Although this country may have a dodgy reputation, I vote the everyday Yemini the nicest people in the world!
My trip to Yemen began on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, with a brief stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Upon arrival I found a taxi to my hotel which was located in the old city of Sana'a. I usually don't spend a lot of time in capital cities but the UNESCO protected old city of Sana'a was an exception. This is one beautiful place! The small streets twist and turn and can barely accommodate a small vehicle. More than once I was forced to lie flat against a wall whilst a vehicle passed with just an inch to spare on either side. I stayed in a hotel that was built in the early years of the 18th century for one of the powerful Sanani families of that time. It continued to be a family residence until 1991 when the building was restored and transformed into a hotel all while keeping the Yemeni and Sanani architecture in tact It was six stories high and made out of stone. The owner's son told me I could have any room I wanted at the agreed upon price of $20 with breakfast as there were only two other tourists in the hotel. A young Japanese woman and a young Spanish man were the only other occupants. I huffed and puffed my way up the stone steps which were unusually large and uneven up to check out a couple of rooms. I chose one on the 5th floor. This corner room was white with a high ceiling, four stain glassed windows with four regular windows beneath them. It was a simple yet beautiful room and in the morning I was greeted with a fantastic view of the old city.
Although women technically aren't required to wear head coverings in Yemen I saw pretty much every local woman in an abeyya (a woman's full length black robe) and a headscarf which revealed only their eyes. I did not wear an abeyya but was thoroughly covered although without a headscarf. In countries like these, Western woman, if dressed appropriately, are usually treated as a token male; afforded abilities that local women are not. And so, moving around was never a problem for me.
I spent the first couple days exploring the old city. People would stop and ask if I needed help or directions; kindness was everywhere. After a couple days I decided to go out into the countryside. In order to move about by ground transportation in Yemen you must obtain travel permits issued by the local police. Actually, I think this is a good idea as there are several areas of the country where due to al-Qaeda activity and/or tribal disputes it's simply too risky to travel. If you attempt to go to these areas the government will not issue you a travel permit. As such, only areas deemed safe will a travel permit be issued. These permits are much easier to obtain if you have a guide so I hired one for a couple of days. My hotel took care of the permits for me and all that was needed was a copy of my passport, visa and my intended travel route. Once travel permits were secured I was off to explore. We were required to stop at road blocks and hand over copies of the permit along the way. Once allowed to continue, we found our way to Wadi Dhahr. The Wadi Dhahr, or stone palace, is about 10 miles outside the city and was built in the 1920's as a summer residence for Imam Yahya. It's perched high on a rock table and at first glance looks like a palace in the sky. Another day I went to the Haraz mountains to the towns of Shibam and Kawkaban both in rural Yemen. All had the same beautiful architecture and narrow winding streets that are found in old Sana'a. We stopped at a school in one village and I asked why there were only boys in attendance. I was told the boys go in the morning and the girls in the afternoon. It was actually a very well built, albeit simple school and when I commented on how nice it was I was shown a plaque on the wall that indicated it had been built with funds donated from USAID (United States Agency for International Development). After spending some more time in rural Yemen we eventually headed back to the capital.
On my last day in Sana'a my guide, who happened to live around the corner from my hotel, wanted to show me his home. It was a stone tower like so many of the buildings in old Sana'a and I was a bit startled to meet his wife as it was the first Yemeni women I saw without an abeyya or headscarf. Women, when in the home with their families, do not cover up. I also met his four young children while his wife moved quickly to prepare us dinner. She served us fresh bread and bowls of spicy tomato sauce with potatoes and a variety of other ingredient. We sat and ate on the floor using our hands to tear off bread and used them to scoop up the sauces. This is the custom and the way of eating all over the country. In most places the amount of food they serve you is almost gluttonous. It is simply futile to try and eat if all. Tea always accompanied the meal and although I'm not a tea fan it always tastes good in the Middle East. It's always served in tiny glasses fluted like a tulip. This couple and their children could not have been nicer. I was touched by their kindness of inviting a total stranger into their home and sharing what food they had. Although I know this country has well known documented accounts of al-Qaeda activity, the average person is polite, kind and is just trying to make it through the day. Many Yemenis throughout my trip begged me to go back and tell the world that they're not all terrorists.
I returned to my hotel and the next morning headed back to the airport for my domestic flight to the destination, and reason I came to Yemen... to see the island of Socotra. Although this tiny island which is approximately 77 miles long by 20 miles wide is 149 miles off the horn of Africa (specifically Somalia), it actually belongs to Yemen. It is a small archipelago of four islands the largest island also called Socotra. It is approximately 236 miles South of the Arabian Peninsula. There are approximately 45,000 inhabitants and it is best known for it's unique floral and fauna. Socotri is spoken on this island, a language not spoken anywhere else in the world. The locals are also taught Arabic so they can converse with anyone from the mainland of Yemen. Approximately 1/3 of the plant life on Socotra can be found nowhere else on the planet. I picked Socotra as a destination after seeing pictures of their Dragon's Blood trees. The sap of these unusual trees run red if their trunks are cut, hence the name. I spent several days on the island and since there is only one town, and a rather unattractive one at that, I opted to camp every night on different parts of the island. Going it alone on Socotra is all but impossible as the roads are usually not marked and most outside of the town head off the paved highway into the unknown. Finding your way would be all but impossible. The road can be washed out and alternate routes are not marked what-so-ever. And so, I hired a driver and guide. Everyone drives old jeeps and trucks on Socotra because of the rough terrain. I was picked up at the airport and whisked off to an Eco-camp with huts set up right on the beach. I walked into my hut and found inside a mosquito netted tent. It was see-through with just netting as the tent material. I thought it a great idea as you were still protected from the bugs and mosquitoes (and Socotra has massive bugs) but you didn't have the annoying mosquito netting that most places have hanging over the bed. As a long- limbed person I never liked those as I inevitably have my arms and legs entangled in them at numerous points during the night. The mosquito netting pup tent was a perfect solution. The toilets would always be a short walk away from the Eco-camps and all but one had a shower. One evening as we were camping on the beach on another part of the island as my driver and guide fished for dinner I went to take a shower. Although I'm not afraid of bugs I did cringe at the size of a gigantic roach that was by the shower knob. From that point on I tried not to look around too much when I went to the bathroom. Later in the evening as we ate dinner on the ground and the sky blackened my guide turned on an electric hanging camp light. I was shocked at the sheer number and size of the insects and assortment of other bugs this light was attracting. Since it's an island; it's hot, it's humid... it's a bug haven really. As I got up after dinner I put my trusty head lamp on and proceeded to the loo. I didn't get two steps away from the camp before I started to get bombarded by various insects, some several inches long, banging into my head. No matter how much I bobbed and weaved these things were relentless and since the light was on my forehead all were headed straight for my face! Things were whacking against my head and I spitted and sputtered for fear of them flying into my mouth until finally, when I couldn't take it anymore, I ripped the head lamp from my forehead. I held it out as far away from my body as possible and quickly proceeded to the toilet posthaste!
The most magnificent days on Socotra were when I got to see mass amounts of Dragon's Blood trees littering the countryside . They are a sturdy tree and in the humid environment grow tall and strong. I was fascinated by these most unusual of vegetation and could have skipped the beaches to spend all of my time here. Due to the extreme heat and humidity I was told by my guides I could wear short sleeves if I wanted when we were out amongst the Dragon's Blood trees as there were no locals living in this area. I jumped at the chance as it was sweltering in my long sleeves.
On the last day before my flight back to Sana'a in the late afternoon we headed to a beach where thousands of white crabs made their homes in the sand. I giggled as I watched my driver, a grown man, bolt out of the vehicle and run around the crabs trying to get them to run in my direction so I could get pictures. He was like a crab wrangler herding his flock! As we went further down the beach I saw four little female heads bobbing in the water, hands waving. I waved back and took a seat in the shade as we talked with the girl's grandfather who had brought them to play. Upon seeing me they all continued to wave frantically as they quickly ran out of the water and onto the shore each putting their headscarf's on before approaching. They all appeared to be around 8 years old and they talked excitedly to my guide and then all at once lined up next to me and squatted on their haunches staring at me. My guide laughed and translated that they had never seen anything like me before and that I was like a being from another planet to them. I said, "what do you mean?" Apparently, the girls had never seen white skin before. They jabbered some more and he translated that it was either that I was from another planet or that I had paid a lot of money to get that skin. I though are you kidding me! They can have it! I'd love to have darker skin, I burn in minutes! Every time I would look in the direction of my guide to talk with him when I turned back the girls had inched closer to me. Eight eyes were permanently fixed on me watching my every move. I felt a bit like an animal in the zoo but knew the girls didn't mean any offense by their staring. It was eventually time to head to the airport and after saying goodbye to the girls and their grandfather, we left for the plane. I had an uneventful flight back to Sana'a and then my ride home left me!
When I asked the guy at the Yemeni Airlines counter where to check in for Lufthansa I was greeted with a confused look. He said to have a seat and he would come back to me. Since I had a four hour sit I didn't think anything of it and assumed it was too early to check in. The man came over ten minutes later and stated Lufthansa doesn't fly to Yemen. I said "yes they do, I flew in on them nine days ago!" He said "they don't fly here anymore". I told him I had just checked the flight four days earlier and that it was fine. He said "they stopped flying here three days ago"! In all my travels this had never happened before. Apparently, after an attack on the British Ambassador's vehicle just days before Lufthansa decided to pull out of Yemen until further notice. I asked about Yemeni Airlines but was told they had already left for the day and that another wasn't going for days. I then asked about other options and was told Saudi Arabian Airlines was going soon via Jeddah. I was told I would have to buy a full fare ticket however and that it had to be cash! The total one way was a bit exorbitant and most banks won't even let you pull out that much cash in one day. I asked about other options and was told Egypt Air went at 4:45 am via Cairo (mind you it was 8 pm at the time) and was half the price. Without many options I schlepped to the cash machine and on my way came across the nice man that had sold me the Socotra ticket when I had first arrived in Yemen. He asked what was going on and when I told him the story he said not to wait that long but to take Turkish Airlines through Istanbul which left at 1:45 am. The cost was even lower and with an earlier departure I opted for this. After getting the cash I got my ticket and after a delayed departure finally left Yemen at 2:30 am. The rest of my trip home was uneventful.
With Socotra's strange floral and fauna it is often called the Galapagos of the Middle East. It really is otherworldly, I'm glad I got to see it! The Yemenis may get a bad rap because of a small portion of their population, but I saw first hand how lovely the majority of their people are. They get my vote for the nicest in the world!