Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Expedition Yemen; Extreme Heat and the Bedu

“I just feel cheated all the time” , I said to the camera slightly upset, at the same time as we walked out of the village called Marayt and I added almost in despair; “These never ending negotiations about every little thing is killing me!” 

For a short while we walked through a lush area of date farms and it felt like walking through some kind of a paradise. Mabkhout, our guide, was very happy that we had agreed to raise his daily wages by double compared to earlier, a 100 US a day, and up until that moment, all my comments about the beautiful desert had been received non-committal. Walking through this greenness he looked genuinely happy and this was his image of paradise, not the extreme harshness of the desert. Suddenly a strong wind arrived at the same time we passed though a narrow, fenced off area, Kensington panicked and threw off all the gear and Mabkhout screamed:

“Djinni, djinni!”

I don´t know if he thought it was bad djinns or good. but this was the beginning of a changed attitude for Tanya and myself. Tanya had heard my daily report for the camera and was both upset and worried as regards to how we dealt with life. I agreed. We were too negative and had problems adjusting to both the Bedu way and the heat. So, at that precise moment, we changed our attitude and decided from now on do what we were supposed to do. Travel through Bedu Land (Al Mahra) with an open mind, positive attitude and realize that we were visitors there to leave a good impression plus do a positive documentary about the region. I realized I was far to orientalist and down right stupid. How could I ever believe that my Western way was the only choice how to see life?  And didn´t I understand the ways of the land?

We needed Mabkhout, because through him we had, first of all, full protection and identity of his tribe, the Kel Shat. Without that it would be more difficult to pass through this area. (The Bedu said it would be impossible for us to pass through by ourselfs, but I disagree. They´re so friendly the Bedu, all over the place, so we would have made it through by ourselves. ) Secondly, by travelling with Mabkhout, we learned the ways and thoughts of the Bedu. Which was one of the main aims for us to be there. And I was finally beginning to understand what a unique Expedition we were doing. The Bedu traditionally believe they are the descendants of Shem, son of Noah, whose ancestor was Adam, the first man and the Bedu are by many seen as the original Arabs, a people who lived in the area called the Middle East before any others. And, there was no doubt, I had the same feeling travelling amongst them as I had with the maasai, who I lived together with for a long time in Kenya and Tanzania. Let me first say that the Bedu like the Masai are integral parts of modern society through satellite discs, mobile phones and so on, and I don´t want to fall in the traditional orientalist trap of calling them untouched and original, because these is far from the case, but based on my experience from over 120 countries and 25 years of professional exploring, I had this unique feeling which is hard to pinpoint, but, as with the Masai, it felt like I was coming close to the origins of human kind, as regards to how they saw life, but maybe not lived it. It was kind of raw and basic. As the heat in itself. Which we became acutely aware off next day!

”I have to get out of this heat!” screamed Tanya; ”I can´t stand it. I will die out here!”

 My thermometer showed 48 degrees Celsius. Our throats were sore, dry and hurting. Sweat was pouring down the body even when we were sitting dead still under the makeshift shadow we had created by hanging a blanket between two thorn trees. The time was around 11 and it would just get hotter by the hour up until 3 p.m. when it would cool down enough for us to feel alive. I knew from experience, if we don´t drink 1,5 litres per hour during the hottest hours, cramps, sunstroke and a gruesome death would eventually follow. But to be able to get drinking water, we had to pump it through a filter to be sure we wouldn´t get ill. And the water had been picked up in a dirty well the night before, so it took 20 minutes of hard work, to get a litre to drink. Worst of all was the strong sunlight, which was especially hurting Tanyas eyes and I knew that it was strong enough to permenantly cause blindness if we didn´t take care. I had taped her sunglasses early in the morning with duck tape to avoid sunlight to bounce off the sand into her sore eyes whilst walking and ruining her vision. Walking was out of question between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Not surprising, considering the brain stops to function when reaching 45 degrees. In an hour we would have problems just breathing, it would be impossible to think and good decision-making was out of the question.

“You just have to accept it, Tanya” , I told my partner, who´s first Expedition this was; “There´s no other way, but to suffer and wait until it gets bearable.”

For Mabkhout, this extreme heat was a major part of his life. He knew nothing else. This is the life of the Bedu. Extreme, raw and frugal. And he didn´t see any beauty in the landscape. For him, this was hell. But at this stage he was happy having a job, because he has been out of work for quite some time. His life hadn´t been easy. He had two wife’s right now, 4 kids with each of them and a few months old daughter. The reason he took this job. To be able to buy the needed nutrition’s, because he knew the value of these, since he was the only surviving child in his family. All his other brothers and sisters were dead.  But the more we got to know him, the better we liked him and I started to understand why he fought so hard for a raise. he needed it to survive. I would have done the same. And he was very open with his ups and downs in life. He had been in prison in Oman for three years. He had been fooled by a rich Omani to smuggle stuff over the border and had been caught.  He wasn´t welcome in Oman anymore and disliked the place a lot. His dream was to invest in a car and drive professionally again. But, right now, life was hard. He hadn´t bought a new futa for almost a year and it was even longer since he bought a new shirt. We carried almost 40 kg:s of personal equipment, but Mabkhout brought absolutely nothing but his Kalashnikov. When he saw all our equipment the first day of packing, he wanted us to at least get rid of the tent. Bedus don´t need a tent he said. We pointed out we needed it to keep out technical equipment safe and working. And after initially dismissing my GPS as useless, since it couldn´t find neither water or good grazing, he was by know utterly impressed with how I could pinpoint were we were on the map, which was in English and not much better than a piece of sandpaper, and he was impressed with my ability to tell him the exact distances we had walked. He would spend a fair part of his evenings in front of a campfire bragging for other locals about this map and ability to give exact distances walked from the first day we had started our journey.

Our new positive attitude made a major difference in many ways, but it should also be said that Mabkhout was part of the positive change, because from now on he did pretty much all negotiations and did it extremely well. Wherever we came from now on, as regards to nomadic camps, we never ever had to negotiate or pay for food, grazing or water. Not even petrol for our stoves. And the visits to the nomadic tents were the highlights of the trip. The Bedus here were just incredibly generous, friendly, charming and helpful. We could later meet the same Bedus in a settlement and there, they wouldn´t be as great. Which shows that the life as a nomad as far better than settled life!

 After 5 days of hard walking, accepting the heat and enjoying this life much better by the day, we arrived at the small settlement of Al-Dabin. And went to a Bedouin wedding. And Tanya got accused of using her sunglasses to unauthorized film the wedding! More about this on Friday!

See photo gallery here!

2 comments

  1. How wonderful and rich life you -as a deep watcher- have discovered!!
    it is really fantastic experience!
    hope you all the best!

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