Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: Tourism

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…  

Dar al Hajjar, or 'house of the rock'. (Click for bigger.) 

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.

A village just outside of Sana'a. (Click for bigger.) 

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.

On the road. (Click for bigger.) 

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.  

This wadi  took my breath away. (Click for bigger. Do it!)

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.  

Waterfall near Ibb. (Click for bigger.) 

Wash your motorcycle, your carrots, yourself... (Click for bigger.)

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.  

"Take a picture of me!" she said, so I did. (Click for bigger.)

Little boys wearing their Friday's 'best'.  (Click for bigger.)

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.

An minaret in Jibla (not the old, old one). (Click for bigger.)

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.

Our driver is buying a boiled egg.  (Click for bigger.)

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!)*

The other beautiful valley...  (Click for bigger.)

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!

A most peculiar visit

...to the Military Museum of Sana'a


One day after class I decided to go explore the cultural life of Sana'a. I went to Midan al Tahrir looking for the National Museum, but ended up in the Military Museum. It must have been my lucky day.

Entrance: a steep 300 rials ($1,50). Click on the image to see a bigger version.

I almost (accidentally) sneaked in for free, until a grumpy officer barked 'must ticket! must ticket!' and sent me back outside. I'm glad he did, otherwise how would I have known that this museum falls under the Department of Moral Guidance, or that it is not allowed throwing the rubbish in?

On the ground floor I was greeted by a couple of old English cars that weren't militarily connected, but didn't fit in the National Museum so they were (quite literally) parked here. Outside, in the sheltered yard, there was an Italian plane almost a century old which attracted a lot of little boys with cameras – although judging by the angle of their lenses this tall foreign woman was a more interesting object to photograph than the leftover pieces of the airplane.

Beautiful displays and beautiful explanations. Just not sure I'd trust that 'armoured' car... (click for bigger!)

Aside from that, this floor was room after room after room of weapons, wars, conquests and peace treaties, sometimes with descriptions googletranslated into English. Not all showcases were intact, tempting me to take out a 'gun captored from the Britain Army', which I decided against on account of the 'do not touch'-signs that were almost as numerous as the bullets lying around next to all the weaponry.

The second floor was even more exciting, because here the museum branched out into other tasks of the military, such as fighting fires in moonlanding gear and being entertained by singers to keep up morale. There were also some taxidermied birds and a mounted tiger that looked very unhappy. However, I was most intrigued by a room with the name 'Hall of the Seventy Days Epic.' I mean, seventy days of Epic, what more could I want, right?

Moonlanding-firefighting gear, fighters 'defencing the revolution' and boys wondering about Seventy Days of Epic. (click for bigger!)

Unfortunately, the Seventy Days Epic must have been a war like any other, because there were the same uniforms, the same medals, and the same overview of the battlefield with little red lights where explosions occurred as in the other rooms. Luckily, the room next to it held a pleasant surprise:  

Look who we have here... (click for bigger!)

Former US president George Bush Sr., smiling at the camera, and former Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Salih sporting a 70's suit and an afro! Maybe that's what they meant with EPIC…

All in all a very educational afternoon, brought to you by – let's not forget – the Moral Guidance Department of the government of Yemen. Shukran!

On Iranian Order and Precision

If anything shouldn’t have surprised me, it would be how incredibly well-organized Iran was. After all, it’s what the Lebanese only half-jokingly say is proof that Hezbollah is Iranian: they are more structured and punctual than any Lebanese could ever be! And yet it did surprise me that it was so organized. Such a big country, so immense, with so many people, and with (from what I heard) such a bad economy? I would have excused them for having holes in the road, or electricity cuts. But none of that was the case. Even on the day we took what was marked on the map as a ‘small mountain road’, the car rolled smoothly over tight tarmac, kilometer after kilometer. Like this:



And not only that. The buses actually followed timetables, and people were aware of those. Smoking was forbidden in bars and other public buildings. There were public toilets almost everywhere, and drinking water fountains in every mosque, palace and station we visited. There were even places to charge your cell-phone, in case you forgot to do so before leaving for the mountain-park from which to watch over the city of Isfahan…



… or before getting on a plane. On long busrides, the bus would make a stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch, but on shorter trips we were often given a little lunch-box, complete with a cup for water or juice (also handed out) and a napkin:



On the train, this whole ‘taking care of passengers’ was taken to the next level when we found we not only had a pretty blue pillow and blanket with flowers, but we were also handed fresh sheets and pillowcases! Considering that this was the cheapest ticket (9 Euros for ± 500kms.), we were pleasantly surprised – even more so when the next morning, just minutes before arrival, we were handed a chocolate cake and a little juice-box for breakfast. 

And the subway? That was simply amazing. Faster and cleaner than I’ve ever seen before (except maybe in Barcelona, but that was years ago, so my memory might fool me here).



(The only problem was actually getting on the subway-cars, because with around 8 million people in the capital, those were almost always packed like tuna-cans. This picture was taken at one of the last stations on line 1, the first time we actually saw the floors…).

However, it wasn’t only the organization and structure I admired in Iran. It was the precision. Whenever we were lost, all I had to do was look at my cell-phone to know the name of the nearest landmark or a main avenue or expressway close-by:



Of course I saved the best for last: quite possibly the most precision-oriented can of soda I have ever seen in my life. Behold the honesty on a can of Coca-Cola, made in Iran:



We have tried to put 330ml in this can, but it could be 8.25ml more or less... and to think we consider ourselves nitpicky and precise here in Holland!

How can you tell…

… that you’re back in Beirut? It’s when you run into 11 people you know in the first 6 hours after leaving the house. It’s when you wake up from the sound of construction works and the smell of foul. It’s when you can have a cup of tea in a hidden place on the seaside. It’s when you walk past a bar called ‘Starbuzz’ that has all its TVs tuned to the ‘Fashion TV Arabia’ channel, including the one underneath the floor in the entrance.

It’s when you can’t think of anything else to do except go for lunch, go for coffee, go for dinner, and go for a drink – and you don’t even mind. It’s when you agree to meet people and they don’t show up, but it doesn’t matter because others do. It’s when you see an ad for ‘Philippina woman wanted to help 55 year old man in small house’ right above a poster for the weekly Filipina Disco; Sunday from noon to 7pm.

It’s when you wonder why everyone stares at you until you realize you’re the one sticking out again. It’s the sound of honking cars is louder than your own thoughts. It’s when you can satisfy your craving for both donuts and saj 24/7. It’s when there’s always someone saying ‘you didn’t eat enough, have some more’. It’s when you see a billboard for diet pills that promise to ‘cut the fat and burn the calories’ with free delivery, so you don’t need to move to get them.

Beirut, it’s good to be back (even if it’s only for a short while).

P.S. I have some trouble uploading pictures to my blog, but if you click on the light-blue parts of the sentences you will see examples of what I am talking about.

A mix of Italy and Belgium, with much better food

I’ve spent the past week touring around with two teenagers (whom I used to babysit, but who are now old enough to visit me in Beirut!), their mother and her partner. For five days, we drove to every corner of the country, tasted every dish available and discussed every topic related to the culture, nature and politics of Lebanon. The most intriguing part, according to them? Lebanese traffic. They were fascinated by the use of car horns instead of side-mirrors or indicator lights, the inability of the drivers to stay between two lines on the road, and the seeming absence of a maximum speed anywhere. The best thing of the trip, according to one of the teenagers, was the trip to Baalbeck. Not the ruins themselves, oh no, he meant the ride there on the mini-van. Why? It was just like a rollercoaster, lasting an hour and a half!

A good second was the way back from the South, where we ran into this gem:


He seems quite comfortable there, doesn’t he? While that truck is going 100km/h on a three-lane highway… Overall verdict? It’s like a mix between Italy and Belgium, and we don’t know if that’s a compliment…