Friday, May 30, 2008

Bye Bye Dubai

I was there at 6:20 am to catch the bus that was leaving town. Said bus was clean and modern and not overly populated. We headed out and northeast along the coast, which was perpetually semi-developed and not all that interesting, what with the rugged mountains no longer marching down to the ocean. That went on for several hours.

Then we turned left and up towards Dubai. We reached the UAE border at around 11, and although the formalities were slow they were hassle-free. When we were moving again I was back at the town of Hatta, where I had been three and a half weeks earlier. Now it was about an hour into Dubai.

Back on this side of the Gulf the overwhelming drabness of the sandy dirty brown sand presented itself once again, and, even acknowledging all the ridiculous amount of oil money sloshing around, I once again asked myself: WHY??? Who could possibly want to live here, even if it is on a manmade island shaped like a palm tree?

And when we got back to the city of Dubai around 2 pm, I was once again struck by how much it was like a caricature of Houston, all buildings and roads and traffic. Muscat has obviously been built with a sense of proportion. Dubai and Proportion are mutually exclusive ideas.

I found my way back to the Youth Hostel, where, incidentally, I have yet to see a youth. Wonder of wonders, they actually had my reservation on file, so I got a single room. I turned on the ac full steam (as usual) and lay on the bed for a while. Then a walk down the street to the hypermarket, where I stuffed my stomach and loaded up with crap to take on the plane with me. Then basically I did nothing else.

The trip was now over. I was up the next morning at 5:40 and was at the airport and checked in before 7. Which gave me a couple of hours to just sit there. And contemplate the reality that a) of the hundreds of little billboard ads in the airport, only a tiny handful had any Arabic on them, and that was usually a logo, and b) on all the billboard ads here, and everywhere else in the world for that matter, there's all these guys standing around in fancy rooms wearing $2,000 suits, and yet everybody around me getting on flights was dressed incredibly more slobbily than I was, so who are they trying to sell to?

Anyway, that was about the deepest thought that I had for the next 16 hours, which was the length of the flight to Houston. Once again Emirates provided me with 40 New Releases, 20 Classics, and 30 Hindi films. And I ended up watching five complete movies. The flight path was more interesting, however, since we got to fly over Iran, and then a couple of thousand miles of Russia. Best of all, we flew over the middle of a clear Greenland in daylight, giving me the chance to see its frozen fjords and dark cliffs for only the second time in my life. Even better than that, we got to do the same thing for Baffin Island for my first time ever.

There was supposed to be an hour and a half layover. We started out arriving thiry minutes late, and then I had to share the line for Immigration with a bunch of fat Americans coming back from Cabo. When I got to the baggage carousel it was already completely backed up with all the gigantic suitcases of all the Indians who would take forever to get through the Foreign Immigration line. I looked in vain for mine as more and more baggages kept coming up the belt and as the time kept ticking away.

Finally, with about twenty minutes left before my ABQ flight left, the final bag came up and it wasn't mine. Okay, well that solves the problem of how they were going to get it to my flight on time. I took off, took the little train to the right terminal, and made my plane with minutes to spare.

And then sat there thinking about what the odds were that I'd ever see my belongings again, and calculating how much it would cost to replace them all.

But Maureen was faithfully waiting for me as I deplaned, and within 24 hours not only had by bag arrived, but they had delivered it up to the mountains.

And then it was back to the same old existential grind.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Giant Mountain, Nizwa, Turtles

10 km out of town I noticed that they had given me a car with no gas. So I had to turn around and get some.

By noon I was inland on the coastal highway south. By 12:30 I was driving up a LP recommended wadi towards the ocean. It and the ocean I got to weren't that interesting, and then I had to drive back.

Up until about a year ago most of the coast route was unpaved. Now most of it is a four lane highway and the rest will be finished in a couple of months. It goes through boring interior rocky areas for a while and then along boring seacoast. I almost missed the LP highly recommended 'can't miss' wadi.

It's supposed to be THE beauty spot of Oman, but apparently no one told the highway crews finishing up the giant freeway bridge overpass at its mouth. Still, when you walked in a ways, what with the date palms and the rock walls and the pools of water, it was pretty nice.

Then back to the highway and on another 120 km to Sur, the big town around those parts. There wasn't that much to it, though, so as the sun sank I kept driving another 50 km towards Turtle Beach. The brand new LP says that a 4WD is no longer necessary, and that's probably because the whole thing is now paved.

It was long past dark at 7:45 when I finally groped my way to the Turtle Reserve. There they said to wait in the parking area until 9:30 when the guided tour started. I drove over there and waited.

And started getting a giant headache because I basically hadn't eaten all day. There just aren't that many options in the middle of nowhere. So I frantically ate every last potato chip in my possession. And waited.

At 9:30 Ali, the guide, showed up with about another dozen tourists, including the travel writer from the Sydney Herald, who seemed to be the kind of guy who really hated traveling. The spotter duly reported three turtles over at that other beach, so we all walked through soft sand to get there.

In broken English Ali gave a talk on turtles, their life cycle, and breeding habits. Then he led us over to where one, then another, had just finished laying their eggs. Although officially medium-sized, they looked pretty big to me. And pretty tired. Gentle beings, they let you pat them on their heads.

The third turtle was just finishing preparing the sand for egg laying, and Ali had us come over one a time to quietly watch. Then 15 minutes later he had us all come over and watch the perfectly round, perfectly white eggs pop out one by one.

By now it was 11:30, and we started back. But all of a sudden Ali dropped to his knees and started digging about a foot deep and pulling the sand over. Suddenly there were a half dozen perfectly formed four inch long baby turtles, flippers flipping, newly hatched from eggs deposited two months ago.

In June or July they can have 200 or 300 turtles in a night. But I was sufficiently impressed with the ones that I saw.

Now all I needed was a place to sleep. And fortunately I didn't get lost as I looked for the Turtle Bay Resort. Although, as usual in the rest of the world, 'resort' never ends up as glamorous as you imagine.

The next morning I put my thermometer out in the sun and it went up to 135. That seemed a tad high, but it was still too hot to lie on the beach, so I headed on back to Sur, where I grabbed an Indian working mab's lunch. Then I started out on what I thought would be an easy drive to Nizwa.

About 100 km or so into it I took a detour to Wadi Ben Khalid, which was a scenic mountain drive that ended up with pools and date palms and reddish brown rocks. Quiet and peaceful.

It was past 4:30 when I got back to the main highway, and about 80 km after that I passed the Wahiba Sands, which is a very large area of very high dunes, on the left. The LP said I needed a 4WD to get to one of the resort camps; it later turned out that they will come and get you. Oh well, who wants to ride a dune buggy up a 750 foot sand dune anyway?

Nizwa was getting further and further away. I finally got to the turnoff past 7, and it was still over 100 km away. As the kilometers kept ticking away and the sky got blacker and blacker, so did my mood.

I got there about 8:30 and it turned out that the only 'cheapo' place, at $40, was a total dump, with vile rooms and vile staff who didn't speak a word of English. It also turned out that after paying for my food at a bad Turkish restaurant I only had #35 in Omani rials. Which meant that I had to drive 12 km until I finally found an ATM that worked.

I finally gritted my teeth and got a room there at close to 11 pm. Okay, how bad could it be? At 11:45 they started up a giant, old generator right next to my room. I went out and yelled at the guy. He yelled back at me. I yelled even louder. After ten or fifteen minutes of this he went and turned the generator off.

The next morning I drove to all the cultural reasons to go to Nizwa: Nizwa Fort, Bahla Fort (closed in the 108 degree heat), and Jabrin Fort. Jabrin made about the 27th fort I'd seen, and since they're all pretty much the same, light brown adobe, with round towers, some old cannons, and date palms growing nearby, it was getting kind of repetetive.

So I decided to head up to Jebel Shams, the highest point in Oman.

The road, though ridiculously steep in places, was paved for all but the last 13 km, and they're in the process of finishing those. Slow going then, but easily doable in a car. When I got to a turnout at the end of the road, I walked about 20 M and came to one of the deepest gorges on the face of the Earth.

About six miles away was the other side and some more vertical mountain above it. In between it dropped straightaway at least 5,000 feet. And I guess I'm getting old, but as I sat there 3 feet from the edge I got this overwhelming sense of vertigo. So I scooted a foot back.

No good. The lohnger I sat there the more the chasm was silently calling out for me to come join it in oblivion. Unnerved, I gave up and retreated to the car.

Strangely, about a km away there was another spot right on the edge. But they had a flimsy 4 foot fence there, and because of that it wasn't scary at all.

Anyway, I headed back down the mountain and into Nizwa, where the next cheapest hotel was $65. But here you got a clean, modern staff and a clean modern room, complete with minibar and a pool outside. Not to mention the only internet in town downstairs and about the only Pizza Hut in Oman a few doors down. I relaxed my weary bones for the evening.

The next morning was Wednesday, and my trip was winding down. So I wound slowly down the mountains in my rentacar back towards Muscat. I got there around 2, checked into my corniche balcony room, and at 5 drove around the shore for one last time and actually found my way back to the car agency. Then a walk to my fancy Indian restaurant, a taxi back to Mutrah, one last walk along the corniche (temperature down to 102 by 8 pm), and my journey was about over

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Doin' That Muscat Ramble

At 4 pm we started seeing the first signs of vegetation and habitation. By 4:40 we were on a modern freeway slicing its way through the same reddish brown Hajar mountains that I had last seen in the UAE.

Greater Muscat stretches over 60 km along the coast, and as soon as we hit the suburbs I could see that Salalah had been Omanic Hicksville. All the buildings were new and white and lowslung, and with the rugged mountains coming right to the coast it made a calm and pretty and prosperous picture. Now HERE was by far the best compromise between modernity and tradition. Hey, there were even Subways and Dominos (though not too many) and all the other wonderful things that make up life as we know it.

Most wonderfully, for the first time in the past months, there were actual swathes of grass and actual green trees that weren't date palms.

At 6:30 the bus dropped us off at Ruwi, which was the first place since the first day in Dubai where there was a sense of bustle and congestion. Virtually all the people bustling were Indian. It was more than clear that Oman (and the Gulf in general) had imported far more Indians than there was work for. I immediately got a fair price for the 8 km taxi ride to Mutrah, the lowkey seaside area, complete with its 1 km curving corniche.

There are about 5 one star hotels at the north end of same, and by 7:30 I had a $40 room in one of them. Elevator and a/c worked, and I even had a balcony which overlooked the bay, albeit with a construction site in between. I went out and walked along the corniche, but the closest thing I could find to Indian food was a vegetable burger and chips. In true Indian fashion they served my banana shake in an attractive 24 inch glass and then provided a 6 inch straw to drink it with.

After that I cruised the souq area, where there were souvenir shops but minimal hassling, even by Indian shopkeepers. I've figured out that that's probably because most of the Indians in the Gulf are from southern India, and they lack the weird desperation that so many northern Indians have. I bought a little frankincense, and then strolled back to my hotel, the Islamic crescent moon shining down on Muscat Bay.

All I had to do on Saturday was check out Muscat's 'old town' and then negotiate a deal on a rental car. Easy enough, but at 106 degrees nothing's too easy.

Muscat is one of those National Geographic places that I had always wanted to go to. Especially the incredibly romantic old fort of the Sultan. Turns out that when I got there, about 4 km from Mutrah, there wasn't a town and it wasn't old. The 'gates' are about 6 years old, and inside them are a few white government buildings and the Sultan's not too shabby palace. Considering, however, how spectacularly successfully Sultan Qaboos has brought Oman into the 21st Century, I don't begrudge him it.

At 1 pm Muscat shuts up tighter than an Omani drum, so I went back to the hotel and lay there in the a/c. Around 4:30 I took a cab back to Ruwi, hoping to find some of the gazillion car rental places that were supposed to be there. As usual, the ones listed in the book were no longer there, and it turned out that the nameless ones were all a mile and a half away, which I ended up trudgingly walking to.

The problem with renting cars in Oman is that everyone only wants to give you 200 km a day, and then it's 20 cents a mile. I finally got a guy to give me 300 km a day at a slightly higher price. I then went back to a really nice Indian restaurant in Ruwi and had an all you can eat Southern Indian thali for $3.00, cheaper than in India; I can't wait to go to their location in Sunnyvale, CA

And the next day I came back at 10:30 and picked up the car.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


It was clear as soon as I got off the bus that Oman was much, much wealthier than Yemen and much, much poorer than Dubai. The few people on the street at 6:30 am were all Indian, as were the few annoying cab drivers. I walked 400 M to the Salalah Hotel, but they were full. The Bangladeshi desk guy told me of another hotel, 'only 200 meters'.

Not to quibble, but it was 1.4 KM, me dragging my case over gravel parking lots. But when I got there the nice Filipino man gave me a room, and I ha toast and tea and then gratefully crashed for the next four hours.

I got myself together after noon, walked across the street to the Turkish restaurant, and had some babaganoush. It being a cool, breezy 92, I then started to walk around Salalah and take in my new surroundings.

Virtually everyone around me was Indian, and what with the dayglo-ish painted signs on all the businesses, it made the place look like a depopulated and somewhat more polite India. The nature of the businesses was also rather strange and utterly different from everywhere else I had been: Over the next day I would see literally hundreds of 'Hair Dressing' (for men), 'Tailoring', and 'Laundry' establishments. Not to mention 'Food Stuff & Luxuries'.

Right now I was surrounded by at least 20 'car rental' places, usually allied with 'copying' or 'real estate'. But none of them was open. Maybe it was because of the 1-4 closure thing. I walked around some more and then found an internet place.

At 5:30 almost all the car rental places were still closed. But I finally found one who would rent to a non-Omani. $27 a day, but the catch was only 200 free KM. I took it and then drove around Salalah the rest of the evening to finish my various errands.

The next morning I set out to explore as much of Dhofar as possible in 200 km. The Dhofar region is basically there because a small strip of oceanfront land is surrounded on all sides by high mountains. These catch some of the Indian monsson, so that from June to September the whole area is actually alive and green, the only place on the Arabian peninsula to ever get that way. This means that folks from Saudi, Dubai, et al, all flock here then.

But it was only May, and most everything was still pretty brown. First of all I had driven a couple of km through palm groves down to the ocean. Now I was heading halfway up the encircling mountains to an Islamic pilgramage site, Job's Tomb. I paid my respects and tried to commisserate. But, after all, Job ended up getting a sort of apology from God, whereas I'm still waiting for mine.

I turned around and headed back down the mountain, skirting Salalah to the west. Here there were hundreds of giant new houses being built: I guess the Dubai crowd was really getting into it. I then kept going west, aiming for the beach area of Mughsail 48 km away.

When I got there, there wasn't all that much there there. A km or so of average beach, at the end of which were some blowholes that turned out to be a couple of manhole type grates under which you could hear a whoosh and through which came occasional light spray. There was also one perfuntory restaurant 'resort' on the beach, where I ate.

This was the western end of the Dhofar flat, and now the road climbed up, up, up on the coastal route towards the Yemen border. I climbed up, up, up about 3,000 feet all the way to the top, where I had to turn around because of the km.

Dhofar has been famous throughout history as the only place where the frankincense tree, a weird little runted affair, grows. I stopped on the way back down and walked over and patted a tree and peeled off a little bark, although it is the sap that they use. They had been burning it ever since the tourist hotel in Sa'na, so I was starting to get sick of it.

Then I got back to the beach area and, for the first time in the trip, actually got wet. Although it's not like I had had that many opportunities so far to pass up. In deference to the Saudi schoolgirls who were right down the sand I wore a t-shirt: Not to save them from the sight of a man's chest, but to save them from the sight of a pathetically pale one.

The water wasn't as warm as you might imagine. I didn't really swim much, since there are supposed to be rip currents, and I didn't want my body to be washed up six weeks later on the Malabar coast.

I made it back to the little car rental office with no dings and with 2 km to spare. Then internet, food, and back to the hotel and bed.

Up at 5:30 Friday for the 7 am bus to Muscat. Good I bought the ticket Wednesday because the bus was completely full. But comfortable. And strong a/c.

By now I had seen the occasional Omani man, who could be distinguished by the round embroidered cap that he invariably wore. Oman used to own Zanzibar and its slave trade, so that some Omanis have strong African features. One such extended family now occupied much of the bus, the women all in tripped out Africanized Moslem robes.

In general, Omani women at their most conservative are like those on the Gulf, with at least their faces showing. Most of the women you see, however, are either Hindu women in saris, or Filipinos or Egyptians, etc., in western clothes.

The bus climbed up to the top of the mountains, and soon we were surrounded by an endless plain of flat, flat featureless sandy dirt. When we stopped at 10 am my thermometer read 112 in the sun. In the shade it was only 110.

As we drove on there was a small patch where a few weeds grew, and then back to nothing. The flat brown sand changed to flat grey gravel. In the afternoon we stopped for a break and I saw my first American Halliburton employees. At 3:46 it was 46 Celsius, which is 115 in real degrees. I finished my third can of iced tea and got back on the bus.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Welcome to Dhofar, The Home Of Frankincense and Mirth

Hey, how's it goin'? Pretty hot out today, wasn't it.

So this Muslim guy walks into a bar. And because of that he burns in hell for the rest of eternity.

Did you ever notice that Saudi women have a slightly bigger eyeslit than Yemeni girls? No, seriously! Check it out some time.

Hey, what do you get when you cross a Jew and a Christian? Whoa, with all their money and guns I don't want either one of them mad at me.

These days when I tell people I'm from Dhofar, they all think I'm saying Darfur. Guys: It's the difference between incense and incensed. Those Sudanese bros should learn to chill out.

Don't you think that it's, like, totally gay when infidels say that we Muslims are homophobic? If you want my opinion, they're all just a bunch of fuckin' queers. But if that's your thing, man. Just remember what they say about being in bed with a bedouin: It's always in tents!

Okay, management wants me to remind you that there's a zero drink maximum, so go crazy guys. Next week I'll be appearing at the Laughing Camel in Riyadh. Until then don't steal anything: I don't want to have to be trying to hear one hand clapping.

Insh'allah, dudes.

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.

Monday, May 05, 2008

I Find Osama Bin Laden

Don't get me wrong. I've always thought that if there was derring to be done, I was the guy to do it. But this was my vacation.

I had kind of known that Bin Laden's family had originally come from Wadi Hadramawt, but I certainly wasn't thinking about it when I was at this claustrophobic antique souvenir store in Seef, looking at all the weird old stuff for sale. Instead I was thinking about how damn hot it was. And then I noticed the owner... Nah, it couldn't be! I must have dropped my jaw, because he said, "Do I remind you of someone?"

"Yes," I blurted out, not stopping to think. "Osama Bin Laden!"

He grinned and held out his hand. "You know, you're only the second person in six years to have even noticed," he said.

"I can't believe that" I countered.

"No, it's true" he said. "Maybe it's the MTV generation. I don't know. It just seems like nobody pays any attention to anything any more."

"But, but, but..." I sputtered. "How can you just stand there with all those people dead?!"

He raised both hands and stepped back a little. "Hey, don't blame me for that."

"Don't blame you? Your name was all over 9/11."

"Yeah, my name was all over it. That's because I got paid for the use of my name. But I didn't actually do anything"

Maybe the heat was getting to me. I tried to think straight. "You mean to tell me that the conspiracy theorists are actually right and that the U.S. government planned 9/11?"

He snorted, "U.S. government??? Are you nuts? They could never pull off anything that complicated."

I was even more confused. Then it hit me: 'Oh my God, it was the Israelis! I had kind of guessed that all along!'

Now Osama was the one to look befuddled. "Israelis?' he said. They already own Wall Street. Why would they want to destroy it?"

"Okay," I said, giving up. "Then who IS responsible for 9/11?"

He leaned forward, raised an eyebrow, and whispered: "The architects."

'You mean, as in 'the architects of 9/11'?'

'No. As in: The architects. Of 9/11.'

'Wait a minute. You're telling me that a group of architects planned and executed 9/11?'

"Sure," he said. 'Them buildings was UG-lee!'

"Architects?!" I repeated. "There's no way that they would allow thousands of people to die!"

"Who are you kidding?" he said. "Ever since the time of the pharaohs they could care less how many people were killed building their precious little projects. And with 9/11 they could throw in a highly ironic post-modern performance piece to boot."

I still couldn't believe this. "But how could they even pay for it?"

He cocked an eye. "Haven't you seen all those buildings in Dubai? Shanghai? Hong Kong? Those guys are rich, man. And they just couldn't stand it that those crappy 1965 shitbox WTC buildings were dominating the New York skyline." I noticed a chair nearby and sat down. Osama handed me a cold Diet Pepsi. "Hey, I know it's hard," he said. "But you just don't want to cross those aesthete types."

It was slowly sinking in. 'But, but, but...' I stammered. 'But isn't the U.S. Government looking for you?'

He smirked. 'Hey, they're still looking for WMD.'

'But what if I went and told them what I know?'

'Good luck trying,' he said. 'The other guy who 'found' me? He told them that he had met with Bin Laden. That was two years ago and he's been at Gitmo ever since.'

'Okay, okay,' I said, giving up. 'But why are you here running an antique store in Yemen? I thought that you were really rich?'

He pulled out the pocket of his long white shirt to show that it was empty. 'You think one wife is expensive? Try fourteen!' Then he laughed. 'Just messing with you,' he said. 'Actually I bought a bunch of Google at the IPO and unloaded it all last year when it was at 700. I'm doing all right. But, hey, this is home. Have you tasted the honey from around here? And look at all this cool jewelry and woodwork.'

My head was still spinning, but Osama kept talking.

'I guess, praise Allah, that I've had a pretty charmed life so far. And what are the odds that you'd have a presidential candidate whose name rhymed with mine? Right now I don't know what to do: The Republicans are offering me $30 million dollars to lend my name to an 'attack' in October. Bill Clinton's offering me $40 million dollars to do one now.

'Either way,' he concluded with a smile. ''Terrorism' wins.'

Neda Was I Ere I Saw Aden, The Land Of Beautiful Palindromes

Friday morning is Sunday morning, so things were pretty dead when I got to the share taxi stand at 8:30. But by 9 we had the full complement of nine passengers, so off we went for Aden.

The roads so far had been small twisted affairs, even the main road connecting Sa'na and Hudeidah, two cities of about 3 million each. But from here on out the road was new and straight, so that good time was to be made. The land got flat and deserty, but with jagged mountains off to the side, kind of like the California desert. About 30 miles from Aden the rocks and mountains disappeared and we were back to the weed speckled sands of Arabia. At 11 we got to the taxi park about 15 km outside of Aden proper.

I was standing there in the hot sun trying to figure out where the bus company was when Abdul the taxi driver came up and made my acquaintance. He said the bus company was about a km away, but for 300 rial... His was the first Yemeni cab I had seen with a/c. What's more, Abdul had a 30 word English vocabulary, fantastic for these parts. So I hopped in.

It being Friday morning, the bus company office was closed. But various hangers on said that the bus to Al Mukallah left at 3 and 7 in the afternoon. No morning bus? Since the book says that it is a 12 hour ride, and one would think that...? Nope. 3 & 7.

So I paid Abdul some more money and he drove me the 15 km into Aden proper. Now Aden is a famous world seaport, owned by the British from 1839 to 1967, then the capital of communist South Yemen from 1967 to 1990, now part of just Yemen. It's built around a giant harbor that was formed by the jagged volcanic rock at the south end. On one side was colonial Aden, on the other was Crater, which has nothing to do with an actual crater, and in the middle was Meira. We headed for Crater.

When I finally found the hotel I was looking for it was full. Also, waiting for the 3 pm bus for tomorrow would throw off my whole schedule. It was time for Plan B.0.

We swung into action. Abdul headed off for prayers, while I went to chow down for my big journey, trusting that a good Muslim wouldn't drive off with my pack. I was correct, and at about 1 pm we had about an hour for Abdul to show me one of the Ends of the Earth.

It certainly has the setting. Weirdly eroded black volcanic rock intrudes into the town of Crater, which is hot and dirty and even poorer than the rest of Yemen. First Abdul took me to the Aden tanks, which are a series of centuries old water cachements built into the volcanic rock, and where discos and whiskey took place under the atheist communists.

Then we went to Sira Island, which is a 200 foot high volcanic rock with an old fort on top of it over a little bridge and with the blue Arabian Sea stretching off to the horizon. Incongruously nearby was a second Pizza Hut in Yemen, this one ever dirtier and more woebegone than the one in Sa'na.

Now past the Sheraton complex (whiskey and disco available) and over to the colonial side, the only colonial thing about which was a large, totally bare, lifeless British graveyard with crosses and all, in the midst of humdrum industrial stuff. Crappy place to have to die.

Me and Abdul were good buddies by now, and he was telling me all his political views.

Then through Meira, whose main business street has a mile long, communist era, semi snazzy for Yemen but all the same 6 story block of apartments. Then the 15 km back to the bus company.

It was now 2:15 and the office was open, but the unfriendly lady in black said all the tickets were gone. Well, how about tomorrow morning? No buses in morning. Only at 3. Okay, I'll buy a ticket for 3 tomorrow. We can't sell you one because you don't have a police permit.

Now all of this was being done in Arabic through Abdul. And now he finds out that if we go get the police permit I might be able to get on today's bus. So off se go the 15 km into Aden.

We walk across the big police courtyard, and then wait 15 minutes for the policeman to take his own sweet time filling out the permit. Then race back to the bus company,where is it now 3:05. Not to worry, since the bus is late. So then a quarter mile walk to photocopy the permit (which it turned out wasn't necessary), and then I got the last seat on the bus and we took off.

I was of course exhausted by now. But my new seatmate was chipper, his name was Adel, and he became my newest Yemeni friend. What's more, having been a seaman he had a 200 word English vocabulary. We looked out at a flat weedy bushy sandscape with a flat ocean always about 5 miles away. And the bus a/c purred away. Later they popped in an Arabic movie video, which was a disjointed comedic pastiche.

Thanks to a new road, the 12 hour bus journey was only 7 and a half hours, including a stop for dinner and two stops for smokes and whizzing in the desert. When we got to Al Mukallah Adel walked me a couple of blocks to a hotel, and by 11 pm I was safely exconsed in my air conditioned room.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ibb Taizz

On Sunday I had asked the bus guy 5 times when the bus left for Ibb, and five times he had said 9 o'clock. So I should have known that when I got there at 8:15 the bus would have left at 8.

Not to worry. Just roll the ol' case another few block over to the share taxi area. Except that right before I got there, there was a minibus that was almost filled up. So I impulsively hopped on board.

And got to sit in the back with my legs and knees all mushed up. Not to worry, because after 15 minutes the driver pulled over and tugged the guy out of the front seat and put me there. Ah, comfortable seat and restfull legs.

But there was a price to pay, since now the driver wanted to have a perpetual conversation with me, with him not speaking a word of English and me not speaking a word of Arabic. And then after the first police check, (I would never have a problem with one, he started pestering me to give him 1000 rials.

The scenery for the first couple of hours was mostly flattish and brown. Except that we kept stopping in it. First, 20 minutes for qat buying. Then another 20 minutes for more qat buying. Then he kept pestering me to chew qat. Then another 30minutes for 'lunch'.

Arab men are always getting pissed off at each other, and then calming down. So now I decided to try a little creative anger. I started roundly cursing him out in English, threatening to take my backpack off the roof and finding another ride. He got the message and got real conciliatory. Being hungry now, I went in to eat. And he didn't bother me for the rest of the trip.

A little further down the road, and we started going up into the mountains. Big dramatic dry mountains with huge vistas beneath. Now, however, on top of the mountains there were giant dark threatening clouds. After 104 degrees in Kuwait, a little rain would be refreshing. Soon a little rain started.

And then a lot. The driver pulled over and took all the stuff off of the roof, and squooshed it in with the passengers in the back. Now the clouds were even darker and the crashing rain was mixed with hail. And there we were on a winding mountain road with a fogged up windshield and a driver high on qat, hurtling towards Ibb.

The reason I was going to Ibb is that I was going to Jibla, which is another medieval cragtop tourist town. But when we got to the medium sized, poor, ugly city of Ibb, the lowering skies and lack of taxis meant that Jibla was going to have to be called on account of rain. I paid the extra minibus fare to Ta'izz and we continued, arriving at about 3:30.

Ta'izz is another Yemeni city of at least 2 million, but, again, even the 'downtown' is poor and dirty and pathetic. With only a few mistakes I was able to find the hotel I was looking for, which turned out to be poor and dirty and pathetic.

Thus refreshed, I set out at about 5 to explore Ta'izz. Unsurprisingly, there was not much to explore. The city is supposed to have an Old Town of renown, but it didn't have one twentieth the charm of Sa'na's. Oh well.

At 6:20 I found an internet place, but it was closing in ten minutes because this was Thursday night, which in the Moslem world is Saturday night, which is, oh, forget it.

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.