 3 weeks; I wanted to relax after a period of hard studying so I was prepared to turn over the responsibility of organising my itinerary and arranging the appropriate security requirements to someone who understood the system a lot better than I did. It meant that I’d also have someone to answer my questions, to keep me right on the cultural sensitivity side of things and would, let’s be honest here, someone to tell me when to keep my head down. It also meant I could wind down gently in Sana’a for a few days before heading off into unknown territory. Now I’ve no idea how you choose one tour operator over another particularly in a county where the regulation of standards in the tourist industry does not come high on the political agenda. It’s a cut-throat market out there in Sana’a and unless you’ve had a personal recommendation from other tourists then you’re on your own. Just to make the whole prospect of ‘shopping-around’ for a tour operator on arrival even more wearisome, there also seems to be a disproportionately high ratio of tour companies to tourists. There are stickers are everywhere, and a tour company sticker in a hotel is no more an endorsement than a tour company sticker on a national monument. I had no way of knowing all that before I arrived in Yemen but I am so glad I opted for the ‘OK Let’s See What We Can Find on the Internet’ approach rather than the ‘Let’s Just Arrive and Shop Around’ approach. I found a handful of tour companies on the net and sent them all the same open addressed e-mail telling them when I was arriving, how long I’d got, where I’d like to go to and could they give me a rough itinerary with estimated costs. I thought I’d sit back and see what happened. Yemen is a potential ‘cash-flow’ problem country. Yes, there are ATMs (All Time Money machines in Yemen) but there’s a low daily cash limit and they don’t always work. Very few traders, and that includes the tour companies and hotels, accept credit cards – everyone wants cash. My intention was to take enough cash with me to pay for tours, hotels and food and I’d rely on the ATMs for pocket money. About half were ‘no replies’ so that was them out of the running. I thought at least a rudimentary grasp of the English language would be helpful so that eliminated a few of the replies received. A couple were far too posh for me so they were out too. The Sheraton! Me? As if? The remainder of the replies all had cost estimates that fell within my budget so the final criterion I applied was purely aesthetic and therefore subjective as hell. The winner was the tour operator that I thought had the most appealing website so I arranged my hotel and airport pick-up with him before leaving for Yemen. I did arrive in Sana’a with the details of other tour operators as a fall back just in case it all went to mince when I met the guy, which it didn’t. I’m not suggesting that this somewhat random selection process is the best way of choosing a tour operator – all I’m saying is this is how I did it and it worked for me. So if you thought you were going to get some practical advice on how to find a good tour company then you were wrong. However, I advise using a tour operator even if it means just sticking a pin in the phone book (which you can’t because they don’t seem to have one in Yemen)! Close
Written by Languedoc on 18 Sep, 2000
It was probably the British who named it The Sudan, and when I visited there briefly we were told repeatedly that the article is essential. Sounds British to me.
My visit was brief, indeed. The country, the largest in Africa, seems to have a permanent civil…Read More
It was probably the British who named it The Sudan, and when I visited there briefly we were told repeatedly that the article is essential. Sounds British to me.
My visit was brief, indeed. The country, the largest in Africa, seems to have a permanent civil war in progress but since the fighting was far to the south of the Red Sea, we were safe from war but not necessarily bandits who roamed freely. So our ship moored at the newer Port Sudan and we were put aboard a bus bound for the old port of Suakin about 20 miles away. This was the original port, but silting closed it several years ago and the new port was built.
Suakin was built mostly of rose-colored coral. Some was used simply as rubble in the thick walls while other coral remained exposed. When Suakin was abandoned, it began falling in on itself, partly from lack of maintenance, but also from the salt in the coral corroding its way through the stucco. The end result was crumbling walls with doors made of stone or wood still standing, along with chimney walls. It is very picturesque and very sad. For centuries the old port city had a dual purpose: it was the port city for pilgrims going from Africa to Mecca, a short distance across the Red Sea. But it was also the port of choice for slaves being sold into the ruling families of the Ottoman Empire.
We were treated to an exhibition of male dancers whose specialty was leaping straight up, and some performed duels with wicked looking swords. For safety we were kept close to the bus that was in the middle of the ruined town, and when we went back to Port Sudan to board the ship again, we were told to stay on the bus no matter what; an American woman had been killed recently while walking through the market.
Two of the most famous places in Jordan are Petra, the city literally carved out of rose-colored sandstone, and Wadi Rum, which has some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the Middle East. Both are easily visited from either Amman or a ship…Read More
Two of the most famous places in Jordan are Petra, the city literally carved out of rose-colored sandstone, and Wadi Rum, which has some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the Middle East. Both are easily visited from either Amman or a ship in the Red Sea.
Petra is almost unbelievable in its beauty and ingenuity by stonemasons. It was hidden away for centuries and has been occupied probably as long as anywhere in the Middle East. When the Roman Empire came into the desert, the Romans im,ported their own stone masons to give the original Arab architecture a Roman look, and over the centuries more than 10,000 buildings were carved out of the vast cliffs. The Romans carved an entire arena out of one cliff and a wide variety of private homes, public gathering places, storage areas and religious shrines are still standing there, etched out of the cliffs.
It is a long, very hot and dry walk from the hotels and parking lots to the main city, so you might want to ride one of the horses the local Bedouins rent or ride a jeep or bus down the extremely narrow slash in the cliffs that is the only route in.
Early and late in the day you may see goat herders moving their sheep through the city, and sometimes you can hear the herder playing a flute while watching his animals.
Be warned: Do not go into the city without at least a liter of water. I didn't bother and after an hour all I could think about was water. The second day I had two liters of water with me.
Wadi Rum isn't very far north of Petra and if you saw the film Lawrence of Arabia, you might remember some of the scenery because some of it was filmed there. Wadi Rum is noted for the strange sandsdtone formations created by wind and sand, and mile after mile of multi-colored sand dunes. There is a very small village with a police station, a school and a cafe. Otherwise, it is just you and the dramatic desert.
Written by Languedoc on 31 Aug, 2000
Yemen is still the most exotic country I have visited and I would like to go back. Before going, I highly recommend Eric Hansen's book, 'Motoring with Mohammed' as a good way to learn about Yemen while also reading Hansen's adventures there. I will never…Read More
Yemen is still the most exotic country I have visited and I would like to go back. Before going, I highly recommend Eric Hansen's book, 'Motoring with Mohammed' as a good way to learn about Yemen while also reading Hansen's adventures there. I will never forget those dramatic villages built atop hills and mountains, some barely approachable. We were told that a few were so remote and unapproachable that even the Turks during the Ottoman Empire were unable to conquer them.
I was there for about five days at the start of a trip on the Red Sea from Yemen to Alexandria, and we went by bus from Sana'a to the Red Sea, down the narrow and twisting highway built for Yemen by Red China many years ago. It is interesting going down the mountains to the sea because of the miles and miles of terraced mountainsides and the fact that the closer you get to the sea, the higher the humidity, until at sea level it is very oppressive after being in the desert only minutes before. Also along the sea are several villages of Africans who come across to escape the perpetual civil wars, and their villages are quite different than what the Yemenis build, and their clothing is vividly colored.
It is worth noting that the Queen of Sheba was from Yemen, and that they have had intricate irrigation systems for many centuries and are given credit for building the first skyscrapers. Well, that is a slight exaggeration but they did build five and six-story buildings many centuries ago. Many of these buildings are still in use, in Sana'a and smaller towns around the countryside.