When Marvin and Ruth Stark invited Bob and me to go with them on a sailing trip from Malaysia to Turkey, Bob was delighted.  I, on the other hand, said nothing for a while, hoping the idea would go away!   

             Finally, reluctantly, I said “Well, if Ruth is going, I guess I can, too.”  How we laughed when we finally talked face to face, and I discovered that Ruth was also saying, “Well I guess if Judy is going, I can too!”

              We arrived in Malaysia on Christmas Eve and joined Marvin and Ruth in the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club and marina, where Toucan Tango, their forty-seven foot long catamaran, was berthed.  The weather, coming into “winter”, varied between bright sunshine, rain, drizzle, dull and overcast, but was always warm and slightly humid.  

            The Royal Langkawi Yacht Club offered good security and facilities, with toilets on ground level (one western, one eastern), which had  cisterns that dripped constantly overhead, and a very spiffy restroom upstairs boasting full-length glass doors on toilets and showers. 

            We rented a car and went sightseeing around the island.  The lovely white sand beaches rivaled Australia’s, and the tourist markets offered tantalizing bargains.  Langkawi has a convoluted coastline and lots of spectacular scenery.  And the food is great.  For a couple of dollars you can eat like a king on the streets, choosing from a wide range of Indian and Malaysian foods, hot off the woks.

             We went to supermarkets and stocked up on groceries with strange labels.  The choices were very different from what we were used to, from packets of tiny dried shrimp and fish complete with heads and staring eyes, to unusual spices.

           Then we hit the markets which sold all kinds of clothing (including “Underwear Selection for Fat Men”), tropical fruit, nuts, vegetables, meats and fish.  The others then visited the local liquor and chocolate store, (named “Healthy Tasty”) for all the booze they could carry. 

            Last of all we scrubbed the boat down, took off the sunshades and did the laundry – yes, Ruth has a washing machine on board, and a water maker! 

               On New Year’s Day at 9:25 am we weighed anchor and made it as far as Tellaga, a bay west of Kuah (and the RLYC), where we spent the first night at anchor.  On January the 2nd we began the passage to India.  We were to spend eleven days at sea.  Nine of those days the winds were mild to moderate from behind, and we frequently used a spinnaker to keep our speed up around 8 to 10 knots.  

                Marvin made up a watch schedule which moved an hour forward each day so nobody did the same watch two nights running.  With four of us aboard, we each only had two three-hour watches (or one three and one four hour watch if we drew the short straw!) each twenty-four hour period.  There was always someone on duty.

               A few masked boobies and lots of terns flew about us, and several times pods of dolphins swam alongside and off the bow.  One night during a rain squall I picked up a coil of rope and tossed it on the deck, and a very cold, wet, and surprised swallow fell out.  He must have hitchhiked from Langkawi.  He squealed as I picked him up and put him on the deck seat and was so cold he could barely move.  I wrapped him in an old shirt and tucked him up under the weather shield but he was gone in the morning.  Ruth said he flew off happily and we didn’t see him again.   

              The Nicobar Islands, belonging to India, intrigued us.  They are apparently wonderful cruising grounds but are used by the military and are off-limits to sailors.  We passed them during the night which removed the temptation to trespass.

             On our seventh day at sea we caught two nice little tuna– the fish-eaters had a couple of good feeds from them and said they were very tasty.  The fishing tackle was a bit flimsy and both little reels broke shortly after the catch, so there were no more fish after that.  A few fishing boats visited along the coast of Sir Lanka and India, and we traded Coca Cola for three more baby tuna.

            On our eighth day a spectacular thunderstorm went through on my watch.  I counted off the seconds to the thunder crack after each flash of lightning, and calculated the distance as the storm drew closer.  Suddenly lightning struck the water right behind me, and Bob said he had never seen a person move so fast!   

           We spent a whole day “racing” a huge monohull on a round-the-world rally (a Dutchman who was bound for Sri Lanka on this leg of the trip).  He slowly gained on us, and we watched his portside and running lights through the night.  By the next morning he was out of sight. 

               On the evening of the ninth day, we rounded the southern point of Sri Lanka and from then on the wind became very brisk, at 20 to 30 knots, and we beat through very choppy seas.  Through the wide channel between Sri Lanka and India, the sailing guide informed us, winds are usually “of considerable strength”.  Marvin called it “really, really ugly,” while Bob called it “a good day in the South Pacific,” although he admitted that finally he’d found a place where he couldn’t sleep – in his bunk! 

               It certainly was uncomfortable, though we’ve frequently had worse in our passages to Vanuatu.  We were all relieved when we reached the tip of India and the wind dropped to a comfortable level.  “He who scorns the calm has forgotten the storm.”

               I woke on the morning of January 9th to sounds of Marvin engaging on radio with Port Control in Cochin.  We had an interesting approach through the channel, vying with warships, container ships, and myriads of fishing boats.  Birds trailed the many fishing boats and swooped into the huge hydraulic Chinese nets beside the channel.  There seemed to be construction going on everywhere.  Evidence of the British reign was seen in once-majestic colonial buildings lining the shores of the town. 

               We anchored in front of the Taj Malabar hotel and put up our Q flag, while the dilapidated Port Authority vessel pulled alongside.  Cochin, or Kochi as it is now called, is built on a river delta so much of the traffic is water-based, and there is a constant stream of ferries, plus all kinds of other boats ranging from tiny boats with oars to huge tankers.  

                  Large vessels think nothing of dumping foul black water from their bilges into the harbour, right near the yachts ––a waterfall of filth.  Bob wanted to throw out a fishing line but he changed his mind when I reminded him of what these fish were swimming in.

                Immigration procedures were a circus.  The officials rolled their eyes and blamed the British.  First we filled in multiple copies of various forms on the boat (using three large pieces of carbon paper!) and then were taken to shore to the customs building for a few hours, to answer more questions, fill in more forms and hand over a few rupees.                

                Then we were escorted to the immigration building (three kilometers away) by auto (tiny three-wheeled taxis which hold only two passengers or three at a pinch) and back again to customs.  The auto drivers waited patiently for us at immigration and drove us back the three kilometers to customs for around $1 each.   

              We finally got to the anchorage, a calm area in the mouth of the river, with good holding.  We were close to Ernakulum, the town across the river from Kochi, where the gateway to India beckons.  We went ashore to explore for the first time. 

              First impressions: colour, noise, people, produce stands with apples, oranges, grapes, pomegranates, bananas, melons.  Buses crammed with people.  The occasional beggar on the sidewalk.  A worker in rags sweeping an alley and feeding a small fire against the side of a concrete building with the garbage he collects.  Dirt, run-down buildings, no working traffic lights, people strolling down the middle of streets and weaving between buses, autos, motor-bikes. 

               Food is cheap – less than two dollars each for buffet style meal in cafeterias or roadside stands.   In the evening, my meal (vegetarian, with a large bottle of water) was around two dollars; the others paid around $5 each for chicken and prawn dishes and several beers, all we could eat.  And that was to prove one of the more expensive meals.

            Everything and everyone in India seems to be moving and we’ve been amazed that we’ve seen no accidents so far although we are assured they do happen.  Traffic never seems to completely jam, as it does in the West, because people keep it moving.  It is considered fair to edge into any space visible, whether it’s on the left or right, as long as you wave your hand as you go.  If they regarded road rules as we do, everything would shut down. 

              One evening we went to see Kathakali dancing, including the application of the makeup and costume emulating a Hindu god.  The storyteller tried to convince us that all religions were really the same, and that Hindus also believed in one god, just many expressions of him!  Creative imagination paints him in many forms.  There was no understanding of God as being above all, only in all, and graven images abound.  It was a colourful and interesting experience. 

             One day we went on a tour of the Backwaters in Kerala.  The backwaters are canals which run between the lake and the river: small channels used for transport, communication, washing clothes and bodies and carrying tourists around on narrow boats.   

               The rich and poor live here, hovels and mansions side by side amongst farmland and forest along the waters’ edges.  We were educated in the making of coir (two to four-strand rope) from coconut fibre, and the harvesting of peppercorns, nutmeg and jackfruit.  Pandanus grows in abundance, and is used for making fine woven mats.  

            I noticed a white goat, with a red mark on its forehead, sitting on a low platform and asked what the mark was for.  I was informed that the goat had been married and was going to have babies! 

           We were not the only ones curious about what we saw.  We were also on show.

            While Ruth went on tour with her sister and a friend, Marvin stayed aboard the boat and Bob and I took a train to Chennai (formerly Madras).  There we spent two days with friends Sarasu and Ken Vargheese, who we had known in Saudi Arabia.  They took us to see a Christian wedding one day, and introduced us to more exquisite Indian food and Indo-Chinese food.

                 We found the trains quite adequate for long range transport although booking should be done well in advance to ensure a seat.  The 2A class provides seating which morphs at night to upper and lower bunks with a blanket, two sheets and a small pillow provided.  The trains are old but reliable it seems, and we slept quite well.  The drivers brake smoothly at stations, to avoid waking their passengers.  

           En route to Bangalore by train we stopped in Katpadi/Vellore to visit a friend of relatives in Canada, and hit Independence Day, with a parade and music bands.  There’s a spectacular fort here, a gaudy Hindu temple, and the renowned Christian Medical College which attracts patients from all over India and sees 4000 outpatients every day. 

             We walked as much as we could, down streets which probably have never seen a tourist.  Everywhere people were excited to see us and wanted their photos taken and to shake our hands.  One man even got out his gas-welding apparatus and wanted me to take photos of him and Bob operating it.  We later printed the photos and mailed them to him. 

          Animals in India seem very content and are generally well-fed.  It is good to see respect for animals here, unlike in Melanesia, although the reason of course is that many of these folk believe the animals are incarnations of relatives and friends.  Cows and dogs sit, stand and walk on the roads oblivious to the traffic, which courteously swerves around them.

            A few beggars approached us, although friends told us not to give to them.  Apparently it is quite a racket, and many of those involved don’t want jobs even if they are offered them, because they earn so much more by begging!  There is plenty of work in these parts of India apparently.  Everyone says it is better to give to the aid agencies, as they have full knowledge of those who really do need help. 

               In Bangalore we found a hotel room, and proceeded to contact Ravi Dass, my contact at the welfare agency through which I have sponsored some children over the years.  I had some difficulties with the phone system but eventually made contact and a driver was sent to bring Bob and me to Sunshine Orphanage and School. 

           After years of communication through the Asian Aid organization in Australia it was good to actually see the orphanage and school facilities.  Ravi was obviously on fire for his work with the orphans.  He himself had been an orphan brought up in the system here.  

                    Beulah, the house-mother at the orphanage, is very much loved and trusted by the children.  She says around a hundred and fifty children have passed through her care since she began work there.  Children are selected carefully for the school, preference being given to deaf, blind and otherwise handicapped, and the very poor.  The families are visited and interviewed to determine their eligibility before a child is accepted. 

              We bought more than intended on our travels, of course, as everything is so relatively cheap here.  Prices, especially for cotton and silk goods are quite amazing, and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of them.  One night Bob bought me two beautiful salwas  (Indian dresses with long pants underneath) and a sari for my birthday.  The sari had to be cut and a blouse made from the end piece of it, so one of the attendants at the store took me on a hair-raising ride through the dark on his scooter to the tailor (no extra charge of course) to be measured.  I was a little concerned about not having a helmet, and tried not to watch the “near misses” as we swerved around corners narrowly dodging the traffic.  To have a lined blouse made with inset sleeves, and the sari reinforced at the bottom cost around $3:50 US.  

              It was hysterical, learning to put the sari on correctly!  The young lady who showed me comes from Rajasthan and had little English, but painstakingly reviewed the procedure with me until I had learned it.  Then she admonished me to practice in the hotel so I wouldn’t forget. 

           The first night in Bangalore we found ourselves in a small musty room with a dubious blanket (complete with a live cockroach under it), one sheet and two towels.   When the toilet was flushed, water shot across the room from the cistern, and there was no shower. 

            We found an alternative room next day, just up the road in another hotel – a simple but clean place, with all commodities such as sheets, blanket, shampoo and soap provided.  Hot water was available although only in mornings.  It was listed as a basic double room, but was quite enough for our needs.  It cost us only about $12 US per night, and there was a TV.  We could watch all the Indian soapies we wanted, as well as CNN and the Discovery channel!          

           We decided to do some sight-seeing, and hired an auto driver called Shah Jihan, who was very reliable and an excellent driver.  He rented his auto (which ran on propane) and worked up to twenty hours per day every day to support his six children and educate them.  He dearly wanted to own his vehicle and we promised to see if we could find finance through a microloan agency.  He took the opportunity of snatching a snooze now and then, while waiting for us at museums and gardens.

            The magnificent Tipu Sultan Palace was begun in 1781 AD and finished in 1791 AD.  It was built in wood, stone, mortar and plaster, and is a two-storied structure in Indo-Islamic style.  An inscription describes it as an “abode of Happiness and envy of Heaven.” 

         The trip from Bangalore to Kenyakamari, on the southern tip of India, takes about 21 hours by train.  This time we both had upper level bunks, but slept well.  We enjoyed watching the scenery as it flashed by, and recognized bits of the coast when we entered Kerala again and passed Kochi.

           The old name for Kenyakamari is Cape Cormorin.  It is quite a touristy little place, where lots of Indians as well as a few foreign tourists come for a break.  A couple of small rocky islands lie off-shore, and regular ferries take devotees out to a Hindu temple on one of them.  The other island boasts a huge statue.  Markets crowd the sidewalks on the mainland side and a few beggars make their presence felt. 

             One small girl carried her young brother around, tugging on tourists’ arms and pointing to his mouth.  I noticed the ‘baby’ throwing a chocolate wrapper away and I wasn’t about to give them money for lollies!  Later on we found them again, or rather, they found us, and this time we had bananas and a few nuts to give them.  

              We started off in a hotel beside the sea, but it was expensive for these parts (about $22 US per night) and not very clean.  Bob went to sleep in the room shortly after we arrived, as he was not feeling well.  I went out looking for other digs and discovered a very nice room on the second floor of a lovely new looking hotel, with a good view and a sea breeze.  The room was quite large, almost a small apartment, and cost us over 300 rupees less!  

           We came to Kenyakamari mainly to get closer to Nazareth, a village in Tamil Nadu, where my current sponsored child is.  He is more than a child actually, 17 yrs of age, and in standard 11.  We got a car and driver for the day for 1500 Rupees ($30 US) and set off into the hills.  Shortly after leaving town we were amazed to see wind farms, reaching for miles.  There must have been thousands of wind generators whirring away, generating green power.   

               It was interesting to drive through rural India in the south.  The farms, rice paddies and bush were a feast to the eyes after the cities’ concrete, noise and bustle.  It was a two hour drive to Nazareth, and our driver stopped several times to get directions to James School.  

              The principal was expecting us and called Pandirajan in.  Although I haven’t communicated much with him, I felt quite emotional to finally see the young man I have been sponsoring for these past years!  He is quiet and intelligent and I was very pleased with his exam results as well as his interactive ability.  It seems he could do whatever he wanted to do in life, given the opportunity. 

              The school is quite large with 800 students, of whom 300 live in.  I was impressed by the neat and tidy grounds and the courtesy which they all showed to “aunty” and “uncle”.  We were given a royal tour of the whole compound, including the brand new dormitory which the senior boys (including Pandirajan) were going to move into soon.  

              We were invited to have lunch with him and his classmates.  Rice, lentils and stew Indian-style was very tasty.  Then it was time for the long drive back to Kanyakumari. 

            Bob bought tickets at the railway station to Trivandrum, then on to Ernakulum.  Fares for the two of us, for the two and a half hour journey between Kayakumari and Trivandrum, amounted to 55 rupees ($1.10)! 

            We had seats in a basic ‘cattle car’ which we had previously seen bursting with people, and sure enough, by the time we arrived in Trivandrum there were people sitting on luggage racks and standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles beside us. 

             When the train arrived at our station, Bob stood up to get his luggage and someone thrust a sandwich onto the seat to save the spot.  What he didn't know was that Bob was going to sit down again!  It was all we could do to exit against the mass of humanity forcing its way in.   Bob was pushing me from behind to make sure I made headway.  Here it isn’t considered rude to throw yourself into a crowd and ‘swim’ your way through.   

             Trivandrum is the old name for a city now called “Thiruvananthapuram”.  Most people find it easier to use the old name!  In every town we seemed to find ourselves in less than desirable digs for the first night, until we got the hang of the town and discovered a better place, and the same happened here. 

              My memories of Trivandrum include viewing “Slumdog Millionaire,” which was rather violent but probably true to life in parts of India, and overall very worth while watching. 

              We also took a day tour in a minibus around the city, and saw if not visited all the worthy sites.  The Puthenmalika Palace museum was amazing.  Built 200 years ago and closed up for 150 of those years, the Palace has a wealth of artifacts including a couple of thrones, one made from the ivory of 25 elephant tusks and the other made of Bohemia crystal.  

While taking photographs in Trivandrum I came up behind an old white-haired man, who was wearing an orange loincloth and shawl and using a long bamboo pole as a crutch.  His right foot was amputated at the ankle and bandaged with a white crepe bandage, sodden with blood where he bore weight on the wound.

          We visited the beach and then walked about town, where we watched a long parade with many religious floats and people in costume.  It turned out to be a “Jesus Parade” which is held annually.    

             At this stage, after four weeks of spicy food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Bob and I discovered that we’d each independently decided we’d had enough chili!  It was time to leave India.  

              Back to Ernakulum and the boat, and a tour around Kochi itself, which is another touristy place.  One stop we found interesting was a laundry, which does all the washing and ironing for large hotels and the main hospital.  There were about 25 wet cubicles, with water spouts and troughs, where men slapped, banged and scrubbed all kinds of clothing and linens.  They wrung everything out by hand and hung it up on rows of outdoor clothes lines.  

        Ironing was done to perfection in the adjacent shed, using fabricated electric irons and  stokeable charcoal irons. 

            Soon, boat scrubbed and provisions stowed, we hauled anchor and away, heading for Salalah in Oman.  It took us exactly ten days to sail to Oman.  Winds of ten to twenty knots blew us along from the right quarter to use the spinnaker. 

            Marvin by now was an expert in determining which spinnaker and when it should be used, as well as the quirks of each.  Days were fine to hot and nights cooled off as we edged further north, pleasant for sleeping.  Humidity blanketed us every night, burning off at sunrise.  

            Occasionally dolphins swam alongside, leaping and zigzagging, and on our final morning the guys pulled in a small tuna which they polished off in short order.  Just after the last sunset of our passage, Marvin let out a shout from the cockpit.  A large whale had just breached right behind the boat!  We watched for around fifteen minutes as the massive blob of phosphorescence hovered behind us, and occasionally heard it breathe.  It slapped its tail on the surface once, creating another small tidal wave.  We were not sure if we’d startled it or actually bumped it a little but it sure seemed annoyed.

             The Port Authority directed us to anchor in the outer harbour in Salalah, as there were too many boats in the inner anchorage.  The Vasco da Gama rally was on, and there were twenty to thirty boats traveling together.  We actually preferred the peace and quiet away from the crowds.

                The next morning we went ashore looking for a car rental, as the Port is a long way from the town of Salalah.  Luckily we started chatting to another cruiser, who just happened to be carrying keys for a rental car that he was turning in.  It is a very loose system here, and with a handshake we took the keys and promised to take over the rental.  We didn’t actually catch up to Mohammad, the owner of the car, until the afternoon before we left, to pay.   

              Salalah is a thriving town of white middle-eastern buildings, very prosperous and tidy.  There is an air of opulence and a building boom.  We drove all around the town, getting an idea of where things were, and found a shopping mall where we could do internet and buy (almost) all the groceries we could desire.  Prices here were a few jumps above those in India. 

             We stumbled upon the Museum of Archaeology and Frankincense, and went back at four pm when they opened.  It’s very well presented, with indoor presentations as well as the ruins of the old city, and frankincense trees and palm trees in the oasis.

     Bob and I were very interested in going on an all-day trip with our car and a guide, to visit the ancient lost city of Wubar which was discovered a few years ago from satellite photographs.  With two more days in Salalah we could sightsee with one and provision with the other before checking out. 

        However as we began to load barrels of diesel onto the dinghy at the boat ramp, plans changed.  It was low tide and the slipway was covered with slippery green algae.  I had been throwing gravel on it, to Bob’s amusement, so as to give grip to my sandals. 

       As I caught the front of the dinghy and guided it in towards the ramp, Marvin called out.  “Is it slick?”  “Yes, very!” I replied.  At the same instant Bob, who had been listening, decided to step out in his crocs and test the algae personally, and in a fraction of a second was lying flat on his back on the concrete, unconscious. 

       Ruth, who is a nurse, and I were with him immediately, and a few seconds later when he regained consciousness, checked to see that nothing was broken.  His memory was gone; he didn’t know which country he was in or how he got there, and continued to ask the same questions over and over on the way to the hospital.  His head was cut and bleeding and there was a nasty cut on one of his fingers. 

       As we drove along the highway he threw up into a plastic bag I had ready, but before we arrived at the hospital he became more lucid, and began protesting that he would be fine and we should all return to the boat!  It was three against one – none of the rest of us fancied the difficulties in the middle of the night should he have a cerebral bleed.  We’d have to get him into the dinghy, over to the dock, up a ladder and into the car. 

       The doctor suggested a CAT scan and overnight stay for observation, and that I should sleep there on the floor next to his bed, as is the custom for relatives there.  After a short conference we agreed my presence was not necessary as long as they had the Port Authority’s phone number in case something went wrong. 

        Next day as expected Bob was fit to be released, but nobody felt like making the trip to Wubar anymore.  Maybe another year we can stop over in Oman and rent a 4WD.  It is a beautiful country.

       On Wednesday 25th February we set sail again, just before the 25 plus rally boats left.  We sailed and motor-sailed along a course destined to bring us to the safety corridor which has been set up for vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden, a notorious area for piracy.  A day or so previously a Greek ship had been taken hostage, and the merchant ships were all nervous lest their vessel be next. 

      Wind was light and variable but mostly behind us, so the fastest propulsion was by spinnaker.  There was usually at least one warship in sight (there are over twenty warships guarding the corridor) with helicopter and light plane surveillance also.  We never did see a pirate, though had our eyes peeled for Captain Jack Sparrow with an eye patch and a gold tooth. 

          A helicopter checked us out one day and asked for our details, telling us that we were in a risk area and should keep our speed up as much as possible.  They probably thought we were out for an afternoon jolly, lolling along with our spinnaker billowing.  If only they knew how much slower we’d be without it.

          We left the VHF on constantly, listening to calls from nervous captains about approaching small vessels, which usually turned out to be fishing boats.  The pitch of the caller’s voice would gradually drop to a normal level when the ‘attackers’ moved out of range. 

         However there were definitely pirates at large and on several occasions warships launched air vessels to confront them.  The advice given was generally to keep speed up to maximum and get out all the fire hoses to repel the attackers.  We never saw any direct action and were thankful for that. 

          Serious pirates come with a fleet of small boats after merchant ships although there are also ‘lesser’ pirates who are a danger to yachting.  Just after we had left the security corridor a French boat was threatened eight miles from us, approached by a single small speedboat full of heavily armed bandits.  His frantic calls for assistance gradually lessened as he was able to outrun them.  The warship in that case sent out a helicopter but it was not needed in the end.

         Night watches were very pleasant on this part of the trip with wind at less than 10 knots and most nights we could leave the spinnaker up.  Pirate activity seems to be limited to daylight hours.   Many of the large vessels chose to go through the corridor at night at top speed, packed in tight convoy and shepherded by a warship.  I lit up the radar one night and counted twenty of them within an eight mile radius.  They always kept to the middle and south of the westbound corridor, leaving us sailboats plenty of room at the northern edge.

          There is always a prankster around to give the pot a stir.  One night over the VHF came a singsong voice, “I can’t SEE you, but I can SMELL you!”  And another time, “I’m coming to get you!”  It wasn’t quite as funny when an angry Arabic voice said, “F___ you!  Go to hell!”

          Throughout the trip, Ruth managed to engineer wonderful meals which kept everybody’s spirits up.  Even when fish were running low she had ideas! 

          The wind petered out on our last day, until we were forced to slow down and make a full night of it or we’d arrive in Aden in darkness.  We hate it when that happens! 

           Marvin deliberately slowed down but still, as we entered Aden harbour and approached the leads it was quite dark.  Several of the Vasco Da Gama rally were coming in and we suddenly realized the possibility of getting caught up in an anchoring frenzy. 

           As morning light crept onto the water and we could see a little better we flew along the channel into the anchorage behind the seawall, with only a couple of the rally boats slipping in before us.  Even so, by the time we found the best place to anchor we WERE in an anchoring frenzy, with up to seven boats at a time moving behind us and around us. 

             The procedure here is to go ashore to customs and immigration, and it is really quick and easy.  The immigration officials ask for a ‘small present’ which can be anything from a T shirt to a pack of cigarettes.  

           The first priority for Bob and me was to collect our visa for Saudi, which we’d been notified had been approved from Aden.  We were going to abandon ship for a couple of weeks and attend an Aramco Reunion in Dhahran.  Luckily for us there was a taxi driver waiting for business at the port.  He approached and asked if we needed him. 

             Maher’s English was excellent, he had a great sense of humour and a good knowledge of the town and informed us that there was actually a Saudi consulate here and he’d take us first to a money exchange and then to the Consulate.  Everything was quite a distance from the port so there was no question of walking.  He’d charge us $20 US for the service. 

            We set off at nine o’clock and there began an odyssey.  The consulate gave us directions to an agency on the other side of town, where we were to give money, passport photos and fill in forms.  And did we have our marriage certificate?  No?  Well they’d have to manage without it. 

              At the agency, the passport photos we had were not acceptable.  They required a white background, so a few doors up we had more passport photos done.  Then we filled in the forms and waited…and waited…and waited.  We reminded the agents that we actually had been granted visas already and were not starting from scratch; this procedure was just to get a serial number.  Still, the forms had to be filled in again. 

            The agency was in a quandary.  We only had three names each; the forms had provision for four!  Could we give another name as well?  Maher offered his, but in the end they reluctantly agreed the names should appear as they are on our passports.  And we waited a bit more.

            Maher provided entertainment while we waited.  He was chewing a wad of something that formed a golfball sized lump in his cheek.  I’d watched a documentary on Yemen on my last flight from the US, and wondered was it qat?  No, he said, it was tobacco.  Tobacco in the mornings and qat in the afternoons.  His teeth were black from the tobacco, but the effects of the qat and tobacco didn’t deaden his wit. 

            Another customer stood at the desk.  I’d noticed a couple of stickers on the hem of his wraparound lava lava cum skirt, such as you’d see on a piece of new material.  They were a bit torn and tattered. 

            “See those stickers?” Maher said, “These people put them on their clothes every morning so that everyone will think their outfit is a new one.  They move them to another piece of clothing every day.”

             We began to discuss the president.  Yemen is a democratic republic, and the president is elected every four years.  He has been in power for around 30 years now, and the people are happy with him.  Ali Abdullah Salih is a good man, if a little “hungry,” and Maher thought it was better to keep him in power now that his hunger has been filled a little, rather than elect a new one who would be even hungrier.  

               As we were discussing the president, an old wizened man came in with a bunch of newspapers for sale.  He was wearing a hang-out shirt and a cloth wrapped around his waist, a typical Yemeni leather belt with many loops and a ghutra wound around his head. 

              Maher spoke about him in English, confident that he didn’t understand the language.  “See this old man?  He came in to sell his newspapers and when he heard us speaking about the president he wanted to sit down beside us.  See?  He is still here now.”

               There was much discussion behind the counter about our professions.  Bob reminded them again that we already had our visas, we just needed to pick them up; we didn’t need to reapply.  However procedures continued. 

               They understood mohandas karabai as electrical engineer, but not elaj tabi’e for physical therapist.  Even the two young female secretaries were brought out from the back room, enveloped in black apart from their eyes, to figure it out.  Finally I said I worked in a hospital, moustachfa, and they wrote down daktora (doctor). 

              One of the young men at the counter pointed to his shoulder and said he had a pain there.  I laughed.  “Everybody says that when they find out what I do!”

              At 11:30 am we were given our papers with the serial number and headed back to the consulate only to be told we now needed to get copies of the agency’s paperwork and give them 400 Saudi riyals!  Maher had gone to lunch and it was now 12:15 pm.  We called him on his cell phone and waited in the street for him to come.  “I think I am going to cost you more than $20,” he said.

            Back to the agency, and this time they had the papers ready for us as we came in the door.  “Are you sure that’s it, now?” said Maher dramatically in Arabic with much waving of hands.  “You’re not going to get us back again for anything?  That’s the last of it?”  He was still rolling his eyes and gesticulating when we got back into the car.  Mushkala ba’d mushkala, problem after problem.”

             Back to the consulate.  This time Maher stayed chatting with the security guard in the foyer.  “Tell me how long you are going to be,” he said.  We shrugged.  “The Consulate closes at three, “Bob said.  “We really don’t know!”

           Again we waited.  I was thankful I’d brought a book along.  Bob was called to the desk.  “Come back tomorrow morning,” said the official.  “Your visa is finished, only your wife’s visa is still a problem.”  

          “Why?” Bob persisted. “You told us it would only be thirty minutes.”  There was an exchange which embarrassed the Saudi.  Apparently their clerk was there somewhere – his car was outside – but they couldn’t find him.  Bob kept the pressure up and finally they stepped up their search and found him, to complete my visa.  Now it was 2:25 pm.  We were jubilant!  We’d gotten our visas within a day, albeit a harrowing day.

           As we waltzed out of the Consulate, the young man with the shoulder pain appeared and asked if I could help him.  I thought at first that he’d come across town especially to see me, but he was a courier for the agency so it must have been coincidental.  I checked out his range by the side of the road, did some static tests, decided that he had a tendonitis and showed him self frictions.  Enshallah, God willing, it will get better soon.”

            Maher drove us to an Exchange to get more money and check out transport arrangements.  Worryingly, there seemed to be no seats left on flights to Jeddah, so Maher suggested the bus.  “It’s very good,” he said.  “Everyone here travels by bus.” 

           Apparently there are luxury coaches that travel between Yemen and Saudi every day.  We settled on leaving early morning for Jeddah, then getting perhaps a flight from Jeddah to Dammam.  As the ticket was being prepared, the clerk noticed something.  “It says here on your visa that you will be traveling by air.  They are going to stop you at the border!” 

              Oh no!  I wondered if after all this we would not get to Saudi at all.  Maher said, “I am sure they can change your visa.  We’ll try in the morning.”  

              He drove us to a bakery where we could buy baklava, a delicious Middle Eastern sweet made from pistachios, flaky pastry and honey.  We also were very thirsty.  After a little discussion about drinks, and Bob admitting he liked a little Scotch, Maher went to a shop and got two cups of ice.  Then he opened the boot of his car, took out a bottle heavily wrapped in plastic, and handed it to me in the back seat. 

              “Keep it down!” he whispered.  It was a bottle of Scotch.  I poured an inch of it into one of the glasses – Maher said he didn’t want any and I certainly didn’t, but Bob enjoyed his tipple and we are still chuckling about Maher’s “bar” in the boot of the car.   

             I waited in the car several times while Bob and Maher were out negotiating, and was surprised at how many women looked in and asked me for money, of which I had none.  Some of them were quite elegant women too, with beautiful abayas. 

           Maher was reluctant to discuss the beggars but gave coins or notes to almost everyone who approached him.  Beggars even go into shops and are given a few coins.  It seems to be a way of life and there is no shame in asking others for money.  In fact it seems to be an ice-breaker.  “Do you have any money?  Can I have some?  No?  Oh well, how are you and where do you come from?”

          Yemenis are very happy people, and very friendly.  Even the children are polite and anxious to practice their English with us.  School is free here, one of the good things provided by the government.

            Maher drove us back to the docks and showed us a restaurant where we could eat, and an internet café, then asked us for $100 for the days’ work.  It was hard to negotiate although the price was outrageous for Yemen.  He really had been indispensable.

            It was now 4:30 pm and we were exhausted and very hungry, so decided to eat before doing internet.  The two young waiters were chewing qat and told us it made them very happy.  Bob ordered a fish curry and bread and I ordered a mezza of hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh and fattoush.  Wonderful!   

               Wednesday we were out to the Port entrance by 9 o’clock.  Maher was waiting for us.  First stop was the travel agent, where we found that return flights from Sana’a to Dammam cost $450 per person.  Then back to the embassy, where our visas were easily changed to include land travel. 

               Now we had to decide about bus transport.  Everyone at the bus station said the same thing – the buses here were new and very comfortable, and the trip to Riyadh took only 24 hours (this was a gross underestimation; it actually took 37 hours).  There were lots of buses leaving from the terminal there for Dammam; there was no need to book in advance.  On the strength of that we booked tickets – 7500 riyals each, or about $US37.

             It was lunch time.  Maher drove us to a restaurant where they were serving large hunks of goat, cooked in an outdoor oven, and rice.  I had some salad. 

              We decided to do some sightseeing while we had Maher’s services, and he drove us not only around the city but to the ancient water tanks, which were discovered by the British in 1854, but date from BC and nobody knows exactly when.  Collectively they could hold over 20 million imperial gallons, but now lie practically empty. 

[ARAMCO TRIP WRITTEN UP SEPARATELY.]

             We arrived back in Aden by coach, before dark on March 22nd.  Marvin and Ruth seemed happy to see us; they were ready to leave Aden!  Seven people had been killed the previous night when a boat loaded with refugees from Somalia overturned at the dock.  Everybody was trying to get out at once, and spilled into the sea.  Some were caught between the boat and the concrete dock and didn’t make it.

              We left Aden on the 23rd around midday, after stocking up on fresh produce at the markets.  The first passage took us into the Red Sea.  Winds began moderately but increased to over 30 knots so we couldn’t make our intended anchorage, and continued through the second night to Anfile Bay.  The islands are low, flat rocks, devoid of anything much except the occasional desert bush, pelican or flamingo.  

              The waters here are teeming with fish.  The Eritreans can’t afford fast fishing boats, so the fish population is enormous.  Every time Bob and Marvin put lines into the water, they caught fish.  Barracuda, Mahimahi, tuna of various kinds, Spanish Mackerel…

               At our first anchorage an ancient fishing boat dragged itself out to visit, the two fishermen on board anxious to see if we had cigarettes and coca cola.  Ruth gave them a bag of stuff and they moved off.  The Eritreans are slender, dark people with longer, more elfin-shaped faces than the Yemenis.  

               We stayed overnight at Anfile Bay, and set off again.  By now there was so much fish in the freezer than I persuaded Bob to throw his next catch back – the creature was exhausted but swam off after it was pushed from the swim ladder.  

              The next evening we anchored in the lee of Adjuz Island, as the water was choppy and the wind picking up again.  Skies were overcast but although rain threatened we got no more than a fine mist which made mud on the boat.  It had been dirty since Aden, in spite of Marvin’s efforts to mop it off regularly.

             Our next stop was at Port Smyth on Shumma Island, a circle of rock with a surrounding reef and calm lagoon.  Once it really was a port, with a jetty, water tank and light house, and a few out buildings.  Now everything is in ruins. 

              Saturday we explored, walking to the lighthouse and some of the ruins.  A couple of sea eagles flew overhead and we saw some very large tracks on the beach.  There are droppings from goats and possibly cattle, but we saw no other sign of animals on the island. 

                As we were getting ready to haul anchor, we looked down and saw two heads approaching in the water.  The young guys had walked across the rocky island and swum out to see if we could contact the coast guard at Massawa to get help for them -- their dhow had gone on rocks on the other side of the island overnight due to a broken anchor rope.  None of them would accompany us to Massawa lest they be arrested for losing the boat; they would stay with the remaining six crew on the vessel until the coastguard arrived.

               Marvin and Bob finally managed to get a message, via radio and a relay, to the coast guard and after we’d arrived in Massawa, just before sunset, the dhow was towed in.  A very nice dhow it was, and they were highly relieved to save it.  It was hauled up on the dock with a huge crane, and was still there when we left Massawa, undergoing repairs.   

               Massawa is the ‘city that refuses to die’.  Rows of once beautiful buildings stand desolate, shot up during the war with Ethiopia and apparently abandoned, and only one in ten shops are open for business. 

                The stores have names that belie their function; a dress store sells fishing gear and a beauty shop is really a bicycle repair shop.  Very few people are out and about, and there are quite a few on crutches or in wheelchairs; there are landmines around, especially on some of the islands.   

 A half hour walk out of town leads to a local market where, although not outwardly hostile, the locals gave the impression that our presence was an intrusion.  Until we began speaking Arabic, and then the barriers were down.

                We took a one-day bus trip to Asmara, the capital, which lies 7,200 feet above sea level.  It was a tortuous drive with switch-back after switchback, up and up and up again.  The terrain is mostly arid, apart from an agricultural area which obviously had good water supply, and there are huge areas of large, fleshy cactus.

             Asmara is a lovely Italian city, bustling with life.  The people are very proud, and there is some kind of cover-up going on -- secret police keep an eye on people and stop them talking to foreigners, and there is a black market for $US.  It is better not to change money at the bank -- taxi drivers are the best and give more than double what the banks do.  But you have to be subtle about it, and change $100 at a time as that has the best rate.

            Things were really, really cheap here.  Leather goods (lovely bags, wallets, belts and shoes), clothing, baskets and other artifacts, and food. 

                We stayed one night in Asmara at the Crystal Hotel, which we thought was very nice.  Full breakfast was included; the rooms were very comfortable and had cable TV.  840 Nakfa per night for a couple (about $25.50 US if you paid in Nakfa and did your secret exchange with a taxi driver).  You could also pay in US dollars, but they wanted $US 56 if you did so! 

              I had an interesting conversation with the beautiful young lady at the desk of the Crystal Hotel.  She was most adamant that there was no problem in Eritrea with famine or hunger, and that people "tell lies" about the country.  Yet on the websites there's a lot of information -- they have famine problems every couple of years, and up to a third of the population at one time need aid which is not always forthcoming from world donors.  There is no free speech and Eritrean journalists have been killed and imprisoned. 

             Goat herders in the mountains live in shanties built from sticks and cloth, plastic, or roofing iron.  There is tremendous poverty.  The mountains are covered in rock terraces, which must have been built over centuries.  So much work!   

               We saw some baboons alongside the road on the way back to Massawa, and stopped to take photos.  However we were warned not to leave the bus windows open as the monkeys have been known to leap into vehicles, looking for food.

               The driver pulled into a small village for a rest stop.  I got talking with a very interesting old gentleman, who had made the wheelbarrow he was sitting on, and was very interactive.  Some people speak Arabic, some the local language (Tigrinya), and some also speak Italian.   

              Both Ruth and I were trying to get more photographs of people, and this often meant shooting photos from a camera held loosely at the waist, rather than aiming it at someone from eye-level.  These photos require more editing than the others but it was worth it to have candid shots which didn’t embarrass anyone. 

              An Australian man has spent ten yrs of his life and over half a million dollars of his own money to develop an animal feeding programme in Eritrea, using mangroves.  But it took him a long time to win over the authorities, as the people are very proud and accept charity reluctantly.

               We left Massawa after an official search aboard for “stowaways,” and sailed to El Abu island. 

               Fishing continued to be a favoured pastime – there was a glut of fish.  Tuna, barracuda, Spanish mackerel…the freezer and fridge were full and there was often some in a pot on the stove.  They had to be quick about reeling fish in once caught, or something else would tear them off the line.  And where there are fish, there are dolphins!  We were treated to several friendly encounters as we moved up the Red Sea, and sometimes the mammals would stay with us for hours. 

             We day-sailed, stopping almost every night at uninhabited islands or in small bays along the coast of Eritrea and lower Sudan.  There are many reefs in the lower Red Sea and care was essential in planning routes and mapping progress on the charts. 

              Although we had access to electronic charts, it was not always advisable to follow them as sometimes there was quite an error.  Occasionally it appeared as though we were anchored well inland!  The paper charts were never wrong.  We saw evidence on reefs, of other sailors who had not been as careful.  

                Sometimes we’d stay aboard after anchoring, and other times we went ashore for a while to stretch our legs.   

              On the Red Sea coast of Sudan, just south of town of Port Sudan, are the remains of the late-mediaeval city Suakin.  This city once was the most important emporium on the west coast of the Red Sea and on one of the main routes of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.   

              The wealth of the city was due to slave trading.  Slaves were transported out to Suakin, and then put on ships bringing them up to the Ottoman empire. This was a lucrative trade going on for some centuries, and the money in circulation made the beauty of Suakin possible.

                After the buildings of the city, built of coral blocks held together with a minimum amount of mortar and wooden beams, were abandoned they quickly fell into disrepair.   Now you can pay a small fee to wander through the ruins, of which little have been used for other construction, or you can admire what is visible beyond the impressive gates. 

            Immigration procedures and everything from garbage collection to arranging laundry, water and fuel supplies and rental vehicles, turned out to be a one-man show.  Mohammed is a huge, capable, gentle giant, the white of his turban an absolute contrast to the blackness of his skin.  The melodious deep rumble of his voice is almost hypnotic.  He took our passports and a few dollars and came back a short time later with everything stamped and ready to go.

            The anchorage at Suakin was almost enclosed, and was very calm and peaceful.  After sunset there were few lights on shore, and when we finally made an excursion to the village beyond, we realized why.  The present village is very primitive and there is no electrical supply apart from some very old generators owned by a few families.

              Here, donkey carts and camels are the prime means of transport, sometimes carrying huge loads.  Tin and mud-brick shacks lined the dusty tracks, and market goods were sold on the streets as well as under cover.  Produce included potatoes, pumpkin, mango, okra, watermelon, oranges and cucumbers.  Falafels were made and sold by the bagful, and were delicious!   

              People were initially reserved but the ice was broken when we spoke Arabic with them and offered to take their photos.  Only about ten percent of men objected to the camera.

             Those who did object to my taking photos of others were shouted down by the majority who approved!  Ruth printed off the photos and we handed them around next day, to the great delight of the recipients.  Of course we were careful not to openly take photos of the women.  (We never admitted to it, nor did we offer them their photos).

                   The residential area was a sorry mess of pressed and rusted metal walls, behind which could be heard the everyday sounds of family life. 

                   People seemed very contented with their lives in spite of their poverty, and when we began speaking with them they were thirsty for knowledge of our world.  They were anxious to share some of their favourite taste sensations with us, including hot tea, “on the house.”

                It was all very hot and dusty, but we explored as far as we dared, poking around on the shores of the anchorage where fishing boats were being built and men were cleaning their catch of the day.  This village was the one along the Red Sea that most captured my heart and it was hard to leave.

           But we had to press on.  We took an hour-long bus drive to Port Sudan for a day, and wandered the streets of a semi-modern city.  Then it was time to set sail once again. 

                Once more we island-hopped northward, including at an anchorage within a ring of reef at Sanganeb Reef, where the water was so calm that Ruth was photographing pretty clams, corals and fish from the dinghy. 

                 Here again we encountered friendly dolphins which stayed with the boat for long periods of time.  Fishing was not quite as good as it was further south, but was still good enough to keep the three meat eaters happy. 

                One of our anchorages was at Dolphin Reef, where dolphins actually seek out swimmers and play with them.  There were nine dive boats there as we arrived, and the staff constantly herded up the dolphins with dinghies so that their charges could dive in with them.  The dolphins were quite tired of people by this stage and we enjoyed our own encounters with them in the open ocean more. 

                We arrived at Port Ghalib on April 24th.  This is an amazing town, built by a very wealthy Kuwaiti who has taken the unspoiled bay and turned it into a tourist’s dream with huge hotels and a whole town full of tourist shops and restaurants.  We moored against a stiff cross wind, with a lot of help from the waterfront workers, and were grateful to go ashore and have a meal in a real restaurant at last.

              It was here that we finally decided to part company with Marvin and Ruth, who had been wonderful hosts during our four-month journey together.  We all wanted to do some land touring in Egypt, and it also seemed that they would not really need us for the last part of their trip to Turkey. 

             Thank you, Ruth and Marvin, for the trip of a lifetime.  The wonderful memories will stay with us forever! 

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