Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Traveling up the Red Sea

Suakin, Sudan AFRICA
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Coordinates 19 06.558N, 037 29.356E

We may have had the light winds getting to Yemen but we made up for it with nearly 5 days of perfect winds as we rounded through the Small Straight on the southwest corner of Yemen and headed up the Red Sea. We decided against stopping in Eritrea or Djibouti for a variety of reasons and decided to utilize the wind.

Our stops in Al Mukalla and Aden, Yemen were wonderful. We would be lying if we said we didn't think twice about stopping there once we learned it was the birth place of Osama Binladen, with all the recent government warnings regarding increased Al Qaeda terrorist activities, the evacuations of all non-emergency US citizens, the bombing of the US embassy housing and the murder of two Belgian citizens on the way to the Yemen airport but the Yemeni people couldn't have welcomed us with more open arms.
They provided us with the quickest as easiest check into their country that we have experienced anywhere around the world, complete with great smiles and a fun sense of humor. The only time we really felt a bit unnerved was leaving a restaurant on our 3rd night, we noticed 2 armed military men on the roof and a 3rd posted near our dinghies. We decided it was a show of strength in order to keep us safe. I must say, the full wall of windows we were eating in front of 2 nights in a row did make
us look a bit like food on display in the grocery store. Needless to say, we altered our routines from then on and didn't travel in a pack of 17. No need to draw so much attention.

Right away, the dramatic feel of the town is upon you as you look at how they have built their city right into the side of tall rugged rock mountains that stand as the backdrop, dotted with small caves in the sides, watch towers across the top that once guarded against intruders, and above all, the dozens of minarets that echo out their haunting chants and calls to prayers dutifully 5 times a day. The sounds reverberate over and over as they bounce off the walls behind them and float out across
the waters to us. In the evening each of them glow a soft green light.

It appears as though there is a disproportionately large amount of women to men in the town. The women are difficult to miss with their completely black bourka's as we might refer to them at home, they call abaya and tarha. Hope I have that correct. All women are covered from head to toe with only their eyes showing. Many even have their eyes covered with a see through veil and black gloves on their hands. After talking to them we hear that they wear the same old clothes as you and I do underneath.
They walk together in groups of 4 or 5 friends often in the evenings or approach you in ones and twos asking for money. They ask it of everyone, not just tourists, as giving alms is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. The lack of visible men we found out is due to the growing oil fields in northern Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Many men work the fields there, we even met a couple who trained in Texas and had impeccable English.

Though we really didn't have much time in either location for sight seeing we tried to take in the local culture and flavors by visiting a suq (local bazaar and tea house). Stalls of fresh jasmine flower necklaces, Arabic chewing gum, herbs, spices, yummy tea and sweet breads gave us a pretty good start. There may not be any alcohol allowed, though they didn't hesitate to ask for it and we heard it was easily acquired on the black market, they have qat. An amphetamine type plant that looks like
thick glossy basil leaves; they chew like tobacco, all day. Then they take a shot or two of whisky at night to help them sleep. This is legal no matter what your job. We originally though the town shut down between 12 and 4pm because of the heat as in the olden days but now we think maybe it is the effects of the qat catching up to them. In the malls, nearly every store is a clothing or fabric store for the most beautiful, colorful, jeweled and sequined flowing gowns that they wear behind closed
doors for family and friends. It was stunning. For $150 USD you could have a tailored gown that would put everyone to shame on the red carpet.

We wished we could have had so much more time to dive in deeper. The local people we were lucky enough to meet had so much fun helping us practice our Arabic and we were amazed and their English skills, their diversity, and their ability to progress into the future while holding on tight to their cultures, customs and history. Though arranged marriages and multiple wives still seems to be the regular practice, we also were privileged to meet 3 lovely young ladies in the grocery store each about
20 years of age and studying at the university in French, journalism and medicine…impressive.

We didn't want to wear out our welcome so it was time to move on. Just under half way up the Red Sea and about to touch the continent of Africa, we couldn't be more excited.
Until next time,
Your Ohana Kai crew

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