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Saturday, July 26, 2008


San'a to Mocha (Yemen, 1989)

Striking Architecture, Friendly People, Qat, Kalashnikovs, and Curried Goat Head

Reading Eric Hansen's admirable book "Motoring with Mohammed", took me back to 1989 when I visited North Yemen. It was not long after the period when Mr. Hansen was in Yemen, trying to reach an island on the coast to recover documents that he had buried there after the yacht he was serving on got beached.

Despite its arrid climate, ruggedness and vast stretches of desert, Yemen attracts tourists and archaeologists who are fascinated by the unusual architecture and culture of the Yemeni people. For me, it was not a pleasure trip. Mercury Venus, a ship carrying huge rolls of wrapping paper was what took me there. The objective was to expedite the discharge of the cargo and dispatch her for Mumbai to complete delivery of a shipment of steel pipes before the onset of the monsoon.

Due to delay in getting visa I arrived at San'a on Yemenia (Yemen Airways) from Gatwick two days later than planned. The ship was already at Mocha (al Mukha), at one time a well-known coffee exporting port. On arrival I found that the only way to get to Mocha, 249 km (135 miles) was by taxi. Two reps from an agency appointed for husbanding of the Mercury Venus arranged one for $200.00. And an hour after arrival at San'a I took off for Mocha.

It was May, blazing hot but not humid. The taxi, a beat up Peugeot diesel, had no air-conditioning and the driver, Khaled, like most Yemenis, was a cigarette smoker (Rothmans was the popular brand).

I no longer have the photographs I took. Following are from a site where subscribers graciously permit downloading of images for non-commercial use. I'm grateful to them.

Bab al Yemen Gate, San'a
©Hanno Maliepaard,http://www.woophy..com/

Burqa-clad Yemeni woman. I saw women without burqa too.
©GRAPAS, http://www.woophy..com/

Men chewing qat (see the bulging cheeks)
©Maria Antonia, http://www.woophy..com/

Qat seller, a common sight in Yemen. The curved daggers are called Jambiyah
©MOMO, http://www.woophy..com/

Kalashnikovs on sale outside a village restaurant at Shibam,
©koelblf, http://www.woophy..com/

A stall selling fabric and clothes for women
©MOMO, http://www.woophy..com/

The unusual houses on cliffs are found all over Yemen

©Marisoll, http://www.woophy..com/

A road through the desert
©MOMO, http://www.woophy..com/

View, outskirts of San'a

Main Street, Mocha (al Mukha)
©MOMO, http://www.woophy..com/

Between English and sign language, Khaled and I didn't have much difficulty communicating. Shortly after leaving San'a, Khaled stopped at a roadside shack -- earthen floor and a few wooden benches -- for lunch. He did the ordering. We were served platters with big hunks of meat and warm flat bread, somewhat like naan. We ate with our hands. Thought the meat was goat head but I was not sure. The taste was nothing to write about but I was hungry.

The trouble began after lunch. Khaled stopped at a qat market and got a supply of the green leaves before hitting the road for Mocha. There were areas when we were on mountain roads and I could see hulks of vehicles that went down the cliff. After a while Khaled's driving became noticeably erratic. I requested him to slow down but he paid no heed. Then I asked him to stop and let me down. He indicated that there was no need to be afraid; he was OK. True, if he did let me off it was not simple, getting another car to take me to Mocha. I was tired after the long flight and I dozed off. Woke up to a tremendous lurch and wrenching sound. We were off the road but the car didn't go down the cliff to the right of us. High on qat, Khaled had lost control of the car but by luck or skill swerved to the left and ended up in a ditch. Apart from banging his head on the steering wheel Khaled was fine and so was I after the shock wore off. The front axle was out of whack; the car was no longer driveable.

There we were on a dusty, barren stretch of road halfway between San'a and Mocha, yet within minutes of the accident we were surrounded by Yemenis who seemed to appear from nowhere. There was one young man who spoke English and he said although traffic was light, cars and trucks do use the road to Mocha. Didn't take too long before another Peugeot diesel stopped at the scene of the accident. Khaled and the young Yemeni spoke to the driver. Khaled paid him some money and transferred my suitcase to the other car. There were two women in burqa and a man in the backseat. They did their best to make room for me to squeeze in.

Rest of the drive was uneventful. I got to Mocha, and the agents took me to the ship. The ship was under a Korean master and crew. Discharge operations were going well. Capt. Kim said he expected to complete discharge by noon the next day. There was no decent hotel in Mocha. I was offered use of the Owner's Cabin on the ship. Sounds fancy but it was 110 degrees (F) and the quarters were not airconditioned.

Next day I told Capt. Kim that I'd see him in Mumbai 8 days later and saw the ship depart from Mocha. When I went back to the agents' office I was told that they had arranged for a taxi to take me back to San'a after lunch. We had lunch at the office. A large tin platter was brought in with with rice and fried fish (looked like pomfret). There were four of us. We ate with our hands from the same platter. It was delicious.

The taxi showed up and when I asked the driver what he was called. He said "Khaled". Another Khaled! He was younger and he spoke better English than the first Khaled. But after we got on the road to San'a he took out a bag full of qat and started chewing. When I mentioned my experience on the trip to Mocha he said he was not going to have too much. How much is too much? I resigned myself to the Yemeni habit and accepted Khaled's offer to try chewing qat. It creates a thirst and requires drinking a lot of water. I must confess that I never reached the high -- the euphoric sense that qat is reported to create. Perhaps I didn't chew it right and slowly ingest the juice. But we got to San'a without mishap. Yemeni men, women, and some kids, chew qat. Alcoholic beverages, however, were restricted; available only to foreigners staying at large hotels.

Checked in at the Taj Sheba, run by the Uberoi Group of India. The next evening I flew out of Yemen via Riyadh to Mumbai, went on to New Delhi to spend a few days before returning to Mumbai. My only unpleasant experience was when the Yemeni woman at San'a airport said she had no change after I tendered a $20.00 bill for "departure tax"of $8.00. She wanted to pocket the money but I refused to budge; told her that I'd wait until she got change. After a few minutes she found the change. Later, I found that usually the departure tax was included in tickets issued abroad.

Qat (pronounced cot), also referred to as khat, quatt, kat, and tchat (in Ethiopia), is a leafy narcotic popular in certain areas of Africa and, more recently, Britain. Qat, from the Catha Edulis tree, originated in Ethiopia and spread to Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Arabia, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Madagascar, South Africa and Yemen. Yemeni qat is the most often discussed, and reportedly of better quality than that from other places. When chewed, qat leaves produce feelings of euphoria and stimulation. Qat has become a major cultural phenomenon for Yemeni and Somali societies and has been the cause of conflict over production and distribution in these countries.

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