Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Muse


You love the way she hesitates for a delicious moment before replying. But reply she does.

You ask her something .. she will be talking to another person .. but she will come back to you.

You feel awake, alive and more in touch with world than you thought possible.

Hungry Eyes !

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yemen Day 5 : Hamdullulah !

It seems that posting a lot of pictures is a great way of disguising a lack of good content. Noted for future use.

And i just re-read my last post, and it was quite banal and boring. Sorry. This is the last Yemen post. The key is to change subjects very quickly :-)

On Sunday morning we informed dear Abdul that we had completely changed our plans, and would like to reach back to Sana’a that night. He was quite taken aback, but was a god sport, and suggested a route that would let us see some nice places, and still reach Sana’a. It is forbidden for tourists to travel at night, so we had to start heading back soon.

This time we started the day with a fish breakfast. Basically the same meal, just that we bought different fish this time, and direct from the fish market. And I decided to start the Khat in the morning itself, and give it a chance to work its magic all day.

P1000587 We took a sneak peak at Zabeet, and drove back towards Sana’a, skirting most of the tall mountain roads. I did manage to persuade Abdul to let me drive the Land Cruiser, something i had wanted to do for a long time. We again managed to break his heart by telling him that we had not chewed the Khat from the day before. Khat needs to be consumed the same day, while its fresh. As we abhor alcohol abuse, the yemenis frown upon wasting Khat.

P1000589 P1000602

We passed through some of the same green wadi, and managed to buy some excellent mangoes on the way. I was chewing, so Navin got started on them, pronouncing them to be excellent. Part of the drive was actually IN the wadi, as the road was under repair. Quite fun, we actually hung onto the back of the jeep for a while to enjoy the scenery better.

P1000645 P1000639

We managed to pass the last mountain village with just enough light to get permission to proceed to Sana’a. But it was great light. There was a fog. And for the first time I felt the land was introducing itself to us. A little bit of mystery, shadows in the mist, lights sparkling in the ancient villages. Its amazing what light can do to the mood of a place. This same mountain in the afternoon sun looked so drab.

P1000659 P1000666P1000672P1000678

We had dinner at a local diner, and were once again surprised by the excellent food. Ordered the chicken thrice. Shades of Amritsar, and the Tandoori Chicken :-)

We encountered some trouble at the last roadblock near Shibam. The police did not want to let us drive that late. In the end, they agreed to give us two men as armed escorts, who dropped us off at the next checkpoint. Very nice folks. And that was the greatest find of the trip. This country has good hearted people, still awed and happy at meeting strangers, not jaded and commercially motivated, because they dont get too many tourists.

We arrived back to our hotel, got the same room, and sat down with our old friends in the Khat room.

And so we ended like we started, chewing and smoking, listening to great sufi music late at night in this ancient city, sitting in a 800 year old house. The music has rarely sounded better, it seemed to like the place :-)

Yemen Day 4 : Letdown

OK .. I admit I am getting a little bored of this now. What seemed like an excellent idea 2 weeks back, now seems like a chore. But what the heck, a promise is a promise, and I will complete the Yemen series :-)

Abdul gave us great hopes for the days ahead. Dinner and dancing in the mountains. Fresh fish in the market in  Hudaydah. Maybe it was the high expectations, but this was our most disappointing day.

We started out on a road towards the mountains, with a barren landscape all around us. The police roadblocks now had tanks in addition to the usual mounted machine guns. Admittedly they were circa WW-II, but imposing just the same. We gave a ride to some locals, who were happy to hang on to the back of the Land Cruiser.  But the mountain villages were seeming more and more similar. We were losing interest. ADD is usually the diagnosis for folks like us.

P1000512 P1000513 P1000514

We reached the hotel where we were to stay for the night (dinner/music/dancing/khat), and it was very uninspiring. The lunch was the worst we had in Yemen. At this point, the prospect of enduring the local music and dancing (obviously all male) was not looking attractive at all. So we made a decision to push on to the seaside, where we would at least get good fish. The argument being that in the mountains you cannot expect too much, the infrastructure was not good enough.


We did manage to visit ONE interesting village, where the Ismaili’s originate from. The mosque was simple and gorgeous. The small climb to the top of the mountain was nice, but all we found there was a bunch of locals chewing Khat.

P1000539 P1000543 P1000546 P1000556

The drive to the sea was refreshingly pleasant. We passed through a wadi, with a river running through it. It was like a slice of Kerala had been pasted in the middle of the desert. Mango and banana plantations, lush green fields of other fruits and vegetables, extremely pleasing to the eye after 2 days of brown dust.



We reached Hudaydah in the evening. My first reaction was : This town could just have been transplanted straight from India. Any small town in Madhya Pradesh. And then we saw the hotel. A monstrosity. Someone’s misplaced sense of aesthetics was very evident. We did have A/C rooms, but at this point we just gave up. There was the sea, (the hotel is sea facing, on the beach) but NO beach ! Just rocks. And with what loving care we had packed our bathing suits. Our Abdul was quite distraught by all this, he was quite proud of his country, and was finding it incredibly hard to understand how we were not appreciating this excellent hotel, with the A/C rooms and all.

So we decided to explore the option of going back to Sana’a, and maybe just cut our trip short. Noura was contacted (very reluctantly yeah .. she had already warned us that there was nothing to do in Yemen for a week), and we found that we could pay more and come back on Monday. And while we were debating, ten minutes later we also found that Noura had already taken the initiative and changed our flights. Very proactive this woman.

It was so bad that we decided not to chew the Khat we had bought on the way. (Of course, how can we deny ourselves the option atleast). After a couple of shots of Vodka, we went with the peerless Abdul to eat at the famed fish. That was the one part of the day that was good as promised. Bought altogether too many fish, had them cooked, ate in the same way as before. Very satisfying, and VERY filling. Because there is no point in letting good fish go waste.

So at this point we realized that there were other reasons why tourism is not so popular in this country. There is bloody nothing to see !!!

No, I am being a bit harsh .. there are other island paradises rivaling the Galapagos, but those are on the other side of the country. But for people like us, with the attention span of a small fish, it was quite enough.

Thought for the day :  Any living should involve unlimited flexibility, or unending hedonism.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Yemen Day 3 : Sally Forth

Friday was the start of our road trip around the country. Armed with a Land Cruiser, driver Abdul and his broken english, and multiple copies of our travel permit, we embarked on the first leg of the journey, even waking up at the relatively ungodly hour of 8 in the morning.

The first checkpost was encountered about 15 km from Sana’a. Two jeeps with mounted machine guns stood guard, while every entry and exit vehicle was checked. As a tourist, you need permission from the tourist police to venture out (and in) of any government controlled area. Which are essentially the cities. Hey, we are talking about a country where two germans were kidnapped and taken to inaccessible mountains 60 km from Sana’a :-). After various gestures towards us and explanations from Abdul (who used the word Amreeki many times), we were allowed to drive out.

The first stop was Imam Yahya’s house. The thing is perched on a rock, and built almost as a vertical extension to it. Very amazing place, thick stone walls, and great views. Charming could be a word to describe it. Some locals were disinterestedly dancing outside, maybe that was part of the push to promote tourism. Abdul (“you no worry, Abdul here, luggage safe. No problem, take much time”) was a little disappointed that we came out without spending too much time in there.P1000371 P1000377 P1000396 P1000406 P1000409

He was even more unhappy when we refused to take pictures of a “very pretty village” on the way. “Italiano, Espania, they take too much pictures”. He did manage to borrow some money from us to buy Khat. Yeah, he started early that day. At his insistence, we did stop at one village, which had some almost european looking narrow houses surrounding a pond, and a mosque to top it off.




We stopped to buy some local grilled chicken, and reached Shibam for lunch. Some local woman has converted her house to a restaurant, and gave us some great food. There was a TV crew outside which wanted to get our reactions to Yemen and the lunch in particular. And a group of tourists accompanied by a AK47 toting bodyguard. “No problem, too much Kalashnikov in Yemen”. We paid a princely sum of $10 for the sumptuous meal, and declined Abdul’s offer to let us trek to the next destination, Kawkaban, a village about 500 m directly up, overlooking Shibam. Highlight of the meal : a very pretty Yemeni woman, who had taken of her veil while washing her face. Yummy ! And so was the dessert of pastry covered with honey. We visited the local Khat market again to buy supplies (which featured bodies of old trucks being used as shops). More expensive this time. The Khat budget is increasing day by day now.

P1000448 P1000449

A nice drive to the top. I was quite surprised by the road infrastructure there, was not expecting something as good. Kawkaban looks down on a vast plain, and there is a vertical drop of about 500 m. Great spot for paragliding. Or base jumping. We were in for a little letdown here. The hotel was small, but not quite as nice and charming as the Golden Dar. Got some excellent light though, and some good pics. Tried meditating on the edge of the cliff, but were constantly disturbed by some local kids trying to sell us stuff. Again a little disappointing, this was the first time someone had shown this tourist-philic behavior.P1000456 P1000460 P1000475  P1000499 P1000507 P1000510

The evening was spent in the Khat room, in the company of two swiss guys, who in retrospect seemed to be gay. Well, Abdul did spot them showering together the next morning, naked and all. But that might just be being european. I did have some food that evening, even though the Khat was working its magic. Long conversations, about random topics. I could not sleep, and this is where I wrote the first of the Sana’a blogposts.

So in the course of the day, I did catch some words which are used in Hindi/Urdu. “Ajnabi”, “Chai” .. And my mouth was quite sore now because of the Khat. Both sides.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sana’a Day 2 : Consolidate

I could not sleep well that first night, probably because of the Khat. The morning meditation session was great, just like last night. And then we proceeded for a great big breakfast. Having not eaten last night, this was quite fulfilling. And immediately started planning for lunch.

P1000275 P1000276

We go with Mohammed to the local fish market. Navin shows his expertise and gets us two small and one big fish. The second step now is to cook the fish. There is a fish cooking place right next door to the market. We give our fish (along with about a 100 other people, dont know how they keep track of the various owners) for grilling and discovered the chutney makers outside on the street. They will take cilantro, tomato, onions and a piece of cheese, grate them together and produce this mixture that goes well with fish. It took about 45 mins for all the fishes to be delivered. In the meantime, we were offered a drink (some faux alcohol drink ) by the head griller, and had to drink it out of the his glass. Quite friendly, i must say ! I do believe that half the taste in the fish was because of the drops of sweat that this guy was liberally sprinkling on them while grilling.

P1000304 P1000289 P1000290

Now for the eating part .. We celebrated the last phase of the fish supply chain in another local joint (different from the cookhouse), where we ordered a big nan to go with the fish. A most satisfying meal. Accompanied by a 7-up. And we picked up some Khat for the afternoon session on the way back.


This time we decided to chew in our own room. And we again walked out into the city, wandering along almost the same paths, with no fixed destination in mind. People would point to the bulges in our cheeks and give us the thumbs-up sign in a spirit of camaraderie.



Though not as involving or engrossing as the first day, this too had it highlights. It was raining again when we started. We went into one of the museum/galleries, ostensibly to look for a place to pee, but it turned out to have quite a view of the city. I remember sitting at Bab-El-Yemen, one of the gates of the old city, and watching the street market unfold around us. The discussions that night were again quite extensive – some things I remember are “return of the generalists”, “being bold enough to say NO, or to NOT commit”, and of course some ruminations on sex, including “where did the taboos on sex originate from”.

P1000337 P1000357

Next day is supposed to be the start of our road trip outside Sana’a, the Land Cruiser was waiting, and the driver. We slept kinda early that night.

Yes, I know, this post is a letdown from the last one. Two reasons : the day itself was not as remarkable, and I am not feeling as inspired to write about it. Happens to the best of us. Tomorrow may be better. Inshallah !

Monday, April 06, 2009

Sana’a Day 1 : Discover

Sana’a Airport is exactly what you would expect : A poor and neglected country’s effort to hold on to a tenuous connection with the rest of the world. The intention is there, but little enthusiasm. A small crowded arrival hall, people milling around trying to get information, indifferent staff .. the works ! We were supposed to be met by some acquaintances of Navin’s friend from the firm, but they were nowhere to be seen. We did take the initiative to get some money changed, and decided to wait for them. After a little while we saw two locals looking for someone. I think they were expecting someone in a business suit, and were somewhat disappointed when two scruffy Indians presented themselves as the objective of their search. They told us to get our visa-on-arrival, get in the immigration line(very helpful information, this), and meet them at the baggage claim. And welcome to our country.

We claimed our bag (marked very obtrusively with chalk) but could not spot the local help. We were stopped by the customs who were more interested in the ipod speakers than the 3 bottles of booze we had bought along. You cannot get alcohol legally in Yemen, and we were warned that they would be quite strict about the amount you could bring in. But we did manage to somehow communicate the purpose of the dangerous looking device, and walked out.

The taxi drive to the hotel was both depressing and a reality check. Police jeeps with mounted heavy machine guns were a reminder of the part of world we were in. The US state department warnings seemed real for a while. After a while, we seemed to driving on a freeway, with exit ramps and all, only that it was built below the street level, rather than above it.

The hotel was in Old Sana’a, and quite a pleasant surprise. Nice old building with a lot of character, friendly staff (very .. more on that later), and a great room on the 7th level (right next to the Khat chewing room). With a balcony that could be accessed through the window. And no elevator ! We would really have to plan our trips to the ground floor. A climb up those narrow stairs would be sure to leave us gasping for breath. I will totally blame that on the altitude (Sana’a is at about 2500m).

P1000051 P1000050 P1000055

Very much like a old village haveli (much more vertical though, than horizontal). Thick stone walls, old wooden doors, and little nooks and crannies everywhere. Halls on every landing leading off to 3-4 rooms. And 25$ a night. Navin had really hit jackpot in his search for a nice hotel. The manager is a Polish guy !

P1000082 P1000086

A Muhammad (referred to as the Muhammad after this) immediately dedicated himself to our service. We walked to a local place for lunch. This was the dhaba experience. Dingy place, two cooks on a raised platform in front of a searing fireplace, complete with the “chotu” boys and policemen getting a free meal. Excellent food. Two different stews boiling in cast iron pans, served with huge nans. We ate with our hands, no plates, dipping straight into the pans. Sweet black cardamom tea to follow.

P1000089 P1000091

And then to the Khat market. (Please look up the wikipedia link for details, but suffice to say that it is the cornerstone of a Yemeni male’s social life). The masses were there in full force, gathering up the supplies for the after-lunch sessions. We secured our bags after much sniffing, touching and bargaining, and headed back to the hotel to enjoy our first taste of this leaf.

P1000114 P1000117

Khat is supposed to be chewed in a social setting. You take small leaves and tender twigs, masticate on them to get the juices, and deposit them in the space between your teeth and cheek. It requires some skill, and, as we later found out, can be quite painful the next day if your cheek is not used to having a tennis ball stuffed inside it for long periods of time. Which is the case for most of the world.


We sat in the living room and started, with the TV showing “Notting Hill”. Local Yemenis joined and left, a lot of greeting were exchanged, incomprehensible conversations were ignored, and 2 hours later we found ourselves watching Hugh Grant finally get Julia Roberts. The bulges in our cheeks were apparently not up to the mark (though Navin’s was passable), as the locals were quick to point out. A decision was made to take a walk in the city.

P1000152 P1000157

Cameras in hand, we started walking in a random direction. The old city is like a maze, the narrow lanes twisting and turning whimsically, the narrow fronted houses atleast 4-5 stories tall on either side. This is when we first noticed our pleasant mood. People were friendly and we were greeting them back with enthusiasm. Going with the flow, we finally reached the local market. The only place I can compare it to is Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Separate areas for spices, jewelry, clothes, fruits. Just a little bit less people. Very similar wares.

P1000165 P1000167 P1000169

Someone randomly called out to us, and upon hearing that we were from India, asked us to sit down. We happily obliged and chatted with him for a long time (he knew english, we were not that high). It started raining, we sat under the canvas shade in front of his grocery shop, and the world suddenly seemed like a very friendly place.

P1000174 P1000175

So thats the very essence of Khat, We felt very sociable, talkative, and at peace with all humankind. The old man took us for a cup of tea nearby and we left promising to meet him the next day. It was still raining intermittently, and the lights were starting to come on. The call to evening prayers from the minarets was the final ingredient in a magical atmosphere that we were just very aware of. Mindfulness.

P1000180 P1000176 P1000199

Roamed about for some more time, and made our way back to hotel, shooting some low light shots. We reached the freeway which was at a lower level than the city, and were quite surprised to find it full of flowing water, and a few cars struggling to wade through. Finally found out that it was actually a paved drainage channel, which gets converted to a road whenever it is dry !

P1000220 P1000227 P1000241

Sat down for the evening meditation in our room (We have been very regular with that, to our own surprise). And experienced one of those sessions that move you to the core. Maybe it was the Khat, maybe the atmosphere and vibes of the city, but we both did not want it to end. We stayed in the room, put on some music and talked for a while. Might have wandered a bit, but in essence we discussed relationships. Not particular ones, just in terms of their importance in life. And to do something atleast a bit creative.

My response to that has been to chronicle the happenings of this trip. And go on from there. Inshallah !