The question of value, and of values, can often be highlighted by travel in countries with which we may only have a passing acquaintance. The commonest example of this disparity is when people part with money willingly. It stands to reason, I think, that when people dive out of a tour bus in a small town to get a few bits of fruit or whatever from the market; one, you're a stranger to local prices; two, Europeans are usually unversed in haggling over prices; three, whatever you're asked for a bunch of bananas e.g. will be still be trifling compared to what you pay at home; four, as a foreigner, you're likely to be one of the richer people around and therefore fair game for what I like to call "skin tax".
Dodgy trading, though is of course not limited to "over there", because the hapless tourist in London can easily be charged £20 for a £5 ice-cream at a popular visitor site, or astronomical sums for a taxi from Heathrow to the city. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone !
In some countries, of course, there may be rigid government controls on basic foodstuffs to keep them affordable for local people; the price of bread in Russia didn't change for decades, in Spanish restaurants there always has to be a set menu priced so that local people can take their family for a meal out, the same sentiment some might feel, was behind the price controls introduced in Britain years ago, a poorly thought out economic ploy to restrain wages.
These are good for all, in general, I think, but it won't stop someone overcharging you, selling you some rather over-ripe fruit that locals would know isn't worth eating, or steering you to the more expensive parts of the menu, or putting appetisers or drinks on the table that you don't know you will be charged for whether you use them or not.
The biggest difficulty arises when we come to paying for things that you want, rather than actually need. An independent excursion to a local temple, undertaken with a friend from the group may turn out to be much more than the estimate I could provide, for all sorts of reasons. You should agree a price beforehand and then stand your ground and pay what you feel is fair, (and the taxi driver will still be making something), but remember the driver has also missed out on any number of other jobs while you've been dawdling around some interesting ruins.
Trinketing, as I call it, is a whole other ball game. It's neither reasonable nor fair to ask your tour leader for a price on a small piece of jewelry, a dress or shirt you've had made by a local tailor, or most significantly, the value of larger cost items like carpets. The tour leader may have some experience in this area, but usually not. As far as I was ever concerned, an item like that is worth what you're willing to put your hand in your pocket for. End of. There are other ways of looking at this question of worth and I have a sharp memory of one particular incident which I hope illustrates what I am trying to say.
I had already run a few tours in Yemen, not a destination that might spring to many people's minds; and now probably even less so. I found the country stunning in landscape and culture, the people very welcoming and the breadth of experiences unforgettable. Yemen, along with Syria, was one of the places where people would cross the street to greet you and simply say "Welcome to my country !" (Imagine that in Britain !!).
After a couple of nights in Sana’a the capital, with one of the most outstanding medieval souks in the world, we would head north into some extremely stark landscape. Arid, rocky plateaux riven by steep and mind-bogglingly deep valleys meant it could take you hours to get the few kilometres from one valley side to another. Tiny settlements, usually rough flat roofed and walled kasbahs of square cut sandstone perched on hilltops with a scattering of green plots carved out of the mountainside below them.
In the valley bottoms you would see trees, and some fields enclosed by walls for cash crops, salad vegetables, potatoes, but predominantly Qat. But the valley bottom also contained an unpredictable hazard in the life-giving river. Such steep and dry terrain made the risk of flash floods a real threat to life and property, and at some times of year you spent as little time in the valley bottom as you could. Historically, too, the river valleys were the easiest way into the interior of the country for those looking for easy plunder.
So we found the drive up to Hajjah a real eye-opener, whetting everyone’s appetite for a closer exploration of this landscape. I planned to take the group out on a walk into the hills the next day. I did in fact have some very brief notes from the tour manual, by a previous tour leader, and as it was on this that I planned my walk, I kept a sharp lookout at the terrain as we neared the town.
So, on a bright morning, having stocked up with a few bits of fruit or a sandwich and something to drink, we set off next day along a rough jeep track out of the town and began snaking around outcrops, waving a greeting to the few people who we saw heading into town. After a few kilometres I spied the faint track across the hillside that I had seen the day before from the road into Hajjah, and made a brief halt to explain the plan to my group before setting off on the path.
As is often the case in apparently empty landscapes, everywhere, when you stop for a moment or two, people, usually children acting as shepherds will emerge from the surroundings where they had been utterly undetectable. We picked up a couple of camp followers after half an hour, boys of around 10 or 12 who were skipping in flip-flops over the jagged rocky hillside beside the path like little goats.
They looked wide eyed at the blond hair, the garish hue of the outdoor gear, and chattered away to each other. Barely a word in common with these weird people walking through their ‘pastures’, they were delighted to flit around us like swallows over grassland, a spectacle indeed !
We stopped for a longer break a little later, with a view through the hills back to Hajjah on the ridge and I walked off a little to get a more elevated view of the path, which I hope would take us back eventually to the road into Hajjah. I heard a few shouts and turned to see a lad in a sort of djellabah haring off across the hillside with a day sack over his shoulder. It was futile to try and catch him in this rubble strewn landscape so we quizzed his pal, who looked baffled and frightened and seemed to say he had no idea who the other guy was. Oh yeah ?
My Arabic was never up to this sort of questioning and we really couldn’t capture the lad and cart him back to Hajjah. He hadn’t done anything at all, and his home was away over the hill behind us. The guy whose bag had disappeared quickly resigned himself to the loss, which had been a walkman cassette player and a camera – the rest of the contents were his lunch and jacket which were on the ground beside him. My best suggestion was simply to get back to Hajjah by continuing our walk along to the road, and then report it to the police as he would at least be able to make an insurance claim. Our scared little witness turned tail and fled over the ridge at high speed.
The guy who was robbed, a telecoms engineer was quite stoic about the event, but we did need to report it. Down at the cop shop we looked around bare rooms until we found two men in partial uniforms, one was asleep on the floor with a couple of AK47s propped against the wall. We told our tale and, now both were awake, they conferred and told us they would meet us at the hotel at 5pm with some sort of assistance. We duly sauntered back up the hill to divulge our findings to anyone interested.
Waiting outside at 5pm, we heard from afar the gunning of powerful engines as three Landcruisers emerged from the town, climbing to our hotel. The first was like something we only saw in the news from Somalia or somewhere – a large calibre machine gun mounted on the rear of a pick up body, they are known as ‘technicals’ in those lands. The guns were reminiscent of the ack-ack anti-aircraft guns you see in WWII films, but 50 years advanced.
The third was a pickup crammed with guys in cammo outfits and AK47s, and other things on the floor. Our vehicle would be in the middle, and we squeezed ourselves into the rear bench seat with an armed guard on each side. Everyone seemed in quite high spirits, to be honest, whether this was just a thoroughly gung-ho attitude, their ploy to assuage our worries or whether they were still mellowing out from chewing Qat all afternoon, I could not tell, but they seemed to have a plan.
We again snaked up the dirt road that we had walked earlier in the day, but traveled many kilometres beyond, and darkness was falling just as we reached a small village where quite a gathering of people milled around, waiting for something important. We were led from the Landcruiser by the lead cop, the others remained in the vehicles, looking quite comfortable, if a little stern, as required. Stone steps wound up through the house we had entered, with but the barest suggestion of lighting, until we emerged into a large room on the roof. This was the ‘mafraj’, a room that every aspiring Yemeni desired as a place to relax (men, that is), discuss business and social affairs, and primarily for the men friends and acquaintances of the host to sit around lolling on cushions and chewing Qat every afternoon.
The mafraj we entered had stained glass windows all around, through which the last rays of the sun played over the scene. Probably thirty men were seated around the room, attentive to the business in hand. The host was the head of all the village headmen in the area, and these were de facto the most important people; the judiciary, parliament, mentors and generally rulers of the Hajjah district. The host welcomed us and listened to our story closely, clarifying a few points here and there. Our description of the culprit was woefully poor; I think we could only recall the colour of his top, and where we had encountered him.
The host had a brief discussion with some of his acolytes and then spoke with us via the top cop. He said that shame had been brought on his villages, and that such an act had never happened before. The headmen would do everything in their power to put things right, and the host promised that we would have everything returned the following morning. The discussion was at an end. We thanked the host and his party with appropriate humility and made our way back down the dark stairway.
The following morning, a police jeep appeared with topcop and one of the headmen we recognised from the previous night. He held the BT engineer’s daypack in his hand and and opened it to show the contents, camera, walkman, some odds and ends. All covered in white powder, as the youth had hidden his spoils in a flour bin. The pilfered goods were perhaps beyond repair as a result, but true to their word, everything was returned intact, and the headman made sure we were happy with the result of their enquiries, and that then would be an end to the matter, having dispelled the shame that befell them.
We packed up our stuff and everyone, amazed at the outcome, boarded the bus for our journey onwards to Marib, on the edge of the Empty Quarter for a desert adventure. At a tea and pee stop en route, the engineer took me quietly aside and asked me what I thought might happen to the lad who had run off with his stuff. I thought for a second, and said, that if he was old enough, he might have a hand cut off, a traditional penalty for theft, but I had no certainty of this. The engineer blanched at the mere mention of this and walked away, clearly pained by the potential consequences of the injustice he had suffered
In reality, I found on a subsequent visit to Hajjah, was that the lad was too young to be punished so severely, but that he had been given some very harsh words, and an even harsher thrashing by those whose reputations his actions had impugned. Our astonishment at what we saw as a battle group that the police had sent to the village was also altered by subsequent meetings with locals elsewhere, as it became apparent that the police only really held any sway with the tacit approval of the village elders. The villagers would have easily out-gunned the police, had they needed to. We never had anything stolen on any trip in the Yemen besides this. In my view it is a country where people have a strong sense of right and wrong, and that a wrongful act would be always be punished with or without the intervention of the victim.
With great fondness for that country and it’s kind people,
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant
Listen to Bob's podcast of this story at this link.