Aden is a nice place, I think, as we race along the cliff-hugging roads in and around the crater of the extinct volcano that houses the city. This upwelling of rock off the south coast of Yemen is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. Without this isthmus, Aden would just be a curious-looking island poking out of the sea. But the remarkable configuration of land and water once made it one of the old Empire’s main shipping stop-offs between Britain and India, poised halfway between the Suez Canal and Bombay. We drive through the old town, embedded within the natural fortress of the crater, then up and through a short tunnel in the rock to the crater’s exterior where the vast Indian Ocean vanishes behind the curvature of the planet, then down again and onto a long, modern strip in the vibrant Mu’alla district, all electronics shops and swanky restaurants and Internet cafes full of small boys playing extremely violent computer games. These gaudy establishments are built into the ground floors of huge, terraced, colonial townhouses – indistinguishable from their siblings in central London, now reassigned to look hopeful and glamorous in a nation still troubled by disunity, like so many former colonies of European imperial powers.
Khalid is in the driver’s seat; he’s a university student, Aden native, and friend of Romain, the young and laid-back French teacher with whom I’m staying in Aden. Khalid, a dark, naturally good-looking twenty-year-old with designer stubble and a stylish head of carefully gelled hair, regales us with tales of the shenanigans of the young and liberal in Aden.
‘Everyone’s getting it on with each other here,’ he boasts. ‘That’s why the Saudis come here on holiday. Me? Different girl every week. Beautiful girls. Really beautiful.’ He laughs. ‘Of course it’s all behind closed doors … these girls, students, want to have fun, but nobody can find out. The families can never know. We have to be really careful to avoid being seen. But it’s all a game, you know?’
I haven’t seen many obvious pick-up opportunities – strictly speaking, associations between unrelated men and women are forbidden here. But I’m about to find out how the youth of Aden get over that hurdle.
‘Let’s go to the mall. I’ll show you.’
Off we drive to Aden Mall, the pinnacle of the small moneyed class’s material aspirations, where every shiny lifestyle toy can be bought at a premium price within a premium setting. Dubai doesn’t just export goods and satellite television – it exports the very idea of itself across the Arab world.
‘We don’t come here to buy anything,’ says Khalid. Romain is content to come along for the ride; he’s been here more than a year and has been recently trying to make headway with the gorgeous girl behind the counter at the public phone-booth centre, but is unsure how to ask for her number.
‘I know her,’ says Khalid, putting his arm round Romain’s shoulder as we walk. ‘Don’t worry, my friend! We’ll get you with her. She’s into you. I know it!’
In the mall, all space and polish and glass and meticulous lighting, we head for a juice bar. Fresh juices have become my ambrosia in this region. A blender full of mango, whole lime and lemon, orange or – my personal favourite – ginger, is never far away, the contents waiting to be whizzed up with ice and poured through a sieve and handed over.
‘Now look around,’ instructs Khalid. The place is pretty quiet, with only a few families, merchants and the occasional pair of slim black shrouds gliding quietly across the marble floors. ‘OK, we’re early. The best time to come is after university has finished – especially on Thursdays.’ (Friday is the weekend.) ‘Girls will come here to pick up guys. Right now, this is the place. When you see a girl looking right at you from across the mall, that’s a pretty good sign. You need to wait and see if she looks again. And if she does – then you know she’s interested.’
Right … and what next?
‘Well, are you interested? If so, we have some special words. Innocent words. For example, you go up to the girl and ask: “Excuse me, what’s the time?”’
Not a line I’ve heard before. And then?
‘If she tells you the time and it’s correct … well, bad luck, my friend. But if she tells you the time and it’s ten minutes out – then …’ And he laughs. ‘Or, another one is: “Excuse me, can you tell me the way to Pizza Hut?” And a wrong answer means “Meet me outside in five.” Obviously it’s easier when it’s dark …’
Yemeni food is turning out to be the surprise highlight of the country, so we head down to the fish market where small motor-boats are still arriving with their catches. After selecting a suitably enormous specimen and giving it to the chef of the restaurant next door to bake and serve with a pile of steaming flat-bread and spicy sauce, the conversation continues.
‘I know I’ll want to settle down, find a good wife, marry, have children,’ says Khalid. ‘I wouldn’t marry any of these girls I’m seeing, though – I know what they do, how they behave. I wouldn’t trust them.’
‘But that’s double standards,’ replies Romain, ever the Frenchman, not shy of a good argument over dinner. ‘You want the young, beautiful ones now, but when you marry … you want them to be pure – virgin!’
‘Yes. Every guy wants his wife to be a virgin. Of course!’ Khalid shrugs.
‘So what will these girls do?’ I ask.
‘Oh, it’s easy enough for them,’ he says. ‘They’ll have … operations, to restore … you know. There are plenty of doctors here doing this. Then they can get married, and their new husbands will never know!’
‘So how can you be sure?’ continues Romain. ‘How can you be sure that your new wife won’t have had that operation?’
‘I’ll just know,’ returns Khalid, although he sounds more hopeful than he does convinced.
The conversation turns to religion. Renan, a traveller from Turkey who’s also staying with Romain, is interested to know what kind of reception I’ve had, being stereotyped as a Christian.
‘I’m an atheist,’ I tell him, ‘and the first few times I was asked about religion – in Turkey – it didn’t go down too well. It was difficult for them to comprehend that someone can have no religion at all. It seemed like the idea just didn’t exist.’
I remember my evening in a caretaker’s hut near some Roman ruins at Ebla in Syria, where I’d met a very sharp and well-educated Syrian man of about my age with whom I’d talked long into the night. But when the topic came up, he’d told me in no uncertain terms that not having a religion was equivalent to not having a heart. Some things, evidently, were still set in stone. From that moment forth I’d decided it would be easier to run with the Christian stereotype, even though that came with some complicated explanations of the subtle nature of Anglicanism.
‘Really?’ says Renan. ‘Because I’m also an atheist. I don’t believe in any of that crap. But Turkey isn’t as secular as you’d think, unfortunately. Religion is always getting in the way. We have this stupid Islamic government on one side, and the army defending religious freedom on the other. Did you know that the national identity card has an entry for religion? And “atheist” isn’t an option. So mine says I’m Muslim!’
Like me, Renan had travelled through the Levant before taking a flight from Cairo to Yemen.
‘But I never lied about it,’ he continues. ‘I’m Turkish, and I speak a bit of Arabic, so I suppose it’s easier for me. If anyone asks, I just say that I was brought up in a Muslim family, but when I got old enough to have my own ideas, I realised it wasn’t for me, so I’m not committed to anything right now. And that was fine – people could understand that. I don’t think you need to pretend.’
The next day I have some chores to do. I must find the police station and get a permit to travel east from Aden, through central Yemen and on towards Oman. The route will pass through the ‘dangerous’ region of Hadramout, which – aside from being home to loads of normal people living normal lives – is also where four South Korean tourists were blown up a couple of months ago while posing for a photo in front of some ruins. The region also boasts a history of kidnappings by remote communities, branded with the indignity of the ‘tribal’ label, who, like the Afar, need leverage to get their marginalised needs fulfilled. Build a bridge here – we’ll release these foreign hostages. Pave that road there – we’ll release these foreign hostages.
I produce my passport and tell the police chief I need a permit to travel on roads east of Aden.
‘Yes, that is correct,’ he says, with a sigh, reaching for a drawer in the sweltering little room. It’s more the humidity than the heat – still, oppressive, lethargy-inducing, bringing a permanent sheen of sweat to the skin. The slightest breeze tickles the body like a wave of purest pleasure, whatever the source – ceiling fans, open car windows, the brisk brushing past of a pedestrian – cruel instants of respite from the maddeningly hot, moist, invisible, salty fog that lies across the land.
‘How is the road?’ I enquire as he fills out the form. ‘Is it safe?’
‘Yesterday, safe. Today, safe,’ he replies. ‘Tomorrow … ?’
And he shrugs. The message is clear: Nobody knows, so keep your fingers crossed. Things can and do change overnight here. But he’s giving me the permit, so the risk can’t be all that great – can it?
I cycle east out of Aden, savouring every breath of breeze that the act of cycling generates. Thick air lies across the coast like a blanket, and I ride as if pushing through hot, invisible mist. My clothes are soon soaked. Stopping for a break, I find that it is possible to wring pools of water out of the sleeves of my shirt.
I’d discarded the ragged remains of my trousers in Aden and bought instead a futa, a traditional wraparound garment, tucked into itself and fastened with a belt, rather like a long kilt, albeit with the distinctive patterning of the Orient. It is clear why Yemeni men still wear this: in this climate, only the kind of full and easy access allowed by such loose folds of fabric can keep one’s nethers adequately ventilated. I soon learn the knack of arranging my futa to take full advantage of the oncoming breeze, yet at the same time avoiding undue alarm when encountering passers-by.
Arriving at a checkpoint a few hours’ ride along the coastal road, I brandish my permit with a confident smile. This, I have heard, is as far as travellers in Yemen have been allowed in recent years. The province of Hadramout lies ahead, Yemen’s tribal heartland, and too many politically motivated kidnappings have taken place in Hadramout for the security forces to risk allowing another vulnerable foreigner alone upon its roads. I brace myself for the order to turn around; for my ride towards Dubai and Iran to be stalled. And I am taken by surprise when the guards wave me casually through. I cannot quite believe it: they are allowing me to continue!
And so I ride on, into the empty coastal dunes of Yemen. I had not quite been prepared for this, and I realise that my supplies for the road ahead have been ill thought out. I’m not even sure how far I’ll have to ride before the next town! It shouldn’t matter – there’s a steady stream of traffic, should I run out of the essentials. But I can’t help wondering why I hadn’t taken provisioning as seriously as I usually would.
A few miles later I spot a pick-up truck on the side of the road in the distance. As the shape grows more distinct, I notice something mounted to its roof. By the time I have realised that the ‘something’ is an enormous machine-gun, half a dozen men in camouflaged overalls have sprung from the truck and are marching towards me. They are all carrying the world’s most popular firearm: the AK-47.
I roll to a halt a couple of dozen yards away, quickly dismounting. Then I wheel my bike towards the oncoming men. They are already reaching for my bicycle. And I already know what is going to happen.
‘Come with us, please.’
My bicycle is being taken away from me. Clumsy, careless hands are dragging it onto the back of the truck. The pedals are clanging against the tailgate; the chain falling off, sagging; a pannier crushed mercilessly as the bike is wedged between the men who are now resuming their positions on the benches; I am already checking off its contents in my head, noting what is likely to be damaged; then I am ushered round to the passenger door of the pick-up and offered the seat between the driver and his buddy. I ask to be allowed to take my handlebar bag inside, with my passport and wallet and video camera, and the hidden pendant of St Christopher that my mum gave me. And the soldiers of the Yemeni military – my personal bodyguards for the road through Hadramout – are happy to oblige.
As we speed through the empty wasteland, windows down and engine roaring, sand and rock and scrub flying past on either side, hazy mountains on the northern horizon and the flickering blue of the Indian Ocean on the south, I begin to see what was really sabotaging my single-minded pedalling routine. I had not paid due attention to the prospect of cycling the full length of Yemen for one simple reason: I didn’t truly want to. A protest had been playing out in my head as I’d realised that the security forces were about to snatch me from the road, but the bigger part of me had felt relief, not annoyance, that my ride was going to be shortened by several hundred miles. Something is dragging me towards the prospect of seeing Tenny, now, and in this tug-of-war that I sense happening within myself, the opposing pull of my much-dreamed-of life on the road is beginning to lose the fight. There are greater forces at work here, and I am being dragged faster than I am able to ride.
By the time the day draws to a close we have journeyed half the length of the nation’s coastline to a soundtrack of crooning Arabic pop. Each soldier has had his turn at manning the machine-gun, and at wearing my sunglasses whilst doing so, and there hasn’t been cause to employ the weapon; indeed the driver seems to know personally the men who raise the barriers for us on the way into and out of each small town along this road. I suppose that security here relies on friendships and allegiances, rather than on some prim and proper notion of law and order, and I guess that there is in fact some merit in having these soldiers along: it is the calming influence of the known and trusted, rather than the brash threat of a firefight, that is keeping me safe.
The villagers of Bir Ali suggest that we camp for the night upon a nearby beach. Arriving at sunset, there is nobody to be seen, just a scattering of ramshackle huts and a few sun-bleached wooden deck chairs that look to have been thrown together in a hurry and forgotten. There is an air of abandonment here, as if this was once a popular local tourist destination, before the economy began to collapse and the region fell again into unrest. And I realise that this place has all the makings of a paradise on Earth. The sun is sinking behind the inland hilltops in a cloudless sky. Turquoise shallows extend out into a sheltered lagoon, warm and clear and calm. The sand is as pale and smooth as the fairest skin. It is every bit the archetypal beach towards which Alex Garland had Richard and his fellow backpackers questing. And, just as in that story, it seems that such surroundings are soon overshadowed by more human concerns.
Some of the more attentive amongst you may have noticed that I have a new shirt. And yes. I bought a new shirt. I shelled out a whopping four dollars here in Yemen to replace the tattered rags that were previously adorning my upper torso.
What I should talk about – and I know I’ve rambled a lot here – but the main thing that’s coming out of all this is that I’m … mentally, I’m struggling to appreciate being here. The reason is quite simple. It’s because my mind is set on getting back to Tenny.
And so I’m really struggling to focus on the day that I’m experiencing.
I know that it’s a long way. I know that it’s another two thousand kilometres to cycle back to Tenny. And I know that every single day, I should just think about that day, and not about the two thousand kilometres ahead of me. But … if I no longer care about what I’m seeing, and I no longer care about meeting people, then …
I’ve been alone – for a long time, now, I’ve been doing this.
And you know what?
I think I’m getting tired.