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Home > Virtual Cruises > Middle East Virtual
Middle East Virtual
Day 1: Dubai
Day 2: Muscat
Day 3: Embarkation in Muscat
Day 4: At Sea
Day 5: Salalah
Day 6: Aden
Day 7: Aqaba
Day 8: Suez Canal
Day 9: Crete, Heading Home from Piraeus
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Day 6: Tuesday, Aden
AdenThe first indication that this destination would be different than those already visited on this cruise was that, upon arrival at our anchoring point, a Yemeni Coast Guard boat constantly circled around us -- presumably keeping evildoers at bay. The Coast Guard even accompanied us as we tendered into port. Indeed, such vigilance was continued on land, as armed police cars accompanied our tour buses to every destination.

As an American this port of call was the most controversial, even before we departed for the trip. The U.S. Department of State's travel division issued a warning concerning Yemen that bluntly said "don't go." It cited kidnappings of Westerners -- in particular and most recent those from Italy and Germany. It said that the embassy was sending non-essential embassy folks and family home.

Aden itself was, of course, the site of one of Al Qaeda's successful strikes against the U.S. In the spring of 2001 -- prior to the tragedies of September 11, 2001 -- terrorists attacked the USS Cole while in Aden's harbor, killing service people and causing a huge amount of damage to the military tanker. Terrorist activity is not limited to occurrences against the U.S. -- a French ship was targeted in 2002.

The folks at Hapag-Lloyd were completely useless. After inquiring about the safety of the call in the face of the U.S. State Department warnings -- this was intended, remember, to be a bilingual cruise that presumably was meant to attract Americans -- we were bluntly told that Yemen posed no problem for the German government.

Ultimately, we squelched our very real concerns and I'm glad we did. Of all the far-off and distant-from-my-life places I have visited so far, Yemen was one of the most mysterious and intriguing -- and, in an odd sense, the most seductive. Not because it was a showplace of gorgeous architecture or a cultural hot spot, but because a visit here offered a glimpse, however brief, at people whose lives are pretty much off-limits to us -- we see few news clips or news stories from Yemen. The tribal country is also not available to the average cruise traveler -- Europa and Hapag-Lloyd's other ships are among the few to call here. Ships operated by North American cruise lines that sail the Red Sea bypass this country.

It must be said that the main sight to see, from a tourist's point of view, is not Aden at all. It's Sana'a, the historic, scenic capital city of Yemen (Aden would be more like a Yemeni New York, the brash commercial center, while Sana'a, it could be argued, would represent a monumental, Washington, D.C.-esque city -- and diplomatic hub), and an architectural showplace. The ship offers a two day "overland" tour to Sana'a (and about 25 percent of passengers stayed at a hotel there and will meet up with us tomorrow in Hudaydah, our second call in Yemen). But for a number of factors we chose to tour Aden. One was curiosity about daily life in this bustling port city, about wanting to be a traveler rather than a tourist. And we will admit that the overland tour, at a cost of over 1,000 euros apiece, was a bit of a budget buster.

Some ports of call you visit for entertainment or enrichment. In other circumstances, it's to explore foreign cultures. That was the case with this (very) poor city of nearly a million residents. Ringed by jagged volcanic mountains, it's not a pretty city by any stretch of the imagination. Formerly communist, there is no distinctive architecture. Numerous structures are half-built and then deserted. Trash is everywhere, just everywhere, piled on street corners, in vacant lots, and in the fish market, located at the mouth of the old port's harbor. Kids were swimming nearby in the sordid waters where you could watch the old men at the market tossing dead fish. The stench was ever present. The flies flew in packs so dense at times you were looking at what seemed to be fizzing, flying, small black clouds.

This was not a day (well, a half day as our tour lasted just four hours and that was enough) of visiting monumental attractions. In fact, there weren't any, really. We were taken to a historic cistern that captured water from the mountains, but it was dry and hadn't been used in years. We made a quick stop at a mosque, certainly a far cry from Muscat's grander version, which housed the city's best established school for Muslims. We stopped at an outdoor fish market at the old port and had time for a lengthy walk through the outdoor souk which, in addition to the usual suspects of spice and flour staples, was inexplicably rife with retailers selling cell phones.

Along the way we were trailed by armed police. At the cistern, the arrival of a group of Western tourists was such big news that a television station sent a crew to interview us at the cistern. Funny thing: They didn't understand German, but could handle rudimentary English so my husband and I were the folks they interviewed. The questions were softballs. How do you respond to a shy "how do you like Aden?" when you're appalled by the smells and the crumbling sights and the trash that's just everywhere? I'll tell you how: You focus on what positive you can and in this case, since the interview took place at the cavernous cistern, we admired the volcanic mountain that rose beyond it.

What was memorable in a good way was the friendliness of the people. Kids and men alike waved at us as our motorcoach trundled past. Strolling through the narrow streets of downtown's shopping district, we were frequently greeted; one man, upon asking where we'd come from, responded "Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!" with this huge, broad, smile. We saw no other Westerners there at all.

The only people who seemed unmoved by our presence were the women, all of whom were garbed in black robes (it's required by law) and they were the most restrictive we've seen so far on the trip. Faces were completely covered save for narrow slits at eye level. We saw no young girls.

Also memorable were Aden's contrasts. Seemingly every concrete block apartment had at least one if not two, three or four satellite dishes attached to balconies -- but air conditioning was hit-or-miss. Cell phones proliferated (as did stores selling them) but there is, according to our guide, nary an ATM machine in town.

Our tour wound up with a trip along the coastal area where resorts were based; Aden is the only place in Yemen where you can stay in a traditional beachfront resort. But the memories of the pollution elsewhere were so prevalent we couldn't imagine wanting to swim here. The stench of the dead fish -- and the memory of it -- stayed with me all day long.

Afterwards, feeling hotter and frankly dirtier than I can ever remember, we returned to the pier, boarded our tender and got back onboard. I felt as filthy as the scenery we had passed through. Indeed, upon my return I walked into the stand-alone shower in our bathroom and took a shower -- clothes, shoes and all -- before heading to Venezia for a restorative Italian lunch.

The troubling, not to mention eye-opening, memories of the day could not, alas, be as easily washed away.

And yet: Did I regret bypassing the architectural wonders of Sana'a for the relative squalor of Aden? Not at all. One of the blessings of cruise travel -- and this is easy to forget if itineraries focus only on prettified places -- is the chance for even the briefest glance at a world other than your own.
Day 5: Salalah red arrow Day 7: Aqaba

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