Friday, February 29, 2008

Aden, Yemen

February 26 - 29, 2008
by KT

Yemen may not be on any top 10 lists, and granted I probably wouldn't use my two weeks vacation to go there, but it is one of the most intriguing places we have been.  I found Aden to be beyond anything I could imagine, from the scenery to the people, it is one of the those countries that sparks curiosity.

February 26, 2008

I loved the coastline as we approached the Aden harbour.  Dry desert mountains shot up from the water, with dirty white and sand colored houses built into their sides.  There wasn't a spec of color to be seen.  This may sound drab, but I found it just the opposite, perhaps because it was the way the houses seemed to be a part of the mountains, or the rugged lines of the mountains themselves, or the very uniqueness of such plainness, or maybe it's just because having grown up in Arizona I'm a desert girl at heart.  The one thing about Aden however, is that everything looks better from afar.  From the water you can't see that the buildings are crumbling, old, and dirty, and from the mountains you can't see that the water is a sick unnatural green color.

It was a huge relief to reach Aden.  The last three passages (Thailand-Maldives, Maldives-Oman, and Oman-Yemen) had been tough.  It seemed we have been living in a constant state of wetness, boat repairs, sea sickness, and fatigue.

The first order of business upon arriving (after showering of course) was the check-in.  This was the first country where we had been told we might need some baksheesh.  Baksheesh is a form of tipping, or bribing, depending on how you view it.  While Westerners probably see it more as a bribe, it is commonplace in this part of the world, and I'm sure they think of it more as a tip.  With officials it will usually start with the official asking if you brought him a "present".  Now, you can say no, and sometimes they'll just shrug and life will go on with no problem, but usually if you don't come up with something life suddenly becomes more difficult; paperwork might be lost or delayed, officials might find it's time for their lunch break, and so on.  Since a pack of cigarettes or a few dollars usually satisfies, it doesn't seem worth the hassle to say no.

The harbor is sectioned off from the city by a large wall.  To enter and exit one must present their shore visa at the gate.  Photography around the harbor is also usually frowned upon.  Much of this security was put in place after the US Navy war ship, Cole, was bombed some years back.  (Photo right: the guarded entrance gate)  The minute we stepped ashore a number of people approached offering taxis, tours, diesel, laundry, and other such services.  It was a little overwhelming, but also entertaining.  All the men were friendly, and none were the slight bit put off when we said no (although they didn't really take no for an answer, instead they'd just say, "okay no problem, tomorrow then?").  The check-in turned out to be one of the fastest, and easiest that we have ever been through.  The immigration officer was extremely friendly, although it's a little discerning to turn over your passport to be held in such an unsecured office, especially when the officer informs you to double check your passport photo when you check-out has he may accidentally give you back the wrong passport!!!  (As it turns out, one boat we know was stuck in Aden as another cruiser had indeed sailed off with the wrong passport).  Customs was just as easy, and we got away without having to hand out a gift.

We then set out walking, looking for an ATM and dinner.  We had read in one of the guidebooks that Aden is much poorer then Salalah.  At the time we had wondered what about Aden made the author write that.  It took about 30 seconds out on the street to understand - there was no doubt Aden is a poor city.  Everything is run down, and not just slightly, I'm talking full-on falling apart.  Every car looks as though it's been in a demolition derby, every building looks as though it is minutes from collapsing, and everything is a dingy grey or brown color.  The desert climate doesn't help, as it leaves a layer of dust covering every surface.  What was a real surprise though was not the poorness but the friendliness of the people.  I couldn't believe it when people shouted across the street "Hello! Welcome to Aden".  Horns honked and hands waved as cars drove by.  Everywhere people seemed to smile at us.

It turns out there is no ATM within easy walking distance, but we managed to exchange a few American dollars at one of the small shops.  As many of the stores didn't have signs, and any signs that did exist were in Arabic, finding anything required window shopping.  After a bit of walking around we settled on a place to eat.  Eight of us were given three menus, with pretty poor translation, which made ordering a bit of a fiasco.  All part of the fun of a new country.  We stuffed ourselves until it was painful - Chris and I gorging on the fresh pita bread and homemade hummus (along with our dinner of roasted chicken, kebabs, and salads).  Then we waddled back to the boats for a much looked forward to full nights rest.

And that's when we discovered a whole new side to the Arabs.  The Seaman's Club (which we thought would be patronized by mostly white-foreigner-folk, but turns out draws a huge local crowd), gets going around midnight.  That is it STARTS the loud music and dancing at midnight and continues until about 4am.  I couldn't believe it, and recognized that I was surely getting older as I kept thinking "Who the hell STARTS the party at midnight, and how can they stand the music that loud??".  I swear the speakers must've been aimed at the anchorage, it was so unbelievably loud.  To top it all off, it wasn't even good music.  No offense against Arab music, but I just wasn't digging it. Finally, when I realized it wasn't going to end at any respectful hour, I dug out an ear plug and managed to get some sleep.

February 27, 2008

We spent the morning doing odd projects around the boat (aka fixing stuff) and cleaning up another round of salt and sand.  Late in the afternoon we headed ashore for a trip to the shopping center, where it was reported there was a LuLu's supermarket (ah, the things that excite us).  One of the locals at the gate offered a taxi ride for 1,000 local (about $5.00), however you can hire a taxi/guide for $5.00/hour, and the shopping center was reportedly less than 20 minutes away - so this did not seem like a good deal to us, nor was he willing to negotiate his price.  We headed out looking to find our own taxi.  We finally came across a van and he was willing to take all eight of us for 400 (the first guy would've been 1000 per car which only holds four).  As it is said, half of the adventure is the journey itself.  Our driver had no clue where we were going, nor did he speak English.  He ended up driving us around the town (which was actually quite entertaining) and yelling out his window to various people on the street who would then yell directions back to him!  We did at last find the mall, and didn't even have to pay extra for the extended tour.

Inside the shopping mall is a huge contrast to the rest of Aden; it is clean, sparkling white, and very modern looking (motion sensor escalators and everything).  But there isn't much for content.  A lot of clothing shops, with designs that I'm not even sure I could begin to describe, a food court, and the LuLu's grocery store.

We had four goals: atm, ice cream (Baskin Robbins if you can believe it), internet, and grocery shopping.  Priorities first, we took off looking for the Baskin Robbins.  The mall was some funky design with what seemed like maze of halls; nothing like the simple circle shapes of American malls. In addition it is, of course, all in Arabic.  So it took us all of two minutes before we were lost.  But in our lost-ness we did come across a Kodak shop, where the eight of us proceeded to baffle and entertain the local shop clerk as we all decided to get passport photos taken.  You'd think we would've been clever enough to ask the English speaking women who took our photos where either the Baskin-Robbins or an ATM was, but oh no we just aren't that clever.

We ran into three 40-ish local men.  One approached asking if he could take a photo.  Becky said of course, but the men were looking at me and he said, "with her", pointing at me.  Oh boy I thought. Well, I have no problem with it so I stood by one of the men while another lined up the shot.  I am sure I was blushing bright red as my gang laughed at the scene (Becky and Gordon kept tell me I should ask them for some baksheesh for the photo!).  In these countries I never know how to "behave", normally I'd just throw my arms over the shoulder of whoever is next to me, but in a country where females don't even talk to strange men on the street, let alone touch them, I tend to be a bit conservative, so I just stood shoulder to shoulder, arms at my side, attempting to be as proper as possible.  After the first photo, the man behind the camera asked "one with me?" Sure, why not. When I stood next to him he put his arm around me (nothing rude), so what the heck I thought, and I threw my arm around his shoulder.  The third guy ran in to be in the photo, so up went my other arm (oh boy I thought, for sure they think I'm a big 'ol slut now).  Well, the first guy (who was now taking the photo) seemed to realize he was missing out, so he asked for one more photo, where he too put his arm around me.  They were very friendly, but it was still a strange experience.  I wish I could pop into their minds for just a moment - how do they see this white girl whose showing her hair, face, and wrists, willing to take a photo with strange men while her husband watches???

It took a few more minutes of aimlessly walking around to find the ATMs.  With eight of us together we were quite a site for the locals and the men standing nearby couldn't help but wander over to check out what all these white-folk were doing.  Of course the last thing you want when punching in your super secret ATM code is a bunch of people looking over your shoulder!  We were double lucky in finding the ATMs, as right across from them was the Baskin Robbins.  We practically ran over to it, and must've looked downright pathetic when we discovered it was closed.  As if in denial we just stared into the window ...  eight white tourist hovering around the Baskin Robbin store window practically crying with disappointment.  Either because we looked so desperate, or maybe it appeared as though we would bust through the store window at any moment, one of the mall security guards came over and told us that he believed it would be open in a minute, that the worker had just gone to the bathroom.  Ahh were we ever relieved.

Having wised up since our last encounter with an English speaking local, I asked the man if there was an internet cafe in the mall.  Not only was there one, but he offered to escort us there.  Turns out our new friend was from Egypt and had only lived in Yemen for the last three years.  He seemed pleased enough to learn we were from America and Canada.  The internet cafe looked hi-tech enough, but was dog-slow, making even a simple email check painful.  Conveniently it was paired up with a cafe-restaurant, so after interneting we enjoyed chicken shwarmas (similar to a greek gyro), and then found our way back to the Baskin Robbins.

By the time we got around to the grocery shopping it was early evening; the time when the locals come out in full force.  The mall was a sea of black flowing cloth as women in full burkas mingled around.  It was a photographers dream, only not, because photographs in this part of the world aren't usually granted or appreciated (seems odd given the four men encountered earlier).  It was apparent that many of the women don't make it to this mall very often (if ever before), as the escalators seemed to make most of them nervous, and even caused one to fall.  Kids treated the escalators like an e-ticket Disney ride, while the older men seemed to hang on to the hand rail as if their life depended on it.  Huge people pile ups occurred at the entrance and exit points of the escalators, as the locals hesitantly attempted to get on or off.

I had always imagined the burka as a shapeless, drab, black, boring "dress".  What I found is that while it is pretty shapeless, there is quite a bit of style to it.  Intricate designs can be found on the wrists, and sometimes bottom hems.  Some of them have patterns around the hoods or down the front.  They are a almost silky material, that seems to flow rather than hang.  The women around Aden do not all wear a full face cover, many only cover their hair.  On the extreme end some women wear a full veil (even covering eyes), with full stockings (covering their feet) and mittens covering their hands.  The men are dressed smartly, whether in more western gear (slacks and long sleeve button shirts), or wearing more traditional sulus or robes.  And it did appear that more than one man was shopping with multiple wives (which Chris commented must be a nightmare, as he believes it's hard enough shopping with just me!!!)

Becky wanted to take a photograph in the grocery store, not necessarily of any one person, just of the crazy mass of people that were crowding the aisles (it was literally packed cart to cart).  When she pulled out her camera a security guard approached and told her absolutely no photos were allowed! They must keep top secrets hidden amongst the tomato sauce.

It is a nightmare shopping when it's that crowded, and I couldn't wait to be done.  We found another van cab, this time costing us 1000 for all eight, but it included a movie!  The driver put on the Disney Aladdin at top volume and away we went.  Turns out he didn't know where we were going either, so after getting a bit lost, doing a u-turn on some desolate dark road, and asking for directions from an eight year old, we made it back.  It was another midnight disco music night, but at least time we were prepared and had both gone to bed with ear plugs in!

February 28, 2008

In just about every small country nothing works the same way twice.  We had been told that getting diesel "inside" (meaning in the town versus outside at the dockside fuel station) was cheaper, but that inside wouldn't fill jerry cans unless you had permission from customs, which you couldn't get without paying a fee, which in turn made the price nearly the same as getting the fuel outside.  Just for grins Chris went to ask at the gate if he could bring jerry cans through.  He was told to go to customs.  The customs official walked him to the gate, spoke some Arabic while pointing at Chris, and just like that we were allowed to bring through jerry cans.  So the two of us made two trips through, without any hassle (except carrying the heavy cans), paying about a quarter of the cost.  It was easy as pie, but there is not doubt that on a different day, with a different guard or a different official we could've easily been in paperwork hell attempting to do the exact same thing.  At the gas station we talked to a few of the workers and for at the least the fourth time since Oman I was told (in response to saying we were from America) "We like Americans, just not Bush".  I only hope they are happier with our next selection, otherwise life could become more difficult for American tourist in this area.

After a morning of fueling up, we were off for some exploring.  It's not hard to find a guide and car, as they are hanging out around the gate waiting for business.  After a bit of negotiating we had ourselves a guide, and he was calling for a second car.  I don't know how either car actually managed to run, both seemed dented behind belief and laden with rust, neither installed a sense of safety, but in Aden terms they weren't too shabby.  Chris sat in the front with the guide and tried to put on his seat belt, our guy told him not to worry about it, that only the driver was required to wear a seatbelt.  Meanwhile I'm thinking, it's not the law that's worrisome, but rather that big shatter in the windshield right in front of Chris, about where someone's head might've hit when a crazy driver braked too hard!

Our first stop was the ancient water tanks.  An amazing water holding system built into the side of a few hills.  No accurate information exists about the original construction of the tanks, but the work is amazing and must've taken some bit of effort.  The tanks were discovered in 1854, covered by debris and rubbish.  They were dry when we visited, but can hold 20 million imperial gallons (our guide said that they still fill with some water during the wet season).  We met a few friendly local men, dressed in traditional Yemen clothing (robes and sulus), some even wearing a Jambiya (a curved dagger worn in a special belt).  I ended up getting my photo taken again, but in return they posed in a few good shots for us.

Next up was a ancient mosque (it seems everything in Aden is ancient), where for a small donation we got to see inside the tomb of Al Aidroos (I think you need to be a Muslim in Aden to know of him) ...  I didn't look, and everyone else said it was too dark to see anything anyway.

After the mosque we drove along the waterfront, with a quick stop at the fish market.  Then we hiked up to see the remains of an ancient castle.  Along the hike we came across a lot of local men, all who smiled and said a friendly "hello" or "welcome to Aden".  Up at the castle, groups of men sat about in circles chewing on Qat (pronounced "gat" or "cat").  Qat comes from a small evergreen bush, the leaves are chewed to produce a mild stimulant effect.  Supposedly it leads to a peaceful disposition and heightened sexual prowess.  Chris got one guy to laugh by enthusiastically chewing on one leaf when offered (he spit it out later, before any effect took place).  When they chew Qat they continuously shove leaf after leaf into their mouth, chewing and sucking, and storing the leaves in the side of the cheek.  It doesn't take long before their cheeks bulge as though they were chewing on a baseball.

The views from the castle were amazing, from here Aden didn't look so poor or dingy.  But the castle itself was strewn with trash and covered in graffiti (included the ever tactful "F...  Bush").

We continued driving along the coastline, past salt fields and a huge flock of flamingoes.  We made a quick stop at one of the beaches, were a lot of local women sat in full burkas, socializing in the sea breeze.  A huge line of men sat against the curving beach wall, all chewing Qat.  Our guide tended to make fun of the men who indulged in Qat.  He also joked about the burkas, calling the women Ninjas.  He said he too was married to a Ninja, so we figured he didn't use the word in disrespect (of course one never knows).  Since he was so open we felt we could ask more direct questions about the culture, and he was very friendly in trying to satisfy our curiosity, but I feel as though I still don't really understand a thing.  However we did learn that a man can have a maximum of four wives (our guide felt one was enough), and that if a man did have four it meant he was quite wealthy.  He said the advantage of multiple wives was that when you had only one, they might argue and be opinionated, but once a second or third wife came into the picture, the women became more submissive, as the husband would threaten to spend more time and money with the other wife.  Well, it's a unique way of thinking!

Our final stop of the day was Arab town.  This had to be one of the craziest, most crowded, extremely interesting, sensory overloading, and sadly, poorest places we've visited.  We started with a look at sesame oil processing.  From the grinding and shaking of the seeds, to the old machines that turned, grinding the seeds into oil, while the men scooped out the oil.  Down the street we visited with henna tattooed camels.  Yes, you read that correctly, the camels themselves were dyed in funny dot patterns. Chris attempted to get himself beaten-up by taking a photograph of the street ...  the women across the road thought he was taking their photo and began yelling and pointing, causing the men to send evil stares ...  luckily we were leaving that area, and quickly retreated!

Our guide walked us through the Qat market.  I can't even come close to explaining it.  Imagine shoulder to shoulder men, standing, yelling, sitting, bargaining ...  a sea of bodies and noise beyond comprehension.  A lot of people used gas lanterns, which heated up the place to a nice boiling temperature.  One thing I've noticed about Arab men is that when they yell or negotiate it can appear as though they are fighting - up until they finish the enthusiastic conversation and smile.  When you are trying to push your way through this mass of yelling it can feel intimidating.  And since it is entirely men, as a woman, I felt a bit out of place.  But what I never once felt was threatened or worried.  Eight white people walking through caused everyone to stare, but they all smiled and many said hello.

We stopped at a small juice shop for fresh lime juice that was outstanding.  Sweet, tart, and fresh. Sitting away from the masses also gave us a chance to get a breath and relax.  From there we walked through the garment shops, full of amazingly bright colors and gaudy dresses.  After a tying demonstration we bought Chris a head wrap.  I attempted to tie it around his head, but one passer-by just laughed, so I asked him to do it.  He got to work on Chris, laughing the entire time, with a huge ball of Qat bulging out the side of his cheek.  Chris wore his new head gear for the remainder of the day, which was a huge hit around the market.

As dusk came Arab town came to life.  I had already thought it was bustling and crowded, but it now seemed as though the entire population was wandering the streets!  We bought some fresh chapati (flat bread) at one of the stalls, which immediately brought along some beggars.  It is nearly impossible to turn away someone asking for a bite of bread, and so Chris handed some out, which of course just brought out more beggars.  We eventually had to walk away as it was too much to handle, but we did try to give everyone a little piece.  One the men was so pleased with Chris that he continued to follow us through the market.  When we stopped to buy vegetables Chris watched as the beggar stole a few carrots when the vendor was turned away busy handling a customer.  It is beyond heartbreaking to see people so desperate and so hungry.  (Photo left by Ascension)

Another hour was about all we could handle.  Then the crowds, the yelling, the haggling, the staring, all just became too much - we were ready for the peace and quiet of our boat!  After such a busy day even the midnight disco music couldn't wake us!

February 29, 2008

We finally had a little bit of a down day.  A few chores around the boat, some interneting, and a tiny bit of relaxing.  We could use a few more down days, but the southerlies are blowing, and our friends are anxious to get going.

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