After being welcomed by the virile Colonel Mohamed who was Aden’s port-police-cum-coastguard-cum-general-bigwig, some TV cameras who were there to make public to the Somali pirates our exact whereabouts, and some Kiwi pratt dressed in traditional costume looking like a spare part from ‘Laurence of Arabia’ who invited himself along to the VdG Rally Arrival Party, we were allowed ashore. This involved handing a scrap of paper to the kid in uniform at the harbour entrance and going through the same drawn-out process of giving name, boat name, age, sex and favourite colour. One then had to run the gauntlet of the touts for taxis, laundry, gas collection, shopping, sexual favours and other such unwanted services that tend to get a bit tiresome after the thirteenth time of saying ‘no’.
In amongst this annoyance was a shining star. His name was Selim, driver of the most clapped out taxi you’ll ever lay eyes on. Selim, a tour guide and man about town, was a gentle, amusing, clever and bright man of Saudi and Tanzanian descent, but what made him really stand out was the fact he did not indulge in Yemen’s ‘problem’, qat.
In fact Selim would take great delight in pointing out the people chewing qat, laughing and making a Popeye bulge in his cheek. He’d actually go as far as slowing his car down, winding down the window and pointing directly at the herb-munchers. I remember distinctly him doing just that to a business man parked up in his smart car. He pulled up alongside for us to window-lick at the old boy pulling leaves from a bag and chewing like a giraffe. He almost didn’t notice us pointing and giggling as Selim sped away. On another occasion Selim took Liz, Fiona and Terry around town and they stopped at a group of men sitting on the pavement, chewing qat. Winding down the windows Selim’s entourage burst into a chorus of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, including pointing hand-actions, all to the complete bemusement of these local boys who, clearly high and very confused, couldn’t make head nor tale of this spectacle. I suppose you had to be there.
The other thing that would make us laugh was his constant referral to the women dressed in black burkahs as ‘effing ninjas’. It hadn’t occurred to any of us but yes, the Yemeni women do dress a bit like ninjas! Before anyone starts getting upset at this observation I should point out that Selim is married to a ninja. Not sure if she is a ‘effing’ ninja though.
Anyway, on my first tour with Selim, which was purely to buy stuff for the boat and purchase a couple of skirts like what the local men wear (say goodbye to sweaty balls!), I hooked up with Cillian and Robbie and we hit the famous water tanks, Aden’s only real tourist feature of any note. We actually climbed up the side of the mountain and got to the very top of the volcanic crater. Crater, incidentally, is the area of Aden that is built in…guess what? Yep, a crater! So, here’s some pics of the water tanks, which date back to a long time ago.
It was after visiting the water tanks that Selim started to talk about Crazy Place. We’d planned to drive over the other side of the isthmus and into Arab Town. As we did so Selim kept talking about Crazy Place, so much so that he was driving Cillian to frustration. “This place better be bloody crazy, Selim”. It was.
As we approached a large walled street the traffic started to get heavy and noisy, with horns being beeped and junctions coming to stand-stills. Selim turned down a side street where many cars were parked either side of the dusty road. Somali women approached the car windows to beg and the intensity of activity appeared to be increasing around what looked like a covered market.
After parking the car and declining a vendor his ware of thin grass purported to have the properties of Viagra (“you can f*** lots of ninjas on that’, suggested our guide), Selim took us to a well dressed young man who was standing at the back of his smart pick-up, which had the boot open. He turned out to be a qat seller. Clearly well educated this man started to tell us about Yemen’s ‘problem’. “You have beer, some have hasheesh, we have qat. Qat is our drug and it is Yemen’s problem”. How novel to hear this from a qat vendor!
After shaking the vendor’s hand and wishing him a good day whilst avoiding more Somali beggars, we were taken directly to the covered market I’d spotted earlier. Lo and behold it was packed to the rafters with another 50 qat sellers!
Pick-ups and vans with cushions were parked either side of the market and at each end a number of iron beds had been placed for more qat sellers. Down the centre were more market traders, this time selling anything from sweet refreshments to having a shot on an air rifle. There were even some fruit and veg sellers but this was a thin disguise for the real reason why everyone was here. It was carnage. The throng of the crowd was intense as people of all ages pushed and shoved to get to the freshest qat. We saw fights, peddlers, beggars, refugees and many people wearing stupid glazed looks on their faces.
Being foreigners we drew our own crowd who followed us around. On my second visit to Crazy Place, accompanied by Liz, Terry and Fiona, we ended up being escorted by a policeman out of the market as we generating more interest than the peddlers!
Clearly this was a place not on the tourist map and the police man may have done us a favour that time by escorting us out of the market. By the time we clambered into the car there were ten Somali women circling the car, begging.
We learned that there were different grades of qat for sale, with some bundles going for $40! The effect of qat only lasts a few hours so you can see why Selim thinks the whole thing is daft and a waste of money. Remember, although Yemen is a rich country, many of its inhabitants are not.
I can’t begin to tell you how entrenched this qat thing is in Yemeni culture. It is so accepted that business men are running their shops whilst seated in the corner of their premises, chewing green leaves, and it is so accepted that Aden has its own dedicated area for buying qat. We call it Crazy Place.
We capture Crazy Place, including the interview with the qat peddler, in a podcast to be published July 2nd.