Hadhramaut (Part Two)
Trip Start Oct 13, 2005
22Trip End Dec 22, 2006
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Having metaphorically washed off the nightmare that was our bus journey with a nice cool shower, we were ready to do some exploring. As we left the hotel the southern heat instantly hit us. Even though it's the depths of winter here it still reaches above 32c (90f in old money) by as early as 8am. Having got used to the mild climate of elevated Sana'a, this was a real reminder that we were still in the Middle East - apparently in the summer months it reaches the mid-50c's daily (130f), which is simply unbearable.
Seyoun was small but quite charming, the focal point being a grand white palace that once housed the local Sultan. The main point of note I think was the difference in the people of the south in comparison with the north both in look and in culture. Obviously with the heat they were noticeably darker and the men all wore a futah (really nice, light, woven and hand-stitched patterned material that wraps around the waist like a long skirt); in the north the men wear the traditional all-in-one robe thing (thobe) with the janbia on the belt (that hooked-sword thing). People in the south also do not seem to chew qat or are at least not obsessed with it like in the north. There were also a lot more English-speakers among the southern people and they seemed a lot more educated generally. I guess all these differences are remnants of pre-unification.
That Monday afternoon we headed by taxi to Shibam, a small (tiny actually) city of mud-skyscrapers and one of three UNESCO world heritage sights in Yemen (Old Sana'a where I reside is another, and the town of Zabid the third). In fact it is credited as the first instance of skyscraper-building in the world, dating back over seven centuries or more. From the outside you couldn't help but be impressed, the simple (made of mud obviously) yet ornate structures stretching perhaps 30 storeys into the stark blue sky. We climbed up a hill opposite the city and took some great pictures and just stood in wonderment for a while. Once inside however it was a bit of a disappointment. It was quite dirty and, as I've found to be the case generally in Yemen, there was nothing really to do there because the country doesn't seemed to have learnt to utilise its considerable tourist potential. Indeed you couldn't even take pictures (which is the usual activity) because the buildings were too tall up close. I did however purchase a nice mowez (man-skirt) while inside, which was a necessity in that southern heat, and also a must-buy item when in Hadhramaut.
The next day (having stemmed the bleeding from my ears following the stentorian call-to-prayer) we were sat having a morning shai when a couple of Omani guys came and chatted with us. Turns out they (brothers Ahmed and Abdullah) plus three of their other brothers were visiting from Salala (the mountain region of Oman close to the Yemen border). They were really nice and we ended up spending the whole day with them, touring around some of the local towns in their car and being treated to a really nice lunch too. It was great and we got to see a lot more than we would have by taxi, plus we didn't spend a penny all day as the Omanis insisted on paying for everything. Another thing I liked about them is that they kept addressing me as 'Mister Tom' because they didn't quite get the whole surname concept. I kind of think it had a ring to it, but I fear it would sound stupid in anything other than an Arab accent.
That night, we all drove out into the desert and made a campfire. Then Ahmed went back in to town to pick up a load of food for us to eat. It was a memorable evening just sitting there in the desert, talking with our new friends, eating nice food and staring up at the stars in their unadulterated splendour.
The following morning we set off early by pre-arranged jeep from Seyoun to Wadi Dowan, a supposedly breathtaking valley en-route to al-Mukalla. It was a narrow valley flanked on each side by cliffs; the contoured faces and perfectly flat peaks giving them an upside-down feel reminiscent of (but not as impressive as) Grand Canyon. In the valley below, the road on which we travelled was at times an ocean of green palm trees interspersed with ancient villages built precariously into the rocks. As impressive as this may sound we were all rather under-whelmed, as we'd built it up too much having been told by various sources that it was just amazing.
That Wednesday evening we arrived in the coastal town of al-Mukalla. Again we were disappointed as there seemed little to it, and it lacked the traditional and olde charm to which I've grown accustomed. Indeed, no sooner had we arrived we started to look for a bus company (a different one!!!) to arrange a ride back to Sana'a for the Thursday morning.
As we pulled up to the hotel, we noticed our Omani friends already parked up. We were really happy to see them again, and they offered to take us on a tour of the town once we'd showered. Following our brief tour, we drove to the beach where we again set up a campfire and, this time, the Omanis actually cooked a really nice tuna and rice dish with ingredients and a pot that they had just bought especially. It was another memorable evening, camped out under a warm blanket of stars, the subdued ocean glistening under the moonlit sky, while the rhythmical whoosh of the gentle ocean waves accompanied the crackle of the campfire to create a hypnotic atmosphere.
Unfortunately, in a minor oversight I forgot to apply mosquito repellent, and while the above atmosphere may sound idyllic, it was also accompanied by the sound of Tom slapping his own flesh at regular intervals and cursing under his breath. Indeed, upon our return to the hotel it became clear that the bugs had truly dined out on my flesh - I must have over 100 bites on my feet alone. I'm optimistically convincing myself that most of them are flee bites rather than mozzies, but either way they're still itching like a bitch. I'm just hoping insha'allah that I don't get malaria; or conversely that I don't get it until I'm back in England - I don't fancy a stay in a Yemeni hospital.
The following morning we were up early to catch the 6.30am 11-hour bus-ride back to Sana'a. As the hunk of rusted metal that was our bus pulled up we had that familiar sinking feeling. However, once we got onboard it was actually okay inside and, this time, there were no extra people crammed in along the aisle. By this time we had been joined by Philip (the French photographer guy I mentioned who was in Rwanda during the genocide), and so I sat next to him on the back row where there was most legroom.
No more than two minutes into our journey Philip starting complaining to me that his seat was broken. He was complaining so much I thought he must be semi-joking, so I was laughing hysterically at him. "Zis jeurney iz onlee fav menetts uld, but if it stopped rat now I wod stell sey et is zee wust jeurney of my life". I soon realised he was deadly serious, as which point I had to turn away to conceal my fit of giggles. After a while his constant complaining started to grate - at one point he actually woke me up, like a call-to-prayer, to remind me his seat was broken.
Finally after three hours I caved in and offered him my seat. Once I swapped with him I realised that his seat wasn't that bad at all ('mush mushkilla' - no problem), so I don't really no why he was complaining so much. Anyway, he seemed much more content in my seat, and once he'd cheered up I got to talking with him about the Rwandan genocide which was really compelling. Though it was interesting, I couldn't quite take him seriously following his 3-hour fit of complaint. How could someone manage being amidst a genocide but yet not cope with a semi-broken seat on a bus? I just kept picturing him in Rwanda, sitting on a faulty deckchair complaining to himself: "merd, I want to go swimming but all these hacked-up bodies are floating in the water, somebody had better come and clean the pool".
Anyway, luckily the bus-ride back was pretty much without incident - no vomiting kids and no fat-dads at least. We got back to Sana'a safe and sound on Thursday evening, and that about wraps up the trip, and this painfully long (even by my standards) email - if you're still reading, sorry about that.