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).
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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 !