High Drama on a Quiet Greek Island

On the outskirts of a sleepy, half empty village on a remote Greek island in the winter, a lone Canadian woman comes to be a house sitter. Just a single, aspiring cat-lady-slash-student looking after some rescue dogs and cats, all alone, except the old man upstairs. You’d think it would be pretty quiet, right? Peaceful. Maybe even a bit dull.

Yeah, that’s what I thought too. I fantasized about long walks down to the beach, and cooking, with just my own music playing on the computer. Maybe some cats and dogs scattered about, sleeping… I even worried that I’d get a bit bored, lonely.

Ha! Joke’s on me.

Now, there have been walks and cooking and music and that’s all been very pleasant, but there is no boredom, and no chance for loneliness. I can’t get a moment alone actually. I can’t even go for a walk without company. Every day, I take the dogs for a walk. Anywhere from one to six cats try to follow. They are fine for the first half kilometer, and then they start getting tired, and feeling alarmed at how far from home we are and crying piteously. To avoid this, I try to sneak away (difficult, with excited dogs alerting everyone within earshot with loud, joyful barking: We’re going for a walk! It’s really happening! Just like yesterday! Oh my god!! A walk!! ), or put the worst cat followers in the house before we go. The one time I left the dogs in the house (barking frantically), cats still followed me. Crying if I walked too fast. So, it was not all that relaxing. It was after the following incident.

Some background info: It’s a bit cold here some days. Depends on which direction the wind is coming from. When it’s from the south, it’s mild: 16 to 21 degrees generally. When it comes from the north, the temperature drops to the single digits, and then it’s time to get the wood stove going! Stamatis doesn’t have a wood stove, and his apartment upstairs is much more open-plan than the one down here, so even with his little space heater on, the heat doesn’t have much effect. On those evenings, he makes his way to my front door, comments on the warmth (zesta) coming out the door, the cold upstairs (clio pano), and I invite him in. He nestles in amongst the cats on the couch, sometimes has a little nap, and then offers advice/criticism about my life (I have very clear instructions about what I should and shouldn’t eat, how much time I shouldn’t spend in front of the computer, and apparently I should marry a Greek man, stay here on Chios and have babies), and he accepts lemon cookies.

Recently, in a bid to divert the flow of advice, I turned to YouTube and its wide selection of musical choices. Stamatis requested Greek ‘Bouzoukia’ folk music and I found a long playlist of it. Look at me, solving problems! Of course, once the music was going, Stamatis wanted to do a spot of Greek dancing, and so I was drafted in to be a dance partner. There we stood, side by side, his left hand on my right shoulder and my right hand on his left shoulder, bopping and stepping, forward, back, swing leg up, Zorba the Greek-like, to the music, congratulating each other, “Bravo!” at the end of the song.

And then just as I was thinking I could settle back into my reading for school, all hell broke loose. Two cats discovered the cucumber peelings in the garbage, and started to rip the bag (who knew cats were so partial to cucumber?) I made a dive for them because my rule is: outside with cats that raid the garbage! The dogs thought that something exciting and dramatic was unfolding and threw themselves into the drama with high-pitched

The living room, from the kitchen, where all the dancing and cucumber thieving and other excitement happens.

The living room, from the kitchen, where all the dancing and cucumber thieving and other excitement happens.

barking abandon and much leaping about. The cats scattered to hidden corners with their cucumber prizes, and the dogs gave frenzied chase, with me trailing all. Stamatis, meanwhile, was still on his feet in the middle of the room and he assisted in the unfolding tomfoolery by standing in the middle of the room shouting at the animals. Thanks, Stamati, that’ll calm everyone down. This is all going on in one small kitchen/living room. I wanted to run outside and escape everyone. It was riDICulous.

Once I fished the cats and cucumber out from behind furniture, I told Stamatis I was leaving him with the dogs and going for a walk. He thought it a bad idea, because it was getting dark, but my frazzled nerves would have it no other way. However, as I mentioned before, I was followed, and it was indeed getting quite dark, so I didn’t get very far, and just sat on a rock up the road trying to enjoy the quiet and patting the two cats who had come with me. I think I will try again this afternoon to sneak away. Just half an hour alone would be so nice…

Yiannis in the foreground. I tried to tell him to go home, but he ignored me, so I carried him when he got tired and here he is on a carrying break.

Yiannis in the foreground. I tried to tell him to go home, but he ignored me, so I carried him when he got tired and here he is on a break from being carried.

Couple of uninvited cats here on an evening stroll.

Couple of uninvited cats here on an evening stroll.

out for a nice walk alone

out for a nice walk alone

Nope! Being tracked!

Nope! Being tracked!

I'm such a sucker. We sat on a neighbours patio and visited.

I’m such a sucker. We sat on a neighbour’s patio and visited.

Small grey stalker at the bast of the stair.

Small grey stalker at the bottom left corner of the door.

Love to travel, love to stay home

P1000965And this house-sit is perfect for that split in my personality. It’s been just over three weeks now that I’ve been back in this tiny house just outside the village of Volissos (see village in banner), on Chios, and most days I don’t venture further than a couple of kilometers, while walking the dogs. This time it’s just me on my own. I worried I would be lonely, craving human contact, craving someone English speaking, but so far, I am entirely, enTIREly content. There has, of course, been contact with friends and family, because this is the age of Skype and Facebook and WhatsApp and other such technological marvels, so there is that. But the only company I have here in person (so to speak) is that of 3 dogs, 11 cats, and 1 Greek-speaking old man.

I have had school to focus on, but I’m not very good at focusing on the things I should be. I have spent a lot of time on the internet following rabbits down holes. Did you know, for example, that scientists have been experimenting with treating Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis with intestinal worms? It turns out that the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – the idea that our immune systems have been thrown off balance by too much cleanliness – has been updated to the ‘old friends hypothesis.’ The story with this being that we’ve removed a bunch of our parasites/microbes that we had in fact had useful working relationships with – hence, of course, the proliferation of pro-biotic products on the grocery store shelves. I learned about this worm-eating business, and many more non-school related tidbits in the past three weeks while avoiding doing what I should have been doing.

I also decided to not drink while I was here. I have sort of stuck to it. I only bought one little half litre bottle of wine once, and drank it over two nights. But Stamatis and I were sitting outside in the sun one day after lunch, and he was saying (in Greek, with gestures – we’ve gotten pretty good at communicating across the language barrier) wouldn’t some wine be nice right now? “Nei”, i agreed, “but we don’t have any. Supermarket?” (which is a grand name for a tiny little shop in the village, but anyway)

Stamatis: “Ohi! (No) and then a lot of Greek, which I think was something to the effect of: “I wouldn’t drink that garbage – I never eat anything that’s not organic and health conscious! That’s why I give you such a hard time whenever you buy any tomatoes or potatoes or oatmeal or whatever from the regular store, rather than the health food store. That’s why I drink soy milk and not regular milk, and eat fish and try to make you eat fish! My body is a temple!” (except when it comes to store-bought cookies or cake or sugary apple-fritter type pastries, and cheap white-flour melba toasts…those are exempt apparently)

Okay, so no wine I guess.

Not so! I was sent off to get a couple of glasses. Turns out, he has a stash of homemade wine, that he made, from the grapes that he grows right here! We had a very pleasant afternoon getting drunk in the sun on this cloudy, pinkish, “organique!”, wine surrounded by cats and dogs, with my computer out, talking about life and death and everything in between (thank you, Google translate). There was even a little concert – Stamatis playing guitar and singing; seven or eight cats, three dogs and one human in the audience. I was tucking myself into bed by 7:30 that evening. The next night, Stamatis brought me to the neighbours’ house for dinner. We brought a litre of his wine and the four of us shared it there. So that’s two nights in a row I fell off the wagon. But it was worth it. Sometimes having a glass of wine or many is just the right thing to do.

The wine - in it's transporting bottle to go to Sofia and Yianni's.

The wine – in its transporting bottle to go to Sofia and Yianni’s.

The maestro, just before I was sent to get the guitar.

The maestro, just before I was sent to get the guitar.


Animals everywhere. You have to watch your step around here.

Animals everywhere. You have to watch your step around here. There are 9 animals in this photo

Evening from the patio

Evening from the patio

Walking the dogs down to the beach is one of the highlights of the day

Walking the dogs down to the beach is one of the highlights of the day

Things we see on our walks: orange and olive trees in fields of yellow flowers.

Things we see on our walks: orange and olive trees in fields of yellow flowers.

A rainy day

A rainy day

Rain coming!

Rain coming!

Another walk photo

Another walk photo

The house from the garden

The house from the garden

The Traveler Who Was Terrible At Leaving Places


This gallery contains 8 photos.

Obviously that refers to your truly. This is the problem with house sitting. You get attached to people and places and animals. Happened to me in Ireland, and now it’s happening here in Greece. Happens to me pretty much everywhere … Continue reading

Dogs, and Cats, and Horses, oh my!

Lest we should become complacent and begin to think we’ve got our sea legs here, Stamatis brought us another dog a couple of days ago. Like the black labrador puppy “guard dog” he acquired for us before, this dog has no discipline. In fact, it has less than the puppy. The puppy could be released and would stay with you. This new dog takes off like a shot, straight for the nearest cat or horse. The first time it happened, I was sure the dog was going to get its head kicked off, with all his barking at the heels of the horse, ignoring my calling, evading me by going under the horse and leaping at her belly. Fool dog. Hello? Have you noticed how much bigger than you that animal is? The horse showed admirable calm and poise throughout the dog’s ridiculous and ill-advised show of ferocity.

I have become slightly more trusting of horses this week after the above episode, and then furthered by my encounter with the other horse, the black one that the policeman’s wife calls Naomi (Campbell). She had become hopelessly entangled on a big chunk of wood in the field and couldn’t move very far. I brought her offerings of green grass from the part of the field she couldn’t reach and then moved on to patting her cheeks and neck. I have no idea if horses like this or if it irritates them, but I’ve seen it on tv, and she seemed all right with it. Eventually, I moved my attention to her tangled up rope problem, and in my focus, briefly forgot about her and my nerves, until I felt a soft nose and warm breath in my hair, and then I figured we were friends. So, horses and me, we’re okay with each other at the moment.

Naomi and the bane of her existence, the loose stump.

But I digress. Back to the new dog. The second time the dog’s lead was dropped, it was a madhouse in the yard for about five minutes. Cats went scattering in all directions, with a yellow streak of a dog in pursuit, and me lagging behind desperately trying to catch his rope. After that, he has had to be tied to a tree so he won’t kill all the cats and harass the horses. Sofia, one of the cats, likes to sit just inches out of reach while the dog strains on his rope, barking and lunging at her. I’ve told her it’s unkind to torment him like that, and I pick her up and remove her, but I’ve seen her do it since, so evidently she’s not taking me very seriously.

Leon, another new, small dog that was brought over from Athens while we were away seems to suffer from small-dog-syndrome, and keeps trying to show the other dogs his dominance, growling and trying to climb on top of the newest dog in that weird, mounting, I’m-the-boss way dogs have. But Leon’s smaller, so while he can kind of leap up there, he has a hard time balancing, and slips off sideways, crashing to the ground, leaping up again and yapping and growling away. The other dog barely even seems to notice. It’s all very undignified looking for Leon, I’m afraid.

Meanwhile the cats are beginning to integrate – the two indoor cats with the outdoor cats. Only Yiannis, the male, fluffy, bathroom attendant cat is having a slightly harder time. He’s got no aggression in him, and gets nervous when the other two males come near him, which of course, just sets them off into more aggressive behaviour. He just wants to sit in the sun and chase butterflies. He’s like a toy come to life, this cat. Sofia’s got more feistiness in her, and so the other cats accept her and she’s fine outside. Anyway, evening was coming and bringing a storm with it last night. We decided to put the newest dog in the shed with Hermes and Perrita to keep out of the rain. Just as I managed to get the three of them in there, I heard a call for help from Mom. This is what I saw: my mother, lying sprawled face down across the gardening bags and equipment, with her right arm extended, hand clutching a slightly alarmed looking Yiannis by the scruff. “What are you doing?!” I asked. “I’m trying to get Yiannis inside before the storm comes, but now that I’ve got him, I can’t get up without letting go of him.” I stifled the desire to sit down and laugh right then and there because I think my mother might have been a bit annoyed with me had I done that, and I helped her and Yiannis up. God, it was cute.

Yiannis – watch out butterflies, this cat’s got his eye on you!

This is the gentle horse who ignored the idiot dog barking and leaping at her. Sweet thing she is.

Washroom Attendants – A Consideration of Two Different Kinds

Do you sometimes find yourself heading off to the bathroom, reluctant to leave the society of your friends and family, but called insistently by nature? What you need is a bathroom attendant! I don’t mean the traditional kind– Continue reading

Sad tales(oh, sad tails indeed) from Chios

Dear little Rosy, curled up in the plantpot.

All has not been sunshine and happy dogs and loveliness since I arrived. The first two days were. I was in a state of more or less continual good cheer from Thursday until Saturday evening. And then it all went very, very badly for a while. On Saturday night, Mom had gone to sleep and I was in my bed reading, drifting close to sleep myself when the dogs set up a racket of barking up at the top of the driveway. After a couple of minutes, I opened the living room window above my bed to call them down, and they quietened down for a bit. Then I heard the barking start up again from the other side of the house. And it just sounded too urgent to ignore. I got up and went out and there was Perrita barking up a storm, and Rosy was lying just a bit further along, in the dark, on the patio. When I walked over to her, I could see she was foaming at the mouth, had had diarrhea and her whole body was spasming. I called to Mom then, in a panic, and she woke up immediately and came out. I wasn’t very calm at all. Seeing an animal in that kind of distress and feeling helpless is horrible.

Mom ran back into the house to call Fotini, a woman who is a friend of Galatea’s, the woman whose house and dogs we’re caring for, and she said she’d come soon. Meanwhile, I was wandering around looking for Hera in the garden, and I found her, in a similar state a few meters in. By the time Fotini and her boyfriend, Nick, arrived with an antidote for the poison, it was too late, and both these sweet dogs had died. I was a mess. Crying and hand-wringing and pacing and other such useful activities were my main contribution at this point. Fotini and Nick were exactly the right people in that situation. They were calm and kind, and they explained that this is a thing that happens here sometimes, dogs being poisoned, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident because the poison’s been put down for foxes. Nick told of a dog he had seen poisoned that they managed to save by forcing it to drink salt water to make it throw up, and by giving it a shot of the antidote, something I gather many dog owners here try to keep on hand. They put the two dogs’ bodies together, and said they would come back tomorrow to bury them. Fotini said she would call Galatea tonight to tell her what had happened. The fourth dog here, Hermes, was already inside because he’s a bit sick and so we brought Perrita in as well for the night.

An hour later, Galatea had spoken to Fotini and she called us to talk about it. She was understandably heartbroken and angry, and filled with regrets that she hadn’t prepared us for that horrible possibility. She also sent us to drive around to see if the lights were on at a house of a man who she suspected might be the culprit. Not really seeing the point, but willing to do anything she asked to help ease her sense of helplessness, we set out in our pyjamas at midnight to look for the house. I’m not sure if we found the right house or not, but it turned out that that little outing served another purpose in the end.

As we were coming back home, we passed a house that is our next door neighbour, 150 metres down the road. Outside the gate sat a yellow labrador. Something caught my eye about him, and when I braked the car and looked more closely, I saw a massive amount of drool coming from his mouth, and he looked trembley. We got out of the car to have a better look, and sure enough he was shaking and couldn’t walk straight, and I felt sick with dread to think that another dog was about to die in front of me. I ran up the driveway to the door and rang the bell. The man who answered spoke enough English to understand what I was on about, and he hurried down to look at his dog. He knew the signs, and I asked if he had the antidote, but he raised his hands and shook his head and said no, drew his hand over his face, and then walked over to his dog to pet his head.

But we had antidote! Fotini had left us extra. We drove back in a frantic hurry to get it. There was a problem closing the door to the house, so Mom stayed home to sort that out so that our dogs wouldn’t escape into this newly dangerous, poison-filled world, and I ran back to the neighbour’s with the antidote and the needle. Turns out, the man, whose name is Dimitri, is a doctor and he knew how to inject his dog, no problem. This was fortunate, because I couldn’t have done it – I was shaking almost as badly as the sick dog. His wife had come down by that time and her English was very good. I told her about the salt water trick to make the dog throw up, so she rushed off to the house to bring some down. Dimitri poured it down his dog’s throat, and 5 minutes later he threw up a lot of food. The next day when we looked on the driveway at the contents of the dog’s stomach more closely, we could see the signature bright blue of the poison, just like Nick had described. In the end, that dog pulled through, and he is fine and healthy and happy again, just as a dog should be.

The next morning, Perrita was walking around the yard and she showed up at the door with a piece of ground beef. Mom called me outside, and then she picked up the meat with a tissue. When she turned it over, there was a tablespoon or so of that bright blue crystalline substance again. It’s quite a shock to the system to see that – it’s so deliberately malevolent. Now, spotting small pieces of that shade of blue on the ground still makes my heart lurch – and there are a lot of water bottle lids lying discarded on the ground that are of that particular colour. Anyway, Perrita hadn’t eaten it, but we watched her closely for the next couple of hours. We also called Fotini to tell her about it, and she came over, collected me and Dimitri, and we went off to the police station. It being Sunday, we had to stop at the policeman’s house to tell him, and then he came and met us at the police station, still dressed in his sweatpants. The hour or so that followed was a wash of Greek, and I understood very little that went on. Dimitri and Fotini told the whole sad tale to the policeman, and showed him the meat with the poison that Perrita had found. The policeman hand-wrote a report on a piece of blank paper. He got Dimitri and Fotini’s full names and I feature in the report as “lady guest of Stamatis”, Stamatis being the name of Galatea’s father. There was an actual computer up on a shelf in one corner, but I don’t think anyone uses it in their day-to-day work there…

The police station. I spent a very uncomprehending hour here.

I don’t know if anything will happen. I have my doubts, but at any rate, even though this country has apparently got a real problem with this kind of callous treatment of cats and dogs, as though they’re vermin, it also has some really good-hearted people who do care and do see it as a problem.

I won’t go into the whole nightmarish next 24 hours, but will just briefly say that Perrita got poisoned as well. We injected her with the antidote, but couldn’t get the saltwater into her, so she needed more antidote, which we didn’t realize or actually even have, even if we had known, and so the whole night was touch and go, and it was a sleepless and emotional night with Perrita lying beside my bed slowly and tenuously recovering. We got some more antidote the next day and, when we saw her descend into the shaking and staggering again, gave another injection of it to her, and she improved immediately. Right as rain within 5 minutes. It’s amazing to see.

It’s been 4 days now, and no more incidents. A man came from the Forestry Services yesterday, called by the police, he told us, and said if we have a good rain, it will deactivate the poison lying around the neighbourhood. Otherwise, it will take months to lose its potency. We had a very thorough, drenching rain today. So that’s good.

Hera and Rosy will be much missed. They were sweet, lovely dogs who wanted little other than to catch stones and lean against people and cats affectionately. I think Hermes and Perrita, especially her actually, miss them still. I know I do.

Hermes, smelling the world passing by through a hole in the wheelwell of the van, and Perrita, in her basket.

Good bye Ireland, hello Greece…

March 9, 2012
I have arrived in Greece! Yesterday morning I flew into the Chios airport. I had fallen asleep on the plane shortly after take-off from Athens, and only woke up and looked out the window as we were dropping down towards an island, the sky pink with sunrise, and the island looking like a painting, all stripey with different greens from the organizing hand of humans farming or orcharding and wall building, little collections of buildings marking small villages, turquoise water along the edge. I thought, Jesus, that’s pretty, and wondered if Chios would be as pretty. It turns out that it was, in fact, Chios.

Mom picked me up from the airport and we went into town to run some errands she had. I got a sim card, we went for coffee, bought some food. I was so tired though, that I kept tripping, and there were points where I was thinking, is it legitimate to climb under this table here and go to sleep? Just for a few minutes? Eventually we left town, and drove the 45 minutes to our home, over the mountains in the center of the island to the village we live just outside of. We’re on the northwest side of the island, a ten minute walk from the beach. The house is tiny, but cozy and pretty, and surrounded by Stamatis’ garden, and olive and orange and lemon trees.

The bedroom, and bathroom through on the other side.

Kitchen from living room area

Living room (and my bedroom area at the far end) from the kitchen area. We have moved the tv, since all the programs are in Greek anyway, and put it away. The ipod dock is there now.

I had a necessary nap and then in the late afternoon, we took the four dogs for a walk. Their personalities are distinct and they like different things (rock-catching, running, staying close to the people), but they are all very happy about EVERYthing. Dogs are good role models. Judge no one, love everyone, and be thrilled to be alive.

Four VERY happy dogs!

It’s strange leaving one house sit, off to the next. Handing someone’s home back to them is an odd feeling, because it’s been your home, and your life, but actually, you were just a temporary place-holder. Do you offer them tea in their own house? Do you bother to tell them of the systems you’ve developed around household situations? (For example, there was a sort of tea towel cycle-of-life that we had implemented, but Brendan probably had his own system or just wasn’t as fussy, so we didn’t tell him about it. He’s not a fuss-budget, unlike the Boueys.) I found myself feeling nostalgic and sad even looking at the bowls in the kitchen that we’d used for our porridge and soups and salads, never mind the cats and neighbours and friends that we were leaving.

However, on to the new life: Mom has been here for three weeks, and so she’s settled in, has friends here and new systems for chores. This house is smaller than the last, so we’ve had to do some rearranging of furniture to fit me in. There are only two rooms really. A kitchen/living room and a bedroom. And a bathroom of course, which i made fairly immediate use of for showering, because wearing the same socks for two days inside rubber boots while you travel around warm airports leads to very, very bad smelling feet.I don’t recommend it.

The village, Volissos, from the road above our house. It still has its castle on top.

Inside the village looking up to the castle.

On the road above our house, looking out towards the Aegean. It's difficult not to feel happy here.

In which we do NOT win hearts and minds in Thula

Yemen day 2 – a brisk day of village hopping

Piling ourselves and all our travel paraphernalia into the old Land Cruiser, or whatever it was, we set out on Friday morning. First stop – a viewpoint to see the valley where the Imam’s palace that we would be going to see next is. Very nice, very sweeping landscape, then back into the car, and down into the valley. The Imam’s Palace is now a museum, and so you can go in and explore the place. There aren’t a lot of displays or anything, but the building itself is really quite a delight to explore. Because it was a Friday, there were a lot of Yemeni families on their weekend being tourists at the museum as well. This is where we really started to encounter the phenomenon of people asking to have their photos taken. Not women, of course – we’re used to that now – so only men or children. But yeah, much desire for this.  I don’t really understand it. There was no request for payment, and only sometimes a desire to actually see the photo on the display.

The Imam's Palace

One exception was where this group, I think a couple of brothers and their sisters – teenagers or early twenties, shouted us over and wanted a photo of us. Actually, the girls were directing this operation, telling their brothers to go get us, and then where to stand in the photos beside us etc. This happens occasionally – in China, in Malaysia… It confuses me, because haven’t the westerners of this world gotten a bit overexposed over the last few decades? We’re everywhere.  What’s interesting to see here? But, anyway.

Abdullatif bought a bag of apricots on the road leaving the museum. I became a shameless show off here and gratuitously demonstrated knowledge of the word for apricot in Arabic (mishmish), which Mom, loving the apricots very much, committed to memory, and throughout the rest of our time in Yemen, occasionally requested of Abdullatif to procure us some more of those “mishmish!”

The old cistern in Haraba (i think it was called)

Next stop was a town called Haraba (I think) where we stopped briefly to see the cistern, which is no longer in use and is now used for a swimming pool. More children wanting photos taken and old, old buildings all jumbled up next to each other.

The village of Thula (cistern here in foreground no longer in use - not even as a swimming pool )

On to Thula, where a man called Sami met us and acted as our guide. We had been cavalierly drinking copious amounts of water, and therefore needed a washroom at this point, with no option of waiting further. The bit of Yemen we saw didn’t have nice modern gas stations with bathrooms you could just stop and use. It’s not like that; you really need to think about your liquid consumption. Sami said, “no problem, they can use the bathroom in my house!” Great! So we head over to Sami’s house. Houses are structured quite consistently like this: Ground floor – for livestock, 2nd floor – storage of foodstuffs and harvest, 3rd floor common, family rooms, mostly laid out for hanging out during the day, with seating cushions around the edges and converted to bedrooms at night, 4th floor – sleeping quarters for guests (if you’re relatively well-off), 5th and 6th floors, and these can be interchangeable, are the mafraj, sitting area (for things like chewing qat and drinking tea), and the kitchen. Usually there is 1, that is ONE, bathroom, for the whole family. And we might be talking a family of 10 or 20 here. We went up to the third floor, where the bathroom was and took turns using it. While in the bathroom (I went first), I could hear more and more people collecting on the stairs directly outside. By the time I emerged and Mom went in, there were about 7 or 8 people gathered out there: Sami, his sister-in-law, her 3 or 4 children, another young woman, and two teenage girls above me, half hiding around the corner of the staircase, and giggling at everything. I sat down on a stair and found myself handed a baby, so dandled the little boy/girl? on my knee for minute, while a small girl studied me with a very serious expression.

My racy, scandalous black top. It goes down to my bum and is very loose.

Brief tour of the house and then we were off for our village tour! Of course, I’ve forgotten most of the details of the history and other tour facts, but what I recall are more people wanting their photos taken, three sisters following us around with trinkets and shawls to sell, and some old men going by and yelling at Sami, gesturing at us, and Sami yelling back. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “I understood something about Friday prayers and leaving?” I thought maybe they were giving Sami a hard time for not being at Friday prayers. No, it turns out, some guys were leaving the mosque early to come and have a look at us, and these guys didn’t approve, and thought I was not covered enough. Sami was embarrassed to tell us this. He said, some men are bad, like these guys, which seemed a bit harsh, but maybe he didn’t know the word for judgmental or perhaps ridiculous would be an appropriate word (if they left the mosque early to come and ogle the tourists, shouldn’t you be yelling at them, not us?). I was saying, “really, this shirt is a problem? I thought it was pretty decent –it’s all loose, and I thought high enough…” Sami was like, “you’re fine, just ignore it; they’re just old and crazy.” I was thinking, man if this outfit shocks and appalls you guys, you’d have a heart attack in Abu Dhabi…

Father and son in Thula - he requested we take this photo

Anyway, eventually back to the car, where an old man in his restaurant came out to greet us, offer us tea, and kissed Mom on the cheek. I bought one of the sisters’ shawls, which turned out to be a handy thing to have on the rest of our trip for defense against the cold at night, and to facilitate a mosque entry.

Arrival in Sana’a, with a drive in a riverbed road

So, this past weekend saw us in Yemen – the land of milk and honey, the Queen of Sheba and more recently, some kidnappings. For this latter reason, we found our proposed trip came unrecommended by the government of Canada website, along with various individuals. We decided to go anyway.

We arrived in Sana’a Thursday night where we were picked up by our driver’s sidekick, Abdullah. Not sure how the visa process would work, we went straight to the immigration line, and stood there for awhile. I was just sort of looking around, when a man waving me over from behind a piece of glass with a sign, Visas, above it caught my eye. “Oh,” I said, and wandered over. “From Canada?” he asked? “Why yes!” I said, wondering how he knew. “Give me your passport.” So I did, and called Mom over, and he tricked our passports out with our new, pre-arranged Yemeni visas! Of course, by then I realized how he knew where we were from– it said on the visas he was holding for us and we were the only westerners in the airport. This also made it very easy for Abdullah to pick us out. He has no English to speak of and was holding up no sign, so we understood by the gestures of a young man who, to us at that point, was just another random person, that he must have been waiting for us and he wanted us to go with him to get our bags and then he ushered us out to the car. He did also have a crumpled up piece of paper with our names on it in his hand, but it only occurred to him to show it to us when Mom was trying to introduce us. I felt an immediate affinity for him, being a compulsive paper crumpler myself.  Out to the parking lot then where we met Abdulatif, our driver, deeply involved in parking mayhem.

Abdulatif and Abdullah had a kind of mentor/student, big brother/little brother relationship. Abdulatif had a laid-back, older man-of-the-world way about him. He also had a great fondness for jokes and riddles, especially any that involved word-play. Abdullah spoke pretty much no English, but still managed to convey a sense of eager-to-please, happy-go-lucky teenager, which he was, being, if I remember correctly, 18, though you could be forgiven for thinking only 15 or so. These two were our vehicular companions for the duration of our time in Yemen. If, while driving, we wanted to stop somewhere, to take a photo for example, we would just ask. One of Abdulatif’s stories about this: when he was a new driver, with little to no English, he learned that when the tourists said “Stop here,” that they wanted to stop here.  Then, one day a German tourist, said “Stop”, and a minute later, his co-driver said, “why didn’t you stop when that guy asked?” What do you mean?” Abdulatif asked him, “I didn’t hear him ask me to stop.” “Yes, he said ‘stop’.” Abdulatif said, “‘Stop’, what is this, ‘stop’? I thought ‘stop here’, meant stop.” Mom and I laughed at this, and then it was all translated to Abdullah and he laughed too.  I liked these translations to Abdullah, because they were good Arabic listening practice exercises for me…

You know how your first drive in a new city from the airport to the hotel is always a very intense, sensual experience, where you have your face glued to the window or hanging out it, and are intrigued by everything and taking in everything? This first journey was particularly conducive to that experience. We arrived on a Thursday night, so lots of night markets were going on, the roads were in many places in a state of dismal disrepair requiring us to go quite slowly and as we got close to the hotel we had to drive down a street that is called Wadi Sailah. Wadi means essentially “river bed,” and after the rains of the evening, it was a river. It turns out that rainfall from the surrounding areas of Sana’a is diverted to this road/river bed during the rainy season and so it becomes flooded after rains. It has rained this evening, and so, in our 4×4 touristmobile, we drove through the river some 500 meters or so to our hotel. Our first night in the hotel was pleasant enough, until ~4:00 the next morning, when call to prayer began, and it went on and on and on. I don’t know why. It normally lasts 5-10 minutes. I thought because it was Friday, but no, it was like that every morning that we were there. Also, unlike in Abu Dhabi, and in Turkey, it wasn’t particularly melodious, and it was very, very loud. There are 25 mosques in the old city area, which isn’t very big, so you’re never far from one! No problem, we didn’t come to Yemen for rest, we came to see, hear, taste etc., new things!

The road called Wadi Sailah - from our hotel room window

3rd visit to the camel farm

Camel Farm visit – #3 at Salem’s farm

This time, Mom and I didn’t call ahead because Salem said, last time, “no need to call, just come. You are welcome any time. My farm for you.” He was pretty adamant, I swear. We arrived this time just as he was driving off in his Land Cruiser somewhere (Land Cruisers are de rigueur for any self-respecting Emirati Bedouin).  He drove over to us as we were standing there sorting out if we were in the right spot. Big smiles and greetings and welcomes, and then, “Why you no call to tell me you come now?”

I was indignant, because “you told us NOT to call last time! You insisted!”

He laughed at me, and then explained how I had missed the subtext and been over-literal: “But this because I want you understand: no problem, come any time, is like your home. But you should call to tell me, because if I am not here, then I will come, and sit with you. Anyway, no problem. Very happy you are here. I must go now for a little – I have two camels over there, and I must help to make,” pause, “married between two camels. Understand?” followed by hearty laughter.

So he sent us to wander around, take photos, visit the camels and generally entertain ourselves, until the camel wedding was done. We spent the next 20 or 30 minutes wandering accordingly, amazed at all the little flowers and grass that had sprouted up from the thunderstorms that have swept over the country the last couple of weeks.

Greenery is quick to sprout up after a good bit of rain

The three tents that were there last time – two white sleeping tents and a black wool visiting tent – were nowhere to be seen. When Salem, and his friend and helper in the above operation, Abu Ali, who turns out to be an uncle of some sort (I think – family relations can get complicated and intertwined here), returned and we were all settled down around the fire, the missing tents came up. And, yes indeed, just like our rooftop tent that was completely demolished by a storm last year, Salem’s tents were flattened by the storms we had this last month.

Last year, when he heard about our much laboured over roof-top tent’s demise, he was highly amused, teased that it was because a Bedouin hadn’t slept in it, and generally expressed no sympathy. So, you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly crying into my tea for his misfortune. In fact, the word Schadenfreude comes to mind… He was a lot less emotional about his tent disaster than I had been about mine, and actually was laughing as well. He told us there was an old Arabic saying, that if you enjoy another’s misfortune, the same, even stronger, will come to you, and then he pointed at himself, with a ‘well-I-had-it-coming, didn’t I?’ smile.

Rasheed, the young man who was there the first time we came, to make tea, coffee, etc, ran away as soon as he got his first paycheque. Off to make his fortune I guess. This seems to amuse Salem as well. Unusually, Rasheed had possession of his own passport, because Salem says he doesn’t believe in keeping his employees’ passports. So Salem was the host, and the chef and the tea and coffee maker as well.

We had tea and coffee – which is called qawa, and has cloves and cardamom in it, but not much actual coffee as far as I can tell – and then he said, “Come with me. Bring your camera. You have a flash on your camera? I have a surprise for you.” We followed him some 300 or 400 meters into the dark – no moon, only starlight, and then we saw: a small dark shape in the sand, and a much bigger one standing over it. He told us it was a two-day old baby camel with its mother, and she was out here to eat the greenery and just be alone with her baby. The baby struggled to its feet and then walked awkwardly but directly over to us. It was all very heart melting, of course. Silky soft like a new puppy or kitten, and friendly, or possibly just confused, but it kept coming to us and bumping us with its head and then just standing there while we pet it. It may have been looking for milk. The mother, Sharifa, stuck close, but she didn’t seem aggressive, though Salem was clearly concerned. He kept saying, “careful…” and calming things to her like “Hup! Hup! Ehhh, Sharifa…” and then a sort of blowing through his lips, like horses do.

Even more adorable in real life!

Mom and I were floating with the delight of it all, and went back to the fire with big, dumb smiles stuck to our faces. Salem took a phone call, and then said “Ah, my father is coming. It will be good for you to meet him!” Ten minutes later another Land Cruiser rolled up into the sand near us and two more men in kandouras (long white kind of shirt/dress) joined us round the fire. One was Salem’s father and one a business friend of his, an old man from Yemen. We all sat for a while and Salem told his father I was taking Arabic lessons and he should try talking to me, so he asked me about my father, my brothers and sisters. When he heard there were only three children in my family, he laughed and told me he had 18 children, though 3 had died. He gave me a breakdown, this many girls, that many boys and 3 dead. I said oh, hazeen, meaning sad. And he turned to Salem and asked why I was saying sad? I thought, shit, I must have said it wrong – this is always happening with my rare attempts at speaking Arabic. Salem explained that I meant that it was sad that three had died. And the father turned to me, laughing again and said, “Hamdillilah,” as in, thanks to God, we mustn’t get worked up one way or the other, He makes these decisions and we have to just go along. Then Abu Ali, told me that of his 18 children, 9 had died, which I thought pretty bad luck, but now decided I wasn’t supposed to express such unhappiness for, so I just sort of said, oh, and how many boys and how many girls?

There was lots of chatter and lots of joking, most of which went over mom’s and my head, but Salem translated some of the stories his father told into English for us, like how they used to sit out by the fire with a gun, keeping an eye and an ear out for wolves and tigers, because they would kill the baby camels. I know, you’re probably thinking, tigers, in the Arabian desert? What tigers? I don’t know, I’m just reporting; that’s what he said.

As this story closed, Ghasim, the man who takes care of the camels, was around the passenger side of the car looking for something and then he closed the door.  The thing is, none of us knew he was there, and when the door shut, everyone looked with surprise at the car. Salem’s father called out, and when there was no answer, he called out again in a more, you-better-answer kind of tone. Then Ghasim appeared and Salem’s father relaxed again. So I said, (in no doubt, very bad and broken Arabic) “maybe you thought it was a wolf or a tiger?!”  Well, this hit the man’s funny bone (not difficult, as we was a very jolly guy), and he laughed and told the other guys what I’d said, and they all had  a good laugh too, and then he told Ghasim about it, but said, I think you are a fox, and I would be the wolf! I couldn’t remember for sure if I understood the word for fox correctly and so it took me a minute to get this sorted out via Salem …

There are three loaves of bread in there – our dinner!

After some more time, Salem and Abu Ali made bread. They made it from scratch, with water and flour and salt. The process was actually started much earlier when Abu Ali started mixing it, then it was allowed to sit for a while, and then Salem rolled up his sleeves and took over kneading the dough. He separated it into three pieces, which he made into round loaves, and they were placed into the coals in the fire. After half an hour or so, a little oven was dug into the sand under the fire and the bread was baked in there.

We ate it with a kind of a bean stew and fresh camel’s milk and it was all delicious. I ate till I was stuffed. After the meal Salem took the leftover bread and put it into a bowl for the new camel mother. I said, “I’ll take it to her!” and his father told him to go with me, so I wouldn’t get lost. Her baby was resting when we got to her and she came over and ate all the bread with gusto, almost taking one of my fingers in as well once. When it was gone, and we turned back, she followed us for a bit, hoping for more, till Salem went back to her and showed her the bowl and tapped her on the neck with it to go back.

When we returned to the fire, I learned that Salem’s father had handed his phone to my mother and asked her to call Canada. She tried my brother and sister, but there was no answer. Ah well, so he called a friend of his to chat with. He is a very social, cheerful character. We left shortly thereafter, with a container of camel’s milk, two bottles of water, and a container of chewing gum from Salem’s father. It seemed he just didn’t want to see us head off with nothing from him, and that’s all he had handy…