Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Back in time in Sudan

When we arrived in the small town of Sawakin in Sudan we had the impression of having travelled back in time a couple of centuries for the people in this place sitting along the shore of the Red Sea live in what we would call “traditional” ways. We couldn’t say much about the rest of Sudan since Sawakin was the only stop we would make in this country and only for a couple of days, which is almost a shame but time being limited and the Red Sea having huge distances to cross we couldn’t afford to stay longer. Nevertheless, we still had time to go wander in the streets and the market to get some bread and other staple food we could find while walking between donkeys and camels used for carrying stuff around town. By the way, the flat pita bread they have here is the best we found so far. Probably cooked directly on a hot stone it tastes good and is dirt cheap which are the only two things you really want to know about it anyway. Details about the cooking, storage and transport are probably better left unknown! Of course as it would be expected in a remote place like this people don’t really speak English but are extremely patient and welcoming. In the market we took a few pictures and one of the merchant asked us for a printed copy of the picture. Having a digital camera it was hard to explain that we don’t print the pictures but keep them only on the computer. But back to the boat we remembered that we still had a few sheets of photo paper and printed four pictures and went back the next morning to give them to the people on the pictures. They were very pleased by this gesture but like it is the case in this part of the world they expressed their gratitude very quietly; a characteristic we started noticing in South-East Asia and which prevails up to here.

This picture shows what we would call the “Central City Water Facilities”. I could go on with sarcastic comments about the infrastructures of this town and the way they live but this would be disrespectful for this little community whose peoples try to make the best of what they have. Yes, water is carried by donkey carts and market goods sold on stalls made of a few planks or palm baskets but what can we expect in a country made of sand and shredded by years of civil war? From what we heard and saw Sudan is now politically stable and plan to split into two countries by next July or so. But this really seems remote events in the calm and peaceful town of Sawakin

Monday, April 4, 2011

The poorest countries in the world.

According to our Atlas published in 2004 Eritrea is the 4th poorest country in the world. So when we arrived from Yemen to the small town of Assab, Eritrea we expected the worst. There is no doubt that Yemen is poor but when you think that people run away from Ethiopia and, if they can, from Eritrea to get a better life in Yemen then this gives an idea of how desperate things can be in this West African country. In company of the crews of three other boats from our convoy we expected to arrive in the middle of an infomercial of World Vision with kids swamped by flies in their eyes and inflated bellies. But reality was quite different. Obviously, people here are not swimming in gold but they definitively have dignity. Assab was a town with low means but was incredibly tidy if not clean. No smells, no litters anywhere, people clean with humble but clean cloths. People as expected were very welcoming.

Eritrea just came out of a long war with its neighbor Ethiopia, of which it was part before its independence, and abandoned rundown buildings can now be seen everywhere. The exact justifications to why these two countries were fighting together are still fuzzy in our mind. You really need to land here to understand that there is nothing in this country. Normally, wars usually target the acquisition of resources of some sort but when I say there is nothing here it is not a metaphor. Everywhere we went, the ground was so arid that I think the only thing that can grow here is sand! Nobody makes a war for sand!!! Well, I assume they have somehow an idea of what they are doing and that they had very good reasons to make themselves even poorer by fighting each other. As a consequence the country and consequently Assab are not the most popular places for tourists and at our arrival it was made very clear to us that the town was very safe and we should walk the streets anytime with no worries. Of course the goal of having us to stay a few days in town wasn’t about the cultural enrichment travelers from all over the world could bring to them but for the money we would inevitably spend while probably paying 2 to 5 times the price normally granted to locals. But with that there was a small problem. Not on the prices themselves, which even at tourist prices things were relatively cheap, but on the fact that money is useful only when there is something to buy. As I said already there was almost nothing there so it was somewhat difficult to spend any money! Nevertheless, we still found a small bar where we had a well deserved beer. Well ok, we had a few more than one but this is really academic. The bar owners generously found us a nice and copious meal and even if it doesn’t look very appealing on the picture I can assure you it was very delicious and cleanly prepared. We are not sure what kind of meat it was though chances are it was goat meat. But anyway it was good and appreciated. Bread and meat were abundantly offered and it was obvious to us that even if we were paying a good price they were not products that easy to get by in this town. Also, when I say we were paying a high price I mean relative to what a local person would have paid for the same thing. At the end we still paid only $4.00 per person for a meal and 3 to 4 beers each! Really we can’t say it was expensive.

But even though we had a good time in Assab we had to keep moving north since the Red Sea is still about 1200 miles long. We stopped many places but the one worth mentioning was Mersa Dudo where we were able to visit the crater of an extinct volcano. The place was entirely empty but for the occasional passage of a few local fishermen who had a fishing camp on the shore. The landscape was so dead we felt like landing on the moon. Some trees of the type you see on the picture were growing here and there but otherwise it was only volcanic stones. Too bad we didn’t have a barbecue for which the stones would have been perfect. However, asking for burgers in Eritrea was maybe asking for too much. But we still walked around the crater by following the edge where it was so windy we had hard time breathing.

After a few days of island hopping we arrived in Massawa our last stop in Eritrea. Bigger than Assab the town had also suffered from the war. Around the port the buildings had seen better days and honestly the place must have been awesome before guns and grenades remodeled it. Again we were able to enjoy the Eritrean cuisine in good company even though it meant a mild gastric adaptation to the local bacterial fauna. But hey, we don’t travel all over the world to eat at McDonald when in West Africa are we? Food was interesting but people too. The government controls the population and we learned that people can simply not leave the country and god knows many would gladly go. We found it heartbreaking to see young men asking us to take them with us on board, without the government’s knowledge of course, to go anywhere as long as it is elsewhere. There’s maybe nothing for them here but to the point of being willing to leave their home and families to hope for a better life even if this means living illegally is something hard to hear. Obviously this was out of question for us to take them as stowaways so we gave them a few T-Shirts, watches bought at cheap prices in Singapore and a few packs of cigarettes and this made them happy. For lack of going to earn some money in exile they could at least smoke a good cigarette while wearing a T-Shirt with “I Love Singapore” written on it!

Despite the blatant lack of resources in the area we were nevertheless able to go to the market for provisioning. We stepped on a bus along with the crews of the other boats and as it is often the case the bus ride was as exciting as the place we went. We sure were squeezed a bit but as I said it already people here are courteous and clean. So no stench or any alike what we find in the buses during winter rush hours in Montreal! The market was after all well garnished with limited varieties but still with fruits and vegetables available. Bread was still a bit hard to get by. Flour is limited in the country and we were able to buy only certain breads while the others were for locals only. We also found an Internet Café but the government slowed down the transmission speed to and from outside the country to prevent the planning of rebel operations. The speed was so slow in the end that it would have taken us about 10 hours just to download our emails so we simply gave up. Like for the burger, internet in Eritrea was maybe asking for too much!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Gulf of Aden.

We left Al Mukalla early on February 24th, 2011 and set sails to cross the Gulf of Aden once the most dreaded waters in the world. Now, although it is not the safest place on earth, we were not as worried about this passage as we were in the Arabian Sea. On the other hand we still had to be careful as Danielle and I had to remind everyone once in a while during that passage such as this afternoon when we had to stop for about half an hour for one of the boat to fix his transmission. It was sunny, hot and the sea very calm. The crews of two boats then decided that it was a good opportunity to go swimming! In normal places that wouldn’t be a problem but a calm sea in plain daylight and in the middle of the Gulf of Aden constitute ideal conditions for a pirate attack! But after three weeks of being on our guards at all time we just reached the point where we simply don’t care anymore. Things went pretty smooth but it was very tiring and we took a bit more than three days to sail the 400 miles or so between Mukalla and Bab El Mandeb, this strait marking the south end of the Red Sea. Once in the Red Sea, which is now considered pretty safe to yachts, it became clear that everyone was stretched to their limits of sailing in close formations. After sailing 16 days and 1900 nautical miles together it was time to split up now that the conditions requiring a large convoy were no more present. We then said goodbye to each other and split into two groups. Four of us decided to stop immediately in the town of Assab, Eritrea while the other five boats wanted to take advantage of the strong southerly wind to make a good way north and kept going.

This was the end of an incredible adventure we’ve had shared together and that would stay in our memories forever. Together we sailed through the most dangerous waters in the world and prevailed, maybe by sheer luck, or maybe not and if this trip together was over our friendship was definitively not. We would necessarily meet along the way North in the Red Sea and when this happens we will not simply meet with other boaters; we will rejoice with dear friends.

In the past few articles of this blog I told you our story of how we sailed through the pirate infested waters of the Middle East and how we made it safe and sound to the Red Sea but I didn’t answer the one question all of you must have in mind when reading this; Why in the world did you go through this hellish area in the first place? And this would be a very valid question since we could have decided to sail directly from Australia to South-Africa or to forget about this stupid idea of sailing around the world altogether and just stop in Australia or stay in the Caribbean Sea like so many others do. Well the answer can be summarized in one word; freedom. We all try to do the best of our life. We work, we raise our kids and we try to make our life worth something. But in the end, one day, we will be dying and we’ll sum up what we’ve done of our life. We’ll ask ourselves what have we done that was unique, that was really us? Not something imposed by others but really chosen by us. All our lives are mostly dictated by others. The government tells you how to work, how to raise your kids or how not to die from smoking. Even when you decide to jump on a boat and go around the planet the tourist industry tells you what you must see, the authorities makes things expensive for you, the weather tells you when you move and when you don’t and the pirates tell you where you can sail or not. Where is freedom in all this? The goal of this trip is not about travelling around the planet and crossing all the meridians; it is about the trip itself. If your goal is to travel around the world then all you need to do is to buy airplane tickets and in less than a week it will be over. We are living what many only dream of. We are achieving something unique, something we decided to do even though everyone and everything is against us. We wanted to see the world and to decide how we do it; to do it our way. Not the pirate way. Yes we had the choice to either chicken out by sailing around Africa and missing all these amazing countries or to say “No! That’s where we want to go and that’s where we are going!” What you do with your life is always a matter of choices and we made ours.