I Remember Yemen

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Words and photos by DJ Struntz
Adapted from a feature that ran in the magazine

Yemen? Wasn't that the birthplace of the world's most notorious jihadist, Osama Bin Laden? Wasn't Yemen where the USS Cole suffered a terrorist explosion, killing 17 American sailors? Doesn't CNN have to work overtime to describe the chaos, death and extremism that grip Somalia just 150 miles away?

The U.S. Embassy's Consular Information Sheet on Yemen only intensified my concerns:

"Travel by boat through the Red Sea or near the Socotra Islands in the Gulf of Aden presents the risk of pirate attacks. Travelers may reduce the risk to personal security if such travel is undertaken by air or with an armed escort provided by a local tour company."

Planning a magazine surf trip is never easy. Now imagine securing a guide and logistic support from a company based in another country notorious for anti-American sentiment. Just this first step was terrifying. There was no way of knowing if the tour guide we chose was reputable or a death trap. They wouldn't take credit cards, wouldn't fill out a tax ID form, and their mailing address was in no way reassuring: P.O. Box 1203 Al Qaida Street.

I wasn't just concerned for my own safety. I'd already cajoled three carefully selected surfers into accepting this mission. Against the advice of every relative and loved-one, Jesse Hines, Kyle Garson and Cheyne Cottrell reluctantly signed on. "How do you spell the name of that street again?" asked Jesse nervously as we neared our departure date.

Two days and two plane flights later, we get our first glimpse of our destination's tortured ocean. As far as the eye can see, massive white-capping waves crash schizophrenically across its surface. Our contacts told us to expect a bit of a breeze. But when we step off of the plane, the gusts nearly blast us back into the cockpit. "Can't wait to surf in this," screams Kyle over the roar. No wonder the women here veil their faces; the whipping sand feels like a crazed acupuncturist jamming a thousand tiny needles into my skin. We stagger like drunks across the tarmac to the terminal. All around the airport concrete walls crumble into defeated rubble, unable to resist the seasonal onslaught that tramples the island for six months of the year.

At first glance, it looks like we're in a real-life version of Bedrock. Houses are built out of piled rocks or simply by walling off a cave. Fishing boats line the cobblestone beach. We soon discover there is no electricity, running water, or bathroom facilities in the village. We eat, chill, and sleep on the ground. We live in the dirt.

As the first rays of sun bathe the mountains in stunning orange light, we see it: waves. Scrambling, we throw the boards in the trucks and speed west of the village toward a massive headland that we hope offers some protection from the howling offshores. Standing on a rocky outcropping, we see eight emerald green points reeling in the distance. "It's on," says Cheyne excitedly, grabbing his board and running to be first in the water.

We surf the left points for three days. Though the setups are world-class, the hurricane-force offshores frustrate us, rendering the surf gutless. We're convinced that there must be a better spot. An old fisherman tells us that on the other side of the mountains, there is no wind and massive waves. But, he laments, the water is full of big sharks and no one dares venture in. The other deterrent is simply geography: there is no road to the other side. You have to hike it.

I consider the trip: 10 miles one-way, 1500 feet of mountain in our path, the couple of hundred pounds of gear, and the ever-present wind, which, at the top of the pass, the villagers assure us, will blow us and our surfboards off the mountain. There's only one choice.

We're up before daylight. Checking and rechecking to make sure we have everything we'll need to survive the next two days.

"This sucks." I grumble, hoisting 40 pounds of well-packed camera gear.

"Be glad you're not that guy," replies Kyle, pointing to the guide laboring under three times that weight in bottled water and canned food, wrapped in a blanket, slung over his shoulder.

We set off on the goat trail, mindful that any misstep on the narrow path would have serious consequences. Four hours later, we stop just below the summit. The guides gesture wildly for us to crouch down as low as possible, basically crawling. "This is crazy!" screams Kyle into my ear as he breaks cover and crab-crawl sprints behind the guide over the top, struggling for every inch.

I follow, shooting photos of the crossing, and get instantly slammed backward by the force of the wind, like a giant unseen hand shoving me backward. Dropping to all fours, I make it to the sheltered nook where the others wait.

After letting our heart rates drop back to safe levels, we scramble for a better view. Had we made the right call? Had we discovered some mysto Arabian slab? Not exactly.

"Shit," sighs Kyle. Lumpy, bumpy, onshore beachie as far as the eye can see. It's heartbreaking, but we've come this far, so we might as well get wet. But as Cheyne runs toward the water's edge, the local guide grabs his arm, sternly shaking his head and wagging his finger.

"What's going on?" Jesse asks.

"He's scared you will die in the waves. They too big, too much current." replies our interpreter, concerned. "I'm scared for you, too."

"Tell him not to worry. This is what we do for a living," responds Jesse.

I can tell from the look on his face that our new friend isn't convinced, but grudgingly, he releases his grip on Cheyne and sits down to watch the boys' certain demise.

By the end of the session, our guides are cheering every turn and air. Wipeouts and kick-outs produce the most applause. It's so refreshing to watch the expressions on faces that have never before witnessed our sport. So much stoke about something they barely understood. Just yesterday, trying to figure out the surfboards, they had asked us where we put the fish we caught on such little boats.

A July 5th, 2011 report from Reuters states that, “Somali pirates have been using [the island featured here] as a refueling hub enabling their attack craft to stay restocked for longer periods at sea and pose a greater hazard to shipping, maritime sources say.”

Airstrikes, militants, pirates…damn. peace be to Yemen. (So we can come back.)