19 06 N, 37 20 E
We’re in Suakin, in Sudan on the banks of the Red Sea. So much is happening every day that it has been difficult to keep up with postings.
Here’s what we’ve been up to:
1. We visited Sana’a, an ancient but very much living city in Northern Yemen.
We wandered stone streets with 1000 year-old buildings, some looking great for their age while others were little more than piles of rubble. We visited the market where we watched tradesmen working with kilns, hammers, tongs, and anvils to pound out nails from scrap pieces of metal, and saw merchants selling spices, herbs, and grains from gigantic baskets. Names like “miller, smith, sawyer, and cooper” have real meaning here. Townsfolk streamed by as we sat and watched, women in black with nothing else visible but dark eyes, sometimes stealing glances to search you out as you them. And men, some holding hands, as is there wont, dressed in earth-colored skirts and turbans, white shirts, and the obligatory scabbard in their belts, their cheeks more often than not full of qat.
2. We did the final run through pirate alley, leaving the Gulf of Aden for the Red Sea, with three armed Yemeni Coast Guard personnel aboard, provided courtesy of a Yemeni friend of a friend of a friend from back home, Bob Delferro. The guards were a treat, both in scaring away two questionable approaches, and because they were great guys. We taught them sailing and fishing and they taught us about Yemen and waved automatic weapons around when boats got too close. Good photos of a machine gun mounted on LEANDER’s foredeck, or, more appropriately, forecastle!
3. We spent a couple of days in Hudaydah Yemen, again with an armed guard at our elbow. We had no problems there either. We drove by a huge outdoor qat market at night with hundreds of men buying, selling, and chewing qat on elevated, lit platforms. A sight to see.
4. We have now made it to Suakin, which is yet another magical place.
It is an ancient trading post, but the old town has mostly crumbled into the sea, and is deserted. It looks like Atlantis or maybe a European city after a WW II bombing run. Beautiful classical buildings are half-standing, with archways and columns holding up nothing but air and, stairways climbing several three stories to the open sky, absent floors that long ago collapsed to ground level. We wandered the city by ourselves, with no one in sight. We imagine that the ruins of ancient Greece or Rome might have looked similarly fresh and untouched 100 years ago, before they became tourist attractions.
It’s first light now here in Suakin. Eagles float around our mast and, alighting, make a racket. That woke us up this morning, actually.
The sun is shining off the remains of the ruined city while across a causeway behind us, the town – the new town – is coming to life. Mixed with the clatter and clinking of the day’s work beginning and human voices, one hears donkeys braying, the preferred beast of burden here. A bus pulls away on the road to Port Sudan. On the other side of a causeway, we see a group of men bathing, chanting a song together as they do, then stopping, together, when the sun makes its appearance through the dusty desert haze.
Donkeys pull water tanks down the main street. Colorful fishing boats are hauled up along a bleached white wall. A fisherman paints his with a tin of red paint and a small rag, his entire hand, blood red from the paint. The pale white sun dissolves into a sand storm that has already swallowed the mountains it was trying to set behind. And the ruins – we just couldn’t stop taking the same pictures of them, in morning, at noon, at dusk.
Northern Sudan is in Islamic Africa, but just barely. When we started to greet folks here with the traditional Islamic hello, “Salaam al Haykum” (“I greet you in the name of God.”), which we’ve been using in other Islamic countries that we’ve visited, we get back “Merhaba” instead, the more secular “hello” used in Turkey. The place does in fact have Turkish roots, as the Ottomans built the port and then administered it for centuries
Each day we go and see John, a baker. He works inside a dark building next to a brick oven all day, but the heat doesn’t seem to bother him. For some reason, during our visits, we don’t notice the heat either. Maybe we’ve gotten used to the oven outside too.
From John we purchase ten sandwich-sized fluffy pitas for fifty cents. We later stop by a school to drop off some scrap paper, and are followed throughout the dusty courtyard by fifty screaming school girls who must think we’re the Beatles. And if we stop to talk to someone, we are quickly surrounded by many others curious to meet the outsiders. We don’t mind. We’re as curious as they are. We walk by a bus stopped at the gas station, full of brightly veiled women, rhythmically moaning and clucking a high-pitched lament in unison on their way to a funeral.
We are reef hopping now, continuing up the Red Sea. We are off to sea again today, getting an early start. In the morning, there are no winds, but in the afternoon they blow 15-25 knots on the nose. So we are going in short hops, and feel no more time pressure. Life has slowed down a little bit.
Off we go. All is good aboard Leander.