Hiking in Yemen's Haraz Mountains

Trip Start Dec 15, 2008
Trip End Dec 23, 2008

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

I slept until 4 am this morning, the latest sleep I had gotten yet. My body was slowly adjusting to local time and would probably be fully adjusted by the time I had to return home.  It was amazing to think that I would be heading home in a couple of days, but for the moment I was in such a different world.   It was just 5 days until Christmas, but you wouldn't know it in Yemen. 
I spent the morning hours working on the previous day's photos and writing my journal.  I felt such accomplishment in staying atop both of those.  At 8 am I went down to have breakfast in the common room of the hotel, and I was all alone since I was the only guest staying there.  At 8:30 my guide, Wasela, met me and we hopped on moto-taxis to go up the road 5-10 minutes to Hoteib.  I don't know if there is a single motorcycle helmet in Yemen (I hadn't seen one), and I was a little nervous sitting on the dirty sheepskin-covered back seat of a motorcycle, zooming up a winding mountain road.  I felt like apologizing to Suzan for doing such a thing, as she had made me promise that I would be safe and not do anything dangerous.  The moto-taxi ride was just about a promise-breaker.
We got to the village of Hoteib without incident, an important Ismaili (sect of Shia Islam) pilgrimage destination with a saint's tomb.  Plenty of Pakistani and Indian pilgrims were milling about.  I wasn't that interested in going there but had deferred to the guide's suggested itinerary.  Later I wondered if he chose this as our starting point to make the hike a little easier for himself, with several hundred feet gained by riding the motorcycles on that initial stretch.
We wandered through the village before starting our hike, and I marveled at the antique wooden doors with large latches, but now with an added padlock of some sort.  Our hike began on a rough road and shortly into it we stopped to buy some strawberries from a few farmers working in their field.  I ate a few after rinsing them off lightly but maybe I didn't clean them enough.  By afternoon my stomach was having some severe distress, although it might have also been from chewing some qat the previous day.
The guide was good to have for several reasons, even if I didn't particularly like his personality.  He took away all guesswork that I would have had if I were hiking alone, as there were hundreds of possible trails used by local children to go to school, farmers to their fields, goats in search of forage, and people going every which way to visit friends in neighboring villages or to get to the nearest road.  The guide also helped point out crops (coffee, qat, wheat, fenugreek) and made it easier and more acceptable for me to enter villages.  He occasionally fended off curious kids (although they were harmless enough and didn't bother me) and chatted about many topics (especially women).
The guide gave me the most interaction I had had with any Yemeni person I'd met.  He especially liked to take about love and sex.  Not even 10 minutes into the hike he was talking about the last foreigner he had guided through the mountains for 4 days, a Hawaiian woman he described as "so beautiful".  He gestured that her breasts were full and high, "not like Yemeni women" as he moved his cupped hands down towards his stomach.  "She had a beautiful mouth. I would need to kiss her 3 times to kiss her whole lips."
I asked, "Did you kiss her?"
"No, but if I kiss her, I want to make love."
He went on to say that on the last morning when they parted she told him that she had wanted to sleep with him. Unfortunately he had not understood her body language the night before when she was signaling the green light by seductively licking her lips.  She told him later that that was the sign. "I so angry.  I really want to make love to her."  I hope he never visits Baskin Robbins or else he might think that all the women eating ice cream might want his body.
Wasela was married but he went on to say that he had a French girlfriend, a 40-something tourist who had visited Yemen 4 times and slept with each time.  He was looking forward to her next visit in March.  He did not seem to feel guilty or bashful in admitting his extramarital affairs and asked me how easy it was to "buy a woman" in America.  His perception was that sex in western countries was widely available for a price, that every city had red-light districts.
I asked about his wife, and how often they made love.  It was a question I would never ask of someone at home, but we were in the middle of nowhere, he seemed to want to discuss nothing else, and I would never see him again anyways.  He didn't understand the question.
"How many times do I make love to other women?"
"No, to your wife."
He still seemed a little confused as if I was asking an obvious question.  "Every night."
"Does your wife like to do it every night?"
"No, sometimes she's angry.  But I can't sleep unless I make love.  When the woman has blood, for that week I am angry all week."
He went on to say that Yemeni women only like to use the missionary position and he paused on the trail to gesture the various positions that Yemeni women don't do.  He then told me about the time he guided a group of Spanish men and women on a hike and how they stripped to their underwear (or skimpy bathing suits) to go swimming together at some pool.  He was incredulous that the men and women swam together, something unheard of among Yemenis.
This went on and on, how chewing qat was like Viagra, how it made him crave sex and how he could have 3 orgasms in succession as a result.  "But Yemeni women only want to do it once.  They say, 'I'm tired'.  Qat is Yemeni whiskey.  Which whiskey (alcohol) in America is best to make love?"
Right when I was ready to change the subject we crossed a ridge and caught glimpse of 2 of the magnificently located villages full of stone tower houses clustered atop craggy outcrops.  The villages of Kahel and Lakamat al-Gadi were both very impressive and I was a little disappointed that we only viewed them from a distance.  I think it would have been a more worthwhile hike to approach the villages on foot directly from Manakha instead of coming by way of Hoteib.  I guess we were at a popular viewpoint since a local man was hanging out with a few items for sale.  A few minutes earlier I had bought an unusual necklace made of some bulbous, aromatic seeds, sold for $1 by a local woman.  I didn't really want it and could not picture Suzan or any American woman ever wearing it, but I figured it was so cheap and a way to bring a tiny bit of money to a villager.  I intentionally left it behind in my hotel room later.
We made a fairly stiff climb up to the village of Gabal at 9120', and I felt slow with all of the weight in my backpack, especially the 5 bottles of water and all of the other food (3 oranges, 3 bananas, bread, can of tuna).  Wasela said that there were only 3 or 4 families still living in the village, "30-40 people".  Talk about large family size!  Wasela himself was from a family of 13 children.  From Gabal we had fairly good views, but the hazy air slightly compromised the views.  The temperature was just about perfect for hiking, around 60F, but the bright sunshine made it feel warmer.  I used sunscreen but still got burned a bit.
After Gabal we walked along level terraces near a ridgetop with fine views of stone villages in all directions.  We stopped in the village of al-Ayinah where school was in session so we visited briefly.  There were 3 classrooms, almost entirely filled with boys except for a handful of girls who were fully covered even at that young age.  The teacher of the youngest kids held a piece of chalk in one hand which was no longer than a quarter-inch, and a stick in the other to swat the kids when they got unruly.  I told him I was also a teacher and he gave me the chalk to teach something.  Hmmm, what could I do without the technology I use during my lectures?  I sketched a map of the world to show where I was from, and the students were suddenly rapt with attention.  I tried to offer some motivation, encouraging them to work hard in their studies, and the guide translated my words into Arabic.  I showed some of the photos I had brought from home, and one of the kids grabbed them from the teacher to look and tore two of them in the process.  I left one of the pictures with the teacher, of Suzan, Sophia and me on the Cape Town coastline.  It showed colorful wildflowers, green grass, and blue sea, quite a contrast to the landscape of the Haraz Mountains.  It was good that we reached the school just before noon, as the students attended for only 4 hours a day from 8 am until 12, six days a week with only Friday off.
Soon after leaving that village we took a lunch break under some trees, and I ate a banana and some tuna on flat bread.  I wasn't especially hungry but felt I had to eat.  I did not yet realize that I was getting sick.  After lunch, Wasela asked me for 200 riyals ($1) so that he could buy some qat.  He told me to go ahead and that he would catch me.  I liked the independence and solitude hiking by myself, alone to my thoughts in such an unusual place.  I felt perfectly safe, but I did get slightly worried when I stopped at a village past Arrjaz and one of the men started talking American politics to me.  "Clinton and Obama good.  Bush bad.  Are you Democrat?"
I answered truthfully, "No, Republican."
"Do you like Bush?"
My mind quickly flashed through the stories of foreigners getting kidnapped, even killed.  The US embassy was bombed in Sana'a just 3 months earlier.
"So-so," I responded in a non-committal way.
No problem, though, and I was soon on my way again.  A minute later I heard a boy yelling to me in the distance, "Sura!  Sura!" It was the Arabic word for "photo", the one I most loved hearing.  Yemeni people were somewhat schizophrenic in their attitude towards photography.  The boys and men generally loved having their photo taken and often begged for it.  Women on the other hand invariably declined any request for photos.  Boys were 100% receptive to their photos, women 0%.
The guide eventually caught up to me and not long after we hopped on moto-taxis to take us all the way back to Manakha.  It meant that we wouldn't be visiting Hajjarah, but I was feeling tired and weak.  My stomach was starting to have problems.  That moto-taxi saved a few kilometers of walking and was about the best $1 I had spent in Yemen.
Back in Manakha I changed some money, went back to the hotel, took a shower and then just collapsed on the bed.  It was about 3 pm and I barely got out of bed for the next 17 hours other than making frequent trips to the bathroom.  Thank God I was in a decent room with a private bathroom and sit-down toilet.  I dreaded the thought of feeling this way in the hotel at Kawkaban where the stinky Yemeni squatter toilet was down the hall. 
I had no motivation to edit my photos or write in my journal, just lying in bed listening to my SanDisk music player.  Technology has really improved the quality of life, and it is remarkable to think that I can be in such a distant locale and still have my favorite music in my pocket.  Listening to Third Day, Switchfoot, The Alarm, and October Project lifted my spirits, my mind flooded of fond memories of experiences associated with hearing the same music in the past under happier circumstances.  
I had a fever and I was just barely warm enough lying under the blankets with all of my clothes on.  I fell asleep around 9 pm, right when a 2-hour dance performance was beginning downstairs.  I really would have loved watching it, but I was just too weak.  Besides, I had seen the dance in Thilla without any tourists on hand.  I would have enjoyed it, but all I really cared about was feeling better.
I awoke at 11 pm right when the performance finished and lay awake for the next 2 hours, imagining myself getting kidnapped in Yemen and then staging a daring escape after being held captive for 26 days.  Then I made the talk-show circuit recounting my story and offering motivational maxims derived from my experiences.  Was fever making my imagination run wild? 
It had been a fairly good day, but my poor health had temporarily reduced the luster Yemen held for me.
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