Aden turned out to be an interesting place to spend a few days. What the city lacked in architectural grace it made up for with its laid-back, low-key atmosphere and friendly people. In fact, it felt more like a collection of quaint seaside towns strung around a small volcanic island than a former national capital.
Over dinner one night, I discussed with my host and his Yemeni friends the intricacies of wooing girls down at Aden mall. While pre-marital relations of any kind are illegal in Yemen, they are by no means non-existent — it’s just that no-one talks about it. An innocuous question such as “What time is it?” or “Can you show me the way to Pizza Hut?”, and the subsequent reply, might actually be a coded message. And discreet glances flashing between distant shoppers may carry more meaning than you’d think!
From my Western perspective, it sounded kind of fun, and at the same time horribly strange. But all cultures subdue the relations between men and women to a greater or lesser extent. I guess it’s important to the smooth functioning of civilised society, but I’m sure there has to be a balance between promiscuity and repression, and to me it looked as if the Yemeni way had swung too far towards the latter.
More than once, when discussing this, I heard the familiar rebuttal: “But I know women who love wearing the burka. They say it sets them free. Nobody looks at them — nobody is judging them.” I argued back that even if this were true, it would only be true because of how they would be treated in Yemen if they did not wear it. Transplant the spectacle to the streets of, say, Edinburgh, and you can be sure that their appearance would upstage even the most flamboyantly-dressed lefties!
I went back to the machine shop to retrieve my trailer and found that the skilled turners had made the new parts and fitted them so my trailer was as good as new; a bargain at five dollars for something I’d previously written off as unfixable. I’d done all my chores and spent an enjoyable week in Aden, been snorkelling, eaten some amazing food, and had a taste of the local way of life. I was ready to hit the road again.
At the first checkpoint, twenty kilometres down the road, I was stopped and asked for my papers. The soldiers seemed unwilling to allow me to continue, but I waved my permit around and eventually convinced them to let me continue. At the next checkpoint, however, a few hours later, I found a pick-up truck full of bored squaddies awaiting my arrival, having seemingly been previously informed of my plans. Despite my protests, my bike and I were bundled into the truck and we spent the rest of the day hurtling through the empty coastal plains of South Yemen.
The truck had a very large piece of heavy weaponry mounted on the roof. I was not sure whether it was intended to detract the kidnappers/suicide-bombers who apparently infested the area from trying anything stupid, or to alert them to my presence. The fixed gun was manned at all times by one of the soldiers who wrapped his head in a scarf and borrowed my sunglasses in a worryingly-successful attempt to look as volatile and trigger-happy as possible.
Apparently these nincompoops were responsible for my life, but judging by the style of driving they seemed to have forgotten that far more people died in Yemen from road accidents than from terrorist attacks. I spent much of the journey expecting to die from a head-on collision at a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour as the driver did his absolute utmost to cause me to soil myself in the passenger seat. When we stopped for the night on a beach just outside a small fishing town called Bir Ali, I made it very clear what I thought of my escort’s handiwork, and refused to go any further for two days.
The beach was beautiful and almost deserted, aside from a few ramshackle beach huts and a collection of dodgy-looking hand-made sunloungers. The only other resident was Ed, a photojournalist from Vancouver who was on an assignment for the news agency Reuters to take a single photograph of a dead Somali refugee washed up on one of the beaches of South Yemen, where thousands of refugees arrive by boat after fleeing the instability of their homeland.
It sounded grim, but he approached the topic with the flippancy of someone who’s been desensitised to the horror and suffering of the wars of today’s world which continue in the background around the globe. “You get used to it”, he said, when I asked him how he dealt with snapping away at dead bodies.
I decided that it was something I hoped I’d never have to get used to, however tantalizing the jet-setting lifestyle of an award-winning photojournalist like Ed. Only twenty-two, he’d been working all over the globe since he got his lucky break at eighteen covering the war in Lebanon, and had found the time to earn a degree in politics. That night, treated to a spectacular starscape, he took some astonishing photos on the beach, with me and my bicycle as the subject.
My police escort were clearly unimpressed by my decision to take a day off at the beach, but after their behaviour the previous day I was in no hurry to keep them happy. They had demanded I hand over the equivalent of 25 dollars for them to buy qat to chew for the day. Thanks to Ed’s guide and interpreter, I was able to tell them that they could damn well use their government salary to buy their drugs instead of scrounging off the foreigner they were paid to babysit.
The following day I had to wake them up myself and do some shouting in order to get on the road before the heat and humidity became unbearable. I was allowed to cycle today, apparently. But I knew from experience that it would only be a matter of time before they got impatient with my speed and came up with some excuse to stick me back in the van so they could dump me on the next bunch of soldiers and get back to their station for the important business of chewing qat.
Just down the road, in the bleak, sandy, volcanic wasteland, I happened upon a group of pedestrians walking towards me. As they drew closer, I realised that I was seeing the very spectacle that the photographer, Ed, had spent almost a month in Yemen trying to track down. I stopped to investigate. “When did you arrive in Yemen?” I asked the twenty or so people. They were carrying plastic bags containing a few clothes and some food.
“Yesterday,” replied one of them who spoke English. “We are emigrants from Somalia. There is no peace in our country. We are looking for any kind of help from anyone. Can you help us?” He was dressed in a basketball vest, shorts, and the obligatory cheap plastic flip-flops that I’d seen almost everyone wearing since Sudan. Other than that, he seemed to have nothing. He was about my age, and I wondered what long and complex sequence of events had occurred in this young man’s life to lead to him abandoning his life, boarding a boat in the knowledge that he might not survive the voyage, fetching up on a beach in the night with his companions, and our paths now crossing on this empty road on the coast of Arabia.
I had nothing to offer them other than the knowledge that there was a town with a large Somali population a few short kilometres in the direction I’d come from. What could I do, other than offer my condolences and wish them the best of luck in their endeavour? I felt frustrated by the injustice that had brounght them here and my powerlessness to do anything about it, other than pass on the tale in this blog in the hope that it might contribute to the increased awareness of the problem and the striving towards helping to solve it, which was probably a vain hope at best.
My police escort, meanwhile, had got bored of waiting and came back to investigate. And as predicted, a couple of minutes later I was hanging on for dear life as the moron in the driving seat careered along the winding, mountainous coastal road, egged on to drive ever faster and ever more dangerously by his equally moronic companions. When at last we reached the final checkpoint before Al Mukalla, I disembarked, gave the idiots the middle finger and more than one expletive, laughed at their demands that I pay for the ‘taxi service’ that I’d never asked for, and didn’t look back as I rode off into the suburbs, fuming at the standard of so-called ‘protection’ I’d received.
I’ve resolved to take a bus from here, Al Mukalla, to Oman. The experience is simply pointless. The security situation in this part of Yemen has turned it into nothing more than a high-speed transit; one which I’d rather make in the anonymity of a bus than by via of a succession of lunatic police drivers. I will restart my cycling in the more stable Sultanate of Oman. Only a few weeks now remain between me and my reunion with Tenny, who I have now not seen for more than five months and whose absence weighs ever more heavily on my mind.
The prospect of settling with her in Armenia for a few months is an enticing one, especially because we’ll be spending those months planning the next part of the journey — to the Far East…