Trip to Aden: 19 – 20 June

1 08 2008

Deepak, Milushka and I had talked about a trip to Aden in general terms since we all arrived. When it was almost time for them to leave, it came down to now or never. Milushka and I began working out details. Deepak decided not to go because he had class, ran out of money and didn’t think it would be worth it. Fortunately, Milushka was set on going to we never would have pulled it off. She took care of getting the proper forms from Jameel and instructions to get out travel permit. We spent several days trying to find Lauren to see if she wanted to go with us but we kept missing each other.

On Tuesday Milushka and I got our travel permit. Jameel gave us a paper with instructions in Arabic for the taxi driver to get to the Ministry of Tourism. I was a bit nervous handing the driver a paper and hoping we got to the right place. When the taxi began to slow to a stop, I thought for sure that we’d come to the wrong place because it seemed like a warehouse district that was deserted at that time of day. However, one of the buildings there was actually the Ministry of Tourism. We got our travel permit to go to Aden with ease, and I was pleasantly surprised that there was not fee involved.

Sheep

Sheep grazing in field on the way to Aden

When we left there was no taxi insight. We began walking down the road in the direction we needed to go, hoping to catch a taxi once we got to a busier road. Finally a taxi came along. When it stopped, I asked how much it costs to get back to Bab al-Yemen (because the taxis aren’t metered and you should agree on a price before hand.) The driver just said “mish mishkila” which means no problem in Arabic. That was not a price, but there weren’t a lot of options, so we just got in. When we arrived at Bab al-Yemen (the only remaining entry gate through the wall into the old city; the walls and gates in other parts of the city have been destroyed) I asked again how much we owed. Again, he said “mish mishkila.” Eventually my best guess was that he wasn’t charging us anything. Milushka and I got out of the taxi and began to walk again, expecting a shout that we had misunderstood and we did actually owe something but the taxi just drove away. I was shocked at the kindness of giving us a free ride.

Mtn Village 1

Mountain farming village

We decided that the best way to get to and from Aden was by bus. It was cheap (only 1400 YR / $7 each way) and it was safe from highjacking because it was full of Yemenis. The only draw back was time, because it takes 7 hours according to the guidebooks to get from Sana’a to Aden, but we decided we could handle that. On Wednesday afternoon, we went to buy our tickets. I had left my passport in my room not expecting to need it to buy a bus ticket, however, they would not sell us a ticket without our passports. We went back to our rooms, but decided that we were too tired to go straight back and instead we went back in the early afternoon. When we got back the new guy selling tickets didn’t even asked to see out passports! However, he did want to see our travel permit that I had put in my passport, so it was not really a wasted trip.

Thursday morning we got up early to be at the bus station at 06:30. I got up just before 05:30 to get dressed, throw the last minute things into my bag and go. I was not as fast as I’d thought I’d be and had to skip breakfast, eating cheese and a granola bar instead. Milushka and I met downstairs just after 06:00 and walked to the bus station just outside of Bab al-Yemen (a 15 minute walk). I was not sure how we’d know which bus to get on when we arrived, but as we walked into the office we were recognized as the only foreigners who had bought tickets to Aden and the driver was there to take us to the right bus.

Mtn Village 2

Mountain farming village

We sat on the bus for about 35 minutes until it left just before 07:00. The bus ride was an event. The total trip ended up taking eight hours, though that includes approximately 1 hour spent at stops. The first event of the trip was our first police checkpoint. A soldier boarded the bus and asked to see our permit. He asked us questions like what is our nationality, were we going to work in Aden, etc. With some help from the Yemeni men seated around me who tried to clarify what I was struggling to say, I managed to answer the questions. Then the soldier said he needed to keep our permit. I can’t remember if I actually said anything or just looked super shocked and upset. Whichever, the guard asked if we didn’t have copies of the permit so that it could be collected at the check points. I said we didn’t; no one told us we needed to. With significant contributions from the Yemeni men around me again, we convinced the soldier that he could write down the info instead of taking the permit itself. I was relieved, but worried how many times were would have to go through a similar situation since we were only an hour out of Sana’a at that point. We were lucky that most of checkpoints just waved the bus, without stopping to check our permit.

Shortly after the first checkpoint, the bus stopped on the outskirts of a town, near a restaurant so that people could eat breakfast. Milushka and I weren’t hungry, so we wondered around near the bus for a while just to stretch our legs. Once, we finally got underway again, the bus conductor turned on a movie that played on a couple of screens suspended from the ceiling. It was a Jackie Chan movie. I partly watched it, partly dozed and partly watched the scenery out the window. Milushka slept for some time.

Religious slogans

Writing on the mountain

I enjoyed the mountain scenery. I was particularly interested in all the little farming villages. I was surprised to see that most farms still used donkeys, or occasionally camels or cows, to plow their fields. I only saw one tractor the whole trip. The other thing that interested me a lot were the religious saying written on the mountains with white rocks, similar in concept to the Y or other letters on the Utah mountains. They often passed too quickly for me to entirely read them, but I could usually tell they reminded people to think of God and to rely on Him.

It is over a 7,000-foot drop in elevation between Sana’a and Aden, and most of the drive was through gradually descending valleys. We were about an hour from Aden when we finally left the mountains behind and arrived to a sandy flat land. Shortly after we reached the plain, the bus stopped at a restaurant in a town for everyone to eat lunch. While I was grateful to eat as it was about 13:30, I was anxious to reach Aden and annoyed to stop when we were so close.

After a lunch of chicken and rice, we continued on our way. Just outside of Aden, we passed through another checkpoint and this time a soldier boarded the bus again. I was prepared to go through the argument about only having one copy of my travel permit, but the soldier just asked the same questions about nationality, length and purpose of visit, and gave us the permit back.

Celest in the Crater (Aden)

The water tanks are behind the fence. The maintains are the rements of the walls of a volcanic crater in which Aden is built.

We finally reached Aden about 15:00. The first thing we did was purchase our return bus tickets for the following morning. Then we took a taxi to the nice-but-budget hotel the guidebook recommended. We had a little bit of difficulty getting the taxi driver to figure out where we wanted to go. The guidebook only have the name written in English letters, so I had to make my best guess as to the Arabic pronunciation, but that didn’t seem to ring any bells to the driver. (There are essentially no addresses in Yemen, so we couldn’t just give him an address.) There was simple map in the book that had the hotel marked, but that didn’t seem to help too much either. Our driver got another taxi driver to come over and between the two of them, they seemed to figure out where we wanted to go. I was very relieved when we actually arrived to the correct hotel with out seeming to get lost at all.

The drive to the hotel was pretty, we could see a lot of the bay and the sea. We drove along a causeway and saw wild flamingos wading in the shallow water.

Overlooking Aden 1

View of Aden from Zoroastrian temple site

At our hotel, we got a room with two twin beds, air conditioning and small fridge for only $20 a night. We took a few minutes to freshen up, then went out to sight-see and make the most of our limited time. Our hotel was within walking distance of the two things I thought we could see before hitting the beach. One was some ancient water tanks. You have to pay to get in to walk around them and see them close up. Due to lack of time, and a lack of interest on Milushka’s part, we only looked through the fence briefly on the way to the other site of interest, a ruined Zoroastrian temple.

It turned out to be a brutally steep and uneven hike to the top of a mountain to get to the ruins of the temple. The path wove through a shantytown that has grown up on the steep mountainside on the edge of the city. The residents had taken advantage of the cobblestone-paved path that lead to the temple to give them access to the mountainside. When we reached the top, the hike became worth it. There were great views of Aden from that height. Also, the ruins themselves were very interesting. It is actually a misnomer to talk the ruins a temple, though that is how it is referred to. It was actually a place they brought their dead to decompose. Zoroastrians believed that unclean dead bodies contaminated the earth so they could not be buried. Similarly, they would contaminate the holy fire, so cremation was not an option. Instead, they left the naked bodies for the vultures to consume, freeing the soul for release. The “Tower of Silence” consisted of several concentric circles. The bodies of men were left in the outermost ring, with women in the center ring, and children in the very center. The center two rings were still mostly intact, though they may not remain so for long because it was clear (and also in the guidebook) that locals are gradually taking the stones for modern construction projects.

The center of the Tower of Silence

Outside the middle ring at the Tower of Silence

Milushka heading down from the Zoroastrian temple. The rising sun the the background is a southern-based political party's symbol. It was ubiquitous in the south.

We returned to our hotel about 17:00 and changed into swim suits and headed for the beach. We had been advised to go to a hotel beach resort so the we could swim in western wear without a problem. The cheaper of the two resorts in the guidebook was booked for a party on the beach that night, so we were forced to go the Sheraton nearby. It cost us as much to have access to their beach and health center area as it did to spend the night our own hotel! However, it was absolutely worth it.

We had a lot of fun swimming. We arrived about an hour before sunset and swam and played in the waves still well after it was dark. We only left we because we got tired and hungry. The nice thing about being at the Sheraton was they provided us with towels on the beach and fresh towels in the locker room when we took a shower. Despite being at a Western resort hotel, we were they only western women in the water. A few other men were swimming. There was a group of Yemeni women who sat in a group on the beach fully coved in baltos and hijab.

I loved the beach, and it made the very short trip to Aden very worthwhile. I really enjoyed going out till the water was chest-high, then floating on my back while the waved gently rocked me. However, I discovered that I had to face towards the beach and not towards the open sea or the lack of view as the water blended seamlessly into the darkening sky made me disoriented and sick. After it got dark, sand crabs appeared on the beach. They were a great surprise.

After getting our fill of swimming we showered, but came to the realization that since we had worn our swimsuits under our baltos on the way there we now had nothing to wear except our baltos on the way back. We tried drying our swimsuits with the built-in hair dryer but quickly over heated it. We hung out in the locker room for nearly an hour in our towels while we tried to dry our suits in the sauna, but the humidity was too high to do any good despite the high heat. Milushka’s bikini dried enough (from the combination of dryer and sauna) that she could put it on though it was still a bit damp. I gave up on my swimsuit and ended up just waiting the capris I’d worn with my suit on the way there and the balto over the top.
We went back to our hotel and ate dinner at a restaurant next door. After dinner, we quickly got ready for bed and went to sleep around 22:30 or 23:00.

The next morning we were up at 05:00 and checked out the hotel at about 05:30. I was worried that a taxi driver might not know where to take us for the bus. I didn’t know the name of the area and could only show him our tickets which had the bus company name but no address or directions. The first taxi driver we talked to said he knew where to take us, but after filling up at a gas station, he stopped along the side of road to show our tickets to some other men and ask directions from them. They seemed to know the way, and we made it to the correct location in good time.

The bus left at 06:30 in the morning and retraced its route of the previous day, including stopping for breakfast at the same restaurant where we’d eaten lunch the day before. Milushka and I ate rashoosh (big flat bread) only for breakfast, but our stomachs were not up for beans or liver for breakfast. The return ride seemed very long to me because this bus didn’t have enough leg room, so my legs quickly cramped up every time we returned to the bus. I amused myself by waking out the window.

This time we were seated right behind the driver (the convenience of checkpoint soldiers) so I had a good view. It was actually a bit nerve-racking because Yemenis all seem to drive like mad men. Though we were in a large tour bus, the driver would pass other large vehicles on these winding mountain switchbacks, even when it was a blind corner. He’d blare his horn then pull out and floor it. At one point, I was curious just how fast we were actually taking the curves on the road. I leaned forward to see over the riders shoulder and the shocker to see the speedometer read 0 km/hr, clearly entirely none functional. The driver just when at what ever speed felt comfortable for the conditions, which was usually faster than I was entirely comfortable with.

View of the mountains as we began the ascent toward Sana'a

I expected that we would stop for lunch at the same place the bus had stopped for breakfast on the way down, but I was wrong. Instead, the bus went a bit farther and stopped at a restaurant that was next to a mosque. We stopped just after 12:00 and this location allowed those who wanted to to attend the Friday noon prayer while others went into the restaurant to eat lunch. After lunch, Milushka and I wandered in the parking lot a bit. I could listen to the sermon over the loud speaker. While I couldn’t understand very much (due in part to the distortion the speaker caused), I did understand phrases about Iraq and Afghanistan and American occupation.

We got back to Sana’a around 15:00, tried but happy. Though we spent as much time on the bus trips as we did in Aden (including sleeping time), the two hours that we spent on the beach made it all worth it.

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