Chapter 3: Or when Sam George rides in and saves the day.
(I am writing a series about Yemen because what is currently happening there is terrible beyond. My inaction disgusts me and so I am going to introduce you to to the country because… the place, people, culture all deserve to be saved. We’ll get into the meat next but just one more meander about how we all actually got to Yemen in the first place…)
My best friend, J., and I both surfed albeit poorly. I had grown up in coastal Oregon. He had grown up in rural Minnesota. But still. Once surfing truly enters a life, maybe even especially coastal Oregonian and rural Minnesotan lives, it reorients most things. Where to live, where to go to school, when to… not work and where to travel. And after 9/11 all I wanted to do was travel to Yemen and surf.
We didn’t know anything about the coastline other than what we could piece together from old maps and rare Internet posts. It seemed surfers, or windsurfers at least, had been to the island of Soqotra that hovered closer to Somalia than Yemen but information on the mainland was limited at best. J. had a penchant for ancient Islamic trade routes and could account for the country’s booming 11th century frankincense markets and what the British living in Aden during the 18th century thought about the southern Yemeni diet but nothing about surfing. It appeared Duke Kahanamoku didn’t make it that far on his “share surfing with the world” tour.
And so I concluded that no one had ever surfed the mainland. But how to know for sure?
The answer, like everything surf in the early aughts, was to call Sam George.
He of the golden bouffant and single earring. He married to surfing’s ultimate crush (Nia Peeples from North Shore). He the gatekeeper to all that mattered. He the Editor-in-Chief of Surfer magazine.
Back then surf media didn’t attract the low-lives and has-beens of today, or so it appeared. Sam George was a towering monument to earthly success, he of the linen shirt/pant/unstructured jacket combo, he of the white Ferrari Testarossa.
I don’t know that he actually drove a Testarossa but it in my Oregonian mind he did and I figured it worth a shot to contact him, tell him that I was going to surf Yemen’s mainland and ask if Surfer wanted the story.
I had never written anything in my life.
We had no idea if we could even get visas to Yemen much less travel the country.
But my operating principle since birth had been “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” which is a close relative of “shoot first, question later” so I sent an email that I wish I still had. I’m certain it was filled with pompous grandiosity and ridiculous assertions. I’m certain it would be the pièce de résistance in the Asshole Museum.
Yet somehow it worked.
At first Sam George tried to push taking professional surfers with us. We told him it was too dangerous and he somehow demurred. We then told him that we needed the money up front and somehow he agreed. A few weeks later I had a crisp check from Surfer magazine in my hands for $2000.00.
Sam George responded that he was interested in hearing more about this adventure and J. and I were invited down to Surfer’s offices which were then in Laguna Beach, I think, or somewhere weird. There we met with the surf icon and he was everything I dreamed he would be. Vivacious white smile, tan chest peeking through a casually unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. I don’t remember much from that day other than that and Sam’s single earring, J. spinning on about ancient trade routes and Sam telling us that, to his knowledge, no one had ever surfed mainland Yemen and that he would be happy to run a feature if we dare attempt. At first he tried to push taking professional surfers with us. We told him it was too dangerous and he somehow demurred. We then told him that we needed the money up front and somehow he agreed. A few weeks later I had a crisp check from Surfer magazine in my hands for $2000.00.
Never before had I felt so high.
J. hurried up and applied for an Arabic language scholarship from UCLA. He promised them he would go to a school in the capital Sana’a and study Yemen’s enviously pure strain of Arabic and they gave him $3,000.00.
But now we were also really stuck. $2000.00 was a small fortune but not quite enough for a three month traverse of Yemen. That’s how long we decided we needed. Three months. J. hurried up and applied for an Arabic language scholarship from UCLA. He promised them he would go to a school in the capital Sana’a and study Yemen’s enviously pure strain of Arabic and they gave him $3,000.00. And we were rich beyond our wildest dreams but still had no idea about how to actually get to Yemen so called our friend N.
N. was American but had grown up in Bolivia and possessed a sort of heads down dogmatism when it came to absurd ideas. He was happy to join up even though he had never surfed a day in his life, Bolivia being South America’s only landlocked country etc. And so he began searching Yemeni companies on the Internet and emailing the given contact, explaining that now three intrepid explorers were going to come and Make Yemen Great Again by surfing almost passably on their virgin waves.
And a man by the name of H. responded.
H. was, from what we could tell, the son of Yemen’s ex-prime minister. He had gone to university in America, split time between Dubai, Cairo and Sana’a, had multiple business in Yemen and had an easy manner over email, just telling us to show up and we would be taken care of. I can’t recall what N. promised in return but I think at this point we were relatively honest and thought surfing was simply the best thing ever and to do it in Yemen would be the best thing ever and not just for us. Surf tourism etc. Relatively honest and ridiculously naïve.
H. didn’t seem like he cared about what we had to offer, anyhow, and just seemed intrigued by the harebrained-ness.
And like that we were set.
Except that none of us had a camera or took pictures.
Or had ever written anything for publication.