Crossing Pirate Alley on a Yemeni Cookie Boat
After a week of lingering around in Aden, I secured a spot on a ship bound for Somaliland, transporting a quarter-million pounds of cookies.
The Bamadhaf Shipping Company in Aden is supposedly the only agency that can arrange passenger transit on cargo boats out of Yemen. Their building sits down a decrepit, graffiti-covered side street off the apocalyptic main drag of Aden's Mu'alla neighborhood. When I arrived, thousands of gray bricks peppered the landscape in front of the building, remnants of an anti-government protest the government hadn't yet bothered to clean up. A large red sign on a pole read, "Ha'il Walid Ha'il Martyr Street, the youngest martyr in the south."
Two women in black abayas manned the Bamadhaf office. They told me their names were Salma and Naima. Salma wore sapphire blue contacts and spoke beautiful English. Cargo ships didn't leave every day, she said. After a week of lingering around in Aden, I secured a spot on a ship bound for Somaliland, transporting a quarter-million pounds of cookies.
Berbera, the port I was shooting for, is no more like Mogadishu than Erbil is like Baghdad. It is the largest coastal city of secessionist Somaliland, entirely separate from Somalia: different currency, different government, different visas, and a wholly different respect for the rule of law.
The boat was called the Al Medina and was stocked with a $30,000 load of chalky Abu Walid Sandwich Biscuits. To get on board required the approval of Aden's Port General. "He cannot say no," Naima said. "He has no right to."
The Port General received me in a bright windowed room on the highest floor of a building that looked like the bridge of a British schooner. He wore the complete naval uniform—all white with golden buttons. An officer stood by his side. After I pled my case, he thought for a moment.
"No," he said, indifferently.
Six weeks earlier, an overloaded Somali-made ship had capsized and sank just out of port. The Yemeni government valued its US aid and alliance, and didn't want to take the risk of having me drown at sea. I could only accept his answer and move on.
In a hot room down by the docks, I met a man who looked like Harvey Weinstein and spoke with the asthmatic wheeze of Jabba the Hut. He said he worked for an agency that could issue me clearance, and had me sign an affidavit absolving him from responsibility in the case of my untimely demise. While he assured me that he would pass my plea on, the prospects were grim.
Then I had an idea. If this whole thing was illegitimate to begin with, I might as well just start throwing bribes at people. Within an hour Naima had worked it out: $100 for a ticket, $100 for the bribe.
I cashed a crisp hundred-dollar bill into small Yemeni notes. Every person I came across from the car to the boat's rigging got a cut. At the entrance to the port, my liaison from Bamadhaf presented my passport to a man out of uniform, who made the universal What the fuck is this? gesture.
My liason placed 1000 rials (about $4.50) into his hand: What the fuck is what?
After all that, the boat never appeared. Something was wrong with the engine. We waited around all night chewing on qhat, idly passing the time. The next day, the ship finally arrived. Al Medina was mahogany-colored, maybe 120 feet long with a canvas tarp draped over its length. A Yemeni flag flew from the stern. I could walk the deck's perimeter in about 20 seconds.
We stalled minutes after leaving shore, as a fat orange sun set in the Aden harbor. "Problem," said Hari, the Kenyan engineer.
At the end of the gray day, the ship finally yielded to the wine-dark sea and we floated into the narrow Gulf some sailors call Pirate Alley. I puked violently over the side of the boat for three hours. It was my birthday.
In late January on the Gulf of Aden the night air is luxurious, perfect weather for sleeping. Onboard, there are phone chargers and outlets for iPod speakers. We shit into the ocean through a huge man-sized bucket with the bottom cut out that hung from the side of the boat. It was terrifying at first, what with the sea frothing below. As watchmen shifts rotated in the dark, someone unrolled a mattress on a bench and told me to go sleep. Before daybreak, the Yemeni flag was swapped for the Somalilanders' red, white, and green, bearing a black star and the Islamic credo: There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet. At dawn, I awoke in African waters.
The increased presence of naval warships has helped secure the Gulf of Aiden, and now there is almost no risk of attacks on dhows like the Al Medina. Pirates frequently make attempts on tankers in the narrow strait between Yemen and Djibouti, but the only three successful hijackings in 2012 were more than 200 miles off our course.
The majority of our ten-man crew hailed from Kenya, Tanzania, Somaliland, and Somalia. One of our crew, a man named Jirani, gave me a turn at the wheel of the ship. No one seemed nervous. A crowd gathered to watch me steer. It was harder than I thought; an inch clockwise on the wheel could have a huge effect, or none at all, and the waves pushed us gently, irregularly, toward Djibouti.
Sitting on the key lime green captain's bench with my feet on the steering wheel, I felt the urge to kick the throttle. We were only going 7 knots. I can jog that fast.
Hari noticed the increase in speed and tapped the throttle back. The sea wasn't glassy, he said. If we went any faster, the boat might pitch against the waves and crack apart.
Looking back at my voyage across Pirate Alley, this was the closest I came to real danger.
We made it to Somaliland in just under 22 hours. The Ogo Highlands sloped back down the coast, lion's yellow under the winter haze. At the eastern end of the port of Berbera, hulking shipwrecks and rusting half-sunken ships clumped together like car parts in Camden, New Jersey.
"Welcome!" Hari beamed.