Curious about what it would be like to travel in Yemen? Jon Collins was; so much so that he took the leap and ventured there himself, never once turning back. What he discovered was a country full of rich tradition and history, and bold and generous personalities. He shares:
“For me, it…was almost like traveling through time … [I]n many ways, the difficulty of organizing and following through with travel in Yemen is far outweighed by the sheer beauty of the landscape..and authenticity of its culture…”
What drew you to Yemen?
In January 2013, I met a man named Ali staying in my guesthouse in the port city of Berbera, Somaliland. He was adorned in a long white gown with a green and white scarf tied ornately like a turban on his head, and wore a thick belt with a secured knife around his waist. I remember thinking at the time that he must be someone very important; perhaps a wealthy businessman from Saudi Arabia because of his regal presence and a local dress I had never seen before. We exchanged greetings and when I asked where he was from and why he was wearing such an ornate outfit, he said with a smile ‘I am Yemeni. It is like this everyday.’ He was the first person I had ever met from Yemen.
So began my extensive investigation of the country, flicking through travel magazines, looking at photos, and reading blogs. I kept thinking my eyes were deceiving me and was convinced I was looking at photos from many decades before. Buildings and interiors in Sana’a, the capital, looked like the sets of Arabian movies, and men were indeed dressed just like Ali, walking down streets with the knives, known as jambiya, secured at their waists and the kufiya scarf draped in different shapes atop of their heads. This aspect of authenticity is something a true traveller looks for when they embark on a journey; not just to see life across different spatial scales but also to see countries that have maintained traditions through time. In a modern day and ever-changing world, finding a country like Yemen is a rare and beautiful thing.
Tourists have not been able to travel to Yemen independently since the political revolution in 2011. Given that, how did you organize or plan your trip?
When you read about travelling to Yemen in on whatever platform, you will see the words ‘strongly discouraged’, ‘do not travel’, and ‘high risk’. Many even asked ‘Why Yemen?’ Even on the flight from Doha to Sana’a, the airhostess said to me ‘If you aren’t here for business, why on Earth did you get on this plane?’ Reading and hearing those things did not deter me though, as I had begun to obsess over the possibility of travelling in Yemen and wanted to get to the source of how it was possible.
Travelling in Yemen has long been a precarious and difficult task, even prior to the revolution in 2011. You will find blogs from 2005-2008 that talk about the days when backpackers could simply ride on local buses and travel freely in certain regions without written permission from local authorities; but those days are long gone. Now, foreigners must travel to Yemen via a certified tour agent on a specified itinerary and only in regions deemed to be safe by the Ministry of Tourism. This was a challenge for me to wrap my head around, as I was so used to organizing travel independently; however, I grew to realize that Yemen was in fact a different case altogether. I got in contact with more than ten local agencies via email, and I found one that was happy to accommodate my needs for budget travel and helped incorporate my usual interests of rural homestays, busy markets, camping wherever possible, and the desire to try every local food into a much looser and fluid itinerary. Over the course of the trip, the local guides or drivers very much become like my travel companions. We ate, slept, walked, drove, chewed qat, and explored together from sunrise to sunset, and by the end of the trip we shared an incredible bond. My guides Saleh on Socotra and Abdulaziz on the mainland have become my Yemeni brothers, and I cannot wait to go back and visit them again.
What expectations did you have or what assumptions had you made about travel in Yemen and how were those met or subverted?
I knew before I arrived that Yemen was going to be a very different country as compared to those I had traveled to before, so I tried not to have any preconceived ideas. I wanted to go and visit to see the truth for myself. To be clear, the country indeed has a higher risk of danger due to political instability, a growing presence of terrorist and tribal groups, and the occurrences of foreigners being kidnapped. But there is something else important to consider when travelling to Yemen, and that is the reality that all we read in Western media and on government warnings is the ‘bad’, rather than stories of triumph, political transition or change.
While some of the horrific things I had read about in the news were certainly realities of life in Yemen and some of the topics most discussed among locals, they in no way dictated or reflected how the population of around 25 million people live, nor did they project how safe I felt being among the Yemeni people. While I was there, I lived each day as it came and did not feel at risk being a tourist in the regions I visited.
Did Yemeni culture influence the way you traveled? If yes, how so?
Yemeni culture is bound by customs, laws and sometimes unspoken traditional ‘rules’, both societal and religious, that can be both strict or fluid depending on factors such as gender, age, profession, or family lineage. Once you enter Yemen, you see how these begin to apply to you, and you’ll find yourself adapting slowly and learning without even realizing.
The most basic rule of thumb in Yemen: you will chew qat. No matter how many times you say ‘no’, you will undoubtedly find yourself stuffed off a massive plate of chicken and rice in the heat of the day, then led through a busy market of qat sellers, being told to simply ‘try’ out today’s leaves. Qat is commonly chewed in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa as a very mild stimulant, and one that has become an addiction for the vast majority in Yemen, where in the afternoon, you see almost everyone carrying their plastic bag of qat with the chewed leaves bulging in their cheeks. Each day, time will be allocated to the act of chewing, and even though I didn’t like the taste nor feeling, I ended up chewing every day.
Another key aspect of Yemeni culture is that life is not insular, and the typical nuclear family structure we are used to in Western societies does not apply; in fact, a much wider network is considered to be family. It is the most memorable part of travelling in the country to me: sitting down to a meal and sharing it with a group of people all from a single plate; stopping the car to give a lift to families on the side of road; getting handed the best qat leaves from a new friend; or sharing chai with another from a used tin can. In every restaurant or in the home, you will see an arm waving to welcome you to sit and share with another. It is an undeniably generous quality that says a lot about Yemeni culture.
What is one thing you learned about Yemen or Yemeni people that you’d like to share with others?
In light of everything the Yemeni population face, they carry on with such an incredibly humble and humorous demeanor in everyday life. In conversations about corruption in politics, the growing presence of Al Qaeda, the ongoing problem of water scarcity, or whatever other major issues the nation is experiencing right now, you will still hear a joke, then laughter, and most will say, ‘it will get better in time, Inshallah’. Life must go on in the meantime.
It may have developed as a mechanism to cope with disruptions to everyday life, or perhaps it is simply another historic trait of the Yemeni people; but one thing that surprised me was just how incredibly funny the people in Yemen were. I cannot count the amount of times I was in stitches laughing at a joke made, someone’s dry humor, sarcastic comment or watching a scene unfold that felt more like a comedy stint than real life. Whether it was a group of women pretending to slap a man for short-changing them at a market stall, the owner of the sweet shop getting teased about how many desserts he ate, someone trying to speak English without knowing more than three words, or joking over the size of the qat bulging in someone’s mouth; the laughter was contagious. Yemenis are easily the most hilarious locals I’ve experienced in all the countries I’ve been, and it made each day I spent there so much more enjoyable.
Describe your three favorite moments or places.
Qalansiya, on the eastern coast of Socotra island, is a place I hold firmly in my memory as the most beautiful and isolated place I’ve ever been. White sand stretches across the horizon, cascading into a sea of crystal clear seawater in the north and the shallow Detwah lagoon further inland. I have seen many beautiful beaches in Australia, Southeast Asia and East Africa, but this was a new level of vast and serene emptiness, where the only locals in sight were a few fishermen and a couple of children who disappeared across the white horizon.
The alleyways of the Old City in Sana’a are very much like a fairytale. They were the reason I stayed an extra week in Yemen because everyday I would discover new corners to explore or new people to talk to. I spent my days tasting fresh dates, smelling spices, eating kabob, drinking tea, and chewing qat in the stores of silver sellers, wood carvers, bread makers, and scarf owners until the sun went down. My concrete advice: find a man nicknamed ‘Harazy’ who runs the newspaper shop in the gates of Bab Al Yemen, drink the best milky chai at Amo Ali’s (Uncle Ali), taste salta, the national dish in one of the chaotic restaurants near the qat market, and buy yourself a set of local clothing and see how reactions change.
The best places in Yemen are not found on a map, but rather found when embracing the moment and adapting your itinerary to be as flexible as possible. Even when it was more popular for independent travel, Yemen did not generate as many visitors as other countries in the Middle East, and subsequently there are many places that are still unexplored, where people are extremely excited to welcome tourists. My favorite moment was sleeping under the stars in a small village between Zabeed and Al Khawkhah with a rural family who reared livestock and grew dates. Other last minute decisions included a visit to the huge Friday market in Bayt al Faqih; chewing qat on a mango farm; and accepting an invitation from a large group of Socotri women to kill a goat for lunch and spend hours dancing by the ocean. Yemen is unique and while the landscape and historic features are beautiful, it is the people and the moments spent together that make the country so memorable.
What would you recommend for other travellers who are unsure whether to go to countries like Yemen where there is long history of political instability?
In every country there is risk. Every traveller should consider that fact, measure how they feel about their own security, and take the necessary precautions involved before visiting. Speak to local agencies and voice your concern over the danger. Gage whether it is safe and monitor a wide range of sources, not just media, before making a decision. When travelling, be inconspicuous and respect local customs as the more you blend in, the easier it is to travel. Once dressed in local clothing, I was barely stopped at checkpoints outside of Sana’a and received a positive, and of course humorous, response from local people. Lastly, get used to the likelihood of not seeing a single tourist, particularly on the mainland during your stay. Going to Yemen is, after all, a real adventure that not many embark on. For me, it felt a world away from any country I had been to before; almost like traveling through time. But in many ways, the difficulty of organizing and following through with travel in Yemen is far outweighed by the sheer beauty of the landscape and the history and authenticity of its culture, as well as the sharing stories with a population that approaches life in the most kind, generous and humorous of ways.
This piece was originally published on January 21, 2015.