svetlana baghawan maverickbirdPerched atop a rugged pinkish red plateau, Kawkaban literally means “two stars”. It is also called “the eagle nest” and at 2800 meters above sea level, the fortified historical sight had provided excellent views of the huge open Yemeni countryside. With history dating back to nearly 7th century BC, Kawkaban had been the prettiest place I had visited in Yemen mainland. Located in the pleasant Al Mahweet region, Kawkaban had been more than an hour’s drive from Sanaa and we had stopped at Shibam on the way. Mahweet had been Yemen’s food bowl and an agriculturally rich region, it had also been important in honey production. Art had been nurtured there for centuries and the governorate had been famous for clay, ceramic, glass, granite and marble handicraft industries. Multitude of springs had gushed through it’s fertile wadis and the misty mountains had been lush and green.

Al Mahweet had taken up another unoccupied Sanaa day and getting permits for the region had been harder than the previous itinerary. Post Thula, Hababa trip, I had moped around listlessly in my hotel with such a long face, that Mohammed had finally relented and on one fine weekday, all of us had driven out towards Mahweet. We had started immediately after breakfast and I had been more than happy to escape yet another insipid morning meal at my hotel. Traveling in Yemen during troubled times had come at a price and below average hotel standards had been a very nagging issue. For strange reasons, I had changed 4 hotels in Sanaa and while the price and comfort level had escalated with each move, the standard of facilities had remained unchanged. Yemen by nature is a very hospitable nation and sadly it’s hard times had badly affected it’s hospitality industry. With rapidly dwindling tourism to near zero, most hotels had struggled to stay afloat and the lack of facilities that they had meted out to their guests had been due to hard times. Sanaa had a number of heritage hotels, most of which had shut shop and the remaining ones had survived by the skin of their teeth.

So there had been not much choices and my 1st hotel had been the budget Arabian Felix. It had been rejected after just 1 day due to close proximity to a mosque and I had spent a sleepless night on it’s rock hard bed because of intermittent prayer calls. The 2nd Dawood Hotel too had been disappointing and I had been the only guest there. Housed in an old semi palace, Dawood had provided an excellent traditional room and it’s fineness had ended there. It had felt a bit spooky to hunker alone in my room with just a flickering candle in a dark Arabian castle and Sanaa’s evening power cuts had been agonizingly long. The old building also had some serious plumbing issues and none of the toilets in the whole palace had worked. As hilarious as it sounds in retrospect, running up and down the whole palace to find a functional toilet, especially during urgency and power cut, had not been remotely funny and Yemeni heritage buildings had lung bursting steep stairs.

A modern property in the newer part of the city had happened next and surprisingly I had been pretty comfortable there. The room had been cozy, far enough from any mosque, had excellent wifi and the hot shower had been fantastic. The only hassle had been non English speaking staff and for the 1st time during my travels, I had faced language induced culture shock there. It had been on one early evening, when lack of hot water in my bathroom had made me go down to the reception and I had struggled to make myself understood to the young Yemeni staff.  Both of us had tried hard but language barrier had made us hopelessly lost in translation. English and Arabic are nowhere similar and I had smiled in relief as the receptionist had fished out Google translator on his phone, as a solution. I had watched him with eager eyes as he had typed out his reply and had nearly squealed in surprise as he had held out his phone for me to read.

Google had blatantly translated his message as, “Do you want to see my b@#bs?”  and a shell shocked me, had struggled hard to even understand the situation. Never had a man in my known circle had expressed such an unorthodox desire to a woman and even though anger had flared through me, I had quickly suppressed my tart reply of, “There’s nothing much there anyway”. Although genuinely puzzled, as a solo woman traveler in an Arab nation, I had no intention of being misunderstood as willing and the seemingly funny proposition had made me extremely confused. I had nearly brushed it off as strangeness, when the harassment behind his response had finally dawned on me and I had realized that in his response, “my'” had been accidentally worded instead of “yours”. It had been enough to make me want to get out of there and after typing a quick request for hot water, I had rushed back to my room. Needless to say, I had changed my hotel again the next the day and to a very annoyed Mohammed, I had made up hypothetical fears of being kidnapped.

It had been partially true as the new city because of it’s wide roads had been more prone to kidnapping of foreigners and my new hotel Burj Al Salaam had been the poshest in Old Sanaa. At 50 USD/night, it had not come cheap and apart from an elevator, there had been no upgradation of facilities. In fact, it had been in worse condition and I had to once go down to the reception with my head full of shampoo suds as the entire shower had fallen apart while I had been using it. Such had been some of my Yemeni travel woes and hotel provided meals had added to the experience. Breakfasts given by the hotels had been awfully dismal and the usual fare had been sesame scattered flat bread, cheese drizzles, honey and 1 cup of weak Yemeni coffee. So it had not come as a surprise for Mohammed that I had pestered him relentlessly for day trips and during those tours he had always made me indulge in real Yemeni spread. Thus our trips had always started around breakfast, when we had feasted on either fuul (bread with red bean curry) or bite sized egg baguettes from local street vendors.

On our 2nd day trip outside Sanaa, post breakfast, we had quickly left the city and sped over the vast Yemeni plains, stopping every now and then for either Houthi check points or photos. It had been yet another beautiful spring day and the open sky had showered us with abundant sunshine. Cool breeze had brought in wafts of floral and fruity fragrances and the mountains had circled us in distant embrace. Although, the new village of Shibam had been the 1st stop on our itinerary, the pinkish orange mountains had tempted us to continue driving over them. The twisting winding road had gone through tree clad slopes and we had followed it until clouds had engulfed us in their cottony insides. The flat pastoral emptiness of the table top plateau had opened up in a most surprising way and soon big floppy straw hats had dotted the landscape. The highlands had been covered with tall yellow grass and Bedouin shepherd ladies had weaved in and out between them like colourful will o wisps.

Bathed in deep shade of gold, the hilly emptiness of Yemen had been spectacular and only flecks of herding animals had been visible from amongst the swirling mist. Kawkaban had stood on the other side of a deep chasm and in the bold afternoon light, the fortified historic village had glowed like rich honey. It had been Yemen at it’s prettiest and the fresh mountain air had felt wonderful on my desert scraped face. Excited to be away from a trash strewn land, we had left our car there on top of the clean mountain and had hiked down to the bottom. Fresh mountain air had blown from all over the plateaus and I had taken lungs ful of the clean goodness, while winding our way up and down the scraggy folds. It had been an easy hike for both feet and eyes and the amount of straw hats seen on the highlands had been incredible. Yemen, especially the highland ladies have a hat fetish and floppy, conical or tubular, the local Yemeni straw headgears have been most fascinating.

The witchy looking sun shades called madhalla had towered atop black robed ladies and the magical combination had poked from among the brown plains, amidst green fields and underneath flower filled apricot branches. I had gawked at them all the way down to Shibam where we had booked a local restaurant for lunch and the foothill village had arrived with crowd of smiling young faces and pattering feet. Mahweet’s pinkish red bulbous mountains had been the perfect break and with spring flowers blooming riotously, a walk through the entire landscape bathed in pink, had been as relaxing as it gets. Lunch had been at a traditional restaurant which had served the rare Yemeni cuisine and run by a spunky oppressive societal rules defying lady, it had been a sumptuous feast for the mind, body and soul.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE

Sanaa despite

Sanaa despite

All it's beauty

All it’s beauty

Bustle and

Bustle and

Charms had it's

Charms had it’s

Share of pet peeves

Share of pet peeves

And I never minded

And I never minded

Taking a break

Taking a break

To the Yemeni

To escape

To the Yemeni country side

To the Yemeni country side

Kawkaban and Shibam

Kawkaban and Shibam

Had thus happened

Had thus happened

On one fine spring morning

On one fine spring morning

And we had sped

And we had escaped

To beautiful Mahweet region

To beautiful Mahweet region

It had been

It had been

A beautiful drive

A beautiful drive

Through golden emptiness

Through golden emptiness

Mists

Mists

Mountains and

Mountains and

And straw hats

And straw hats

Spots of dazzling beauty

Spots of dazzling

Hard Working beauty

Hard Working beauty

Inquisitive stares

Inquisitive stares

And fashionable ladies

And fashionable ladies

Had dotted the landscape

Had dotted the landscape

And then there had been

And then there had been

Those historic sites

Those historic sites

Of Yemeni pride

Of Yemeni pride

Rustic innocence

Rustic innocence

And billowing clouds

And billowing clouds

It had been no wonder

It had been no wonder

I had not been unhappy

I had not been unhappy

To get out of Sanaa

To get out of Sanaa at times