I don’t think there are too many places left in the world that would make God smile, but Yemen is one of them. Yemen has been inhabited forever and in many ways it is the birthplace of all our lives. In the days of yore, Noah’s sons knew it as the land of milk and honey, Gilgamesh came here to search for the secret of eternal life and most famously, a woman simply known as Sheba called this land of Yemen her home. However, since the book of mythology has closed, Yemen had been locked away in a hidden corner of the peninsula-until now. Yemen is coming of age and showing itself to the world and let me tell you: Yemen sits at the crossroads of two continents, with flavors of Africa, reflections of Morocco and reminders of Arabia and to travel in this most traditional of all islamic countries is a priviledge that I won’t soon forget.
Sana’a is the capital of Yemen and perhaps the oldest city on Earth and very possibly the most beautiful city I have ever visited. The Old City of Sana’a is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and quite simply the best preserved and most stunning old city I have seen. The moment I walked through the gates of the Bab al-Yaman I was taken aback by the incredible and unique architecture. The topsy-turvy icing-cake houses and dreamy mosques make walking through the labyrinth old city a true delight. The spice souq is every oriental fantasy brought to life and the small cellars where blinkered camels walk round and round in circles crushing sesame seeds to make oil is a glimpse into a bygone age.
Perhaps one of the best and most amazingly poetic experiences I have ever had occurred today in the Old City. With my two 12 year old guides, they took me to the roof top of one of the typical tower houses in the old city for amazing views of the old city. I can’t even describe how great it was standing on top of this gorgeous city looking over it with such admiration. Then something happened that I wish everyone could experience once in their lives to understand just how powerfully poetic and exotic this experience was.
The Muslim call to prayer went off from the loud speakers atop the minarets of the many mosques towering over the old city. The sound was piercing and haunting and the city came to a screeching halt to pray and the echoes of the prayer loomed throughout and over the city like it was drawn up in a movie. There was utter silence except for the prayer and I am not religious at all and don’t even care to really discuss religion, but this was powerful and the perfect event to happen at the perfect time in the perfect seeting. That being the amazing Arabian Nights city of Old Sana’a.
I was literally floored by how cool it was to be there and to experience those few moments in that way. It was very special and an experience I will never forget.
After, I was extremely hungry and told the boys that I wanted to try the Yemeni specialty of Salta. Salta is a piping hot stew containing meat, lentils, beans, fenugreek-which gives it its distinctive aroma and coriander or other exotic spices. It is made in the old city and mixed by a man hovering above the restaurant and serves it in a scorching stone dish that is every bit as hot as its contents.
You eat the Salta with a special chapati like flat bread that tastes unbelievable and you buy that outside the restaurant from these little old ladies selling them on the street. It’s not for the faint hearted-like most real restaurants in the old Middle East, you eat with your hands and share with others who may or may not have washed their hands-most likely not. The restaurant is also a term I use lightly because they aren’t restaurants like you are imagining-they are little alleyways that haven’t been cleaned in years, if ever and nothing is washed and you sit at rusted old tables with nails sticking out of them and it is truly wonderful. I ate at a long table with my two little guides and several older Yemeni men who couldn’t stop staring at me. They kept saying welcome to Yemen and I kept replying ‘Choukran’, which is thank you in Arabic. One of them spoke a little English and asked where I was from and the boys answered before I could and said Brazil.
In the wake of the recent killing of 4 Belgian tourists for no reason in Yemen like two weeks ago I chose not to bring up anything American as I was sitting alone with 20 Yemenis and had told the boys I was Brazilian because one of the them was wearing a Real Madrid ‘Robinho’ jersey who is a Brazilian star player. They loved it and kept asking me football questions and it’s not often enough I get to talk Brazilian football with people so I enjoyed that a lot.
Anyway, the older men said ‘Pele’ and I smiled, laughed and gave the thumbs up and everyone smiled. They kept handing me more of their bread and I was so full that I couldn’t eat anymore. I didn’t want to insult them so I kept eating until I literally almost puked. However, a good time was had by all and Salta and that bread may be two of the all time favorite foods and I am going to go back and have some more for dinner in a bit. It really was a lot of fun.
Having these kids as guides was great and they took me to the stores where they sold all the traditional Yemeni garb on. It looks something like out of Indiana Jones. They wear the shawls around their waists and their heads and they wear this massive knitted belt with a holder for a gigantic curved knife in the front. It sounds scary and perhaps it is as I didn’t feel all that comfortable at first but everyone had it and it was really pretty cool. The boys convinced me to try the whole getup on and I did. I took some great pictures. The guys at store of course tried to get me to buy the knife and belt and I am like, what am I gonna do with this so I gave him 1000 Yemeni thingies ($5) for his time and then headed out.
All in all I had one of the best days travelling I’ve had in a while and certainlly along with Oman, Yemen is my favorite stop on this trip. I look forward to tonight and unfortunately leaving here in the morning to head back to Dubai which I am not thrilled about. However, thats where I catch my flight home as I am hoping to catch an earlier flight–we’ll see how that goes.