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Blasted Desert! Im back in air-con comfort in UAE after a speedy trip through the desert expanses of Yemen and Oman. Flying into Sana (capital of Yemen) I crossed the “empty quarter” of Arabia, huge sand dunes and nothing else.

Sanaa is a brown, earthy color, mud brick houses, dust djinnis and concrete sprawl of a fast developing country. Men wear long white dish dashis, an embroidered belt with curved dagger stuck in it, and either a hidden pistol or kalashnikov slung over the shoulder. Women of course are completely hidden in black cloak and veil (complete with socks and gloves).

Ruled “democratically” since 1978 by President Saleh, Yemen has had a lot of war between north, south and now rebel bedouins who threaten to kidnap tourists, in return for a new tractor (the poor tourist gets stuffed full of goat and delicious dates, Yemenis are real friendly and it was hard for me to pay for my tea or goat).

In the military museum, amidst most gruesome pictures of dead children and soldiers, there is the President with caption: “As usual, the president solved the problem in his wise manner”. His portrait is everywhere. Mig 29s at the airport and heavy military presence with police checks, but free travel is allowed in most areas for the few tourists who are not in a tour group.

Travel is via bus or at insane speed in battered and decrepit Peugot 504 taxis, squished in with 9 others. I visited old mosques, mud palaces built on rock outcrops, 3000 metre mountains with stone terraces for crops. Roads wind up cliffs to high plateaus, wadis cut deep ravines. Supposedly the greenest part of the Arabian peninsula, the rains have finished and harvest is nearly done, and the long dry winter begins. Food is mainly chicken and rice and enormous flatbread, and even cheaper than India.

But its Ramadan. No eating, drinking, smoking, sex or naughtiness between 5am and 6.30pm. This is an awful time to be travelling. I buy dates, bread and water to last me through the day. People swarm to a restaurant in the evening, for Iftar (first meal), waiting for
the muzzein to finish praying (the bus and taxi drivers listen to loud non stop muslim preaching, its awful), then suddenly everyone has a mouth full of food.

Then second dinner is at around 9pm, then another meal at 12, again after 12. After dinner all men chew a drug called qat. This is the leaf of a small tree and is a stimulant, but I didnt feel much (although it did keep me awake all night). They chew, and chew, and chew, forming a huge ball in one cheek, looking ridiculous.

At last to bed between 2am and 4am. Everything is closed until 3pm the next day. Night turns to day. No more early rising for sightseeing, theres no point! I ended up being so tired, hungry and grumpy I couldn’t think straight, and rushed through the country.

The few people I met who could speak English tried to convert me to Islam. The same old arguments the Christians use! Basically Im going to hell, and look at the benefits- I can have 4 wives. Its incredible how strongly religion and society are bound- my descriptions of NZ life (divorce, solo mums, old folks homes) sound like hell to them. I cant stomach the subjection of women and lack of free speech here(the muslim claims women in Islam are more free than anywhere else, but biologically different hence unable to be president).

Finally I visited an enormous Wadi where women wear witches hats and throw stones if you try to photograph them. I left Yemen by air-con bus. After climbing the wadi wall, flat, flat desert stretched to the horizon. For 16 hours we drove through the moonlit desert, then the next night 12 more hours. Oman didnt have much to see.

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