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Yemeni Journey

Road Trip

Early morning. Sipping coffee with powdered milk and sugar, talking quietly with the children as the sun comes up and the birds in the tree outside the window burst into day with a rowdy, joyous song. My husband pops his head in the door.

“It’s cooler today, and cloudy- why don’t we head to Mukallah?”

A part of me quickens with the excitement of a kid looking forward to a break in the chain of common days; another part feels the instant dread that a long, hot ride in a crowded car and a visit to the dentist inevitably brings. After a brief tussle, excitement wins out, and we get ready to go.

Hudhaifah, our sixteen year old son, comes along- he has to see the dentist too. Always one to take things pretty much in stride, he walks near enough to us to be a part of us, yet keeps a bit of distance as well, perhaps asserting his independence. When we reach the furzah, or bus stop, we are happy to see that the next vehicle filling up for the Mukallah trip is a van. Usually one ends up squeezed into a beat up old car crammed beyond maximum capacity. When this happens I always sympathize with dogs, who can hang their heads out the window and catch the full force of the wind.

The trip to the city is uneventful. I listen as the men behind us talk of- what else- politics. My husband and I lean our heads together and talk a bit, but mostly I simply gaze out the window, enjoying the feeling of speed- though, admittedly, often there is a little too much speed for comfort. This morning I watch the harsh, craggy hills fly by, interspersed with oases of short, ground hugging trees surrounding the occasional palm tree. I admire walled villages on hilltops and smile at the sight of pickup trucks passing by, filled to the brim with young boys with oiled hair and matching uniforms on their way to their half-day of school.

The dentist visit is mercifully short. Before leaving the office I tell him that my six year old daughter would like to be a dentist (actually, she wants to be a dental assistant, she says her husband will be a dentist, though). He laughs, telling me how easy it is to get through dental school in Yemen. As an afterthought he adds that it must be much harder in the States- so we had better stay here.

The rest of the morning passes quickly. My husband runs to the post office while we are in the dentist and returns with three boxes from home. If I had my way, I’d rip them open right then and there, but I manage to restrain myself. Then we go to a bookstore- one of our favorite haunts- and then on to look for clothes for our dental assistant wanna-be daughter. This is not an easy task; not only are the offerings slim, but every transaction involves a lot of haggling and bargaining- not something that we are used to, having grown up in America. In one store the man quotes a price, then when my husband asks what his last offer is, he says “You tell me- what do you want to pay?”

We finally head back to the furzah to catch a ride back to ash-Shihr. We stop in a small store to grab a soda for the trip back, and a beggar woman asks me for money. I shrug my shoulders and hold out my empty hands, showing her I don’t have anything. She sees my husband buying the soda and waits patiently for the transaction to finish. When it does I ask him for money for the woman- she was so patient and not pushy- and when I give it to her she prays for us. Another beggar with a laminated sheet detailing a medical problem approaches us, as do several others, including children. A small boy sells homemade sweets from a container balanced on his head.

This time we have to sit in the very back seat of a very old car with velvet-like red seat covers…shabby chic at its best, I suppose. There is an elderly couple smashed into the front seat by the driver- the cars all have stick shifts so the passengers in the front literally sit in one seat. The second row contains a medium sized man, a very large man, and a smallish distinguished looking man. Finally, a fourth man comes and crams in with them, and we are set to go. One of the men in the middle seat sits forward for half the trip, and for the other half of the trip another one does so, so that no single person is uncomfortable the entire way. I smell gasoline strongly, and hope that it is from the vehicles at the furzah.

As we leave town, the smell remains, and the air coming in the windows doesn’t dilute it at all. My stomach starts to feel queasy and my head to hurt from the fumes. Obviously the driver has a container of gas in the hatchback behind my back. He and the other men discuss a collision between a car and a gas truck in which the gas truck apparently met a dramatic and fiery end. I pray that we don’t follow suit. As we pick up speed and begin passing trucks, cars, and motorcycles, Hudhaifah says, “We’ll get home really fast, at this rate.”

“Yeah,” I reply. “The gas will ignite and we’ll be propelled home like an Apollo spacecraft.” He smiles and rolls his eyes.

We make it back all in one piece, though I am dizzy from the gasoline fumes. When we enter the house, Asmaa yells, “Ummi Ummi Ummi!!” and wraps her little arms around my legs. It was nice to be out for the morning but, as always, coming home is its own sweet reward.

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