Janet's Yemen Blog

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, October 07, 2005

Cooking and Ghat

Life here is interesting. People are interesting. Food is good. I have actually gained back a little weight because I eat a lot of carbohydrates. I am just not cooking because the kitchen is so hot. Just don't want to stew a chicken for two hours! Just making scrambled eggs and heating coffee water warms the kitchen so...I am eating a lot of fruit, pita bread with peanut butter. If I were outside more, I would eat less but going from airconditioned apartment to airconditioned classroom to airconditioned restaurant doesn't make a big dent in appetite. And sometimes I just get so tired of being in my little airconditioned environments, I get bored and eat too much. I think that when the weather moderates a bit, I will be out more. I am running about every other night but I am eating several times a day!

A habit that many men have here is chewing ghat--a leaf that contains a mild stimulant. Some people liken it to caffeine. Though it is supposedly a stimulant, the result of the habit seems to be a dulling of the senses---in the afternoon and evening you see groups of men leaning against buildings or settled into small rooms that open onto the street, and one of their cheeks is stuffed full of the green ghat leaves. Ghat is greet and when the men open their mouths to say something, bits of chewed leaves mottle their teeth. We have seen men with a cheek full of ghat, smoking a cigarette AND drinking a soda! Talk about multi-tasking! Men here in the south also chew betel nut leaves. We have seen a vendor with the betel leaves carefull lined up on his counter with a pile of other flavoring in the center because men like to flavor the betel with coconut or other seasonings. The cheeks of some of the men are huge...like a trumpet player...though only on one side. Not a pretty sight. There is a grocery store that Leah and I frequent and twice we saw one of the clerks with a cheek full of ghat. We clicked our tongues and shook our head and made fun of him!! For the last two nights, he has not had ghat in his mouth. We are modern Carrie Nations but with nothing to smash.

Outside the classroom and the grocery store, life is rather simple. Hiking, snorkeling and diving are big hobbies here and snorkeling attracts the few tourists who come. I mentioned the geology of Aden in my longer letter. It is really fascinating. There is lava (I can't remember the various names for lava after it is no longer running), sand and clear blue waters. I wish I had brought my Rocks and Minerals book but I didn't anticipate such interesting geology. Next time.

On Aden's buses

All is well here I just miss my kids terribly, but I hear from them and know they are fine. My students are very sweet, ready to laugh and learn. My apartment is on the grounds behind the walls of one of the schools I work for so I need only about sixty seconds to get to work. Soon my classes at the Law School will begin. You may pray for me then.

Yemen is also a very safe country. The Security Officer at the embassy said the only worry we would have is pickpockets. Aden is the city where the U.S. ship, The Cole, was attacked in 2000. This was done by outside extremists and apparently the government and the people were so enraged by the act that security forces clamped down on the ‘bad guys’ and the country is quite safe as a result. I have not been to other countries in the Middle East but those who have say that Yemen is the best place to learn about traditional Islamic culture. It IS interesting here.

You will all be happy to hear that once again busses are a big part of my life. Mini bus routes are flexible here. The destination of the first person who gets on the bus determines the route handy! I was taking a bus to the Sheraton Hotel the other day to use the gym there and I was told I would have to take two busses, changing to a second route. The first bus stopped and I was the last passenger to get off. I indicated to the driver that I wanted the bus to the Sheraton Sheraton I am shrugging my shoulders dabab (bus)??? He shrugged HIS shoulders then motioned for me to get back on and he took me to the hotel. Customized bus route not bad. More later. Hope you all have a lovely autumn. Enjoy the changing temperature and falling leaves and think of me.

First Impressions at Aden

Aden, too, is a poor city with many, many immigrants from Africa. The fantastic feature of Aden is that it is surrounded with ancient lava flows. The mountains are lava beautiful reds, tans, blacks and greys. The beaches are also beautiful and there are some remote ones where few people go. Scuba diving is popular here because the sea is so clear. I walked out probably 100 yards and I could still see the bottom.

The capital city, Sana’a is located in the highlands and has a very temperate climate. Aden is at sea level, and it is hot here. Sweat is a constant. I’ve never lived anyplace before where I thought I should put on deodorant to go to sleep. I have two room air conditioners in my 4 room apartment and I am sweating now. Really it is hard to describe.

There are moments of grace too. The people here are lovely and kind. I had a moment of peace the other night and it didn’t even include chocolate. I left my classroom at 6 o’clock and pushed through the chaos of registration crowds talking, talking, talking, and I left the building. When I rounded the corner I was struck by the glowing pink sky above the palm trees. There was a conference of crows in a leafless tree, only the top of which was visible over the school walls. Then I noticed the green palm leaves and the silhouette of crows and stark branches against the pink. It was the hour of evening prayer, and echoing across the compound walls was the azan. I rounded the next corner, and saw the men, about two dozen, lined up, facing Mecca. One was singing lightly, or chanting. They stood straight and tall, in a straight line. Their red patterned prayer carpets were unrolled from their usual position against the wall of the compound, and the pink of the sunset and the red of the carpets merged and glowed in the corner where men spoke with God. I tiptoed past...the pink, the clouds, the crows...the hollow echoes of the azan, the earnest men and I knew God was listening and looking.


The first night there, there was a wedding in a nearby building and we were treated to traditional wedding music for several hours. The music was beautiful. As far as I could tell, there was only one man singing and playing a stringed instrument with a deep rounded body. It sounds a bit like a guitar with lose strings. I was able to find a cassette with that instrument and it is playing now. Sana’a is an interesting city.

In the center is the Old City which is a United Nations’ World Heritage Site. Leah and I walked through the alleys of the Old City twice, taking pictures and buying scarves. You can see from the attached pictures that the traditional clothing is intriguing. The fabric of the men’s skirts is really beautiful. The women wear black. Sort of like birds the males of which are usually more brightly colored! Four days later we were leaving the city.

After checking in at the airport, we asked the guide who had driven us which gate we needed to go to. He just laughed. There is only one gate! He was right, and he laughed again. The people here are very friendly. The guide book emphasized the conservative nature of the country the most conservative Islamic nation next to Saudi Arabia, but we have found everyone to be very kind and helpful. In the Old City we were looking for one of the public baths and a group of people dispatched an old man with us on a ten minute walk to the Saba Bathhouse. A man who owned a tea house the tea urn and three tables at the corner of a building with a blue tarp for a roof motioned for us to come have tea. We went to an internet café one evening and when we were leaving the manager asked where we were from then he said, in rough English, "New Orleans we are sorry."

Then we were off to Aden.

Arriving at Yemen

Today is my twenty first day in Yemen. At the teachers' meeting recently, one of the American teachers reported that at 5 a.m. when he awoke, it was 87 degrees with 98 percent humidity. This is a hot place. 100 plus degrees is standard today was 104. What makes the weather barely bearable is the breeze from the Gulf of Aden, just off the Indian Ocean. I am looking forward to the other season, winter, when the average temperature 'drops' to 95. But 95 isn't105 and that is good. As one person described the climate, We have eight months of summer and four months of not summer. I left Lawrence on August 24 so I feel I have been gone a long time. I was in Azerbaijan for a few days staying with K’s family, then I flew to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the huge regional hub. The evening air in Baku was pleasant and when I stepped off the plane in Dubai getting onto a bus on the runway it was a different world.

The heat and humidity was overpowering and slightly scary. The Dubai airport is fantastically large with reportedly the best duty free shops in the world. Every time I asked an airport employee for help they said, "Oh, do some shopping then think about..." Because my baggage had been checked only to Dubai, I had to collect it before the next flight. That meant going outside the airport then coming back inside to check in for the flight to Sana'a, Yemen. As I was wheeling my overloaded cart out one door, I came upon an unexpected decline. Three men were standing a couple feet outside the doorway. I was squawking, Oi! Oi! (I’d been reading P.G. Wodehouse) when I lost control of the cart. I ran into a stainless steel post and two of my suitcases flew off the cart. One man helped me pick up the bags. That was funny, but when it happened a second time, it was not quite so funny.

Outside the arrival zone, I passed along a row of 'greeters' waiting to pick up guests. There were twenty or thirty men lined up, and on the wall across from the men, about a dozen fans were blowing misted air across the greeters. At midnight it was too hot for men to just hang out for thirty minutes waiting for their passengers. The airport is very interesting. For people with long layovers, there is a room where they can stretch out in lounge chairs. I couldn’t use this room because of my baggage situation (I won’t do that again), but I heard about it. Others didn’t use the room either. There were people sleeping everywhere in the walkways, under ranks of seats, on the seats, against the walls. Even I stretched out in a quiet zone and slept until I almost missed my flight. And there were people in every kind of dress that you can imagine. Dubai is a crossroads for people coming from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, America, Asia everywhere and the mix of people is reflected in the clothing.

I met the other English Language Fellow, L., at the airport. She and I flew to Sana’a together. Arriving at the Sana’a airport from Dubai was a bit like the Jetsons arriving at Bedrock City. Yemen is poor though I think the government is really trying to improve the infrastructure. We stayed for two days at the Sheraton Hotel and enjoyed the pool and gym.