Exotic Yemen: March 3 2009

Historically, Yemen was the land of the Queen of Sheba and known as "Arabia Felix" by the Romans due to its fertile land and wealth as a country.  Today, the Republic of Yemen is united after decades of civil war (North vs. South).  Unification occurred after the last confrontation in 1994...after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its exit from the South.  The President has been in power for 33 years (actually more like a King - and he is getting ready for his son to "democratically" take power when he is finished).  Unfortunately, undercurrents of resentment remain as the North is in charge of the government and routinely sends officials from the North to preside over the South in roles of authority such as customs, police, army, etc.  This is especially galling to the South because they are where ALL of the oil and riches are located...and not a single Southern vote was cast for the "President" in the last election.  But it is all about numbers...approx 2 million population in the South and approx 20 million population in the North.  Fortunately, this does not affect us except for listening to the random gripe aired by a Southern Yemeni.  Aden is in the South. 


The Aden anchorage is a busy place with fishermen passing through, tankers offloading, tugs providing guidance and ferries transporting.  Our first few days in Aden were focused on boat projects and getting sorted out after almost a month at sea.  Erin has discovered a new verse for "You know you are a cruiser when...".  "You know you are a cruiser when your sheets have not been laundered for a month but you still make the bed!"  Chris was a mechanic extraordinaire changing all fuel filters, oil filters and oil...this gets to be quite a long list when it includes the two engines of Barefeet, the dinghy engine and the generator.  We also filled up with diesel...US dollars only for payment...and got frowns from the gas guys as we insisted upon filtering the diesel.  We found LuLu's supermarket for provisioning and local produce stalls for fresh stuff.  While buying produce we stumbled upon the qat alley (pronounced gat).  Qat is the national narcotic of Yemen.  Leaves are chewed and held in the cheek to produce a mild stimulant effect (primary benefits said to be a peaceful disposition and sexual prowess).  Qat alley was unique and seemed like something between an opium den and a sports bar during the Superbowl.  The qat is expensive by local standards but chewed by almost everyone...including the women...with a wide price range based on quality.  The wealthier Yemenis actually deal directly with farmers...kind of like specific vineyard wines.  Afternoons are a mellow time of relaxing and stuffing as many Qat leaves as possible into your cheek.  The "expert" chewers look as if a tennis ball has been stored there with the green mulch spreading across their teeth.  Needless to say, afternoon taxi rides take on a whole new level of suicidal excitement as the afternoon's Qat takes effect ...best to move about in the mornings. 


Most shopping from the anchorage is done in Tawahi...just a few hundred yards from the dinghy landing spot.  Moving through our shopping we strolled the streets and peeked into shops of all sorts; fabrics, kitchen implements, hardware and many food stalls.  There is definitely a lot of bling beneath the women's black wrapper that we will never see.  We keep chugging through our To Do's.  Erin searched out the details to make our tourist trip to Yemen's capital, Sana'a...transport, lodging and travel papers allowing us to move from one city to the next...sounds a bit Russian to us...but when in Rome...  Thankfully, it was not all work for us.  We had a festive celebration aboard Barefeet when s/v Xanadu, Adriatica and Vagabond Virgin arrived.  They had a bit more excitement as they passed through the Gulf of Aden than we did...gulp.  Speed boats and numerous pirates zigged between their flotilla and a coalition warship sped to their location at 20 knots when they announced their "visitors" on VHF 16.  All ended well but the heart took a bit to slow back to normal beats. 


Our new best friend is Omar the driver.  He has been smoothing the way for yachties in Aden for 20 years.  He drove us to find whatever we needed and was invaluable as we finalized plans for Sana'a.  For example, we would never have known to present passports and itineraries to a barred window on the back side of a Security Office guarded by uniformed soldiers with machine guns to gain "over land" travel papers...crazy.  Internet cafes helped finalize hotel lodging but were a bit different, too...each with a "women only" room.  Finally, all wrapped up and we were pooped as we returned to the boats at 8pm.  A quick night and Omar picked us up at 7am Feb 24 to take our group of seven to the bus station.  It was quite an odyssey aboard the elderly, but air conditioned, Mercedes bus (mechanic still tweaking the engine as we boarded).  We did not know what to expect but found that every tourist brochure describes Yemen as "exotic."  Well, we came to find this to be an understatement.  The seven hour bus ride gave us a chance to see the countryside; mud brick villages, donkeys for transporting goods, towns scattered between desolate black hills and eagles soaring against the blue sky.  It was beautiful...but a bit tough to see through the dirty window on our side...ah well, we kept focused on the windows across the aisle.  Like clockwork, qat came out in the afternoon and the center aisle soon resembled a garden after the hedge was clipped (due to discarded qat branches and leaves). 


Sana'a is located on a plateau approx 6000 feet high and is the capital of Yemen.  The air is dry and nights are cool.  Arrival in Sana'a reinforced the fact that we were in a place unlike any we had visited before. We walked to our hotel in the Old City, Burj Al Salam (www.burjalsalam.com), with mouths agape at the scene around us.  The stone paved roads were worn smooth with use.  Six-to-seven story mud brick buildings lined the narrow streets with windows and doors outlined in white...like icing on gingerbread cookies.  Top floor windows were decorated with colored glass or alabaster to form mosaic designs.  Many of the ancient buildings date back to 1000 AD.  It was amazing and just kept surprising us!  Holy guacamole, there's a camel propelling an oil-press to make sesame oil.  Where are we?!


We slept like logs on our firm mattress bundled in soft sheets...until the Imams made their call to prayer...yikes.  This five time per day activity includes a call at 4:30am which was impossible to avoid with the more than 100 mosques all trying to out do each others amplifiers.  After all, the only way to know you are as loud as possible is to hit the feedback ceiling.  Luckily, we are getting accustomed to the calls to worship and generally fall back asleep after they have finished.  Our next few days started with breakfast on the rooftop terrace.  It was hard to concentrate on eating with the amazing architecture surrounding us...but we could sneak some photos of ladies walking on the streets below thanks to Erin's camera zoom.  We spent our days strolling through the souks...lively markets with groups of similar items being sold together; baskets, jambiya (ceremonial sword), brass, carpets, shawls...and countless food and spice items.  The common greeting to us was, "Welcome to Yemen.  Where are you from?"  Our group of seven met up for dinner at night.  The courtyard of the Arabia Felix Hotel had delicious grilled chicken, fish, lamb and foule (spiced white beans)...and a musician for evening entertainment.


We continued to wander the souks and could actually return to a particular vendor for a repeat visit...no small feat in a place devoid of street signs, no joke...not a single one.  Notice in the pictures all the men wearing daggers in their belts?!  Almost everyone wears one....everyday...not just on festival days.  Chris opted for some time back at the hotel (evidently he got tired of people trying to talk to him) but Erin had to continue soaking up the place and her solitary walks were not in the least bit frightening.  We learned a bit more about Yemeni homes when we visited a museum and were shepherded around by guide, Lotve Aldailme (Feb 26).  It was just the three of us and he explained about the food storage capacity and how each house has its own well (so you can close the door and defend the house in times of trouble), the male and female mafrage (entertaining rooms), area farming tools and building materials.  The return home from Sana'a was a bit faster since we went via plane; however, airports are also a bit different than what we are used to.  Loudspeakers seem to only be used by the mosques which means passengers just sort of herd around with no announcements at any time...oh, and just before take off the pilot mentioned that the engine would start in three minutes thanks to Allah. 

Feb 27 we were back to Aden and aboard Barefeet for a dinner of spaghetti.  A few more odds and ends are needed before we leave for the Red Sea so we are back into errand mode.  Alcohol is only going to become more and more scarce so we inquired about alcohol purchase from our taxi driver.  It seems alcohol is not illegal but just heavily regulated...purchase is possible at a few spots.  Our taxi driver even hoisted a plastic cup for us to sniff as he bragged about its quality...yikes...qat in his cheek, a cigarette in his mouth and a glass of gin beside the steering wheel.  We are definitely not in Kansas.  Another activity taking up a lot of our time is cheese.  We generally have an entire shelf in the fridge dedicated solely to cheese (for pizza, casseroles and all forms of gooey).  The Red Sea is a bit of a provisioning waste land so this is our last chance to stock the shelf.  Our first cheese test was a bit of a disaster.  At LuLu's supermarket we grabbed some "Gouda"...grated it onto a pizza and popped it into the oven.  It came out simply browned...not melted and not the greatest taste.  At closer inspection of the wrapper it seems the Gouda was made in...Egypt?!  Go figure.  Our next test was with some "mozzarella."  This looks like a winner...browned and gooey.  Excellent!  

We feel ready to move on...just waiting for the wind to turn from on the nose from the North to a gentle push from the South.  It should be a Mar 4 or 5-ish departure.  Then we will be around the corner through the straits of Bab el Mandeb and into the Red Sea.  We plan to go as far as we can with favorable winds...maybe even as far as Suakin in Sudan.  Then day hops to Egypt and through the Suez Canal.