Circumnavigation – Favorite Place?

19 Jan

We are often asked, “What was your favorite place?” when people hear that we sailed around the world. And while the standard answer is that every country had it’s high points, for us, the best area we cruised, or at least our fondest and most interesting memories, came from sailing the Red Sea. Which is why it is so disappointing to hear that these days, just six years later, cruisers are facing such a tough decision when it comes to choosing whether or not to sail these waters.

For us this area was all about being “out there,” about being the minority and yet being embraced by everyone we came in contact with. And people went out of their way to make that contact. Cruisers often think of South Pacific Isles as being “out there,” when in reality these islands see cruisers every year, and while they enjoy it, they often don’t think much of it. We didn’t get that feeling at all in Oman, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, or even Egypt. There we often felt as if we were martians just climbing out of our spaceship.


Here are a few of our favorite posts from Oman and Yemen, two countries that mark the start of a Red Sea adventure for most cruisers. Tomorrow I'll add posts from Africa. And as always there is lots more to read at


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 government 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 3 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. No Macca's but at least it was fast food. 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. Around the block equals one mile here. 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 8:00 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, oman

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. After first stopping for lunner at Pizza Hut we went to the grocery store. 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, oman

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 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

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 qatt, 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 qatt 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 qatt is legal here and it is grown in northern Yemen high in the mountains. He then drove us into the qatt 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.



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.



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.




More from Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt soon.



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