Accidental Attempt to Visit Military Base

21 07 2008

This entry is out of date because I have been very slow to actually write down the events that occurred. It was on the 23rd of June that Mohammad (Majnoon) took Milushka and I and several other students on a trip to Jabal an-Nubi Shu’ayb (Mountain of the Prophet Shu’ayb). (Though I didn’t know it at the time, this is the highest mountain in the Arabian Peninsula at 12,333 feet.) We left around 14:30 and drove nearly an hour and a half to get there.

We had to go through two police or military checkpoints to get there. When we were nearly at the top of the mountain we came to a third checkpoint. I thought it was a bit odd to have another checkpoint on such a small road, especially nearly at its end. The stop began to take longer than usually, and I thought the conversation was about Alia filming with her video camera as we drove up. (She is making a documentary about Yemen and is often filming.) A moment later, they told us no cameras are allowed at the top of the mountain because of some problem in the past and we had to leave all our cameras at the checkpoint. This seemed a bit strange and none of us were too thrilled with the idea. However, Alia was not going to leave her movie cameras (real movie cameras) behind so she decided she would wait at the checkpoint with our cameras. We gave her all our cameras, and she and Mohammad waited there while the rest of us continued on our way. (We still had two Yemeni men with us, Hani and one whose name I didn’t hear.)

When we got to the top of the mountain a few minutes later, we all piled out of the van but a soldier came and asked for our passports and told us to wait by the van. A bit later, another guy came and spoke to another girl in our group. It sounded like he said we had to wait for a guide. Though things seemed a bit strange, none of us were very concerned because there are soldiers and paramilitary everywhere in Yemen, so it was not odd to see them at the top of a mountain that was supposed to be a tourist spot. While we waited, Milushka expressed a hope that the guards at the checkpoint would not decide to check out cameras while they had them since we both had pictures of us in swimsuits in Aden on our cameras. I assured her that they wouldn’t have any reason to check our cameras, and Alia was there watching over them, so it would not possibly be a problem.

Eventually the soldiers told us to get back in the van. Several people did, but I was not about to leave without my passport so I stood by the door. A minute or so later, they told us to get back out of the van so they could give us back our passports. One man held them, and he would call out a name then look us over to be sure that the picture matched the person before giving the passports back. This was a very strange procedure, which really made me wonder what was going on.

Once we all had our passports back, we got in the van and returned to the previous checkpoint, with a soldier on a motorcycle for escort. There Mohammad and Alia rejoined us, and we began to ask Alia (who spoke the best Arabic of us all) what was going on. She informed us that there is now a military instillation at the top of the mountain and only Yemeni pilgrims are supposed to be allowed past the checkpoint to worship in the prophet’s mosque at the top.

As we all settled back into the van, Alia began passing out our cameras that she had. When she handed me my camera case I immediately felt that it was empty! When she saw my panicked expression, she quickly found my camera and handed it to me. Then she explained that as she and Mohammad waited, the guards told her they needed to check the cameras she had with her and erase inappropriate pictures (of the military instillation, presumably) that we might have taken coming up the mountain. They had started with my camera. Alia and Mohammad had protested that the only pictures anyone took were of the terraced fields on the mountain. In the end, Alia had lied and said she didn’t know how to turn on the cameras so that the soldiers could not look at the pictures. (I bet that if we had been much longer at the top, one of the soldiers would have figured out how to turn my camera on. It really is obvious. Who knows if they would have deleted any pictures.)

As we drove way from the mountain, Alia received and then explained more details of the experience to the rest of us. It turned out that the soldiers at the top of the mountain wanted to detain Hani and the other Yemeni man because they had brought us up there without a travel permit (which Mohammad still had with him down at the checkpoint.) They would have detained them except none of the soldiers spoke any English and they couldn’t ask us if any of us could drive the van without Hani or the other man. Eventually they had believed that the permit had been inadvertently left at the checkpoint, and they allowed them to drive us that far, but the soldier came on the motorcycle to ensure that there was a valid travel permit before they would be allowed to go any farther.

Despite this disappointment and near-disastrous adventure, the rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly, driving through the mountains to see the amazing terraced fields of qat and almonds, among other things.


Monsoon Season

10 07 2008

Well, I believe monsoon season has begun to arrive. It has rained more in the last few days since we arrived back from Hadrimout than it has in the last month—nearly every day. On Tuesday, it rained steadily for about an hour, sometimes pretty hard. The main street that runs from near the front of the school to Bab al-Shaoub turned into a waterway, though it didn’t look very deep. (Picture left.)

After the rain stopped, I went down to the wadi road that is literally a paved over waterway and it becomes a serious waterway, collecting all the runoff when it rains. The water was half way up the tires of the few vehicles brave enough to dare driving in it. The water was absolutely filthy—black filthy—with plastic bottles and shoes and all sorts of stuff being swept along.

The kids like to play in the water. There were several wading about in water half way up their shins. I saw a little girl, probably about seven years old, wading in the water. She went well down the road away from the area where you can get in and out of the wadi, probably chasing something floating by. She couldn’t get it and ended up getting stuck. The current was too strong for her to fight it to get back to the exit. A car drove by creating a terrible wake that splashed her. She also slipped, ending up soaked. As I saw her standing in the water crying, I began to wonder if I should jump to rescue her myself. Luckly, two young men in their late teens saw her as well. The slide down the steep wall of the bank to her rescue her; picking her up and carrying her up the road and out of the water.

Kids playing in the water.

This is the little girl who got stuck. I took this picture before I realized she was in trouble.

Cars braving the water.

Kid playing in the water posed for me to take a picture.

Hadrimout: 3 July – 5 July, 08

10 07 2008

The first weekend in July, Lauren and I went to Wadi Hadrimout, in eastern Yemen. There are three old cities to visit, some over 1000 years old. Lauren had originally planned to go with some other students whose plans were not working out so she asked me if I was interested in going with her. I told her I’d check my finances and to read the guidebooks and then make a decision. Though the trip was a little pricy, the cost of going to Hadrimout now vs. the cost of coming back to Yemen (if I ever had the opportunity) was incomparable, so I decided to go. I read the guidebooks and decided that three days was the maximum that I could go for (Lauren had suggested 5, and the first plan had been to go for a week.)

Once we were decided and agreed, we went to Yemeni Airlines to change her ticket and purchase mine. The plane ticket ended up costing $150, more than I’d hoped for only a 50 minute flight. Unfortunately, they only fly from Sana’a to Seyoun on certain days so it was impossible to go for only three days, it had to be two or four. We decided it was better to have more time than not enough and decided on four days. We arranged with the school to miss class on Sat. and Sun. and to have class in the afternoon on Mon., since the flight back to Sana’a was early in the morning.

We also got our travel permit, which we weren’t sure we’d need since were traveling to Hadrimout by air, but better safe than sorry. When we went to the tourist police, they asked us if we would mind proof reading and then rewriting an English document listing their services as a favor to them. We willingly did this while they wrote out our permit. When we were done, they gave us the permit. The man generously also gave us his cell phone number as well as the office phone number and told us to call him if we ran into any problems. He also warned us to take multiple copies of the permit (something no one told us when we went to Aden, when we really needed it), and he even took the permit back and photo copied it for us. It’s nice to make friends in high(ish) places.

Thursday came and we began our trip. I got up at 05:30 and we met at 06:00 to go to the airport. Our flight was at 08:00. It was weird to see the streets empty. It took us several minutes to get a taxi, then we were on our way. We arrived 1.5 hours before our flight, but as we came through security, airport officials were calling for people on our flight and telling us to hurry up. It was a case of hurry up and wait. The airport is really small, with one arrival ‘gate’ and only one departure gate. You board and disembark the planes on the tarmac.

The flight was quick and uneventful. I enjoyed the view from the window, especially coming into Wadi Hadrimout. The top of the plateaus are all at the same level and perfectly flat. Once, the area must have been the bottom of a still lake or ocean. Now water has carved these wonderful wavy canyons deep into the rock. The scenery reminded me strongly of parts of Utah. Some of the wadis (Arabic for dry or usually dry river canyons) were incredibly wide. Several thousand years ago the area must have had a lot more water to have been able to carve them.

We arrived in Seyoun just before 09:00. Seyoun International Airport, was even smaller than the Sana’a airport. The plane pulled up to the door of the airport and we went down the stairs and into the building. It was very hot. At 09:00 in was 33° C (91° F) and rising rapidly. The driver who took us to the hotel told us that it gets up to 45° C (113° F) at that time of year. By the time we arrived at our hotel about 15 minutes later the thermometer in his SUV read 36° C (97° F).

We checked into a cheap, but decent hotel in the center of Seyoun. It cost us about $25 total for two nights in a shared room with two single beds, air conditioning and a little refrigerator. After checking in, we decided to go to Shibam (one of the three cities we planned to visit) right away because it had two museums that were open on Thurs. mornings while all the other places were closed on the weekend. We got there at 10:00 but found everything closed. Both museums were closed and so were all the touristy souvenir shops. We found a few locals around and asked them about the museums. They explained that they reopened in the afternoon when it started to cool down.

Shibam was surprising because the town is even smaller than it seems in the map. You could easily walk every one of its streets in a few hours. None of the roads are paved or even cobbled; they are just dusty packed dirt. They are very narrow and towered over by six- to eight-story buildings. When American explorers first saw Shibam, one called it the Manhattan of the Desert. (The other called it the Chicago of the Desert, but that appellation didn’t stick as well.) From the nearby mountain, there is a distinct resemblance to a big city skyline. The buildings are tall and packed very close together. When I read descriptions of Shibam, I wondered how if could differ from Sana’a which is also full of tower houses. However, when I saw it, I realized there is a distinct difference. Shibam does not have Sana’a’s distinctive “ginger bread” decoration and I think Shibam may be tighter packed.

The other interesting thing about Shibam was the number of goats wandering the city. It seems that half the families there must keep goats, but they all seem to wander free around the city wherever they want. I don’t know how people know which goats belong to who.

We wandered back out of Shibam to find a place to eat along the road outside the city. (The guidebooks warned that there were no eateries in the city, but I doubted that. However, its absolutely true. Natives only eat in their homes or else travel away from the city to eat out.) We found a little place and ate rice with chicken (for me) and fish (for Lauren) for brunch at 11:00.

After that, we went back to Seyoun. We decided after seeing Shibam in the morning that there was no way we needed four days to see Hadrimout. We went to Yemenia’s offices and changed our plane tickets from returning on Monday to returning on Saturday instead. This worked out very well because the Sat. flight was in the afternoon (vs. an early morning flight on Mon.), so we could sightsee in the morning then check-out of our hotel and go to the airport in the afternoon when everything was closed anyway.

After making these arrangements, we wondered around Seyoun for a little while but it was broiling hot and everything was beginning to shut up for the afternoon. We went back to our hotel to rest in the blissful air conditioning. We planned to try going back to Shibam at 15:30 (so that we would arrive at 16:00) in hopes of catching the museums open. When we exited our hotel just after 15:30 it was like walking out into a ghost town, areas that had been bustling when we arrived in the morning were empty. We walked down the road a little ways and eventually found a lone taxi that took us back to Shibam.

He was the slowest driver ever! Lauren later noticed that his tires were entirely bald, so maybe he was prudently driving at a speed safe for the conditions, but it took us nearly twice as long to get to Shibam as it had in the morning. When we reached the first of the two museums—one run by UNESCO that demonstrates Shibam’s unique architecture in a renovated house—it was closed. However, as we were beginning to walk on in disappointment a man who runs a medal work / tourist store saw us. We had asked him about the museum in the morning, and he recognized us again and flagged us down. It turns out the man who had the keys to the UNESCO museum was in the neighboring shop, and he told him that we wanted to see the museum. So the man with the keys came and opened it up for us. The architecture was interesting. All the houses in Shibam are made of sun-baked mud bricks mortared together with more mud and coated in more mud. The first floors of the museum were left that way. It was really weird to see cracked mud walls with modern electrical fixtures protruding. The upper floors of the building had whitewashed walls showing how it would be for a family living there. Most of the museum lacked any displays or furnishings, only demonstrating how the houses are laid out. There was one area with photographs of Shibam that were interesting to look at, especially, the aerial views.

(Celest & Lauren in the museum)

We went to the second museum next but did not have such good luck. It was still closed (or possibly closed again, the guidebook said it should have been open from 15:30-16:30). It is supposed to house displays on local culture and traditions, and probably would have been the more interesting museum of the two. I am sorry we were not able to see it. On our way back out of the city, we tried to locate a mosque that is the oldest in the city, over 1000 years old. I’m pretty sure we found the right one, but it did not look anywhere close to that old. It must have been renovated and well maintained over the years.

Just before we left Shibam, we met an old man who began to talk to us. We stood and talked to him for some time, primarily in Arabic. He talked about American and how terrible the whole Bush administration is. (It’s lots of fun to be in those sorts of conversations, since I mainly don’t agree but really don’t want to start a political argument.) He talked about how if everyone cooperated we could solve all the world’s problems and about how Muslims and Christians and most other religions really had so much in common and should get along with each other. The conversation required very little talking on Lauren’s and my part, but we joined in when we could. Often it was just to say something in agreement. One interesting thing about the conversation was that the man spoke a little bit of English and kept slipping in many of the words he knew. At first, I didn’t notice because I was too busy concentrating on understanding the Arabic. It was some time before I realized he kept saying ‘money’ in English. I’m glad my brain can seamlessly comprehend such mixed language.

To finish our trip to Shibam we had our taxi driver take us to the base of the mountain next to Shibam, where there is 10-minute hike up to a viewpoint to over look Shibam. Though the hike was steep, the view was impressive and well worth the effort.

We went back to Seyoun where we ate dinner. We went to a restaurant near our hotel. It was impressive because it had a menu in Arabic and English. The very fact that it had a menu was the real shock because they are very rare in Yemen, even in Sana’a at higher-end restaurants. I ordered camel meat and rice since it was on the menu and I thought: where else will I get the chance to eat camel. When I first tasted it, I wasn’t sure I could have told it apart from beef with some exotic spices I was unfamiliar with. However, the more I ate, the more it seemed to taste funny in a way I didn’t really like, so I only ate half of the serving.

After dinner, about 8:30 pm, we were pretty tired from getting up so early so we went back to the hotel to go to bed. Before going to sleep, we made a plan for the remainder of our stay. I planned to spend Friday (the equivalent of the Sabbath) in the hotel observing the Sabbath with my scriptures and General Conference on my iPod. Lauren would wander Seyoun, though no tourist stuff would be open. I would join her for lunch and dinner in restaurants near our hotel. On Sat., we planned to go to Tarim, another ancient city in Hadrimout, first thing in the morning to see a museum there and an Islamic library that displays some old illuminated manuscripts.

Our plans changed dramatically when I woke up around midnight with horrible stomach cramps. Though I can never be sure what made me sick, I think the camel meat was probably not fresh and gave me food poisoning. I spend all of Friday in bed sick, living off black tea to ease the cramps and a little bit of water. I spent a lot of time listening to talks and a recorded book on my iPod, mixed with bouts of fitful sleeping. After Lauren did everything she possibly could for me, which was not much, unfortunately, she did wander around. She discovered that the whole city was really shut down for Friday, giving her very little to do

In the evening I began to feel better and dared to eat a few crackers and some yogurt that the desk clerk insisted would make me feel better, so Lauren bought it and kept trying to make me eat some. Unfortunately, my body was not ready for food and was immediately sick and miserable again. The next day, I felt a bit better, but not up to going to Tarim, so Lauren went without me. (She told me later that the library only had about two displays, she didn’t make it to the museum, and Tarim mostly seems a lot like Shibam, so I didn’t miss much but a long hot ride.)

Date Palms

Date Palms

She came back at 11:00 and we went to the Palace Museum in Seyoun, just two buildings from our hotel. It was full of pre-historic to pre-Islamic to early Islamic artifacts that had been found in archeological expeditions in Hadrimout. They were very interesting. The upper floors had photographs of Hadrimout taken by explorers around 1900 and some displays about the traditional household. The museum was very interesting, but the extreme heat—well into triple digits—was very taxing to me and I had to go back to the hotel and lay down for an hour before we went to the airport.

We had a couple of experiences at the museum that demonstrate just how small of a town Seyoun is. First, when we arrived, a guard recorded us in a log. The first question he asked was where we were from. When we said America, he asked if we were staying in the Sana’a City Hotel (which we were). Clearly, it had got around, at least in tourism circles, that two American girls were staying there. Second, while in the museum we met a man who showed us a map of Hadrimout and explained a bit of its history. As an aside, he said to Lauren, “I saw you buying dates yesterday. You should not buy the red ones, the brown ones are much better.” Seyoun is not a place where anyone, even Yemenis I think, could get lost in the crowd.

The trip back to Sana’a was uneventful. One interesting thing was that there were no assigned seats on the plane. When we checked in at the airport, the man was making up a hand-written passenger manifest and handed us little cards that said we were on the flight to Sana’a. When people got on the plane, they sat wherever they wanted. The plane was barely half full, so it was easy for everyone to find acceptable seats. I was so happy to arrive back in Sana’a and feel that the temperature was only 77° F, blissfully cool after Hadrimout’s blistering heat. Despite getting sick, I am glad I went, but am very glad to be back to what has now become home to me.