Salalalah, Salalalalalah, Doh Doh, Salalalah, Salalalalalah.

Day 1: Passage to Yemen

We’re back to sea again, having departed the over-syllabled Omani city Salalah. Why not just stop at Salah? You’d figure that at least the locals would have shortened it over time. But I suppose we have expressions like kendi kendi in Turkish and in English huba huba or bananana (or the band Bananarama!) and places like Wala Wala, and all those Native American names that don’t seem too eager to stop either.

Salalah, in April, is hotter than Hades. But to make up for it, the people were exceptionally friendly. And they were particularly fond of Sima, who looks western on the outside, especially in her dress, but flaunts her name like an Arabic greeting card.

Sure, many women were heavily veiled. One in particular, in the supermarket, was wearing what looked like a giant black lamp shade, with the veil draped about her head in all directions. We thought to ask her if she were the life of the party, but didn’t dare. And some would often look the other way as you approached. But many others were friendly and engaging, and worked hard to communicate with us, we using our several words of Arabic and they their better English.

The port of Salalah is bustling, and would give many of America’s larger mid-sized ports a run for their money. We were anchored in its midst. Or, perhaps more accurately, we had to enter and exit through its midst, and anchored in a lonelier cul-de-sac near a Navy patrol boat and some large and gigantic fishing boats. It was quiet and pleasant, and the dry heat didn’t interfere with our ability to sleep.

Salalah city, about a fifteen minute drive from the port, was dry, dusty, and blast-furnace hot. Walking down the street in the early afternoon sapped one’s energy. We were told that this was the hot season, and readily believed it.

We spent a couple of nights dining at an oversized pub called The Oasis Club, the only place in town to get a cold beer with your burger. The rest of the city, and perhaps the country, is dry (in the figurative sense here). The interior of the club was draped with scores of international flags, memorabilia from many of the world’s navies, and lots of rugby and soccer jerseys from various Commonwealth countries. The climate was cooled to a comfortable 60 degrees or so. Entering, you felt a world away from the arid moon-like landscape just outside. We caught up on email, looked at the weather and such things, ate greasy western food, quaffed our thirst, and relaxed. Such things are especially pleasurable after a couple of weeks at sea.

A bowling alley was attached to the pub, and we went in to check it out. It was small, with only four lanes, and the bowlers were all locals. Or at least, they were not the westerners that populated the pub just next door (there are lots of workers from other countries here, and we met some from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India). These fellows were bowling in long white robes, which made it difficult to bend and slide, and gave them terrible form. The balls would leave their hands at about hip height, and land five feet or so down the alley after a solid bang and bounce. We were just about to leave, suppressing our smiles, when we noticed that one fellow, despite his form, was pretty good. Then we began to watch more closely. They were ALL pretty good! Strikes were not uncommon, and when pins were left standing, they were often cleaned up promptly, at least once with a cocky turn of the back as soon as the ball was released. “I picked that up,” his head toss said. He had.

We had come for just a few days to replenish our fuel stores after we’d burned some 175 gallons getting across the Arabian Sea. We needed about 600 liters of additional fuel, and figured that we would stop in Salalah if we could do so without too much of a hassle.

We learned before hand that all yachties must be represented by an agent, and there is only one option here, a fellow named Muhammed. With a monopoly, he is not particularly incentivized to find shortcuts or to keep costs down. But boy is he smooth!

We emailed him about a week before we came to find out about fuel costs and logistics, but he didn’t respond to either of our two emails.

We finally called him from the SAT phone when we were two days away, still at sea. He apologized about not responding to our emails, saying he’d been really busy with other boats. Could he tell us about logistics for fuel and give us a price? Hey, that’s difficult to peg, you see. Come in, we’ll take care of you. No worries! OK, sure, but how much please. Could he do 60 cents per liter, which is twice what locals pay, but a little bit less than what other boaties had been paying. If he couldn’t get that price, we said, that’s OK, because we could just go to Nishtun in Yemen, and purchase fuel there. Hem. Haw. He said that he really didn’t know, and that the price changes “every day,” but finally said he could do about 60 cents per liter. “No problem,” he kept on saying, when we tried to understand the particulars, “It’ll all be OK. You’ll see.”

So to Salalah we sailed.

When we got there and telephoned Muhammed, his cell phone had been turned off. We went to customs and immigration, as we needed to clear in, and were told we needed to find Muhammed to do so. The folks at Customs telephoned him, and couldn’t reach him, threw up their hands, smiled, and cleared us in.

Muhammed arrived about two hours later, after several more phone calls. We met up with him outside the Customs and Immigration building. He is a tall, handsome, impeccably-dressed fellow, in a long bright white robe, with matching white sandals and white hat, driving a white, late-model, Mercedes SUV, but dark wrap-around sun glasses. He gave us a warm handshake, a big bright smile, and then slowly peeled the sunglasses from his face.

He could have walked off the set of Men in White.

We talked fuel. He said that he hoped we weren’t going to be like “all the other difficult yachties who always claimed to be trying to save money for their families.” Uhm, not us Muhammed. Spend, spend, spend is our motto! “Some of them are so bad,” he continued. “This year alone NINE left without paying my fee. Tsch tsch tsch.”

He left us momentarily to talk to another fellow, whom he said was responsible for diesel sales. He returned to us, and said that he’d just been told that we couldn’t have fuel after all, because the amount we sought was too small.

We walked back in to the customs and immigration, somewhat upset. Look, we said. We really, really don’t want to cause a bother. We’re just here overnight or so to purchase fuel. And we’ve already paid to clear in, but we are now being told we can’t have fuel after all.

Muhammed came to the office. What had happened, the Customs official asked him. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and explained that it was “beyond my control.” Voices began to rise. There were many other locals in the lobby, near the window where Muhammed and the Customs official were having their animated conversation. “The Customs officer is trying to help you,” explained a fellow standing next to us, and then added, “Do you have to buy diesel from this agent? You should try to find someone else.” Alas, we understood that we had no choice but to deal with Muhammed.

The conversation finished, Muhammed turned to us and smiled warmly. Let’s go to the office of the fellow responsible for diesel fuel deliveries, he said. Maybe we can work something out.

We went. It felt like a game of charades. Well, OK, said the delivery fellow. MAYBE we can do it, but it will be a great inconvenience. When he finally gave us a quote, it was about 30% more than we had agreed with Muhammed, and three times what locals pay. Is that what this was all about? Muhammed smiled brilliantly and shrugged again. “It’s beyond my control. The government sets these prices.” Could we see something with the official government price? Of course, he said, smiling warmly, but provided nothing.

After we’d paid, the diesel came the next day. As it was being pumped into our jerry cans, Muhammed said, “Don’t forget about the agent fee that you must pay me. That will be $90.” Forget?! This was the first time we’d heard that he’d be seeking an additional fee. “What, you think I did all that negotiating for free?!”

Particularly because his negotiating had cost us a day and resulted in an inflated the price, we did not reach agreement with Muhammed on his agent fee.

Another yachtie here at the same time as us, had it even worse, and was equally unhappy with the agent. He berthed along-side another boat that was tied to the wall, and was told only after the fact that this would cost him $132 for his short stay. He was also told that he’d have to pay another $132 “fine” unless he could produce a valid insurance policy for his boat, plus an additional $100 for agent fees.

But the dealings with our agent were an exception, and the others that we met during our short stay were genuinely warm.

Just now, we’re at sea again. Six hundred miles and about six days to Aden, Yemen. We’ll be motoring against a good current and a weak wind for about half way, and then pick up wind and favorable current at the midway mark, off the Yemeni shore from a city called Al Mukalla.

All is well on board, and Leander is performing happily.

We have started the trip in the company of another sailboat, Felicitas, single-handed by an affable fellow named Edmund Erich Fritz – from Germany, you may be surprised to know.

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