Saturday, December 2, 2006

Arabia Felix

My visit to Yemen: January 29 - June 2nd. 2006

Good memories ...

-Seeing San'aa from the air, the city looks so small, I begin to wonder if it is really a city or just a small village because all I can see is sandy planes stretching across for miles and miles, the airport is so small and ancient.

- Driving through the city from the airport in the mini bus, sitting in the cloud of smoke, ears bursting from the loud yemeni folk music, seeing the children playing in the streets, women all covered up while grocery shopping at the corner stores at the early hours of morning, it seems they're preparing for lunch when their families come home. I notice all kinds of animals running around, from stray cats to sheep and goats being herded by old men and cows tied up near butcher shops.
Dust is everywhere, it covers clothes, shoes, bags and gives a dull look to everything. I've never seen anything like it!
Just like so many other countries there is no rules for driving on the road!! Eek.

- At my apartment: The lovely stainglass windows stand out, the architecture and traditional Yemeni designs are exquisite, I can't get over the intriquet ceiling work and I spend all afternoon and evening admiring it.

- The bread they bring me for breakfast, yummy, it's what I've missed so long after moving to Canada.
- Taking a taxi and going around town for the first time
- Getting used to the dialect and memorizing words
- Drawing maps of the city and the small lanes and allies to get to shumaila.
- Shopping at shumaila for the first time, wow, in a way it's like stepping back in time.
- Zubeiri street, Al Huda, FINALLY a supermarket where I can buy KRAFT Single slices!!
- Old Sanaa in the evening, it's simply magical... once I walked past the huge door I lost my breathe from being face to face with such beauty.
The "gingerbread" buildings - with their mud like appearance, tiny windows with wood shutters each adorned with a small unique half moon colourful stained glass window above it. Designs in white circle and decorate the windows and run around the outside of the building giving it a beautiful appearance - through the late hours of the night people are walking everywhere going about their business, some tourists, some local buyers, shop keepers selling all sorts of goods from spices, raisins and nuts to clothes to antique furniture, silver and stones. It's like stepping back in history hundreds of years in Arabia.

- Discovering Hada! What? they have Pizza Hut? AND KFC, and no one told me !!! Locals aren't very fond of fast food like americans, they prefer their traditional yemeni food.
Middle eastern foods vary by region, country, even area, tribe or family.. Yemeni food mostly consists of rice, it is eaten every day for lunch which is the main meal of the day, meat, chicken and fish are popular and a must (if available). Before the meal yemenis indulge in a cream of wheat like food called Aseed, it is said to keep the stomach full as there isn't always enough food to go around. Aseed is pepared by boiling water and mixing flour into it while on the heat, stiring and stiring until it forms a thick dough ball then it is mounded into a plate and smoothed out to form a pyramid, locals dip into it with their fingers. Eating with the hands is traditional and widely practiced from homes to parties, restaurants and even hotels.
Sahawik is a raw tomato sauce with spices eaten along with the rice and meat, other lunch meals like mulookhia (popular in egypt and other middle eastern countries) Salta: specifically popular in sanaa made of leftover rice, potato, tomato, onion and other vegetables or meat mixed up and boiled over a ragging heat in a thick black metal bowl. Fenugreek seed is a popular spice in yemeni food, even the greens are eaten along with radishes as a first course.
Liver, eggs, fava beans, tuna and bread are eaten for breakfast and dinner.
Bread is usually eaten with all meals and provided with orders at all hours in restaurants.

Cheeses like Abul Walad, and other turkish, saudi and middle easter/western products are available at most corner stores.
While Yemenis say they are not fond of sweets I find it quite the opposite, most children in the streets are munching on chocolate or candie and if they ever recieve a small allowence of money they head straight to the corner store to delight themselves without thinking twice.

- Ok, Jamal street was not what I was expecting. Still STC Mall on Algeria and Baghdad street, thats my kind of shopping mall!
- Shumaila hari supermarket - more like an all in one mart with clothes/shoes/household items and furniture on the top level, hooray!! I'm feeling much better now, I can live here, I know I can, no problem.
- More supermarkets and moving around hadda, al-Jundool (finally found some descent toast bread!)
- The taxis are cheap ($2) and I'm in Hada on a daily basis, life is good!

- I moved and my second apartment is so much more modern. The kitchen and bathrooms are tiled, it's cleaner and the rooms are huge, at least we're away from the smoke and smog that we had to put up with living next to a main road (Taiz street: which runs all the way from the old city through Sanaa up to the other side of the city and out into the desert, I think it's north to south because I was told it goes all the way south to Dhamar province)

- Hearing the beautiful call to prayer on the loud speaker from all the mosques around the block, as far as one can hear and throughout the city.

- This restaurant fish (samak) is SO GOOD, may I have the recipe please? Oh and it only costs $2 for the whole fish, grilled on hot coals in the giant oven.

- Yemen mall? we passed the building so many times and no one even mentioned anything about it being a mall!! STC is still number one with me. Happy land is directly across the street, I discovered it shortly before I left.

- My visit to Dar al Hajar, I stood fearlessly at the edge of the cliff looking down at the enchanted valley of Dhahr (wadi dhahr), I could see the castle perfectly situated on top of a large tall rock, surrounded by all the tiny traditional mud houses, trees, greenery, animals, children and people.. there are simply no words to describe it and therefore I will not even attempt to.

- Wadi Bani matar (the valley of the rain tribe) .. kind of dried out, I got the impression there was a waterfall but they cut it off and so there was a huge overhanging rock with some dampness and mold growing underneath it into the cave beyond. I got to climb down - the women did not dream of accompaniying me (their loss) but there was no way I was leaving that place without exploring the most interesting sight! *lunch was kind of a disaster but at least the journey was worth it*

- Walking through and around Tahrir square at night *I love the nightlife overthere*
The restaurants are open, people are everywhere, shopping, eating, smoking, chatting, socializing, it's buzzing with life, and when you look up into the sky you see millions and millions of stars. I'm not a city person but in warm climates there is a sense of comfort, warmth and life into the late hours of the night.

- Driving around San'aa, from Taiz street to the old city to Hada back around the president Ali Abdullah Saleh's headquarters, his mosque and Sab'een gardens behind Pizza Hut back to the Qadissiyah, Sawad on the opposite side and Hizyaz leading out of the city..

- Amazingly I lived over seven years in toronto and can't get around without my mom's directions and yet after living in Sanaa for one month - where the roads and unmarked, un named, twisted, muddy and confusing I manage to have the whole city mapped out and I can even give directions to the taxi drivers (how odd)

- The fish market - a friend of mine told me that buying fish directly from the fresh fish markets would cut the cost in half of what I regularly paid at the supermarkets. We went together and what a sight (and stink) it was... fully tiled open shops with tons and tons of fish layed everywhere, all differnt sizes, species and colours.. crabs and shrimp are regularly available as well. I even witnessed the truck load of fresh fish brought directly from the ports in Aden.

- Aden: I travelled via Yemenia airlines to the city of Aden in the south, it was May and I couldn't believe the heat and humidity level down there, they actually told me that it was nothing and the tempurature is bound to increase so much more during the summer... honestly, I have no idea how they survive, there were men in the streets sleeping topless in random areas, I asked if they were homeless and they told me that it was normal for workers to do that.

I'm not very fond of Aden as I am of Sanaa, while most people prefer the sea I favour the mountains and regions without humidity. The ocean was lovely to look at, there are some nice raised tunnels, and rocky areas around the city, you can almost taste the ocean somehow.

- Aden mall is lovely, in fact it's pretty much the reason I decided to make the journey and once I saw it i knew it was all well worth it.

Not so good memories ...

- The first time I found this creepy crawlies in the bathtub at my first apartment, as if that wasn't bad enough the shower didn't work, there was no hot water and I was going to burst out in tears.
- The Qaat craze: everyday after lunch men gather and chew qat, everyone from shopkeepers to little boys in the street spend their afternoons chewing away, some can juggle between keeping the soupy bright green substance in their cheek while drinking tea, smoking and speaking! Women chew qat as well but in the privacy of their homes of under their veils, this habbit has brought a lot of poverty, illness and starvation to the otherwise struggling country.

- San'aani dialect is very hard to understand, it's also kind of funny, I found myself often quite clueless and chuckling under my veil at the way shop keepers spoke to me.

- Pollution is definately a big problem, it even began to affect my health, breathing in all that stuff the cars expell is very dangerous, having lived in other countries with similar problems I'm not supersensitive healthwise but regardless I've developed aspirated pneumonia from riding in a taxi which had the smell of gas leaking into the back seat.

- Waking up in the morning to the sounds of wedding chants from the seven day ceremony in the back street behind my building, they sound more like haunting ghosty sounds than entertaining music... creepy!

- The dust and dirt in the city that I simply could not escape anywhere I went, my poor new pair of naturalizer shoes were ruined in two days along with another favourite pair.

- Not being able to buy an edible head of lettuce, they were always infested to the maximum with little tiny bugs, as much as it was washed over and over they'll never all be washed away, you're sure to eat your salad and find a few little creepy crawlies in there (yuck)

- Fleas: they most likely came from the bedding store, they've infested my entire apartment and bit me all over causing these huge lumps under my skin with a pinkish appearance, and these buggers are almost impossible to get rid of!

- Hopspital conditions: I had to go to the hospital for some tests before recieving my residency, unfortunately hospitals and medical centres are not very organized, they're quite chaotic and one could easily get lost in the crowds, some more attention to organization is definately required in a country where most people are illiterate and pay no attention to rules.

- Taxi drivers bursting my ears in the back with their Nancy Ajram music turned up to the limit!

- French fry sandwhiches, boiling pots of potatoes and hard boiled eggs in the street? An official yemeni snack... Whats up with that?!

Guess I'll leave you with that.

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