the journey


Tales of Yemen

March 9-15, 2010

Location: Aden, Yemen

Towering rolling black hills pockmarked like the moon stood in dramatic contrast to the deep sapphire blue of the waters of Aden, Yemen. We followed the fleet in, taking position as the last boat, breathing in our freedom and letting go of everything we carried with us. I think when we safely rounded the corner we let our angels go too. It seems like they abandoned us.

The first three days in Aden did not go smoothly. Nothing was easy. We so needed a break and instead we were faced with continuing challenges. Upon arrival, anchoring was a bit of a hassle. There were 41 sailboats at anchor and coast guard and container ships in the harbor. The Vasco De Gamma rally boats were still there, headed south and there were boats from the previous small convoys still in the city. Anchoring was tight and for the first time I argued with another boat about anchoring close to them. There was little room and my patience was wearing thin. I snapped. In the end, after we dropped the hook and anchored behind them we decided we just didn't want the trouble and re-anchored beyond them with more space, our stern towards a floating barge and parallel to the huge tankers beside us.

We anchored next to speakers from the mosque and those of the all night Sailors Club, having nothing to do with sailors and everything to do with supposed illegal drinking and Somali prostitutes. Bad music blared from the outside speakers until late in the morning. Ironically, sometimes the music ended at 4am and within half an hour or so the haunting call to prayer would blast through the speakers of the mosque. Where are we? Aden, Yemen.

"Inhabited almost forever, Yemen is in many ways the birthplace of all our lives. In days past the sons of Noah knew it as the land of milk and honey, Gilgamesh came here to search for the secret of eternal life, wise men gathered frankincense and myrrh from its mountains, and, most famously, a woman known simply as Sheba said Yemen was her home." -Lonely Planet Oman, Aden, UAE

Even in exotic Yemen, the reality of our world on DreamKeeper comes crashing through. On our second day, Gar tried to do a simple re-fuel. We didn't want to bring the big boat to the dock. Big mistake. After making his rounds to two offices, paying baksheesh to each and giving a pack of cigarettes to the fuel guys he started the process. They wouldn't fill jugs on the wharf, only in the dinghy. It was a mess. I could smell him before I saw him. Diesel was everywhere. His arms were slick with it and his shorts were soaked. The dinghy was bathed in it and all the cans were covered. It was only round one of two. And Gar was ornery. Four and a half hours later, 67 gallons of diesel were on board, US$181 out of the bank plus another six bucks and a pack of cigarettes, a now clean, grumpy husband and dingy were back on board. This was the longest and messiest fuel ever. A perfect way to attend the cruisers potlatch that night.

We still hadn't seen much of Aden as we chose to be boat bound yet again on day 3 attempting to give love to DK. The only things that really reminded us of where we were the haunting calls to prayer that blared out of the mosques loud speakers and the numerous taxi drivers at the wharf asking where we were going and vying for work. Instead of joining them we returned to the boat. Another 8 hours working on the wind generator and still nothing. It's dead. Now it will be cast off to the treasures of the bilge until we can send it off to be repaired. BUMMER! Angels where are you? The wind gen is our primary source for powering the batteries especially in a place like this where it is almost always windy. Tired, grumpy and defeated we returned to the boat for another round.

By afternoon we escaped from the boat's clutches and wandered into town. As usual we greeted the boy who was a constant fixture at the harbor, always with a reliably stunning smile. We think he tended the toilets and absolutely loved Gar. Whenever we tied up to the wharf he flexed his sinewy frame and play boxed with Gar. From what we could gather he was a boxer and liked Gar's big muscles. Everyone here likes Arnold Schwarzenegger. I think it is his muscles. Adel even took to calling Gar, Randy Olsen, a famous fighter. I've got to get my husband out of here before they enter him into a competition.

We wandered through the narrow streets of Aden in search of the internet shop. There are hardly any women or girls in the streets. The little ones travel with their fathers holding hands. A few women walk the streets alone and in pairs always wearing a burka, most of the time covering their faces. We meet our friends and stop in one of the delicious tea stalls. They are everywhere, brewing hot sweet milky cardamom or clove tea.

Men lounged along street corners gathered in small groups, staring blankly at the world with bulging cheeks full of Qat, mildly narcotic leaves from the Catha edulis bush. The green leaves of the plant lay strewn along the street and beside their feet. The men remind me of squirrels storing up for the winter. They continue to chew the leaves and add more and more of them into their cheeks. Some of them looked like they had cheeked a softball, the wad was so big.

At the farther edge of town we crossed through alleys buzzing with flies. Fruit and vegetable vendors lined the streets. Trash heaps and rotting food were strewn everywhere. Men selling dried and fresh fish did nothing to wave the black flies away. A few men lazed in what appeared to be day beds seemingly stoned out of their minds, Qat visibly the culprit. We had entered the back streets of Yemen. It was not that I felt I did not belong. It just reminded me what a different world we were in.

Amazingly people went out of their way to say hello and welcome us to Aden. Where else in the world to people stop their cars and reverse an entire block just to say hello? After a few more greetings with strangers we made our way back to the internet.

On a side street just outside the shop a foosball table is set up and boys from ages 8-12 seem to hang out there daily. Sometimes older boys of 15 or so stop long enough for a match. A twenty-something year old boy watched me with the younger ones for a while and asked me to play a game. I tried to warn him they would be disappointed by my lack of skill. When I tried to high five him at the end of our abysmal match he high elbowed me. I assume he is not allowed to touch the hand of a woman.

The internet shop, like most restaurants has a separate entrance for women. There are many of us in here. From their eyes, I could see guess their ages ranged from about 25-40. We sat in a small partitioned area in an entirely separate room. It is very strange to be so segregated and yet women walk on their own in the streets, have Facebook pages, and can work here. They are lawyers and doctors and clerks and check out girls. Most of them do not look at me even when I smile. It is strange to be in a place where the majority of women cover their faces and are not usually out in public. Sometimes I feel I don't belong or am not welcome.

On our fourth day in Aden I woke up to crisp sunshine and clear blue skies. I think our angels returned. I went to a celebration that the locals put on for us in the morning while Gar worked on the faltering dinghy engine. The governor was there as was the Col of the Coast Guard, dressed in his finery. Many other guys from coast guard were there in uniform. The news station came with a cameraman and a translator. The translator, Hafed became my friend. He is tall and thin, with a mane of thick greased back hair tucked behind his ears. He wears square glasses well and his pockmarked cheeks are beautiful when he smiles. Hafed is 29, an accountant, and studies English at night. He is not married but makes a good salary of $3000 a year. Yes, three thousand dollars a year.

We talked all the way to the Folklore Museum where my new friend showed me many old things. I learned what women wore before they wore flowing black robes over their clothing, called a balto, much of their dress was detailed embroidered and beautiful. I saw an old iron that was once fed with coals and had a rooster handle to open the cover, saw ceramic long necked coffee pots, and reclined in a traditional living room. It was here Hafed met his friend from English class, Samira. All I could see were her huge brown almond shaped eyes through her peaked face mask. I do not know how he knew it was Samira but he knew.

Somehow we became fast friends. There was something in her eyes. She had never really spoken with a foreigner before let alone invited one into her car but that is exactly what she did. At 5 pm Gar and I met Samira and Hafed and went on a tour. Samira learned to drive just three years ago, after her husband died. She is not good at driving and talking and Hafed was a terrible backseat driver. He said it was not his time to die. He had to have two sons first. He has none. We were grateful.

The boys in the back were not pleased Samira and I could not stop our chatter. We talked like old friends. It was surprisingly comfortable and easy. I held her bubble gum pink purse in my lap while she drove and I smiled at the pink furry wheel cover and stiletto heeled key chain she carried. Her eyes danced across my face and glowed when she spoke of memories of her family, many of whom now live in America and her surprise at finding me.

We went on a real tour of Aden; a tour that even Samira delighted in. She had not been to the old aqueducts since she was ten, had never been to the oldest mosque, and hadn't seen the harbor before. All of which she said was thanks to me. Something clicked between the two of us and we were like sisters. At 6pm while we drove through Crater (a large town on top of a hill), Hafeed asked Samira to stop the car and hurried to a nearby mosque to pray. Samira could not take tea in public with Gar and me nor could she really be in a car with Gar and me so he went to the tea stall and we; lucky us, we got tea delivered to the car. Hot tea and milk, sweet and thickly laced with cloves. Delicious.

It was like anywhere where women connect over tea or wine and talk about life. I learned about Samira. She told me about her husband who died three years ago. He was a good man, gentle, kind, and her best friend. He asked she wear the mask to hide her face. She hates it but she still wears it so people will not talk. Many men have asked her to marry them but none "have broken" her heart yet. She showed me photos of herself and her mother and her sister and her brothers. It was a gift to see her face. That is why Gar and Hafed could not be in the car. I felt honored she wanted me to see her. I peered at stunning photos of Samira showing her elegant face wearing laced tightly bodiced dresses. Of course a woman photographer took the photos. We quickly slipped the photos back into their bags when Hafed and Gar returned and welcomed them back into the car. We finished our tour with something cold, trip, pronounced "tur-eep". A yogurt, milk, ice and sugar drink. Hafeed and Samira's favorite. Mine too.

On our fifth day in Aden we again escaped from the boat. We found a great taxi driver who was kind and honest. He was not pushy nor did he try to get more money from us. Adel is a good man. We went to Lulu's, the big supermarket in town, the cash machine, and the money exchange. At Lulu's we stocked up on food for the Red Sea and got a jar of Yemen Mountain Honey, reputed to be some of the best in the world. The only other things on our list were two roast chickens for passage.

We returned to the taxi with our bags of groceries and explained we needed to wait 17 more minutes for the roasted chickens to finish cooking. I was bonking (ornery and indecisive because I needed to eat). Adel had a better idea. He took us to the best local roasted chicken place. I didn't know if I should go in. Men wearing turbans and robes sat scattered among the picnic tables, sipping tea and eating chicken and mutton. The sweet scent of cloves floated on the smoky air. There were chickens roasting in a rotisserie, men tending two fires on opposite sides of the restaurant one with a vat of milky cardamom tea, the other making the famous cheese mutton. Inside a man sweated over another fire turning out table sized bubbling flat breads.

Thankfully I was too hungry not to sit down and eat. This was the traditional Yemenese meal we had been looking for. We feasted on cups of deliciously sweet chai, one of the huge clay oven roasted bubbly flat breads, a clove and chili laden half chicken, soup, two tomato cilantro chili sauces, and then if that wasn't enough, we gorged on a desert of flatbread with banana and one with dates and nuts. We ate until we could eat no more.

On our last day in Aden Gar went to the harbormaster and immigration to check out and I had a date with Adel to photograph the fish market and get fresh veggies and fruit. The fish market was fascinating. There were many kinds of fish that I had never seen before. And strange things were sold at the market, a shovel-nosed ray, a spotted eel, and sharks, so many sharks.

The fish were lined on the tiled floors and piled on tables. Huge tuna were stacked like bricks. An old man with sparkling eyes and a disarming smile befriended me. At 67, he is the oldest fisherman still working. His eyes are sharp, muscles strong, and he has a heart full of kindness. I could tell he was a religious man from the dark callous on his forehead, marked from years of dedicated prayer.

Fisherman unloaded their catch, regularly carrying them up from the small wooden boats in baskets and on their backs. A sinewy boy, all muscle carried a swordfish draped over his shoulders and later three huge sharks. A macho teenager bought the leopard spotted eel. Small shark fins lay scattered in the sun covered with flies, their carcasses drying beside them. The big sharks would be sold for as much as US $160 dollars and one large fin is worth US $60. It is maddening to see so many sharks in this market only on one day.

I felt grateful I had chosen to take the risk and go to the market full of men on my own. Even in a world of men with the shadow of sharks around me I felt free, alive and connected. I felt safe and happy. Adel was even keeping an eye on me while a lecherous man following me around. Standing in the sun talking with fisherman and watching the catch unloaded my friend, the old man found me and brought me an orange soda. I shared it with him in the end. I feel so lucky to have these human connections that break boundaries and shatter stereotypes.

After visiting the fish market something changed with Adel. He softened and was genuinely friendly. He saw me differently and remarked how kind and good I was with the people. I took it as a complement coming from a man who had hardly said anything to me the day before. We enjoyed each other's company and he was both caring and a great help. Before buying provisions, Adel took me to tea and bought us Yemenese donuts for a snack along with Ethiopian sponge bread. The donuts were deliciously spiced with just a few fennel seeds in each. Supposedly Yemen makes over 70 kinds of bread. I think fried dough counts as bread; don't you?

A mango seller had died his silver hair henna orange, matching his luscious mangoes while a boy just up the block sold mangos from around his ankles out of the back of a truck. Each of the boy's mangos were succulently orange, painted with a blush of red on each fruit. I bought some from both vendors. The mango man's were nothing in comparison; juicy but stringy but the boys were delicious, incredibly sweet and smooth.

We had a beautifully serendipitous send off from Aden. Samira randomly saw me on the street after getting out of court, did a u-turn and followed me into the harbor. We sat closely, our hands clasped tightly together while we had our last talk. She implored me not to wait too long to have a baby. She wished she had had one from her husband. We held hands, kissed twice goodbye, and wished each other good luck in life. Inshalla, God willing, we will return to Yemen and meet again someday.