Tales of Yemen: Aden

“Once the middle east gets in you, you’ll never get it out. There’s just something about this place.”

Two women enjoy the beach in Aden, Yemen.

Two women enjoy the beach in Aden, Yemen.

Marsha was a nurse in her mid-50s with a kicking diamond stud nose ring who’d spent several years in Oman in her twenties. She’d recently moved to Yemen, like me.

I couldn’t quite believe her words. I’d only been in Aden a few weeks, and so far my impression of this sprawling port city agreed with its British occupiers, who nicknamed it “Hell on Earth.”

I grew up in Oklahoma and Arkansas. I thought I knew what heat felt like from those 100 degree July and August days I endured (admittedly in a pool or air conditioning most of the time). I thought I knew what humidity felt like.

Aden ratcheted up the heat to another level – 86 degrees is the average year round temperature, but the reality was much higher most months, topping 100 in May and August. And the humidity! You only needed to walk outside to immediately start sweating. My roommates and I joked about the number of showers we took each day with no need for the hot water knob. In fact, an afternoon shower could be hotter than you wanted as the sun-warmed water ran down from the water tank on the roof. Not refreshing at all.

One afternoon only a few weeks into my venture, I stepped off the bus and walked down an empty street towards the English Institute where I’d agreed to teach for a year. The heat radiated off the pavement and pressed upon me in a suffocating, almost palpable, way. Crows cawed to each other and scattered away from the garbage dumpster I passed where trash slowly stewed under the desert sun. The smell was intense, and combined with the heat, nearly enough to make me pass out.

The street I walked to my English Institute on a hot afternoon in Aden.

“What have I gotten myself into?” I muttered to the crows, the only other life forms dumb enough to be outside at this hour of the day. How would I survive a year in a place like this?

Dormant volcanic mountains surround the city. An old Adeni tale predicts these volcanoes will erupt again at the end of the world. Their red, bare peaks jut ominously from the flat land, giving the horizon an awesome, otherworldly appearance. More than once I looked at those mountains and imagined I was living on Mars.

A street in Crater, a neighborhood in Yemen, named for its location in the crater of a dormant volcano.

A street in Crater, a neighborhood in Aden named for its location in the crater of a dormant volcano.

Sometimes Aden did feel like Mars to me. I didn’t have much time to study Arabic my first year, so I picked up bits and pieces of the language. My ability to communicate often ran out far more quickly than the persistence of the many people who wanted to talk to this foreign girl. Still, the friendliness of those in Aden never ceased to amaze me. Before I traveled to Yemen, I heard from many of the dangers of living there, but I only experienced some of the warmest hospitality in the world.

I won’t say I ever completely got used to the heat, but I will admit that other aspects of Aden started to win me over. I’d never lived near the ocean. Aden is a port city, and the ocean is all around, literally, as my home was located in Khormaksar, an isthmus that connected the original port to the rest of the city. I caught the bus with the sound of the ocean hitting the shore behind me. I could smell the sea from my apartment balcony.

Fishing boats in Aden.

Fishing boats in Aden.

My roommates and I often took the quick trip to Elephant Bay and the beaches there on Thursday or Friday afternoons (the Yemeni weekend). I loved sitting on a chaise longue under a beach umbrella, reading a book and watching the sun set over the bay. Even better was the coolness that arrived with the evening. It turned Aden from a heat stilted city to a pleasant place, and people would emerge from their homes to stroll the streets and enjoy the best part of the day. We would visit the “shark shack” for freshly fried fish and chips or the Chinese restaurant that served the best fried rice and egg rolls around (okay, the only egg rolls). Life began to fall into a pattern in Aden.

Sunset of Elephant Bay, Aden.

Sunset over Elephant Bay, Aden.

One night, I got off the bus after teaching all afternoon and made the short walk home. It was around 8:30 in the evening and the streets were full as people did their shopping and visiting in the cool of the evening. I bid goodbye to a fellow teacher and headed through the gate into my apartment building. The breeze felt good and I hummed as I stuck my key in the lock, glad to be finished teaching and ready to relax. As I turned the key, I thought, “It’s good to be home.”

I froze as the full implication of that thought hit me. Home. This hot, sticky, volcanic rock induced city had somehow become home. I remembered Marsha’s words. “There’s just something about this place…”

Aden had won me over.

I finished turning that key and stepped inside with a smile.

Aden from across the bay (its British influence visible in the clock tower)

Steamer Point, Aden from across the bay (its British influence visible in the clock tower)

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