Thursday, March 29, 2007

Common Misconceptions

I just wanted to clear up a few common misconceptions that I keep running into out here.
1. I am not rich. Not even close, and yet everyone (including half of you guys) I meet and talk to seems to think I must be some kind of millionaire to be travelling for so long. So here is the truth: In buying my flight out of Yemen, I have just now spent $10,000US since my arrival in Hong Kong. That money got me through 42 countries and about 22 months of travel or just over $15/day for about 650 days. It included 10 flights (9 international) and about 10% has gone to visas for various countries. It really doesn't have to be that expensive. True, I am cheap and I have had tons of help through various hosts (thanks to all of them) and just friendly people along the way but financially that is where I stand. I wish I had that much more to keep going.....
2. I am not alone nor is this a lonely road. I have been "on my own" since Bre left about 4 months ago (Mom and Savannah 5) but I have just realized that here in Sana'a is the first time ever on this trip that I have been completely alone. In a single room, don't know anyone or have anyone to talk to, alone. First time. There always seems to be someone, be it another traveller in a dorm, a host or whatever to keep you company. In a way it is nice to give my mouth a rest and not have to talk to anyone but really it has been great to meet so many people of different backgrounds, experiences and ideas.
3. It is not dangerous here. In all honesty, the middle east is by far the safest place to travel. I kid you not, I have never felt safer in my life (with the exception of Turkey, which I would not classify as the middle east, and Lebanon because it has tried to hard to become western and feels very different from the rest). Most of Asia comes in second. The west, well, it's full of greedy, drunk bastards that are all a little sketchy. Really, I've seen and heard more violent problems out of Europe or America than Asia or the Middle east by a long shot. So stop thinking they are all terrorists here. Yemen is really the only place where people regularly carry guns and they are really nice. Think of it as the same as when Europeans all carried dueling pistols. There were strict rules and guidelines on when you could actually use them.
4. Muslims do not have the moral high ground. For all their strict rules and condemning of western immorality, the system here is a huge joke. The longer I am in it the less respect I have for it. It's all about the image of morality but the reality is that everything goes on as it does everywhere else, if not to a greater extent because they figure we are still worse. Sex, drinking, corruption, etc. It's all here and the hipocrasy is driving me crazy.
For the record, I said before that all of this is starting to look and feel the same to me but Yemen is actually quite different from everywhere else. The architecture is very traditional, in a style very unique in the middle east. The clothing is also rather strange. The men tend to wear suit jackets and longyis (the skirt thingys like in southern India) with their ceremonial knives in front on a huge belt. I've heard that the look of the handle is the important thing rather than the blade itself. They don't even look that sharp in the shops. In the event that there is an argument on the street and a fight begins, everyone nearby very quickly separates the participants so nothing ever really happens. I've seen a quarrel or two but nothing major.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


I think I was in Aden last. Anyway, I made it to Sana'a for a night and then caught another early morning bus west to a small town called Zabid. Had to change transport in the port city of Hodeida (it has other names as well). The road over from Sana'a was amazing as it passed though some great mountain scenery. The ride was more interesting than the destination by a long shot. Lots of Ethiopian refugees have settled at this end of the country and it gets some rain so has a little bit of green. Ridiculously hot though. Zabid is the kind of place where you are covered with sweat by 7:30am and you can't get your clothes off because they are plastered to your body. I went to Zabid in part because it was an excuse to take the bus along that road as well as because it is a UNESCO listed town. Unlike the old city of Sana'a and the village of Shibam, it is in complete disarray and they are only now thinking about how to protect and preserve it. It wasn't terribly exciting actually but I was lucky enough to have met a Polish guy that is working there doing the preliminary work for the future preservation. I had no idea how the process actually goes and for the most part it looks like hell trying to deal with unmotivated locals all the time. It is also interesting to note that the agencies responsible for this type of work are there to make changes and recommendations but don't necessarily have the people's best interest in mind. For example. People are rebuilding the old homes in a more modern style. By more modern I mean fixing the walls with concrete blocks instead of mud brick. The main reason for that is because concrete is half the price. Well, they just find a way to make the local government introduce a tax or something to raise the price of concrete and force the locals to use mud brick. They also can have laws introduced to arrest people (just for a day or two to scare them) that don't comply with other regulations that they introduce, or just bulldoze down whatever buildings they think are within the preservation zone that are too modern. To hell with whoever is in it. Ok, so they give the guys warning and aren't always bad. There are loans and economic assessments done too but still, I was a little surprised. This Polish guy had just come from Afghanistan after working there for 18 months so we had lots to talk about. Otherwise, as I was walking around town I was just getting mauled by kids. There are so many of them and I must be incredibly interesting to them. I got to see inside a primary school. Wow, tiny room for 60+ kids. Definately third world. It is funny because they have Canada Dry drinks here in Yemen which is probably the only reason anyone knows that Canada exists.
If I wasn't such a nice and politically correct guy I'd also be tempted to write that the Yemenis are freakin stupid (said as Malcolm does, because he's cool and I miss him). You might think I'm in a bad mood or something but no, I'm not. I am just totally convinced that these people are near the bottom of the world IQ curve. It has nothing to do with my lack of communication with them, their being third world or recently recovering from civil war. I've been doing this too long to not notice. There is something missing here. I think common sense was on the wrong side of the civil war and got destroyed because there is none. I'd say I don't know what kind of crack they're on but then I do know. It's the qat. This is a country of junkies and they are all lazy as hell. It's unbelievable. I swear most of the men work an hour or two a day and then sit around chewing qat for the rest of the day. It actually looks like every guy has been pruning a non-existant tree with all the leaves they throw on the ground around themselves. I don't know what effects it has on the brain but if there was ever a poster country for "this is your country on drugs" Yemen is it. It is actually a huge and very serious social and economic problem here. Lots of these men are spending 30% or so of their income on qat. The president's office spends over $100,000US each day on it. It has also replaced a large portion of the exportable (and edible) produce being farmed here. It can't be all that bad since they do it all day long and haven't died. I guess they aren't totally messed up because they still drive (although, when you see the driving.....) but then again. Imagine spending 30% of your income on coffee or something and still trying to raise a family. It's no wonder they are all a little dense and there are so many women and children begging in the streets. There is no oil in Yemen but it is not totally devoid of resources. The problem is that they really don't care even the slightest bit about improving themselves. Yemen has often been in the top 10 of the world's poorest countries (I think all are in Africa at the moment but it is probably a contender for worst out of Africa) yet they are content to live in their own filth and do nothing so long as they have their qat. You can see it on their faces. They hire cleaners for the hotels and nothing gets cleaned because they sit and chew all day (even the expensive ones or so I've heard). The hotels look inside like the 60 year old Soviet ones that are barely still functional with the walls falling apart and the bathrooms covered with an inch of rust and water that maybe runs. The best part is that here in Yemen some of these hotels are only 3 years old! The others in the place I'm at are either too stupid or too lazy to even figure out how to flush the toilet! I mean seriously, what kind of messed up people are these? How can you feel any sympathy for them?
Anyway, I didn't write any of that. I actually do like Yemen though I have to shake my head all the time as all of my educated guesses based on logic are more often than not totally wrong. The people are nice and try to be helpful. Everyday it is the same food for me. Rice and roast chicken for lunch (the main meal) and beans and flat bread for dinner. At least it is cheap here. I am back in Sana'a which oddly enough has the cheapest accomodation (contrary to the way of most of the world where capitals are more expensive). I'll be here until I leave for Jordan. It's a nice enough city though I haven't seen much yet.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Well, it is true. There are people here in Yemen that run around with big knives and kalashnikovs but honestly, it's just not all that threatening or scary anymore. I think I've been doing this too long. The people are nice and it's not like they are threatening you or anything. Actually, I thought it would be a little heavier on the guns, the way they talk about this country. The government has been trying to crack down on that lately, though it has only been successful in the larger towns and cities. Driving by the small villages you still see quite a few. The knives are ceremonial and here in Aden I saw a traditional dance in a random location for no apparent reason (best drumming since Pakistan) in which the knives were a part. They are a sign of courage and everyone is supposed to have one. The problem with the country is that everyone identifies with their tribe rather than country so there are lots of problems that flare up between groups or between a tribe and the government. Lots of areas of the country are off-limits to foreigners because of continuing security problems. Other areas you can pass through but need a permit first from the tourist police. Such was the case from Sayun to Mukalla and then from Mukalla to Aden.
On the bus from Mukalla to Aden there is a stretch where there is some problem with unruly tribal people. There is a potential for kidnapping tourists (the standard bargaining tactic by the tribes though the story is that the kidnapped are treated like royal guests) so the three of us (me, the (east) Indian-American, and a Chinese guy) were given special service. Our own armed guard that didn't even want to let us out of the bus during the breaks, and in one stretch we had 2 police jeeps in convoy ahead of us fully loaded with weaponry, including the mounted machine gun. Very cool. I feel so important. Truth is the government would rather go through all that hassle once in a while instead of actually dealing with their problems.
Otherwise the country is largely the same as any other poor country. Overpopulated and too much garbage everywhere. The national bird is the plastic bag. We sat one day over Shibam and watched them all fly by. They are much more numerous than the birds...... So sad. There are times when it all starts to feel the same. Otherwise, the scenery is such that if you like the American southwest with it's deserts and canyons, you'd love it here. It is even better than Oman.
It is much more strict Islam here and with a lack of the subcontinent community there are no more females to look at. Everyone is full covered and it is just the eyes that stick out, if even that. The funny ones are the ones wearing glasses on the outside so that they look like black Pacman ghosts. Otherwise it looks like the Angel of Death carrying off your children....... You can see some colour around their ankles from whatever is underneath and they do wear nice shoes. They still get all dressed up and I'm sure some of them are really pretty. At least the eyes are. But it is really annoying not knowing if you are right or not. I need my female spies to go and check it out for me, like in Pakistan. There are some places I just can't go.
As for the differences in the treatment of the 3 of us. I definately get more attention and stares. I am sure some of these kids have no idea that I am standing next to other tourists. Even on the bus with the guard I was the number one guy. They also seem to think there are only 2 religions, Islam and Christianity and don't even listen to another answer from these other guys. But they speak better Arabic than I do (mine is a few words at best) so they did all the talking which evened it out.
I am now on my own again but it should be ok. I will just end up getting a crash course in Arabic and dancing like a chicken again :) One other note is that the entire adult male population here is obsessed with Qat. It is a leaf stimulant that they chew all day long. Otherwise things are good. The roast chicken is good and cheap as well. I am missing green. There is no vegetation anywhere.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Because you asked

Hey Shean, thanks for the comment. It's good to know someone is still following along. I can't say exactly what it is about Oman that I liked. It's just the whole picture. I like countries that aren't heavily populated and have nice natural beauty. Must be that Canadian in me.... Oman is also clean, organized and has all the western amenities and luxuries as well, unlike a lot of the other countries I like so much. Oman really seems to be trying to distance itself from the rest of the middle east and do it's own thing so is much more tolerant and neutral than many and yet still cautiously growing and developing. The people are really friendly, there is no feuding between locals or aggression toward outsiders either. And for all that it is still not over-developed and over-touristed either. And you could work here and make a decent living as westerner unlike people that move down to Thailand or something. I'm sure there is still lots of crap too but it wasn't obvious to me.
As for Yemen, well, you don't know why it is wild because I haven't told you yet. I have to keep you guys wanting more don't I? Yemen is not developed from a tourist perspective and has no oil reserves so is really poor too. It had a nasty civil war that ended a while back but the last decade has seen numerous foreigners kidnapped. Not the terrorist kidnappings that you are thinking of today but by unruly tribal people as a means of talking to the government and getting noticed. Nothing usually happens to the tourists. Add to it that many parts of the country are still off limits to tourists and that many of the locals walk around with a very large traditional knife tucked into their belts or carry Kalashnikovs and it is easy to see why it has the reputation it does. It is picking up as a destination for experienced tourists looking for somewhere still "authentic" and I really wanted to see it before it changed much.
So far it has been really nice. Very little english spoken around here though so not easy. I am in Sayun in the far east in a canyon area. Beautiful, with houses made out of mudbrick and up to 8 stories high anyway. It is really easy to see how destruction on a biblical scale can occur if and when there are earthquakes or floods. I am currently with a Japanese guy and an American of Indian decent. It is interesting to see how each of us is reacted to and treated differently. We are all first time tourists in the region but of totally different race and it has an effect even when we are side-by-side. I am off to Aden tomorrow by way of the coastal road.

Monday, March 12, 2007

I like it

I am still in Oman. Really, I love this country and wish I could stay even longer. People always ask me if I've found a country I would live and work in. Until now the answer has always been "no" although I've enjoyed so many places. I think I could stay here though. I'd have to import a girlfriend and I might not stay forever but this country really does appeal to me.
I've also been lucky enough to see more of the countryside since I last wrote although for the most part I've been hanging out in and around Muscat. On one overnight outing I hitched along the partially existing coastal road south east to Sur, stopping along the way for a short hike up one of the most famous and beautiful canyons in the country, Wadi Shab. I wish I had had more time to really get into it and enjoy the scenery and swim in the natural pools but alas, even I don't get to do everything I want. That night I made it out to Ras al-Jinz, the easternmost tip of the country to see the green turtles coming to lay their eggs. There is a distinct on (100's per night) and off (maybe 1 or 2) season for laying and although it is the offseason we were lucky to have had a couple dozen turtles laying that night. It is a protected area and our group (~50 tourists split into 2 groups) was led by a guide who kept us all under control. The moon was full so visiblity was good and the whole experience was something straight out of National Geographic. 3ft+ turtles laying eggs and heading back to sea. Apparently only 1 or 2/1000 babies survive to become a breeding adult. Not good odds. The females are shy when coming out of the water and digging their hole but from the time they start laying eggs until they return to the sea they are in something of a trance and nothing bothers them so we could get in close and touch them. For me it was great because it was something I've always wanted to see and had missed the opportunity in a few other countries.
I also met a few other people including a couple from Iceland and a family from the UK that picked me up and took me with them to see some more out-of-the-way places I wouldn't've seen otherwise. I've been so incredibly lucky here. I'm now on my way southwest to Salalah and by the end of the week will finally cross into Yemen. It is supposed to be pretty wild so we'll see what happens.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Oman should be renamed Woah-man because it is so cool. It is definately one of my favourite countries. I think I would work in Oman if I had to choose a gulf country to stay in. Like the rest of the gulf countries, Oman is very wealthy, expensive and and newly developed, only 35 years ago, when the current Sultan took over, it was a total backwater with nothing at all. A few hundred years ago it was a powerful maritime empire stretching along the coasts south into eastern Africa and east into India. In a lot of ways it is the same as the rest of the gulf and has only recently opened up to tourism. Unlike the other countries though, there is a lot to see and do here. It also has a small population (less than 3 million people) so the density is really low. In true gulf fashion, it is busy, modern, has big cars driving around everywhere, etc but it also has something more. I had originally planned to stay only a few days, just long enough to cross it to get to Yemen but yesterday I got another week extention on my visa as I will end up being here close to a month. It has the type of atmosphere and feel that I just can't leave. It is very peaceful, friendly and relaxed. Whoever is in charge has done a great job.
My first stop was in a little town called Muladah. It is funny because arabic doesn't have a standardized transliteration system into english and their script doesn't add all the vowels so I have seen so many different spellings of everything out here. Even signs a few feet apart don't agree on spellings. I've seen Muladah spelt at least 5 different ways. Even Muscat, the capital, is often spelt Masqat. Anyway, first stop Muladah to stay with a Polish guy teaching english. Really cool guy, well travelled and had some crazy stories to tell (survived a plane crash in Russia last summer). He convinced me to stay longer in Oman as it can be affordable if I hitchhike everywhere (very easy here) and sleep outside if I have to (the nights are warm and the days 30C or more). There is certainly enough to see so I figured I'd give it a try.
I have been quite successful in my hitching though I have on occassion had to sleep outside. Nobody complains or even cares. You just lie down wherever you want. My record so far is 13 lifts in one day. There is something extremely awesome about standing on the side of the road, having taxis stop and telling them you will only go with them if they give you a free ride and include lunch with it. Of course they look at you like you are insane and proceed to try to rip you off (actually the taxis here might be the least insistent taxis I've ever met) . Even while they are standing there talking to you saying that it is impossible to hitch in Oman, a car will stop and sure enough you get your free ride and free lunch. Take that evil taxis! I've been in everything from big rigs and dumptrucks to cars driven by high ranking navy and army officers to tourist 4X4s (both on guided tours and as rentals). Some people pick you up to practice english, others, well, who knows. The funny thing is they all figure they are helping you a little and then drop you off at a taxi stand if they can't get you the whole way. They just don't understand the concept of not taking taxis because you don't want to. But I will definately not complain. The roads here are probably the smoothest and newest I have ever been on. The limit is 120km/h but even at up to 170km/h you don't feel like you are really moving. Through the mountains the roads are incredibly steep. I've never seen anything so steep and yet paved and it is obvious they don't have to worry about snow or even rain much.
The landscape is amazing. Very rough rocky brown mountains with very little vegetation. The are clumps of green here and there where people have made palm tree farms (for dates, yum yum). They get very little rain in general and there are lots of completely dried up rivers everywhere with bridges over them. I have asked and been told that yes, they are still rivers and will flash flood and fill up completely for brief periods of time (often only hours). In the meantime they use the river beds as soccer fields.
I even made it up to Jebel Shams (the tallest mountain in the region). Jebel Shams is itself nothing too exciting but from the top you look down into a valley (wadi) that is called the grand canyon of the middle east. Very impressive. I have been through a lot of little towns in the mountains between the UAE and Muscat so far. Places like Nizwa, Rustaq, Nakhal, Bahla, Hamra, etc. Each has a little fort and little market but usually not much else. Nakhal had some hot springs that I saw. Little fish in the water will nibble on your toes while you sit there relaxing.
They also have really nice beaches too. I've been to Sawadi, Yitti and the beaches within Muscat itself. The best part is that they are so empty and the water is pretty warm. Right now is the tourist season and there still aren't many people here. The population density is such that even the locals can't crowd a place too much. It's great.
Lately I have been basing myself out of Muscat. I met some great guys through couchsurfing and they have been taking care of me. They work during the week so I go for a couple days somewhere (like Jebel Shams) and then come back to hang out. The weekend here is thurs/fri. In most of the gulf they have switched to fri/sat to minimize dissynchrony with the west and in Lebanon it was friday and sunday. In any case, I totally don't know what day it is anymore.
Muscat itself is pretty interesting. Muscat is more like a collection of independent neighbourhoods and towns because they are all in little valley pockets and the whole city is spread out over such a large area. There is an old town and coastline as well, but again, everything is totally spread out. I like this country because everything is so carefully controlled and thought out and organized so that it develops and grows in a clean and cute way. Everything seems colour-coded, from the colours of the different types of water trucks (waste, drinking and gardening), to license plates, to uniforms of workers (construction, city gardening, garbage crew, etc). There is a law that says that no building can be more than 4 or 5 stories tall without special permission (which is rare) and that all windows must either be built with an arch or have an arch above them. Actually, pretty much everything is built in a false traditional style. It is really pretty and I like it a lot.
But like the rest of the gulf, it seems to be a story of several different worlds that rarely interact. I have been staying and hanging out with Indians and Pakistanis here in Muscat. They are surprised at my knowledge of the subcontinent and I have been complimented on how well I eat with my hands, hahahha. There are tons of people from the subcontinent working here. Their wages tend to be low (except for the skilled guys like the computer nuts that I am with) and living conditions horrible. Most are single men and because they rarely cook, there are tons of Indian restaurants here, all of which seem to sell monthly food plans. The few with families are easy to spot as they wear traditional Indian and Pakistani clothes including uncovered women. They play cricket everywhere and every chance they get. I have tried it and think I'm better off sticking to baseball. At least I can understand a little of the game now.
The Omani nationals (a decent percentage of which are black from the old african colonies like Zanzibar) wear much different clothes, cover their women, have too much money (but aren't as bad as some of the other countries) and are always playing soccer. There are tons and tons of kids here and even small villages in the middle of nowhere seem to have a few labourers from the subcontinent. I always thought that villagers were supposed to be tough and hard working but I guess that isn't always the case.... I have really only interacted with the Omanis when I get picked up hitching somewhere. I have found them to be really friendly and helpful though.
The 3rd and 4th worlds are those of the western expats (that I really haven't seen at all except for the odd one driving by or sitting at the beach) and the arab foreigners (Egyptians, Syrians, etc.). I haven't met any at all but I know they are here somewhere. It is just interesting that all these groups rarely interact with each other beyond what their jobs require. Maybe everywhere is like that but I was too busy in my own group in other places to notice.