Thursday, July 30, 2009


I took 5 days and headed to Ethiopia. Why not, right? It's about an hour and a half flight from Sana'a, and pretty cheap, so I caught a last minute flight outta town when I realized practically everyone else in the office was going to be gone that weekend as well.

Ethiopia is an interesting place. It's a land of castles, six-fingered men, and towns called Gondor... All things that make great movies and great history.

I won't go into detail about all I learned... I'm just going to mention a few things that struck me about the little bit of africa I was able to get to know.

1. Walking: people are walking everywhere and all the time. no matter what time of day I was on the bus or on the streets, there seemed to be people walking down the highway with their animals or their vegetables to be sold in the nearest town.

2. Cleanliness: while some of the cities were about what you'd expect for the third world, the countryside is quite clean. They don't buy many packaged products.... I'd guess that's why.

3. Orthodox Christianity: yeah.. this place has got it, and it's big. very interesting castles, churches, and monasteries.

There's plenty more to talk about when you tink of Ethiopia. Talk to me if you'd like.

I'll get a picasa album up asap.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weddings, Weddings, and more Weddings....

I was starting to wonder if I was going to get out of Yemen without going to a traditional wedding. I had heard so much about them, and I really wanted to experience it firsthand. Well, I ended up being invited to no less than four weddings this past week, two of them taking place this past week. So Tuesday and Thursday were experiences that I will not soon forget. Much of what is done is difficult to explain in words, so I will let the pictures in the album ( do much of the talking. Feel free to skip my dry writing and go directly to the pics. In any case, I’ll try to give a few details that might help in understanding the photos.

Tuesday afternoon at about 12:30 Essam, a coworker, picked me up from my place. I had donned my Thaob, sandals, shawl, and suit jacket, hoping to blend in as much as possible. We headed over to the photographer with the rest of the family. The feeling in the photo shoot were about as you feel at any wedding Ive ever been to. People are excited to be at the wedding, and they are generally excited to finish with the photos as soon as possible.

You’ll see pictures of the grooms from the two different weddings. Their dress tells you where they come from and what kind of lineage they have. For example, in the pictures where there is just one groom, you’ll see that he has two different outfits. The darker one tells you that he has a lineage from the judiciary. The other I think has colors and patterns that correspond to his homeland and economic status. The pictures of the two grooms show that they are from Taiz, a town about 100km south of Sana’a (I haven’t confirmed the distance…. That’s what Im told).

You’ll see a lot of what look like flower leis like you’d find in Hawaii. That’s pretty much exactly what they are. The flowers have a incredibly strong and beautiful smell. I brought one home and hung it in my dining area. Apparently the flowers come from the Taiz and Epp areas. Wherever they are from, they are beautiful handmade ornaments that fit perfectly at a wedding.
Following the photos we met up with a larger family group that gathered for some food. They had rented out a hall used for lunch for wedding parties. Basically it was an unfinished building with an open area in the basement. They laid out rows and rows of plastic where all the men squatted and waited for the food to come. Those serving the food (generally those with the closest relation to the grooms) ran back and forth and literally dropped trays of food in front of us. There were a few plastic spoons that we could use to pick at the food, but for the most part everyone ate with their hands directly from the trays.

There was more food than all of us (probably around 150) could possibly eat in three sittings…. And the food kept coming. Flat bread with yogurt and vegetables, trays with rice and huge sides of lamb, Salta (ground beef in a Yemeni sauce that can only be described as full of grease, spice, and goodness), bananas, watermelon, an amazing dessert that is a flaky version of Indian fry bread smothered in honey….

The men ate feverishly… I could hardly believe how fast they ate… within a half hour we had all been served, had eaten, and had washed up, ready to get on to the qat chewing session… Yet, even with all of that, the room where we ate was filled with lively talk and laughing. If there is one thing Yemeni men do often and do well, it is YELLING. They’d yell their thoughts to each other between bites. The servers ran around the room with large platters yelling at us to make way for more food. We’d yell back saying we wanted more of this or of that.

Once stuffed and washed up I went with Essam and his brothers to their home where we relaxed for about an hour in their sitting room (that’s where I am in the pics of me in traditional Yemeni dress). His brother is quite the gardener and we spent some time talking about the plants that he had around their property and in their home. The longer Im here, the more I find that this place is so much like the Phoenix valley: Jakaranda trees, different kinds of mesquite trees, bushes identical to ones I had grown up with in my own back yard, and others that I couldn’t remember the names of, but which were the same species as some which are very common in AZ.

After some rest and prayer, we headed over to the main hall in downtown Sana’a. They had rented out a hall that looks like a giant sitting room… There was enough room in this place for over 500 men to sit, chew gat, and enjoy eachother’s company. The groom sat at the front of the room and greeting the guests who then found a place among the crowd with friends and family.

An important part of a traditional wedding in the music. They hired a group that performed traditional songs and traditional poetry (which sound like singing… thought they will tell you that they aren’t songs) which is not quotation of the Quran, but which is meant as praise to God. Im not sure whether they did this at the first wedding (if so, no one pointed it out for me), but at the wedding on Thursday, they had a particular praise that was meant also as supplication for those in the room who were still single… that they could find a good woman to marry. When I understood what was going on, I joined in as best I possibly could and asked those who were married around me to supplicate on my behalf… Everyone got a kick out of that (yeah… I know… jajaja… very funny, Tyler).

I'll put some videos of the music up on my facebook page soon hopefully, so check there if you want to hear the band and see some of the dances, etc.

After about 6-7 hours of sitting around and talking about everything under the sun, the music started to pick up and the groom gets up, moving toward the door. Friends and family gather around him and chant and clap, walking slowly with him to the car out front. He is then taken by car toward his neighborhood and his home where his bride will be waiting. The procession of cars moves painfully slowly through the streets. Sometimes you’ll find such processions (in vehicles or on foot) walking through the streets in downtown Sana’a during rush hour traffic without a care in the world that people need to be on their way.

Once closer to the groom’s home, he gets out of the car and walks the remainder of the way to his home and to his bride. This walking through the streets can take up to an hour before he gets to his home. His friends and family continue to chant and clap in the traditional way all the way to the door of the house. At that point, the party is over (except for the couple, of course) and we mull about talking about the same sorts of things we’ve been discussing all day… On Tuesday night this didn’t happen until 1am. Long day for everyone involved.

The younger boys still had a ton of energy and most of that energy was focused on the white guy in the group. I spent quite a while messing around with the teenage boys. Even though this is the capital city, these boys don’t get much interaction with foreigners… certainly not Americans. After some talking, some joking, and some pictures, I hopped in the car with Essam and headed home. Work is coming early.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I finally got out of the city….. only took me a month, but I made it. The security situation in Yemen right now is such that the government is taking every precaution possible to keep tourists safe. This means that in order for me to go to Kawkaban (only about a half hour drive west of Sana’a, and considered a safe area) I needed to get an official letter from my employer the laid out all the details of the trip (day, places I’d be and when, who I would be with, copies of passport and business visa, the license plate number of the car I’d be in, the name of the required accompanying Yemeni, etc.). That letter had to be taken to the tourist police a day before the trip. The letter would be processed by them and then sent to the ministry of tourism who would approve or reject the request for permission. One the morning of the trip the permission could be picked up and you could be on your way.

All this finally completed, we headed out at 7:30am, climbing the dusty hills west of Sana’a. Once at the top of the hills, and a hundred meters from a military base, we presented the letter from the ministry of tourism at the same road block we encountered only two weeks before. The guard asked us to pull over to the side of the road and wait while he took the letter up to their supervisor who had to call the ministry to confirm that the permission was real and that nothing had changed since it’s issuance (less than 12 hours before) that would revoke it. A couple of conversations later, we were allowed to pass.

Finally free of the city, we ventured into the brown hills toward a distant plateau which rises 1000 feet above the surrounding . On top of those cliffs of red, brown, and grey rocks was the city of Kawkaban. For around a thousand years a branch of Islam known as the Zaydis have used this natural refuge as their home. In centuries past, the Zaydis used as a base to protect themselves from other muslim sects and to carry out their own persecution of muslim groups who dared challenge their beliefs.

After the main highway makes a move to the south we shortly found a right hand turn which led to winding blacktop that switch-backed in tight turns up and around the back of the cliffs and then followed the rear valley until we had reached the front door of the town. Stone walls commanded only one entrance through the only gates of the city which are apparently still used, closing each evening.

In Husam’s shiny white 2009 Land Cruiser we picked our way through the ancient gates and between the stone homes and mosques to the edge of the cliff. Below, the land stretched east into the hills which we had crossed to get here. The hills were covered in fields, though only scattered areas of green revealed growing crops. Apparently the rain this year has been quite scarce, prompting some farmers not to plant. Still others, Husam told me, simply abandoned their fields and moved into Sana’a in search of a better job.

To the south impressive rock formations jut out of the surrounding topography, and looking even further toward the horizon and bit further to the west stands Jabal an-Nabi Shu’ayb, the highest mountain in Yemen (12,333 ft if you can believe that). Southwest the drop off to the sea begins. Deep valleys cultivate Qat fields and other crops.

The architecture in the city is a lot like that found in the Old City. The main difference is that here stone is used more often than not (The Old City homes are basically mud and branches).
I am the only tourist here on this lazy Friday morning. This makes me a target for the few souvenir vendors in town. The young salesmen (all young boys 14-17 yrs old or so) followed me around as I took pictures from the cliffs and looked at interesting stones I found (nerd, I know), but kept their distance, only using their eyes to ask me to examine their wares. They pushed carts with display cases full of jewelry, boxes made of camel bone, and other handmade items for sale at a “good price.” Once I fully acknowledged their presence by saying hi, I was attacked. The pressure was now on. I spent a half hour haggling with them and walked away feeling like I had gotten a good deal and had ensured a good day of sales for at least one of the boys (sorry, I really wish I would have gotten a good picture of these boys.. but they were so aggressive in trying to sell to me that I just felt like taking off).

Before leaving the city, Husam parked the car just outside the city gates and I scurried down the ancient path that went down the front of the cliffs. Apparently there have been several attempts to take the city on this path over the years. I can’t believe that anyone would think that they could take this route and defeat the city, even if there were only a handful of defenders. The invaders would find themselves fighting those on the high ground with access to rocks and access to good hurling points, and boxed into a very narrow path from the bottom of the cliffs all the way to the top; hopeless.

Great day. Good times, good company, and a few good pictures (though it was pretty dusty, so they didn’t all come out as well as I’d have liked).

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

At Sunset in Sana'a

One thing that I tell people here when they ask me how I like Yemen is that I love their sunsets. In AZ I think we are pretty proud of our sunsets, especially in August when the monsoon storms bring huge thunderheads that break the sky into dozens of different colors.

Sana'a does the same thing, and so consistently. Maybe it's just the past two and a half weeks that I have been here, but there hasn't been a sunset yet that I thought wasn't pretty nice. And the number of sunsets that have made me want to just sit and stare until there is not more light in the sky is more than half the number of evenings I have been here.

I made a quick photo album of some sunsets that I was able to catch on camera. I also included some pics of the Saleh Mosque right at sundown. The mosque cost $60m and is named after the president of the country. You might imagine that in a country where malnutrition and child mortality are high, this kind of project attracts criticism.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Day With The Boss

Husam, the CEO of the consulting firm I work for asked me if I would like to see Cocoban, a mountain village about 30 minutes drive from Sana’a. As you might imagine, I jumped at the chance. Besides loving mountains and wanting to see what life is like outside of Sana’a, I have also been feeling a bit cooped up in the city. I haven’t left since arriving in Yemen (I know, I know… It’s only been two weeks, but that’s how I am).

I met him at 7:47 am in front of the huge Bab Al Yemen, the stone gateway to the Old City which has stood for millennia. As I hopped into Husam’s 2009 Toyota Landcruiser, barefoot children jumped onto the footrails at our windows, peddling their tissues. 20 Riyals per package made them happy enough to step aside and allow us to pull onto the street and get on our way.

Husam had a Yemeni version of smooth jazz playing on his i-pod as we navigated our way to the western part of town and began climbing the steep mountain grades. The mountains are just as rugged up close as they are from the valley. Dark volcanic stones litter the hill side. Nothing is growing. At the top of the climb sits a walled-off military compound and a military/police checkpoint. Two jeeps with 50 caliber machine guns stood on both sides of the road with about a dozen uniformed and heavily armed men ensuring good behavior from all motorists.

A military officer checked me out through the window, asked Husam for my nationality. The answer, “Amerci,” earned us a finger point to the side of the road for more discussion. After a minute, another uniformed man approached us, asked who we were and where we were headed. Husam explained ourselves, saying we were just headed up to the mountains for a couple of hours, that we would be back in town before nightfall.

The guy told Husam that we needed to turn around and go into the city and get a “permission” from the tourist police. Yes, the tourist police. He could let us pass, but when we reached the next city we would be asked for the permission again. If we didn’t have it at that point, Husam would end up in prison by the end of the day; maybe me as well. We turned around.

According to the guard, we could find the tourist police at Bab Al Yemen, so we headed back through the city. Those at the Bab directed us to an office near the Silas, just around the corner from where my house is. Finally having found the tourist police, we were sure we were close to getting what we needed. The answer disappointed again. We have to bring an official letter from Apex Consulting outlining exactly what our plans are. The letter has to be brought at least 24 hours ahead of the time of our trip, and we cannot deviate in the least from what is on the letter. Wow.

We decided to just head to the lookout point where I had seen the Imam Palace two weeks earlier. I was ok with that considering the circumstances. Really, I very much enjoyed being with my boss for the morning. He is a very good man and very easy to talk to. Unpretentious and kind. So we were able to talk about family and life in general. We talked about social issues in Yemen, similarities and differences between our cultures, business, etc.

Just as two weeks ago, I was impressed by the rocks surrounding the Imam Palace. I couldn’t resist climbing around on the boulders and the cliffs for a half hour or so. This valley could be a very attractive climbing destination. The rock formations remind me of southern Utah and of some places east of Phoenix. One large pillar near the palace itself would make most climbers think of Zion National Park. Color in the rock ranges from dark reds and greys to light tan. A year wouldn’t give anyone enough time to discover all of the great climbing in just this one valley. Add to that an Imam Palace and homes that are hundreds of years old, amazing history, and people kinder than any other on the earth, and you have a world-class climbing playground. I've gotta find some rock shoes somewhere in this city... Despite the fact that our original plans were frustrated, the day came out ok. From here on out I’m going to stay on top of what I have to do to see this country.

While the idea of tourist police sounds a bit hokey, it appears that they have the best information on where to go and not go if I want to stay reasonably safe. Plus, being the only ones that can issuethe needed "permission," they hold the key to adventure outside the city. We should be friends.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bayt Boos

Saturday morning I actually slept in a bit. I say that not because work gets me up super early, but because my body just settled into the routine of waking up around 5am and being ready to get to the day’s work. Since getting over my jet lagged state I have felt very refreshed in the mornings. The reason has to be that I sleep right next to a large, east-facing window. That sun just knows how to wake you up in just the right way. I think an east-facing window in my room is a prerequisite of any home I buy.

Anyway, it was good that I slept in a bit on Saturday because Salim, my driver for the day, was running behind as well. I would have been sitting on those front steps for an hour and a half rather than a half hour. Salim pulled up just after 9:30 with a big smile and an “I’m late!” No problem. We’ve got the whole day to explore. Why start feeling rushed?

Plans were to go to an old Jewish town called Bayt Boos. Just like any other site or landmark in Yemen, this could be spelled a different way by every person that you ask. It was never meant to be spelled with roman lettering.

Pulling off the main thoroughfare onto what can barely be considered a dirt road, we started winding around hills and between buildings until the colony appeared on the hills above us. From our vantage point, and large well could be seen below, with the crumbling walls of an old village on the cliffs above.

Salim parked under a large sycamore tree. We were instantly surrounded by young boys eager to give us the tour of a lifetime. I groaned a bit inside, realizing that each of these boys would want some for of compensation at the end, and I only had very small coins to offer; not enough to give each what they would feel they had earned. But there was no stopping them, so I decided just to enjoy the time with them and deal with the problem when it became unavoidable. They wouldn’t believe me now anyway.

The town is still occupied by several families, all Muslims. The Jews took off at least decades ago, if not centuries (I couldn’t find anyone who really knew). And most of the Muslims took off when the expanding city increased the value of their land, making it attractive to leave for greener pastures.

One thing you will not find very often in Yemen is a religious building not devoted to Islam. Yet, there on the adjoining hill stands a synagogue, a lone survivor to a once Jewish-friendly land.
From the cliffs of this city you can see the city, with the giant new mosque as a centerpiece. To the north of our position, a dam created a lake. I pointed the lake out to Salim and he asked the kids how we could get there. After some more pictures, we loaded in the landcruiser and headed for the lake.

Several wrong turns later, we finally found ourselves at the bottom of the dam. Salim gave me the look which said he could beat me to the top of the dam and the race was on. I’ll let you guess who soundly beat his opponent. Really, there was no competition.

On this sunny day, boys were swimming and jumping from the rocks surrounding the lakes. While no prodding was necessary, the men sitting on the dam encouraged me to take a dip. I was already taking off my shoes. The water was cool, and the 10-12 foot dives provided a bit of excitement for me and the boys. Within twenty minutes the number of spectators doubled… Apparently there was something to see.

After I had exerted myself enough, I stretched out on a large warm rock and snapped some pictures of my surroundings. Great day, fun people. Time to go home for a nap.
Wanna see some pics?

Wanna hang for a day?

(WARNING: This is a long post, and one that might not be so interesting.... I tried to put a video of the amazing sunset and the call to prayer from last night up, but nothin' doin. Network isn't strong enough to do it for me.)

My day generally starts with being woken up around 3:30am by calls from the mosque. This is not the call to prayer, but preparation for the call to prayer. This call of praise will last about 45 minutes. Then a 15 minute break before the first call to prayer for the day begins. If I am lucky enough to sleep through most of it, I count myself lucky. If not, I might roll over onto my knees and join in. Why not, right? I snooze through the next hour or so while the sun makes its way from behind the dry rocky mountain to the east.

Within an hour my room is flooded with sunlight through the large, east facing windows I sleep next to (did I mention I love eastward facing windows?). My alarm won’t go off until 6:15, but I rarely lay in bed until such a late hour. Mind you, I don’t rush out of bed either… I’ll usually lie there and consider what my day holds and the things I want to accomplish; take a stroll through the Old City, maybe head down near the stadium where there is an endless array of shops and stands peddling everything from juice to high end cameras, grab some eggs at the tiny store around the corner…

When I feel good and ready I climb out of bed. Shower, read, throw down a bit of juice and bread; and I’m out of the house by 6:45.

As soon as I leave that door and step into the street I am instantly reminded of where I am (or where I am not). While veiled women dressed in black, jambya’s (the Yemeni Dagger which many men wear daily), and six to ten story buildings made of branches and mud are things that I am getting used to at some level, my heart still skips a beat when it remembers how white I am, and that I’ll have to mumble some words to the minibus driver to make sure he’s going where I need him to go, and to have him stop where I need to get off.

I walk past the intricately decorated facades of the homes in the area and the thick walls of the Old City constructed perhaps thousands of years ago of brown brick. The streets in this area are made with rough-hewn, tan stones about eight inches square. The foot and vehicle traffic has worn them into a slick surface that has me sliding around when there is even a hint of water.

After exiting the main city, I cross a main thoroughfare and walk along-side the military compound toward the bus stop. The compound stretches a quarter mile or so before I can round its corner and see the rows and rows of minibuses, all lined up to take me where I need to go. Looking over my left shoulder so as not to be run down by bus number 3 or a motorcycle carrying three Yemeni men, I cross the street and walk along the rows until I reach bus 7, my ride to Hadda Fundo.

This morning I’m lucky enough to find a seat where I can face forward and not have to duck my head during my twenty minute ride.

When the bus is full we pull onto the rugged, well used black top of the city of Sana’a. Because the tiny minibuses have very low clearance (only intensified when its seats are packed to the gills), the drivers take special care to avoid potholes or dips. When there is no choice but to take the hit, they slow to a snail’s pace in order to reduce the wear and tear on these vehicles that, though they seem to run like gems, invariably display several battle wounds from jockeying for position on the road in order to fill their seats. Very few private cars are to be found at this hour on the city streets. Most vehicles are either taxis or minibuses, either zooming toward a definite location, or trolling for passengers.

20 minutes and 50 turns later I mumble my words to the driver who somehow realizes that I want him to stop. I pay my fare of 40 YR (about 20 cents), and cross Hadda Street, entering the neighborhood that houses our office building.

The office building is nothing more than a three storey house with ten foot walls all around. The main working floors actually rise above that gate and from the roof I can see the mountain across town that protects the Old City where I live.

Work is work…. (I’ll get to that later since this is already getting way too long. If you're still reading this, you are either my mom, family, or we should really get together sometime...)

Once done for the day I hope on the bus for my return ride home. Traffic at 5:45pm is much heavier than it is at 7am, so my ride will be much noisier and much longer. By this time of day most of the men have a big wad of qat in one cheek. It is the stimulant of choice here in Yemen, and is used by around 80% of all men and up to 60% of all women. The leafy plant is chewed into a ball and placed in the cheek, sometime seemingly the size of baseballs. Literally, I have been dumbfounded by how distended the cheeks are of some men. Once the juices start flowing into the veins, energy and lightheartedness are not far behind.

I originally planned on taking a try at some qat. But at the admonition of my boss, and the fact that none of the lds crowd seems to think it’s acceptable, I think I’ll pass. Whether or not it is inappropriate for a good mormon boy to partake, the qat has done nothing to help the Yemeni people. My boss calls it a national disaster. I’ll decline (more on qat later if you’re interested).
Reaching the bus stop and starting on my walk home, I decide to take a different route. I walk through the middle of the Old City in search of some much needed grub. This always raises some anxiety for me… The last time I ate in the city by myself, all I could do was point to the dish someone else had in front of them, and hope I had enough dough to cover it. As it turned out, the dish filled me up quite well for $1.50 equivalent.

In the heart of the Old City I found a Falafel stand. The man would wrap falafel in a pita along with spices, vegetables, and some tasty salsa. I decided that if the previous dish had cost me $1.50 (300 YR), I’d ask for enough wraps to fill that order. He made me 10 wraps…. I had to laugh at myself. At least I’d have enough for lunch the next day.

Getting home, I went straight up onto the roof for a good meal, a good read, and an immaculate sunset. What more could I ask for? After the sun had dipped below the horizon and the calls for prayer had ended, I dropped back inside to change and get ready for bed.

A few episodes of Seinfeld later, I was ready to drop off to bed. 9pm isn’t too early right? Safely enclosed in my mosquito net, I drifted into the unconscious… gotta be ready for 3:30.