Socotra has received quite a bit of international attention recently. It has appeared twice in the Travel section of the New York Times in the last year and a half, described by Tom Downey in very Orientalist terms as an "alien world" whose "natives speak an obscure language, Soqotri, that is virtually unintelligible to mainlanders." More importantly, though, the island will be formally recognized as a world natural heritage site by UNESCO in July of this year. And it's no wonder - Socotra stands only behind Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands in its number of endemic species of flora and fauna. 250 million years or more ago, when all of the continents were joined together, Socotra already stood as an island apart and ever since, has evolved its own unusual collection of organisms. In the 1990s, a team of United Nations biologists conducted a survey of the archipelago's flora and fauna. They counted nearly 700 endemic species, found nowhere else on earth. As mentioned by Mr. Downey, the island also has its own language, Soqotri, which bears no resemblance to Arabic and actually pre-dates it. However, most Socotrans speak Arabic since it is the language used in schools.
I knew that I would never forgive myself if I had left Yemen without taking a trip to Socotra. It didn't take much to recruit friends to come along, since they all had the same thought. The trip ended up including eight friends. Five of us wanted to go for the whole week and the other three decided to meet up with us half way through the week.
We took a plane from Sana'a to the Socotra aiport, which is 20 minutes outside of Hadibou, the "capital" of Socotra. The island is pretty far off the coast and the seas are quite unforgiving, from what I hear. So taking a boat was out of the question, unless we wanted to stowaway on a Somalian fishing boat. We arrived at the tiny airport on Friday morning after a 4:00 am departure. We were greeted at the airport by our friendly guide, Fahed, a native Socotran who did not speak English, but did speak Arabic. Since almost all of us were Arabic students, we were more than happy to get the opportunity to practice. Fahed led us to "baggage claim," which was a straight conveyor belt with a drop at the end, allowing passengers only one opportunity to pick up their bag before it was dumped on the floor when it reached the end of the conveyor belt.
The drive from the airport to Hadibou was gorgeous. We drove along the coast. To the left of us were clear blue waters and to the right were gorgeous green mountains sprinkled with trees that looked like they came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. There were the ones that we named "Fat-Bottomed Trees" because of their unfortunate pear-shaped bodies - extremely fat bottoms and thin tops with little branches and pink flowers awkwardly popping out of their tops like tufts of hair. Then there were the majestic Dragon's Blood trees with a thick, bare trunk and an umbrella canopy on top. They look like gigantic mushrooms. When you look carefully at this canopy, you can see that within the mushroom head, the branches form an amazing labyrinth-like tangle. Fahed explained to us that it's called the Dragon's Blood Tree because its sap is actually dark red, like blood. As we continued our drive along the coast. Fahed pointed out other types of trees including frankincense and myrrh trees. Fahed must have seen our faces glowing with excitement because at one point he turned around and asked with a knowing grin, "Are you happy??"
The first thing we did after arriving at the hotel was to go "into town" and get lunch at the one restaurant in Hadibou, conveniently located next door to the hotel. There was no menu, so when the waiter came to our table, we asked what they had. "Fi samak wa roz," he responded (There's fish and rice). "Anything else?", we asked. "No. Sorry, that's all we have." We had been warned by Assam, our Yemeni friend in Sana'a who helped us set up the trip, that the island was extremely poor and lacking in general supplies, so we came with sacks full of the things we had been told we would not be able to get there: fruit, many types of vegetables and qat (at the request of Fahed). With this first experience in the restaurant, we were starting to feel both grateful that we came prepared and humbled by what daily life must be like with such limited options for food.
After eating, we went out with Fahed to get some basic supplies for the trip. Since we would be camping in mostly remote areas, this was one of the only opportunities we would have to stock up on water, bread, veggies and canned food. The island was sparsely populated and although we would be passing through villages, Fahed explained to us that we would not find much in the way of ingredients there. At the market, it became even more apparent how limited Socotrans really were in their diets. The only vegetables available in the market were tomatoes, onions, potatoes and some sad looking green peppers. We ended up mostly buying bread, processed cheese, tuna, peanut butter and some of the meager selection of veggies. When buying water for the week, we were heart-sick to hear that we could not buy large re-fillable jugs of water. We had to buy cases of 20 oz. water bottles. For an island with such immediate risks of environmental destruction, buying 8 cases of water bottles which, of course, would not be recycled was hard for us to swallow.
That afternoon, Fahed took us to our first deserted beach of the week. As T, Janie, Ken, James and I lay there soaking up the beauty of this island and the clear blue water in front of us, we delighted at our itinerary for the week, which mostly included lying beside more beautiful bodies of water, hiking through natural preserves and camping out every night.
On the way back from the beach, we passed a van full of men and women singing loudly and clapping. The women had their nikabs off and were waving them out the window like flags. Coming from conservative Sana'a, this was quite a sight for us. It almost looked like a women's liberation movement! Fahed simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "It's a party." We had already decided before coming that we were not going to spend a week on a tropical island dressed in "culturally-sensitive clothes," but this display made it clear that Socotra was definitely more liberal than most parts of mainland Yemen.
The next day, we drove through more Dr. Seuss landscapes to the tunes of cassettes we had picked up in Sana'a. We knew that if we didn't come equipped with our own music, we would be stuck listening to Yemeni oud music, which gets old really quickly. Unfortunately, we didn't get our act together quickly enough to get our CD's copied onto cassettes, so we ended up buying a series of cassettes called "Hot Party Mixx" with compilations of bad Western pop music. On the way to our second beach of the trip, we rocked out to "Loosen up my buttons, babe", "Don't funk with my heart" and other equally terrible songs.
After a little while, we arrived at "Beach number 2". It was stunning - far more beautiful than the first. We spent the day there playing Frisbee, laying out, talking, reading, swimming - all of your typical beach activities. We spent the night at a campsite near the beach and went for a midnight skinny-dip to play with the phosphorescent algae, which glows like little white Christmas lights all around you when you move in the water.
The next day, we drove up into the mountains towards our next body of water - a fresh water spring, where we would also spend the night and night. Half-way up the mountain, as we were gawking at the scenery and jamming out to Justin Timberlake claiming that he was "bringing sexy back," the car suddenly lurched to a disturbing halt. "Fi mushkila?" (Is there a problem?), we asked. "La la! Mafish mushkila! Koul shey tamam." (No no! No Problem! Everything is fine). "Just a little thing with the engine. Maybe this would be a good time for lunch!" We nervously took out our bread and tuna fish and sat under the umbrella of a Dragon's Blood tree and ate our lunch. When we finished, we called out to Fahed, "Everything OK?" He enthusiastically popped out from under the hood of the car, gave us two thumbs up and called back, "Yep! Everything is great!" A few minutes later, he called T over to the car and said, "Uh T, everything is not OK." I think at this point T said, "Yeah, we figured that out." Turns out that the engine had overheated and he called his friend, who would not be able to get there for another few hours. So he proposed pouring water on the engine to cool it down enough to get us up to the top of the mountain and then we could hike down to the camp site. He would send his friend with another car full of our stuff to meet us at the campsite before sunset. We thought that sounded like an OK plan and had been feeling in need of a hike anyway.
We got to the top of the mountain, parted ways with Fahed and hiked down to the spring with our little day packs. We spent the day swimming and bathing in the spring. Fahed's friend, Saleh showed up and not too soon, as the sun was already starting to set and we had started creating scenarios in our minds of being stuck in the mountains in the cold night with no food or blankets.
The next morning we woke up and drove to "Beach number three", which was just as gorgeous and more deserted than the last. That evening, the remaining three in our crew showed up...with whiskey! The result was predictable: we built a bond fire, ate dinner and had a party.
The next day, we woke up hungover to find goats roaming through our campsite picking at trash we had left out. One unpleasant aspect of Socotra is the prominence of goats. They are everywhere! The goat population on Socotra has unfortunately gotten way out of control and they are allowed to roam freely around the island and eat whatever plant they want. Of course, this is a problem for an island with such beautiful and rare vegetation that should be kept in tact. It is also a nuisance for people who don't want goats roaming around, eating their clothes and shitting all over the place.
After sobering up over Nescafe, bread, processed cheese and jam, we headed to a nearby cave and then to an oasis for lunch, followed by a three-hour long drive to another mountain top, which was also our next campsite. The island is only 80 kilometers across, so you may ask yourself why it took us three hours to get to our campsite. There are only two main roads on all of Socotra and getting around the rest of the island requires some major off-roading, which can get pretty tiring.
That evening, we finally arrived at our campsite on the ledge of a mountain with a fantastic view. As we stood there gawking at the view and taking pictures, Fahed came over and said, "We're going to go get the goat." Goat? What goat? "For dinner!" he said smiling. Sure enough, half an hour later, they came back with a pretty young, live goat and a man to slaughter it and prepare it for dinner. It was a little sad and gruesome, but I felt better about eating a goat that had been living the good life on an island with some of the freest goat-roaming policies than eating an animal raised in a factory. However, what I did learn from this meal is that goat meat is disgusting. It could have been the way that Fahed and Saleh prepared it, but either way, it was possibly the most revolting meal of my life. They started by serving us appetizers of goat broth, which smelled and tasted much too similar to the dead animal and definitely did not fulfill its purpose as an "appetizer". The main course of grilled meat was not much better. But we felt bad that they had gone to so much trouble to get us this meal and so we ate it pretended to love it.
The day after was our sixth day and we started with a trip to another nearby cave and then on to a national park with Dragon's Blood, frankincense and myrrh trees. Then we hiked down the mountain from the park back to the coast. We had run out of water, so Fahed had to drive around the long way through a village to buy some more. We planned for him to pick us up at the beach at the bottom of the mountain. When we arrived at the beach, we were greeting by about 20 children, who were residents of the beach and were extremely curious about us. They swarmed around our group trying to sell us little straw bags stuffed with frankincense. There were so many of them and they were so persistent that they were a little irritating at first. But then we tried to have a conversation with the girls while Bryon took on the task of teaching the boys how to throw a Frisbee. However, we quickly figured out that the girls didn't speak Arabic! They were first Socotrans we had met who didn't speak Arabic. They tried speaking Socotran with us, but of course, we didn't understand a thing they were saying. When Fahed finally arrived to pick us up, we asked him about the education system on Socotra. He explained to us subjects in school are taught in Arabic, but that schools are a pretty new phenomenon on Socotra, something that only started to appear in the last 20 years. Before that, hardly anyone on Socotra spoke Arabic or was even educated.
That night, we camped out on another deserted beach - "Beach number four".
The next morning, we woke up late, swam and played more Frisbee and then went to "Beach number five" to snorkel. Snorkeling was amazing and made me wish that I could have afforded a scuba diving trip in Socotra. I saw a purple star fish!
The next day, we headed back to Hadibou, since we would be flying out the next morning. We spent the night at a nice little campsite with thatched roof huts, mattresses and good food. A great treat for us after a week of roughin' it.
In March, a group of my friends and I traveled to Socotra, an island off the eastern coast of Yemen. Now that I'm home in DC and unemployed, I'm finally getting the time to write about it.