YemenEllo reader! I will give you the option of reading my whole story leading to me getting to Yemen, or skipping straight to what happened on the ground. If you'd like to read the lead up, continue reading, if you want to skip to the important info, Click me, if you'd like to skip to my prep section Click here. If you are looking to just read about Socotra, click right here to go to my Socotra page.
*Most governments are advising against any and all travel to Yemen at this time due to an ongoing civil and proxy war being fought all over the country. The security situation quickly deteriorated after my visit. This is only meant to tell the story of my time in Yemen. I am in no way recommending you go to Yemen at this time.
So there I was in line at the Dubai airport at the end of January 2014, about to board my final flight to Sana'a, Yemen. I stood in line holding the copy of my visa (they won't let you board the flight without it) dressed in solid black in my fake hijab and abaya. I didn't know for sure what would be waiting for me on the other side.
Would I be kidnapped by a tribe and held for ransom to build a school or road? Would I be kinapped by Al-Qaeda and most likely be beheaded (remember according to our lovely government, "we don't barter with terrorists" when we're talking bringing a hostage home... buuuuut, we do however trade 5 known and captured terrorists for a piece of shit deserter. Just sayin) at some point? Or would I come home unscathed?
I just really wasn't looking forward to what the dumb shit commenters would write on my article talking about my disappearance while vacationing in Yemen. Like how I deserved to die for going there, and how stupid I am, or how much of an asshole I am for expecting the American govt to bail me outta there (I don't think the shitty government in America has an obligation to bring me home, and I do think that if they were to evacuate me, I should probably be billed for it considering I made the choice to go there even with an understanding of the volatility, instability of acting govt and tribal factions along with Al-Qaeda presence.) But whatever, comment on morons that have never left the safety and security of your living room....
I still had a few seconds to back out and say nope, I'm not going and rebook my ticket elsewhere. The line got closer and closer to the counter. I noticed a group of three (who I'd find out later came from Hong Kong) Asians about my age that made me feel a little easier knowing I wasn't the only foreigner headed to Yemen. Beep. She scanned my ticket, and I was on the plane.
This was the trip that almost didn't happen. I had been eyeballing Socotra for a couple years after reading some article with an obscure list of destinations to visit, and Socotra was what caught my attention more than anywhere else on it.
I booked my ticket near the end of December 2013. My grandmother had become ill near the end of November and was to have surgery the following spring in Portland, and she insisted I go on my trip. She fell very ill very near my departure, I had decided not to go, but one week before my flight it was over. Long story short, I attended the funeral of the human who was probably the closest person to me, the day before I left. I'll save you all the whole sob story.
Prepping: There was a lot of preparation involved in this one. The only way for me to get a Yemeni visa was to book through a tour agency, I'd never done a tour before, in fact prior to this I was kinda anti-tour.
I read a lot of info online while researching Yemen and Socotra which pointed me to Socotra Eco-Tours.
I spoke back and forth with Abdul-Jameel and Radiwan via e-mail, they arranged everything and answered any question I had. They even booked my internal flights from Sana'a-Hadiboh-Sana'a for me.
Normally they have you pay for the tour prior to departing, but due to sanctions and whatever the US has against Yemen, I was unable to pay for it before, I informed them of what was going on and he wrote me back to tell me that it was no problem and that I could pay cash on arrival.
Arriving in Sana'a: Fast forward and I landed in Sana'a, I was a little unsure of what to expect once I got off the plane.
I followed everyone off, and stepped in line at what I assumed was the passport control counter. I started hearing my name being shouted. It was Jameel, the guide for Sana'a that Socotra Eco-Tours arranged for me for my day in Sana'a. He was dressed in the traditional outfit that Yemeni men wear along with a Jambiya. He grabbed my printed visa copy, stuffed it through a window with my passport and before I knew it I had been approved, we picked up my backpack and we were out the front door.
We got into Jameel's car and he asked me what I'd like to do that day (it was early in the morning), I answered with well, I want to see Old Sana'a, the Saleh mosque, the Bab-al-Yemen, but I'm open to anything! He said ok, and he began going through military checkpoints. He said first I will take you to Wadi Dhahr to see Dar al-Hajar, the rock palace.
I had noticed by now that I was no longer nervous, I didn't feel like a strange outsider. People were friendly, they waved to you and said salaam alaykum.
We meandered from the airport to the outskirts of Sana'a where we began climbing up hill. Everything I had read of recent about Yemen said that they most emphatically warned of you not to leave the city. What was I doing? First thing? Leaving the city. I usually got an S or and S- on my report card as a kid in 'listening'.... well the shoe fits.
We arrived at the top, we were overlooking the wadi (wadi means valley in Arabic) on one side and Sana'a on the other. It looked similar to Arizona. I bought a hard boiled egg for a snack and rolled it in the bag of spices the dude selling them had and had myself a snack before we carried on down into Wadi Dhahr. Men selling Qat approached us on the way, Jameel stopped so I could get a picture of it.
We parked a little ways down the road from the palace and walked over to it. It was pretty impressive. The lower half of the palace had been carved out of a giant rock, the upper half was built on top the rock looked like a gingerbread house and resembled all the pictures I had seen of buildings in Old Sana'a.
Dar al-Hajar was built in the 1930's as a summer residence for the Imam Yahya of Yemen. It is 5 stories high and has a very deep well that goes very far down into the rock.
We were there on a Friday, and Friday is like what Sunday is to us in the western world, so there were a lot of locals there. When we walked up to the palace there were late teen looking boys doing traditional war dances outside. Once we started heading inside we ran across lots of families. Everyone was curious about me, especially the kids. They could tell I wasn't from Yemen because of how much lighter my skin is than theirs, but people would walk up and say different cities or countries trying to guess where I was from. I got a lot of Lebanon, Morocco, and Tehran as guesses. At least I could pass as Middle Eastern. I am in many pictures that day that parents all wanted to snap of me with their kids.
The inside of the palace was neat, I got to see all the many wives rooms, the kitchen and lounge rooms. Yemen is know for it's beautiful stained glass work which was in many of these rooms.
After touring Dar al-Hajar and a lot of Wadi Dhahr, we headed back to Sana'a, first stop was lunch. Jameel took me into a restaurant. The whole process was interesting to watch. We were one of the first tables to sit down, slowly as the meal went on more people started to trickle in, and as they did, if there were women that wanted to uncover their faces to eat, they brought over little partitions so that they could be walled in for no one to see. Some women sat at tables in the open and chose to keep the niqab on and had a stealthy way of sliding the food past the niqab in their mouths without anyone seeing a thing.
Jameel ordered our food, I had just told him I would like to try traditional Yemeni foods, as I had read that due to mountainous boundaries isolating them from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, that their food was quite different from the rest of the gulf states and the middle east.
First they brought out this giant piece of flatbread. Not kidding. GIANT.
Then many different plates of sauces and stew looking things were brought out with saran wrap around them and you spooned off what you wanted onto a plate and began dipping your bread. I like this layout. I feel like less food gets wasted in Yemen this way. I hate when people waste food.
Next up we went to Saleh Mosque. It is a work of art, inside and out. Although, I don't agree that it was the best use of Yemeni money when the country was undergoing financial woes, oh and lets not forget: it is the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, but still none the less, it's worth a look.
It was built in 2008 and it promotes a moderate islam, which I can get down with. The inside is intricately designed and a piece of art itself, it was very impressive.
Then finally the big thing I had came to see in Sana'a: Old Sana'a and the Bab al-Yemen.
The Old Town Sana'a, and the Bab al-Yemen are both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Sana'a is one of the oldest cities in the world. The Bab al-Yemen walls are over 1000 years old!
It's the place you dream of when you think of what scenes of Arabian Nights should look like. The buildings were perfect tan colored squares with beautifully painted white designs on them, just like in the pictures, which resemble the way you'd use white icing to decorate a gingerbread house at Christmas.
This is most definitely a place to go with a guide, it's a giant maze.
An interesting piece of information Jameel shared with me is the paved roads around the old city. (you can see them in the above picture) They are down in what look like what we would call washes here (think hotter climates here in the U.S.). He said the city was built this way to accommodate the heavy rains Yemen receives in its monsoon season. During rainy season these will fill up and become like rivers.
Our first stop after entering into the old city was to drop my bag off at my hotel, the Arabia Felix, it was old but amazing. I had a nice room up on the 5th floor with a good view of the city, it was a perfect place to stay for your first night in Yemen. I later learned that Arabia Felix was the nickname given to Yemen by the Romans, which means happy Arabia.
We spent the remainder of the day meandering around the maze inside of the Bab al-Yemen and the Old city of Sana'a. Men with their cheeks bulging full of Qat leaves, women trying to get me to come and buy a Yemeni wedding dress because I'd look beautiful in one. The giant spice souk.
Toward the end of the evening Jameel took me up to the top of one of the highest buildings in Sana'a so that I could see the sunset over the city.
My last stop in Sana'a for the night was the spice souk (souk means market in Arabic). It was crazy how many piles you saw lying around of different kinds of spices. I'd be fat if I lived here.
After having spent at least a good 48 hours without sleeping (airplane sleep doesn't really count cause its not good sleep) I was exhausted and ready to go to bed. Jameel brought me back to the Arabia Felix so that I could pass out and be able to get up early to catch my flight to Socotra.
I was awoken at about 4 am the next day, by the call to prayer. I've experienced the call to prayer in Malaysia and Indonesia the year before, but it didn't rival Yemen. It is LOUD! But it was nice to wake up to the song like messages in Arabic coming from the mosques. I laid in bed for a while just listening.
I took a shower (what could be the last for the foreseeable future) threw on my fake abaya and hijab and headed down to breakfast before meeting Jameel to take me to the airport. I had some honey on yogurt. I learned the day before that Yemen was known as the land of milk and honey. Their honey is better than any other honey I've had (I'm not a Connoisseur) but they earned that nickname (I only know of the land of milk and honey because of a Winnie the Pooh episode named that I had on VHS as a kid... Didn't grow up religious).
Jameel picked me up that morning and we had a nice conversation on the way to the airport. We went past numerous military check points to get there and got through with ease. Jameel had taken care of all my expenses the day before around the city, including meals and the ring I had purchased. All together my bill for my day having him guide me through Sana'a, Dar al-Hajar, my ring and food came out to a whopping $100 USD! I had arranged for Jameel to pick me up upon my return from Socotra and take me to do my final shopping before departing Sana'a the next morning.
If you would like to continue on to read about Socotra, click here.
Skipping forward here, I arrived back from Socotra late the evening of February 11. Jameel was busy finishing a day with another client, so he had sent his brother over to pick me up and drop me at the Arabia Felix again to drop off my bags and as we pulled up Jameel had arrived.
Jameel took me out to do a wild shopping spree before I left. I purchased a few jars of honey, a few more pieces of antique jewelry, a jambiya, a traditional Yemeni abaya and some REAL mocha to bring home.
As for what has happened since I have left Yemen: I just want the war to end. It's sad to see such beautiful and historic place being bombed and destroyed, as well as hearing the horror stories, of deaths, brutality and displacement of the friends I had made while in Sana'a.