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Yemen to Dubai by bus

The Red Sea slaps lazily against the boulders on the waterfront of Al Huydayda, Yemens fourth largest city. I wander in the sticky heat and smells of shit, past cardboard shacks built atop the boulderbank. I don’t look closely at the old men inside. Across the empty street concrete hulks arise from rubble, I feel a complete fool, the tourist walking camera in hand- there is nothing to see here. Africa feels so close.

In the main street Ethiopian beggar women in full burkha sit and plead, while their children sleep on cardboard sheets. They, and their men, gather in a group of 20 outside my overpriced hotel. The busiest thing in town is the Qat market, packed beneath the benign gaze of Presýdent Saleh. At least I eat the most delicious thing I tried in Yemen, a thick tomato and chilli yoghurt with enormous bread. And chicken of course.

Travel on a Friday, during Ramadan, is a trial. After waking the taxi driver I lose patience, jump into the Hudayda taxi and drive past my planned destination, the hilltop villages of Manakhah. Long plains suddenly give way to a winding descent, into a long wadi. Green mango, dates glow against black blasted rock, at last the wadi ends and a truly desolate coastal plain stretches away, desert edging the road.

At the fish market and port more dhows sit on land than in the water. Sharks of all size are packed into iceboxes, sans-fins. Jorge looks for a boat to Eritrea and we negotiate a truck ride to the beach, only to drive 10 metres and realise they wanted 50 dollars, not 5. At last I leap onto the most horrible thing in Hudayda- a muffler-less motorbike roars me to the taxi station and I crush in for the short ride to Zabid.

A place which seems far better ýn the guidebook than ýn reality. A town wýth 86 mosques- wow. Instead ramshackle mud walls hedge dusty paths, its impossible to see overtop. I visit the “castle”, and a most basic mosque. Pigeon shit lines the staýrs, I search for a camera angle that could make this mosque picturesque- and cant find one. I wander grumpily through the alleys, clouds gather and it pours with rain, in Yemens hottest town. I spend an hour with the shopkeeper then squelch through mud to wait for Jorge. Luckily he arrives and we jump on the back of a pickup, flying through the clouded, cool night.

By empty bus we arrive in Taizz. Suddenly the streets are full (and the Lonely Planet hotel closed). Women too crowd, all fully black covered, but men now wear pants and a shirt instead of dishdashi and jambiya belt. The usual shops- glittering dresses, nextdoor to a shop hose dresses are entirely black. Red underwear with fur fetish nipple ticklers- who buys this stuff? Police make a scene in the souk, trying to grab a shopkeeper but are shouted away by the others, one policeman brandishes his Kalashnikov wildly, but noone is at all worried.

I climb (by minibus at first) Jebel Sabir, at 3000m Yemens tallest peak. More mountain ranges (more like ridges) run parallel. Taizz lies below, and many small towns dot the land. Wandering through tall stone houses, my shorts draw strange looks and schoolkids, to sit with us on a high rock and snooze in the sun. Stone terraces on even the steepest slopes grow bright green barley, women beat grass on their roofs. Hithhiking downhill, the second truck takes us to an incredible blue swimming pool, as Spanish tourists roar past in a 4wd convoy.

The next day more indecision. I visit Ibb. A small town with some scenic mosques (oh, there are the Spanish again), the best part are the scores of schoolgirls ýn black burkha or blue hijab, and I miss that picture. Instead a series of minibuses to a Taxi back to Sanaa, just for one night again. More long straýght road suddenly climbing up and over a mountain, a stop on the plain in the middle of nowhere to buy Qat. The tiny, filthy stalls are manned by boys, and its funny that the old taxi driver cant get a cheaper price.

Sanaa is as busy, sunset lights shoppers, I should have gone to Sada but stupid tourists talk me out of it- “youll get arrested”. Then again, if I ask for a letter from the tourist police they helpfully direct e to “my cousin, the tourist guide” More people stay here learning Arabic than come as backpackers. Again I get lost in the old city, wander the souk and to my great regret never buy the so-cheap souvenirs like the dagger and pashmina kafeya, which was cheaper than in India.

Finally the long bus trips began. A night bus to Aden left me exhausted, and my water bottle drew hard looks as I waited outside the bus station mosque at 430am. I check into a hotel after much bargaining, climb into bed as dawn breaks, then check out on get onto the bus to Al Mokhalla.

Desert runs to the sea. Upturned boats, a shanty amidst nothing. Plains of rock, of sand. The road turns inland, weaving through big black rock outcrops, yellow sand dunes. The ocean is so blue. At last Mokhalla begins as white painted corners of brick, outlining buildings to be. We stop at a mosque, streets are empty. A taxi driver gives me a free ride to the minibus, we hurtle into town. I eat a slightly stinky fish, and over a real dinner of Chicken meet a Ugandan man, Mohammed, working for a Canadian oil supply company. He drives me in his cruiser to the tourist police to get my letter (to give the taxi driver- earlier in the day I tried in vain), explaining how he met his third wife.

“Im African, man! I call her and give her phone sex. Then we meet, shes with her cousins. I say just let me see your face. She calls me later and says I never thought you were African. I love you. I say like fuck you do! Then I write to her father, and pay him. It took 19 days, from start to finish.”

The coast is left behind, the taxi climbs the wadi wall, and drops into Wadi Dahr. Mud houses, date palms die as groundwater is sucked out- to fill the swimming pool for Italian tourists, where I too spend a lazy afternoon swimming.

Gravestones behind the walls, some painted faded orange. I wonder how apt it is to take pictures, on a Friday, wearing shorts. Sayoun comes to a stop on a Friday, families drive to the mosque for lengthy sermons. Ramadan continues of course, I join the crowd sitting on benches on the street, for rice soup, then chicken and rice. I visit a town to the north. Twisting alleys between mud walls, and the tallest minaret in southern Arabia. I climb loose rock behind the houses, onto a high rock for a puny breakfast, biscuits, dates and mandarins.

That evening I again meet a man from Sudan. He insists on a better dinner, and we taxi to a restaurant for barbequed goat, the pieces carefully chosen. After, to the Qat market for two huge sackcloth covered bundles of Qat (1500 rials each, over 7 dollars). We retire to his hotel room and chew. I swallow too much green saliva and spend a sleepness night.

As are the next two nights. I take the bus at 1pm, and we wind up steep Wadi walls. The scenery becomes incredible, wicked ravines to the horizon, while the road passes along narrow ridge. Slowly night falls, and at last the ravines end and flat desert stretches as far as the full moon lights. The Yemeni border is a dark, dirty line. Hundreds of vehicles lie, tyres deflated, armed soldiers calling on patrol. A filthy fat man sports a pistol at the hip. Inside the bus Qat leaves are swept up, and at the Oman border uniformed officers accost me. After some fast talking and several phone calls (its 2am) he gives me a free 2 week visa.

I remember the bus stopping, several of us lying across both seat rows, dead. Then worse, arrival in Salalah. I stagger to the frontage of a travel agent and lie down. When the town awakes, I take a van to a tiny town, its scorching hot. Noone is about, some languid locals sell bread on the street. A truck arrives, a man gives small brown fish to boys, they spread them on carboard, people drive past in shiny Landcruisers or beaten utes, and buy.

The Red Sea is thick with life, fish and plankton. I swim in this sticky water, and sleep in a handy pavilion, exhausted. Worriedly I wait, there is no Van back so I take a taxi, pleading poverty to the Omani driver, who has 9 children. The coastline is desolate, the city barren. The only people about seem to be Indians. And so the next night bus, leaving me wasted in Muscat. A taxi to town, and a wander on the corniche. Its under repair, crowds of indian workers typically leave packaging rubbish behind. A huge luxury vessel “HM Sultan Quaboos” lies behind 18 foot fibreglass dinghys. Hauled out of the water, the net is picked clean of mackeral. I talk with a tourist student working on the boat, he does his best to convert me to Islam.

The fish market is orderly, huge Tuna, trevally, dolphin, taken to the butchers who use a blunt cleaver and rod to smash off the head and gills, leaving the eye. I wince at the waste, my fillet of such tuna would be surgery. Otherwise theres not much to do in Muscat, and I return early to the bus station. Only 6 more hours to Dubai.

Im sitting in a friends air-con house in a “compound” in the desert, in UAE (United Arab Emirates). I keep expecting to walk outside into a crowded street. Instead noone walks- its Arabs in white dish-dashis and headdress driving super flash cars, skyscrapers and date palms, red sand desert and bloody hot.Welcome to Dubai, the filthiest richest place on Earth. I went to change money and the man pointed to a crowd of Arabs. “Theyve taken all our money! Youll have to wait. 25 million dirhams (6 million $US) since we opened!”. They’d been open about an hour.

Nearby, the tallest building (to be)in the world grows bigger. Hordes of Indian workers slave, exploited by the richest people in the world, the Emiratis. Advertisements on telephone booths ask for “muslim executiv bechlers” interested in renting “bedspace”, for 100 dollars a month. Its depressing here, Im down and out in Dubai.

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