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The International Writers Magazine
: Yemen - A Red Sea destination

Betty Schambacher

With two dozen tourists glued to the windows, our bus labored up the pass blasted through the rocky Haraz mountains in the Republic of Yemen. Our ship had anchored in the Port of Hodeida (Al-Hudayah), an ancient Red Sea city on the southwest coast of the Arabian peninsula, and now we were climbing through jagged mountains interspersed by cultivated terraces and the occasional stone dwelling clinging to the cliffs.

Threatening clouds darkened the sky and a volley of rain drops drummed on the roof of the bus. Our guide, who earlier said the road was impassable during the rainy season, now assured us October was not that time of year, but as we climbed toward the village of Menakha, the rain increased. I visualized flash floods roaring down the wadis.

Haraz Moutain Village
Visibility was dicey by the time the bus reached the sprawling, three level hotel, Al Twfiq, where we were to have lunch. Inside, we were directed up a stairway to a large, unfurnished room with windows occupying one wall. The floor was covered by a red carpet bordered by a plastic runner that held plates, bottles of orange soda, and platters of rice, some kind of minced meat, eggs in tomato sauce and honey cakes. No chairs were in sight so we folded ourselves on the floor to watch a Yemeni floor show during luncheon.

The performance opened with a pair of musicians, one strumming a lute-like instrument, the other beating on small drums. One sang in a howling falsetto. The next act featured two barefoot male dancers wearing white robes and tablecloth turbans. Moustaches bristling, teeth gleaming, they linked arms, circled, spun and leaped in a succession of traditional dances, closing their act by pulling one of the ship's passengers up from the floor to join in.

At the conclusion of the entertainment, the schedule called for us to continue up the mountain to a remote village where the attraction is the spectacular view. But by this time, the rain had become torrential and visibility was dropping dangerously. The expedition was scrapped and we piled back on our bus for the return trip to Hodeidah.

The 125-mile serpentine road that winds from the coast to San'a, the capital, is a miracle of engineering by the Chinese who did the job in 1958 under a contract with the USSR. Jagged peaks and vast outcroppings of rock were starkly beautiful and mercifully, any sheer drops at the edge of the road were obscured the mist.. Within the hour we had driven out of the clouds and the rain had stopped.

The next hurdle was an encounter with a truck lying on its side in the middle of the road. It would seem that in this land not yet fully introduced even to the 20th century, traffic tie-ups would be unlikely, but this was not the case. Trucks, busses and cars were lined up for what could have measured a city block. Engines were shut off and we exchanged stares with neighboring drivers, many appearing to be afflicted with golf-ball sized facial tumors. According to our guide, the lumps were wads of qat, a plant whose leaves are chewed until nothing remains but a ball of fiber to be tucked away in one cheek. A mild narcotic, qat is chewed ritually although the government reportedly discourages the practice.

Eventually the police showed up and the truck was moved aside. From then on our driver made good time back to Hodeidah, a port that does not adhere to anyone's romantic image of Arabia. Grey concrete structures built by the Soviets stood beside crumbling buildings, some totally demolished and lying in their own rubble. The streets, barren of greenery, were littered with what was surely the accumulation of years. Only a few women, all in black veils, were to be seen in the center of town which teemed with cars, wagons, donkeys and the occasional camel. The air was thick with the stench of dung and smoke.
An adventure not to be repeated in the foreseeable future, our glimpse of Yemen was well timed, bringing into focus the wisdom of the advice: 'Go when the going's good.'
Raddison Line 'Song Of Flower'

© Betty Schambacher Oct 2004
schamb at

Betty does the Taj Mahal

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