Tuesday, April 24, 2007

arabian peninsula style

Some shit I got published.

Yemen: Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll live on

I was at my uncle's house feasting on a medley of meat from his most recent hunting trip, when my cousin approached me and asked accusatively, "So, where have you been?''

Feeling like an unwilling participant of an interrogation, I mumbled with a hint of self-doubt, "Um, Yemen?"

"Yemen , huh? Which state is that in?"

Curiously enough, this was not the first time I had been asked an asinine question about Yemen, or the Middle East for that matter. These scenes always play out at family functions where the line of questioning revolves around camels, September 11th, and hummus.

"Well, Cousin Tim - Yemen is, believe it or not, a country in the Arabian Peninsula and I traveled from there to. . . ."

My three-month journey from Yemen to Dubai began with an unforgettable early morning taxi-ride from Sana'a International Airport to my Old City accommodation. Men lined the streets performing the squat-toilet-crouch as they drank their morning beverages and sported their weapon of choice – usually a handsome dagger, sometimes an old-school Kalashnikov. Little boys in suits, presumably their offspring, quite possibly street children, chased each other through the maze of gingerbread houses that UNESCO has deemed World Heritage List-worthy. Women struggled with layers of fabric wrapped around their bodies as they balanced an assortment of culinary treats on their heads.

To the naked eye, Yemen appears to have changed very little since mass conversions to Islam in 630. Funny enough, the trained eye agrees. Sure, the Yemen Arab Republic (North) and People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South) unified in 1990, schools have been built for women, and central business districts have been erected, but the country is not exactly making great strides in anything tangible. Sitting around while chewing qat (mildly-addictive plant leaves that are chewed for hours and stored in the pocket of one's cheek), thinking about all the great things one could do if he were not chewing qat still reigns supreme. This is evident particularly in Sana'a and the areas further north.

My first official qat chew took place as I drove north from Sana'a to Shaharah. Travel outside the capital usually requires obtaining a simple piece of paper from the police after registering one's itinerary. However, travel outside the capital for Americans often requires armed security. My companions and I were fortunate enough to have six eager Yemeni recruits escort us in a jeep with a long-range machine gun mounted on its roof. You know, just in case.

We stopped along the way to eat a traditional Yemeni stew called faseh, but instead of ending the meal with something a little sweet, we wandered over to the row of men selling pre-weighed, bagged leaves. Hamdani, Shami, and Gatal were the varieties of qat on offer that day at an array of prices. We chose something mid-range and picked up a few extra bags to keep our security as doped up as possible. We began to sort through our unwashed, pesticide-laden bags as our jeep slowly climbed the terraced mountains that typify Northern Yemen . We passed slender houses, girls in fluorescent party dresses, and men with qat-stuffed cheeks as we continued to chew and not swallow.

I felt like Ibn Batuta as we arrived in Shaharah as people poked their heads out of windows to see what the cat dragged up the 2,500 meter mountain. Like Batuta, we came for one thing and left with another; an appreciation for what it means to be a Shahari. The famous Shaharah Bridge was interesting, but the disastrous effect qat is having on public health and the environment is more so. See, the unfortunate thing about qat is that it uses somewhere between 35-90% of the country's water supply (experts have yet to concur). And for Shaharah, the only industry is qat production which means water is in short supply. Wells are drying up in villages similar to this, feuds are erupting, and people can be killed because of water scarcity.

These problems are quickly forgotten as you move south to the port of Aden. Since the British left Aden in 1937, the city has become a hodge-podge of cultures and ethnicities contrasting the homogeneity of the rest of the country. Most startling is the prevalence of African prostitutes and the rich Saudis that love them. They tend to co-mingle at the Sailor's Club, a den of iniquity on the Gulf of Aden serving up spicy seafood spaghetti and even spicier entertainment. Women sport a range of clothing from full hijab/niqab to spandex cat suits and dance on a stage to live music. The men try to hold themselves back, but it does not take long before they use one hand to fling wads of cash at the women while the other hand clutches a string of prayer beads.

Most people only spend a few booze-filled nights in Aden before traveling the coastal road to Al Mukalla and then north to Wadi Hadramawt. Sayun, Tarim, and Shibam are all cities within Hadramawt offering excursions. Who could pass up a town boasting one mosque for every day of the year or an outcrop of mud buildings referred to as The Manhattan of the Desert? I can. I chose to bypass the inland desert and continue on the coastal road to the border of Oman . Even though I could not find any information about this border crossing, I convinced myself it would be easy-breezy. Wrong!

From Al Mukalla there is a bus to Al Ghaida, where there is a bus to Oman every day, but the day I arrived. Not being the type of person to sit around in oppressive heat swatting flies away from my face, I found a small group of men going to Hawf, a city in Yemen that was within walking distance to Oman . I must have been severely dehydrated because I actually thought this was a better option than finding an air-conditioned hotel room and waiting for the bus that would take me directly to the closest Omani city, Salalah.

Journey with me in the next issue of EGO as I hitchhike across the border and into areas of Oman that few foreigners have ever seen.

Oman: Just passing through

In the last issue of EGO we parted ways at the Yemen-Oman border after journeying together through the backwaters of Yemen, meeting the drug addicts, prostitutes, and shameless Saudis that litter the country. Now it is time to pick up where we left off – in a service car on its way to the border-town of Hawf.

After 3 hours of sitting in an Al-Ghaida service car, chatting with the driver about the obvious Somali refugee situation along the southern coast of the country, a select group of Yemeni men and I began our journey to Oman.

The road to Hawf hugged a coastline that had not yet seen the disastrous effects of plastic bags and other modern-day pollutants. After a few hours, it slowly veered away from the water and inland to a landscape that resembled some sort of Jurassic Park biosphere. I had my camera out, documenting the lushness of the region, when the Yemenis started preparing themselves to exit the vehicle en masse. I could not figure out where exactly they were planning to go because there was no obvious sign of life in the jungle, but apparently this was Hawf because within seconds, all the bags, including mine, were being unloaded onto the muddy terrain.

The Yemeni soldiers and I were looking at each other with the same expression of disbelief as none of us knew what to do next. I guess someone had issued an agnabi-alert because the Big Boss came out and asked me a series of rapid-fire questions, made phone calls, and held my passport up to the light. Finally, with a shrug of the shoulder I was processed and began making my way towards the Sultanate.

The Omani guards were not impressed by me. They reckoned that only idiots would travel this border without an itinerary, tour guide, or private transportation, and asked me where I planned on sleeping because I would probably be here for a while. I thought I would lighten the mood a bit and tried my hand at humor, "If worse comes to worse," I said, "I'll just ride a wild camel the 150km to Salalah." It was a stupid joke, but I was expecting a more light-hearted reaction than an emotionless, "Sir, there are no camels here." P.S. Just for the record, there were camels.

After examining every shred of dirty laundry in my bag, they allowed me to set up camp beside the road (with the camels) and wait for someone to either a) give me a ride, or b) run over me and put me out of my/their misery.

Most of the cars were so full of cheap, Yemeni-bought, Asian-made junk or munaqabat that my entrance into any of the vehicles was prohibited. But after achieving mild sunburn, a fairly empty car inched its way through the gates. I ran up to the driver and sputtered out some crap in Arabic that made me look as hard-up as possible. It worked, because before I knew it I was on the road with Ahmed and Hilal – a father-son duo on their way to Muscat, via Salalah.

Salalah is situated in the Dhofar region, typified by outcrops of mountains and plunging valleys. It just so happened that I was being chauffeured through this region in September, when the summer rains had stopped and the vegetation was as green as ever. It is a shame the beauty abruptly ends upon entering sandy Salalah proper, because the city needs all the help it can get. Maybe it was the fact that I had arrived on a Friday, maybe it was the fact that Salalah is just a lame place, but I could not find anything that managed to be both cultural and interesting at the same time. Except for the fact that Oman, like many of the countries in the region, is inhabited by a ridiculous number of migrant workers. Even though the country is going through an "Omanization" at the moment, 15-20% of the 2.6 million residents in Oman are still migrant workers primarily from Pakistan , Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines . Day by day, Omani-nationals are replacing foreigners in all sectors of business, even though I saw no evidence of this; it seemed everywhere I went, I overheard conversations in Urdu, not Arabic. Maybe the Omanis never venture outside because there is too much money to be counted?

I high-tailed it out of Salalah for 800 kilometers and I hit up Nizwa for some fortress action. Nizwa once stood at the intersection of an important trading route and the fort, built in 1668, served as a focal point for much of the activity. Now, most tourists visit the fort, the Sultan Qaboos mosque, as well as Jebel al-Akhdar or Jebel Shams for some hiking. Although, such hiking trips are usually too expensive for the lone backpacker, or anyone on a budget. Actually, Oman is prohibitively expensive for anyone not on an expense account. The cheapest hotel I found in Oman was in Nizwa and it cost a sweet $25/night, not exactly a bargain for someone used to paying $1-5/night while on the road.

Even though neither Salalah nor Nizwa floated my boat, Oman eventually gave me something that I will never forget. No, it was not body lice or debilitating diarrhea (I saved those experiences for my trip to Pakistan ) – it was the chance to witness hordes of giant turtles laying hundreds of slimy, white eggs on the coast of Ras al-Jinz. My guide was extremely eco-conscious and was sure not to disturb any of the turtles during our midnight expedition, as any disruption in the 6-hour egg-laying process would force the turtles to abandon their exposed eggs, leaving them as food for the foxes that roam the area.

After staring at turtles' butts for a few hours, I made my way to Muscat to catch the public bus to Dubai. Muscat is the sprawling capital with little to offer in terms of tangible heritage, but delivers if you are in need of some sushi or designer clothing. It is a good place to visit if you have a friend there that can take you around; otherwise, Dubai is only 6 hours away and is said to offer much more.

The bus service to Dubai is a well-oiled machine with efficient passport control and toilet stops at all the right places, but nothing prepared me for what I would find in the desert metropolis. . .


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