National Geographic

The Self-Love Boat

Aboard the MV Abuyasser II near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, 13°48'12'' N, 42°31'32'' E

“A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there.” – Cormac McCarthy

“You must make your heart hard,” the sailor says.

We are steaming to Arabia on a vessel the length of a soccer pitch.

The ship is packed with nearly 9,000 souls—8,000 sheep, 855 camels, and 24 human beings. (The roster of the latter species: 20 crew, three veterinarians, one passenger.) The sailor seems unnerved, ashamed, embarrassed. He is worried about how his job is perceived. It is his ship’s humble merchandise: live animals that must endure the sweltering crossing of the Red Sea. Sheep bleat in metal pens on the upper decks. The lumbering camels mill far below, their necks swaying in the semidarkness of the ship’s hold like trees in a strange subterranean forest. We are an anti-ark. The animals are bound for slaughter in the Middle East. But the sensitive sailor protests too much. He is young. He doesn’t seem to understand that we hardened our hearts from the very start—long before our ancestors first crossed the Red Sea 60,000 years ago, abandoning Africa, eating their way across the world. What was eaten is gone. Today we haul our tamed food with us.

The Motor Vessel Abuyasser II: my gritty ticket out of Africa.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Flagged to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Built in Italy in 1978. (The bridge’s engine controls still read like opera: Adagio, Mezza, Tutto, Finito.) Originally, a transporter of vehicles. Back in Djibouti, the stevedores had hazed livestock up the ship’s car ramp after midnight, under the flaming orange port lamps. (The silence of this operation, the complete noiseless pad of soft camel feet on corrugated steel, was like a hallucination.) Bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, we will now rock at sea for three days. We are a floating barnyard. We trail bits of straw in our wake. The ship’s officers are Syrian. This only increases our cargo of pathos.

“Why kill the children?” Captain Abdulla Ali Nejem says. “Why kill the mans? Why kill the womans? Why? The fattoria? ‘Stroyed! The streets? ‘Stroyed! The hospital? ‘Stroyed! The school? ‘Stroyed! My country? ‘Stroyed! All ‘stroyed! Syria—finished! Finished!”

War has obliterated the brightly lit but dated images of a homeland inside Nejem’s mind, which is all the country that mariners own. He sits cross-legged like a swami on the bridge, an aging descendant of Phoenician traders, peeling small tart oranges with a pocketknife. He is a friendly and emphatic man. When he repeats himself in triplicate it is not an opinion rendered. No: it is a law of the universe expounded. Captain Abdullah repeats himself often because there are many such laws. (The universe is a complicated place.) This one is the false seductions of technology:

“Everything electronic! Everything electronic! Ev-very-thing electronic! By hand! Do by hand! Do by hand! Better! Better! Better!” 

Nejem shows me his old-fashioned sextant. It gleams like a gold nugget in a teakwood box lined with green baize. He once steered a freighter all the way to India and back using this beautiful mechanical instrument. But when I climb to the bridge later that night, I spot an iPhone glowing on the ship’s console. Nejem is using a GPS app to help him bump north through the waves. In the pale blue light of the phone, I glimpse his face, crumpled inward in sadness.

There is a lot of this—absentness, escapism—aboard the Abuyasser II. The chief engineer sits before his laptop for hours, chain-smoking, eyes closed, listening to birdsongs downloaded from the Internet. The first officer stands at the helm, sipping tea, gazing empty-eyed at the slate-blue horizons.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Photograph by Paul Salopek

This mood of wistfulness is infectious. I peer backward, watching Africa recede astern: a chalky line, a white disc seen on edge, a pale host that melts away on the tongue of the ocean. With every olive eaten at mess, we pull closer to Arabia. The porthole to my cabin looks back.  The tiny chamber is a surprise. An officer has surrendered it to me for the duration of the voyage. It is decorated with red Christmas tree bulbs. They dangle on strings from the ceiling. A large stuffed heart swings above the narrow bed. Love motel decor. Yet there is little love aboard a camel boat, except perhaps self-love.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Photograph by Paul Salopek

We chug past the Bab-el-Mandeb—the narrow Strait of Grief between Africa and Arabia. I watch straw fly in our wake. Another name for this bottleneck into the Red Sea is the Strait of Tears.

“The Red Sea”—Captain Abdullah declares—”is saltier than the Mediterranean.”

Of course it is. Of course it is. Of course it is.



There are 73 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. John Connolly
    May 11, 2013

    Paul, I have enjoyed your articles immensely from the beginning, you offer a wonderful insight into your companions and your surroundings. Congratulations in getting out of Djibouti, I look forward to the many articles and stories such as this one you can now collect as you move on. Count me among the many wishing you the best of luck.

  2. Basil Boyer
    May 12, 2013

    Great stuff!

  3. Debra
    May 12, 2013

    I am happy to now be a follower of this journey…fascinated and in love with this decision and courage to be in life this way.

  4. SenseofAdventure
    May 12, 2013

    Beautiful composition, Paul. Both in terms of pictures and words. Melancholy to see a swaying heart above you, I am sure. Peaceful travels…

  5. chefbrucewest
    May 12, 2013

    i look forward to every story. I love learning about each new culture you encounter. Thanks Paul

  6. Rose Conti
    May 13, 2013

    I’ m still fascinated following this adventure, step by step… Crossing the Red Sea must be amazing aboard “the self-love boat”. Good luck, Paul

  7. Kimi Reed
    May 13, 2013

    Nice to get such photography and tell-tale messages of the anti-Ark experience. And to have the opportunity to relate to the Syrian captain and crew. I’m sure all olives were eaten . . . and not words! I envy the great feeling you have being there experiencing this trek firsthand, so much so that I walked barefoot through the countryside of Sicily yesterday imagining how easy it is compared to where you are at this moment in time. Relish it! None of us can compare to it! And, thanks for your great photo-storytelling 🙂

  8. Atibala
    May 13, 2013

    There is great sadness, melancholy, and despair that many of us are not aware of, nor even can we truly understand or relate to it. It takes a true emissary of empathy to portray a clear picture for those outside of its context, and to elicit, even in the bleakness, a beauty that only a few can see. Thank you for that.

  9. Gary Boivin
    May 13, 2013

    I am so glad to see you are en route to the long 2-3 year journey across Asia. So much of our species’ developmental history came out of our experiences in that vast, amazing land mass. Be safe in Saudi Arabia, and beyond.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 14, 2013

      Asia is a puzzle to many paleoanthropologists. There are plenty of stone tools scattered across the mega-continent, offerings that hint of early diasporas, but human fossils are relatively rare. New discoveries are being made, however, as once closed regions become accessible to international science—particularly in China and Southeast Asia. An interesting time to be plodding through.

  10. Sylvan Borg
    May 14, 2013

    Well done Paul. Looking forward to more!
    Sylvan (Malta)

  11. Lacre, Juvy Love L.
    May 14, 2013

    very nice article..!! ^_^

  12. Jerzy PL
    May 14, 2013

    Great writing, as always. Thank You for that. Do You already have a guide through the cauldron of Saudi Arabia? All best!

    • Paul Salopek
      May 20, 2013

      Yes. And he’s Sudanese. So I haven’t yet left Africa; it’s coming with me.

  13. Wang Xiaofei
    May 14, 2013

    I think this writing is too difficult for me to read.Can anybody help me translate this writing into Chinese?You can send it to me,my email address is,thank you.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 20, 2013

      Anyone out there who can help Mr. Wang? I’d give it a try, but my Chinese won’t be polished until 2017-18.

  14. Pam Butterfield
    May 14, 2013

    I was intrigued by the journey before you set out, and signed up to follow it – 7 ish years is a long project, but having lived in many of the areas you will be passing through am interested in your ‘journey view’. Loving the posts and committed to following the journey now. What a wonderful insight to humanity – thank you Paul

  15. HikerBob
    May 14, 2013

    You are a very expressive writer. Besides making the trip so meaningful by the simpleness of being involved in the nuts of bolts of existence in each quarter you pass through, you then manage to jimmy out the color and feel of the scene with poetic expression. I am having a blast armchair traveling with you.

  16. Redwill
    May 15, 2013

    Gorgeous!! Wish u lucks & funs when u go through the Chinese part in the future though it would be “a little” tough to get access to mainland.Hope that ‘broken stuff’ won’t stop your great walk.

  17. Harry W Aldstadt
    May 15, 2013

    Be safe.

  18. Marion F.
    May 16, 2013

    Thankfully there are people like you that make the world “smaller” for people like me. Safe travels

  19. karen
    May 18, 2013

    For those of us who will never be able to take such a journey, thank you for being so willing and supremely able to convey what it’s like. I’ll be traveling along.

  20. Larry Laursen
    May 18, 2013

    I know Paul and am trying to follow his posts as I work around Africa

    • Paul Salopek
      May 21, 2013

      My posts are stationary, Larry. They’ll be waiting for you always. I hope all is well in the beautiful Namib.

  21. pam
    May 20, 2013

    Paul, thanks for taking us all along on your journey. Just checked into the blogs and am hooked. Wondering: do you ever worry about your dopamine plummeting? best, pam

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Dopamine not so much. The volume of the muse’s song—all the time. Thanks for writing, Pam.

  22. Linda Hoernke
    May 21, 2013

    Congratulations on making your way across the sea and out of Djibouti. Thank you again for your insight & introducing us to Captain Abdulla Ali Nejem & his crew (two and four footed)!

  23. Anna Ikerta
    May 22, 2013

    great journey, great man, and great writer!

  24. Larry Perkins
    May 27, 2013

    Your wonderful experiment is progressing nicely, if arduously, Paul. I am 81, with a somewhat adventurous past, so I can imagine a small sample of your experiences. Your writing is superb and I look forward to your reflections on how you have been changed by this. I follow your dispatches avidly, and I sincerely hope that I’m around to read the triumphant ones from Tierra del Fuego.

  25. Venky Rao
    May 27, 2013

    Paul – I stumbled upon your missives on Friday, May 24th night PST while reading an article on the Prime Meridian. I’ve spent the Memorial day long weekend reading all your postings since the start of your journey.

    Thank you for generously allowing so many of us to follow you on your amazing journey. Your expressive writing style reminded me of a very favorite author, the late Gerald Durrell. This post so beautifully captured life on board the ship, brought out the horror of the civil war in Syria felt by anybody with a conscience and the impact of the relentless march of automation. I really felt sorry for for the ship’s Captain, Abdulla Ali Nejem.

    Congratulations for making it safely through to Djibouti and now traveling to Saudi Arabia. I’ve signed up to be a part of your journey for however long it takes and will be following all your posts.

    Safe travels.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      I’m ashamed to say I haven’t tackled Gerald Durrell yet, Venky. (I’ve read a bit of his brother, Lawrence.) If you have titles to recommend, do pass them along.

  26. Kate Cole-Adams
    May 29, 2013

    Paul, I love this series. I love the grand scope of your undertaking. I love its simplicity. This is journalism at its groundbreaking, intimate, best. The dispatches just keep getting better. Thank-you.

  27. Ryan Raab
    May 29, 2013

    Good luck out there Paul 🙂

  28. ezra
    May 29, 2013

    hi! I l hope you are having a fun time with this walk you are doing. I have a question. Can i come with you!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?1

  29. Kavan With
    May 29, 2013

    Thats a lot of sheep on one boat.

  30. Cheralyn
    May 29, 2013

    looking forward to the dispatches from beyond.

  31. Jim Phelan
    May 29, 2013

    Thanks for the wonderful prose describing the world of those aboard the Abuyasser II.
    ~100,000 years ago, people felt melancholy about leaving Africa and excited about their future in a new place, just like those on the Abuyasser II today.

  32. Rick Dickinson
    May 29, 2013

    Thank you for helping us to remember how much beauty and encouragement can be found and experienced in contexts outside our comfort zone. So much of real life involves “responding” to circumstances beyond our control. Always turning away in disappointment or disgust from “the unpleasantness” is a sure formula for a tiny world and shallow understanding.

  33. Arleen Decker
    May 29, 2013

    I’m disabled and can’t get around much at the moment. You’re adding a wonderful dimension to my life!

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      Glad you have joined us, Arleen. There is no hurry on this trek. We will pause and rest often along the way.

  34. Paulina Tam
    May 30, 2013

    Beautiful article and best wishes for the rest of your journey!

  35. George Okoh
    May 30, 2013

    Loving every footstep that you take for us who are unable to come along with you. I wonder how you’re able to merge into all those different lands that you are passing through and will be soon be passing through. Safe trip all the way

  36. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    May 31, 2013

    Looking forward to future posts!

  37. Nelson Webber
    May 31, 2013

    Amazing and well written story. How sad for the loss of people and things and animals.

  38. Sitaram M
    May 31, 2013

    Lovely Narrative! U have a gift for beautiful expression, Paul! Use it well! Disppointed that there were so few pictures posted alongside the story on the boat!

  39. Eric
    May 31, 2013

    Great article – where do I find the others? Where will the new ones be posted? God’s speed on your journey

  40. Barbara Forde
    June 2, 2013

    Have been following your progress since I heard your interview on CBC Radio. Love it.

  41. Andrea Edwards
    June 2, 2013

    Thank you for stopping by and visiting our school in Rabigh, KSA. The students were mesmerized by your presentation. This project looks so amazing. I will be following your trek and wish you a safe journey full of wonderful memories.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 2, 2013

      Your students were terrrific, Andrea. Their enthusiasm was a real boost.

  42. Polly bell
    June 2, 2013

    LIve export is an appalling trade. Nothing short of slavery. Those involved are morally bankrupt and we must think of alternatives.I am rather amazed that none of the feedback has commented on the barbarism of the trade. Look at what we in Australia are doing as we ship millions of live animals all the way to the Middle East, only for the animals to be tortured before a long, drawn-out and painful death. Inexcusable.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      I agree, Polly, in the sense that as the world urbanizes, we have become so alienated from our food sources—often conveniently or wilfully so—that immorality can poison our every mouthful. But I don’t place the weight of the blame on these destitute crewmen. Try feeding your slat-ribbed children in Somaliland. Under such circumstances, I could easily see myself collecting a paycheck taxed with shame aboard the Abuyasser II.

  43. Maureen Carey
    June 3, 2013

    I am so grateful to you and National Geo for the opportunity to take this journey with you. Thank you for opening up a world I know so little of. I am new to the site but will be with you from now on.

  44. alma whitla
    June 4, 2013

    Not at all hard to feel for the nearly 900 creatures heading in such a torturous
    unstable journey to their non too welcoming final destination. I felt I was your cameraman with your vivid description and magnificent writing, Paul. Your hot, cramped sleeping quarters must have been near enough to the discomfort that the animals endured, though, you walked free… not so the crew whose life weary lively-hood depended on it, (the young lad will learn), nor did the other innocent, unwitting souls find freedom, they were led to “No-Where” . Thank you Paul, it was a very touching article to read first thing in the morning!

  45. ivamorley
    June 8, 2013

    i am 81 and i am unable to travel to far away places with strange sounding names except by reading
    articles such as yours. the more i learn about other cultures and people the more i find we are all basically alike! thank you!

  46. Tom Dailey
    June 8, 2013

    What a strangely static and melancholy world you have opened up to us in this beautifully written post. Thank you, Pau!

  47. Andy M
    June 9, 2013

    Beautifully & insightfuly written,thank you.
    Now I’m going to troll around for everything else you have written.
    Andy M.

  48. carole fox
    June 15, 2013

    your adventure is so enlightening – keep strong…

  49. Ed Grace
    July 27, 2013

    Fabulous adventure.

  50. Barbara
    August 23, 2013

    Just joined the “armchair readers.”
    Enjoying the journey from a small town in NH

  51. tom
    November 2, 2013

    howdy paul, enjoying all your travel posts, and the pictures are “worth a thousand words”! not to sidetrack you though, when will you be releasing your mule diaries? I believe it is about former travels in the sierra madre?

    • Paul Salopek
      November 7, 2013

      As soon as the book releases me, Tom.

  52. Linda Simmons
    November 29, 2013

    Is there a chronological list of your posts? I’m catching up and don’t want to miss any.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      All the posts are listed chronologically, Linda. Just click back to the start.

  53. Bluebearee
    December 2, 2013

    I am just catching up with your journey after another long distance hiker mentioned it. Your writing is evocative and beautiful – I will be here for the duration. Thanks for the imagery.

  54. Brenda K
    December 3, 2013

    How are the camels used?

  55. LPHSinger
    February 7, 2014

    That is really interesting to see how one boat could hold so many animals, although couldn’t that be a bad thing for the people on the boat if the camels, goats, etc. carried some type of disease? Anyway very interesting topic and image.

  56. Benjamin
    April 26, 2014

    This seemed like a great journey! It must have been weird being the only passenger. I hope you carry on doing this Journey and never quit.

  57. arixl
    April 28, 2014

    That is a LOT of sheep. How did you manage to get them all there? How long did it take to get hem all together in a ship?

  58. Bud Gaudreau
    June 3, 2014

    The video and audio additions on some of your dispatches are outstanding. For this dispatch you need a smell link. I imagine that voyage was very odoriferous to say the least.

  59. iole bada
    September 22, 2014

    Thank you for the compelling photos. Thank you for the beautiful narrative. These are troubling times for our planet. I cannot imagine what is in store for us, and in particular for the refugees in those photos. May you be blessed with much wisdom and insight to stay/be safe. Keep the posts coming. I’m thankful for your unbiased window on the world.

  60. Johin Rastogi
    January 22, 2016

    Sailing is just the bottom line, like adding up the score in bridge. If you are going to do something, do it now. Tomorrow is too late.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. No Reply – Out Of Eden Walk

    […] their children so filthy as to be untouchable. The officers aboard the old livestock boat that carried me across the Red Sea couldn’t sail for home. They didn’t have one: They were […]

    September 22, 2014110:49 am

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