Saturday, August 14, 2010

Road Trips by KAXE member Karen K.

This week on Between You and Me we talk about ROAD TRIPS.

KAXE member Karen Karls sent us a story of HER memorable road trip...

I offer a 1999 trip across part of Wadi Hadramat (Osama bin Ladin’s ancestral home although this was ore 9/11 so that was not an issue then) in Yemen. Doesn’t that catch your ears?

My first trip to Yemen was in 1979 when my friends Al and Marguerite were living in Sana while he was the American Army Military Attache at the American Embassy. Their children Edward and Andrea were 8 and 6. I always wanted to return.

Fast forward to 1999. Edward, now an adult and married to Sabrina, both of them working for an NGO, Amideast, and residents of Sana. Al, Marguerite, and Andrea plan a trip to Yemen and ask if I want to join them; my answer is an immediate YES! I didn’t ask any questions or have any reservations. Hyper-vigilant Al would never have considered the trip for his family if there were serious dangers although there were the usual health concerns as well as local kidnappings. The kidnappings of foreigners were not for money but rather used as bargaining tools with the central government. As the trip plans unfolded, one area was avoided because there had been recent nappings there.

Now to the actual road trip...

We’d flown from Sana, the capital city, to Makalla on the Indian Ocean and then prepared to set off to Sayun via Wadi Doan and Wadi Hadhrmaw since Edward had always wanted to see this desolate part of Yemen. The end of the trip was to be a three-day stay at Al-Hawta Palace, a former sultan’s palace, now resort. We begin the day early on a paved road which quickly becomes unpaved. We are required to travel with a Tourist Policeman as protection against danger. There are 8 Americans with 2 Yemeni drivers, our guard, our stuff in 2 Land Rovers. Toyota could use Yemen to support the durability of the vehicle since they are everywhere in various ages and conditions. Al, Marguerite, Andrea, and I are in one vehicle with a driver and our guard. There is no third seat so the guard rides in the back, seated on a box, with his Kalishnikov rifle across his lap. He has no English; I had no Arabic, other than Shukran which is “thank you.” Al speaks fluent Arabic but he is in the front seat chatting with the driver.

The Hadramat is desert, not sand dune desert but hardpan. Endless miles of mostly nothing--a few scrub bushes, ridges, and valleys with an occasional oasis. Some of the ridges and valleys or wadis are huge, impressive, and beautiful, a bit like the Grand Canyon. There is a road, of sorts, with occasional small towns. We stop for water and snacks and continue on, sharing raspberry-cream sandwich cookies with our young guard who smiles and nods as we pass cookies back to him. He is slender and smooth-faced and does not appear menacing, not much of a threat to anyone.

At one point we were driving through a town and wound up on a dead-end street. Did I mention that the route was a bit vague? As the driver backed up and paused to discuss the route the thought did cross my mind that if we were going to be snatched, this would be a good way for it to happen. No kidnappers appeared and we backtracked, found the other car, and continued on our way.

Somehow we lose the actual road, such as it was, and wound up bouncing along a dry river bed covered in even, round, white stones, worn smooth by the water when there was some. Al tried to tell us that it was an erosion-prevention project and the rocks had been hauled in from somewhere. Andrea and I are sure that it is a riverbed and we made a wrong turn. We are right and Al continues to be teased about the “rock road.” The bouncing and rattling lead to endless body aches. Finally we reach the Al Hawta Palace in Sayun. We are a bone-weary, dusty, hungry, exhausted group of pilgrims. The photo of us in the lobby is a sight to behold. I have never been dirtier; there was sand in my eyes, my hair felt matted together, and when I removed my shoes they were filled with sand.

The palace was truly an oasis of luxury with a seemingly endless supply of hot water, a true rarity in Yemen where power can be iffy and hot water heaters are small. There were little bars of soap, packets of shampoo, and towels. I felt like I needed two scrubs, the first to take of the main layer of grime, and a second to get down to pink skin. It was a bit embarrassing to realize that we left piles of dirt when we removed our clothes. Clean clothes, a warm meal, followed by a long sleep in cool sheets was truly a royal relief.

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