Saturday, May 03, 2008

This Is Really Cool, Man

It hit me about an hour later. Like 3 cups of coffee but without the jitters. I suppose that if you had a giant chaw of it all day... But it hasn't done wonders for their work ethic.

Although Mike showed up bright and early at 8 am, in a slightly newer car, and off we went towards the mountains.

Like most dirt poor countries, Yemen has a lot of dirt. The light hazy brown kind. With hazy brown New Mexico stratified plateau mountains to go with it. And the houses and towns are the exact same color, camouflaged in front of cliffs or on top of rocks.

Although the first fifty miles or so were kind of flat. But then we got into some cliffy areas and we came upon the first major tourist sight town, Thikra. It's, ahem, dirt poor, but the old medieval stone houses cluster photogenically up and against a hill. For the first time there was mild hassling from 'guides' and souvenir sellers, but it weren't nothin' compared to Egypt or India.

We then went about 10 km further to the town of Halabah, which had less photogenic hillside houses, but a beautiful old water tank that the houses reflected on to.

Next to Shibam, at the bottom of a 2000 foot cliff, which was nothing too special. Then we drove around and up the cliff to get to Karkaban, which was, as you might guess, a picturesque village on top of a cliff. Again a few semi-annoying 'guides'.

I had Mike drop me off and I headed back to Shibam by foot, taking a path that led straight down the mountain. It was paved, but with largish rocks, which, combined with the heat and the constant pressure on the thigh muscles, had quite an effect.

But I made it. And soon we were off for Al Mahred, where the LP said we could catch a road south to hook up with the one to Al Mukarrah, my destination for the night.

The road itself was pretty spectacular from the start, with the New Mexico strata look giving way to actual dry brown mountains. Much of the bottomland, though, was irrigated, which, along with the countless old mountaintop forts and mountainside villages, not to mention the bigness of everything around us, all served to keep one's jaw dropped throughout. It was a vast fantasy wonderland, kind of like Morocco was supposed to used to be.

Except that we kept having to stop. First, Mike kept trying to buy his daily qat fix, but would be continually dissatisfied by the price that the people standing by the side of the road wanted. But that was the least of the stopping, since we also had to get more water about every twenty minutes. It seems like the radiator in Mike's car wasn't working.

Anyhow, we were also starving by now, and the small population in the area was really rural. Finally we found one cheesy Yemeni restaurant that had some leftover lunch food. Then, it was an hour or so on to Mahred, which we reached around 5.

Of course, once we got there, there was no road, which meant that we would have to turn around and go back to Sa'na. Unless we wanted to pay $61 to stay at the fleabag hotel in Mahred.

So back we drove into the dark, the water stops getting more and more frequent. At 8:30 we limped into town, and Mike started whining about needing more money. I paid him and went back to my room, having mentally blown off the next day.

But I called him at 10 and his car was repaired and he was eager to complete the deal. So now we were headed back into the mountains, but a little southwest of yesterday.

This was not New Mexico, but the old one, the really dry, rugged huge Sierra Madre cactus part of it. And virtually no habitation, except for the occasional small scraggly road townlet, overly replete with plastic garbage scraps.

We turned off and up the hill to Mukallah, which was vaguely nice and where we had Yemeni lunch. Then up more of a hill to Hajjarah, which looked like a mini Old Sa'na on top of a mountain, and was pretty cool, actually. A few more semi-annoying touts, but they soon closed up for the day at 2.

And then back down the mountain to Sa'na.

All in all, accounting for all the problems involved in a third and a half world country, it had been enjoyable, and was about as otherworldly an experience as you can get in the 21st century. After spaghetti on the 8th floor terrace of my hotel, I went down and wandered around the streets of Old Sa'na for one last time, admiring, admiring, admiring.

When I got back to the hotel, I had to stop and admire that one last time, also. Except for the foot high stairs, which totally destroyed my knees, the rest was downright charming, with each room different, and with various tapestries, knives, tea kettles, etc., covering the walls and tables.

And as I lay in bed that night I thought of all the new friends I had made there: Eric, the gay guy from the Bay Area who lives in Bali and who was visiting with his Indonesian/Yemeni boyfriend and that guy's family. Theo, the non-practicing Jew from Vermont, who was here studying Islamic culture. Peter & Brenda, the 65ish Australian couple who were now up to 101 countries. Nils, the American-Norwegian journalist, who was up to 118. And Etienne & Gerard, the two ridiculously handsome 6'5" French brothers who were over for a few days in Dubai.

But tomorrow I would be leaving this all behind.


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