Monday, April 28, 2008


Besides a brief scare that my baggage hadn't made it to the Sana airport, the assorted flights from Qatar were fine, and I arrived at my hotel in the old city around 1 am.

The next morning I looked out my window, and the old city of Sana is one of the neatest Old Cities I have ever seen. The houses are all light brown stone with white crenelation, have stained glass windows, and are eight stories high. Instersperced among them are various mosques and alleyways.

The Yemeni women are all in black, and the men are shy, polite, and honest. Many wear a ceremonial dagger, but since they're all 5'3", the effect isn't very ferocious. The vibe is about as far from 'terrorist' as you could possible imagine. Nobody hassles you at all, not even at the tourist shops.

Not that there are that many of them. Indeed, there's not much to do in the Old City except walk around, but it's really pleasant walking around.

I walked around for a while and then grabbed a taxi for the Tourist Police, a few miles away. 'New' Sana is in fact the capital of a very, very poor country, and looks the part. Still it's not very crowded, and the entire feeling is extremely laid back. The Tourist Police turned out to be a couple of friendly guys, who immediately gave me the Permit I needed to travel outside of Sana. Now all I had to do was to make a hundred photocopies to hand out at all the police checkpoints around the country.

I went back to the hotel, rested a while, and then decided to find a nice restairamt This meant going to the gate of the old city again and hailing a cab. The driver turned out to have an interesting story.

His American name was Mike and he had gone to the States when he was twelve to visit his father, who lived in Birmingham. He stayed there, illegally, went to school for a year, and then because he looked older started working at convenience stores. About three years ago a robber shot at him and missed, his adrenaline pumped, he grabbed the store's gun, chased the robber out into the street, and shot at him.

The police came and arrested him and threw him in jail with hardened criminals for firing a gun on the street. A year later his trial came, the DA said to plead guilty and get probation, he did so, and got probation. He also got deported for life. Now he's stuck in Yemen driving a really bad old taxi. He's only twenty.

We drove around for awhile not finding any restaurants. Finally we ended up at Yemen's only, and the world's worst, Pizza Hut.

The next morning I slept in again, and around noon I called Mike and he drove me out to Wadi Dahr, which is about 20 kilometers from the old city. It's a small town in a rustic canyon that puts New Mexico to shame, and its centerpiece is an eight story house built on top of a giant rock. In any other country there would be a big parking lot, gift stores, and restaurants. Here you get there on a beat up dirt road.

Having spent some time there we now headed back into town. It was time to buy some qat.

I had read about qat for years, but it was still quite the sight in the early afternoon on the first day seeing every single man in every single small store, taxi, wherever, with a giant chaw of qat in his mouth. When we were in Wadi Dahr I saw the spindly qat trees, which use up most of the fertile soil in the country. The qat leaves have to be picked fresh every day.

Mike took me to the qat market in Sana, where little men sat crosslegged in the back of old beat up station wagons with their big bags of qat. I bought a bag of high quality leaf, most of which I gave to Mike.

Sunday I had first gingerly eaten three leaves. Nothing. Then a few more. Then a mouthful. Still nothing. As usual I was now grimly determined to find out what the hype was all about. Especially since virtually the entire male population of Yemen and Ethiopia is addicted to it.

I retired to my hotel room and started filling my mouth with the stuff. Still nothing. Chew, chew, chew. Driblets of bitter juice trickle down my throat. Still nothing. After a few hours of reading, chewing, staring at the wall, chewing, etc., I finally gave up and spit it all out.

One beer would have given me a bigger buzz. Either I am not genetically predisposed or these guys have come up with the most amazing placebo high ever.


At 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Michael,

I am not sure why my incredibly clever comment to your last entry did not get posted, but I wrote it on qat which might explain things. I've been reading and enjoying.


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