Home. Transitions Abroad founded 1977.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School
  ► Narrative Travel Writing Contest  ► 2009 Contest 3rd Place Winner
Narrative Travel Writing Contest Winner Narrative Travel Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Dangers All Around Us in Yemen

Driving in a Jeep in Yemen.
Being driven in a Jeep in Yemen.
People always say to me, ‘I’m about to leave on a trip, what’s the best way to protect myself?’ I say drive very carefully on the way to the airport.”

— Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the RAND Corporation

It started at 2 a.m. with a postcard behind the bullet-proof plexiglas of a Yemeni-owned deli in Brooklyn. I slurred, “I wanna go there.”

After finishing high school in Brooklyn, I lived in Bogota and traveled through Southern Beirut, and the worst thing that ever happened to me was having my car vandalized in Hollywood after I tapped a gang member’s car while parallel parking. And I have never been more scared than I was in the woods of Maine.

Yemen: Kidnappings, Kalashnikovs, embassy bombings, Al Qaeda… Pirates? Paranoia? Or is it the sensationalism propagated by travelers and bloggers? Yemen is one of many stigmatized nations that appeals to the traveler who takes the time to ask why this is so. Is the world more dangerous now than ever before? Of course, it is. The world is a horrible place, and they all hate you, so don’t ever leave your home again! 

When I decided to go to Yemen, you would think that I had decided to enlist in the military, from what my friends said — even the “worldly” ones: “Why would you even want to go there?” “That’s really selfish, what are you trying to prove?” “Was I going to go alone?” they asked. Apparently, I would have to, and no, I would not wear a Canadian flag on my bag. And yes, I would tell everyone that I was an American whenever they asked, I said stubbornly. Few discerning individuals issue such stern warnings when it comes to binge drinking at bachelor parties or accuse sky-divers of having death wishes. Yet such modern rites of passage (the chances of death from these activities hundreds of times that of kidnapping or murder in Yemen) are more acceptable to the average American than is travel to a feared and stigmatized Muslim nation — a land, I would learn, of devout and pious believers who abstain from alcohol, and, contrary to rumors, have fewer guns per capita than the U.S.

Arriving in Yemen, I learned that no bus companies would take me between cities. “Challenging” is a polite term for the difficulties of independent travel within Yemen. Restricting foreigners’ intercity options is primarily a means of funneling tourist dollars into Yemenia, the national airline. But foreigners on public buses could cost the government by attracting unwanted attention from terrorists or tribal leaders who have “hosted” foreigners in the past. The tribes are notoriously welcoming, pampering their “guests.” At the same time, they extort the corrupt and neglectful central government for ransom in the form of services or improvements to their local infrastructure. A Liverpudlian oil contractor I met told a story about one of his associates who had been kidnapped multiple times by the same tribe. The victim was a notorious eater who was also fluent in Arabic. So when the tribe elder learned who his people had kidnapped, he scolded them, saying, “I told you guys not to retake the fat one, he overeats!” 

The most common attention that Average Joe (who gets off on travel to unfairly stigmatized countries inhospitable to heretical American values) is going to draw to himself and his fellow Yemeni bus-mates is that of the national police, who see a foreigner aboard a bus as an opportunity to get paid — by providing a loud and flashy armed police escort, which only draws unwanted attention and delays the bus. 

Tourists with private tour companies generally travel in caravans with armed escorts. Sadly, Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for an ambush in which two Belgian tourists and their Yemeni guides were killed in January 2008. Figuring this was a guaranteed way to stand out, I researched my alternatives. So here I was nine hours in a shared taxi packed with ten men — qat leaf chewing Yemenis, Somali refugees, me, and a fellow Japanese traveler — tearing across the unforgiving terrain of Wadi Hadramawt (ancestral home to the infamous Bin Laden), when the passenger in front, introduces himself as Farhad, an “Exiled Kathiri noble who was raised in Singapore.” The taxi stopped at a roadhouse, and while we shared a leg of goat and a communal tray of rice, Farhad enthusiastically told me about the Kathiri kingdom of Hadramawt, which had been independent for eight hundred years before being annexed into the Aden Protectorate by the British. We drank shaiy, and while I watched the left-over rice get recycled, Farhad returned to his qat and convictions: “The Empty Quarter is ours, not the Saudi's. They’ve been stealing our oil for fifty years, and if it weren’t for America, we’d be as rich as the sheiks.”

Then he volunteered his thoughts on gender rights; “Your wife should always know she is under you, it’s the best thing;” to which I politely replied that my girlfriend was working while I had been indulging in recreational travel. After admitting to being a junky for years, he went on to attest to the drug  qat ’s virtues for endurance and its aphrodisiac properties. Still, knowing Yemeni women’s contradictory claims, I tried my best Rodney Dangerfield: “After three hours… she didn’t even know she was under me!” — Crickets, then drops. 

Farhad jerked around, eyes bulging, “Rain! It hasn’t rained in a year!” Green leafy saliva spattered me on the face. The deteriorating road conditions did not improve my confidence in the driver. A more accurate term for him would be careener. He abstained from qat but got off on flooring it and bleating his horn incessantly, not letting up for goat, woman, or cripple. So when our brakes locked, and I felt the bald tires slide, I feared there must be an obstacle ahead denser than flesh. Two oncoming trucks were playing an uphill game of chicken. Like many trucks in this part of the world, their frames were so badly bent from the potholed roads that they appeared to be side-winding their way towards us, wheels askew, blocking both lanes and both shoulders. We skidded to a stop before slamming into either of the trucks. At this point, we realized neither of the trucks was moving. The passing vehicle had broken down while overtaking the other disabled vehicle. Now, both vehicles sat motionless on the incline; their wheels choked. While it appeared one had come to the rescue of the other, the opposite was true. Neither was willing to assist or cede ground to the other: a feud that had begun several miles earlier and continued now in their shared dysfunction. The onlookers finally appealed to the overtaking driver’s pride, allowing him to save face. At the same time, he reversed into second position behind his foe.

When we finally pulled into Mukalla, a port town of Somali immigrants and an alleged Al Qaeda haven, it was pouring. I had been traveling with a Japanese guy named Tuh-kah-mee (he phonetically sounded out his name every time he introduced himself, so that’s how I addressed him.) We had met and entered Yemen from Oman, and I was envious of how light he traveled. His bag was so small he could have been coming from the gym. He explained, “Japanese make everything small,” which is why I was further intrigued when he revealed an enormous plug-in alarm clock. 

Yemen requires foreigners to register with the local tourist police whenever they change locations. And carry travel permits to various checkpoints between cities. The travel permit system is in place to protect foreigners or at least give them the impression that they are being monitored by the government for their safety. But in a notoriously tribal region where the opinion of the government is apathetic at best, the police knowing your every move, while being exotic, is not assuring.

Missing the nightlife of Singapore, Farhad saw me, a young American, as the cure to his boredom, and he proposed we stay at the same hotel. However, the taxi careener was unwilling to let the foreigners depart until he had delivered us to the tourist police, thus alleviating his culpability. I was sensitive to this, but Farhad, who traveled on a foreign Singapore passport and was amped up on qat, had no time for bureaucracies, especially that of a government he did not recognize. When we found a suitable hotel, Farhad convinced the driver that he was off the hook, transferring the blame to the hotel — who Farhad attested would register us with the tourist police.

“I’ve kidnapped an American!” said Farhad in his cell as he reappeared in our room like a hyper teen. He would be showered and changed into a new white t-shirt and bright red and white keffiyeh. Was he dressing for a date with news cameras? He passed me the cell phone.

“Say hello to my cousin.” 


“So you are American?” I heard a cool Arabian English that these days characterizes any non-descript Middle Eastern baddy on TV.

“Yes,” I said; it was too late to start lying.

“You’ve been kidnapped by my cousin?” The voice then laughed.  

“Yes, I’ve been kidnapped by your cousin…” I joked, unsure whether I was in on the joke or I was the joke, forcing a laugh to stop my paranoia from gripping me any further. I looked to Tuh-kah-mee for reassurance, but he listened to his headphones. We had been looking out for each other; he was usually our more vigilant partner. He was not immune to the stigma. One afternoon in the ancient walled city of Shibam, where two Japanese tourists had recently been kidnapped, Tuh-kah-mee had disguised himself in traditional Arab dress, a white kandoora and a red and white keffiyeh, and claimed to be from Malaysia when asked. When a van abruptly stopped in front of us, and the doors swung open, he broke into a sprint, zigzagging away in the opposite direction. It turned out to be a school bus dropping children off from school. 

Had we been kidnapped? No, but for 16 hours, we were in Farhad's company. If he or his cousin had attempted to extort the government, saying they had an American and a Japanese tourist in their custody, they would not have been wrong. I considered the merit of my stereotypes:

  • Yemeni institutions lacked a “woman’s touch.”
  • Tuh-kah-mee was an independent Japanese traveler sans camera: unique; cool.
  • Farhad was an Arab who carried a foreign passport and an admitted junky: worrisome; Al Qaeda?

Farhad returned with a surprise; hashish, which he claimed, during his qat-fueled monologue, that I had requested and he had purchased for me. After protesting, I gave him money for it but declined to take it, which may have been his scheme. Any well-versed traveler surely knows the travails of international drug penalties. And while a day spent with a Hezbollah hash dealer in Beirut was a fond travel tale I often retold, Yemeni drug law was not something I was interested in knowing better. Farhad was a colorful character that made for a memorable chapter. Yet, this had gone too far, and I was summoning my courage to do something. But Farhad insisted on rolling up a hollowed-out cigarette and smoking it out the window, nearly setting alight the massive Yemeni flag that adorned the hotel’s facade — a comic fantasy; however, the Hash smoke emanating from our room was surely evidence enough to put us away forever. 

In the predawn darkness, Tuh-kah-mee and I crept past the reception desk to find our way impeded by the night watchman sleeping in front of the locked entry. When we woke him to leave, he handed us a note: “The police are coming for you. Don’t let them touch you or give them any money — Farhad.” The last line was a Farhad mantra I’d heard several times in rants against the state police. He must mean the tourist police, but we’d requested no special treatment. 

The hotel receptionist/night watchman offered to give us a ride. Assuming he could not read the English note — nor was in on Farhad’s plot (according to a scenario that I had invented in my head) — we got in the car with him and headed for the tourist police station that we believed was next to the bus station — where we assumed we would not be allowed to buy a ticket anyway. But we soon realized we were being driven away from the city center and anything we recognized. 

Finally, he stopped, opened the car, and walked us towards an intimidating facility with barbed wire, a sign of a camera with a red circle and line, and several military guards. Nowhere was the facility clearly marked “Tourist Police,” as it had been in the previous cities. I looked to Tuh-kah-mee, but I knew I had gotten us involved with Farhad, so I would have to get us out. 

I looked at the Abu Ghraib-like military facility as if some of that hash had unknowingly been planted in my bag; we were going to be booked on a Midnight Express, which neither of us had planned for. So, I walked away, not knowing if we were part of a plot but acting on gut instinct. Our escort pleaded in Arabic, and I bowed, “No, that’s alright. We’ll take it from here.” We walked briskly down eroding streets through rivulets that had become small creeks. We walked to the first cab, but no one was inside. We walked to another, but the driver would not take us. It seemed like the city knew we were scared, and it was conspiring against us. No bus or shared taxi would take us anywhere out of the city without new travel permits. 

We eventually sought refuge in the airport, watching the ceiling fall from the constant rain while we waited to fly standby. Over a hundred people died throughout Mukalla that day from floods, as wadis became rivers and mud homes collapsed. 

The most significant danger turned out to be the rain, as I did not discover any hash covertly planted on me, and I honestly did not understand the purpose of the facility and our escort’s pleas. The moment was intensified by a stigma-fueled fear and a preoccupation with self-preservation. Other than this incident, which is vague at best, I never felt in danger in Yemen. I did not witness any crime, petty or violent; the moral code of Islam does not afford such distinctions, and I found everyone I dealt with highly trustworthy and honest.  

People travel for hundreds of reasons, but many independent travelers seek the unbeaten path for selfish reasons. If I aimed to broaden the hearts and minds of my naïve brethren when I went to Yemen, I also went there to escape them. I also went to beat them to it. There’s an unspoken pride — which few travelers will admit — to see who can reach the remotest and most exotic locales. There is no doubt that a darker, more pragmatic aspect of my personality went on this journey motivated to outrun the warplanes — which have destroyed much of this ancient region and threaten to lay further waste in the current war of ideas.

The biggest challenge in traveling to a “dangerous place” is not the external dangers but the internal fears that beg consideration. In Yemen, there is the Island of Socotra, off the horn of Somalia, and a gem, home to Dragon’s Blood, the mythical Phoenix, and white sand beaches; stress-free serenity for the first-world stress-monger. But I had brought some first-world stress with me. Dozens of ominous shadows predatorily glide across a turquoise lagoon, lethal stingrays. Behind me, Soviet-era tanks are dug into the dunes, aimed at a lost Cold War enemy somewhere beyond the horizon. I was all alone now, but I fondly recalled conversations I had engaged in with Tuh-kah-mee while watching the moon rise over Shibam back in Hadramawt. With no happy-hour specials and little else to do after the last adhan (call to prayer), this had become our evening routine. He had said America’s use of nuclear weapons to end WWII had been justified, given Japan’s militarism. Regarding America’s militarism in Iraq, he also surprised me by saying America needed to win; losing would open the door to the uncertainty of an unknown superpower. 

Qalansiya beach on Socotra island in Yemen.
Qalansiya beach on Socotra island in Yemen.

Pondering known versus unknown evil, I watched a ship on the horizon in the Gulf of Aden, the most dangerous shark and pirate-infested waters on Earth. Just then, the beak of a large sailfish speared through the break, swiping at a school of glistening bait fish, “Whoa, you see that?” I was lonely enough to pose the question but not yet so lonely that I answered myself. 

There I was, with no one to save me, my imagination running wild, yet too nervous to dip in the enticing water. I had ventured off the beaten path to a land unspoiled by tourism. I had been ready to go it alone but always encouraged when meeting others like me. I had faced real obstacles and imagined dangers. It was the loneliest and most enlightening excitement I have ever known. This was the journey of personal growth, the path of self-discovery, and the adventure of a lifetime.

About Us  
Contact Us  
© 1997-2024 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Opt-Out IconYour Privacy Choices Notice at Collection