Thursday, September 29, 2011

San'a, Yemen

Our stay in Yemen was probably one of the highlights of our round the world cruise so far. `This was in 2007.   Erin, our oldest daughter, was with us as we sailed down the Red Sea and planned to make the crossing of the Arabian Sea to Cochin, India with us.   While waiting for the right wind to take us to India we decided to make a short trip up to San'a, the capitol of Yemen, an ancient city that looks like it was pulled from the pages of National Geographic.

Entering San'a by the front door, the Bab al San'a.

The architecture in San'a is unique.   The tower houses look like gingerbread.    In this picture you can see the painters putting a fresh coat of white borders around the windows and doors.    The windows have stained glass arches which make a nice effect both inside the room and outside at night when the lights come on and the windows are all lit up with color.

This is the market in the evening.

Some shops with their wares outside.

We met Noman at the Felix Arabia hotel.   He was our guide for three days while we toured the hilltop villages around San'a.    We paid him about $60 a day for his services including the car and gas.  We paid separately for the funduq's (B&Bs) which were about $10 each. 

Our first stop on the tour was to overlook Wadi Dhar.   Most of the greenery you see here are qat trees

Wadi Dhar is famous for the Rock Palace, pretty self explanatory in this picture.

Room inside the Rock Palace.   Each level of a tower house has a purpose.   The bottom is usually where the animals are kept.    This is more of a social room, but some of the rooms are gender specific.

Before stopping on the first night, Noman took us through Thule.    Here we met the most persistent salespeople of all time.    Even the kids were selling something and they wouldn't let up for a minute.


These guys were anxious to sell us something.   Every time we passed one shop, the man would shut the door, then leap frog in front of us to open up another one with all the same stuff in it.  It was pretty comical.  In the end I bought a door knocker and the shop keeper was a bit frustrated with me as I managed to get him down on the price by a lot.  He told Noman I was too tough, like a Bedouin woman.   I think that might have been a compliment.

We stayed our first night in Kawkaban which is perched on the edge of a cliff.   We passed through an ancient gate (I keep saying ancient... places around here were very old but still in use).   The drawings reflect political parties.. note the horse to the left and the sun on the tower.

In the morning, Noman directed us to a trail that led down the cliffside to Shibam the village you can see distantly in this picture.   The trail was steep, cut right into the cliff.   I was having a little difficulty, skipping out on the loose stones and this woman came down behind us, grabbed my hand and escorted me all the way down.    She was older than me, at least she looked it, but went at such a fast pace that I had to practically jog to keep up with her.  The picture to the right is our room while in Kawkaban.  Pretty comfy.

The women do not like to have their picture taken so we had to sneak them from time to time, which is why we got mostly their backs.   If they catch you taking their picture they will throw stones at you.    Their bourkas were different here, they look like tablecloths.

This picture is taken on the trail, looking back up to Kawkaban.  You can see what I mean by a steep trail built right into the cliffside.

Each town had a cistern for water storage.   This one is in Hababah.   Most of the younger people leave the hillside towns for San'a to get work.

On the way to our next village we stopped at the qat suq to buy some qat.    Qat is a scourge in Yemen.   Most of the men in Yemen have stuffed their cheeks until they pouch out with the green leaves and then slowly suck and chew on them.   This starts about mid afternoon and continues on into the evening.   The men will try and tell you it is a stimulant but not a narcotic, however, none of the men looked very stimulated to us.   They will spend up to 50% of their salaries on the stuff.    Yemen and Somalia are notorious for chewing qat, but Saudi Arabia and Oman have stiff penalties if you are caught with it.

 This was at one of the suqs where you could buy hashish, beer or marijuana if you like.   These guys were joking around.   The one has a jalabyah (dagger) held to the other's throat.   I wasn't amused.

When we got to our funduq, Noman offered to let us try out the qat.    This is in the mufraj where usually the men get together for their afternoon chew.    Neither Erin or I got any effect from the qat because I think you must chew it for some time to build the chemical up in your system.   Anyway, no harm done.  Better to just have some lunch.

 Later in the evening we were invited to a musical event.   The man playing the oud was somewhat famous in this area and has recorded.    We were also treated to a display of the jambyah dance where the men circle around each other waving their daggers above their heads.    Erin joined in.

On our road trip we had to pass through several checkpoints.   Noman told us if we revealed that we were American, he would have to have an escort and we would not get around so easily.   So we were "French" for the time being.   Since Erin could speak some French she would have to do the talking if we were directly questioned.

 Our last village was Al Hajarrah, Noman's home town
The hills were mostly dry on our trip.  During the wet season, they would have been verdant.

Climbing the long stairway to the gate, we were surrounded by children who became your best "friend" which meant that they were your guide and were expecting payment.  They also led us to little "shops" that would suddenly appear outside someone's doorway.    The entrance gate to the village was small, to keep out unwanted marauders.

Doorway to a house

When we left Yemen for India we crossed our half way point around the world.   Erin surprised us with a bottle of champagne and a bag of M&Ms, a tradition in our family when we celebrate important milestones.

Here's Erin navigating our way to India, our next stop.....Mumbai.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The cruising community is spread all over the world yet we meet people all the time who know someone we knew back when.   It's not close knit and the cruisers come in all different personalities some of which we bond with while others we avoid.    The one characteristic that defines probably all cruisers is the sense of freedom we have as we make our way to our chosen dream destinations.   

Sadly, this sense of freedom is eroding as time and again Somali pirates raid, terrorize, capture, ransom and now kill cruisers in their lawless quest for riches.     The four Americans that were killed earlier this year were strangers to us, yet we knew several people who knew them or were anchored next to them at one time or other.    The Chandlers, again, were strangers, yet we had friends who were their friends and were suffering with worry over them.    Last week another cruiser was murdered while trying to protect his property.   We also know people who knew Christian Colombo and his wife and they are grieving the loss of their friend.

In 2007 we sailed down the Red Sea, stopped in Yemen for three incredible weeks, touring Sana'a and the highland villages, riding buses with the locals, eating with them.    While our time there did not have its moments we felt relatively safe.    We crossed the Arabian Sea to India without incident.   As we look back, we crossed over the exact position where Mahdi and Gandalf were attacked by pirates and successfully fought them off.    We knew that because we had one of Rod and Becky's charts which had a small circle with an X inside and said simply "pirate attack".    Recently we realized the yacht Quest was not far from our path when they were attacked and subsequently murdered.   It gives me chills, as we also had our daughter with us and had we all been killed, our youngest daughter, Kelly, would have been left alone in this world.

When we met up in Thailand with cruisers who were heading out the way we had just come, we encouraged them to stop in Yemen and take their time cruising the Red Sea.   Now we have come around to the only sane way to think which is to avoid the area all together.  The pirates have been enriched with ransom  money, emboldened with the prospects and are all over the Arabian Sea.  The danger is too real now to ever encourage anyone to take that path in the near future until something is done to rid the area of pirates.

I read the London newspaper exclusive report on the Chandlers after they returned home after 13 months being held captive in Somalia.    Out of curiosity, I ventured down to the comments section and read some of the posts.   It was amazing to me how venomous some of the comments were.   People were blaming the Chandlers for putting their own lives in danger.   One commenter in particular said they should have stayed home and taken care of their aging parents.    When cruisers leave their home ports to see the world, they leave behind family and friends.   Its not easy, but some of us are driven to go sailing.  We know there are dangers but most of the cruisers are careful to equip with gear and knowledge before setting out so that they can take care of themselves in critical situations.    A few years ago, being attacked by pirates and held for ransom was not even on the list of dangers we could face.    We were more likely to be attacked by a whale or hit a shipping container than meet up with pirates.

A whole section of the blue planet has now been closed off to cruisers.    Last year's group that sailed from Thailand to India were discouraged by the incredible number of pirate attacks and chose instead to ship their boats up the Red Sea.   After the murders of the four American and the French cruisers only someone with a death wish would transit that area.   

There's a Slovakian Captain on our dock and he told us of a Russian group that has a freighter with commandos aboard, a private mercenary venture, which sails in the pirate infested region, baits the pirates and then opens up on them, killing them.   No quarter given.    Their purpose is to get rid of as many of them as possible.   Not too long ago I would have recoiled at the brutality, but not now.   Something has to be done to protect the seas and shipping,  never mind the cruisers.

Until then, cruisers will find a way.  They'll sail around the Capes before giving up their dreams and face dangers on their own terms.    We belong out there.