Arabia meets the Indian Ocean

16 April – The night was a sheer disaster. I had put up the mosquito net, and by dusk it was covered from outside with plenty of disgusting flies. The problem, though, was rather the thin and uncomfortable mattress on the ground. As if it were not enough, a dog had the good idea to start barking as a madman under my windows, supplemented later at 4 am by the amplified prayer of the mulid that never seemed to come to an end. I found it hard to get up and be ready by 6.

I took a Land Cruiser to Mukalla, as agreed last night, with other passenger, among whom three women in absolute black. In order for them not to sit next to stranger men, there were the usual changes of seat, but I stayed confined to my uncomfortable back bench, blocked without much room to stretch my limbs from time to time. I soon felt my legs and buttock go numb, and more than once I thought I couldn't just stand any longer.

Then a big problem arose on arriving at Mukalla. I had agreed with the driver on a 1000 riyal fare, but although less than the 1300 they had quoted at the hotel, I honestly thought it was still a bit pumped up. So I asked my seat neighbour before arriving, and he candidly said we paid 400. Another passenger immediately told him off, knowing that foreigners are usually charged 1000. I kept quiet, though, planning to hand the driver 400 riyals clean and walk away with a cheerful goodbye.

So I did and the surprise came over him as a cold shower, but I replied to his remonstrations that I hadn't come to Yemen from the other side of the world to be fooled and exploited by people. If everybody had paid 1000, I would have kept the agreement, but under these circumstances I back out. He threatened to call the police, but I said I would call the police to defend me and walked away at a calm pace. After 5 minutes, I found him before me with a fiery menacing look and bloodshot eyes. He keeps being pigheaded and shows me 1000 riyal notes that he alleges people paid him and reminds me my word. I do not give in and turn him my back; he raises his voice and calls me a thief. He can talk!

I get into a one-way only street where he cannot follow me with his car and I think I will stay away for some time. If I went to the hotel, he could be waiting there, because I foolishly told him where I meant to go. I find a gloomy internet shop and stay for over one hour, taking the chance to give my news in Italy.

I go the hotel, but the price doesn't suit me, so I have to look for another one. After a few tries, I find a room for 1200 with a residue of smoke reek hanging around, absorbed in the curtains. The walls are tiled. I tinker about the air-conditioner switches and commands until I can turn it on. I do a rapid washing and hang out on a string stretched in the room, then go out to confront the terrible heat of this city. I walk to the port with its white houses and a blue sea. I find it pretty, but the sun and humidity make me drip continuously, so that I can wring the handkerchief I use to wipe myself with and squeeze out drops of sweat. I get to the river embankment, the khor, really tidy with lovely benches. A very rare thing for an Arab city.

ImageSoon sleep takes over me, I have to lie down on a bench and nap off a while. When I come to, a man in uniform is looming over me, an officer. For a moment I suspect this could have to do with this morning's incident and anticipate an interesting following to the affair. But it's just a warden wanting to talk with me. He's Somali, in Yemen for 16 years. He says this part of the city was developed by a local merchant who made a fortune in Saudi Arabia. Now the area is guarded to keep order and cleanliness. He brings me a bag filled with cold water and a fag; he talks about his country and his life here, his dream to go back to Somalia one day, in spite of his Yemeni wife's refusal.

Around 6 pm the call to prayer resounds and I get up to stroll a bit. I go as far as the market district, that I find at the beginning of its daily activity, teeming with people pouring out in the streets now that the reduced heats allows it. Tens of shops sell the famous Hadhramawt honey; people are eating; I walk past the qat market where the little plant is pivotal, but now only the scraps are left.

For dinner I go to the fishing port and have a good grilled fish. I notice beautiful futas in the streets, embroidered material that the men wear as a skirt wrapped around the waist, but touching the fabric at the market it often feels synthetic and probably Indonesia-made.

17 April – I have breakfast in a popular restaurant. The bread is cooked on the spot on a big plate heated by little gas flames underneath. Is comes to be a sort of flat unleavened bread that is sprinkled with oil with the help of a metal pan. I ask for an omelette, milk tea and a coffee you wouldn't know it is one, if not for the name. It strongly tastes of ginger and is as light as camomile tea. I round off with a mango shake.

I go to the farza, the taxi rank, to Bir Ali. I have to negotiate with the driver who at first wouldn't like to have me on board, fearing that the soldiers may annoy him, but I convince him saying that there won't be any complications; I have my permission and all papers in order.

The road crosses spectacular landscapes. Cragged rocks as burnt-coloured as porfidy soften upon meeting the Ocean's waters towards the beach, where our planet's dominating colour is broken up into streaks of different hues, from very light tones due to the white sand under water, to dark blues for the presence of rocks or seaweed. We come to cross another stretch whose contours are harsher still, they look like those sea rocks that injure your feet when you tread over them, only they have the dimensions of black rugged mountains. The same black shapes, in a later section, are flooded by streams of golden sand that seem to have gone up to reach the highest peaks – I suppose pushed by strong winds, but still let see dark rocky points.

I ask the driver to drop me at the volcano before the village. I expect the other passengers must ask themselves what this madman can be up to, getting dumped on the desert roadside in midday sun. I start the ascent up the rough side of the knoll. I get rid of my exceedingly heavy backpack and continue up the ever steeper slope. On the border of the crater a unique spectacle opens up to my eyes: a green lake in the hollow way below me contrasts with the blue ocean beyond the edge opposite.

I assess the dimensions to see if I can walk around it. I remember the circumference formula, but it's difficult to estimate the radius of this giant. Besides I can't see if the path follows all around the rim of the crater. I see the rock go up to drop in a sharp indent towards the sea. The inside of the crater is very steep. Missing one's footing would mean tumbling down more than 100 m. I start with little conviction, saying to myself I can always turn around. I realise the dimensions are huge indeed: in 20 minutes' time I have only got to the highest point, maybe a quarter of the whole perimeter, but I will have to walk much lower down, and to go back to the starting point I have to climb high again. I cannot resolve if there is still a path in the section where the volcano leans against a higher mountain.

From the place where I am standing the view encompasses new and wider horizons. I can see some islets beyond the coast, one shining all white. I continue and don't find any obstacles. When I get to the mountain the volcano merges into, I even decide to climb it at some difficulty. It's slippery and very steep, but in a short time I get to the peak that dominates over Bir Ali bay. Outcome of the adventure: an arm as red as a pepper – I had left it exposed to the sun already in the bus –, a litre of liquids lost in perspiration, over an hour's walking on the rim of the extinct giant dragon, a challenge won, a wonderful spectacle of nature.

I recover my backpack and walk down to the road. I put on my long-sleeved shirt from whose cotton emanates a disgusting odour of smoke, a keepsake from last night's hotel. I wish I could wash everything right now!

No cars are passing. I can distinctly hear the words from the Iza'at al-Mukalla radio station, that is playing at maybe 200 m away from me. It comes from an excavator, where a worker has found a more pleasant occupation in this climate and in this hot hour of the day rather than drudging on. In the stillness of this place I hear all the words articulated in a rather old-fashioned radio style, dealing with the cultivation of nutmeg. At last a pickup stops, takes me on the back and leaves me at Bir Ali.

I don't understand what the situtation is like here. The soldiers check my permits and invite me to sit down in the shade. Some proudly show me some obscene footage on their mobile phones. Squalid! Some say these things don't exist in their country, but I retort that the phone is Yemeni and belongs to a Yemeni citizen: how can he say they don't exist here?

Someone proposes to take me for 300 riyal to the hotel that apparently is on the other end of the long bay, but I decide to set out on foot, hoping for a lift. A man runs after me to tell me the way. He says I should follow the beach, reach the black mountain that closes it and right beyond it I will find the camping site. I gird up my loins and walk on the wild desert beach, strewn with rubbish. What a shame! I get away from those houses that I now understand were the village of Bir Ali. On the wet sand nice big crabs are scurrying about but briskly vanish at my approach.

After maybe an hour's walk I get to the mountain and beyond it a new bay of nice clean sand shows up. I see a concrete building, my destination. I bargain the price of the room and they take me to a man, I suppose the owner, lying on cushions under the roof of a hut open towards the sea. He greets me and offers me fresh water, exchanges a few words, but then calmly takes up his football magazine and resumes leafing through it. After sipping some tea, confronted by so much indifference and not seeing the point of this waiting – he appeared to have something to say, but maybe they are getting the room ready – I begin reading my notes.

After a while when I look up, I find his eyes staring me, as if he were waiting for me to come to an end before speaking. With a calm voice and a cultivated accent he asks me a few questions, comments on other things. A slow conversation sets in while from time to times he imparts clear-cut orders to his valets that bring him tea, then fresh water, then recently washed qat leaves that he wants to be spread out on a towel beside him, then asks for a glass of honey that comes of the colour of tea and a stick of liquorice stuck in the middle.

He says he's travelled all around Europe and the East for his trading business. The picture he gives fits in with his rich businessman's attitude, even if this setting is modest. He emanates the aura of a boss and he sometimes intersperses his Arabic with some English words, not because he wants to show off, but because they're commercial terms of difficult translation. What a peculiar reception in a hotel! He invites me to make myself comfortable, have a swim if I like, take some rest and I laugh up my sleeve feeling I am treated as if I were a personal guest in his house.

My hut is just beside and looks like Uncle Tom's. The floor is beaten sand with a square of linoleum and a foam mattress, the walls of thick woven dry palm leaves, three openings with no shutters for windows, a door onto the white beach, and beyond a crystal-clear sea. Nothing in view apart from the rare huts, no other guest in the camp.

I swim for a while, then lie under the mosquito net, waiting for the sunset. Dinner is a dish of beans with flat bread, some cheese and jam. They bring it to me in the hut. After eating, towards 8 pm I go to the house and talk until 10.30 pm at the light of a gas lamp they put on after the generator is turned off.

Large locusts jump around from time to time, big crabs scamper busily on the sand and are lost in the darkness. I think I will leave my insect net up tonight, in spite of their assuring me there are no mosquitoes here. I'm not afraid of locusts, but their pace on the skin is rather shocking, especially in the night.

Image18 April – I enjoy the beach. I try to climb up the black mountain to see the view from above, but it's impossible to proceed after a certain height on this side. Nevertheless the view is magnificent from here and the clear waters underneath are an invitation to go down and take advantage of them. So I do and I bask in the tranquillity of this place, floating lazily in the warm sea. At 11.30 I pay the bill and would like to start walking back to the village, but they detain me saying they will take me to Bir Ali by car. Half an hour elapses, and I understand that nobody is about to move and if there is a car I will have to pay for it as a taxi, so I get up rather annoyed. I say goodbye and add I should have left from the start. They try to dissuade me from the window, but I'm gone. If you don't know what you want in the Arab world, they make you lose your bearings.

In about 45 minutes I reach the police post of yesterday, and they tell me there is a bus to Aden at 1.30 pm – which nobody at the camping site seemed to know for sure – so I even have time to eat lunch.

I order rice and chicken that I eat sitting on the round mat on the ground, bringing the food to the mouth with my hands. I feel rather bad-mannered, but it's the usual way here. I don't even think about asking for cutlery. Besides I have learned to bob the rice grains to compact them before putting them into the mouth and it's almost fun.

The bus arrives, I bargain the fare that the driver will pocket as extra income then leave. There are three Korean men on board who work in a gas plant under construction on the coast.

Black sharp stones litter the slopes of the relief down to the coast, evidence of volcanic origin. All of a sudden, traces of vehicles and caterpillars that removed this coating, look like wounds in the pristine primordial earth skin. Comes then an infinite expanse of sand strewn with knolls and tufts of dried grass as if by a joke, and the perspective from the rushing bus makes these mounds turn around and chase one another in a crazy merry-go-round on the backdrop of a strip of blue sea.

We leave the coast and follow the narrow road towards the mountains. Soon they will inaugurate a new road to Aden along the coast, but for now we have to make the detour and go in the proximity of Shabwa. The harsh mountainous landscape is composed of huge towers of rock, like stalwarts supported by flanks of debris, vertical cliffs crumbling down. It's in these harsh regions that some kidnappings took place in the past. We enter the governatorate of Abian and are escorted by a police van with armed men preceding us. In our bus a nervous police officer curses against the Koreans whose presence on board demands his intervention.

I don't understand, and after a while I ask if escorts are necessary only for Koreans. What about other foreign nationals? But it's as if I didn't exist, I am incognito. At all roadblock the driver states he has only three Koreans on board. I hear that someone talking about me, says I must be Egyptian; another one disagrees, Jordanian. I say no, I'm Italian! But still, at further checkpoints only the Koreans exist… The road winds up towards  the peaks, then goes down to Aden.

Before getting into town I phone Sarah, a friend of Geraldine's. She kindly says she'll expect me at her place and she pick me up in front of Aden police station. I am pleased to find a friend in this country, to break the pattern of the travelling day. Besides she tells me she studied in Naples and actually also speaks good Italian. She lives in a quiet detached house, huge for herself. I am accomodated in a nice air-conditioned room.