01.09.2007 34 °C
As I arrived in Sanaa this afternoon, it was reminiscent of Bangladesh, or maybe more chaotic. Yemen is the second poorest Arabic country in the world. Only Mauritania has a lower per capita GDP.
First impressions of Sanaa were not too good..... It is a chaotic, dirty, and obviously a very poor city. As my taxi arrived from the airport into the old town we passed some heavily armed military personnel and their Land Rovers. On the streets many people are screaming at each others and happy faces are hard to find. The first restaurant where I had lunch with the locals (Restaurant Al-Dubai) over-charged me big time! On the streets, most people don't seem to notice me even though I have not yet seen any other Caucasians on the streets. But hey, these are only first impressions and I'm sure they won't last very long. As I dig deeper into these people's culture, habits and mind sets, I'm sure to get an entirely new perspective of life in the desert. After all, since childhood, Yemen was one of the five countries I most fantasized about visiting (other four were Russia, Mexico, Egypt and Iran). Our plane from Dubai (Air Arabia) flew for almost 2.5 hours over the desert - an area aptly referred to as "the empty quarter" (of Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen).
Sanaa is apparently one of the oldest cities in the world and even referred to in the Old Testament of the Bible. The old quarter of Sanaa is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites and the houses look like those you see in kid's Bible story books! Life has really been standing still here, well, since biblical times!
Most people wear traditional clothing -the men wearing their Ma'awiis (long white dresses..which are mostly quite dirty) and women mostly wear their black abaya with faces totally covered - only the eyes are visible. Most men also wear their BIG clan dagger knife (Jambiya) in the front of their bodies, tucked behind their broad leather belts.
I'll spend the next seven days around Yemen. After collecting my police issued travel permit later today, I'll travel by public transport around several villages north of Sanaa and will fly (Air Yemania) to Sayun in the desert which will be my base to explore the nearby mountains and Shibam (another UNESCO World Heritage site).
The next seven days here in Yemen is going to be very challenging and I'm sure....very exciting. Wish me luck.
UPDATED: LATER AFTERNOON OF DAY TWO - SANAA, YEMEN
Ok, as expected, my first impressions have changed in less than twelve hours! Since early this morning I spent exploring the old part of Sanaa, as well as some area of the new Sanaa. Here's my observations:
1. Time sure has been standing still in the old part of Sanaa. I bet it looked just the same 200 hundred years ago! Since shortly after sunrise, the town has been a bee nest of activity as people do their buying and selling, and just hanging around in the Souq al-Mihl (central market)
2. Most men are chewing away on their bags of qat (the green leaves they chew into HUGE bulging balls in their cheeks). Apparently many people spend a considerable amount of their income on this habit - even young boys have this....bad habit!
3. Saddam Hussain is revered by many!
4. There seems to be an uncomfortable vibe in the air and I've seen some aggressive behaviour among the men.
5. Women are 99% covered in their black outfit except for their eyeballs. As they do their shopping in small groups, it seems that they are largely ignored by the men.
6. Am I in Afghanistan? I often feel like this could just as well be Kabul from what I have seen on TV.
7. Generally people are very friendly (much less so than Bangladesh...if I had to compare) and many allow me to take their picture. Photographing women is forbidden (or rather deemed rude) but I often sneak in a snapshot in a very diplomatic way. So far I have not landed into trouble. Some women have actually asked me to take another picture (but only in places where no other men are around).
8. I peeked into one of the famous Hammams (public bath houses) as I heard it is a "don't miss experience". Well, peeking in was enough. I opted to shower in my own hotel room, which by the way, is an old palace in the old part of Sanaa...a surreal experience indeed!
Tomorrow morning at 6am I am flying east, into the desert of the Wadi Hadramawt area to the town of Sayun from where I will explore the ancient towns of Shibam and Tarim. I return to Sanaa on Thursday night.