I love travelling. It is more than just love. I cannot live without travelling. I feel decidedly ill at ease if I do not have a trip planned, tickets booked, hotel and tour reservations made and waiting ahead of me. I have what the Germans call the Fernweh – a longing for the distance, for being far away. I am different when on my travels. Just like a sponge I absorb knowledge and information on the encountered lifestyles, traditions, worldviews. And that, in turn, changes the way I look at the world. It makes me see my own oh-so-insignificant role within it.
There are relaxing trips. There are exhausting but gratifying trips. There are travels inspiring wonder and humility like the one to Antarctica when it seemed perfectly clear – if God should live anywhere on this earth, it must be there, amidst the white, inhospitable majesticity of ice and snow. There are trips that tickle the artistic in me – like when the Svalbard February dusk falls in bluish and pink hues and I cannot take my eyes off of it and feel an inclination to pick up a poet’s pen. Then there are dive trips where the indescribable underwater beauty can only be seen through considerable physical effort, since diving by no means equals sipping margaritas on a hot sandy beach. And then, once in a blue moon, there are trips that are unforgettable and hurt deep inside, that make me feel helpless in the face of the errors of this world. And that is what my trip to Socotra was like.
If you know what Socotra is and where it is located, I am proud of you. And there must be some of you who do, since on the day when we landed in the Hadiboh airport, there was a boy meeting some other tourists and wearing a T-shirt in the colors of the Latvian flag with the inscription Latvija on the back (the possibility that he might have acquired it during a game in Riga seems remote, to put it mildly). Socotra is a tiny little island in the Arab Sea. It belongs to Yemen, a country travels to which are currently strongly discouraged. A country where children die of hunger and cultural heritage is destroyed by civil war and the heavy hand of Saudi. Socotra was far from the safest travel destinations already back in 2014 when I went there. Still, the island is often called the Galapagos of this hemisphere. It is home to numerous plant species endemic exclusively to this place, like the dragonblood tree, and these cannot be found anywhere else.
It is nature in all its shapes and sizes that has always been the focus of my travels and that is also why Socotra got on my radar and stayed there until I found a travel companion. Now I can but be glad that we did not hesitate with going there, since currently there is no knowing when the island will be within reach again. Or, what hurts me even more to say, if we will ever have the privilege of visiting some of the sights again, since, for example, the amazingly quaint, fairytale-like sandstone architecture of the Sana’a old town is under constant destruction threat, as the explosions and bombarding in Yemen have turned into such a trivial everyday occurrence that the world news cannot be bothered reporting on them anymore.
Travelling around the island on our own was not really an option since it lacked proper road network and hotel infrastructure, and we had no knowledge on where and how to go. Consequently, we engaged the services of a local tourism operator Socotra Ecotours. Now, browsing their homepage, I wonder if the tourism has restarted again, as it specifies 3 dates next year for tours to this magnificent island, with departure from Cairo. Because the company is local, it was with their efforts that we resolved the complicated Yemeni visa issue. Let the photo stories shine a light our days there.
We dash along the road away from the airport. People line both sides of the road from the airport. Clearly, it is not us they have come to greet, but the newly appointed governor of the island arriving just now from the mainland. A mottled crowd, consolidated lines. The faces are hard to read. Joy? Anger? Upon entering the town we are requested to cover up with scarves. This is a Muslim country. Even though outside the towns the tourists are given leave to behave in whichever way they prefer, here, in the town and at the restaurants and locals’ homes the scarves need to be neatly arranged on our blond heads.
In the stalls under the roof, dust gradually covers the ruggedly cut tuna pieces, right on the stone floor and oilskin. From under our scarves as through the car windows, we sneak peeks at the market bustle just slightly slowed down by the hot sun. Urban market smells. Heat. Dust.
There are no hotels. Well, not exactly true, there is one, in the centre of Hadiboh, expensive and superfluous. We spend all our nights on mattresses, wrapped up in our sleeping bags or mostly just covered by our thin beach scarves, under the roofing propped up haphazardly on some wooden sticks. Such shelters come in handy also for escaping the midday sun. It is hot. And every night brings along an adventurous encounter. The first night we settle into something that could imaginatively be called a straw hut, and even get a mosquito net hung over the mattress. The net hinders the last breeze of fresh air from reaching our lungs. The next night, we are visited by roaming goats. They inspect the contents of our backpacks and occasionally, but nimbly jump over the sleeping bodies. By mistake, they happen to land on our guide. No ribs broken, luckily. On the other side of the island we sleep in the sand. The sand is the territory of crabs who come visiting us at night and nibble on our toes. Their presence is witnessed by the elaborate lines of their footprint the next morning. Up in the mountains, we serve as a gourmet dinner for the scourge of mosquitoes.
Long and bumpy ride in the jeep. Lita and I, and the driver and the guide in the front seats. Sami, the guide, keeps chewing kat, and because of it his cheek-full English suffers a great deal. The effect of kat or – rather – the lack thereof is clearly felt – then he slumps forward and becomes fairly antisocial. We give kat a try upon invitation but our inept mouths do not enjoy the green slush of the leaves and the never ending chewing, besides – we cannot complain of lacking energy.
Detwah Lagoon. Blindingly white sand, water the colour of turquoise tiles. A neverending beach, dunes, seagulls and crab-made sand castles. The water is balmy and warm. In the shallower part of the lagoon it gets warmer still – like a reheated soup kettle. Finely cut salad for lunch – tuna fish with carrots, potatoes and some other ingredients. Delicious indeed. We eat out of a shared aluminium plate. With rice on the side, of course.
Every now and then we stop to take photos of the bottle tree. It has more than one name in English, it is also called the desert rose and the elephant foot, and it is very clear why. We happen to be here right in the middle of their blossoming season. The pink bottle tree flowers on the turquoise background of the sea look artistic and magnificent indeed. The rounded trunk of the tree collects and stores humidity for a rainy day: the figurative “rainy day” in this case, since the island is known to go through frequent and long spells of drought.
We board a boat to sail to Shu’ab beach. It is a tiny spot and almost unreachable by road. The water shines greenish blue, the sun scorches our heads and we turn to scarves again – this time to save our fair skin from sunburn. We watch the spinner dolphins in the distance and their behaviour is true to their name – they keep spinning along their longitudinal axis during their jumps up from the water. Graciously and dizzyingly so. Or are we giddy from the sun? We have a hitchhiker on board – a timeless old man with crooked teeth and a turban hugging his head. The more locals, the better. After all, we are sailing through the waters infested by the Somali pirates, and we have no wish to stumble upon them. But locals should be a safe bet, no? Sami, no kat behind his cheek for the moment, drowses at the bow. Aloi is fishing. And successfully, too! We also try our hand on the fishing rods, but our catch is limited to a few undersized fishy individuals that we throw back into the sea. A cup of tea and shopping at the Shu’ab beach – two huge lobsters. We pay the bill, Aloi will cook them and everybody will join the meal. Done deal.
Through the warm, salty waters of the lagoon, in flip-flops, we wade to visit Aloi in his cave. From under his feet, Aloi lifts up a porcupine fish – it is all scared and puffed up, showing us the full range of its sharp spines. In his cave Aloi treats us to a cup of tea, boilt over a small fire, and talks to us of his life. His wife, apparently, is not exactly ecstatic about his wish to scurry off to this cave every so often, since as a result he spends a lot of time away from home. But he says he cannot help it, at least here he can be at peace. We then drive to Qualencia, and wander through its dusty street labyrinths to visit his family. They reside here, and it is this oh-so-crowded town with its 4000 people (of which we spotted no more than 10) from the bustle of which poor Aloi escapes to his cave. His wife is shy, and all wrapped up in scarves, also because the guest list includes Sami and the driver. Sitting on the floor, we partake in the lobster – and even though it has spent the better part of the day crawling around the luggage trunk of the jeep, it does not seem the worse for it. Delicious. With rice, of course. The little girls invite us to the other end of the house to meet their favourite pet – a week old baby goat.
Bumping and jumping on our car seats, we slowly make our way up to the Diksam Plato. We stop for lunch near an almost refreshingly cool, bright green lagoon among the rocks of the canyon. Oh, dear, we meet two other tourists on their way off. What crowd, what bustle! We have to share the island?!?
The road crawls uphill among groves of dragonblood trees. These remind me of strange prehistoric monsters reaching their gnarled branches towards the sky. Sami scratches the trunk of one – and it bleeds out in blood red sap. Who would have thought dragons to be red-blooded? The flora and fauna of the Socotra Island has been declared part of the UNESCO world heritage, and it is so not least because of this bizarre tree that looks like an upturned umbrella from a distance. These trees grow very slowly and the forceful winds of the Arab sea can uproot them rather easily.
Having crossed the plato, we arrive at the Noget dunes. They are high, white and solitary. Torrid. The driver seeks to show off and drives up the dune as high as possible. There are no fenced in and protected dune territories or municipal police to stop us. The only supervision comes from the roaming camels. Sami believes they do belong to someone.
Well, if you can drive up the dunes, you can most definitely drive into a cave. The Dogub Cave would be big enough not only for our sizable jeep but for a whole tour bus. Its walls are moist and dripping, covered in bright green moss. The air smells of damp underground and burial place. The cave has springs with potable water and that is no minor treasure on this island. Now and then a bat flaps by and we develop a yearning for the open sea.
The Aomak beach has nothing but sand, sand and more sand. And sea. The wind caps the waves with white foam. It is here, that crab kingdom. Apparently, this is the longest beach in Socotra. The crabs enjoy sufficient playing grounds indeed.
We head back north across the Homhil-a plato. The nature changes right before our eyes. Groves of dragonblood trees, bottle trees and various species of incense trees. The air is full of aroma and we breathe in fully on the much fresher mountain air. Jumping from stone to stone, we reach a small lagoon at the steep slope of the plato. Sinking in it, we gradually cool down and watch the northern coast of the island displayed far below us with its sand dunes and turquoise waters. One could not wish for a better spa.
The dinner up in the mountains is much more substantial. Baby goat stew. Before the meat course (served with potatoes and – unavoidably – rice) we get a huge mug of hot mouth-watering bouillon. I still dream of it when hungry. There are no sales stalls around this place. So the daily dosage of rum is added to the tea. There is no alcohol sold on this island, and it can be imported in limited volumes only. Thus, we carefully ration this exquisite means of disinfectant to cover all of our stay here. It is, however, ineffective in our fight against the mosquitos.
Today we are to climb down from the camp to the north coast so far below. The jeep has left already to meet us there. We clamber down the cliff path slowly, prudently, using our bums as an additional support point and stopping to rest once in a while. The heights gradually grow smaller and the coast comes closer and closer. The amounts of water supply also grow smaller. Once down, we joyously meet the jeep and our driver and wash the car in the stream flowing right across the paved road. We take this road, almost covered with sand dunes, to drive to the eastern-most point of the island and go for a swim in the blindingly blue waters.
Overnighting in the Dihamri camp. We watch a couple of tourists, obviously newcomers, crawl into their tents. Poor sods! We have long since gotten used to a much more open sleeping, just on the mattresses and covered in our travel sheets, with clothes rolled up for a pillow. This is a blessedly calm beach, nobody jumps over us, chews on us or bites us, our sleep is but slightly disturbed by the pebbles squeaking and crunching against each other under our mattresses when we turn. The sun sets in bright orange. The beach and the rocks surrounding it absorbs the colour freely. Hands full of the most amazing shells (later on expropriated at the airport) we wait for the night to fall and for the sky to light up with stars. There is no light pollution here, except for the hand torch that we use to get to the bathroom hut.
Steep hike to the Hoq Cave, a 550m climb, a narrow and winding trail. Lita holds my hand to get me over the more scary stretches. To avoid the heat we start the climb at 6.15 am. Sami stays at the foot of the mountain range – he feels lazy today and instead entrusts us to a local shepherd boy. There are warning signs all along the way – beware of the heat! The Hoq Cave system is huge and vast, stretching for kilometres and kilometres and mostly not explored yet. It is bewildering to imagine how numerous are the spots here where no man has ever stepped his foot on. Not that he should. Sometimes places are better off left alone. To my great joy and some astonishment, we manage to find our way out and down.
The week has flown by. Much too short. It has been full of colour and events. Caves and desert dunes, queer trees and spinning dolphins, abandoned beaches and luke-warm lagoons. And all of that framed in the turquoise blue of the Arab sea. This is the picture I take with me.
After a week’s absence from civilisation we return to Sana’a. I have never much liked cities, but this is different. Sana’a old town reminds me of brick-red kerchiefs adorned in white lace. Narrow winding streets. Locals dressed in traditional futa skirt and impressive jambiyas (a specific type of dagger with a short curved blade and a medial ridge) on their belts. The world’s best koftas (minced lamb meatballs) are to be found here and here alone and can be sampled abovestairs from the market’s local eatery, sitting on the floor. The hallways of the hotel are confusing enough to make you pay close attention to – provided you want to exit again at some point. The shady garden of the hotel offers some international reading – an outdated Latvian monthly included.
As the night falls outside we read the materials in English left for our inspection in the hotel room and educating us on Islam. We are profoundly confused by the abbreviation pbuh always preceding the name ‘Muhammed’. It takes us a while to figure out that it stands for ‘peace be upon him’.
We joked about it that night with no sense of foreboding that life in Yemen not only will fail to improve and sort itself out, as hoped by the Yemeni we met and ourselves, but will collapse altogether. Peace, peace be upon them all. It is a frequent prayer of mine.
Written and translated by Dace Rubene