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Cairo - Sana'a - Seyun

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


View Arabia Felix - Yemen 2007 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Emad is true to his promise and is waiting for us in the Arrivals Hall at Sana’a airport, whisking us off to the hotel for a quick shower and change before rushing us back to the airport for our short flight to Seyun. Despite being rather bewildered and disorientated from the long flight, I am delighted to see the UNESCO Heritage site of Shibam - a place I have dreamt of visiting for forty years - through the window as we pass by. I pinch myself: “as we pass by? Is this really us, just ‘passing by’ Shibam?”

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Seyun airport is absolute chaos. The conveyor belt is one small linear strip ending in an awkward corner. As everyone crowds around the belt waiting for the bags to arrive, pandemonium ensues. Trying to leave the airport is like an obstacle course, and a few toes get damaged in the process. Outside, three of the four Landcruisers are waiting for us. The fourth one is still making his way to Seyun, as Emad sent the driver back to Sana’a to wait for us with the car in case we missed the flight. There is not enough room for all of us in the three cars, so Emad rides on the running board.

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The hotel in Seyun is much more luxurious than I expected. From the outside it has a traditional look, but inside it is modern, with large rooms including a sitting area, and there is a central courtyard with a swimming pool. We collapse straight into bed after a 51 hour journey from Bristol, and sleep until lunch.

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Despite being classed as a four-star hotel, the services at the Samah Hotel are rather sketchy. They don’t actually keep any food in the restaurant, if you want to eat; you need to order a few hours in beforehand so that they can get the stuff in. Having requested a camel stew when we arrived in the morning, it duly appears at lunchtime. It is the first proper meal we have had since leaving Bristol, but I am not hungry and leave most of it.

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This afternoon is billed as ‘Free Time’, but Emad has arranged an excursion in the Landcruisers for us. I don’t think there is much of interest around this area other than what’s in the itinerary, and I get the impression they are scratching around to find attractions for us. We start off at a cemetery to Mr Alnabi Handala Asofiri. Between 1204 and 1323 this was the capital of Wadi Hadramawt, controlling all this area pre-Seyun. Now it is just the cemetery for the village.

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This is where we get our first introduction to Qat, the drug of choice in Yemen. The drivers have to have their fix every afternoon, and we stop most days to get some. It is said that most Yemeni spend at least 50% of their meagre salaries on Qat.

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Popping a few green leaves in my mouth and starting to chew, it is hard to understand why. The first impression is that of chewing a privet hedge. It tastes like, well, leaves. I spit it out in frustration. My second attempt some days later is more successful and I experience the slight euphoria associated with the Qat chewing. I can’t say I think it looks good or that it gives me enough of a high to spend 50% of my income on it.

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There is an ancient well on the site too and we drop a stone into it to see how deep it is. It’s deep. We wander about the ruins for a while before heading back to the cars.

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The drivers have turned up the Yemeni music on their car stereos to full blast and three of them are dancing around by the cars, waving their Jambiyas (ceremonial daggers) in the air. This is the Yemeni equivalent of male bonding, and something we would see a lot of during our journey through Yemen.

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Jo is a good sport and joins in, borrowing a Jambiya for authenticity. She certainly looks the part.

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Yemen is still very much a tribal culture, and nearly every man and young lad we see, carries a Jambiya in his belt. The sheath is usually made from either silver or copper, or as here, in a colourful material, and the handle can be crafted from a variety of sources, including ivory, Rhino horn, leather, wood or animal bone. They come in different sizes and colour and are a man’s pride and joy.

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All around us the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The wadi (seasonal riverbed) is huge, with a flat fertile area surrounded by towering cliffs reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The view is exactly how I imagined it and hoped for. Wadi Hadramawt is the largest wadi in the Arabian Peninsula and runs for 160kms west to east. Over 200,000 people eke a living from this fertile land, whose wheat is said to be the best!

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Even today, the vast majority of the buildings in the area are made from mud bricks in a style unchanged for centuries. The tower houses are the invention of the Hadhramis, and all over the area you can find similar constructions.

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Winter is their dry season and the local builders take advantage of this and everywhere you can see the making of mud bricks. Wet mud is mixed with some straw for added strength and then spread out on the ground to harden.

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A wooden frame with a long handle is used to shape the bricks. The bricks will dry fairly quickly in the sun and different thickness of bricks are used for the different storeys of the building – thicker ones on the ground floor and thinner ones near the top.

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We visit a local project where they are hoping to turn an old building into a museum for tourists. Many men are working on the development, but our photos are spoilt by a truck in front of the building. Emad asks the builders to move the vehicle, and they oblige.

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Who needs Photoshop!

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Al Hawta Palace Hotel is the only first class hotel in the world to be built entirely of mud and clay, and its origins date back 150 years. As Yemen’s only Heritage Hotel, it is the best in the area and very expensive.

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The grounds are superb, like a little oasis in the desert, with the only lawns we saw in Yemen, trees, palms, beautiful flowering bougainvillea and a swimming pool. Oh to stay here.

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Back in Seyun we discover the delights of Yemen’s alcohol-free cocktail. Made from Mango juice, milk and a thick, red syrup called Vimto, it is substantial and smoothie-like.

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Photographing the Vimto bottle

One is not enough!

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As dusk falls, we take a walk around Seyun. Our walk coincides with the call to prayer, and we watch the people stream into the mosque after having performed their ablutions.

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I love this time of day when the light begins to fade and the artificial lights start to appear. I am particularly taken with the colours of this mausoleum, the Tomb of Habshi. This respected holy man died at the beginning of the 20th century, and his death is still celebrated by pilgrimages lasting ten days every year.

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Attached to the mausoleum is a Muslim graveyard, where non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.

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The imposing Sultan’s Palace dominates the skyline of Seyun day and night, but is most impressive at dusk. The present shape of the buildings dates from the 1920s, with the outer wall added in the late 1980s.

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Many of the stores are open way into the evening, including this jeweller’s shop, barber and store selling Vimto! Yemen is a lot more touristy than I expected it to be; don’t get me wrong, it is by no means overrun with tourists, but I have seen more foreigners than I anticipated. Being the height of the season, we are likely to see more than at any other time of year I suppose, but I was not prepared for the number of touts selling souvenirs and other trinkets. Honey is very popular here in Yemen, but not something either of us like. Some of our party visit a shop where they are able to taste the different types of honey.

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Whilst the rest of the group goes off for a meal, we make our way back to the hotel to try and catch up on some much needed sleep. I notice the moon is very big and bright on the horizon, almost eerie. I take in the scene for a while before collapsing into a deep, peaceful sleep, to be woken up by Emad who has brought us back some takeaway fuul. What a kind man. We devour the bread and beans, having regained our appetite.

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While we were asleep earlier this evening, staff have decorated the central courtyard of the hotel for Christmas.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:09 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged mosque travel cemetery tourists yemen souvenirs wadi hadramawt barber seyun shibam camel_stew qat call-to-prayer fuul samah_hotel Comments (0)

Istanbul - Cairo

Arabia Felix - Yemen 1997


View Arabia Felix - Yemen 2007 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At least today should be less eventful than yesterday. A nice mini-bus turns up as arranged to take us back to the now very familiar Istanbul airport. After some confusion about where we check in, we finally have our boarding cards in hand and are now on our way to Sana’a yet again. It looks like it paid off that I remained calm and friendly to the girl on the Transfer Desk yesterday, as she’s upgraded us to Business Class. The special lounge with complimentary food and drink is very welcome prior to our flight.

In Cairo the Transfer Desk is unmanned, so we hang around loitering for a while, until we are taken by bus to another terminal building. After the X-ray and security check, our passports and tickets are taken from us and we are told to sit and wait. We do as we’re told. Some two hours later, I inquire about our tickets, and they are produced from under the counter.

Once we have our boarding cards, I send a text message to Emad to confirm our arrival time, and he replies with the good news that he has changed the group flight to 06:00 so that we can all travel together.

We use our unplanned – and unwanted – time here in Cairo to visit a cafeteria called Cinnabon, where buns filled with cinnamon (funny that!) are heated up and iced. Total deliciousness. (postscript: these have become quite an addiction for me since then, and an absolute must when we travel as thankfully they do not have an outlet near us in Bristol.)

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Things are looking much brighter now, at least until we get to the gate in Cairo for our flight to Sana’a and read the sign: ‘No liquids to be taken on board’. There goes the three litres of Duty Free from London! This is particularly annoying as Yemen is a dry country, although as a non-Muslin we can bring in a 'reasonable amount' of alcohol for our own consumption, but we will be unable to buy any over there. We were hoping to have a little something to help us celebrate Christmas and New Year.

Feigning total ignorance, David sends his bag first through the X-Ray scanner. They discover his water and can of Coke and ask him to remove it. This is where I know our luck has turned and David seizes the moment to makes a bit of a fuss. As they turn to explain where he can dispose of his liquids, the officials temporarily take their eyes off the screen and miss my bag going through with all the alcohol in it. We are through and so is the Duty Free!

The catalogue of errors is to continue though, with the transfer bus taking us to the wrong plane. After waiting in the bus for some ten minutes for instructions from the authorities, we are finally delivered safely to the correct aircraft. The rest of the journey is uneventful and we are finally on our way to Sana'a.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:53 Archived in Egypt Tagged travel flight airport istanbul christmas security cairo yemen alcohol new_year airline turkish_airlines duty_free airport_security Comments (1)

Easter Island: free day with a walk to the museum

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera and images from the scrap book I made afterwards.

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View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We left the alarm off this morning and don’t actually get up until 08:50. We are the last for breakfast, which is a cakey-thing and bananas, ham and cheese. The rolls are much fresher this morning than they have been.

Today is the other free day on our trip, and we have planned our little walking tour. We start along the coast, past the kiddies’ playground (better than any in Nailsea) and some strange porous sculptures with petroglyphs on.

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It’s a nice walk, along a good path, the terrain is rocky but flat and the sun is out. There are lots of beautiful wild horses around; the island is full of them. They are not really wild; they do belong to somebody, but are free to wander around as they please. We see one other tourist on our walk, a weird man carrying lots of gear. For the most part we have the whole place to ourselves. It is Sunday morning, so the locals are in Church.

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Along the coast is a row of five restored moai on a ceremonial platform, and one solitary statue with its basalt eyes in place. This is how they would have all looked at one time. I try to picture in my mind how the island would have looked in its heyday with all the moai upright and painted. It is hard to imagine. The overwhelming amount of history and culture found on Easter Island far belies its size.

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We turn off inland and follow a track until we reach the small museum. Victor warned us that although it is fairly interesting, there really isn’t all that much on display. He is right. We are given a booklet in English to follow the exhibits, and for me the most noteworthy item is the only female moai on the island – its torso had been taken by Thor Heyerdahl, but was returned from Norway in the 1970s.

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In the small shop we look for souvenirs for my mum, but at US$45 for a thimble, I’m afraid she goes without. The temperature inside the museum is far too hot with no movement of air. I am glad to get outside. We return to town along the little gravel road, passing many urban houses along the way. It is interesting to see how the locals live.

For lunch we revisit the seafront restaurant from last night. Yesterday I noticed somebody eating a chicken soup and it looked so good I wanted to try one today. It is every bit as enjoyable as it looks; an enormous bowl piled high with vegetables, chicken and noodles. And best of all – not a chip in sight! David also enjoys his spaghetti Bolognese. We watch the surfers in the harbour, and it starts to rain heavily. Again. All the locals are out on the town’s only football pitch for a derby. We have seen at least five different games so far. We were hoping to be able to use the internet in the reception for a short while this afternoon, but it is unattended, they are probably watching the football. Just as well we took our key with us when we went out. After a long siesta we enjoy a drink in the room before going down to Pea Restaurant for dinner. Reported to be the best restaurant in town, we have saved it for the last dinner. I immediately like it when I see that there are several items on the menu that don’t include chips. My chicken comes with rice and pineapple while David’s steak is accompanied by mashed potato. Back at the hotel the reception is again manned and we send a quick message to Pauline to wish her happy birthday. More drinks in the room before it’s time for bed.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:22 Archived in Chile Tagged walking travel chile rtw easter_island moai hanga_roa thor_heyerdahl Comments (0)

Easter Island: Rano Kau, Orongo Ceremonial Village and rain

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera and images from the scrap book I made afterwards.

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View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It rained all through the night and this morning there is a terrible smell in our room. It smells like raw sewage and we report it to the reception on the way out hoping they’ll do something about it while we’re out.

At the first site we can still see the red paint on the fallen moai. It is thought that they were all painted at one stage. Wind and rain has damaged so much of these statues and if nothing is done to preserve them, they’ll be completely eroded away in another 500 years. What a terrible thought.

We stop at an extinct volcanic crater to look down at the lake 253m below. It is green and repulsive on the surface but the slopes are wooded and apparently quite popular with walkers. Many have got lost where they didn’t realise quite how far it is.

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The Orongo Ceremonial Village is larger than I imagined. There are 48 restored houses in total, each with stone walls, grass roof and low doors. There are many theories about the usage of the buildings; my book says that the contestants for the Birdman title would stay here for a time before the competition. Victor reckons they housed virgins for up to four months at a time before the ceremonies. I do not fully comprehend what they did with the virgins afterwards. It is a very impressive site, of a later date than the moai.

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Right out on the thin ledge between the ocean and the crater lake, you can appreciate the bravery of the men who risked life and limb to jump off the cliff, swim to the outlying rocky islands, collect the first frigate bird egg of the season and return as hero and gain the title of Birdman for the following year. The ledge is very precarious in the wind and I don’t linger to peruse at the petroglyphs on the rocks.

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It rains buckets all the time we are here, and stops just as we get back to the car. In fact the weather is so bad and the conditions so wet and muddy that we totally miss out the visit to a quarry, and go back via the deep harbour and the petrol tanks. Most items have to be imported to Easter Island, including cars, fuel, clothes, electronic items and many foods. There are no mobile phones on the island as there is no signal.

The blocked drains in the hotel have not been fixed, so we end up moving to another room. This one is nearer the swimming pool, has its own balcony, a telephone and a fan! We put the fan on to dry David’s clothes which are still rather wet from washing them 2 days ago. I am waiting for David’s to dry before I do mine as we have nowhere to dry any more clothes.

Lunch at a little café in the high street is slow but good. I order the local speciality of empanada (a sort of pasty) with beef and cheese, David tries the pizza and we share some chips. More chips. Please give me some boiled or mashed potatoes, pasta or rice. The waiter/cook/owner of the café is tall, painfully thin and has long flowing hair. Initially we can’t work out whether it is a man or a woman, but we decide it is a he and that he is gay. We really don't care about his (or her) sexual preferences, and at £12 for the lot including a couple of beers each, we're not unhappy . There are two internet cafés in town, but they are both closed and no opening times displayed outside. It is still raining. The only thing we can do is to adopt the Latino way of life with an afternoon siesta. The runs are back, I don’t want to block up these toilets too.

For our evening meal we try another restaurant in the high street, and although it appears to be very popular, the menu is rather limited. Apart from chicken and chips, there is fish and chips and also lobster at a hefty price. We choose chicken and chips. I still don’t feel too well, so I eat some of the chicken but leave most of the chips. I hope we soon get something different.

Who’d have believed that we’d get such a spectacular sunset after all the rain we’ve had today. Several tourists congregate at the harbour to watch the sun go down behind the restored moai in the main street.

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:07 Archived in Chile Tagged rain travel chile rtw easter_island Comments (1)

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