Yemen - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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Jun 14th, 2013, 09:58 PM
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Yemen - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Yemen – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Good
Airport is small and services, such as visa collection and currency exchange are clearly labeled. Staff speak English and are helpful.
People are extremely welcoming and generous. I was invited to four weddings and to join families for tea or a meal. Although desperately poor, people were proud to offer hospitality. At no time did I feel unsafe, although I did heed my guide’s advice not to venture out at certain times or to certain places.
The sites are unique and plentiful. Restoration work is underway at several key sites and I was able to speak with a team from Italy restoring a mosque. Villages themselves are awe inspiring as their architecture changes from region to region and it is mystifying how several buildings were built on top of small mountains.
Small villages were quiet and relaxing.
Since I was the only traveler, the itinerary was quite flexible. My guide was very knowledgeable about the region and was able to make changes easily.
Western toilets available in each of my rooms.
Most roads were paved and level.

The Bad
It is very noisy. In the large cities there is a constant din of traffic. Prayer call was between 0330 and 0345. I believe the speakers were directly outside of each of my rooms in order that I was awake for first prayer. While I did say some words to God at this time, they were not prayers.
Electricity is unreliable. Flashlights are essential. Charging phones etc can be a challenge. Most hotels had generators, but these are dependent on people to start and feed.
No toilet seats, just the porcelain bowl.
No soap in restaurants, hotel rooms. Bring your own.
Toilet paper seldom supplied. Bring your own.
Each driver seems to have his own rules. Not sure which side of the road they drive on, we seemed to be in the middle for long drives and where ever there was space in the cities. If there is a system, I did not figure it out. Horns are used frequently. Motorcyclists have modified their mufflers to obtain maximum volume.

The Ugly
GARBAGE IS EVERYWHERE. Children play in garbage, people live and eat surrounded by garbage. There does not appear to be a waste management programme other than dropping your trash wherever you want.
Child labour. Young children and women toiling in fields while men laze around chewing qat. Children begging and selling items on the roadway.

Overall had an excellent time and would not hesitate to recommend to the more adventurous traveler. Much of life is conducted at floor level, eating, toileting, socializing, (sometimes sleeping) so not for anyone with joint or back problems. In smaller centres life does not appear to have changed for hundreds of years. Farms work fields with donkeys or cattle, wells are still used, abodes are simple and the design has not changed, although concrete blocks are replacing stones, which are still cut by hand. The people are the friendliest I have encountered, and most welcomed me to Yemen. Although the exit from the airport, hundreds of men, most with the traditional knife, crowded around the doorway was intimidating, once we left the airport it was not so intense.
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Jun 14th, 2013, 10:46 PM
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Very interesting. Did you see western women travelers on their own?
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Jun 14th, 2013, 10:54 PM
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Worldnomad, just saw your other thread which answered my question, is something I've thought about doing. I passed Yemen on a freighter a few months ago and thought about it some more. I'm pleased to hear about your successful visit. Can you elaborate on your arrangements and costs, please.
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Jun 15th, 2013, 04:25 AM
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Saw only one other traveller, a male Brit who is currently on contract in South Africa. We met the last morning at the hotel, and over breakfast found we had pretty much the same experience. However, while he quite enjoyed the chaos and noise at the cafeterias, I found this to be quite unpleasant as I prefer quieter eating environs.

I was quite lazy for this trip and left all arrangements to Moammar, [email protected], who suggested itineries and made all arrangements for visa, hotels and internal flights. The cost was similar to that of Bhutan, just over US$200 per day. Moammar seems to know everyone and frequently we had to stop and chat. He is very good at facilitating things and I believe a very useful person to have on a trip like this.

Unfortunately since my ankle was rebuilt about 2 years ago and has some extra bits and pieces I find descending stairs and hills, as well as traversing rough ground a bit of a painful challenge. Thanks to his smoozing we were able to park close to historical sites and to adjust the schedule accordingly. You can probably do the trip quite a bit cheaper if you don't want to go to Socotra. The airfair was about $650 for both Moammar and myself, and we had to hire a car and driver in Socotra. However, if you enjoy unspoiled beaches this is certainly the place to find them.

I changed $US50 at the airport upon arrival and apart from postcards and stamps and a few trinkets, spent nothing. I changed Yemeni Riyals back to dollars and got just over US$40.

The hotels were by far the most basic I have ever experienced. Sheets seem to be a luxury, and those that were provided were well worn but seemed to be clean. Pillow shaped objects were provided in the appropriate location, you can probably imagine how comfortable they were.

Let me know if you want any more details, still working on my trip summary.
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Jun 15th, 2013, 07:18 AM
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Fascinating. Thank you.

Did you spend time in Sana'a?
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Jun 15th, 2013, 07:42 AM
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Glad to hear all went well and that you(mostly) enjoyed the trip! I would love to visit Yemen also as I find that part of the world extremely fascinating and the hospitality unmatched anywhere else. I guess this would be a good trip to take along one of those silk sleeping bags in lieu of sheets though it could be hot. Sana'a still has some decent hotels, doesn't it?
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Jun 15th, 2013, 08:45 AM
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Thanks for your report; that you arrived safely, enjoyed and no incidents and finally home; glad no doubt for your excellent guide. Me, not that adventurous.
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Jun 15th, 2013, 08:50 AM
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Brava!

Did you get to Aden?
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Jun 15th, 2013, 09:28 AM
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Spent only 2 days in San'aa, mostly walking around the old town which has remarkable architecture and traditional markets. I had told my guide when we were working in the schedule that I am not much of a shopper and that my tolerance for busy markets was about an hour. Happily he understood and scheduled accordingly. Did see several of the major sites in and around San'aa, including the great mosque, the Jewish Quarter and the president's palace (built on top of a rock). Was able to witness a wedding - men's celebration - from a high vantage point, complete with dancing and gunshots (which I am told is illegal but the authorities seldom visit this area).

Did not go to Aden or points east as I was told this is very unsafe. I chose to believe the guide.

A silk sleeping bag would be perfect. In the low elevations, particularly Taiz area it would be hot but you could sleep on top of it, in the mountain areas I needed a blanket as the temperature drops quite a bit at night.

I stayed at the Arabia Felix in San'aa. It was adequate. I did see ads for the upmarket chains, but staying in a more traditional building at the start of my trip reminded me I had come for the full experience and not for a luxury vacation.
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Jun 15th, 2013, 04:16 PM
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Thanks for posting!
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Jun 17th, 2013, 06:54 PM
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Thanks for your report. I look forward to hearing more and am very happy you arrived back safely.
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Jun 20th, 2013, 04:46 AM
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Yes, thank you for your report - it's fascinating. Will you be posting any pictures?
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Jun 20th, 2013, 09:24 PM
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Meals
One of my least favourite part of the experience.

At the Arabia Felix in San’aa breakfast is served in a lovely courtyard with colourful flowers and entertaining cats served in a rather conventional manner. Yogurt and honey, with a spoon, fresh bread with jam and cheese, with a knife, and tea served in a teapot where one adds sugar to taste. The rest of the meals were less tranquil.

Most of our meals were taken at cafeterias. I am assuming that since I was obviously a foreigner that my guide felt quite comfortable taking us to the male section, instead of the secluded family section, if indeed some of these small eateries had a family section. Being the only women in an area filled with men, most sporting the Jamia, traditional knife, and some with quite menacing looking guns carried as casually as a woman carries a handbag, was a bit unsettling. However, the food was always fresh and tasty, with a variety of meats, starch and vegetables and freshly baked bread. Over sweetened tea was a staple, as were soft drinks and water. Sometimes fresh juice was available. One of my difficulties with these cafeterias was the noise. Men were shouting over one another for bread, tea or their meal. Quite often they were literally situated on the road side, with cars honking their horns, ineffective or altered mufflers and the constant roar of traffic. Another of my challenges in eating at these establishments was food hygiene. The butchers are also located at the road side, with live animals penned in front waiting to be slaughtered. As vehicles drive by belching black smoke and raising dust, the animal is slaughtered and dressed, then placed in a plastic bag and hung on display. As a customer tells the butcher which cut he would like, the carcass is unwrapped, and indelicately cleaved before being packaged and handed over. The remains are rebagged and rehung. Never mind the dust, exhaust or insects. At some places there was livestock, mostly goats, scrounging around the tables looking for any morsel which may have dropped to the floor. We all know that what goes in must come out and goats are quite indiscriminate in their toilet. During our camping day the tea glasses were rinsed in tepid water with bare hands and no detergent and placed on a wet tray. A far cry from my washing up rituals. I did not want to know how dishes are washed in the cafeterias, In spite of my concerns I did not get ill, in fact I enjoyed the food if not the ambience.

In Yemen, food seems to be an expression of hospitality. During my travels I was frequently invited for tea by local villagers. Some invitations were accepted others declined. Tea was usually already sweetened, with, in my opinion far too much sugar. Sometimes it was made with milk, which I enjoyed more than the regular tea, and sometimes flavoured with spice such as cardamom. Tea always appeared on a tray, wet, with several small glasses turned upside down (an indication of clean), and a thermos. My host would usually watch quite closely and fill my glass once it had been emptied. Be careful of hot liquid, there are not handles on the glasses. Once finished, it is customary to return the glass, this time upright, to the tray, so that everyone knows which glasses are clean and which have been used.

Facial tissues are used for napkins. While they do the job, if you have particularly wet or greasy hands, bits of tissue tend to stick.

Meals were usually served on a large tray, sometimes with side dishes of vegetables. It is customary to use the fingers of your right hand and scoop up the rice or pasta and to tear pieces of meat. Everyone eats from the same dish. If condiments, usually hot sauce, are provided, take care just to season your own section. I am quite inept at eating with my fingers, and if a spoon were not provided always requested one. Most likely this is due in part to my upbringing where good table manners were regularly enforced at the dinner table and apart from KFC, utensils were always used.

Speaking of table manners, most of the Yemenis ate with their mouth open, with audible smacking noises, and carried on conversations with their mouth full. I saw mobile phones being answered with food covered fingers and the amount of spillage was shocking. Most establishments placed either newspaper or plastic table cloths on the table before serving, a comical exercise in the wind, then just wrapped everything up and disposed of it once the meal was finished. The dining experience is quick and to the point. Food is delivered quickly, eaten quickly, and patrons leave immediately upon finishing. There is usually a sink located near the tables for patrons to wash their hands before and after the meal. I use the term wash loosely as there is seldom soap provided. I work in a hospital and hand hygiene is always front and centre with regular education campaigns. Not believing a quick rinse to be adequate, I always supplemented this activity with a quick and discrete application of hand sanitizer.

Bottom line, food is fresh and appears healthy. I saw only a handful of overweight Yemenis during my travels. Do not be afraid to ask for a spoon if you are uncomfortable using the fingers of your right hand to convey food to mouth. If you insist on eating with a knife and fork, bring your own. Carry wet naps and hand sanitizer. Do not dwell on kitchen hygiene, remember the adage “ignorance is bliss”. Accept or decline invitations for tea and food as you like. It may be helpful to discuss this with your guide in advance so that an excuse of having to leave for the next village or an appointment must be kept can be given without offending the prospective host. At cafeterias food is taken at communal tables, with beggars ready to move in as soon as a seat is vacated and finish any remaining food. Meal times in public will be noisy. Meals in homes will take place on the floor. Bon Apetit!
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Jun 20th, 2013, 09:26 PM
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Not sure how to post pictures on this site. Can anyone advise?
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Jun 21st, 2013, 05:18 AM
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Great report.

Pictures have to be posted offsite at places like photobucket, with a link provided.
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Jun 21st, 2013, 07:13 AM
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Ignorance is bliss - definitely the way to go. When the hygiene standards are a little, um, different and you know you're being exposed to different microbes, etc. than your body is used to it's pretty amazing that you can avoid any digestives issues. Bravo to your strong constitution.
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Jun 21st, 2013, 07:43 AM
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I am pretty sure Yemen will never bubble up to the top of my list of places to go, but I absolutely love this report. Thanks for posting and I'd love to see pics!
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Jun 21st, 2013, 10:34 AM
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Again, many thanks, Nomad. The description of eating and food stops seems a distillation of various other places I've traveled - Pakistan, India, Morocco and others.

A doctor with whom I stayed in Kerala told me if she doesn't eat with her hands she doesn't feel she's eaten at all. I found that to be quite an insight.
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Jun 21st, 2013, 12:45 PM
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Fascinating!
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Jun 23rd, 2013, 08:38 AM
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Great detail! The Arab hospitality is an aspect of their culture that I have always enjoyed. Don't know if I'll make it to Yemen, so it's great to travel there with your wonderful report.
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