march 2 2006 : en route to oman
Only 300 miles to go to Oman. There really has been nothing of note on this passage. We finally caught one small mahi mahi, but somehow managed to lose two more. About three days ago the winds finally shifted and we had some of that decent sailing weather we had been expecting. It blew over 20 knots and was from just far enough off the nose for us to sail. It was nice to be sailing, though it was a little uncomfortable since bashing into the wind and waves isn’t exactly our best point of sail. But it didn’t last forever and we are once again motorsailing. One nice thing has been that we finally have a current that is going with us and helping us out instead of slowing us to a crawl. Other than that there hasn’t been a thing going on out here.
march 3 2006 : en route
The wind completely disappeared today, leaving us once again motoring across a motionless pond. Before we set out on this trip we had no idea that the oceans could ever be so calm. When you are on land looking out at the water it always seems to be doing something. But out here, on pretty much every passage we’ve ever made, including the Tasman Sea, there has been at least one day of seas so calm we could stare at our reflection in the water and fix our hair. On days like this when we are sitting inside it is easy to forget that we are even moving.
A group of bottlenose dolphins cruised past a little while ago. It’s cool to see the big bottlenose dolphins as opposed to the little common dolphins we see most of the time. For the first time we had the big guys doing huge jumps for us.
This afternoon I fixed a couple of blocks, those little wheels that the lines run through. They were so sun damaged that the plastic had hardened and begun to crumble. I needed more blocks than we had so instead I just switched a couple of them around. On our mast there are four lines running through these blocks. Two are reefing lines and are the ones that needed replacing. One is the main halyard, and then there is the mystery line.
Ali found out what I was doing and sarcastically said, “Oh I’m sure everybody has at least one line on their boat that they don’t know the purpose of.” And so it is with us, we have this yellow line that runs from the cockpit, through the blocks, into the end of the boom nearest the mast, then along the inside of the boom to the end where it is tied off in a knot. Two and a half years and we don’t have the slightest clue why it is there.
While messing around with the lines I also found three rotting flying fish inside the bag. I can’t imagine what the odds of one of them finding their way in there is, much less three of them.
march 4 2006 : en route
Last night was so dark and calm that the only thing we could see outside were the reflections of the stars on the water. It was the kind of night we both love. I was sound asleep when I felt the boat lurch up and shudder. It woke me up from a deep sleep so it must have been a pretty big jolt. I remember thinking for a split second that the wind must have really picked up for us to be slamming through waves again. Then Ali, who had been busy making tea, burst in and told me that we had hit something! Within seconds we were on deck peering into the darkness trying to see what it had been.
I’ve probably read a dozen stories about people running into whales on this ocean, so I might just have that bias in my mind making me think that is what we hit, but we’re both pretty sure it was. The Indian Ocean is teeming with whales, which sleep on the surface to breathe.
The impact had been on the starboard side only and there was no real noise from it other than a shuddering of the boat as we lifted up. When we hit something hard, like a buoy, it is loud and obvious. The other main obstacle in the oceans are shipping containers that come loose from ships in storms. We’ve never seen any, but again we’ve always read stories about them. It definitely wasn’t anything like that though. So the only thing we can reasonably assume is that we hit a whale, and fortunately not very hard, since it seems that whatever we hit was rather soft and only glanced off the hull.
It was sort of spooky watching the depth sounder. It stops giving a reading after it gets too deep, but immediately after the impact it read a few feet deep and then dropped down to around twenty-five, then for about twenty seconds it rose and fell between twenty-two and twenty-eight feet before it couldn’t get a reading again and just started to blink.
This morning I was filling up the port fuel tank when the fuel started to back up on me and spill all over the place. I knew the tank was completely empty and couldn’t understand why this had happened. I went down and pulled the access plug on the tank and a lot of air came rushing out. After it happened a second time I realized what had happened. The fuel tanks have a vent hose that runs from the tank and out through a small thru-hull above the waterline.
For the first time, seawater had gotten in the hose, making it impossible for the tank to vent except out through the fuel fill line. I removed the vent hose from the tank and blew the water out which solved the problem. I was a little concerned that water may have gotten in the fuel tank, but it has been working fine. The vent hose is looped up high and then low in a sort of big W shape and I guess it worked in keeping the water from making it all the way to the tank. Back in Florida, before leaving on this trip, we had relocated those vent holes since Charter Cats had actually located them below the waterline. Imagine that, a fuel vent below the waterline. Good plan.
march 6 2006 : salalah, oman
We arrived in Salalah yesterday afternoon after three solid days of motoring. The land as we approached was a haze of dusty brown, with strips of low white buildings lining the coast for miles. The harbor is a main shipping port and is filled with huge cranes loading and unloading shipping containers. There is one small section that is set aside for yachts to anchor. Yachts only show up during about a three month period throughout the year so they don’t exactly go out of their way for us, but it’s not too bad. The harbor, like in Sri Lanka, is set inside a military compound which makes the running of things much like you would expect a military bureaucracy to be run.
Upon our arrival we called harbor control for details on clearing in. They asked us to standby while they contacted customs and immigration. But while waiting we overheard other yachties on the VHF who all seemed to be having a terrible time trying to clear in. So I decided not to wait around all day for harbor control to call us back and instead just headed to shore to contact immigration myself.
The office was nearby, and inside I found a couple of cruisers talking with the one officer on duty. I sat down to wait my turn and could tell it was going to be a while. After about an hour a group of cruisers suddenly burst into the office in a rage. One of them started yelling at the officer about his visa, which needed an official number to be properly cleared in which nobody had been given for the past three days because the computers were down. Another guy was demanding that they return his $100 USD deposit in exchange for the Omani money that he now had to pay his fees with. He even started yelling that he was going to call the police. It was actually embarrassing to watch. Slowly everything was taken care of politely and efficiently, proving that all the threats had been completely unnecessary.
Outside I got to talking to a guy from the Coast Guard who spoke pretty good English. He informed me that the reason there was so much confusion was that, “George Bush makes it very complicated for us.” He said it totally straight faced as if my President had personally dictated how this little one man immigration office in Salalah would have to fill out paperwork clearing in foreign yachts from around the world.
Ali and I were ready to find a restaurant, though finding a beer in this Islamic country was not going to happen, at least we could find a good meal. By good meal I of course mean Macca’s. We walked out to the main gate which was a half mile away and went in to the Navy checkpoint there to get permission to leave. I handed them the paperwork I had been given, all of which was in Arabic, and was told I didn’t have the right form and would have to go back to immigration to get it. This time we hitchhiked and when we got there we found that the officer had now gone to lunch.
Now I was ready to become one of the yelling and cussing cruisers. The guy knew I couldn’t leave the compound without a pass. We sat around for a half hour before he returned, tore off a piece of paper, and sent us back out again. We hitched another ride to the gate, exchanged our passports and the piece of paper for permission to leave and then walked out in to the desert.
At least it felt like a desert. There were about three trees that were just hanging on, but that was about it for anything not brown. Fortunately there were taxis outside and before getting in we asked how much to the city. He told us 10 rials, which is $27 USD! He then pointed to the big govern-ment sign on the corner which listed the minimum and maximum charges between all possible areas of interest. Sure enough the city was 8-10. We agreed on the minimum price of 8, but at $21 still felt we were being ripped off (which we found out later we were).
The city itself is sprawling. A city block here is equivalent to about four in Chicago and often there will be one building, then an empty lot or two, then the next building, then more empty lots. It is definitely not well suited to walking around. We had the taxi drop us off at the “shopping center.” That turned out to be a grocery store with a handful of shops on the second floor. We found out however that everything in town except the grocery store is closed from 1-4 every day. It was only three so we wandered around the grocery store, which had a lot of good stuff, bought a snack and went outside to try to find a place in the shade.
We couldn’t find any shade and instead sat in the scorching sun to eat. After that we decided to walk around the city. For some reason we had envisioned a much more modern city. Probably because we had been told that this was a rich oil producing country, and we figured with those oil billions the place would be glittering. It turned out to be nothing more than tiny little strip mall type shops lining the streets, followed by large sections of dirt. The shops consisted mainly of hair dressers and miscellaneous hardware stores. Nothing much to get excited about.
After walking around a few miles we came across a brand new store called National Stamps. We had actually been wanting a stamp for a while, since a lot of these countries ask if you have one. Usually they just have your boat name on them, but it makes things feel official I think. We went inside and found an Indian guy happy to help us. Within minutes we had picked out a stamp and designed it. He told us to come back in an hour. So back outside we wandered around some more and eventually found an internet café. We drew some curious stares from the locals there, and by stares I mean they would stand five feet away for minutes at a time. One guy finally asked us if we were Americans and seemed interested to know what we were doing in Salalah, since it isn’t much of a tourist destination.
Back at the shop we picked up our fancy new stamp and then on a whim I asked the owner if he knew where we could rent a car. We had checked online and found that Avis rented cars at the airport for 13 rials, which would be cheaper than a roundtrip taxi ride from the city to the port. He said, “You want a car, my friend has a car.” We agreed on 10 rials a day and said we’d be back at 8:00 to pick it up. He pointed across the street and told us there was a KFC over there. We were in no condition to be trying any local delicacies after eleven days at sea.
We walked across the street, didn’t see it, and walked around the block. Back where we started we just followed the direction he had pointed. At least a mile away we found the KFC and had dinner.
At eight we went to pick up the car which wasn’t there yet. We talked to our new friend for a while and asked him what there was to see around town. He got this funny look on his face as if he were deep in concentration and then said there was four or five things. One was a famous tomb, two was… There was a long pause and finally he gave up and said that was it. We laughed that a local couldn’t come up with even two things worth seeing in his own city.
The car arrived at 8:45 and was sparkling and brand new. Seemed weird that a local would hand over his brand new car for just 10 rials a day, but earlier we had found out that a three bedroom apartment only cost 50 rials a month, about $130. So I guess the opportunity to pick up a monthly house payment seemed like a gift from Allah. We found our way back to the harbor with no problem and finally called it a night.
march 7 2006 : salalah
Well now that we’ve gotten a car, Oman is looking a lot better to us. Today we drove out to the mountains. Immediately after turning off the main road into Salalah and heading for the hills camels started popping up. First just one or two at a time, but suddenly up in the hills they were everywhere. They walked down the middle of the street not giving a toss about the cars waiting for them and they stood by patiently as we continuously tried to get pictures of them. We drove for hours until the road finally came to an end and turned into a rough dirt track. Normally a little thing like a dirt track wouldn’t stop us, but our car is a private car this time and we are feeling a twinge of responsibility for it.
We turned around and headed for town. We got there a little early in the day and everything was still shut down, so we continued on along the coast. The road out here was true desert style with absolutely nothing but dirt and rocks.
Eventually we found ourselves back in Salalah and we decided to get a few errands run. At the checkout counter we realized that we are going to have to be able to survive for a couple of months on candy bars, chocolate chip cookies, and Pringles. Upstairs from the grocery store was a store that carried pretty much everything imaginable. We crossed such mundane items as clothespins, lighters, pots and pans, and an alarm clock off the long list of junk we needed. On the way back to the boat we stopped and got diesel and were thrilled to find that it cost only about $1.25 a gallon, which is about a third of what we have paid everywhere for the last year or two. Gotta love those oil producing countries.
Back at the boat we unloaded and then some friends invited us up to the Oasis Bar. We hadn’t heard about this place before, but it lives up to the name. In an Islamic country this place is truly an oasis for us foreigners. We walked in and found big screen TVs with MTV on, people eating nachos, and at least half a dozen beers on tap. And it’s just right up the street from the harbor. We may stay here a month now.
Today a cruiser stopped by the boat and said that he hadn’t heard us on the net. He wondered if we knew about it. A net is a cruiser thing that most seem to love, but that Ali and I just can’t get excited about. It’s like a radio call in show for cruisers. They all listen in on their SSB radios every day at the same time, reporting their position and what conditions are like. Then after everybody is done with that they have a section of the show where they exchange information about the places they are at. Now I don’t want to sound snobby, because I know 90% of people out there would enjoy this sort of thing, but we just have no desire to be involved. When we told him that we don’t even have our radio microphone plugged in and that we had never been involved in a net before, he just about choked. He couldn’t believe it.
Apparently they’ve had these nets going on all the way around the world. Somehow I just can’t see what there is to like about having to get on the radio every day at a specific time to report our whereabouts to a bunch of strangers. I mean, I sort of understand that maybe having a big group of cruisers calling in to report what sort of weather they are having might be useful to others around them, but honestly the weather we’ve had for the last 20,000 miles or so hasn’t been worth talking about. I already get my own weather forecasts, and despite all my bitching, the weather is simply never that bad.
The other big purpose of these nets is to talk about places before you even get to them. Personally we hate to talk to people about places we are headed to, because we’d much rather explore it for ourselves. We don’t want to be told where everything is and what is worth doing and what is not. Part of the fun of a new destination is finding diesel, groceries, and whatever else we need. I guess more than anything though is that we hate feeling like we have joined in a flock of sheep, and that is what it is starting to seem like around here.
The thing with circumnavigating is that each year sort of falls into a group because everybody is following the same seasons all around the world. And right now, here in Oman, we are in a bottleneck. We are all funneling our way into the Red Sea and there aren’t a whole lot of choices as far as destinations go, so we start to see each other over and over again. When this happens you get that herd mentality thing going, and we just can’t stand it. But hey, I’m ranting for no reason. Some people need that security and that’s just fine, what do I care?
On the same subject of group mentality, six boats left the harbor together today. This of course is because we are now heading through pirate waters. Really the only true pirated waters in the world. This is about the only place where there have been attacks against small boats. There is a twenty-four hour period in which we will be sailing through an area that boats get attacked every year. Most cruisers will sail in convoys through this area.
Somehow we just can’t see the logic in that. If I’m a pirate and I see a group of three sailboats, all I think is that I am going to make three times more money than usual. I just can’t imagine why three, or four, or five, or six sailboats together would scare away a speedboat full of pirates. It would be one thing if all cruisers carried weapons. Attacking three sailboats that were all shooting at you would seem pretty stupid. But hardly anybody is packing heat out here and the pirates know that from experience.
So say for example that Ali and I were traveling in a group of three sailboats and a pirate boat attacks one of the others. What are we supposed to do about it? We have no gun, so we can’t shoot them, and our boat is made of fiberglass, so we can’t ram them. The only thing I’d want to do is run for it, say good luck to our friends and get the hell out of there as fast as we could while the pirates were busy. At least that’s what we’d want to do. In truth we’d try to go to their rescue, and get robbed ourselves for our troubles. No thanks. We’re going to make the passage through pirate territory on our own. We don’t need to be worrying about anybody but ourselves.
Honestly though, we aren’t worried at all about pirates. According to the numbers I’ve seen, the odds of being attacked are roughly one in a hundred. In my line of work if somebody gave me a ninety-nine percent chance of success on a trade, I would lay down everything I owned on it. So why would this be any different? Anyway, we wanted to get that on the record now since it sounds a little hollow if we talk big once we are safely on the other side. Pirates shmirates.
march 8 2006 : salalah
It’s been a busy couple of days here in Oman. Yesterday morning we drove into Salalah and started to work on the list. We went to the grocery store again, we got diesel again, stopped in at the pharmacy, went to the bank, had lunch, and then drove up in to the mountains. This drive was really nice. The beach was long and deserted. All along the beach were these fancy picnic shelters, but you got the feeling that they were never used.
After zipping along the coast for a little while the road started to climb, and climb, and climb. Eventually we were well above the clouds looking down on the beach. Along the way the road was a series of really steep switchbacks and at one point we came across a guy in a pickup truck herding camels up the middle of the street. We pulled up alongside him and talked for a few seconds and then he asked us where we were from. We told him the U.S. and suddenly his face turned from friendly to very unhappy and he stopped talking. We waved and drove off from our first unfriendly encounter.
We’ve told dozens of inquisitive locals in the last couple of days where we are from, since they all ask, and 9 out of 10 have been extremely friendly and very interested to hear what we were doing here and how we liked it. The other couple of people haven’t been outwardly hostile but you could tell they were not happy. Whatever, the good always outweigh the bad. We’re not about to change some religious zealots frame of mind so why worry about it?
Driving around Oman you realize that this is another one of those countries where nobody thinks anything of throwing a bag full of garbage right out the window of their car. The amazing thing is that despite seeing this over and over again you look around and don’t see any garbage. Then you realize that is because of the thousands of highway workers. The government must have a plan in place to give everyone a job because they are all busy cleaning up the highways. Picking up garbage is a big job, but there are also people everywhere you look painting every surface, the light poles, the curbs, and the fences.
Today was a virtual repeat of the day before. We did a bunch of running around in town and then drove along a different route up in to the mountains again. We really enjoy the scenery here. Along the coast is dry and barren and then a few kilometers inland you climb very steeply up the mountains where it gets just slightly greener, but enough so that cattle and camels are grazing everywhere you look. And there is hardly any traffic so we can stop every 50 yards or so to watch the camels plod along and entertain us.
march 10 2006 : salalah
Alright we finally settled down yesterday and did some boat work. The main project was changing the oil and servicing the engines. That and a bunch of other small projects kept us busy all afternoon. One thing we noticed since we got here is that the boat is floating at least two inches higher in the water. Normally we would attribute this to having empty tanks, but since we have full fuel and water tanks we know that’s not it. It seems that the reason for it is actually because of the really high salinity level of the water. It’s nice to not feel like we are way overloaded anymore.
We’ve also continued to meet nice people here. Last night we were walking up the road to the Oasis when a cabbie stopped and picked us up “no charge.” He was happy to hear we were Americans and told us all about the three months he’d spent in Texas with the, how you say, cowboys? Oman seems pretty tame for a Middle Eastern country.
march 11 2006 : salalah
We’re just about ready to continue on towards the Red Sea so yesterday we decided to spend a night at the Hilton right down the road. Taxi drivers here are about as bad as we’ve found anywhere as far as haggling over price goes. Next to the taxi stand is a price list, and despite the fact that the prices are at least five times what is fair they try to stick to it. We bargained over a price for our three mile ride yesterday but finally gave up and started to walk down the road to hitchhike before the cabbie finally realized that we really weren’t going to pay him $20 for the five minute drive and he picked us up. At the Hilton we spent the day lounging by the pool, swimming at the beach, and eating cheeseburgers. It was a nice way to spend the day and get us ready for a few weeks of tougher sailing in much different areas than we’re used to. Today we are heading downtown to pick up our laundry and some fresh food before we head out of here on Monday.
One thing we have found strange here in Oman is that there are no dogs. Literally none. We haven’t seen a dog during our entire time here. We don’t know if that’s a religious thing or what, but it feels weird since we are used to walking down the streets everywhere we go and seeing them all over the place.
march 13 2006 : en route to yemen
On our way again. We didn’t do much yesterday since we were already pretty well ready to leave. The last project we needed to get done was to caulk our back rub rail on. It had been ripped loose on the last passage which isn’t anything new, it’s happened a couple of times before. Our slow dinghy leak had also progressed into a full blown gusher that I could now actually stick my finger all the way through. The seams are just opening up, and the weird thing is that they leave absolutely no trace of glue behind. I wanted to fix this one with the 5200 just like I did with the other seam, but it needs a good 48 hours to fully cure. So instead I put a couple drops of super glue on it and within minutes we were good to go again. Don’t know if it will hold up permanently but I think we should have bought a bunch more of those little tubes just in case.
We then walked up to the Oasis for one last good restaurant meal before having to fend for ourselves again. After that we went to clear out. We visited customs who gave us our port clearance papers after we assured them we were leaving at 7:00. Technically that was true, but it was actually 7:00 the next morning we were planning on. Without that little white lie we probably wouldn’t have been able to get out of there any earlier than noon the next day. A quick stop at immigration for an exit stamp in the passports and we were officially out of Oman.
Without going into details, we got the, “oh, you’re really hurrying” speech again. This time it was from a younger couple who have taken like ten years to get this far, and have spent at least six years of that back home working. It must be some sort of gag reflex for people to say that to us.
We’ve started making a list of boat projects that need to be done when we get to a suitable marina again, probably in Israel. One of the things that has been driving us crazy lately is the port side rudder. The rudder comes up in to the boat through a fiberglass casing that extends a couple of feet above the waterline. Apparently this along with some sort of washers are what keeps seawater from coming in through the same hole and flooding the boat. Unfortunately it seems that our washers are wearing out. Now whenever we have moderately rough seas, but only from the starboard side, we end up with water getting through. It amounts to about a half gallon in the bilge every couple of hours. The bilge pump gets some of it out and would keep it from ever flooding, but it doesn’t get it all and we end up sponging a lot of water in to a bucket and tossing it outside. It gets a little old after a while.
We’re also going to be overdue for a bottom painting judging by the growth we’ve been getting on the boat lately. We look like one of those boats that sit in a marina and never go out sailing. Then there is the starboard engine which has started to act up a little bit and could probably do with a qualified mechanic giving it a once over. And of course there is the ever present issue of what to do with the dinghy. I’m pretty sure we’ll be sporting a new one when we hit the Mediterranean.
This morning we were on our way out of Salalah at seven sharp. There is hardly a breath of wind and we are motoring along in calm seas. As soon as we were far enough out we fired up the watermaker. For some reason the watermaker never starts on the first try. This time it didn’t start three times in a row and I began to get really nervous. I messed around with a few valves until eventually it fired up. Ali didn’t seem the least bit perplexed by this whole episode, but for me making water is one of the most stressful times on the boat. I sit there staring at the display, holding my breath, and willing the little green light to appear instead of the red light and blaring alarm. It drives me crazy.
march 15 2006 : en route
Forty-eight hours into another windless passage, we haven’t had a sail up or the engines off. We are supposed to have a pretty strong current in our favor but so far have been battling against one instead. Confused by this I’ve actually put my mask on and stuck my head under the boat to make sure we hadn’t snagged a net or anything. Twice.
No nets, but I did jump up the second time when I stuck my head right into the middle of a school of fish. Four little six inch purple and blue striped fish looking as happy as could be were hustling along right underneath the boat. They scooted away for a second when I first stuck my head in but then quickly recovered and continued along just inches from my face.
Yesterday morning we were caught by a convoy. Four sailboats had left in a group just a few hours behind us. One of them had three young boys and they hadn’t been planning to convoy but when the convoy leader asked them if they’d like to go along with them on Sunday, instead of replying that they weren’t interested in convoying they told him they weren’t going to be ready to leave until Monday, to which the convoy leader said that was no problem they would all wait until Monday for them. Then they felt too bad to back out.
Anyway, they were acting pretty funny about this whole pirate business. They motored a mile out of their way to come alongside of us. As they got closer I could see the two older boys running around at the front of the boat, then there was a big bang. They were lighting off fireworks to sound like gunfire, while pointing toy guns and bow and arrows at us. They found the whole idea of pirates to be just another adventure and thought it was pretty funny when Ali and I would pretend to be hit by them.
So far out here we’ve had two boats approach us. The first was obviously a fishing boat and they did the usual thing, pulling alongside and asking for smokes. The next boat was more of a small open fishing boat that we usually see nearer to land, but this one had two forty horse outboards and came roaring up to us. We could only see two guys at first, but as they got closer two more popped up. We were fifty miles from land so they seemed a little out of place, and I found myself tucking a knife into the back of my shorts. They screamed up alongside of us, looking pretty menacing, but again they were harmless and just wanted cigarettes. We went through the usual charade that has to be played out. They make the signal for smoking, we shake our heads no, they repeat, we repeat, and we do this from ten to twenty times before they finally take off empty handed. They never ask to trade anything, which baffles me since they are supposedly out here fishing.
After living and working in Chicago Ali and I became immune to having beggars sticking their hands out. The majority of them were professionals that we saw every day in the same spot and then occasionally we’d see them inside the grocery store counting out a big pile of change for their groceries and beer before heading home for the night. But in Islam they have this thing where you are supposed to give alms to the poor. In Sri Lanka there was a fair amount of begging and we were surprised to see so many locals handing over their change, but we found out they were just giving alms as prescribed by their religion. So out here we are prepared to be approached in anchorages by people who are not very well off and who are obviously needy. But when we are 50 miles from land and a boat that is guzzling about a gallon of gasoline a minute comes flying over the horizon to beg us for cigarettes is that really considered giving alms? Seems more like a bunch of guys looking to take advantage of a situation and get something for nothing. We’re not sure how other cruisers are handling this but from us they get nothing.
The GPS is giving some really funky readings along this stretch. Our last day as we approached Oman we were motoring at only about 4 knots, but our trip odometer gave us mileage showing that we were doing about 8 knots for a 12 hour period. If only we could really do that. And now two days in to this trip it shows that we have only covered 110 miles instead of the 170 or so that we’ve really done. Last nights 12 hour period showed us only going 18 miles. The strange thing is that the GPS speedometer seems correct, and the position it shows us at is correct and not bouncing all over the place, instead it is only the trip odometer mileage that is really out of whack. The guidebook mentioned that GPS readings in this area are not reliable and I guess this is what they were talking about.
march 16 2006 : en route
Yesterday morning I was on the computer when Ali called down to me that we had a boat racing towards us. I quickly changed into some shorts, figuring that I wouldn’t cut a very imposing figure wearing red boxer shorts, my usual attire while on passage in the tropics. As always, there was a guy standing at the bow of the boat coming towards us making all sorts of crazy arm gestures. You know how Americans and Europeans use hand signals that we assume are universal? They aren’t.
These guys have dramatic gestures that we cannot comprehend the meaning of. It seems like they are telling us to drop our sails and stop the boat, but we’re pretty sure that’s not really it. In any event this group looked pretty rough. I found myself tucking my knife in my shorts again, as if I am some sort of ninja or something. Two of them had scarves wrapped around their faces so only their eyes showed, and the way they were looking at the boat I thought they might seriously be thinking about jumping aboard. But after a few tense moments eyeing each other up they began making gestures that I could understand, begging for cigarettes. After telling them no a few times they roared off. All that hype and they turned out to be just another boatload of “cigarette pirates.”
A few minutes later we were surrounded by similar boats all the way across the horizon. We could see at least twenty of them at one time. They were all coming from the Yemen side of us and heading in the direction of Somalia. The Gulf of Aden is about 175 miles wide at this point and these guys definitely weren’t fishing boats, we’re not really sure what they were all up to. Only the one boat stopped though, and within ten minutes the horizon was clear again.
In the afternoon we had a huge pod of pilot whales join us. This is the first time we have seen these guys. They look to be about three times bigger than a bottlenose dolphin, with a big round head shaped like a torpedo. After about an hour of swimming alongside of us they veered off and disappeared leaving us alone once again.
We’re getting into the actual pirate territory now. There is one particular stretch of water, about 150 miles long, where the majority of attacks have taken place in the past. We’re running with no lights on at night, relying on the radar to keep us from running into anything. However we do have a full moon which pretty well lights up everything anyway. Ali is our resident radar pro. She flicks the thing on and races through the menu like a professional. I’ve hardly ever used the radar but she has always preferred to use it for tracking ships.
So far we haven’t picked up anything on radar that we haven’t been able to also see running lights on. You have to figure that pirates aren’t cruising around with their running lights on, right? So basically what is probably happening is that the cargo ships are picking us up on radar and figuring that we are the pirates since they can’t see us.
march 19 2006 : aden, yemen
The last couple of days we transited the area of the Gulf of Aden that is reportedly teeming with pirates. We hardly saw a ship, much less a small boat carrying pirates. There go my dreams of becoming a pirate slaying hero. I suppose it’s for the best; Ali doesn’t need to be dealing with my ego after that.
We did get a little wind and were able to motorsail, which got us through the area quickly. During the day we were sitting outside keeping an eye on things, when I found myself always looking behind us for boats, and not really paying much attention to what was in front of us. Why did I think that a pirate boat would come up behind us? It’s not like we’re on a one lane highway.
This morning we pulled into Yemen. It was the first time in a month that we had overcast skies, which was disappointing since the view was spectacular. Jagged mountains guarded the harbor, with small homes dotting their faces. As we got closer, the water took on that particular shade of green that is used in cartoons to depict radioactive waste. And that’s not an exaggeration. Coming around the corner into the harbor we were shocked to find about twenty sailboats at anchor. Turns out they were part of a north to south rally. We had heard about this rally but hadn’t really expected to see them.
We dropped the anchor and I put my now fully functional dinghy in the water. My super glue patch jobs are doing the trick. I went ashore to get us cleared in and was immediately welcomed by a half dozen people lingering near the dinghy dock. I made my way over to immigration and was greeted warmly there as well. We sat down and began the paperwork, which was surprisingly short and sweet. Our new ships stamp, bought in Oman, was a resounding success and was passed around so everybody could inspect it and wonder at where the ink came from. We never did figure that one out.
Next stop was customs, where I was again able to complete the simple paperwork within a couple of minutes. This guy was slick, he asked, “Anything to declare?” I said no. Then in the same tone, and without skipping a beat, he asked, “Any presents for me?” I patted my pockets and said, “Sorry, nope.” He let it go at that and welcomed me just as everyone else had. Back at the boat, Ali couldn’t believe that we were cleared in so quickly.
We were of course anxious to get off the boat and explore a little bit so we headed right back in. We wandered down the street a little bit before a guy attached himself to us. Obviously hoping to become our “guide” and earn himself some commissions. He was friendly enough though and we let him follow along pointing out different things to us. Walking through town we got a lot of stares and friendly smiles. We were also stopped by quite a few people who asked us where we were from and then said, “Welcome to our country!” One old beat up car even backed up a block going the wrong way in order to say that to us. It really makes us happy to see how much goodwill we receive in these countries. Back in the States you are made to feel that if you visit these countries you will be attacked by angry mobs, but the reality is something totally different.
After ducking in to an internet café for an hour we were sure that we had finally lost our “friend.” We walked around town for about ten minutes before he miraculously appeared again alongside us. He walked with us for a couple of minutes and then veered off. We finally thought he had given up on us but ten minutes later he was again walking across the street to head us off. He asked us if we knew so and so, which we didn’t, but he couldn’t comprehend that we wouldn’t know them because they were Americans. We finally lost him again, but not before he warned us for the umpteenth time not to use the taxi drivers because they are very, very dangerous. Dangerous to his pocketbook maybe. We’re hoping he’ll realize tomorrow that it’s a lost cause with us and he’ll leave us alone to do our own thing.
Oh yeah, as if to prove my point about not being safer by traveling in a group of boats, we met the organizer of the Vasco de Gamma Rally while we were at the money changers. We asked how the trip south had gone and he told us that they had lost three boats! This out of a group of what appears to be maybe 20. Now those are some bad odds. Two boats hit reefs and were damaged badly enough that they couldn’t go on. While another caught fire and sank to the bottom, which is a very effective way to put a fire out. Don’t think they’ll be advertising those facts on next year’s flyers. Ali tried cheering him up by saying, “Well, at least you’ve got some exciting stories to tell.” He looked at her like she was mad. Apparently he doesn’t feel that boat wrecks make very good dinner conversation.
march 20 2006 : aden
Yemen has been a total surprise to us. At five o’clock last night we went to the Sailor’s Club, a restaurant we were anchored right out front of. We assumed by the name of the place that it would be another ex-pat hangout, like the Oasis in Oman, but when we walked into the place we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was packed full of locals, men and women, drinking and partying.
Every table was stacked high with empty beer cans and bottles of vodka. We sat down and ordered a couple beers. Pretty soon locals were filing over one at a time, introducing themselves, asking where we were from, and welcoming us warmly to their country.
It was an interesting crowd. One guy was a General in the Yemenese Army who had been schooled in Russia. He had been on the sauce since noon and I soon found myself joining him in a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem. His girlfriend, a Somalian, was very humorous and was making fun of his drunkenness whenever he had his back turned.
One guy was in Aden visiting his family. He has been living in Detroit for twenty years and insisted on buying his fellow “brothers” from America a round of drinks. Another girl was from a jungle five hundred miles away near Saudi Arabia. We asked what she was doing in Aden, but she just laughed. Later on we found out that some of the girls were working girls, but we didn’t know for sure and didn’t really care. In between all of this we managed to scarf down a heaping plate of spicy rice and fish.
I asked our Detroit friend what it was that the locals had tucked in their cheeks. Earlier in the day while walking around town, we had seen many with what looked like a baseball in their mouth. His eyes lit up as he explained qat, and the effects of sucking the juice from the leaves. If you use it he said, “Your wife will look like an angel, and the husband will…” Let’s just say the effects are supposed to be similar to a little blue pill.
Later he appeared with a pile of these leaves in hand and I popped a few in my mouth. Not that Ali needs any help looking like an angel of course; it just seemed like an interesting cultural experiment. After chewing it a while I began to feel a lot like a cow. And not a horny cow either, so I threw it out. We went back to the boat soon after. I think Ali wanted to find out if the qat had any effects besides making me look silly. Instead we just crashed into bed while the party raged on until four in the morning.
This morning the cruising rally got up and headed out to sea like a fleet of Navy destroyers in what looked like a big V pattern. The flock continued their migration. We’re glad they are going in the opposite direction, anchorages must get pretty crowded when they all roll in.
In the afternoon we were supposed to meet one of our new friends from last night, Farook, to drive us around and show us the sights. He works in the Ministry of Finance and was eager to show off his country to us. He also wasn’t drinking so we actually thought we could trust him and agreed to go along. Unfortunately we waited around for an hour and a half for Farook and he was a no show. We got stood up. While we were sitting around waiting for him we watched as the guard who checks us in and out set his machine gun down next to his desk. A minute later the gun slid on the marble floor and hit the ground with a crack. Don’t know whether or not everybody should be entrusted with automatic weapons.
We finally gave up on our guy and just hired a taxi to drive us around for an hour. He told us that qat is legal here and it is grown in northern Yemen high in the mountains. He then drove us into the qat market. There were hundreds of people selling nothing but piles of leaves. There were also hundreds of people who seemed to be totally stoned and just laying around. Our driver obviously didn’t think much of people who used the stuff and kept pointing and laughing at the really bad off ones. He also liked to make fun of women wearing full robes and veils, calling them ninjas. He wasn’t exactly the sensitive politically correct type. Come to think of it we probably should have gotten along splendidly, but we didn’t, and we had him drop us off back at the boat early after we couldn’t manage to find a single road that led up into the mountains, only roads that led to really nice tea shops where he would try to get us to get out and have a cup.
march 22 2006 : aden
Yesterday we didn’t really have much to do. We picked up our laundry which is always an interesting experience. This time our stuff came back with a big H written in permanent marker on every item. Usually on a tag, but if the shirt had a collar it went underneath that, and on a small rug we had cleaned they had actually put the big H on each side of it, so that it now sits on the floor bearing the scarlet letter. Aside from that, and a big tear in a pillow case they came back in pretty good condition. It’s pretty clear however that upon returning back to the U.S. at the end of the trip we will have to throw out our entire wardrobe and start over.
We had lunch at this little local place for the second time. Our waiter was happy to see us again and quickly ushered us in to his section. No matter what you order at this place you end up getting a four course meal. We got a huge salad, a couple bowls of soup, a big basket of bread, our main meals, and tea. Total cost $4.
After lunch we grabbed a taxi and had him bring us to the Aden shopping mall. Our taxi driver didn’t speak English and our price negotiations went like this. I asked how much to the mall and he said 700 ($3.50 USD), I told him we’d pay 200, to which he shook his head and said 50! I asked, “Fifty?” He confirmed 50, and off we went. If only my negotiating skills were always that good.
Later on we realized that he must have really meant 500, but when I had paid him with a 50 he hadn’t said anything so we thought it was correct. We weren’t sure what would be at the mall but it was a huge complex so we figured we’d have a look around. We got there at one o’clock and found that it was completely shut down until four. We walked around and realized there was nothing but fabric shops with homemade clothes in them anyway and so we walked downtown to the market.
Aden actually covers a large area and there are really about five different small cities in this area. This was the main area called Little Aden, or the Crater, because obviously it’s located at the bottom of a crater. We started wandering around the town aimlessly just enjoying the small shops and the sights and sounds. After a while though we found ourselves slowly heading up the hill and also slowly starting to feel more and more out of place. We couldn’t find a taxi anywhere but eventually caught a glimpse of the ocean which I knew was where we had started from so we headed back in that direction.
All over Aden, at any time of day, people are out on the streets lounging around or playing games. There are billiard and foosball tables on sidewalks everywhere. Today as we were walking by a group of guys playing foosball invited us to play a game. I jumped in with them, though Ali, feeling her foosball skills weren’t quite up to snuff, let another guy team up with me. We promptly got schooled ten to three. I could blame it on not knowing the table roll, but actually they were just good players. They were a spirited bunch and we had a good time with them.
After that we walked to the main market area and sat down to have a juice and watch the crowd. This town was a lot more lively than the area by our boat. We saw an adult smash a little kids cardboard candy stall while the little kid threw huge rocks at the guys ankles, which was pretty interesting. Then we saw a guy try to steal a cardboard box from a cigarette vendor and get chased across the street before giving up. It was all a little strange.
Then a lady wearing a full veil who had been sitting right next to us stood up and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and she stuck her hand out at me as if I was supposed to give her money. I shook my head no and she turned towards Ali and gave her, what to us looked like the finger before walking off. I don’t know if Arabs really give people the finger or not, but we decided maybe it was time to get home. We walked over to the taxi stand and asked how much. They said 700, and we told them we had only paid 50 to get there. They just laughed at us and said 400 was their final price. Now is when we realized that the 50 had been a mistake and the guy probably really meant 500 but was too embarrassed, or nice, to correct us.
Anyway, these guys pointed us over to the buses, which were really just small vans which all looked like they should have stopped running about 500,000 miles earlier. Jalopy isn’t a word I think I have ever used, but in this country that is what every single car is. It’s incredible that they keep these things on the road. Everywhere you look is a little mechanics shop carrying just the few spare parts that must be needed in order to keep them running though. Our bus driver was a friendly guy who had been to Dallas. Seems like everywhere we go now we meet people that have been to Dallas. All of them have been there because of their previous jobs in the oil industry. How they now find themselves driving a beat up old bus for a couple of dollars a day is a mystery to me.
Last night we went with a couple of friends out for drinks at a nearby restaurant which called itself a tourist restaurant but was actually filled with the most depressing group of locals we’ve encountered, each with their half empty bottles of gin in front of them. Not even close to the fun, crazy atmosphere of the restaurant the other night. We had a few beers there and then walked downtown to find a late dinner. We stopped at a sidewalk rotti “restaurant” and ordered up a feast. They only made like 4 different dishes and they were all excellent. The plain rotti were these huge sheets of flaky hot bread. Then they serve up what’s like a spicy stew of chicken and vegetables for you to dip your rotti in to. It was great, and the atmosphere couldn’t be beat. The locals were all friendly and eager to talk with us and after Ali took a picture of the kitchen area they were all over her to take their pictures as well.
On a different subject, one thing we’ve found interesting in a lot of countries we’ve visited is how openly affectionate men are with one another. You see men holding hands everywhere you go and giving each other long kisses on the cheeks or neck. To the homophobic it would be very uncomfortable, but you soon realize how totally natural it is for them. I’ve found that a lot of times when someone shakes my hand here they don’t just shake and release but instead shake and then just hold on to my hand while we talk, sometimes for up to a minute. It takes a little getting used to but is really very nice because you feel like they are genuinely interested in you.
I had one interesting conversation with a teenage boy sitting next to me. He spoke really good English and told me that he had been born in Florida where he lived for two years before coming back to Yemen. He is planning to go to university in Florida in a couple more years. We were chatting away when he suddenly switched subjects on me and asked, “Are you a Muslim?” He caught me off guard and so to buy time I replied, “What?” He repeated, “Are you a Muslim? It’s okay if you’re not.” This last part he said with a hint of sympathy in his voice. I finally said that we didn’t really practice religion but that we try and respect all religions. In truth, even that is probably overstating our religious convictions, but I thought it sounded okay, and he seemed to accept that as an answer.
A while later he got out his cell phone to give me his number in case I needed anything while visiting Yemen. I noticed that his phone had a picture of a sexy blonde on the screen and asked him who it was. He named some movie star and then proceeded to show me that he had over 300 revealing pictures of Western women stored on his phone. I wasn’t sure how that jived with his strong Muslim faith, but I’m sure he’ll fit right in at the University of Miami.
march 23 2006 : aden
Today was clearing out day. We didn’t have much to do other than picking up a few vegetables and bread from the market. After that we went back to our favorite restaurant for the third time to have lunch. Some of the delicacies listed on the menu there were: Dove Soap, Greece Salad, and Meat with Steak. Since we weren’t sure what sort of meat comes with the steak we decided to stick with fish, chicken, and rice.
Some things we found interesting here were that one, everybody washes their hands before they eat, just like mom always told us to. Two, the reason they all wash their hands so good is because they eat most of their food with their hands. Three, about half the people take their cup of tea and pour it in to the saucer and sip it from there instead of directly from the cup. Four, after we finished our meal our waiter would come by with a bottle of perfume and give us three squirts on our hands. And five, they are the fastest eaters we’ve ever seen. At least twenty tables full of people came in, ate, and left, by the time we had taken our third bite.
We also stopped at the internet café and when we were up at the counter paying, the guy looks closely at me and says, “You know who you look like?” And wouldn’t you know it, even in Yemen I get told of my celebrity look alike status.
Walking down the street we came across a little shop that called itself a ships chandlery. We walked in and found it was more of a toaster and electric shaver sort of place, but poking around in a back room we found a machine gun hanging on the wall held together by duct tape. It was for sale for $400 USD, but there is no doubt it could have been ours for about $50. But no, just like when I was a kid, Ali said, “No machine guns in the house.”
At the dock today we were approached by a group of teenage girls. One of them was really outgoing and asked if she could take a picture with Ali. The girl was really cute and kept telling us, “This is my dream.” We couldn’t figure out exactly what her dream was, but it seemed just meeting Americans really made her day. She was one of the more daring young girls we’d seen, wearing a standard black robe, but dressing it up with pink cowboy boots, a big pink ring, a pink purse, and taking digital pictures with her pink cell phone. She must have thought she’d met her long lost sister in Ali who was also dressed in head to toe pink. After a quick picture with Ali we all said goodbye. But a few minutes later they were back, this time wanting me in the picture as well. It was really a cool experience, and something totally unexpected.
march 25 2006 : coast of eritrea, africa (red sea)
Africa! a new continent to explore. However we still haven’t stepped foot on land. Two days ago we left Aden early in the morning for an overnight passage to Assab, Eritrea. This passage took us through the Bab el Mandeb Strait, a ten mile long pass that leads from the Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea. Throughout the day the winds gradually increased, which we expected since this area acts like a funnel. At midnight we reached the small strait which is only about a mile wide. By this time, winds were up to thirty-five knots coming from behind. We were flying along at ten knots without any problems. It was a little unnerving sailing so quickly through such a narrow area in the dark. But by sunrise we were closing in on Assab and looking forward to a new country.
We tried to hail Assab Port Control as we approached but nobody was answering. As we got closer we found the port full of huge cranes and all the normal busy port paraphernalia, except that there was no one in sight. The wind was still howling, so we just dropped the anchor behind the breakwall and went to bed. By afternoon the wind hadn’t let up. There was no way we were going to put the dinghy in and try negotiating the waves to shore. We decided to just skip Assab completely and continue up the coast without clearing in.
This morning we woke up early and headed out. The winds were still strong, and within a few hours we had seen the first fifty knot winds of our entire trip. Again the wind was coming from behind us, and with just the jib out we were sailing along pretty well. Fortunately there isn’t enough fetch in this area for the seas to become too big, so despite the high winds the seas never got over eight feet.
We shot a little video while we were sailing today. In the video the wind is blowing at 40 knots and we are speeding along at up to 12 knots. Look close at the beginning and you can see a big fish jump right in front of the boat.
A little before dark we finally came to our destination for the night, Mersa Dudo. It’s a small bay with good protection from the wind, which was still blowing at forty knots when we arrived. After rounding the corner we had to motor straight into the wind for the last mile, barely making one knot of headway.
Inside the bay we found a fishing boat and a couple of small huts. Before our anchor was in the water we had a boat full of fisherman motoring over to us. All I could think was that we didn’t have enough Cokes in the fridge for everyone. When they came alongside of us a young kid said hello and then explained that one of the men had an eye problem. He asked if we had any medicine we could give them. Ali and I are not exactly a floating pharmacy, and could only come up with a bottle of Visine. It’s always worked on our itchy, scratchy eyes. They thanked us and sped off without another word.
The landscape around here is lunar, exactly like we’d expect Mars to look. Directly in front of us sit a volcanic crater and two giant cones. When the sand haze clears we can see dozens more of these cones in the distance. From the boat we could also see camels wandering around in the black lava flows nearby. Tomorrow we’re going to climb a volcano in Eritrea, how cool is that?
march 26 2006 : coast of eritrea
Today we went ashore to climb the Dudo volcano, but first we walked over to the lava flow where we had seen camels the night before. The area had some greenery, sort of like an oasis but without the pretty little lake they always have in the movies. We thought maybe the camels would be lazing around in the shade but they were nowhere to be seen.
We gave up on them and made our way back across the desert to the volcano. By now our bottle of water had nearly reached a boil and we were slowly roasting as well. It didn’t feel that hot out and the ground wasn’t scorching but the wind carried a steady heat, and was still blowing over thirty knots.
The climb up the volcano was pretty easy, just a quick scramble up to the ridge line and follow that to the top. Once there we had a beautiful view of the anchorage, our approach between the islands from the day before, and more volcanic cones as far as we could see. We could also see a goat herder with his flock slowly making their way across the arid ground.
We continued around the crater and then made our way back down to the dinghy. There we found the group of fishermen we had met the day before. They were busy cleaning the fishing net that they had left out to dry on the beach. The kid that had asked us for the Visine came over and told us that the man with the bad eye would like to give us a fish. It was a nice gesture and we were happy that we were able to help even in such a small way. It can’t be an easy life out here.
We made a quick stop at the boat and then dinghied over to the nearby wreck to go for a swim and cool off. The water was perfect, clear and a little cooler than we have gotten used to which made it much more refreshing. I swam around the wreck and saw that it would have taken about two seconds to spear dinner if we had needed it. There were plenty of big fish, snapper I think, floating in the shade. The coral was okay too, but I didn’t check it out too well since the wind made it hard to swim against the waves just 20 yards offshore.
march 30 2006 : massawa, eritrea, africa
After two nights at the volcano anchorage, we woke at three a.m. to take advantage of the strong south winds and continue north. Our next stop was far away and we needed the early start. Within a couple of hours the wind had died down and we spent the rest of the day with a gentle breeze from behind. We reached our intended anchorage an hour before dark but decided to continue on through the night in the hope that if conditions remained the same we could reach Massawa, our next stop, by this time tomorrow.
We glided past the anchorage as darkness fell. With no moon and overcast skies we couldn’t see ten feet in front of the boat. Ali went to bed while I grabbed the iPod and sat down outside to stay awake. As the first song was playing I watched the wind indicator suddenly drop from fifteen knots to five to zero in the space of a few seconds. Something was up.
It then spun around right on our nose and just as quickly climbed from zero to ten to twenty knots. Ali heard the sails flapping and came up to help me drop them while we tried to figure out what was happening. We motored on for about half an hour hoping things would die down again. When they didn’t, we decided to head back to the anchorage we had passed by earlier.
After looking over the chart, we found a different anchorage that seemed to have an easier approach and adequate protection from the wind. We would still have to weave through a couple of small islands and their corresponding reefs, but that seemed preferable to getting beat up by headwinds. While Ali watched the charts, I kept a close eye on the radar and depth sounder. We made it in without incident and dropped the anchor.
The next morning we realized why the cruising guide hadn’t listed this as an anchorage. The fringing reef that we had thought would be protecting us didn’t actually exist and we were pretty much anchored in the middle of nowhere. We were up and on our way again by six.
We had an uneventful day of motorsailing and made it in to our next anchorage by late afternoon. After we anchored I went for a swim under the boat just to see how things were looking and I found we had a three foot long fish attached to our bottom. I had actually seen his big tail trailing behind the boat earlier in the day but figured he was just swimming along underneath the back step like the fish I had seen a while ago when I had stuck my head in. This fish was like one of those cleaner fish you see in fish tanks. He was busy gobbling away at whatever had attached itself to our hulls, and from the looks of him he was eating pretty well.
Actually though the bottom of the boat was much cleaner than I had last seen it. I guess the antifouling paint is doing the job after all, as long as we keep moving. The island we had anchored in front of had a small collection of huts made of sticks on it. It was hard to imagine a less likely place to live than this. The island itself was about one square mile, flat as a pancake, and aside from some brown grass there wasn’t any vegetation at all. We saw one or two people on shore but that was it. We didn’t have any visitors out to the boat.
We went to bed that night not sure if we would be leaving really early again to finish the trip to Massawa, or if we’d sleep in and go to an anchorage at the halfway point. I woke up at two a.m. and found it was completely calm. I never wake up at night, especially in those conditions, so I took it as a sign to get moving again. Because of the Red Sea’s predominantly north wind, when we get south winds or no wind we really need to take advantage of it and keep going. The light winds held for us throughout the day and we made it to Massawa by early afternoon.
Eritrea is an interesting place. It was an Italian colony until they found themselves on the losing side of WWII and the British took over. In 1952, the Brits handed it over to Ethiopia. The Eritreans didn’t like that too much and in 1962 declared themselves a unitary state, touching off nearly forty years of war between themselves and Ethiopia. Looking at a map, Eritrea completely cuts Ethiopia off from the sea, making it obvious why the Ethiopians would want to fight for it. A lot of the fighting is centered around the port of Massawa since it is the largest natural deep water port on the Red Sea.
As we came in we could see the evidence of the fighting everywhere. The place is riddled with sunken ships that we had to maneuver around, and the buildings ashore are largely bombed out shells. The governor’s palace has a big dome on top that is half missing and balancing precariously on top of the crumbling building. We got ourselves anchored and then I headed ashore to get us cleared in.
The immigration building looked like it could come down at any moment, but I climbed the stairs anyway and had a seat in their office. While they were filling out the paperwork I had a look around the walls. There were bar graphs all over them; the type you would see in an elementary school, drawn in bright colors on construction paper. There was one for every year listing the number of cargo ships, fishing vessels, and tourist yachts that had called in at Massawa. In 2004, there were sixty yachts, a couple of dozen fishing boats, and twenty cargo ships. It seemed pretty amazing that a war was fought over a port handling a whopping twenty ships a year. Eritrea has the second lowest GDP in the world, so I suppose it makes sense that they wouldn’t see a lot of cargo ships. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to trade.
Once cleared in we quickly headed into town to try and find some food and drink. It wasn’t hard. There were a lot of small local restaurants who were busy putting out tables and chairs and getting set up for the night. We ended up stopping at a restaurant on the second floor of a hotel overlooking the harbor. They served slightly chilled Asmara beer, a nice brew whipped up in Eritrea’s capital city of the same name. And of course the menu consisted entirely of the local cuisine, Italian food.
I ordered three things before finally hitting on one that was available, spaghetti. Ali ordered spaghetti as well and we sat back to enjoy the view. We were surprised to find that the locals seemed much more Western than we have seen lately. The majority of the women were wearing jeans and t-shirts, with only a very occasional black robe and veil. Everyone was drinking a beer and seemed happy and relaxed.
Walking back to the boat after dinner we saw a line of women sitting in the middle of a dirt parking lot with jerry jugs all around them. We couldn’t figure out what they were doing at first but then realized they were all waiting in line to get water out of a dribbling tap. The tap was set so low to the ground that they had to fill a small pail first and transfer that to their jugs. It looked like the sort of thing that they probably spent the better part of a day doing.
There were quite a few restaurants that had filled the streets with tables. As we were walking along I heard Kenny Rogers playing from one. We thought that seemed like a strange choice of music, just like we had thought it was a few months back when they were playing his Greatest Hits in a Kuala Lumpur bar. We were laughing about that when a hundred yards farther down the road came a booming “Lady! I’m your knight in shining armor, and I love you.” More Kenny. I wonder if he knows just how popular he really is around the world. We would have liked to stay out for a few beers at one of the local Kenny bars but we were exhausted and called it a night instead.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet about Africa is the dirt. The air is two parts oxygen and one part dirt. The boat is covered constantly in a thick layer of it and if you accidentally get your feet wet and walk around you leave behind a trail of muddy footprints. Our nice white lines are now brown, and the silver mast looks more like a big tree trunk. This is a minor inconvenience for somebody like me, but for somebody like Ali it’s a bit more than that. Accordingly, washing the boat has gone from being a once every couple of weeks job, to a daily job. If I wash it off daily with buckets of water it rinses right away, but if left for much longer it gets a little too thick and takes some scrubbing as well. Good times.
march 31 2006 : massawa
Yesterday we had one of the coolest experiences. We were walking through town when we came across an old lady who was busy watching a young boy knock a few bricks off of a crumbling building. We said hello as we walked by and she smiled warmly. After a moment she asked if we liked café. We stopped, turned around, and were sort of unsure what she meant. But then she beckoned us to follow her.
She led us to her home and called for her daughter, Almaz, to come from next door. We were welcomed into her home, which, like all buildings in Massawa, seemed to have taken a number of direct hits from bombs, grenades, and machine guns. It was a combination of brick, stone, and concrete, with fifteen foot ceilings, and just one room about fifteen feet square. There was one bed, a small sofa, a couple of plastic chairs, large tapestries hanging on the walls, and a bunch of plastic bags covering the rest of the walls in the areas where it appeared to be crumbling the worst.
A few moments later Almaz came in with a small metal box that had coals burning on top. She quickly went to work on the extremely drawn out process of making coffee. First she roasted the coffee beans, a ten minute process that filled the room with a delicious aroma. Then she put them in a bowl and ground them. From here the grounds were spooned into a pot, similar to a small genie bottle. She then added water from a plastic container, as there is no running water in the home. The genie bottle then went on the fire. With Almaz constantly fanning the coals the genie bottle sat on the fire for another fifteen minutes. Finally, the coffee was ready.
Already set out were four small espresso type china cups, and just before pouring she stuffed what looked like grass into the opening of the genie bottle. We asked what the grass was, thinking it was a spice or something, and she told us it was hair from a cow’s tail that they used as a filter for the coffee grounds. I don’t think that they sell those filters at Walmart.
During all of this, we had been attempting small talk in their limited English and our completely non-existent Tigrinya. We eventually found some common ground that everyone could understand in a photo album from Almaz’s wedding. The wedding seemed elaborate and very similar to our own, with a big white wedding gown, a three tiered cake, and a car decorated with what we assumed said “Just Married” on the back. There was even the obligatory picture of the two of them feeding each other wedding cake.
While the coffee was being prepared, we were also given a small shot of gin and a plate of bread with some curry paste. They were obviously eager to share anything they had with us. The bread both looked and tasted exactly like a sponge and was quite disgusting, but we managed a few bites each, which made them happy. All in all it was an amazing encounter in which we got to see exactly what life is like for people here in one of the poorest places in the world. And to top it off, the coffee was excellent.
We also had them exchange some money for us on the black market. They got a nice commission and we got a better exchange rate. When we cleared into Eritrea customs gave us a form in which we were supposed to declare how much foreign currency we were bringing in. We were then supposed to take that form to the bank whenever we exchanged our money for the Eritrean nakfa. Whenever a country forces you to do this you can be absolutely sure that you are getting screwed. The bank rate, as it turned out, was only 15 to 1. The black market rate was 18 to 1. Twenty percent is a pretty major difference, so we were happy to get that done.
We then went to the bank to exchange twenty bucks and satisfy customs. Something that caught our eye at the bank was that there was not a single computer. A bank without a computer seems impossible in our minds, but here they had paperwork stacked to the ceilings.
Later that night we went out for dinner. First we stopped by a nice little bar and had a few drinks out on the sidewalk. We then wandered down the street to another little local bar/restaurant. The beer here was practically frozen, which was a nice change and ordering dinner I decided to just ask the waiter to bring me out whatever he thought was good from the list of five local Eritrean dishes. That turned out to be a mistake. He brought out a plate with a giant piece of that wet spongy bread and a sort of meat stew. It was mystery meat at its finest. The flavor was good, but the meat was so chewy that instead of chewing it up I eventually decided that I would have to just wash down whole mouthfuls with a drink of beer. I would have felt bad not making it at least look like I had enjoyed it, so I managed to get down about half the bowl.
Meanwhile Ali was slurping down her bowl of tomato soup, which was at least edible, and when the order of french fries finally arrived I scarfed them down as well. Not our most successful meal. One nice side benefit though was that we were forced to drink a whole bunch more 50 cent beers than we otherwise wouldn’t have. Something we found strange was that no matter how many empty beer bottles you had they never cleared them away when they brought you a new one. There was one table with two guys sitting at it that had a dozen empties teetering on the small table, and I won’t even mention how big our own pile grew.
This morning we headed into immigration to receive our visas. Eritrea would allow us to stay two days without a visa, but if we wanted to stay longer, or travel inland, we needed to shell out the $40 for one. The visa actually cost 600.10 nakfa, which comes out to $40.006. We thought the six tenths of a penny was a nice touch. After paying the fee in one office, we had to go to another office to pay seven nakfa each for a folder that they put our one sheet of paperwork into before tucking it in their file cabinet. It’s sort of funny though, the Eritrean bureaucracy seems pretty involved, but it is actually one of the most efficiently run processes that we’ve dealt with.
After finishing that, we went back to our coffee friend’s home. We had thrown together a little thank you package with some clothes, a picture frame, and a two pound bag of sugar. The picture frame was a hit with mom, and everyone seemed very pleased with the sugar, passing it around in a circle and feeling the weight of it. We’re not sure how the shirts went over, but they all had been wearing Western-style clothes, so we have a feeling we’ll see them in a couple of days walking around in their new duds. Of course, they couldn’t let us get away with just dropping off our gift, and once again we went through the entire coffee process.
Later that day, we took a bus over to the next small town of Edaga. The ride cost a mere ten cents. Our intention was to stop in at the long range bus station and see what time the bus to Asmara left the next day. Instead we found a busy market where we sat and watched life for a while. We didn’t need to buy anything but watching all the different people was fascinating.
The women wore just about anything. There were a few girls wearing Western-style jeans and shirts, and a bigger group that wore beautifully colored sarongs in every color and pattern imaginable. There were only a few women walking around in full black gown and veil. The men here are a much rattier bunch, most wearing tattered golf shirts and some sort of khaki pants, or else dressed in camouflage military garb. We never did make it to the bus station but are certain that there are buses leaving pretty regularly.