I teamed up with Abigail Hauslohner on a road trip from Sana'a, Yemen's capital, to Aden and back last November. She shot and produced this lovely video report for TIME.com: Road Tripping in Yemen.
I wouldn't say that a road trip through a failed state is ever something that would have occurred to me, but I am glad it occurred to Abby. I feel fortunate to have been part of such an eye-opening experience.
Yemen is without doubt a troubled place. As Abby reported, lawlessness, a water shortage, a conflict with Houthi rebels in the north and clashes with separatists in the South continue to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula's poorest state, making it fertile ground for extreme Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Yemen is an intensely tribal place, and the central government doesn't seem to control much outside the capital.
Not many independent reports come out of Yemen, and this was a chance to see a deeper, more human side to a place at the heart of so much turmoil.
We started out traveling by bus from the Old City in Sana'a.
Because of attacks on buses carrying Western tourists, we had to get special permission from the tourist police to travel by public transport outside the capital.
A village seen from the window. Nearly every woman I saw in Yemen was completely covered in public.
A young bus passenger peeks over her seat at me and Abby, the two foreigners, the only women not covering their faces with niqab, the face veil.
A qat market, seen from the bus window. One of the first things I learned about Yemen is that everyone chews qat (pronounced "gaht" in the Yemeni dialect), a leafy plant that contains a mild narcotic. Afternoons are for sitting, chewing qat, and discussing life. Business shuts down by 2 p.m. and men and women are chewing by 4, if not earlier.
The bulging cheek, filled with qat, is a common sight all over Yemen. The narcotic in the leaves gives one a mild buzz.
Men chew qat in public, sometimes in stalls lining the streets like this one in Sana'a, or in the mafrage of the house. A mafrage is a room with cushions lining the walls, often on the top floor of the house, where everybody sits and hangs out. Women chew qat too, but men and women don't generally hang out together.
I was stunned by the scenery as we traveled south toward the city of Taizz. We stopped overnight in these mountains in a village called Al Qaeda. (Really! But not that Al Qaeda. "Al Qaeda" means "the base" in Arabic.) We were invited to a wedding by a fellow bus passenger, but because of Yemen's intensely conservative culture toward women, it was unfortunately impossible for me to photograph it. Read Abby's story about the experience here: A Wedding in the Town of Al Qaeda. Totally other-worldly experience, and we were the honored guests.
A relative of the bride, Bandar, drove us from Al Qaeda to Taizz, where he often does business in the qat trade. Notice the casette tapes stacked under the console and to the right of the steering wheel, fantastic Yemeni music.
Bandar takes a cigarette break in Taizz, a city sprawling beneath the mountains.
The ultimate host, Bandar wanted us to see a bit of Taizz before we departed for Aden. He started our tour by taking us to a huge hotel on the side of the mountain, where families sat outside and took in the view of the city. I tried (and semi-succeeded) to make friends with the women with my minimal Arabic.
From there, we visited Cairo castle, a refurbished fort on the side of the mountain in Taizz.
A view of Taizz from the castle.
Finally, Bandar wanted us to experience camels in a whole new way...
...by drinking milk fresh from the beast! That's Yussef, 13, taking a swig. I didn't try it, but Abby did, brave soul that she is. She declared it "salty and warm."
From Taizz we covered our faces and hopped in a shared taxi that would take us to Aden. Road trips are an excellent time to chew qat.
To chew, just tear up the leaves and stick them in your cheek, where they will stay for the next several hours.
The shared taxi stand in Taizz.
And we're off to Aden!
An improvised shelter and a girl, seemingly in the middle of nowhere along the road. According to UNICEF, around 50 percent of Yemeni children suffer from malnutrition.
A mosque and rugged mountains.
Guys sitting, chewing qat and watching traffic pass.
Abby and I shared the front seat with the driver.
The shared taxi driver, on the outskirts of Aden.
This is Aden, a city built on a giant crater.
A fisherman at dusk near the Fish Market. Yemen's fishing industry is suffering from piracy and overfishing.
Fishermen fixing a boat. The fishermen sometimes stay out on their boats for days at a time, fixing their meals and sleeping at sea.
Aden Harbor visitors' center, near where the U.S.S. Cole was bombed a decade ago. Aden was once a thriving center of trade and therefore more open to different social and cultural attitudes. It seemed slightly less conservative than the rest of Yemen.
Families board boats for a tour of the harbor.
Baskin Robbin's, Aden.
Men kicked a soccer ball around on a beach just outside the city.
Unlike some of the beaches I'd been to in Aden, women actually went into the water here, abaya and all.
We asked our friendly driver if he knew where we could find a henna artist. And that's how we ended up in the home of one of his relatives' being hennaed by three teenaged girls.
The girls decided to take us to Aden's amusement park, Seera Fun World. It was just one example of the generosity and hospitality we experienced in Yemen.
Most of the people at the park seemed to be women. University and secondary school students were out for the Eid al-Adha holiday, so the park was especially packed.
It was fun to watch everyone having a good time.
I got motion sick on this ride.
Taking these last images and our new friendships with us, we returned to Sana'a.