Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Into The Wadi Of Death

I don't know if I've been explicit enough so far, but in Yemen every single woman is covered, face and all, in black. As I looked out my hotel window the next morning even my misognynist heart was melting for them, even as they were melting in the ferocious heat.

Al Mukallah was the most prosperous Yemeni city so far, with even a canal bisecting its main business street. But as I stepped out onto it, the heat, which had been Nashville hot in Aden, was already way past Memphis and almost to New Orleans.

I walked to the bus office and found out that the bus to Sayun left at 6 pm. So I exhausted myself walking 300 M to an internet cafe, only to find that it opened at noon. So I called Adel.

He showed up and we took a taxi to the tourist police to get a permit for Sayun, and then to a restaurant, where I ate more Yemeni food, by far the best part of which are the 20 inch diameter delicious crispy naans that they serve with everything.

Now Adel wanted to show me around his town, which was indeed romantically set, what with white buildings, blue sea, and reddish jagged rock mountains backdropping and jutting into said sea. But it was over 100 degrees and humid to boot, so that kind of put a damper on my sightseeing excitement.

At 1 Adel dropped me off at an internet place, but at 1;15 they closed for siesta, so I wandered back to the bus office, where I zombied for about an hour. Then I went to a place that advertised pizza, but they said they couldn't or wouldn't make one for me. Then back to the internet place, which was supposed to open at 4, bud didn't. So I sat on the steps and Adel walked by and, as the sun started to fade a little we walked around some more.

At 6 I got on the bus and met some new friends, an artistic Hong Kong backpacking couple named Ada & Andy. Back on an airconditioned bus Al Mukallah started looking nice again, but it was soon dark and we settled in. This time they put in an American video, a nonsensically ultraviolent flick produced by one of Bill Clinton's billionaire buddies. It occured to me that we wonder how Islamic fanatics get such sick ideas as piloting airliners into buildings and video beheadings, when the obvious answer is that they do so by watching American movies.

(Speaking of which, as we were passing poor sleepy villages, I remembered the Atlantic Monthly notice that pointed out that 30% of all Americans had seen beheading videos on the internet, and that about half of all males who had done so wanted to see more.)

We got to Sayun, a not very big town, about midnight, and Ada & Andy & I had independently decided to try the Tower Hotel, recommended in the LP as a 'midrange' choice. When we got there it was worse than a $3 Nicaraguan craphole, but it was midnight and we were screwed.

The next morning was Sunday, which is like their Monday, or sometimes like their Tuesday, but in a small town was just Blahday, like every other day. I went to the bus office to enquire about the 5 pm Tuesday bus to Oman, but was directed to another bus office, which directed me to a third.

At that one the guy said, 'No bus,' and everything else in Arabic. After many attempts to talk to many people, the story emerged: For the first time in memory there had been no diesel fuel in town for the last three weeks. Which meant that forlorn cars were lined up at gas stations. And that the bus probably wasn't running.

Gee, why hadn't I thought to plan for that possibility?

Okay, time for Plan E.17. I called Adel in Al Mukallah to find out if and when a bus went up the coast from there to Oman. He found out that there probably was one Wednesday morning at 7, which would mean that I would have to take the Tuesday 6 am bus from Sayun back to Al Mukallah. But what if they did find diesel? Or what if they didn't and I was stuck in Sayun for a few days?

There was also the problem of changing hotel rooms. I found the Rayboon Hotel, which was cutely located in a twisting alleyway, and it was cheaper and the room was far better. I went back to get A & A, and we took a taxi with our stuff over to the Rayboon. But I was confused, because this Rayboon was laid out differently, and the rooms weren't nearly as nice. Oh well, I'm just old and easily confused. I moved into my new room.

And rested. Because Wsdi Hadramawt, in which Sayun was the principal town, was the hottest place so far, and by noon you just wanted to lie there for an hour, especially with the inferior a/c in the inferior room. No wonder the first Western 'explorers' didn't reach this area until the 1930s.

After a whle I got up, went outside, and walked around a few corners and up 50 M, where, indeed, was another Rayboon. Same management, newer building. But by now it was too hot and annoying to move all my stuff over, especially since no one at either of them spoke any English.

After eating a little it was past one, and now everything closed up tight for the afternoon. I went back and lay in my bad Rayboon room. At 4:30 I went over to the only travel agent in town and ordered up a car and driver for Monday. Then I waited for the tiny restaurant to open at 7:15. That was pretty much it for the day.

Monday at 7 Yusuf the driver showed up and knocked on our doors, and off Andy and Ada and I went towards Wadi Dayun, which is a wadi that branches off of Hadramuht. Now the word 'wadi' can refer to a gulch, a canyon, a valley, anything that water goes through, usually occasionally. In this instance, the light brown cliffs in the Wadi Hadramuht area are exactly like cliffs in southern Utah, except that there's a flat valley floor between them that is 8-18 miles wide, and it includes date palms, farmland, and fantastical cubist adobe houses, which is what we tourists come for.

Of course, much of this area is 'newer' construction, which is cheap and adobe but not nearly as scenic, and most of us tourists come in January when it isn't so damn hot. But Yusuf's car, a Chinese built GoNow SUV, had a/c, and so we headed out about forty miles to the start of Wadi Dayun.

At the place where the Belgian tourists were killed three months ago the police asked us if we wanted an excort. I said, Nah. I figured that any suicide bomber would be crazy to be out on a day like today.

Well, the first village was against the cliff and pretty nice, but the others weren't incredibly worth going halfway around the world for, especially since there are great mountaintop ones right outside of Sa'na.

So we got to the end of the road and turned around and headed back. And about 15 miles before Sayun we made our major afternoon stop at Shibam (no, not last week's Shibam, but thanks for paying attention), which IS a reason that people go halfway around the world.

Okay, it's not the Pyramids or the Taj, but once you've come halfway around the world it's kind of neat. What it is is a village in the middle of the wadi valley, about 800 feet square, that contains about 500 eight story (generally about one room to a floor) houses all squashed next to one another. We got out to walk around and to take yet more hundreds of pictures of building angles.

It was 2 pm, so everything was really shut down. And you can't blame then since it was 105 in the shade and 115 in the sun, where I got stuck for a while. After wandering around I ended up at a closed souvenir shop, so, completely wiped out by the heat, I just sat there. A & A turned up a few minutes later, then a Yemeni, who went and got the owner, who just barely cared enough to open his shop and try and sell us stuff.

When we were done with Shibam we found Yusuf and started back for Sayun. It had turned out that Yusuf was friends with the bus company owner, and now he called him again for me, and the guy said that the Tuesday bus was probably happening, but check back at 9 am. The uncertainty in my soul continued overnight.

By Tuesday am I had concluded that if the bus wasn't happening, I could still take an unairconditioned share taxi down to Al Mukallah for the probable bus on Wednesday. At 9 am I called Yusuf to have him call his friend, and the answer was that the bus was 90% certain. Not good enough. I sat in my room for 2 hours, then called back, since if the bus was coming it would have left Al Mukallah at 11. Departure was confirmed. Now all I had to do was have Yusuf take me to go buy the ticket.

By now A & A had given up and taken a share taxi to Tarim, the stop for the day. But I was obligated to hire Yusuf for the full fare; he had been so helpful and I was so glad to have my bus ticket that I didn't care. So we drove to Tarim, which was a totally uninteresting destination, but the wadi was still beautiful, especially if you haven't seen it before in Utah.

We got back to Sayun at 3:30, the bus office opened up at 4:15, the bus arrived at 4:45, and we were headed for the border at 5:15. For all the endless and tedious hassles involved with Yemen, I've got to say that the Yemeni men (didn't get to talk to any women) are, like I said in the beginning, honest, polite, and shy. In general, nobody hassles you one bit, and they really try to help out irrespective of whether you, the incredibly rich person, are going to give them any money. Also, like I said, the place is wild and wacky, and well worth a visit.

Still, I was looking forward to getting out of there and to a place where the a/c worked and there was a little more order to things. Speaking of which, perhaps because of the diesel shortage, the bus's a/c was minimal. We drove along the flat wadi floor for about an hour, and as the twilight lengthened we finally took the steep climb out of the valley. When we got to the top the gloaming was total, and one could barely make out rocky desolation as far as the eye could see.

We stopped for dinner at 9 and I spend most of the time watching some camels wandering around the Yemeni truckstop area. They are surpassingly strange beasts, a weird combination of dainty and oafish. We got to the border at around 2 and pulled into the Omani city of Salalah after dawn and right after 6 am.


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