I don't like heights!
I know my fears are irrational, but I can't help myself...
I just don't like heights, and here I was in a clapped out Toyota that had seen much better days, slowly lurching and bumping down a rutted dirt track - it really couldn't be dignified as a road - skirting sheer drops into what seemed like bottomless mountain valleys
We had been driving along the twisting, looping track for over 2 hours already and I had been gripping the dash mounted handhold tightly the whole time and by now my hand was firmly frozen into a white knuckle 'lock' around the handle. I had tried to look everywhere except down, I had read/translated, as best I could, the label on the Saudi sourced juice box that I held (tightly) in my other hand, I had watched an ever growing crack spread across the Toyota's windshield, I had minutely examined the filagree on the scabbard of the jambiya that was lying on the seat next to me, in short, I had carefully examined everything I could rather than look into the open space beneath
It had seemed a good idea at the time, to join a group of newfound friends on a weekend trip back to their village. No-one mentioned that the village was deep in the Haraz mountains south-west of San'a and of course I hadn't asked had I? So, here I was hanging on so tightly that if the journey took much longer, my hands would need to be prised off the handhold finger by finger...
We bounced along that collection of ruts and stones for almost 3 hours in the end. A couple of stops to off- load sacks of flour and tins of cooking oil with the usual profuse greetings and farewells that are so common in this part of the world, but most of the time we just inched along that track. It was a marathon! Eventually we stopped, in the middle of what was the first decent bit of road that we'd encountered, and all the others - who had ridden atop the sacks in the back of the ute (pick- up) - jumped to the ground and started dragging the sacks onto the roadway where they were left until women and children came to take them into their houses. R'saas, my friend, came round to the cab and simply said k'laas - finish - and so I (quite unsteadily) got out of the Toyota
In an instant the group dispersed, each to their homes. R'saas took me to his family's house where after climbing several levels we entered a very simply furnished mafraj, a sort of guest/living/sitting room. Matresses and cushions lined the walls, multiple overlapping carpets on the floor, a few simple family photographs on the wall and windows, lots of small windows, each with it's own slice of a breath-taking panorama. A quite brief round of introductions to Mum and Dad and younger siblings and we left to go to the qat terraces
The slopes around the village were all terraced, small slivers of rock walled arable land perched on impossibly steep slopes, growing coffee or qat. Qat is the drug of choice in Yemen, even more favoured than coffee. Qat is said to be a shrub whose leaves contain a mild amphetamine type chemical but these planations were of sapling like trees. We wandered at will through a maze of small trees, R'saas and his brother studying the twigs and leaves intently until we came to a smallish stand where we all squatted and soon enough a brief (and quite intense) 'discussion' arose with a couple of new arrivals. As quickly as it started, it ended. Smiles all round, money changed hands and R'saas and his brother started stripping small twigs from branches, gathering quite a bundle of leaves and twigs, thrusting the collection into a plastic bag
We took our bag and returned to the mafraj to find a large tray loaded with a bowl of flat bread soaked in a ghee- like 'butter' and another of rice and chicken. We squatted around the tray, all of us, including women and children (which I found unusual but was told was usual in rural Yemen) and dug in with fingers. Mum kept pulling off the choice bits of chicken and passing them to me until I really had to say k'laas myself!
A quick hand rinse and the bag of qat made an appearance. Each of the five men in the room (including myself) was given his own small bag of leaves and bottles of water were shared around, we took a twig, stripped the leaves and poped them into our mouths, chewing slightly to crush the tender leaves, then pushing a wad of leaves to the side of the mouth to let saliva and water do the rest... I have to say, I thought nothing was happening, didn't seem like much of a 'high' to me. Still, there was a lot of chat, a lot of laughter, everyone seemed really mellow
Don't remember much about that afternoon
Late in the afternoon there was a flurry of activity and I never actually found out why, but we abandoned the plan to stay overnight, and soon we were all gathered in the centre of the road around the same battered Toyota. A few desultory farewells and we started back along that track. Again, it was 3 hours of bone- jarring bumps and lurches but you know what? I couldn't have given a toss! This time round I studied the surroundings; saw women taking water from a stream, children playing what looked like hop- scotch, animals defying gravity as they grazed. Even our lack of lights, we had but a single headlight, as night fell, didn't peturb me
As we pulled up alongside the van we had driven from San'a and left at the end of the paved road the thought suddenly occured to me that the qat had actually worked it's magic after all...