24 May 2010 | Aden, Yemen
7:00 p.m. (14:00 UTC) Wednesday, May 12 2010 12 47 N, 44 59 E
An on-line travel guide to Yemen starts with this: "WARNING: Travel to Yemen at this time is not recommended because of the very high threat of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, tribal violence, and general lawlessness."
The guide continues that Yemen "is a tourist's country" that "holds so many treasures that appeal to any open-minded visitor. The sights are amazing, the people are friendly, their culture is unique, and their food is tasty."
Of course, these two descriptions are not mutually exclusive and we've found a little bit of both here. The people in this ancient home to the Queen of Sheba are friendly, the sights amazing, and the food scrumptious. The locals have had some time to practice, as this is one of the oldest inhabited places on earth.
But al-Qaeda is also here. Tourists visiting the northern part of the country were targeted and killed as recently as 2009. And two minor explosions that occurred when we were in Aden (which we'll describe in a second blog) will prolong the image that the country suffers from a "general lawlessness."
But we get ahead of ourselves.
Entering Aden Harbor was dramatic. The buildings of the city are nestled among a series of jagged, dry, tan-colored hills that rise close to the sea, the center of the city itself being a dormant volcano, aptly known as "Crater." As we sailed around the headland and moved toward the city, a huge Yemeni flag - red, white, and black in horizontal bands, trimmed in gold- came into view, waving in the wind atop a flagpole that was sky-scraper tall, Aden's hills smoldering in the background.
We called Aden Port Control on the VHF radio. We've spoken to port officials throughout the world now, and they tend to fit within a certain mold - a bit like airplane pilots - nothing but the facts, ma'am, in calm and unexcitable voices, exuding confidence and control. Aden's Port Control didn't fit this mold.
"Welcome, welcome to Aden!" the official bubbled. "We are so happy to have you here! We hope that you have had a pleasant passage." We provided our vitals in response to his queries.
And then, "Are there any questions that you might have of me?"
Well, actually, there were. We asked some questions about the anchorage and clearing in, which were readily answered.
"Anything else? Is there anything I can do for you? Please, it is no trouble."
We couldn't think of anything else.
"Well, then, welcome, welcome! If you think of anything else, please just call. And please come visit me!"
Oh, are we obligated to come to Port Control?
"No, no! I would just like to meet you!"
So, we did go to meet Ilyas, after we anchored, and it was a treat. He was not a shy person. He told us that he was recently married, and his first question to us was whether we planned on having children. We discussed that, and then talked about his marriage. It was arranged, he said. He didn't see his wife before he married, but he was in love nonetheless. "Our parents had chosen wisely."
We liked Ilyas, and soon found his outgoing and friendly demeanor was typical of Aden.
Well, for the most part anyway. When we stepped ashore, we were greeted (or, assaulted) as we always are by a handful of would-be drivers and helpers. We agreed to work with Waleed. Sima is going home for a week, and Waleed would help run interference with respect to her visa application. But after a day of Waleed creating toll-collecting hoops for us to jump through, we'd had enough, and subsequently managed Sima's visa by ourselves. We did need to pay a gratuity to the Immigration Officer, Hamoud, but it was a small amount, and he returned the favor by introducing Paul to qat.
Qat is the drug of choice here in Yemen. (A muslim country, means no alcohol, but mild narcotics are OK!) Qat is a green plant with leaves about the size of a shrubbery. One breaks off a few leaves and chews them, tucking the mulch between the teeth and cheeks, much like chewing tobacco. And like chewing tobacco, the wad can grow to good-sized portions. If you've seen photos of Louis Armstrong blowing on the trumpet, his cheeks expanded as if he had a cue ball in each, you can imagine what a single cheek-full of qat looks like, with the added effect that the teeth on the side of your mouth on which you're chewing are green tinted and mulch covered. So, no, it's not attractive.
Qat provides an endorphin-like calmness, if that can be called a high. Teachers, mechanics, shopkeepers, taxi-drivers, policemen, and government officials alike all often had a good-sized chew going as they went about their business.
Hamoud set up cushions for Paul and he to spread out upon, and showed Paul how to chew. The two of them sat there, stuffing one side of their cheeks like chipmunks, not a word between them, sharing a part of an afternoon together. Sima got her visa, Hamoud got his tip, and we all got a cultural exchange.
Having separated ourselves from Waleed, we then found Salem, who has served as our driver and guide here. He has good skills, and repeatedly grabs gruff officials by the smooth handle, eliminating hoops where Waleed had been creating them. We sometimes have to slow him down, because he gets a bit ahead of us and even himself, but he provides exceptional, honest, and friendly service.
As we travelled about in Yemen, we saw that many people had a fairly good picture of American life and culture, at least far more complete than our picture of their country. They get a host of American TV shows, including such gems as Oprah! and The Dr. Phil Show. Say what you will about these programs, but we in America get no "Fatma!" or "Dr. Muhammad." So most of us don't know much about Yemen.
When sorting through information filtering in from around the world, the major international news outlets generally feature stories that involve either (1) two-headed llamas, (2) celebrities and their diets, (3) sports, (4) natural disasters, or (5) violence. Not much of the first four happen here, so we only get stories about violence. This place IS very different from other places that we've visited, but to dismiss it as "lawless" is incomplete.
(An aside: In truth, we HAVE experienced SOME lawlessness.
We needed to have a package delivered from the U.S., with some paperwork related to our taxes, a couple of credit cards, and some parts to fix the radio. Paul's sister Patricia helped to put that together.
If we've learned anything in our travels, it is that the agents who service yachts throughout this part of the world are, to say the least, not very trustworthy.
So, when we needed to find out about the logistics of getting the package, we did what comes naturally: We contacted an agent!
But in our defense, we'd previously heard good things about this company, Gulf Agency Shipping, or GAC. So we sought them out.
We met with a fellow named Godson Joseph, whose name we will not change because he is about as far from innocent as you get. We didn't need to have the package delivered to Yemen, but would, we explained to Mr. Joseph, if it could be done relatively quickly and without too much bribe-taking en route.
"It is very easy here," said Mr. Joseph, in his polished English with a slight Indian accent. "It will be sent to Aden airport, and it is just a matter of us going over and picking it up." How much will it cost, we asked, as the total value of the package was not more than about $250. "A very small amount," he assured us.
How much is a "very small amount" we persisted. "I can't say exactly, but very little. Don't worry. We do this all the time. It is easy here."
So we had the package shipped. When it arrived at GAC's offices, we called Godson to ask how much it would cost. "$600," he said flatly. "It would have been $800, but fortunately for you, I managed to save a courier fee in having it delivered from the airport to here."
We refused to pay, in no uncertain terms, and it took two meetings with others in GAC's office before we were able to pry our package from their hands, for an amount far less than $600 but still more than the "small amount" that had been promised.
But Mr. Joseph was from India, and perhaps his lawlessness should not be counted against Yemen's tally. )
We have spent a good amount of time at the local mall, where there is Internet, a food store, and ice cream for Sima. Boy, is this a place to be! A bit like American malls, with the boys sporting tight-fitting jeans and mod shirts and the girls sporting, well, black sacks.
But there was more than that. If you wandered off the beaten path, upstairs at the pizza joint or into the food court, the veils came down, and the conversation came more easily.
Once, Paul went searching for a seat in the crowded food court, while Sima picked up the rest of our lunch. Suddenly, from among a crowd of young women gathered around three collected tables, a table and chair were pushed out. "Hey, you, sit here!" came a cheerful voice in clear English.
This is how we met Joharra, and her several outgoing dental student friends. Did we have Facebook? We did, and when Joharra "Friended" us the next day, we saw her Facebook profile pictures. Gone was the headscarf, replaced by flowing black locks and a bright, smiling, unencumbered face. One wonders how electronic communications will impact Yemen.
The mall was modern and huge, and its second floor was a shock to the system. Row after row of women's fashion stores, including many selling skimpy negligees that would make a Victoria's Secret model blush. It was more over the top than we see back home, and the bawdy mannequins in the windows contrasted so starkly with the featureless women we saw in public.
We also met some young men, and noted a curious convention - same-sex hand holding. We were assured that this was a common thing, and had nothing to do with romantic involvement. When we saw how common it was, among men of all ages, we came to believe this.
We also met men at the mall who were outwardly and affectedly gay. But homosexuality in Yemen is supposedly punishable by death. We wondered what life must be like for such people and whether and what punishments were actually meted out.
The food was delicious and, of course, cheap. Meat and shrimp in succulent sauces served with piping hot thin-breads that were two and a half feet in diameter. And lime juice to die for! With the heat of Aden, many shops and corner vendors sold lime juice. It is a bit like our lemonade, except saltier. Think Margarita without the alcohol.
On the day we are leaving, the President is coming to town. The military is out in force, with troopers every 500 yards on the street, jeeps with mounted machine guns manning intersections, and camouflage colored helicopters buzzing the sky. The streets are quiet, and the pier is completely deserted. Certainly not a peaceful scene, but not quite lawless either.
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