Yemen has been on my mind lately with the recent intercepted mail bomb, the attack on the USS Cole and the book, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky in the news. I was scheduled to travel to Aden, Yemen, in 2001 as senior assistant Cruise Director on Renaissance Cruises 50-day sailing from Athens to Bangkok. Prior to our sailing, the USS Cole was bombed on October 12, 2000.
We changed our itinerary and did not go to Yemen, however, our ship did have two ports of call in nearby Oman. Being in Muscat and Salalah during Ramadan was amazing; the gorgeous sand colored 16th century Portuguese forts high on the cliffs, listening to the call of the mosque and trying not to get lost, and the intricate blue tiled mosques with the azure seas made for amazing contrasts. We sailed with a pod of over 100 dolphins, one of the most memorable days in my seven years at sea.
During the port talk about Oman, I stressed the importance of respectful dress, and not drinking or eating in the souks in front of Moslems, during their month of fasting.
When CBS World News reported on November 10, 2010 that British police said “a mail bomb intercepted last month at an English airport could have exploded over the East Coast of the United States,” Yemen was again front page news due to the potential devastation.
On that same cruise, we also canceled a port call in Colombo, Sri Lanka due to the civil war. This summer, George and I spent six weeks in Sri Lanka and I read Jennifer Steil’s The Woman Who Fell From the Sky about her work in Yemen as a journalist.
In the book, Steil remarks that “in many parts of the country, people are living exactly as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. They herd goats and cows; they grow wheat, pomegranates, and grapes; they travel long distances to fetch water. They live in simple square mud-brick homes.”
It is amazing in this time of jet planes, smart phones and speedy internet connections that parts of the world feel like you are traveling back in time. In the hills of Viet Nam, in Steil’s Yemen and a few other pockets of the world, it can feel that time has stopped.
For many people who will not personally visit some of these places, Steil comments that , “Books are one of the few ways in which we can truly get into the heads of people we would never meet in our ordinary lives and travel to countries we would otherwise never visit.” Steil’s book and relationships with her co-workers at the newspaper really enlightened me on the people of Yemen. When I was briefly in Oman and Dubai, I wondered about the veiled women and the woman only shopping line at the market.
During her time in Yemen, Steil was able to rent a house, shop, travel with locals and really explore what it was to be a foreign woman.
Her observations on the freedom allowed by wearing a veil surprised me. Steil says in her book; “I thought of the veil as an oppressive practice that kept women from being who they are…These women consider their coverings a statement of identity, an important defense against men, and a source of freedom.”
This reminds me that until you walk in someone elses shoes or wear their veil, it can be challenging to understand their perspective. But in the end, no matter where you go, you bring yourself and the traveler is the one most changed by the experience.
Every journey has ups and downs. My 50-day cruise long ago always made me wonder about Sri Lanka, which was an amazing place filled with friendly people, many elephants and great discoveries. I know that someday we will go to Yemen and explore great ancient sites, meet wonderful modern people and discover many things, mainly about ourselves.