A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed to take a vacation. I just needed to get offline for a while and take a short break from the blog. I don’t take such breaks often but a little time away every now and then sure seems like a wise idea in order to keep me fresh and motivated as much as possible.
So, I began brainstorming potential vacation destinations, thinking long and hard about where I should go…
Perhaps a simple hut on a white sand beach or a quiet mountain retreat? Maybe some picturesque European town or Melbourne, Australia, where many of my friends live?
After talking with my good friend Anil from FoxNomad.com and discovering that he was also up for a blog vacation and a unique adventure, I remembered a particular destination that we had both been interested in traveling to for quite some time. And that was all it took. In an istant we settled on what, at least to us, seemed like quite an ideal place to visit.
Off we went…
On April 20th, at 2.30am, our flight from Istanbul landed at Sana’a International Airport. I obtained my tourist visa sticker from the visa counter, passed through the immigration inspection and collected my backpack. I then took a deep breath before stepping outside into the dark unknown, with the simple words that the immigration officer had said to me while stamping my passport playing over and over again in my mind. All he had said, with a big smile on his face, was…
”You have curly hair. Welcome to Yemen. Thank you for coming here.”
Travel To Yemen?
I know, it’s probably not the destination that most people would think of when they decide to take some time off from work. Not only that, but if you take a moment to look at the websites of almost every Western government, I’m quite certain that the various warnings you’d read would convince you never to step foot in this country…ever.
US Government: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. The Department urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen. U.S. citizens currently in Yemen should depart. The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a remains a restricted staffing post. As staff levels at the embassy are restricted, our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency remains limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation. The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high.”
UK Government: “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to Yemen and strongly urge British nationals to leave now. If you don’t leave the country now while commercial carriers are still flying it is extremely unlikely that the British government will be able to evacuate you or provide consular assistance. The situation in Yemen remains volatile with continuing unrest and violent clashes. The threat of an escalation of violence and disorder remains. There is a high threat from terrorism throughout Yemen. Terrorists continue to threaten further attacks. There is a high threat of kidnap from armed tribes, criminals and terrorists.”
The question then becomes, “Why would I travel to Yemen? Why would I spend 9 days in a country that appears to be so dangerous?”
The answer is easy. This is my drug, it is my ‘high’. Traveling to these kind of destinations, destinations that few people know anything about and that fewer people seem to visit, regardless of whether or not they seem safe, brings me the most satisfaction. It also provides me with the most interesting and eye-opening of experiences by placing me far out of my comfort zone, something that is difficult to reach these days after 13 years on the road.
As most of you know, I want to see the world with my own eyes in order to gain a better understanding about the cultures and people that call this planet home. And with the blog, I am then able to share my experiences in an attempt to break down the collection of inaccuracies, assumptions and misunderstandings that we all have about parts of the world we are really not so familiar with. This is why I travel.
And as simple as that may sound, that’s exactly why I went to Yemen.
This is also why I have traveled to Lebanon, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. It is why I like to spend so much time in India and Mexico and why I lived in Romania, traveled around Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia and so on.
Do I now claim to be an expert on Yemen just because I just spent 9 days there? Absolutely not. But what I do claim is to have seen a decent amount of the country, to have spoken with a good amount of local people and to have gained a much better understanding about this part of the world. And I also have a much better idea as to whether or not this country is a good destination for travelers, something that I will discuss in more detail in the coming weeks.
(I do want to mention that our trip was organized by the wonderful people at Eternal Yemen, a local tour operator based in Sana’a. The reason we used a tour operator is because it is much harder to obtain a tourist visa without going through one and in addition, given the limited tourism infrastructure, you can’t travel independently to many destinations. The only option is to have a driver and guide take you around and you need to obtain travel permits as well. We chose Eternal Yemen simply because of the positive reviews we found online and their impressive service during our email interactions with them. And after meeting the owners and their staff, I would definitely recommend them to anyone thinking about visiting Yemen as well.)
What Is There To See In Yemen?
I must admit that before I traveled to Yemen, I knew almost nothing about what I would find there…turns out I could have stayed for 9 months and probably still not seen it all. In the end, I had to skip many places that I wanted to see and believe me, the list of worthy destinations to visit is remarkably long for a country that sees not even a trickle of tourists passing through these days.
From the mesmerizing old city of Sana’a, to towns and villages such as Shibam, Kawkaban, Manakh, Mahweet, Al-Hajarah, Tawila and more, many of which are perched in the most improbable of locations and appear to have changed little in hundreds of years. There were the colorful canyons, the lush green valleys stretching as far as one can see and the Burra and Haraz mountain ranges, all of which offer landscapes that literally seem out-of-this-world.
And I haven’t even mentioned Socotra Island, a truly isolated and alien-esque Yemeni island located in the Indian Ocean, where we spent 3 days, an island that can only be described as a place you MUST see with your own eyes in order to believe it. (Just wait until I write more about this place…for now, here’s two photos to give you a small taste!)
The above destinations, combined with dozens of cups of tea per day, afternoon qat sessions with the locals (chewing a mildly intoxicating leaf for hours on end), military checkpoints, armed escorts, food ranging from superb to bizarre, the most beautiful beaches on Earth, laid-back people, wedding celebrations, two strange flights, barely existent roads, hiking and camping, kaleshnikov guns, talking with students and teachers in remote schools, conspiracy theories, maze-like markets, traditional music and dancing and so much more, turned this trip into one of my favorite trips I have ever been on in all of my travels.
Sure, some things abut Yemen confused me, some things made no sense to me, some things certainly were frustrating or did not align with what I believe is right in this world. But as a travel destination, especially one that manages to truly open the eyes of visitors to a land, culture and people that few of us are at all familiar with, Yemen could not have been better.
Why Did I Keep Yemen A Secret?
To be honest, I was a bit scared. Since I was not fully aware of what the actual safety situation would be for a foreigner, and after reading the government warnings I listed above and hearing such mixed reports about current security issues, I thought it best to keep my whereabouts unknown in order to be as safe as possible.
Was it safe in the end? Well, I’ll dedicate an entire post to that topic soon. Right now, all I’ll say is that I am extremely happy I traveled to Yemen and I never really felt as if I was in any real danger at any time during my trip. In fact, I wish I could have stayed for a much longer period of time.
This is probably why, as I sit here on the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse in Istanbul right now, where I flew to from Sana’a yesterday morning, I often find myself lost in thought, quietly repeating the word “Yemen” dozens of times in a row. Yemen. Yemen. Yemen. I honestly cannot believe that I was just there, that all of the experiences and interactions of the past 9 days actually occurred.
It will take some time for me to process everything that happened but I do know that I have so much I want to share about this trip and I can’t wait to tell you about it all!
What do you think of when you think of Yemen? Do you know much about the country? Any questions?