In search of the hottest place on earth..

Trip Start Oct 13, 2005
Trip End Dec 22, 2006

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Flag of Yemen  ,
Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ahlan wa sahlan,

The weekend before last Evan, Aaron and I travelled west to the coastal city of Hodeida then south to Zabid and Taiz. The bus ride there was fairly uneventful compared to previous bus experiences in this country (Hadhramaut springs violently to mind), though the bus itself was probably the dirtiest yet and, as we passed through the heavy mountain rains a few hours out of Sana'a, my 'tightly-locked' window decided to leak rainwater all over my lap.

Well anyway, we arrived in Hodeida at about 8pm and as we alighted from the bus we were pounded by the intense humidity of the infamous Red Sea coast. We headed straight for a hotel and, having been turned away from the first two on account of them being full, we were relieved to check in to the third. Our visit was coinciding with the celebrations for Yemen Unification Day which, this year, were based in Hodeida. As we prepared to leave the hotel to eat a much-needed meal, the hotel clerk asked for our passports - a standard procedure in Yemen. Unfortunately, in a rather large oversight, Evan had left his passport in Sana'a - 'mushkilla kabeera' (big problem).

In normal circumstances we probably could have talked our way out of this situation given we at least had two out of the three passports, but, with the President and esteemed company in town, security was extra tight. The hotel clerk, after a 30 minute argument, insisted that we get written permission from some sort of director figure at a building 15 minutes away. When we finally found this building (some kind of army compound) we were met by what seemed like an entire army of uniformed officers and, as we tried to enter, they ushered us instead onto a small bus. The bus then took us to another building some ten minutes away where we were met by another set of officials and ushered into a room. We had been taken to the headquarters of the tourist police and, once inside, Evan (the best Arabic speaker among us) attempted to explain to the array of clueless officials what we were doing in Hodeida, and why he had forgotten his passport.

After three long hours of sitting around repeating the same things over and over again, the tourist police finally released us (without the required written permission), and we returned to the hotel. At the hotel, the clerk was still not satisfied, so instructed his goon to take us to another building to get the written permission. After another 15 minute walk we found ourselves back at the first building (from where we had been turned away before). This time they let us in and, after another 30 minutes or so of explaining ourselves to the army, they ushered us onto the back of an army truck. We were then driven, in the company of about 20 army soldiers and officers, another 15 minutes to some high-gated compound.

At this point we were quite convinced we'd been taken to prison for the night, but as we entered through the fortified gate, we realised we'd been taken to some kind of ministry. Here we sat on the floor of the courtyard for a few minutes until we were met by some kind of influential government minister. For the hundredth time, we explained our situation and the minister was entirely unimpressed with us. He informed us that Aaron and I could stay but that Evan would have to return to Sana'a. I might just point out that it was past midnight by now, and there was no way Evan could return to Sana'a because the buses had stopped running. We sat back down on the floor while the highest-ranking army officer among the group, and the high-up minister guy went and discussed matters inside.

An hour or so later, the army officer guy returned and told us he had sorted things out. We got back on the army truck and were taken back to our hotel in order to collect our belongings. We were then driven to another hotel (presumably owned by the high-up minister guy) where the whole passport thing would not be an issue. So, after 5 or 6 hours of gruelling, often-times comical Yemeni bureaucracy, we finally settled into our new hotel at about 1.30am feeling hungry, tired and bemused.

That was that. The next morning we headed to the fish souq where we bought an entire shark for ourselves, and took it to a local restaurant and had them cook it up for us in a spicy dish. Suffice it to say it was 'latheeth jiddan' (very delicious), but with the intense humidity that accompanied our meal, we were literally drenched with sweat by the time we finished.

Appetites sated, we headed for the main purpose, and most anticipated part, of the trip: Zabid. Now Zabid is reputedly one of the hottest places on earth, with summer temperatures reaching the mid-50's c. Indeed, the week before us, a couple of other students from our school had been there, and had reported a temperature of 53c (128f) and 85% humidity. So, being British, I was absolutely relishing the opportunity to go somewhere so unfathomably hot that I could just complain about the heat to my heart's content. And generally, I think we each just wanted to be able to say we've been to one of the hottest places on earth.

However, as we stepped out of the taxi upon arrival in Zabid, we were instantly disappointed. The temperature was maybe in the mid-30's at most and the air was pretty dry - it was no where near as hot or humid as Hodeida had been. Well, no matter, I managed to console myself by instead complaining about the weather not being hot enough to complain about.

Despite the anti-climax of the climate, Zabid was a really impressive little town. Alongside Shibam (the mud-skyscraper city in Hadhramaut), and Old Sana'a (where I reside), Zabid is one of the three UNESCO World Heritage sights in Yemen, and it was known back in the day as a world-renowned sight for scientific and religious learning. The highlight of our afternoon there was the unique opportunity to go inside, and even photograph, a couple of the mosques. Inside the ancient mosque we found a series of impressive Arabic inscriptions on the walls which are slowly being uncovered. Inside the second mosque, we happened to be there for the call-to-prayer which was somewhat deafening, but was interesting to see and hear it from a 'behind-the-scenes' perspective. As we walked around the town we were invited into the house of a local who provided us with a nice cup of tea, which we drank in his beautifully-layed out mafraj.

As the sun began to set we left Zabid and headed south to the city of Taiz where our first priority was a good night's sleep. The following morning we had time for one only one activity before our bus left, so we opted for a museum that the Lonely Planet guidebook had described as 'pathetic' - we figured this had to be harsh, but upon visiting... it was an apt description. I can't even describe the mismatch of ideas that was going on, but the highlight artefact was an etcha-sketch (everybody's favourite 80's toy) that had been donated to the local Immam back in the day. I also (literally) bumped into a guy who hailed from Balsall Heath in Birmingham, which is just two suburbs away from my own - a very small world indeed! Finally, as we headed to the bus station for our imminent departure, we stumbled across a guy hand-weaving mowez's in a little roadside shop. I just couldn't resist the opportunity to buy another mowez - my eighth (I think I may have an addiction problem)!

Sick of travelling in nasty buses we decide to pay a little more than usual to travel by YEMITCO (the national bus service). As we boarded the shockingly modern bus we were met with the sweet relief of air-con for the first time, and the level of cleanliness was a joy to behold. However, this lasted only 30 minutes into the 6 hour journey back to Sana'a, until my vomit-curse struck once again and the guy directly in front of me starting vomiting onto the aisle floor. This is the third time such an incident has occurred in my direct vicinity while travelling on Yemeni buses. At no stage in the journey did anybody even attempt to clean it up, and so I was left with both the smell and the sight of qat-vomit for the remaining 5 hours. No matter, I closed my eyes and looked back on an eventful but fun little trip.

Anyway, sorry folks - this is a horribly long entry, so I shall close now.

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gamal_degme on

nice that u enjoyed

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