Arriving at our Old Sana’a hotel room late on Wednesday night was a bit surreal after the events of the past eight hours. We thanked Jamil for the ride and climbed four flights of narrow, crooked steps to our room where we discovered outside the window a vista of impossible fairy tale buildings, illuminated by a welcome burst of mains power. Exhausted after four take-offs and four landings in one day, we slept soundly until the dawn call to prayer filled our room courtesy of the loudspeakers from half-a-dozen nearby minarets.
Breakfast in the hotel courtyard early the next morning comprised fresh bread, eggs, ful, youghurt and honey. Washed down with a pot of Yemeni coffee brewed from the husk instead of the bean. As we ate we reminded ourselves of just how lucky we were to even be in Yemen, and tried to contain our excitement at two unexpected days in the capital.
Our guide for the next two days was the softly-spoken Nasser, assisted by driver Gamil, and the two of them picked us up straight after breakfast. We stopped first at the tourist police headquarters to collect a stack of travel permits for our excursions outside of Sana’a planned for the next day, before heading towards the National Museum of Yemen. Driving through the choking traffic, windows open for a blast of hot, dry, dusty air, I could feel my sinuses clogging and my eyes stinging.
Being a non-work day, the museum was packed with large families. Kids ran from exhibit to exhibit, excitedly pointing at pre-Islamic stone artefacts and modern, fancy weaponry; their parents taking control whenever possible to snap mobile phone photos of them posing in front of taxidermied tigers. Penina was very popular with the young girls who held out their hands for shaking, and one set of siblings insisted that their father take a photo of them with us.
After the museum we drove through al-Sabeen Square — the location of last year’s terrible suicide bombing — and past the enormous Saleh Mosque. At a busy intersection, abaya-clad women begged for money, flashing their Syrian identity cards at drivers. Nasser explained that there had been an influx of such refugees over the past year or so.
On the outskirts of town we climbed to the top of a small hill that was teeming with the remnants of a wedding party, just in time to hear the midday call to prayer echo around the city, buffeted by the wind.
Despite our requests for a small lunch due to such a hearty breakfast, Nasser and Gamil took us to a bustling local restaurant where our table was overloaded with roast chicken, rice, saltah (meat and fenugreek stew) and bread. The food was so delicious that we ate much, much more than was sensible.
Penina and I then retired to our hotel to nap, while Nasser and Gamil went off in search of some qat for the afternoon chew (a group of young men back at the restaurant had been sniffing deeply and appreciatively from their own bags as we left.) When they retrieved us a few hours later, both with cheeks full of the leaf, Gamil drove us a short distance from where Nasser started a leisurely walking tour of the heritage-listed old city.
We strolled through winding alleys and busy streets, staring up at unimaginably ancient buildings in various states of repair. People were going about their business with only a cursory glance at the tourists who are, sadly, much rarer than they once were.
After pushing through the crowded souq and resisting the temption to buy a jumbiya or two, we climbed onto a roof for a panoramic view of Sana’a.
The tour ended at the famous Bab al-Yemen, where traders took advantage of the open space to better display their wares.
Nasser then received a phone call informing him that the man I’d spoken to on the phone from the airport yesterday wanted to meet us. We drove back to the tourist police building and Dr Musaid Az-zahri greeted us in his office, taking the opportunity to once again express deep regret over our visa situation. He said he knows Yemen faces a tough enough battle attracting tourists without incidents such as ours further discouraging people. We assured Dr Az-zahri that the generosity shown to us by him and others far outweighed the actions of the man who forged our visas.
Nasser and Gamil offered to take us back to the Saleh Mosque so we could walk around and take a closer look. After we ditched our shoes and Penina borrowed an abaya, we hurried inside the building before sunset prayers started.
As magnificent and beautiful as the mosque is, we found it difficult to square its existence with the poverty experienced by too many Yemenis just outside the walls.
Back at our hotel the power was off so the owner started his petrol generator. Still overfull from lunch, we declined Nasser’s offer to find us some dinner, opting instead for a couple of small falafel rolls from a stall near the hotel. We ate them sitting on the roof of the hotel, enjoying a warm breeze and the kaleidoscope of sounds bouncing around the darkened city.