Cycling across Yemen [Archives:2006/910/Reportage]

January 9 2006
Photo from archived article: photos/910/report1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/910/report1_1
Nadia Al-Sakkaf
It all started with a letter to the Yemen Times. To whom it may concern, it was titled and the story followed. Gillian and Wilhem Magar are a couple from Europe who have been cycling around the world. Their journey began two and half years ago from France and they have cycled through 12 countries, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Sicilia, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen. Today, as they are in Yemen, more specific they are right now in Mukala, Hadramout, they are both excited and disappointed; “We are two world cyclists unable to cycle in Yemen” they said. Reason being is that with the recent kidnapping and security issues of the country the tourist police did not grant our two athletes permission to cycle around the country.

Gillian said: “We really hope the kidnapping situation is resolved so that tourists can enjoy the kindness of the Yemeni people as we have experienced so far. We cannot say more about the landscapes though, as we only know Sana'a!”

It has been three weeks for Gillian and Wilhem in Yemen since their arrival on the 20th of December, and yet they have not had their share of this beautiful country. Now that it is Eid holidays there might be an opportunity to see the Yemeni people celebrating and enjoying peace and fun.

Discover the world

They started with an idea to carry out a cycling self-sponsored journey in quest to discover the world for themselves. Two and half years ago, Wilhem, the French accountant and his wife Gillian the development activist from Ireland decided they would become world citizens for the next decade of their lives. “We want to see through our own eyes, because everything we here is somebody's else's opinion. We want to learn and understand different cultures and meet different people”, said Wilhem when I asked him about the purpose of their journey around the world. They are even planning to have a baby somewhere on the road. Their baby for real would become an international citizen.

Coming from the north of the globe and now they are heading east. Next stop would be Oman, through Mukala in Yemen, then Pakistan and India. “We haven't decided where to go once we are in India, but at least we know we are heading there for now. We hoped to visit Iran but we were not successful in getting the suitable visa. We still want to visit Iran if we had the chance.” Gillian explained.

Gillian and Wilhem chose to travel by bicycles because it is the most environment friendly way to travel. They decided to make Yemen a stopping point because of the encouraging comments they heard about the country from a Dutch couple they had met in Egypt. Gillian commented on their three weeks in Sana'a: “We are happy that we came here, although we can only talk about Sana'a since we have not been able to go else where. But the people are very friendly and nice.”

Kibda wa Kalawi Mashwiya and Qat

Upon trying Yemeni food, Gillian has decided that she likes best: Kibda wa Kalawi Mashwiya (grilled liver and kidney). “She likes Kabab too” added Wilhem teasing her. They have tried Arais (bread with minced meat), Yemeni style beans, chicken and meat. “We had Qahawa bilhail, it was very tasty. We liked the coffee” Gillian said.

Socializing with Yemenis, the couple have had their personal Qat chewing experience. “I chewed from 2 in the after noon to 10 at night. I didn't feel high as they said I would, but I couldn't sleep for many hours after that”. Wilhem said. However, Gillian had a little bit different experience: “I felt a little different, I guess it was because I danced a lot. I chewed from five to 10, it was a wonderful experience.” The couple were introduced to Qat first in Ethiopia, but there the people swallow the Qat leaves not like they do in Yemen.

A world without boarder

If there were one thing you would change about Yemen, what would it be? I asked the couple. “Nothing at all” jumped Wilhem. “It wouldn't be Yemen if I changed it. If I change it that means I am putting something of my believes or my opinion and not what the country actually is.” Gillian agreed but she had something more to ad, “the kidnapping incidents, if they are happening because people do not have any other way of expressing themselves more freely then I wish for Yemen more space and to be free in expressing their minds. We have been here only for a short period and we really cannot judge.”

Adamant to get something from Wilhem I asked again, “then tell me, if you would change something about the whole world, what would you change?” he thought a little before he said: “A world without boarders where people can freely go from one place to another.” Impressed with his answer, I had to agree.

Spare parts

During their stay in Yemen, Gillian and Wilhem came across many funny incidents. “It is enough to think of all the simple phrases the Yemeni people use everyday on casual basis.” Wilhem said. Gillian added, “Cycling down the river bed and trying not to fall in a hole or get hit by a car coming from nowhere is also an amusing experience.”

Perhaps one of the funny incidents they had when they ordered for spare parts for their bicycles. “We ordered the spare parts from England in Ethiopia, the apre parts were made in France and to be delivered in Yemen.” Wilhem said. As if the universality of the spare parts was not enough, the parts were delivered in Aden and stayed there until they were claimed by the couple to be sent to Sana'a. “Had we not known they were in Aden, we would have never gotten them.” Wilhem exclaimed. “But at least you can get things done in Yemen very easily” Gillian interrupted. “there is everything here and it is very much available.”

Gillian and Wilhem's diary in Sana'a

Old Town Sana'a

17th December 2005 – After a late awaking, we go out. The streets are buzzing with activity and radiant under the strong sun rays. Not a cloud in sight. This high altitude town at 2,313 metres (7589ft) is dry and dusty. Women are shopping. They are fully dressed in black, with a dira (long black dress), a makrama (black headscarf) and a luthma (black veil hiding their faces from strangers). Only their eyes and hands are showing. Foreign women are easy to spot hey aren't covering their hair pokes, out of respect for tradition covers hers. Great we think! Surrounded by this new traditional way of life. The Yemenis make us feel comfortable and welcomed, greeting us with sheer smiles and 'salaam Aleikum'. Spokes receives a few “welcome” from beneath the veils with smiley eyes.

A striking sight is the cheek of most men. One side of their mouth shows a huge swollen cheek. Once you look more attentively, you realise it is their favourite: chat cheeks! We first met chat leaves when we were in Ethiopia. In Yemen, they import them mainly from Ethiopia. Chat acts as a stimulant and “opens your mind”. In Ethiopia, they chew it and swallow it; in Yemen, they store it under their cheek and suck the sap out of it, till the corner of their mouth turns green. In Yemen, chat plays a very important role into Yemeni social life. People gather most afternoon and chat together, drinking water and soft drinks to cut the bitterness out of the leaves. All class of society does it. Shopkeepers, policemen, drivers, consulate staff, men, women, you name it hey chew it o did we! Some keep it for the weekend (Thursdays and Fridays) some do it all day, every day.

We manage to get some take out food – chicken and chips – and then head to an Internet point. Internet plays a strong part in our journey, as without it we wouldn't be able to keep the website updated, or write to friends and family!

Moving around in Sana'a

20th December 2005 – Using minibuses in Sana'a is very easy. You wait by the side of the road and when you spot a white and yellow van, it is a minibus. You wave; it stops. Each time you sit in a minibus, it costs you 20 Rials (0.10EUR), whatever the distance the minibus covers. For the unaware traveler, an amusing yet startling sight is the musical chair ballet that men and women perform in the minibus. As Wheel was comfortably sat, a 10 year old girl comes on the minibus followed by 2 other girls, and, with a flick from the hand, commands Wheel to shift out of the seat to let them sit. Wheel taken by surprise executes. Next stop. Two more women get on; more men shuffle, until two adjoining seats are made available for the ladies to seat next to each other, well away from the opposite gender. Women will simply not get on the bus if only a sit near a man is available. Funny side to it, you quickly adapt. From Spokes perspective, it is a refreshing and liberating change. In the western societies, people miss the positive boundaries placed upon women in some Muslim countries: respect and safety in public places.