Roadtrippin' in Yemen...
N.B. This post is mainly an excuse to show you lots of pictures, many of which will probably end up in the 'visuals' section of this website.
When I came to Sana'a, I didn't know if I would feel safe enough to even leave the building of the language institute where I stayed and took classes. Enter Mélodie, the sweetest PhD student ever to have walked the earth, who has been living in Yemen for 4 years now and happened to be staying at the institute as well. On my first day, she walked me around the Old City of Sana'a in her own, incredibly calm but reassuring way. On day two, she went with me to Dar al Hajjar, and on my last weekend, she and her partner joined me on a road trip to Ibb. And we lived to tell the tale…
Our driver was a short, skinny old man whose family was originally from Ibb and who used to take tourists all over the country in Yemen's better days. He clearly wanted to make this trip as much as we did, to the point where he slipped the Tourist Police a couple of thousand riyals so they wouldn't ask too many safety-related questions when getting the permission required to leave Sana'a. They didn't, they just made us sign a paper that we were traveling 'on our own responsibility' and off we went, with copies of the permit for every checkpoint we passed.
Since the road to Ibb is basically the main highway to the south of the country, there are many big trucks and traveling both up- and downhill, making it something of a racing game for our driver to take over just before a turn in the road with no view of who or what was coming. Even more than in the Old City of Sana'a we were stared at by other people on the road, but we figured – if upon seeing us they don't pick up the phone to call ahead and tell potential kidnappers we're coming, we don't need to worry.
I was told that Ibb was beautiful and green, but I wasn't prepared for exactly how beautiful and green it was. The road, initially brown and dusty, went across a mountain range with views over the most impressive valleys, the slopes of the mountains terraced and often covered in qat, coffee and corn.
Ibb itself is situated in a valley and is a cute enough town, but the real attraction – judging by the number of Yemeni visitors – is the waterfall in the mountain just above it. Smart locals have attached long hoses higher up at the waterfall, so you can have your car washed while hiking up along the ridge. Many kids ran around under the waterfall, hair shampooed by their mothers. Others took the opportunity to wash their vegetables, or just drove through the cold, cold water on their motorcycle.
When we went into the old center of Ibb, we immediately became its biggest attraction. Just as in Sana'a, the kids wanted to know where we were from, and have their picture taken. The adults wanted to know more: what did we think of the USA? Were we Muslim? If not, why not? Since we didn't have a sufficient answer to that last question, they insisted we embrace god and become Muslims. "It's good for you," one man assured me.
Another stop on another mountain showed us Jibla, a town with a heavily graffitied presence of Real Madrid and Barcelona fans, but also a mosque of more than a thousand years old (according to our guide who popped out of nowhere and insisted on taking us into the mosque right at the time of the Friday-prayer, which we politely declined) and the castle of queen Arwa which supposedly had 365 rooms, one for every day of the year, but now lays in ruins.
Lunch was served at the house of a friend of our driver, a man with either 13 children and 30 or so grandchildren (which seems to make logical sense) or the other way around (which is what he claimed). When I said I didn't have children, he said he hoped I would have 40 of them. Not sure if that was a wish or a curse…
We ate with the women next to the kitchen on the top floor, while the men ate together one floor down. As they retreated to chew qat after lunch, we had tea, chocolate and chewing gum while trying to figure out who was related by blood, who by marriage, which kid belonged to which mother, and whether the 14 year old son of one of the women would be a good match for the cute, blushing cousin of the same age.
The rest of the day we spent doing just what all other people from Ibb and surroundings seemed to be doing: finding the top of a mountain (or a close enough ridge on the side of it) and staring out over a beautiful valley, while chewing qat or drinking tea and eating cotton candy. While I was sitting there contemplating life, I got company from two young women who had come to Ibb from Taiz and who told me all about dating in Yemen. Apparently, finding a good man in Yemen is not that easy, although facebook and whatsapp have quickly become essential in establishing contact between the otherwise quite rigidly separated sexes.
(They confirmed the explanation of a Yemeni friend who told me that although the men can't see the faces of women, there are other ways to determine whether it will be worth to try to get in touch with a specific girl. As he said: "You can look at her shape, which is still visible despite all the layers of black tissue – especially if she wants it to be visible; you can check if she takes good care of her hands and feet; and you can see her eyes. Other than that, we Yemenis are just very optimistic about what's behind the veil!)*
Together with the girls and their mothers we watched the sun set behind the mountains, and decided that Yemen is definitely a beautiful country.
*Another friend told me that Yemeni women are the most beautiful on earth. I asked him how he knew. Oh, he said, what do you think us boys are doing when we are still young enough to be put with the women and children… we soak up the beauty of the women and we never, ever forget!