Bicycling adventures in Sana’a [Archives:2007/1012/Last Page]

January 1 2007

Alan George
For Yemen Times

When one is holding together a happy family, a steady job and a place to live and can surround himself with a few material possessions, his next concern is living long enough to enjoy such pleasures.

Thus, the eternal struggle for an ordinary solvent man approaching half a century is the never-ending battle to remove excess weight from around the waist and replace it as muscle around once youthful shoulders. Or perhaps, settling for not being out of breath from leaving one's bed in the morning! That's why I bicycle to work.

My school is approximately 12 km. from where I live. Shortly before dawn, I set off on my bike with headlight shining onto the deserted suburban streets of Sana'a. Starlight soon fades into dawn, which blazes into another Yemeni morning.

My neighbors puzzle as to why the 'Chelsea tractor' remains snoozing in the driveway and my work colleagues later wonder why I recklessly risk my life on Yemen's streets.

But cycling in the early morning is a time for meditation and later observation. The steady rhythm of the wheels revolving on their slightly buckled axis soothes a new day. At this early hour, a handful of the many laborers soon to assemble by the gas station with pickaxes, shovels or buckets and paint rollers in hand sit sipping their piping hot Lipton tea while patiently awaiting the arrival of their friends and the chance for some casual work.

On my $100 Yemeni bike, I quietly and conspicuously cycle on, gliding downhill to Sixty Meter Road and weaving around patches of broken glass or plastic in the road.

I'm indecisive while waiting at the junction of Hadda Street and Sixty Meter Road. Do I go like a skater venturing onto thin ice, even though there's a red light which drivers always ignore at this time of the morning? Or, do I wait patiently for the green and be a Westerner doing what he thinks is the right thing, regardless of where he finds himself?

I know that if there was a policeman, drivers would await his wave while their cars continually seem to be in motion, reminding me of cows straining to get through a narrow gate at milking time.

I can see men wrapped in scarves against the morning air crammed into the backs of Toyota and Suzuki pickups on their way to the fields. I look to my left and right and realize how much I'll miss the surrounding mountains topped by motionless animals silhouetted against the powder blue sky.

About half an hour from school, I can pick out the faces of those in cafes or waiting at roadside gathering points. A polite nod of the head or an acknowledging smile and beam of the eyes provides the necessary contact and human interconnectedness that's so important in daily life.

There's a different feel to early morning in sleepy southwest England. One is claustrophobia from being enclosed between houses and shops as I peddle along the narrow viewless roads. Although it's safer along these roads because I can follow dedicated cycling lanes, the pollution is much the same as rush hour in Sana'a owing to the greater density of traffic crawling from traffic light to traffic light. Cycling is more popular in southwest England than in Sana'a.

The ubiquitous bicycle can be seen in greater numbers on many German streets, where I see various species of machine: a custom-made bike below a parent towing a child trailer/buggy, a sit-up-and-beg bicycle used for shopping or a flashy Olympic bulimic-type racer.

If my journey to school is an opportunity for reflection and observation, then the return journey home calls for tolerance and restraint because I see all sorts of mind-blowing stuff that would make the toes curl.

It's common knowledge that pedestrians don't have safe places to cross Sixty Meter Road; however, women often drift nonchalantly across it as if on wheels, pretending they're made of an indestructible substance able to withstand the impact of the oncoming speeding traffic. Men are more likely to jog across like ducks in a fairground shooting gallery. Both get frighteningly close to passing traffic, which makes my hair stand on end (what little I have these days!).

Sixty Meter Road at about 4 p.m. is an opportunity to sharpen those Formula One driving reflexes and experience the excitement of Arabia Felix on the road. One interesting phenomenon is the function of the car horn, whose use in Great Britain is regulated by the Highway Code. I remember that it shouldn't be sounded between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. It's most commonly used for frightening away parading pigeons or a stray cat absentmindedly venturing into the road.

Are Yemeni horns louder than those in Great Britain? When I'm cycling home, horns in Sana'a seem to sound like claxons blasting either to alert me of imminent collision, neighborly presence, kind acknowledgement, a forthcoming wedding or local rubbish collection, which seems to be an emergency situation. Then there are the opening notes of a horn concerto played by the chronic honker approximately five meters behind me. As if my wheels don't wobble enough already!

Another particularly frightening situation for a cyclist is when a vehicle approaches while heading down the wrong side of the road. It's definitely disconcerting to suddenly look up and see a laughing motorist heading straight for me.

Speaking of life or death situations reminds me of the most serious threat to the lives of travelers on Sixty Meter Road – a vehicle turning into the path of other vehicles traveling at speed. You certainly need your wits about you because it's a recipe for a disaster, although I understand there's a reason. If a vehicle is being pursued by a police or army vehicle and the pursued car suddenly turns left between the central median and goes in the opposite direction, then the pursuing car can fire some bullets at the car as it goes by.

I believe one type of motorist in Sana'a has a secret vendetta against cyclists – dabab drivers! These gentlemen who drive small people-carriers have laws unto themselves, swerving curbside at the drop of a hat, usually without looking. This is definitely a risk for a cyclist, as I'm either forced off the road or close enough to open the door of the dabab and hop inside.

What makes road use worse are nonexistent give way road markings or signs at junctions and roundabouts, which have occasional oil spills, thus transforming cars into mechanical ice skaters. Then there are the water trucks that look like they haven't seen water for eons, chugging along in the center lane at about 35 km. per hour (20 km. if going uphill) and belching enough exhaust fumes to form London pea-soup fog.

Let's face it, many cars in Sana'a have body work to die for, looking like they've been in a demolition derby making them unlikely to be roadworthy. Break lights often don't work or are nonexistent and you can forget about turn signals because the lever on the steering column is used to suspend plastic bags full of qat, which slowly transforms healthy, chestnut-brown eyes into sagging, thick-lidded, lifeless ones hidden above stretched out, squirrel-like cheeks.

God willing, I'll reach my next birthday. My advice: when driving or cycling the streets of Sana'a, look after yourselves because it's “Wacky Races” out there!