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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Dangers All Around Us in Yemen

Driving in a Jeep in Yemen.
Being driven in a Jeep in Yemen.

People always say to me, ‘I’m about to leave on a trip, what’s the best way to protect myself?’ I say drive very carefully on the way to the airport.”

—Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the RAND Corporation

It started at 2 A.M. with a postcard behind the bullet-proof plexiglas of a Yemeni-owned deli in Brooklyn. I slurred, “I wanna to go there.”

After finishing high school in Brooklyn; I lived in Bogota, traveled through Southern Beirut, and the worst thing that ever happened to me was having my car vandalized in Hollywood after I tapped a gang member’s car while parallel parking. And I have never been more scared than I was in the woods of Maine.

Yemen: Kidnappings, Kalashnikovs, embassy bombings, Al Qaeda… Pirates? Paranoia? Or is it the sensationalism propagated by travelers and bloggers? Yemen is one of many stigmatized nations that appeals to the traveler who takes the time to ask why this is so. Is the world more dangerous now than ever before? Of course it is, the world is a horrible place and they all hate you, so don’t ever leave your home again! 

When I decided to go to Yemen you would think that I had decided to enlist in the military, from what my friends said—even the “worldly” ones: “Why would you even want to go there?” “That’s really selfish, what are you trying to prove?” “Was I going to go alone?” they asked. Apparently I would have to, and no, I was not going to wear a Canadian flag on my bag. And yes, I was going to tell everyone that I was an American whenever they asked, I said stubbornly. Few discerning individuals issue such stern warnings when it comes to binge drinking at bachelor parties, or accuse sky-divers of having death wishes. Yet such modern rites of passage (the chances of death from these activities hundreds of times that of kidnapping or murder in Yemen) are more acceptable to the average American than is travel to a feared and stigmatized Muslim nation—a land, I would learn, of devout and pious believers who abstain from alcohol, and, contrary to rumors, have fewer guns per capita than the U.S.

Arriving in Yemen, I learned that none of the bus companies would take me between cities. “Challenging” is a polite term for the difficulties of independent travel within Yemen. Restricting foreigner’s intercity options is primarily a means for funneling tourist dollars into Yemenia, the national airline. But foreigners on public buses could cost the government by attracting unwanted attention from terrorists or tribal leaders who have “hosted” foreigners in the past. The tribes are notoriously welcoming; pampering their “guests” while they extort the corrupt and neglectful central government for ransom in the form of services or improvements to their local infrastructure. A Liverpudlian oil contractor I met told a story about one of his associates who had been kidnapped multiple times by the same tribe. The victim was a notorious eater who was also fluent in Arabic. So when the tribe elder learned who his people had kidnapped, he scolded them saying, “I told you guys not to take the fat one again, he eats too much!” 

The most common attention that Average Joe (who gets off on travel to unfairly stigmatized countries inhospitable to heretical American values) is going to draw to himself and his fellow Yemeni bus-mates, is that of the national police, who see a foreigner aboard a bus as an opportunity to get paid—by providing a loud and flashy armed police escort, which only draws unwanted attention and delays the bus. 

Tourists with private tour companies generally travel in caravans with armed escorts. Sadly, Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for an ambush in which two Belgian tourists and their Yemeni guides were killed in January 2008. Figuring this was a guaranteed way to stand-out, I researched my alternatives. So here I was nine hours in a shared taxi packed with ten men—qat leaf chewing Yemenis, Somali refugees, me and a fellow Japanese traveler—tearing across the unforgiving terrain of Wadi Hadramawt (ancestral home to the infamous Bin Ladens), when the passenger in front, introduces himself as Farhad, an “Exiled Kathiri noble who was raised in Singapore.” The taxi stopped at a roadhouse and while we shared a leg of goat and a communal tray of rice, Farhad enthusiastically told me about the Kathiri kingdom of Hadramawt, which had been independent for eight hundred years before being annexed into the Aden Protectorate by the British. We drank shaiy and while I watched the left-over rice get recycled, Farhad returned to his qat and convictions: “The Empty Quarter is ours, not the Saudi’s. They’ve been stealing our oil for fifty years, and if it weren’t for America, we’d be as rich as the sheiks.” Then he volunteered his thoughts on gender rights; “Your wife should always know she is under you, it’s the best thing;” to which I politely replied that my girlfriend was working while I had been indulging in recreational travel. After admitting to being a junky for years, he went on to attest to the drug qat’s virtues for endurance and its aphrodisiac properties, but knowing Yemeni women’s contradictory claims, I tried my best Rodney Dangerfield: “After three hours… she didn’t even know she was under me!”—Crickets, then drops. 

Farhad jerked around eyes bulging, “Rain! It hasn’t rained in a year!” Green leafy saliva spattering me in the face. The deteriorating road conditions did not improve my confidence in the driver. A more accurate term for him would be careener. He abstained from qat but got off on flooring it and bleating his horn incessantly, not letting up for goat, woman or cripple. So when our brakes locked, and I felt the bald tires slide, I feared there must be an obstacle ahead denser than flesh. Two oncoming trucks were playing an uphill game of chicken, and like many trucks in this part of the world, their frames were so badly bent from the potholed roads that they appeared to be side-winding their way towards us, wheels askew, blocking both lanes and both shoulders. We skidded to a stop before slamming into either of the trucks. It was at this point we realized neither of the trucks was actually moving. The passing vehicle had broken down while overtaking the other disabled vehicle and now both vehicles sat motionless on the incline; their wheels chocked. While it appeared one had come to the rescue of the other, the opposite was in fact true. Neither was willing to assist or cede ground to the other: a feud that had begun several miles earlier and continued now in their shared dysfunction. The onlookers finally appealed to the overtaking driver’s pride, allowing him to save-face, while he reversed into second position behind his foe.

When we finally pulled into Mukalla, a port town of Somali immigrants and an alleged Al Qaeda haven, it was pouring. I had been traveling with a Japanese guy named Tuh-kah-mee (he phonetically sounded out his name every time he introduced himself, so that’s how I addressed him.) We had met entering Yemen from Oman and I was envious about how light he traveled. His bag was so small he could have been coming from the gym. He explained, “Japanese make everysing small,” which is why I was further intrigued when he revealed an enormous plug-in alarm clock. 

Yemen requires foreigners to register with the local tourist police whenever they change locations. And to carry travel permits for various checkpoints between cities. The travel permit system is in place to protect foreigners, or at least give them the impression that they are being monitored by the government for their safety. But in a notoriously tribal region where the opinion of the government is apathetic at best, the police knowing your every move, while being exotic, is not assuring.

Missing the nightlife of Singapore, Farhad saw me, a young American, as the cure to his boredom, and he proposed we stay at the same hotel. However, the taxi careener was unwilling to let the foreigners depart until he had delivered us to the tourist police, thus alleviating his culpability. I was sensitive to this, but Farhad, who traveled on a foreign Singapore passport, and who was amped up on qat, had no time for bureaucracies, especially that of a government he did not recognize. When we found a suitable hotel, Farhad convinced the driver that he was off-the-hook, transferring the culpability to the hotel—who Farhad attested would register us with the tourist police.

“I’ve kidnapped an American!” said Farhad into his cell as he reappeared in our room like a hyper teen. He would be showered and changed into a new white t-shirt and a bright new red and white keffiyeh. Was he dressing for a date with news cameras? He passed me the cell phone, “Say hello to my cousin.” 

“Hello?” 

“So you are American?” I heard a cool Arabian English that these days characterizes any non-descript Middle Eastern baddy on TV.

“Yes.” I said, too late to start lying.

“You’ve been kidnapped by my cousin?” The voice then laughed.  

“Yes, I’ve been kidnapped by your cousin…” I joked, not quite sure whether I was in on the joke, or I was the joke; forcing a laugh to stop my paranoia from gripping me any further. I looked to Tuh-kah-mee for reassurance, but he was listening to his headphones. We had been looking out for each other and he was usually a more vigilant partner. He was not immune to the stigma. One afternoon in the ancient walled city of Shibam, where two Japanese tourists had recently been kidnapped, Tuh-kah-mee had disguised himself in traditional Arab dress; a white kandoora and a red and white keffiyeh, and claimed to be from Malaysia when asked. When a van abruptly stopped in front of us and the doors swung open, he broke into a sprint, zigzagging away in the opposite direction. It turned out to be a school bus dropping children off from school. 

Had we been kidnapped? No, but for 16 hours we had been in the company of Farhad. If he or his cousin had attempted to extort the government saying they had an American and a Japanese tourist in their custody, they would not have been wrong. I considered the merit of my stereotypes:

  • Yemeni institutions lacked a “woman’s touch.”
  • Tuh-kah-mee was an independent Japanese traveler, sans camera: unique; cool.
  • Farhad was an Arab who carried a foreign passport and an admitted junky: worrisome; Al Qaeda?

Farhad returned with a surprise; hashish which he claimed, during his qat-fueled monologue, that I had requested and he had purchased for me. After protesting, I gave him money for it but declined to take it, which may have been his scheme all along. Any well-versed traveler surely knows the travails of international drug penalties. And while a day spent with a Hezbollah hash dealer in Beirut was a fond travel tale I often retold, Yemeni drug law was not something I was interested in knowing better. Farhad was a colorful character that made for a memorable chapter, but this had gone too far and I was summoning my courage to do something. But Farhad insisted on rolling up a hollowed-out cigarette and smoking it out the window; nearly setting alight the massive Yemeni flag which adorned the hotel’s facade—a comic fantasy, however the Hash smoke emanating from our room was surely evidence enough to put us away forever. 

In the predawn darkness Tuh-kah-mee and I crept past the reception desk to find our way impeded by the night watchman sleeping in front of the locked entry. When we woke him to leave, he handed us a note: “The police are coming for you. Don’t let them touch you, and don’t give them any money—Farhad” The last line was a Farhad mantra I’d heard several times in rants against the state police. I thought he must mean the tourist police, but either way, we’d requested no special treatment. 

The hotel receptionist/night watchman offered to give us a ride. Assuming he could not read the English note—nor was in on Farhad’s plot (according to a scenario that I had invented in my head)—we got in a car with him and headed for the tourist police station that we believed was next to the bus station—where we assumed we would not be allowed to buy a ticket anyway. But we soon realized that we were being driven away from the city center and anything we recognized. 

Finally he stopped, opened the car, and walked us towards an intimidating facility that had barbed-wire, a sign of a camera with a red circle and line through it, and several military guards. Nowhere was the facility clearly marked “Tourist Police,” as it had been in the previous cities. I looked to Tuh-kah-mee, but I knew I had gotten us involved with Farhad; so I was going to have to get us out. 

I looked at the Abu Ghraib-like military facility, as if some of that hash had unknowingly been planted in my bag, we were going to be booked on a Midnight Express neither of us had planned for. So not knowing precisely if we were part of a plot, but acting on gut instinct, I walked away. Our escort pleaded in Arabic, to which I bowed, “No, that’s alright. We’ll take it from here.” We walked briskly down eroding streets though rivulets that had become small creeks. We walked to the first cab we could find, but there was no one inside. We walked to another, but the driver would not take us. It seemed like the city knew we were scared and it was conspiring against us. No bus or shared taxi would take us anywhere out of the city without new travel permits. 

We eventually sought refuge in the airport watching the ceiling gradually fail from the incessant rain, while we waited to fly stand-by. Over a hundred people died throughout Mukalla that day from floods, as wadis became rivers and mud homes collapsed. 

The biggest danger turned out to be the rain, as I did not discover any hash covertly planted on me, and I honestly did not understand the purpose of the facility and our escort’s pleas. The moment was intensified by a stigma-fueled fear and a preoccupation with self-preservation. Other than this incident, which is vague at best, I never felt in danger in Yemen. I did not witness any crime, petty or violent; the moral code of Islam does not afford such distinctions, and I found everyone I dealt with extremely trustworthy and honest.  

There are hundreds of reasons people travel, but many independent travelers seek the unbeaten path for selfish reasons. If I aimed to broaden the hearts and minds of my naïve brethren when I went to Yemen, then I also went there to get away from them. I also went to beat them to it. There’s an unspoken pride—which few travelers will admit—to see who can reach the remotest and most exotic locales. There is no doubt that a darker, more pragmatic aspect of my personality went on this journey motivated to outrun the war planes—which have destroyed much of this ancient region and threaten to lay further waste in the current war of ideas

The biggest challenge traveling to a “dangerous place” are not the external dangers, but the internal fears which beg consideration. In Yemen there is the Island of Socotra, off the horn of Somalia and a gem, home to Dragon’s Blood, the mythical Phoenix, and white sand beaches; stress-free serenity for the first-world stress-monger. But I had brought some with me some first-world stress of my own. Dozens of ominous shadows predatorily glide across a turquoise lagoon; lethal stingrays. Behind me, Soviet-era tanks are dug into the dunes, aimed at a lost Cold War enemy somewhere beyond the horizon. I was all alone now, but I fondly recalled conversations I had engaged in with Tuh-kah-mee while watching the moon rise over Shibam back in Hadramawt. With no happy-hour specials and little else to do after the last adhan (call to prayer) this had become our evening routine. He had said America’s use of nuclear weapons to end WWII had been justified given Japan’s militarism. Regarding America’s militarism in Iraq, he also surprised me saying it was necessary that America win; losing would open the door to the uncertainty of an unknown superpower. 

Qalansiya beach on Socotra island
Qalansiya beach on Socotra island in Yemen.

Pondering known versus unknown evil, I watched a ship on the horizon, in the Gulf of Aden, the most dangerous shark and pirate infested waters on Earth. Just then the beak of a large sailfish speared through the break, swiping at a school of glistening bait fish, “Whoa, you see that?” I was lonely enough to pose the question, but not yet so lonely that I answered myself. 

There I was, with no one to save me, my imagination running wild, yet too nervous to take a dip in the enticing water. I had gotten off the beaten path to a land unspoiled by tourism. I had been ready to go it alone, but always encouraged when meeting others like me along the way. I had faced real obstacles and imagined dangers. It was the loneliest and most enlightening excitement I have ever known.