Updated: Feb 18
I left Lesvos with a number of different emotions. A part of me really wanted to stay and continue to help and meet new families coming into the bathhouse. A part of me wished that I could be that person that could spearhead initiatives directly that could change some of the horror stories I heard – the stories where women had not showered for months, and the stories where women and children were just afraid to go to the washroom in general.
A part of me wanted to go home because I felt at a penultimate high with what I had learned and experienced over the journey so far. A part of me was starting to feel really emotional in a bit of a negative way. This did not mean that I figured everything out with myself or with life, living and healing; but, if I was looking for inspiration for strength and resilience, I found it on Lesvos. Maybe I found just enough to start over and re-kindle my connection with life. Maybe I really just wanted to finally go home and start to solve problems because the intense connectivity with death had started to subside. Anyhow, this was to say that I left Lesvos with a lot to think about before going home.
Even now, a few legs later, I am still processing everything with very little time left I feel. I only have one month left in this journey. But, maybe the ‘journey’ continues even if it is not on the road. Or, maybe the ‘road’ becomes something else. I need to figure this all out, but I am allowing fear to hold me back.
I am not going to write in-depth about the 72 hours following my exit from Greece, but I did visit Saudi Arabia with some of the amazing people I met during my Afghanistan trip, one person I really hope I will remain close with for whatever this lifetime holds. But, I sometimes still have trust issues especially when it comes to ‘friends’. I still am a bit doubtful that my relationships with anyone are really actually real. I still feel like I have so many difficulties connecting with people on a human level, and there is something about me that does not resonate with others. Maybe it is this wall I have created for myself. Needless to say, I still have a lot to learn about myself. Recognizing my privilege these past few months has certainly helped.
With Saudi, there were certainly a number of revelations about one’s privilege, as a woman especially, and how lucky we all are at home. Some of the words and moments are shared on social media. I cannot though say that I know a country well enough from just 72 hours, so the real story on Saudi Arabia will come one day when I go back.
So, from there, a long journey ensued to get to Yemen. I booked a horrendous series of flights that started in Jeddah at 7am in the morning, and rolled me into a ‘hotel’ in Oman at almost 1 am the next day. I will not go into the details, but I experienced nothing but anxiety that night from sheer disorientation and my first argument with the asshole with an attitude who manages said hotel. When I arrived in Muscat, I was already questioned a bunch about what I was going to do in Salalah. I was honest about going to Yemen, but that lead to more questioning. Anyhow, if a passport officer honestly looks at a passport in depth like this one did in Oman, I get it – there will be questions about why I would ever want to go to Yemen if I do not actually know anyone there. And, he spent a long time looking at my Iraq and Sudanese visas. My guess is that he probably thought I was something else.
The drive from Salalah to Al Ghaydeh was quite frankly a nightmare. A man rolls up in a non-descript pick-up truck. He does not speak any English, and he flashes my passport photo to me on his phone. That is quite literally my only connection that this is my ‘ride’. Throughout the entire drive, he mumbles a lot to himself with weird hand gestures, and then all of sudden speaks emphatically in Arabic while intensely staring at me instead of the steering wheel. Once in awhile he pats and strokes my head really aggressively. Gradually as the drive goes on, these ‘interactions’ become more and more inappropriate. He rubs my thigh. He claps my chest as if to reach for my heart, but I know it is to cop a feel of my chest. Too bad for him I am wearing a very heavily padded push-up bra. I try to keep my distance and curl up, and I consistently and aggressively say “la” because I know that means no. Some past experiential memories and nightmares flash through my brain, and I try to put myself into a ‘happy place’ because this is my ride. I have to trust this person because if I lose this ride I am literally stuck in the middle of nowhere with no familiarity of where to go, or a connection to find help.
But, stepping back, let’s even start with why I wanted to go to Yemen in the first place.
Similar to Iraq and the motivations there, I wanted to go to Yemen for a long time because of its fascinating Arabian history, its intricate architecture, renowned cuisine, rich culture; and more so still, to meet the infamous hospitable, warm and kind-souled Yemeni people. I have met multitudes of travellers now that have said Yemen is their soft spot and absolute most memorable experience, before the war, and even now, during.
Selfishly aside, I also know that Yemen has gone through so many challenges, and like every place I have been to before this, I wanted to see and understand those areas where people have rallied together in solidarity and how. I was not going to the north anymore, so of course, I was not going to get the full picture, or try to understand the beauty that once was. But, I knew I was going to meet people who had left and had experienced the trauma. I knew I was going to meet people who were going to tell me a story of a place that they loved with all of their soul and being, but that they had to leave behind for different reasons – for safety, for survival, for a new beginning. And sometimes when your ‘first’ life does not make sense anymore - internally and externally - you have to start over completely. I am beginning to understand that more and more. Travel has provided me with that kind of perspective. And for Yemenis, it becomes a problem of course when life is so tragic that it becomes normal for children to be recruited to fight a war, and it is that same normal to see a six or seven year old hold a gun.
I did not know Yemen’s conflict story through and through – people way smarter than me provided me with education while I continued the journey through, and I am ever so grateful to them for providing this context. In this age, Yemen has been deep in conflict now for many years in convoluted resource and deep-seated political disagreements really between neighbouring countries - Saudi Arabia, Iran and UAE. The war itself started in March 2015. From what I understand now, UAE has interests in Yemen’s major port city – Aden, and does not want Yemen to stabilize, so it can continue to monopolize trade revenues from the ports. Saudi and Iran are engaged in a cold war using Yemen as a pawn. Places that I will visit like Al Mukalla used to be a terrorist stronghold, and some of them may still be floating around. Seiyun is crawling with Saudi secret police. Sana'a is completely controlled by Houthi rebels, and nearly impossible for foreigners to get in unless they are specifically invited in. The people have suffered as a result from both the war itself, and from instances where needed humanitarian and crisis care resources have been cut off from the country, resulting in little access to even basic human needs like food and water.
I am not going to pretend that I am a subject matter expert, but going into these countries, you have to gain some heightened awareness of what’s going on. And, I happened to be surrounded by some pretty amazing human beings who taught me a thing or two. Earlier this week (backdated to early November, since I am writing this in piecemeal), an ‘agreement’ apparently had been developed between a number of different parties spurring the war. Entering the country, and talking to various people, there is scepticism. Very few people think the agreement will actually end the war here. For the time being, the point I am trying to make here is that travelling through the south felt safe enough despite everything I tried to summarize above. What I could see is that a lot of people from the north defected to the peaceful south. But, once again, I will maybe describe this in more depth as the story continues.
Perverted driver aside, the drive from Oman to the Yemen border was spectacularly beautiful, and I thankfully reach my first city without being raped though. Though, every once in awhile I worried about the pick-up truck veering off into these little beaches, nooks and crannies where I could hypothetically be beaten, raped and killed. But, you have to repress those thoughts and nightmares -especially ones from the past- and just hope for the best. Back to the point, there are dips and valleys, coastal views, hairpins, series upon series of ranges, and then animals everywhere – camels, donkeys, and cows. Oman is clean and well-kept, and this clearly changes when you drive over the border. The scenery in Yemen is still absolutely breathtaking, but there is trash everywhere.
Leading into Yemen, there are two military checkpoints that are quick and easy to get through. I waited nearly an hour at the Omani border to get clear passage to Yemen. They asked simple questions about my agenda and how long I planned to stay. They checked my face underneath my niqab to match the passport photo. I also had to fill out a form about my passport and sponsor, in addition to providing my invitation letter of approval. I arrived around 9:20 am, and left around 10:30 am. Once I crossed into the Yemen side, it was just 10 minutes to clear the remaining paperwork. I was told later onwards that some groups and individuals had taken up to four hours to cross the border based on their passports. I was told explicitly by my shady fixer to say I was going to Socotra only and not to ‘visit’ mainland per se (i.e. just drive as directly as possible to get to Seiyun airport), as apparently in the past, if you mention going to mainland, you get further interrogated or quite simply put, convinced not to go. Apparently, he also applied for all of my papers saying that I was a humanitarian aid worker in one instance, and on other papers, a journalist for CBC. But, my anger and frustration towards this person and his lack of care for my safety is another story that I am not exactly going to get into now. Getting back to Yemen.
The coastal drive along the country after the border is beautiful. I stop once in awhile to look at the beautiful turquoise beaches and looming mountains intermixed with rolling dunes. It is interesting to watch groups of fisherman gather in their catches. They use material and walk in a circle together to drag fish in. It looks like a rhythmic ribbon dance almost. From afar, all the colourful clothing makes you think the fishermen are actually women, but they are all men. The humid rush of air smells of fish, but weirdly enough, in a very enchanting way. We drive through many beautiful little villages, some with houses of different colours and character. Surrounding the villages are little streams and oases. Everything looks simple, modest but absolutely breathtaking. I end up in Al Ghaydah for the day, one of the bigger villages along the south. Similar to Saudi, it seems to be the norm to stay in these several-unit apartments. I am booked into an apartment with two huge bedrooms and a den. I do not need five beds, but five beds are there for me. Rolling blackouts are the norm again – and seem to be on five-minute intervals every few hours or so. Internet is better than I thought it would be, even though it too struggles slightly.
I explore Al Ghaydah in the evening for a little bit. It is a small town, but it has a central town souq or bazaar area that bustles around 7pm. There are packs of women shopping together. I feel a little wistful, and I message my friend wishing she was there ‘ninja-masking’ it with me too. I guess, even after being in Saudi with people that I knew, I still feel the heavy weighing effects of being alone sometimes. The loneliness certainly catches up to you while travelling. And, I am coming to the end of my travels soon enough, so the emotions are starting to get heavier and heavier with each day. My mood swings definitely flux out of control all throughout the mainland trip and into Socotra. I find that I do not think of death all too much anymore, especially since the day I locked all my meds in my suitcase in Mali because ‘I felt it overwhelming’, so maybe the emotions have to do with fear and coming to terms with reality more so than death. After all, I still have not found my purpose in life that ‘changes the world’ or completely come to terms with all the things that make me unhappy and fearful of returning home. And, while the travels have helped me to feel more intimately connected with the ‘world’ and humanity so to speak, I still feel very lost every day. So, maybe, the idea of death is not completely gone. Death is still very much an option. But, once again I am straying from my story of Yemen; back to the point.
There is diversity in the people, at least in the south. It is harder for me to pinpoint differences in the women, except that some women will wear more colourful abayas and niqabs in certain villages and towns. Or, they may just wear a hijab. In the bigger city, I am told the women are progressive, but I still see a lot of niqabs. I guess I will see with more exploration. Anyhow, with men, I do see a lot of diversity – some look Middle Eastern, some look African, some look mixed. The mixed look – or paler brown tan - feels more distinct to me. I think the African-ish influence may be from Somalians across the water. I am told there are a lot of Somalian refugees especially near all southern coastal villages. They have all added to the community and population of fisherman along the coast. At one point in time, all of these areas were without ‘borders’ and so people drifted back and forth creating a lineage that does not necessarily look distinct.
On this first drive, I notice a couple more nuances. There are pick-up trucks everywhere.
Once again, I hate the excessive trash dumping, but I do notice some women picking up trash in the villages. There are a lot of hitchhikers. And, what was really heavy to see was a multitude of homeless women and sometimes children strewn along the highway. They would walk slowly into the middle of the road to beg, forcing cars to slow down. We stop for one family and give them all our water; all along the way, I would continue to give change to more women. If a women and child is out on the highway struggling like that without a roof over their heads, there is perhaps little hope for them. I feel a bit emotional thinking about it, and to think, we were not even in the crises zones. I would later speak to a Yemeni journalist who passed through Sana’a and the desperation and obliteration of beauty she describes would just make you feel faint.
Even in the cities and villages, there are children and adults begging everywhere. I have one breakfast where when I stand up, a man asks to finish my leftovers. Of course I say yes. It feels weird to me because Yemenis tend to over-order or cook excessively. When they over-order at restaurants, they do not seem to take the food away. Now, either people in the kitchen will eat the leftovers or it does get distributed to the homeless nearby, but I am never one hundred percent sure. Anyhow, I make sure to always give the excessive food to others.
Mind you, I really did enjoy the food in Yemen. Bread was very substantial and addictive. I enjoyed this coastal dish called “galaba” consisting of tuna and peas. I also enjoyed this chilli chicken and tomato and dish, whose name I did not catch. I was also lucky to try this northern dessert – Binht Al Sahen, meaning daughter’s dish – a layered honey bread. Apparently, northern food is much more interesting than southern foods. There are more flavourful stews and uses of spice, whereas in the south, they enjoy eating grilled meats with bread and rice more often than not. I was not much for fried liver even though it is considered a delicacy, but tried it anyways. The problem here, in re-iteration, is that Yemenis are generous with offering food and over-ordering, and you cannot say no out of respect. I lost weight excessively again in Greece; but just a few days here, and I know I have certainly gained it all back, what with all the great food.
On the second day, the drive is equally as spectacular. Yemen has geo-landscapes out of the heavens – everywhere you look there are mountain ranges intermixed with rolling desert dunes and turquoise coastal views. It is like everything I ever loved about being outdoors rolled into one place. I do not have to just go to the desert, or the beach or the mountains. It is all here. The coastal drive is interesting, and I love passing through each village and looking at all the interesting architecture set against these beautiful landscapes. We stop in Nishtun, a port village. There are little boys swimming happily by the beach. We talk to them for a little. It turns out they are all from different villages in the north. They defected from these other villages to find a peaceful place in Nishtun, and now they are all friends.
I head out with a fisherman to ride a bit around the coast. To my luck, we get flagged over randomly by a whole bunch of sea men who invite us on board their tugboat ship for snacks and drinks. The hospitality is amazing, and it is just neat to explore the boat. A majority of the crew is Yemeni, but the main engineer and captain are Indonesian. Everyone speaks some English, and it is nice just to hang out and enjoy this nice invitation of hospitality for a while. Visiting through Yemen, this happens a lot. Everyone wants you to visit their house and at the very least have a cup of chai.
Following this, it is a long drive to the more conservative region of Hadramout – specifically Al Mukalla where I will stay the night. My senses are given a beating today as I experience all the beautiful landscapes that I previously describe, against a background of vivacious Arabic music. I remain apprehensive because every time I put down my guard and bob my head a little, my driver becomes a bit aggressive and grabs my hand to dance with him. I have to repeatedly tell him that I do not want to hold his hand. Throughout the trip, I have to use the same aggressiveness, because I find that some of the men here think it is okay to ‘have their way’ with a foreign woman. I also am very firm with sneaking pictures of women from the car. The men with me repeatedly take pictures of me as I am snapping photos of places we visit. It makes me really uncomfortable to think that they probably have 50 to 60 pictures of me now on their phones to show their friends.
I had a conversation with the friend I visited Saudi with about adopting the third gender persona while in the Middle East. Being a foreigner woman is definitely different because you are not a man, but the men also know you are not like the women there even if you are dressed up in a niqab and abaya. For them, the only women they can ever see are their mothers, wives and sisters, etc, so while I am not going to generalize that all men think they can ‘have their way’, some men think they can have their way. So, the only thing a foreigner woman can do to fit in and try to assert her self to comfort is to pretend she is a man. And, for the few days I was there, I tried my best to think and believe I was a man in the room. It was all I could do, aside from keeping a stiff upper lip and not taking any more shit. And, in some ways, it did allow me to connect with the male community and ‘sit in the room’ and ask any of the 50 questions I needed because that is how I learn.
As we approach Al Mukalla, there are more and more checkpoints. The female checkpoints are pretty easy. I mean, nothing will ever compare to the vicious pat-downs in Afghanistan. Here, I was not even body-searched. I handed my passport over, and the groups of women at each checkpoint smiled at me with warm smiles. They were mostly interested in where I was from and why I was in their country. They would laugh and smile warmly, and it was really endearing. And then, outside, the police only checked my duffle bag once. I actually enjoyed the female checkpoints because it allowed me to interact with Yemeni women without their niqabs, and some of them spoke English. I would meet more Yemeni women and even speak to one completely unveiled later throughout the trip; and, for me, understanding womens’ perspectives in a culture so completely different from mine was something important to me. I respect through and through that a women will cover herself out of respect for her religious beliefs and cultural traditions. But, I do have to question sometimes whether this perspective becomes narrow because you do not know ‘otherwise’, or there is not really a situation where you can ‘choose not to’ and not face heavy opposition from others. I will leave this thought for now, but it was a conversational point that did come up every so often, and even now, one that I think about.
I have to say once we entered Al Mukalla, I was a bit excited. Al Mukalla is the capital of the Hadramout governorate. I was told it is a bit like Sana’a and Aden in the aspects of big city culture and character though Sana’a is twice as large. And so, since I was not going to make it to Sana’a and Aden this time around, this was a bit exciting. It was also Friday, and so because it was the weekend, lots of families were out and about. I walked for a little along the beachside leading up to this huge pathway where a number of families had set up picnics. The pathway leads to a gate to the city just built and unveiled earlier this year. I was a bit disappointed because none of the lights were turned on in the area, so I could only observe families really mingling and hanging out in the dark. But, as it has been in the rest of the Middle East, it was really nice to see all this familial closeness. And, just to see Yemenis living out real life. After all, to the rest of the world Yemen is a terrorist war zone with religious extremism. But here, I saw peace and just pure human beings. I saw real people living peacefully. I saw people singing and dancing, and taking photos. Men congregated on some mats, whereas children and women would gather in adjacent mats. It just made me feel really warm inside.
Before calling it a day, I sat near the beautiful river that streams in from the ocean, and surrounds the central city. Despite the beautiful scenery, the story behind this was quite frustrating because I told my driver that I wanted to go to the hotel after my guide got out in a different area of the city to do his own thing. The driver repeatedly insisted on a drink and drove right past my hotel even though he could clearly tell I was frustrated and bordering on angry. He kept on laughing at me actually, as he kept on saying in fractured English “calm down...we will get drink”. I had to repeatedly tell him to stop calling me “asal”- honey throughout the trip. It was just getting borderline disgusting and perverted.
So, it was a bit odd walking through and sitting in an area comprised entirely of men. But, I just took a deep breath and ignored the stares; I had no choice. It was either this or attempt to walk a long way back to my hotel; so, once again I adopted the third gender persona. I decided instead to just observe them – men were watching soccer, playing pool and checkers. Everything was just in the open, and really interesting to just wander through. Like I said, I tapped slightly into this third gender I had spoken about with the group in Saudi. And after that, it was easy to just hang out in the men’s area. Apparently it is not that hard to grow a set of balls.
I woke up to an epic sunrise facing Al Mukalla. I opened my windows and let the sun and coastal air flow through the room gracefully. I was in a higher-up room, which looked at all the colourful buildings of the city, set against the background of the high mountains, and to the side the river flowing in and out of the city from the sea. I could not move for a while because I just wanted to take it all in - listen to the subtle sounds of cars and the city starting to bustle. After this, I walked around the old town, looking at the intricate historical buildings intermixed with newer architecture. The old town leads to both the port and the central bazaar. The port is vivacious – full of families swimming with their kids, and young children diving for squid. If you continue onwards, you reach the huge fish market with all the fish and fishmongers you could imagine. It was literally the sea on a chopping board. Everywhere you turn, people smile at you with warmth. Unlike in Africa, I felt less apprehensive to continually take my camera in and out of my purse. For a while, I just let it hang loosely in front of me, and everyone just wanted to speak with me and have their picture taken - fishmongers, honey producers, bread makers; even the father teaching his daughter to swim. I discovered that the camera and tourist is definitely not evil here. People appreciate you visiting their country.
The central bazaar was actually fairly clean, and quiet still when I went, perhaps because it was early. I think after Africa, the markets here felt all very subtle. It was nice to walk up and down the winding alley ways which led up to different viewpoints, and more of the interesting olden architecture - the spiritual mosques, the palace, all the old buildings, watchtowers - making up this incredibly stunning city. I take in the fresh produce, experiment with some honey, and take endless pictures of the vivid city. I ended up going back to the new city gate from the evening prior. I imagine this pathway from the evening before, and how wonderful it was to see all these Yemeni families peacefully picnicking together.
My fixer takes me to meet his friend for coffee at one of the more modern coffeehouses in the ever-expanding areas of Mukalla. The coffeehouse is frequented by a lot of students at the nearby university. Over cardamom coffee, and dates with tahini, she describes working as a nurse at a completely private philanthropic hospital for heart surgery patients who cannot afford procedures. Wealthy benefactors in and outside of the country fund the hospital. She is part of a group of young professionals - lawyers, doctors, etc- in Hadramout who want to change the way the outside world perceives Yemen. They discuss perhaps bringing people to see the work that is being done in hospitals like where she works. All of these Yemenis are educated, can speak fluent English, and really could change the dynamic through these incubator-like discussions. We discuss staying in touch.
During these conversations, I cautiously ask about Sana’a, where she is from. – and life after leaving. There is apprehensiveness in the answers – she misses home, and the people that chose to stay. She and my fixer both lost people in the war, and neither of them have been back in a few years. They had to re-start life down south. Life is not all that easy economically. Prior to the war, Yemeni currency was pegged to the USD around 200. Now, it fluctuates up and down around 550 to 600. Vegetables for example used to cost a few hundred rial, and now they will cost much more. It is expensive to live, eat and take transportation. Gas and cars are expensive, so people for example in Mukalla will use a mini-bus system.
I feel really happy having the chance to speak to a young, progressive female in Yemen. Before I leave, she comments that I should take the opportunity to dress the way I want to within reason - I do not need to wear a niqab even though she is wearing one, as I am not Muslim. I say I want to blend in out of respect, but I can see where she is coming from.
At this point, my fixer says he needs to run errands in Al Mukalla and he will see me the next morning in the valley. He never shows up again, but I will continue to describe what happens next before that story comes into play. I visit a few more sites without him, which frustrates me because I wanted to understand the history or some context behind everything I experienced, and then I continue my journey onwards to Wadi Dawan.
The drive to Wadi Dawan is long, and not as interesting as the days before. The landscape is full of vast rocky plains, rock structures and canyons, but it kind of blends all together. Along the way, I do see spots of Bedouin camps and houses. Every so often, you see a few women herding goats around in the very iconic conical straw hats -circa 1990s Nat Geo. Every so often, you will see a truck full of them – some in conical hats, others in baseball hats, some holding scythes. Bedouin women aside, I just found women in the Middle East so fascinating. I later would tell someone I grew close with during my travels that I felt so comfortable in an abaya and niqab. Even though it gave me an ‘invisibility cloak’, I felt beautiful and completely myself in it, almost free, in a world where I felt constrained by looks. I liked to hide my curves or the sweat strands on my face, and all those visual imperfections that sometimes a person spends too much time obsessing over. And so maybe, even though it appeared restrictive, it was not so restrictive after all. Maybe in some weird way, it allowed a woman to free herself of certain demons, and she really could raise her voice more comfortably.
As I already mentioned before, I do end up at one point near the end of my trip meeting a woman completely de-veiled inside her home. She speaks perfect English and we have a conversation about covering up. I do not ever mean to offend her but I do raise the point about it being a dominant male culture. She raises her alternative points – that woman have a voice, and have the ability to make change. I do not doubt any of these points. I also completely respect that a woman will cover up for beliefs and traditions. But, I also know that if any woman were to walk out on the streets in something other than an abaya or niqab, she might or would be shamed or worse. So, from my perspective, women do not have a choice or do not have the opportunity to know another life beyond what they know in the life presented to them. Anyways, again, I do not want to raise any contention with this perspective; it is just a perspective. I already raised this above once, and I am re-iterating myself, but this whole thought process just stayed stuck in my head through Yemen into my next set of journeys.
Anyways, I reach Wadi Dawan just as the sun starts to set. This area is just stunning, and hard to describe because it is that magnificent. It is one of the largest Southern valleys full of date palms and plantations. On both sides of dried up river areas, there are small villages. One little ‘village’ rises up on a rocky plateau, and it just looks out of this world. Apparently, just one man remains who refuses to leave. Just this once, I kind of wish I am not experiencing this type of breathtaking setting alone.
I am confused the next day as my fixer is unreachable. His phone is turned off. I was supposed to meet him in the morning but he never shows up. My driver does not speak proper English, and quite frankly I am uncomfortable with him because of his aggressiveness towards me in the aforementioned perverse way. Nonetheless, I try to keep my head up, and be confident that I will still make the most of the trip even without someone to guide me through, We end up driving around the Hadramout region, which is just stunning. Everywhere you look you see tall, colourful olden houses made out of mud. I spend some time travelling from village to village just trying my best to capture the indescribable beauty I am seeing. I think I visit a palace-converted-hotel, but I am not quite sure. I feel lost somewhat without context, so I encourage my driver to try and help me to find a school. I know there is a possibility that at a school, there may be teachers who know English and who may know the area.
We end up at a boy’s school in this village in Seif, and we indeed find a teacher named Abdulkarim who speaks fluent English. He agrees to spend the afternoon with me. He takes me to classes in his school, and then subsequently we visit the final English classes of the day at a girl’s school. I am falling more and more in love with Yemen at this point, but the chance to converse with some of the female English teachers is a remarkable experience. You can tell they just love practicing what they have learned as part of their career, and sharing what they know with children that they adore. I end up talking for a while with this one teacher named Dalia about her English curriculum. She teaches grades 7 to 9, and we exchange contacts. We have been speaking on occasion ever since I left Seif still. Teachers in Yemen do not make very much and only work until about 1pm, so later in the afternoon into the evening, they will often find a second or third job to make ends meet; this, on top of the heavy load of planning curriculum and programs for the next day, week, school year. These teachers dream of leaving and finding opportunities elsewhere, whether it is becoming translators, or just finding teaching jobs in different countries.
Following this, Abdulkarim shows me around the valley. We visit a honey producer where I am able to sample some of the best honey I have ever tasted. We walk through some of the old villages and he takes me to some pretty remarkable viewpoints. We finish off the day by visiting the upper left valley, a part of the valley that is not so traversed anymore because the roads leading there are not so great. Funnily enough, I think we passed the village of the first generation bin Laden. What started out as a really tough day somehow made a complete turn around, and the day ends on a complete high. I am grateful to have met this teacher, and I will always remember my day with him and the other teachers in Seif. This still does not discount the fact that I still cannot contact or find my fixer.
By the time we return the hotel, his phone is finally reachable. He lies and says he’s in a room in the hotel, but he is clearly not there. He laughs at me when he hears my frustration around the fact that he disappeared for a day and a half. I lose it, and I refuse to talk to him at this point. Long story short, I do get a new guide, but for a good chunk of that evening, after all the highs of the day, I felt defeat with Yemen, and I felt unsure if I was ever going to experience feelings of safety and certainty with the rest of my trip. It is also difficult connecting with anybody just to vent because Internet struggles in the valley.
At this point in time in the trip itinerary, I should have moved on further in the valley to somewhere different, but I am stuck in the same place for another night. And thank heavens for this. I am in a state of emotional flux, pacing frantically around the hotel grounds, up until I realize that Matt (from Inertia Network) who I travelled to Afghanistan and Saudi with has caught up, and is at the same hotel. He and his group were about one day and a bit behind. When I am absolutely at my lowest, I hear his voice and I think I am experiencing some sort of mirage. He walks through the door, and I just burst into tears when I see his face. I had wanted to go with his group when I found out that their trip was arranged, but I had already booked my trip through with my fixer and could not reverse my plans. Or well, I always could have, but would have paid a price. Anyhow, needless to say, when I needed someone really badly that night and many instances later too, Matt was there for me unconditionally, and I am ever so grateful to him. He is such an amazing human being.
The next day, I actually experienced the view of Wadi Dawan with people I was familiar with, and it was a good feeling. My fixer sends a new guide to continue with me for the remaining duration of the trip. The new person is much more responsible and knowledgeable, albeit still a bit creepy. I decided for myself that I want to mirror the rest of Matt’s agenda so I am near people I know, even if I have to slug out parts still by myself with people who still make me feel a bit scared.
So, I feel like I have written for a while. I mean, there is still a lot to describe over the next few days, but I feel like I got most of my story of Yemen somewhat internalized onto paper, and for me, that was important. I did not want to lose any memory – good or bad of such an intense pivotal point to my journeys. I mean, I continue to a few more beautiful places (Tarim, Shibam, Al Hajrain) before reaching Seiyun for my flight to Socotra, where I experience some great moments as well. I catch this stunning and spiritual sunset overlooking Shibam – a stunning, vivid picture of tall mud buildings – with prayer calls hitting every sense in your body. I take part as a female observer in a Sufi dancing ceremony. I visit one more girl’s school in Seiyun and I get bombarded with questions from teenage girls about life in Canada. I have some great bonding moments with Matt and his group. I just experience a bit of happiness after a few days of unease.
And maybe that’s just all it - I have to hold on to the good moments, because when I face challenges, the happiness from the good, really connective moments will sustain me against all the negativity that tries to knock me back down to my knees. And, I already knew this after all the fight and survival I saw throughout all my journeys – from all the countries I had the opportunity to visit, and the amazing people I got to interact, connect and experience life with.
Yemen will always be such a special country for me – not only because it was unlike any place I had ever seen or experienced, but because it tested me intensely. It tested and pushed me in a way that I really needed, and maybe could not find from anyone I knew in life even. It taught me that it is possible to start over at any point in your life, and giving up does not have to be an option. And, of course - it also reminded me of the good in humanity against all else. Maybe every person who has gone through trauma and does not know how to push himself or herself to heal, needs to visit a place like Yemen (or Afghanistan, or Syria, etc etc). I truly believe that travel gives you those very emotionally connective (different) perspectives to just begin to start healing and finding closure with any trauma in your life.
I did not make it the Sana’a this time because I chose to go to Saudi Arabia instead -thank goodness as I talked to others about my fate would I have gone. This is good, because then I know I will come back. I love Yemen so much from such a short period that I must. There are also so many beautiful places in the north that are currently inaccessible because of the conflict, and so I hope the country begins to open up bit by bit. I just want to go back over and over. Part of me wants to find a way to start life over there, but I am not sure that is even possible. I guess I need to figure everything out and start asking questions. I keep on saying this, but I have to face reality sooner or later. Nonetheless, I have written enough I think for now. There is much more to the story from a details perspective, but maybe that’s a conversation that needs to be left for another day. Or, maybe it is good sometimes just to retain certain memories as memories.