Yemen 1982

I checked the number and content of the boxes against my liquor licence before covering them with the canvas in the back of my Toyota pick-up. Success! I was thirsty already. I drove back to the tarmac road and, as I expected, found the bearded stranger waiting. I’d given him a lift here and he was hitching a ride out again. I was quite glad to have him: if it came to a fight at the police post, two Europeans would be better than one.


He had spent his few hours, since I dropped him, exploring Mokha. It’s a port on the coast of Yemen once rich from the coffee trade (mokha coffee came from the hills here), and now practically deserted. It has some remarkably ornate abandoned merchants’ houses being swallowed by sand-dunes. Its so out of the way that there’s no hotel and neither of the café-owners had agreed to take responsibility for him for the night. A single European traveller with a bulging backpack wouldn’t, the café-owners had felt, mix safely with their normal guests: well-armed sailors and smugglers from Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

Indeed, my own contact in Mokha had been a smuggler. He had blindfolded me, driven me into the desert, loaded his pick-up with boxes and crates of beer and whisky - and taken me back to Mokha. The alcohol had been shipped from Djibouti, across the Red Sea, and buried in the sand waiting for thirsty Dutchmen like me. It was now mine, and in my pick-up. I was hoping I wouldn't be stopped and searched at the police post on the highway.

The police did stop us, they did search us, and they did find the alcohol. We had an argument, but thankfully not a fight. It was a difficult argument, the bearded stranger agreed as we drove away unbloodied and with the full load of alcohol. You see, the country bans the import of alcohol but gives foreigners working for the government, like me, a licence for a monthly alcohol allowance. This is not easy for the police to enforce.

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