INTRO - After spending six years bringing him up in a Land Rover travelling around Asia and Africa, Miguel Willis's parents settled on living in Oman in the Middle East when he was nine-years-old. Miguel did most of his schooling there and, as his parents still live there, he frequently returns. Here, he kicks off a series of travel-inspired columns by getting his paws dirty in Yemen, neighbour to Oman in the east, Saudi Arabia in the north and one of fourteen countries that our Littlest Hobo visited last year
Crouched on the bus floor, amongst the accumulated trash from over 30 hours on the road, I was starting to question the wisdom of doing a kite trip in Yemen. With little information available on kiting in this rarely travelled corner of the Arabian Peninsula we would be discovering it for ourselves. However, the risk of getting skunked seemed the least of my worries as I huddled under the bus seat.
Like all good trips this one had been planned on the spur of the moment and the back of a beer mat. Two days later myself and my friend Tom crossed the border on the edge of the Rub Al Khali desert. Fly-blown and charmless, the check-point was littered with the shells of rusted vehicles that hadn't quite made the arduous journey. We were herded off the local bus and ushered into a grotty room which held a crossed-legged, sarong-wearing immigration officer. As he flipped through our passports and stamped us in we were treated to his unique whistling rendition of 'Happy Birthday'. When we opened our bags the eyes of the customs official lit up.
“This is a boat. You must pay for importing a boat," he said, running his hand over the surface of my board. After ten minutes of pointing out dings and repairs and calling over superior officers and random people to shake hands and add their opinions, it was agreed that I could go without paying.
Later that night as the bus passed through the Hadramat mountains, whenever we stopped Tom and I were asked to hide. The driver was worried that being westerners, we'd draw attention and be kidnapped. Which is why I found myself amongst the Coke cans, discarded quat leaves and bits of food, wondering what the hell I was doing there.
Our first stop was Makalah. This busy coastal town is alive with car horns and the cries of people selling their wares. On the pavement, a vegetable merchant was sandwiched between a shark-fin vendor and a cart overflowing with cheap Chinese shoes. As we wandered around the town we were often greeted with “Salam Alakam", Arabic for 'peace be upon you'. Mass tourism still hasn't arrived here and we were definitely a novelty. Makalah seemed to be going through a development boom but I'm not sure why a country in the Middle East would import pink and yellow plastic palm trees with flashing lights to decorate their new waterfront, when they have an abundance of the authentic article. Maybe someone in the planning department thought they'd add a touch of class.
We were eager to explore the beaches around Makalah for kite spots but were required to have an armed guard supplied by the police - so this marked the first time I've kiteboarded with my own personal bodyguard! The stark lunar coastline was dotted with tiny villages, permeated with the unmistakable aroma of fish. A fine layer of dust and flies covered everything.
Tom is fairly proficient in Arabic, which was helpful when trying to find out about the local conditions. “You should have been here in July; there is always wind then," said the fisherman, confirming our fears that we had come several months too early. These winds are due to the monsoon system in the Indian Ocean which draws up deep, cooler water, that in combination with the hot desert air, creates strong thermal winds. My attempts at speaking Arabic, however, were usually greeted with howls of laughter or blank stares as they tried to work out why I'd just asked if they were having good wind.
As it turned out, we were able to ride for a few underpowered sessions on the wide-open beaches south of Makalah. Nearby fishermen were unloading sharks they'd just caught; a common sight in this part of the world. It was only later that I read about 40 refugees from Sudan that had died in the same spot as they'd tried to swim ashore, many of them showing signs of shark-attacks.
Travelling through Yemen I was often struck by the abundance of guns and the drug quat. The sign at the entrance to our hotel reception desk read NO GUNS IN ROOM. LEAVE AT RECEPTION. It could have been a welcome at the OK Corral. We grassed on our neighbour because he had kept his. AK47s are the most popular model, though we were told that anyone who is anyone owns a rocket-propelled grenade.
Guns are surpassed by only one thing. Quat is a leaf which, when chewed, is said to produce a mild euphoria. Supposedly it stimulates conversation and thought, although after a few hours it seems to produce more of a glazed look and apathy. We regularly saw groups of men sitting on carpets and spending a large part of each afternoon chewing away at the wad stuck in their cheek. Entering the quat market we were greeted with “Come my friend, you try. This is very good, very fresh," and “For you, best price, I make you special price." The air was thick with the damp and slightly acidic smell of the freshly cut quat. Sellers squatted on a raised shelf surrounded by bunches and good-humouredly tried to out-sell their neighbour.
As the wind was forecast to be stronger further south we decided to head for Aden. Everyone advised us against travelling by bus as it passed through an area that was pretty lawless with a high risk of getting kidnapped. Tourists are taken every couple of months to be used as leverage with the government, along the lines of, “We want a new road so we'll make you look bad internationally unless you build it." Most hostages are treated pretty well and aren't in any real danger unless the army comes to rescue them. Certain parts of Yemen also have a strong Al Qaida presence (Bin Laden's family was originally from Yemen) and there have been many attacks in the past, so we felt it was wise to be cautious.
Stepping off the plane in Aden we were met by a strong breeze, so we were able to ride most days, though it wasn't until our last day that it really picked up. Aden was a British protectorate until the 1950s and an important port for boats passing through the Suez Canal. On the north side of the town there is a perfect beach for riding that stretches for fifty kilometres. Our kites created a lot of interest and one day we had a crowd of over a hundred people gather, with cars streaming in from all directions to have a closer look. It seemed the more we asked them to stand back the closer they wanted to get. It was great to see how excited they were, although I was terrified that I'd crash my kite in the onshore winds and take out a couple of kids, invoking goodness knows what!
Makalah had felt deeply conservative and the few women we saw were shrouded in black abayas with only their eyes showing. So you can imagine our shock when we entered a bar in Aden and saw quite a few women drinking and dancing on stage with the Egyptian belly dancer while still in complete Muslim robes. It quickly became apparent, however, that they were 'ladies of the night' as one tried to sit on my lap, and asked if I was lonely. All a bit much for us and we fled. As we left we pondered how hard it must be for business when all you show is your eyes to entice customers!
Despite not having the best kiting conditions, the experiences of travelling in this unique part of the world made the trip worthwhile. For a pure kite trip, June or July would be the best time of year as this is summer in the Middle East. Travelling around at any time can get pretty uncomfortable here, but there is also good potential for waves, especially around Makalah, but while we were there Aden definitely received more wind.
Yemen is often in the news for the wrong reasons but Tom and I were surprised at the amount of hospitality offered to us. Any pre-conceived image of a country full of quat-crazed kidnapping Al Qaida operatives was quickly squashed and people would often go out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. My initial apprehension of travelling through Yemen proved groundless and if I learnt anything from the trip it was that you will never know till you go.
I guess these trips aren't based on wisdom.
This column is in issue #30
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