Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Yemen: Chameleons, Lion Cubs and Military Checkpoints

So you may be wondering how I ended up in Yemen. Or how I got away with not telling my parents where I was going for 4 weeks. 

Sunrise from our roof while listening to the (really loud) prayer call
Sunrise from our rooftop with the view of the Sana'a mosque. 


Life, I've decided, is serendipitous. I met 'T' in the dining hall of my college for the first time about 4 weeks before we set off for Yemen together. He half-jokingly ended our first meeting with 'want to come with me?' So long story short, T was going back for a visit home for the winter holidays, and I thought this would be the best chance to go visit Yemen with a local. As T aptly put it, 'it might not even be a country in a couple years'. 

I got the visa 10 days before I was supposed to leave (I had to travel on the Russian passport, because the US consulate will not issue visas to Yemen) and bought my plane tickets 5 days pre-departure. A spontaneous trip indeed.
mountains upon mountains
Mountains upon mountains and hiking outside the capital. 
Yes it's true that I didn't tell my parents where I was going. 'T' and I stopped in Vicenza, Italy on the way to Sana'a (the capital of Yemen) to visit his friends, so that is where I told my parents I would be for 4 weeks. They thought I was eating gelato and sketching in the Florentine Art galleries (the Uffizi is incredible if you haven't been, but that's another story) and symphonies. Don't get me wrong, I love both these things as well, but been there, done that for now. 

After safely returning from the Middle East, I have since explained to my parents my reasons for not being completely forthcoming about my plans. I have the most understanding parents anyone could wish for. They let my independent streak run its course. 

Mom, if you're reading this, let the world know that you are the coolest about letting me go on these adventures. I usually go on international trips alone, so traveling with 'T' was a departure from my usual traveling style of going solo.
Qat, the country-wide drug of choice. Most Yemeni spend $15-20/day on ...
Qat, the country-wide drug of choice. Most Yemeni spend $15-20/day on this plant to chew in their cheek for hours. A lot of the time taking money away from the rest of the family that could be used for food and education.
Qat is the shrub that almost all Yemeni chew. It has similar effects to adderall including hyper-focus, lite insomnia, and loss of appetite. The students here call it the 'perfect study drug', while the older Yemenis use it daily similar to how we use coffee as a stimulant in the US. 
Qat bought at the drug market
The Qat market was the most sketchy place we probably visited. First off, women don't frequent them, so even in a full veil I stuck out like a black, veil-shrouded ghost. Second, it's a giant, open-air drug market. There are AK's, heated bartering and tensions can run high. I stood by T's side and scanned the surroundings under my veil the entire time we were there. 

At one point T told me that two guys that were following us mentioned something about 'kidnapping the two white kids'. T turned to them and cursed them out in what I can only imagine was quite the choice use of Arabic words. They left us alone mostly because they were so impressed by the white boy's completely fluent and accent-less Arabic speech; complete with Yemeni inflections and pointed hand gestures that got the point across that we were not to be messed with. I think his name-dropping the Minister of Defense had something to do with it. 
Khaled shows me how the climbing gets done around here
Bouldering in pure Yemeni style converse sneakers with Khaled.

This trip to Yemen overshadows all my previous travels in terms of sketchiness, and I don't say that lightly. Nepal, Siberia, Colombia, etc...all of those places as long as you were smart, you could travel safely and alone. In Yemen, that's unfortunately not that case. Even if you do everything right and don't offend anyone, shit can still hit the fan for no reason. T and I had to be hyper-vigilant and on guard all the time; searching for the slightest giveaway or indication that the situation was about to go south. T deserves all the credit for keeping us safe.

There was not much roped climbing on this trip. It's hard to explain to the Yemeni why the white girl isn't covered up and veiled, and trying to wear a harness with a full veil on is difficult. So I settled for lots of 4th/low 5th scrambling around and some sneaky sport climbs in the light of dusk.  

An old Imam's home, translated as "House on a Rock"

So the political situation. Yes it is scary. I would not suggest anyone go to mainland Yemen without a local contact they trust with their life. There were times that 'T' really did have full control of what was going to happen to me, and you need to be ok with that if you are going to travel here. Especially as a woman. There is an island off the mainland about 300 miles out to sea called 'Socotra' that's is a wild, beautiful place. You can go there as a tourist and no-one will harm you, you don't need to wear a veil and there's no 'Death to America' graffiti painted. Unfortunately you won't get the real Yemeni experience by going there since it's pretty much a big nature preserve. 

'Death to America' graffiti everywhere. Don't take it as 'death to Ame...
'Death to America' graffiti everywhere. Don't take it as 'death to Americans'. They're against US foreign policy and not against US citizens.
The 'Death to America' graffiti was easy to recognize by the characteristic red and green writing on a white background.

I decided to focus my trip on the parts of Yemen that I couldn't go to alone since 'T' graciously took me under his wing (I can always find time to go to Socotra by myself for a leisure vacation). So I took advantage of his knowledge as we snuck past military checkpoints around the capital city Sana'a, hunted falcons and got up to general mischief together.


The house front window was shot a few weeks before we got there
The house front window got hit by a stray shot a few weeks before we got there

T is fluent in Arabic. So fluent that if it wasn't for his whiteness and blondeness and crazy blue eyes, no-one would be able to tell he wasn't native Yemeni. When we would sneak through checkpoints together he would tie a Yemeni scarf over his blonde head and pretend to be Syrian (very effectively with his non-existent accent and since Syrians tend to be of a lighter skin tone). I would wear a full veil niqab (that's the burka and the eye cover), and because men are not allowed to speak or stare at a women (it's haram and indecent), I just had to sit and not say a word as the military guys with AK's would search our vehicle and wave us on. We were the perfect disguise. 

I'm on the right in my niqab veil disguise.
I'm on the right in my niqab veil disguise.

It is against the Muslim religion to stare at women or to touch them if they don't want to be touched (such as in public), so I felt very comfortable walking around the city in my veil. More safe I would say than walking the streets of New York. In the capital city Sana'a I wore a black full-covering dress and a head scarf. Anytime we were going anywhere sketchy or outside the city perimeters, I would put on the full veil just in case. 

Checking out the view and keeping a watchful eye on the military bases
Checking out the view and keeping a watchful eye on the military bases
We did a lot of scrambling around the spires and peaks. Sana'a is at 8,000' and its geography is reminiscent of Arizona or Moab with the canyons and sandstone spires. 
We scrambled up this odd formation in about 45 minutes.
We scrambled up this odd formation in about 45 minutes.
Of course a lot of low 4th/5th class solo climbing was done. 
picture-taking was not our priority, so I apologize for how half-hazar...
token bouldering picture
The locals wore traditional dress most of the time, with the head scarf and the 'jambiya': a jeweled knife, around their waists. 
Typical Yemeni dress.
Typical Yemeni dress.


I sneaked this photo of a 50 cal. on one of our 'excursions' outside t...
I sneaked this photo of a 50 cal. on one of our 'excursions' outside the city

Lots of American cars that were in natural disasters (Katrina, Sandy, etc...), that can no longer be sold in the US for safety/environmental reasons, are sold to the highest bidder for sky-high prices in Yemen. The Land Cruiser is the car everyone wants. 



In an old Imam's home. 
 Life in Yemen is like life elsewhere, except alcohol has to be procured covertly on a black market and most marriages involve a dowry of donkeys or camels and are arranged. 
T playing fooseball with S in the Old City
 Walking around you get stared at pretty much all the time. 




The donkey pictured below was part of a dowry paid by a groom to his future wife's family. I decided not to ask how many donkeys I was worth, when 'T' was approached by a wealthy local tribesman to inquire about 'the white-faced girl'. 



 The views around the towns were incredible 

Below are T and J and Polly the Beagle. The only Beagle in all of Yemen. Notice how we're all in skirts. 

 I was super psyched about this Chupa-Chups that T bought for me on the side of the road. 
Time for a lollipop selfie
 More chameleons. This one was caught in our front yard. 



And of course there was more shooting of guns. I decided that taking off the headscarf for this would be ok. 



We passed through many military checkpoints, where guys with guns made sure we weren't going to blow anything up. 
I couldn't not sneak this photo at a routine checkpoint. Notice the Ca...
I HAD to sneak this photo at a routine checkpoint. Notice the California plates next to the army dude. 



It's haram (against Islam) to take photos of women, but not te...
It's haram (against Islam) to take photos of women, but not technically illegal. Most didn't mind when I asked.

So time for a lesson on Yemen. It is NOT governed by sharia law, which means in the words of T "you could walk down that street right there in a bikini drinking alcohol and eating pig, and they would not arrest you, but you would probably feel uncomfortable. Plus you might get kidnapped." 

a local boy in one of the winding alleyways
a local boy in one of the winding alleyways

So about this kidnapping business. T's white friends have been kidnapped (some under questionable circumstances is the word on the Yemeni streets), but honestly, if you are going to be kidnapped anywhere, you'd want it to happen in Yemen. You're fed well, they provide you with alcohol, entertainment, your own space. You're a guest in their house....you just can't leave their supervision. 

Most of the people that are kidnapped are bigshot ambassadors, embassy people, etc... so I was in no threat of being snatched. Governments pay the ransoms and NOT the families. I'm a nobody. No one wants to kidnap a young white girl with no political affiliation, so I was relatively safe-ish. Sort of. We were still on guard all the time and grew eyes in the back of our heads. T kept me safe from things I didn't even know were threats. 
typical newspaper clipping. Apparently it wasn't even a kidnapping att...
typical newspaper clipping. Apparently it wasn't even a kidnapping attempt; they just wanted his super decked out car.


Sana'a the capital city by moonlight.
Sana'a the capital city by moonlight.

There was lots and lots of buildering that we did around the capital city. Mostly by night. I mastered climbing in an abaya (the black fully-covering dress). 

On the rooftops of Sana'a
On the rooftops of Sana'a during one of our nighttime excursions

The old city of Sana'a is one of if not THE oldest still lived-in city in the world. Its dated to 7000-8000 BC and is a gorgeous arrangement of gingerbread-like houses. 

More pictures of the city by night because it's so gorgeous.
More pictures of the city by night because it's so gorgeous.

Antiques are prevalent in the city, especially if you know where to look. I saw Phoenician beads being sold that go for $2000-3000/each at one shop. 

Lots and lots of old guns. The antiques in some of these stores are UN...
Lots and lots of old guns. The antiques in some of these stores are UNREAL.




The street graffiti here is heartbreaking
The street graffiti here is heartbreaking


Underneath the modest black veils, Yemeni women wear very skimpy cloth...
Underneath the modest black veils, Yemeni women wear very skimpy clothing. The women-only weddings are ridiculous and huge affairs

The capital city is up at 2,500 meters, and the mountains around are quite impressive.

Mountain sunrise outside the city when we went to trap falcons (wi...
Mountain sunrise outside the city when we went to trap falcons (with the hamsters we purchased at the exotic animal market)
We went to the exotic animal market in Sana'a to buy hamsters (super exotic, I know), to use as bait to trap falcons. 

T at the exotic animal market bargaining for hamsters fated for falcon-bait

The ill-fated hamsters
So at 4:30 am we got up on Christmas morning in a Muslim country and proceeded to go look for and trap falcons. 


I'm pretty sure we were one of a handful of families with a Christmas tree in the house over the holidays. It was odd missing all the Christmas propaganda and holiday songs that surround the US at this time. 


My friend T walking along the crumbling city walls
My friend T walking along the crumbling city walls

You have to have a 'looser' definition of climbing when you're out here. It's not all bolts or cracks and ropes and anchors. There's a lot more 'natural' climbing up buildings, jumping on rooftops, evaluating the sketchiness of landings, making sure you don't fall through 7 stories of 5000 year old rubble. Having some climbing skills definitely came in handy. 

T showing me around the abandoned city rooftops
T showing me around the abandoned city rooftops
We visited an abandoned old Jewish city that was a few hundred years old. 
T evaluating the crumbly rock bridges
T evaluating the crumbly rock bridges
Most of the mountain peaks and ridges around the area have military bases or at least look-outs on them, so you have to be super careful about where you decide to walk around and hike....or you'll get sniped. 
the rock monkey
the rock monkey

The rock formations around here are unreal. Any geologists around here? The rock is definitely volcanic with lots of quartz veins, and has the consistency of sandstone, but that's about all I can say about it. Any input would be appreciated. 

Touring the canyons
Touring the canyons




The abandoned city we ran all over
The abandoned city we ran on the rooftops of
'T' was an awesome tour guide to the country---he knows everyone, everything and can talk his way out of anything, which came in handy many more times than I'd care to admit. 
View of the city from the side with T in the driver's seat
View of the city from the side with T in the driver's seat

I saw maybe 8 other white people the entire time I was in Yemen. People are really curious, and very friendly. Let me make this really clear: the Yemeni people have NOTHING against the American people. They just don't like our government or foreign policy that flies drones around their country and kills wedding convoys. Everywhere I went I was met with greater hospitality than anyone has ever shown me in America. In Yemen, sticking together as a community and as a family unit is paramount to anything. No matter how much you screw up, your family will always help you. 

Tank stationed at a checkpoint
Tank stationed at a checkpoint
We ended up passing through a lot of military checkpoints. The number of guns in this country is unreal. People carry them around with them on the streets like handbag accessories. 
T fingerboard training Yemeni-style
T fingerboard training Yemeni-style


Highest gun per capita (after the United States of course). Th...
Highest gun per capita (after the United States of course). This is our house guard's son running around with an unloaded Russian navy gun
We lived in a gorgeous house with a cook, guard and his cute, shy son. 
The Fixer. What would I have done without him?
The Fixer. What would I have done without him?



We had a lot of animal encounters, because of course T has all the connections with every zoo, keeper, and wild animal in town. We went to the main zoo and talked our way into any enclosure we wanted to enter. 

A Yemeni baby chameleon
A Yemeni baby chameleon
When T told me they had baby lion cubs and the keeper wanted me to play with them...I kind of lost it. 
aaaand I get to play with lion cubs that are still teething, so you ca...
aaaand I get to play with lion cubs that are still teething, so you can stick your fingers in their mouth and they can't bite you.


We were allowed to name these two guys, so supertopo meet 'koolaid' an...
We were allowed to name these two guys, so meet 'koolaid' and 'BAMF'





More baby cat photos because the easiest way to woo me is to hand me a...
More baby cat photos because the easiest way to woo me is to hand me a lion cub for the day.

Below is pictured the rock crag that is about 10 min. driving outside the city. To get here we drove through some military checkpoints and then hiked through a local town with lots of hostile 'Death to America' red and green graffiti, where T was stopped by an angry off-duty military guy who started yelling at us. I meekly stood to the side (as always) and said nothing. 

T grew up here, so he knows everyone and has all the key people on speed dial. He called up someone high up, who then yelled at the army guy yelling at us over the phone (he turned out to be his uncle. Like I said, family connections are everything around here). The army dude left us alone with a stern warning not to set anything on fire. Apparently he thought we were going to the cliffs to blow things up. 

T in front of the crag!!!!
T in front of the crag!!!!

There were 6 easy routes at this location that are bolted with anchors at the top. 

More cliffs (and military bases on the peaks)
More cliffs (and military bases on the peaks)

Hiking around the mountains here you have to be very careful. There are military bases on a lot of the peaks, and snipers patrol the ridgelines for anyone that's not supposed to be there. The concept of 'hiking around' is pretty foreign to the Yemeni, so T had to do a lot of explaining about why were were just roaming around the hills. 

The wild chameleon that T spotted and decided to fetch for me.
The wild chameleon that T spotted and decided to fetch for me.


We managed to sneak out about 3 hrs out of the city to a wadi canyon full of greenery, monkeys and running water. T spotted a wild Yemeni chameleon and after seeing my pleading puppy-dog eyes, he went to capture it for me. (Don't worry, chameleons are not endangered in Yemen, and we let it go in the end) 

T being an expert chameleon-wrangler
T being an expert chameleon-wrangler


A slightly pissed-off wild Yemeni chameleon
A slightly pissed-off wild Yemeni chameleon


Pure happiness
Pure happiness


We go on a Yemeni picnic and enjoy a valley to ourselves.
We go on a Yemeni picnic and enjoy a valley to ourselves.

Yemen is a beautiful country full of bizarre flora and fauna. 

Some blue-headed lizard thing that was everywhere tanning on the rocks...
Some blue-headed lizard thing that was everywhere tanning on the rocks.


Weird looking blood-sucking plant
Weird looking blood-sucking plant


Walking in water. A simple pleasure in Yemen
Walking in water. A simple pleasure in Yemen

Yes I found wearing the veil cumbersome, but honestly, I would rather wear it while I was there because otherwise you get stared at. No-one would arrest me, but it's a respectful thing to do and helps you blend in. 

A typical Yemeni picnic with great friends.
A typical Yemeni picnic with great friends.
The full veil also gives you freedom. When I only wore the head scarf around the capital city, everyone could tell I was a foreigner and you get treated (undeservedly in my opinion), like a celebrity. You get the right of way, people stare and let you pass and you get away with things just because you're white and for no other reason. I'm not saying it's a good thing, but that's why wearing the full veil let me blend in, and feel more normal than when I was uncovered. 
Scrambling and playing around like a child on the spires.
Scrambling and playing around like a child on the spires.


Crumbly rocky spires
Crumbly rocky spires


Climbing in a skirt got old pretty quick.
Climbing in a skirt got old pretty quick.

We walked to some hot springs in the mountains. 

Marvelous greenery in the wadi
Marvelous greenery in the wadi


T showing off his 'run and jump' tactics of getting over the hot water...
T showing off his 'run and jump' tactics of getting over the hot water streams


A farmer on his land guarding his flock of goats with his AK
A farmer on his land guarding his flock of goats with his AK

aaaannnnd back to humorous antics when T steals a birds nest from a farmer's tree and the shepherd girl yells and chases him away. I'm not sure if I was supposed to be impressed or what he was aiming for.  

T steals a bird nest and licks bird spit. Am I supposed to be impresse...


Big tall walls that are remarkably not crumbly. Great potential for de...
Big tall walls that are remarkably not crumbly. Great potential for development here. No cracks or natural pro that I scouted unfortunately, but there's multipitch potential.

Here are some more scrambling photos from other parts of Yemen. 

More scrambling around
More scrambling around


Notice the scarf that I kept on my person in case we accidentally ran ...
Notice the scarf that I kept on my person in case we accidentally ran into someone, so I could quickly do a makeshift coverup.



Overall it was an amazing, beautiful place. The people smile, live their lives, love, have arranged marriages and their life goes on. The unfortunate situation with the Yemeni military and the US terrorism antics is sad and pretty disgusting, but I came to Yemen to visit T and to see the country and not to judge.

More than for anything on this trip, I'm thankful T and I met in the states and that his family opened their doors to me for the past several weeks. I wish everyone had a friend as caring and vigilant and humble as T. He held my life in his hands on more than one occasion, and that level of trust is a rare thing. 

Sunsets are beautiful here with all the minarets spread throughout the...
Sunsets are beautiful here with all the minarets spread throughout the city


I almost forgot all of the wonderful one-liner, politically completely incorrect quotes I heard throughout the trip. Here are a couple gems (warning: they are not for everyone. People operate here without any political corrective bullsh#t. Maybe that's why friendship/family bonds are so strong here in Yemen, because people tell you how it is without sugarcoating. Anyway, if you're going to be offended, I've warned you.) 

"Yo, don't point or you'll get sniped"- J

"They said you were beautiful, I told them you were my wife" -T 

"...and then my crazy f*#kin' friend walks in with two grenades and yells 'if you motherf*#kers don't get out of my f*#king house right now, we're all meeting Allah." -F

---'If we get kidnapped in Rema, we won't make our flights' -F
---'no f*#king sh#t sherlock. No-one is getting kidnapped on my watch.' -T

"Walk faster, we're not paying for these sh#t tennis courts and the Yemeni guards are chasing us." -J

---'In Yemen we give kids money,' -F
---'no, no, no, it's usually candy' -J
---'ya, anyway, and they they fight. It's a Yemeni fight club.' -F

---'Why are we going the back way?'--me
---'because there was gunfire at the front' -C

---'These aren't blanks, doesn't the bullet come down?' -me 
---'Yeah, hopefully we don't kill anyone on the other side of the bush' -T

"That was either thousands of dollars of fireworks, or a f*#k ton of people just got killed" -T

"It all started when the oranges fell off, and then the Somalis started fighting" -F

Here's another chameleon T caught in the yard of our home two hours ago before we get on our flights out of Sana'a:

A wild chameleon trying to blend in with my arm.
A wild chameleon trying to blend in with my arm.
For those interested and who has managed to read to the bottom of this extremely long blog post, I am done with Middlebury College and am continuing with my Bachelor's of Engineering and pursuing a joint Masters at Dartmouth in Chemical Engineering. Lots of ice climbing this winter season!  

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