Think Grand Canyon. Not so deep. Much longer, with many branches. Very hot and dry, with rare rains. I am typing from an internet cafe in the middle of the longest wadi (seasonal river with accompanying canyon) in the Arabian Peninsula. On another Arabic computer, so everything is "backwards"- if I want to hit the back browser, I have to click the icon pointing to the right.
So it was great fun getting here. I went to the airport 2 days ago, as I mentioned, and told them I wanted to go to Shibam Hadremowt. I know there is no airport there- it's in neighboring Sayyun, 20 minutes away. No problem- a bit expensive, but I got the round-trip ticket.
Then I got on the plane. And as I'm doing so I realize that there is only one ticket there. And as we taxi away, I realize in the announcement- we're going to the wrong airport! So I sat there for the next hour of the flight, figuring out how I would fix this. Well, it turns out they only give you half the ticket for the round-trip ticket when you first board. (At least, I hope they stick to that explanation when I reboard.) And it turns out the airport in Sayyun has been closed for 2 months, and won't open again until May, insha'allah- I don't know why. But the airline office forgot to mention that to me, and instead sent me to a coastal city where you can catch a cab for a 4 hour ride to Shibam.
And then, when you go get the cab, you find out you must first go to the tourist police to get a travel permit. The tourist police are on the top of the mountain, far from the taxi stand, and never mind that the tourist police in Sana'a said 2 months ago permits are no longer needed. The information had not yet reached the police in the largest city in the East. So we are now in a position where some police won't offer a permit as it's not required, and other police won't let you travel to different areas as you have no permit!
After finally getting the permit, I and two European travelers took the 4 hour ride to Shibam by taxi, with some great camel meat along the way. Other travelers have described this journey as mountains in negative, and I must agree. No picture can really show what you see. You drive on the ground for a while, then do some quick switchbacks to come to the top of the mountain. But then, once on top of the mountain, as far as you can see, the land is flat. Except occassionally the road comes close to an edge, and you realize that there are giant canyons everywhere around you, and you are riding around on the lip of a mountain, or a land filled with ancient riverbeds.
I stayed the night in Shibam Hadremowt (a different Shibam than earlier)- and in a real bed, with clean carpets on the floor! I'm near the most famous hotel in Yemen, the only 1st class hotel in the world made entirely of mud. I'm not there (at $79 a night!) but rather staying right next to the old city of Shibam- which looks amazing at sunset. Freya Stark, the famous Western female traveler in the Middle East, nicknamed it the Manhatten of the Desert, and the name has stuck since then. And as you can see, it truly is an ancient forest of skyscrapers, some up to 8 stories tall, and all of mud! The city goes back to the 4th century BC, and was built on the ruins of a more ancient city, and has about 500 houses inside the small area.
I've taken the taxi out to see neighboring Tarim as well, where people left their homeland for decades at a time, centuries ago, to make it rich in other countries, and then came back and built palaces in their hometown with the money that they had made. But they used the conglomeration of styles from the areas they had visited in a wierd architectural mix, recapitulating the styles, all in mud.
I like the small things I see on the way more than the tourist ones. Some kids playing with a softball to see if they could hit a tower. It's similarity to the towers in town made me wonder how often we are influenced in our play by the architecture around us. I joined in with them, and almost was able to hit the tower.
Tomorrow, insha'allah, it's a taxi ride in the morning, and a plane flight in the afternoon, back to Sana'a, to visit a language school the next day, and then to fly out the morning after for New Year's Night in Dubai.
I continue to reflect on the differences between here and Morocco. One is, they have Mountain Dew here! No Pepsi, but I'm taking every chance to drink Dew and Red Canada Dry so that I'll get so sick of it I won't miss it when I get back to Morocco. Of course, I'm taking home a Mountain Dew bottle in Arabic...
Another difference, it's completely okay to hold hands with a woman here. Yes, she must be veiled all in black so you only see her eyes, but after that, you can hold hands with your wife! I'd die to get a picture of that. But of course, having taken a picture of that, death would be a likely result, so...no picture.