Monday, January 21, 2008
Yemen - Oman Dec 2007-Jan 2008
Two weeks in Yemen and six days in Oman, that was the schedule. Starting in Sana’a and actually, ending in Dubai. The travel in Yemen was part of an Imaginative Traveler tour, one of the first they’d sponsored since 1999 when some Explore tourists had been killed in a shoot out with their abductors and the Army. This hadn’t stopped some Italian and French groups from continuing to tour about, but did put a brake on the Brits until this past year.
I signed up for Christmas and New Years in Yemen the minute I saw the announcement. And no regrets!
(I should note that less than a week following my return, the SF Chronicle had a news piece about suspected al Qaeda militants shooting at a convoy of tourists in Wadi Hadramuwt, killing two Belgians and a Yemeni driver. Three weeks before, I was there! I suspect it was less al Qaeda and more a tribal issue with the tourists in the way)
Yemen is the poor man of the Middle East. It reminded me of Albania: the people were welcoming and full of spirit (and qat - a leafy stimulant chewed by the men) but the infrastructure was kaput. It impressed me as still a tribal society despite 21st Century television, computers and weapons.
And as in Albania, they hadn’t figured out what to do about the trash. Villages were overwhelmed with plastic sacks and wrappings atop plastic sacks and wrappings. But you could overlook this, what with scenery of unparalleled beauty with some areas comparable to the Grand Canyon.
We were a group of twelve: two Americans, a Swiss, a Norwegian, a Welshman, three Aussies and the rest Brits. We had a magnificent Egyptian tour leader who kept things going, necessary as we had bad luck in local guides. We started and ended in the capital city, Sana’a which boasted an active old town medina with art and crafts museums housed in a traditional tower houses.
Women were all covered, mainly in in black including most of the face, relieved with a few multicolored abas, left over from an old tradition. The men were either in a long dress or a wrap around skirt, with an elaborate belt holding a curved knife topped with a standard suit jacket. Scarves or turbans, often red and white checkered Bedouin ones completed the dress. Few were in Western dress, most often younger males.
From Sana’a, we flew into Wadi Hadramawt, a 200 km valley in Eastern Yemen. We stayed in Sayun for three nights, while driving around to the UNESCO protected city of Shibam and the palaces and mosques of Tarim. I was fascinated with Tarim’s manuscript library used by Arabic scholars both then and now; we also snuck into the Aynot Cemetery where visitors were quite unwelcome. In Sayun itself was a the old Sultan’s Palace which had been converted to a museum. While it contained the usual archaeological items, it also had a marvelous collections of photos including some by Freya Stark. Christmas Day was in Seyun, celebrated with roasted goat (tough and stringy) followed by local music and dance. Accommodations was really excellent in what was reputed to be the best place in town.
Drove down the Wadi, finally ending up at the port city of Al Mukalla, where we acquired an Army escort to Aden. Great discussion whether to road from Bir Ali, a beach area, to Aden was safe what with local disturbances. Finally, off we went, four Land Rovers led by a Toyota pickup with a Kalishnakov mounted in the rear carrying seven young qat chewing soldiers. A wild ride. Reportedly the disturbers of the peace liked to a) take a pop at each other, b) shoot a couple of soldiers and c) capture a few tourists for ransom. We were two of the three; I figured we might do better on our own but, not my decision. Aside: if I had the Toyota franchise for Yemen, I’d be a wealthy woman - often old and beat up, they were ubiquitous.
We did get to Aden safely, the city where Noah’s ark may have been built and launched and the US Cole was attacked. We wandered about a series cisterns/reservoirs which could date from the First Century, spent a bit of time in one of the museums, the Arabian Sea Promenade and finally, a restaurant around the corner from the hotel with the best bread I’ve ever eaten. Flat bread cooked along the side of a hot, hot kettle. Ahh!
In the evening, one of the guys from the group and I ended up at a wedding celebration, held in a secluded part of the public sidewalk. Musicians with PA system: drums, sitar and other unknown tome instruments with two rather athletic dancers performed before a all male (except for me and a three year who was with her father - or at least, I think/hope it was her father) gathering. Surprisingly, I was welcomed and eventually was in one of the front rows of sitters as opposed to the standees. Wonderful seemingly impromptu performance - though everyone appeared familiar with the music and ritualistic hand clapping.
Ta’izz was our next stop, after exploring the old cities of Ibb - a city with buildings of 550-1000 years old still in use - and Jubla - famous for its qat souk. . As we walked about, we were accompanied by a cadre of urchins, eager to give information and to ask for money or pens; tourists had obviously passed this way before. I did get to stick my head into a girls’ school, a bit unique for women play such a minute role in public life.
New Year’s Eve was in Al Mokha, a seaside resort of sorts. Some hardy souls stayed up through midnight, dancing to someone’s wind instrument and drum in an ocean side cabana. Here we acquired our last local guide; the two previous ones had been totally inept and had been returned to sender.
From here it was two nights in an 11th Century mountain top village, Al-Hajjarah, staying with several other tour groups (French and Italian) in the local funduq (guesthouse). Communal sleeping arrangements (six of us in our room) on mats with six shared toilet-shower combinations for some thirty of us. Two Western toilets and two showers with hot water.
After the evening meal, there was music and dancing - both of a higher caliber that we’d previously experienced. And it was a participatory experience. During this time in the mountains, we walked around villages clinging to the mountain sides, climbed up to a hilltop mosque, saw the terraced mountain sides but continuing to step over and around the plastic sacks and trash left over recent years. Great hiking country.
Coming off a rather hairy detour - and there seemed more detours than roads in the mountains - we were blocked by a gathering: two young Muslim bridegrooms with decorated turbans and magnificently carved silver scabbards over their swords, a honor guard of two Uzi toting friends with another dozen buddies dancing to the best of drummers seated in the back of a Toyota pickup. Naturally, our drivers stopped and joined the dancing. Periodically, there were bursts of fire from the Uzis, friendly celebratory fire.
We finally did get to Kawkaban, an old fortified mountain top village, The hotel was an original with few modifications from the old days. More charm than convenience. The next morning, some of us hiked down a steep path to Shibam (another Shibam, not related to the Wadi Hadramawt Shibam) and Friday Market. From there to the old Inman’s palace at Wadi Dhar, now a museum of sorts. And another lovely view. And then Sana’a. And home - or the next destination on one’s agenda.
Normally, accommodations were pretty basic. Most times we had hot water, most times we had a Western toilet: But not always. You vamped. But other than the funduq, there were beds. Food was soup, rice, veggies (mostly potatoes), salad (tomatoes and cucumbers), bread with chicken, fish, camel, or goat. Toward the end, we were also offered spaghetti - the Italian influence I guess.
My next stop was Muscat, Oman via Dubai. On the Sana’a-Dubai flight, I was seated next to a German, forty years in the US. He was aa academic who consulted on planning and economic issues for the UN and various NGOs. We talked non stop the entire trip for he had been all over the world in one capacity or another. Fascinating man!
Originally I was to be on a eight day sea trek but that didn’t come about as not enough signed on. So I went on my own to Muscat. I contacted a travel agent there for hotel and day tours. And Oman is another world from Yemen even though they are next door to each other: neat , modern and tidy. My hotel was a righteous 3* facility with swimming pool, conference rooms, several restaurants and a work out room. Clean sheets, a bath tub and hot water. A distinct change from a mat on the floor and squat toilets. And after intense relationships in a group of twelve, being alone was a relief. And no head scarf was required.
I did a half day city tour and then two day long tours: one to the Jebels Shams (mountain area) and the other to the Sands (desert area). I had hope to take sunset dhow cruise, but that wasn’t to be. I did take the local bus from Muscat to Dubai (where I wouldcatch my flight home) so I could see more of the countryside - wasn’t sure about the bus ticket for the agent’s ability in English was only exceeded by my ability in Arabic. But it worked out.
Touring about Muscat, I found it reminiscent of Singapore. Well maintained streets, landscaped with art objects decorating the roundabouts. Buildings were white. Most autos were white. Everything clean and maintained. Cabs had orange trim, owned by the drivers who took meticulous care of them and all dressed in long gown (no belt and knife) with a pill box hat. Coming in from the airport, I felt I had limo service rather than a simple taxi.
Muscat is sprawled out. I was staying in Ruwi, an rather commercial area labeled “Little India” by Lonely Planet. I did get to the Grand Mosque, the Walled City, the Sultan’s Palace, the fish market and the souq. My driver took me to several resort hotels and the row of embassies (no photos or else!) Development obviously has been thoughtfully planned; there are no out of character high rises and I saw no poverty.
The next day, I took off for Nizwa - impressed with the Fort which sported an old cannon donated by the City of Boston - never figured out which old cannon though. Then we took off for the Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain. ( I didn’t get to Jebel Akhdar where the British SAS fought rebels on behalf of the government in the 1950s and where they are great walking paths. Another time.) Jebel Shams were quite spectactular however; with dirt roads that barely clung to the mountain sides. There was a section that was compared to the Grand Canyon; where had I heard that before. But it was breath taking.
My other day out was to the Wahiba Sands, home to Bedouins and their racing camels - got several photos of the camels and did see the racing rack. Then to the tell dunes. Drive almost straight up and then a vertical down, At times I suspect the driver was testing me; he kept asking how I was doing. Or testing his Land Rover. He didn’t know he had the Sky Diving Kid! At the end, drove into a secluded Oasis - don’t know the name of it - but it was peaceful and lovely with water and greenery all about. A distinct change from the sandy desert.
My last day,unfortunately, was a religious holiday, Muslin New Year, which meant museums were closed,. I did get into the the Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum which was a delight. An old royal summer home used as the headquarters for the armed forces,, it is one of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen. They have a marvelous collection of well cared for weapons, from days of yore to the present Fortunately, I was able to wander about on my own though LP indicates there is a mandatory military escort. I must have looked harmless.
The lower floor has artifacts and information from Oman’s early days while the second floor starts with the current Sultan, a Sandhurst graduate who served with the British Army before inheriting Oman from his father (with the help of the Brits whose involvement is not mentioned in any of the write ups at the museum),
In the 30-odd years Sultan Qaboos been in power, he has - from all I saw - done an excellent job of bringing Oman into the 21st Century without sacrificing the cultural foundation of the country. While there are expat workers, eg Indians and Paki, he is determined to Omanize the work force. Certainly Oman impressed me as the opposite of the tribal and poor and chaotic society of Yemen.
From there I had lunch with an Australian woman I had met in Yemen, who is on a two year contact, teaching core subjects to girls in a local Muslim school. Hope to keep in touch with her. Then walked about a bit before packing up for the 7 AM bus to Dubai.
So off to Dubai on the early morning bus with no other Westerners, five other woman and half a bus load of guys, mostly Indian. I got a good look at local towns as we went past; a pit stop was made at a new fast food place with immaculate facilities; it took a bit to get through United Arab Emirates customs. But in about five hours, we were in Dubai.
The stop (not a depot as in Muscat) was walking distance to my hotel but! Construction was going on and the path to the hotel was blocked. I had to go up and over two metal barriers; I was helped by a gentleman holding my carry on as I and a conservatively dressed Muslin woman crawled across. Then to the hotel, selected as a reasonably priced and located 2* on the Internet. Wasn’t sure what to expect. The Regent Hotel turned out to be charming, with a delightful cafe , much more a 3* place. I made arrangements for a $55 half day tour of Dubai the following day since I would be there two nights. The hotel was in the al Riggia area, which had high rises and hotels galore.
In fact, all of Dubai would do well in Las Vegas. Lots of high rises and no class. Something like 25 shopping malls, including one with skiing and ice skating in an enclosed area. In the half day tour, I saw little of charm and lots of glitz. Workers, mainly expat Philipinos, Indians and Pakistanis, are crowded in high rise flats, similar to Hong Kong. Dubai is not my kind of place - but then, neither is Las Vegas.
What I did enjoy were the five five simultaneous cricket matches occurring on a vacant parking lot near my hotel. I never understood cricket but was interested in watching the players. And there was an authentic old residence hidden amidst the high rises - it was the only one I saw.
The Yemen tour was arranged through Adventure Center (800-227-8747) which with a discount, cost me $2377 and often included several meals daily. Local charges were $440 with a $65 tips kitty. Also tipped the tour guide, who was absolutely superb, $100 and spent about $200 on meals and sundries. Airfare was $2013.83.
Oman costs: Arrangements for tours and hotel were made with Balwan Travel Agency in Muscat and the total cost was $1400. Half went for the tours and the other half for the hotel. I know I spent about $150 cash and would estimate bus fare back to Dubai at $25.
The Dubai hotel room was $226 for the two nights; what with breakfast and shuttle to airport, quite reasonable.
Now to enjoy my break at home before setting off again.
FYI: International Living magazine just issued its 2008 Quality of Life Index: France was tops with an 85 score with the US third rated at 83. UAE (Dubai) was rated at 45, Oman at 43 and Yemen at 31, fourth from last placed Iraq at 29.