My buddy John and I travel to various places since college days, just the two of us. We have made a pact to do this irrespective of any other professional or personal commitment and so far we have been able to keep it. We make it a point to enjoy the journey also and not just focus on the destination.
This year we chose to plan a trip to Yemen an Arabic country, completely unostentatious, unlike its oil minting siblings. It was one destination which was a dream come true and all we had to worry about was to how we can increase our stay. We just finalised our guide/tour provider and had left other details to be finalised later. We had deliberately kept our plan secret from our families and friends since many people have misconceptions about the safety of travelling to Yemen.
We had undertaken the trip in November and therefore the weather was optimum for the holiday. Actually word holiday was a misnomer in this case. The only thing fixed about our plan was that nothing was fixed and the only thing finalised was that the trip had to be a rugged trip with maximum outdoor adventure activities in the back drop of nature.
We reached the capital city in the evening and had planned to explore Sana the next day. It was amazing to see that the city had skyscrapers as high as ten stories. The amazing part was not the height of the buildings but the fact that mud was used as a construction material and these buildings had withstood the rigours both manmade as well as God’s act. These houses have been recognised as World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Sana being the capital city appeared to be more developed and boasted of a good market which we postponed visiting on culmination of our trip. We had tied up to travel mostly by a self driven car and had been lucky to get a decent vehicle. Though we were aware that roads were not good in some stretches but we were determined all the same. We were told that Sana has a good market which should be visited with ample of time at one’s disposal, so we postponed going to market to the last day of the trip.
The alleged stories about Yemen not being safe for tourists and our half baked plans (about this trip) made us engage a local tourist guide so that we could drive through safe passages without losing our way and visit places that mattered and pertain to our idea of adventure. Yemen is one place where we could see deserts, ocean and mountains all in one trip. The added advantage was the pristine cities with buildings made of mud. It was as though my school book pictures had come to life. One was astonished to find that in this age of technology, a place like this could actually exist, thrive and at the same time look so good.
The car that we had hired was in a good condition and our travel guide seemed really chirpy, knowledgeable, good hearted and exactly what we needed. Finding it difficult to pronounce his name, we nick named him Shifu (as in the movie Kung fu Panda) and he seemed to like it. The road trip started with a bang (literally as the car made a funny noise every time ignition was started). The condition of the road was mostly fine and I was able to drive within the speed limits. The hot weather and rather rough roads made it mandatory to take periodic halts whenever possible. We had read that the people of Yemen are very warm hosts but there are stories of kidnapping and one should be careful while going to few localities. During our trip we found the people to be very friendly and generous but we made halts as per Shifu’s directions. The first night halt was made at a room in a place run by Shifu’s cousin but Shifu promised us that we would camp out at appropriate locations.
Next day we started with the journey to the coastal area. Though we had been to coastal areas and beaches many times, water has always attracted us and we were very excited. The moment we reached the beach, it was as though we had been transported to a different time period altogether. The beaches at most places are crowded and unclean but what we saw here was completely unexpected. Needless to say the beaches were extremely clean and it appeared as though we practically own the place since there was no one else, as far as we could see. We spent few hours there, soaking in the beauty of the place, may be to take a mental picture which would help us retire into a state of relaxation later. We also indulged in diving in the red sea and various adventure activities like snorkelling and swimming etc.
The next destination was desert. The journey became interesting with the rendition of local stories by Shifu and the panoramic view. John a believer of metaphysics, was keenly listening to the stories of past from Shifu who spewed a litany of anecdotes related to queen Sheeba and Solomon, Noah and his arc and golden days of Yemen. May be it was the weather or our adventurous spirit that we decided to dress up like local people and it was interesting when passersby would start talking to us in their native language. This was the first time when John and I had been to a desert of this magnitude. The desert appeared like a frozen ocean of huge waves and gave an impression that the huge waves were about to crash right next to us. Thankfully, we got a chance to spend that night and (a couple of following nights) in camp/ tent. Though in the retrospect it seemed a bold move as one is totally at the mercy of nature in terms of weather, wild animals including reptiles and it sends a shiver down my spine whenever I think of all the possible accidents but we always relied upon the prudence and experience of Shifu while taking these calculated risks. We were thrilled to trek on Haraz Mountains and visit the nearby villages. The hospitality and generosity of the locals was a nice respite from the strenuous and exhausting treks and mountain climbing.
Shifu was surprised when we told him that we were not planning to go to Socotra. Our belief in Shifu made us include a visit to this gorgeous place even if that meant prolonging our stay in Yemen and rescheduling our return tickets. The moment we started for Socotra, Shifu was happy like a child and kept telling us that we will not regret our decision (though John was apprehensive). Socotra has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is part of four islands. The exotic fauna on these Islands is not only unique but also rightly appears to be out of this world. Shifu told us that many species of animals and plant are exclusively found in Yemen meaning thereby that we were watching most of the birds and animals for the first time in our lives.
Going back to Sana was pleasant but also a rude reminder that this journey was nearing completion. For days the images flashed before our eyes and we also indulged in day dreaming. Till date this trip was the most memorable one.