When I wrote about my trip across the Yemeni desert, it didn't occur to me that it might become a Google-preferred search result for, I dunno, "hitch-hike across Yemen" or some such thing :blink:. Amusingly, I've received a few emails from people wanting to know how the story the ended because they're heading out that way and want to know how to get to the border.
So for the benefit of all you guys, here's how it went...
Tarim is more or less the end of the road before the Ar-Ruba' al-Khali desert and I made the short trip there from Say'un as early as possible to give myself plenty of time to try and find a ride to Al-Ghaida, several hundred kilometres away on the other side of the desert. I found the informal "bus station", a shady spot on the side of the main road where people would gather, trying to organise rides to wherever they were going. I found a trucker who was willing to take me but he wouldn't be leaving until after dark so I made myself comfortable and hung out in the shade of a row of shuttered-up shops, watching the world go by, very slowly...
Unfortunately, Ramadan got in the way again and I spent the entire day watching almost nothing happen. In addition, I learned that trucks always go at night, which kind of makes sense when you're crossing one of the world's hottest places, I s'pose, and I was in for a long, long wait, especially once the sun went down and the streets rapidly emptied as everyone rushed to the mosques. Pretty depressing stuff for any non-Muslim hitchhikers around and so I stretched out on a park bench and tried to have a bit of a nap.
It wasn't until 8 pm before I managed to score a ride on a cargo truck heading out my way and by the time we finally got on the road, it was pitch dark. We bounced around on the dirt track heading eastwards but it was incredibly frustrating to be on the trip of a lifetime and not be able to see anything other than the twenty yards in front of us.
After a few hours of this, we rolled into As Sawm, a Bedouin settlement about thirty miles down the road. We had actually managed to slip through the military checkpoint leading into town but the driver was told to turn the truck around and get me checked through. The soldiers there studied my paperwork with doubtful expressions on their faces and I started to worry if I was going to be allowed through. Since no-one spoke any English at all, they had to send someone into town to get the local schoolteacher to help out. When he finally arrived, he explained that a cable was being sent to the provincial office in Say'un asking for permission to let me through but this being Ramadan, it was anybody's guess as to how long it would take to receive a reply.
When word finally came back several hours later, it was bad news: I would have to return to Say'un and get official permission to cross the desert. My driver was getting quite agitated by this time, worrying about his cargo of vegetables and was quite happy to dump me and be on his way, leaving the rest of us to sit around, chatting and playing dominoes until it was very, very late. The soldiers set up a camp bed for me and I went to sleep staring up at a sky full of stars, frustrated but resigned to returning back to Say'un.
I was woken by the rising sun and got my first look at the surrounding desert only to see that we hadn't even left the wadi yet. The soldiers flagged down the first passing truck and gave me a cheery wave as I made the depressingly long trip back to Say'un. A flat tyre on the way pretty much summed up the whole trip so far (he probably bought it from the Happiness Tyre Company).
At police headquarters in Say'un, I was flatly refused a permit to cross the desert and was told that I must head south to Al-Mukalla and take the safer coastal route. The European kidnapees were still being held, four weeks after having been taken and this was the reason that I was being denied permission. Now I was stumped - my visa was running out and I was not optimistic about my chances of being able to get across the border if I overstayed, even if I was able to get there at all. There were only one or two flights out a week, the next one leaving that afternoon and it was a grumpy Taka who was finally forced to give up and get on a plane back to Sana'a. Peering out of the window as we flew over the desert I had previously crossed, I watched hundreds of miles of ground covered and days of hard slogging be undone by a fifty-minute flight. Damn.
Most of the Yemeni are poor people in an even poorer country. Crowds of men, young and old, jostle each other at busy street intersections, forlornly trying to sell boxes of matches and packets of tissues, desperate to make a sale, their sales pitch joined by the rantings of the mentally ill who freely roam the streets. I even saw the woeful sight of one old woman pushing her decrepit grandmother around in a wheelbarrow. Beggars cruise the streets beseeching passer-bys in the name of Allah for a few riyal while their barefoot, raggedy kids sit in the garbage, playing with piles of dirt and rusty tin cans. Many of them are crippled, hauling their bodies around with a fantastic assortment of makeshift aids although some were not even that fortunate. I regularly saw one man sitting in a crumpled heap at the same spot all day, every day, his wasted legs tucked away beneath him and his back so tortuously bent over that his face was virtually touching the footpath in front of him. Who left him there each morning and picked him up at night, I don't know, but the shopkeepers nearby made sure that he had a little food and water each day, especially during the frantic period around sunset during Ramadan when everyone was breaking their fast - it was tragic to watch him eat, trying to scoop up bits of disintegrating samosas and roti with his tiny flipper arms.
And uniquely Muslim were the abandoned or widowed women sleeping out in the streets, still wearing the full Islamic chador. More affluent women cover themselves with an intricate array of delicate sheets and veils but the poorer classes wear what is little more than a six-foot cotton sack over their heads. These women lay slumped up against a wall, inert, shapeless lumps in a black body bag; dead or alive, who could tell? They weren't even begging but just lay there, taking up space...
But while the Yemeni might not have much money, one never gets the impression that they are poor in spirit. Yemen has a long history that stretches back for millennia and is something that the people here are fiercely proud of. There is little of the jealousy and dislike of the comparatively wealthy tourists that is rampant in many Third World countries - on the contrary, most Yemeni are genuinely pleased to welcome people who have made the effort to visit their isolated country. Kids, in particular, go wild when a foreigner comes into sight and there's nothing quite like being surrounded by thirty riotous rugrats, all frantically trying to get into your pockets for souvenirs and tear your bag apart to see what wondrous things may lie within. It was truly a joy and a privilege to come here.